motivation · weight loss

Better to be a corpse with ripped abs?: On looks, performance, and health

Here on the blog we often make the distinction between athletic and aesthetic values when it comes to exercise goals. We’re about the former, not the latter. You know, run to improve your 5 km time not to lose those last five lbs.

That said, you do you.

Our worry is that appearance, in particular weight loss, is a lousy motivator. See here. People try. It doesn’t work. And then they stop exercising even though it’s good for their mental and physical health to workout.

But looks and performance aren’t the only games in town. You might also care about health.

At the elite level health and performance might come apart. They often do. Lots of athletes train in ways that aren’t great health wise. At the other end of the spectrum, the kind and amount of exercise recommended for health might not have much effect performance wise.

Health goals might also conflict with appearance goals. I was chatting with some young people this week about the latest news about health and ultra low carb diets. Interestingly, they didn’t care. The news wasn’t that ultra low carb diets don’t work for weight loss. The news was that they are bad for your health. Low carb dieters don’t live as long as people who eat a moderate amount of carbs.

It made the news everywhere. Here’s this story from Running World on low carb diets leading to premature death.

But, said the young person, who cares about living long? I’d trade five extra years of life for ripped abs. My low carb diet is about being shredded not about being healthy. If low carb is key to weight loss, who cares if it’s bad for your health? I have a few Facebook friends who feel the same way. Some want just to be skinny. Others want to look muscular and chiseled.

I don’t want to argue the facts of it here, that is, really low carb versus moderate carb diets, but I am interested in the relative weight we give to looks versus health and longevity. And it’s interesting to see the weight loss set admit it’s not about health really after all. It’s about chiseled abs. Fine.

So where do you stand? Are you in it for the abs, the long life, or for winning the competition, whatever competition that is?

Lately I’ve been thinking that what gets left out of these goals is a broader definition of health, one that includes functional fitness, pain free living, and mental well being.

A picture of a breakfast. A mug of black coffee and a bowl of muesli and fruit
diets · eating · fitness · Throwback Thursday · weight loss

Let’s Talk about the Myth of the Skinny Vegan Bitch #tbt

Here’s a #tbt for you from four years ago. Though I would venture that veganism is more popular now than it was then, and is gaining followers all the time, myths still abound. And one of them is that you’ll get skinny real fast if you opt to eat a thoroughly plant-based diet. You won’t necessarily lose weight at all. But that’s not a reason not to try it. Another myth is that you can’t possibly retain muscle if you’re vegan. You can! I’ll write about that sometime next month. Meanwhile, enjoy this old post. I’m vegan, but I’m neither skinny nor a bitch (or so I like to think anyway)!
Tracy

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

vegan-food-cc-300x400Here’s how the first installment in the Skinny Bitch series (authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin) starts:

Are you sick and tired of being fat?  Good. If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to get skinny...

This is not a diet. This is a way of life. A way to enjoy food. A way to feel healthy, clean, energized and pure. It’s time to reclaim your mind and body. It’s time to strut your skinny ass down the street liek you’re in an episode of Charlie’s Angels with some really cool song playing in the background. It’s time to prance around in a thong like you rule the world. It’s time to get skinny.

It sounds almost empowering.  Almost.

The first red flag?  If you’re full of self-loathing then…wait for it…getting skinny is the answer!  If that’s not clear from the introduction, it is made…

View original post 656 more words

body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s 16 contestants have regained much if not all of the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”

The study has been revealing, not because it told us what we already knew–that it’s hard to keep off lost weight–but because the researchers discovered just how hard the body fights to regain lost weight. The key: resting metabolism. We all know that the metabolism slows when we diet. But here’s the thing:

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.

The sad truth for the vast majority of people who try to lose weight and keep it off is this: “despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.”

All of the contestants in the study burn hundreds fewer calories per day than expected for a man or woman their size.  The upshot seems to be that extreme dieting and weight loss permanently slows the metabolism.

There’s a lot more to the article reporting on this research, and you can read it here. But what I really want to consider now is how we are supposed to react to this news. I venture to say, from a quick look at the first few of the over 2600 comments (I know, I know), that people will look for an explanation that makes this group of people different.

The most frequent thing that was pointed out in the first few comments I read is that they lost the weight really quickly.  What about following the progress of people in, say, Weight Watchers? That’s a slower loss. Do they keep it off?  Actually, the answer is: no. Not really. Not many. Any WW promotional materials that include “success stories” will say “results not typical.”

So the first reaction people have is denial.  This can’t be representative. It’s hard to know why anyone who has tried to lose weight and keep it off would think this isn’t representative since, chances are, if that’s you, you gained it back too! Really, these findings should come as reassurance that we’re not all a bunch of weak-willed moral failures.

But instead, people find them threatening because they may show something that’s really hard to accept: that for most people, it just cannot be done. You can lose the weight, but your body will do its damnedest to regain what was lost.

Why should we recoil from this likelihood?  Because it’s really hard to imagine a world in which size doesn’t matter.

One of the comments I read said, “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” But the groundswell of support for the idea that the Biggest Loser contestants just “did it wrong” suggests that fat-shaming is alive and well.

People with normative bodies–the right size, shape, colour–gain all sorts of social and economic benefits and privileges. They’re more likely to get jobs, high grades, good performance evaluations. They have a better chance of finding partners, earning more money, having friends, being acceptable to strangers. Their chances of suffering abuse and discrimination because of their size are lower; their chances of finding clothing that fits, of fitting into the seat on their next flight, and of being able to eat what they like without being judged are much higher.

