Every February, Mardi Gras returns to New Orleans, with a flotsam of floats and parades of partiers, all rocking out in the Big Easy. We think about this orgy of excess as a secular indulgent binge, but the roots of Mardi Gras actually come from the religious tradition of Lent - the 40 days prior to Easter.
FAT TUESDAY & LEAN WEDNESDAY
"Mardi Gras", meaning "Fat Tuesday", is supposed to be the day prior the 40 days of fasting that precede Easter. In this tradition, even if one doesn't fast, they are encouraged, at the very least, to give something up. So, Tuesday is "fat" only the next day is going to be a "lean" Wednesday.
I was raised with this tradition, and loved this time as a kid, because everyone came over to our house with beads and hats on, ready to cook and eat and drink and cook and eat and drink some more. What a raucous party! The theme seemed to be "live it up today, for tomorrow we sacrifice."
And as an American, don't we see this theme over and over? Blow it out on Saturday night, and expect to pay for it the next morning. What's a bachelor party, but a last fling of wild oats before the perceived austere rigors of married life? The bitter medicinal spoon comes tomorrow, so why not drink from the sweet cup today?
But this self-imposed, credit/debit tradeoff of excess is just a rationalization for a wicked bender. If we know the hammer is coming, it's easier to give ourselves permission to let it all go, because we'll pay back the "loan of excess" over time. And Mardi Gras is our cultural icon of the splurge-and-purge mentality.
After the binge of overeating, overdrinking, and committing every other dietary sin we care to speak of, what happens then? We punish ourselves, in one form or another. Either we throw up, or starve, or undergo some other form of draconian diet to deny ourselves normal, delicious foods.
And this dietary self-flagellation lives for us as a well-deserved punishment. If it tastes like cardboard, well it serves us right. If we end up hungry, well don't we deserve it?
After all, our culture tells us, if the problem was that we lived it up too much, the solution must be the opposite. If we were "too good" to ourselves, we now must be punished with the equal and opposite pain.
How messed up is that? And how many of our food disorders and phobias gestate and grow from this fertilizer?
NO BINGING - NO PURGING
The dietary antidote to the splurge-n-purge self-denial trap is to avoid the binging so you can avoid the purging. This is an invitation to fundamentally change your eating attitudes. You have to, if you're to survive in this twisted culture of health without letting it get to you (mentally or physically). In other words, to avoid the wide swings between excess and denial, you need to be able to eat wonderful, delicious, sumptuous, makes-you-moan-out-loud foods, but do so in control.
NOTE: The excess to avoid is not the quality of your food. The excess to avoid is the quantity of your food.
And that's the problem, isn't it? The Mardi-Gras mentality that we've been coached to accept does nothing to promote moderation. It's "either-or", "all or nothing", with zero middle ground between Fat Tuesday and the rest of your life.
Think this is not a general problem that we run into all year long?
Halloween was once an exceptional treat of candy, set against an otherwise normal diet of healthy foods. But now our kids bathe in sugar constantly, as we scratch our heads and wonder why they suffer from a closet of childhood diseases than no children in the history of humanity has ever had to face.
It's not the sugar. It's that they are drowning in it.
And the adults? The CDC reported this January that an astounding one in six adults binge drinks at least four times a month (www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm). One in six!! The 18-to-24 age group slams nine drinks per booze-up (it's even worse for those 65+). In other words, what sounds like the activity of the once-a-year Mardi Gras party, is actually happening all the, all the, all the time.
Compare our drinking pattern to that of the French and Italians. They actually drink tons more than we do - their per capita consumption of wine is ~44 liters per person per year -- that compares to Americans, who drink closer to 9 liters per person per year (www.wineinstitute.org/files/PerCapitaWineConsumptionCountries.pdf).
The difference between We The Bingers and them is that these cultures drink a little wine with a meal. It's consumed every day, but in control.
MODERATION SAVES LIVES
So, whether it's alcohol for adults or candy for kids, it's the behavior of excess that makes it bad ... not the thing itself. There is nothing on this planet that you cannot consume so much of that you turn it into a bad thing by having too much of it.
Food and drink and even a little Mardi Gras mayhem now and then are not bad. They only become bad when we overdo it. Find the sane middle ground, because moderation will save your life.
Dr. Will Clower is an award winning author, media personality, and CEO of Mediterranean Wellness