Americans are fat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of us qualify as being obese, with another 30 percent designated as being merely overweight. Nearly 18 percent of the country’s children dangerously tip the scales. Yet a quick glance at Amazon.com reveals that diet books continue to be one of the most popular genres on the market.
Into this dichotomy has stepped Malibu author Leslie Landis with her upcoming release, “The Art of Overeating,” billed as “a bellyful of laughs about our food-phobic culture.” Its overarching message seems to be, when in doubt, eat.
Landis is a tiny little bird of a woman whose closet probably never saw larger than a size four in her life. So, does she practice what she preaches?
“Well, I do like my comfort food,” Landis explained, laughing over lunch at Coogie’s Beach Café (she ordered one fried egg, three pieces of turkey bacon and a glass of cranberry juice). “But this was more a satire on the whole diet industry. I think excessiveness is part of the American nature. We really are a food-obsessed culture.”
Landis’ background is not in gastronomy. She was a practicing family therapist up until a few years ago when she moved to Malibu. Many of her clients were overweight and were depressed, though she said she isn’t sure which condition led to the other.
Her husband, Martin Landis, an investor in commercial real estate, also tends to carry a bit of extra avoirdupois and Landis allows that she is a classic codependent-peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being one of her favorite snack preparations, even while she gently reminds him of their empty calories in the jelly.
“But in my practice, I found that harping and guilt really get you nowhere,” Landis said. “It is much more productive to laugh when confronting something you need to change. Humor allows you to take something you feel is shameful and look at it with different eyes. It makes you stronger.”
Landis recalled one woman she was treating who, after much prodding, revealed that she hid candy bars in her lingerie drawer. Landis’ laughing response permitted therapist and client to see the issue in a different light, leading to more effective treatment.
Landis said she never really thought of herself as funny, but she started writing down observations on eating and diets. Her husband’s remarks were catalogued and Landis, who characterizes her sense of humor as “sort of warped,” became acutely aware of the power of the diet industry in a culture where stick-like models are the ideal in a world of plus-size women.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Well, the food was good at that restaurant but the portions were too small,” Landis said. “Then you turn on the TV and every morning talk show is about a new diet. This obsession with thinness has led to eating disorders across the country.”
With her book, Landis’ solution was to turn the diet mantra on its head and celebrate the joys of endless brownies. Along with such pearls of wisdom like, “With take-out, you’re not limited to eating in just one place” and “The best way to control a craving is to give in to it,” Landis offers up fun food facts.
For example, peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite. The ripeness of cranberries is determined by bouncing them. And, in 1987, one airline saved $40,000 by eliminating one olive from each salad in first class.
The impact of “The Art of Overeating” is unquestioningly heightened by the hilarious photo-shopped images accompanying the text, courtesy of graphic artist Brian Peterson.
“I had a good PR guy advise me early on to find someone to handle the images and Brian is a very funny man,” Landis said. “It was a very collaborative process and I think our back and forth made it edgier.”
Peterson has worked with both corporate and entertainment industry clients. He said that he enjoyed this project because it allowed him to “goof off.”
“It took me awhile to realize that Leslie really didn’t have an agenda,” Peterson said. “She didn’t want to gross people out or make fun of them. It was more like, ‘C’mon, let’s just have a laugh.’”
While Landis still thinks she might have the great American novel somewhere inside her, she is already planning the next in her series of “The Art of…” books.
Both “The Art of Overspending” and “The Art of Avoiding Commitment” will be on tap next.
Meanwhile, she hopes readers of her current book will relax a little and learn to enjoy their food again.
“I mean, I like great food as much as the next guy,” Landis said. “But I just don’t eat a ton of it.”
And the secret to her PB & Js?
“I use rye bread,” Landis said conspiratorially. “And I add a little plain butter.”
Leslie Landis will be reading excerpts from her book Nov. 5 at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library at 4 p.m. Cupcakes will be served.