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The Manhattan Diet’s Message Contradicts the Author’s Intent

At first glance of The Manhattan Diet, hitting store shelves today, I was hesitant. My reaction was that it was just feeding the fad diet fire that consumes women in this country, and that could still very well be the case. Not only that, it seemed to glamorize a fad, diet-obsessed lifestyle; even the book’s subtitle refers to “a fabulous life.” However, in my conversation with Eileen Daspin, the book’s author and an award-winning journalist, I learned that her intent for The Manhattan Diet wasn’t a packaged diet per se, but a journalistic glimpse at a lifestyle that keeps many women thin. Once she included a 28-day diet plan without any fitness or nutrition credentials or background, her intent went out the window and the potential for one more dieting bestseller flew in.

Daspin worked on the book two years ago after learning that the women of Manhattan were the thinnest of all of New York City’s five boroughs. She recruited an anonymous group of 25 women who kept diaries of their eating and fitness habits in fine detail. From this, Daspin said she built spreadsheets to help her map out all of the details of these women’s habits and from that defined The Manhattan Diet. The book acts as a sort of American version of French Women Don’t Get Fat, explaining why and how the women of New York City, amongst all that frenetic energy and world’s best pizza, manage to stay slim, fit, and always fabulous. Of the women in New York City I know, it comes from walking more often than cabbing it because it’s more affordable, being conscientious about what they eat (not obsessed), fitting in regular exercise, and not over-indulging in rich desserts, appetizers, and cocktails at every single meal. Again, because they can’t afford it.

“I based [the book] on a way that a group of women I know, not exercise nuts but slim, stay healthy and in shape,” Daspin told me in an interview on the day of the book’s release. “It’s based on real women’s eating habits.” (The definition of “real women” could be loosely defined here.) She then explained the four tenets of the book, which are portion control, eating foods you like (not skimping!), cheating a little, and walking. I like these tenets, they are the foundation of any truly balanced eating plan. But they tend to get overshadowed by some of the more “exercise nut”-style advice doled out in the sometimes breathy 256 pages.

One of my early concerns was that the average American woman, she who does not have a New York City salary and lives out here in “the real world,” wouldn’t be able to follow the book to a tee because of budget or time constraints, and she more or less agreed. “[The Manhattan Diet] is not a cheap diet,” said Daspin. “Buying fresh, high quality food is more expensive.” Thereby reconfirming what many across our country justifiably complain about – that’s it’s simply less expensive to eat poorly. However, as many nutritional experts will argue, Daspin turned it around and in not so many words made an argument for planning. She described that a whole chicken can be roasted on a budget, and the purchase of things like brown rice and beans are also quite affordable. She also talks about the use of olive oil, which she admits can be pretty pricey, but clarifies that “a little bit can go a long way.” As a person who plans healthful, balanced meals on a budget, I’d argue that this style of eating is only not affordable by choice, it takes planning to make it work. And I do, even in the middle of Kansas.

When I asked her about criticism for the book, that it’s feeding a fad diet culture, she said “I don’t think that at all.” She describes The Manhattan Diet as endorsing “wholesome things, it’s important to not feel deprived.” She continued to say that in The Manhattan Diet she’s working as a journalist, simply reporting on what these women do in their lives. “I don’t recommend it, I don’t endorse it,” she said. “I’m suggesting what other people do.” Quite the contradiction to package and sell a diet that you don’t actually endorse, only observed.

We aren’t the only ones with question marks floating above our heads, Chow.com compared The Manhattan Diet to pro-anorexia sites, saying, “It’s remarkably similar to the advice you can find on the pro-ana sites littering the Internet.” Molly W. who tweets at @Malkysworld, posted “‘The Manhattan Diet’ is highly implausible, no NewYorker, except a ‘ Real housewives NY’ prototype, eats like that. we actually eat food.”

