I was taken to task recently by an Oregonian food writer, a man with whom (in most other ways) I tend to agree, regarding the new menu items I was introducing at my restaurant.

DiabeticchefJPG.JPG PORTLAND, OREGON – January 27, 2012 – Ken Gordon, owner of Kenny and Zuke’s Deli, was diagnosed with diabetes early this year. He will keep a diary of his efforts to help improve his condition with diet and exercise. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian. Diary of a diabetic chef: Ken Gordon

I was taken to task recently by an Oregonian food writer, a man with whom (in most other ways) I tend to agree, regarding the new menu items I was introducing at my restaurant.

He thought the items were too high in calories and not “diet-like” enough. I, on the other hand, think the items represent my attempts to moderate my food consumption and offer valid options to customers wanting to do the same.

The writer noted that the new offering of a burger slider, with guacamole and salsa on a whole grain bun served with a green salad, weighs in at 765 calories. By contrast, our regular cheeseburger and fries busts the scales at almost double that caloric firepower.

I pointed out that the idea is to offer healthier options to customers looking to moderate their diets. He was not convinced. I have that effect on people sometimes.

I believe moderation is a relative concept and I’ve coined a term for the way I look at food and diet: relative moderation. It means moderation relative to the person exercising it. Relative to the way you used to eat. Relative to your specific health challenges, your goals, your age and measurements, likes and dislikes, your level of willpower and the nature of your medical care and guidance.

Relative moderation involves a lot of personal responsibility. It means you get to decide what is best for you. Not that you can’t avail yourself of lots of help and advice.

In my first column in this series, I wrote that my idea of moderation used to be cutting back from six slices of bacon to four at breakfast. This was, as deluded an effort as it may have been, an example of relative moderation. It suited my delusions to a T and was a weak attempt to do something to stem my continued slide toward physical deterioration. Before I was really ready to take my diet seriously. Before my diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

And in keeping with much-quoted Oscar Wilde when he said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Doomed to failure

Relative moderation is the opposite of most restrictive diets. And it’s a lot more fun. The restrictive diet mostly tells you what you shouldn’t eat, what you should eat and when you should eat it. And what you should drink with it.

Sure, there’s usually some leeway involved and a bit of tailoring to the individual. But at heart is the notion that there’s a higher authority who knows nothing about you who’s deciding what’s best for you (and usually selling a lot of books in the process). George Carlin used to joke that self-help isn’t really self-help if someone is helping you, now is it?

And there seems to be a lot of guilt involved, that somehow, if you veer to that drive-in window on an impulse for that burger you’ve been dreaming about for six weeks, you’ve flunked the test.

I believe overly restrictive diets are mostly doomed to failure. A lot of folks lose a lot of weight at the outset. But most often the weight returns, sometimes plus a bit.

Mostly I think it’s because these diets don’t really address many of the problems that brought on the need for a change in diet in the first place, whether it’s lack of willpower or self-esteem, or just how good that triple chocolate layer cake looks. You still want cake and burgers. But now you’re being told you can’t have them without being given tools to be able to resist. It’s Mom telling you all over again not to eat that … it’s bad for you. I’m sorry, but I find that “just say no” just doesn’t work.

A heart-to-heart

After my diabetes diagnosis, I had a little heart-to-heart with myself. I said, “Ken, you’ve just been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, your weight, blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol are all too high, and if you keep eating the way you have been, you’re going to die a lot younger than you’ve intended, or worse, you’ll spend your later years as a blind double amputee with heart problems. So what are you going to do about it?

“Look, you’re a chef and you love food, and consider it a huge contributing factor to the quality of your life. And though your naturopath voted for a vegan diet, that’s just not going to happen. So how can you continue to enjoy some of the things you eat and still get healthy? Huh?”

The most important reason I’ve turned my health around is I’ve managed to bridge the gap between what I’m supposed to eat and what I want so I can enjoy what I’m eating. It’s a tricky balance and admittedly unscientific. And completely relative. But through moderation, which lies somewhere along the continuum between deprivation and gluttony, I can keep an eye on my vital signs while still making sure the bacon is crisp. Just the one piece.

Because, as I see it, what’s important is not that you follow the way but that you find a way. Your way. And if that means the occasional brownie or Egg McMuffin to get you through the night, don’t sweat it. There’s a salad on tomorrow’s menu to compensate.

My earliest memory of the benefit of moderation was when I was about 9. My dad was seeing a nutritionist to lose weight, and the doctor told him, “Look, if you want to eat a doughnut or a candy bar, go right ahead. But buy the best one you can afford and just have one.” That was a sea change in the way my dad approached food and a common-sense approach to eating that, I believe, speaks to moderation as a part of the solution to some of the health challenges plaguing Americans today.
There will be a screening of one segment of the four-part HBO series “The Weight of the Nation” and a reception at 5:30 p.m. May 7 at OMSI. The documentary deals with America’s epidemic of obesity.

I’ll be speaking before the screening and taking part in the Q&A.

The event is co-sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Here is a trailer for the series: youtube.com/watch?v=rNSzTVYVRPU

Details on the event: kpportland.eventbrite.com