What is she describing? Some of the women who tracked their diets for Daspin owned up to some pretty extreme habits for controlling what they eat. They pour water on top of their unfinished meals to prevent over-consumption (or any chance of leftovers), rationed cheats are limited to one single Tootsie Roll, and even Daspin limits herself to teaspoonfuls of risotto, saying “I taste everything but eat almost nothing.” We’re all for portion control, we promote it every chance we get, but we’re also realistic and know that a proper portion of risotto is about one-quarter cup (dry). Prepare it with little to no fats, bulk it up with vegetables (commonly mushrooms), skip any cheese, and you’ve got a pretty healthy meal or side that doesn’t require over-bearing portion control.

She even asks in chapter 8, all about cheating, “Why go for a balanced meal when you can have a frozen yogurt the size of your head, with just a gram of fat per ounce?” This is followed by an ingredients list of New York City’s favorite treat, frozen yogurt, as having corn syrup, sodium and white sugar, and suggesting that as an alternative to a higher calorie, but far more nutritionally dense, bowl of lentil soup or tuna salad baguette for lunch. Froyo is a go-to lunch for some women because it’s lower in calories than most meals, can obviously be eaten on the go, and as the book describes, takes quite a while to eat so you’re occupied for longer time.

“The cheaters I interviewed live on Starbucks and Emergen-C,” Daspin writes. This behavior is prevalent throughout the country, but doesn’t it do more harm than good to re-iterate it within the context of a diet book? It can only fuel an ever-burning fire. Daspin says her initial reaction to this behavior is “nannyish finger wagging,” however, she’s also envious of these women and how they “eat terribly but look fantastic.”

Envy or not, this is not a healthy lifestyle to emulate.

Concerns for the message The Manhattan Diet is sending readers first arose when we read her jacket biography, which says that Eileen “lives and diets in Manhattan.” Anyone who identifies themselves with dieting like that isn’t focused on a healthy lifestyle, but tends to always be on a diet. Then, the very first sentence of the book reads, “I’ve been dieting since I was about 12 years old.” Is this the right person to be doling out dietary advice? It may be packaged as a journalistic review of a lifestyle, but the diet-obsessed culture of our country tends to grab for the newest thing they can find and follow it with tenacity and hope that this time the $24.95 they spend will save their hind ends, literally. The Manhattan Diet feeds right in to our fad-diet culture.

Daspin admitted to us that she doesn’t have a nutrition background, evident in the lack of any credentialed background in her book’s author bio. She did say she worked with a nutritionist to confirm what she was outlining in her 28-day diet plan. “I took her recommendations very seriously,” she told us. Based on those recommendations, Daspin added more healthy fats and reduced the sodium in the meal plans. The diet averages 1600 calories per day, which can be healthy in a mid-range for daily consumption for a woman trying to lose weight.

That said, if you skim past all of the silly advice and anecdotes described throughout the book, the meal plans themselves are healthful and balanced. Day one, week one on her Manhattan Diet Weight-Loss Plan, will have you consuming 1660 calories, which includes coffee or tea, Greek yogurt with Kashi Go Lean Crisp, a clementine for a snack, lunch of a chickpea salad and a little later a half turkey sandwich, afternoon snack with chocolate-covered pretzels, turkey tacos with corn and white wine at dinner, and a little piece of dark chocolate with herbal tea for your evening snack.

If the book described more eating like that, it would be as golden as the apple donning its cover.

While many diet books skim over fitness, The Manhattan Diet at least brings up the subject. Walking is the primary activity advised in the book, which Daspin described as being as beneficial for a person physically as it is psychologically. She also says people should “do stuff that’s fun.” We agree that when you find a fitness activity that you enjoy, you’re more likely to actually do it. Spinning, Zumba and even pole dancing are all mentioned in the book.

If you read The Manhattan Diet as a way to help you lose those pre-summer pounds, maybe skip straight to the weight loss plan in chapter 6 and incorporate some of the almost 50 recipes in to your meal plans. Otherwise, read it for Daspin’s original intent which is a non-fiction editorial on the lifestyles of the fit and fabulous in New York City and leave it at that.

 

March 20th, 2012

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