In other words, being perceived as obese by others has enormous social and economic costs.  Our obsession with size is so far reaching and ranges over so many areas of life, that it’s hard to imagine what a world where size doesn’t matter would be like.

If size didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be denied employment because of their size. It wouldn’t be commonplace for people to police the food choices of others and to hide behind the claim that “I’m just concerned about your health.” No one would face abuse because of their size or be the butt of bad jokes. There’d be more roles for people of all sizes in movies, and fat people could be cast in roles other than “the fat friend.” Doctors wouldn’t zero in on weight when you go for a check-up. Weight-loss wouldn’t be a popular indicator of physical fitness. Fashionable clothes would be accessible to people of all sizes. No one would spend money on weight loss programs or special “diet” foods. And people wouldn’t post about their weight loss efforts on social media. A show like The Biggest Loser would hold no one’s interest. And the results of the study would be neither here nor there.

I’m sure not everyone believes the research results in this study are depressing. But for those who do, why do they? People want to keep believing that something can be done about being fat. Keeping this possibility alive supports continued discrimination and hate because it throws responsibility back on individuals who are larger than the normative standard.

It’s obvious from the number of people who are attempting to lose weight and keep it off themselves that it’s not only people with normative bodies who are fat phobic. Lots of folks have internalized the cultural messages and experienced the social/economic costs of being larger than what’s deemed okay.

When the costs are real, it can be challenging not to hold out hope for change. If there haven’t been enough other studies about set-points and weight regain and so on, by following a high profile group of “losers,” this particular study shows in sad detail that dieting can and does do serious and permanent metabolic damage to those who diet “successfully.” And that it doesn’t work.

The upshot is, though I would like to think the comment “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” would win the day, sadly, that’s not about to happen. People are too invested in (1) despising fat and (2) making it up to individuals to make the right choices so they won’t be fat to accept what so many already know: dieting doesn’t work.

Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?

diets · eating · food · Uncategorized · weight loss

Vegan for Weight Loss? Not Necessarily but Don’t Let That Discourage You!

Everyday Pad Thai. Photo credit: Vanessa Reese.  http://www.theppk.com/2013/09/everyday-pad-thai/
Everyday Pad Thai. Photo credit: Vanessa Reese. http://www.theppk.com/2013/09/everyday-pad-thai/

It’s making the rounds again–the idea that a vegan or at least vegetarian diet is the best way to lose weight.  According to this article:

Overweight and obese adults who wanted to lose weight were randomly assigned to one of five low-fat and low-glycemic index diets: vegan (no animal products), vegetarian (dairy products included), pesco-vegetarian (dairy products and seafood included), semi-vegetarian (all food included, but red meat no more than once a week and poultry no more than five times a week), or omnivorous (no restrictions on food type and frequency).

Participants were told they could eat small amounts of nuts and nut butters, avocados, seeds, and olives in their diets but were encouraged to focus on lower-fat food options. The dieters were not given goals for limiting the number of calories they ate. As the researchers put it, “participants were free to eat until they were satisfied.”

After six months, those in the vegan group had lost the most weight, an average of 7.5 pounds. The vegetarian group was not far behind, with an average loss of 6.3 pounds. Those in the other groups lost only half as much weight (an average of 3.2 pounds for the pesco-vegetarian and semi-vegetarian groups and 3.1 pounds for the omnivores). There was no significant difference in reported activity level among the five groups.

I’ve blogged before about why this kind of thing bugs me.  First of all, any diet that restricts whole food groups for the purposes of losing weight is really just a fad diet that’s not likely to stick.

Not only that, and probably related, dieting to lose weight is for the vast majority of those who do it, doomed from the outset. It’s really hard to keep off all the lost weight.  We’ve had lots to say about that on this blog and are basically anti-diet in our approach.  See here and here and here and here for example.

Don’t get me wrong. There are all sorts of good reasons to be vegan or follow a plant-based diet.  Lots of athletes do well on a diet that’s free of animal products.  Like Rich Roll, an ultra-triathlete, and Scott Jurek, an ultra-runner.

I’m vegan, but I can’t say it helped me lose weight or perform better athletically. I continue with my vegan lifestyle (which goes beyond the diet) anyway because my motivation is ethical not based on health or weight loss or performance.

I don’t mind if people are convinced by articles like the one I quoted above to try this approach to eating. But I hate to make its virtues dependent on losing weight or improving athletic performance.

Not everyone is going to respond the same way to every approach to eating. For some people, there may be dramatic weight loss on this kind of diet. But for others, there may be none, or even weight gain.  Especially after they learn how to cook and realize that for every amazing non-vegan food out there that tempts us, there is an equally delicious vegan alternative!

So yes, try eating a plant-based diet.  It’s a perfectly legitimate and morally worthwhile way to satisfy your nutritional needs and keep your palate happy at the same time.  But it’s not a miracle diet.

Here’s a link to a recipe for “Everyday Pad Thai” from one of my favourite vegan blogs, Post Punk Kitchen by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

diets · eating · health · weight loss

Non-Dairy Ice Cream Cleanse. Really?

coconutThe article asks: “Would you go on an ice-cream diet to lose weight? New cleanse prescibes FIVE PINTS a day for four days straight.”

Let’s start with my answer to the question: No.

I don’t care if it’s dairy-free. Even if it were completely vegan (it’s got honey in it, so I’m kind of surprised that they’re claiming to be a vegan ice cream shop). I would not go on an ice cream cleanse to lose weight or to “detox.”  And I especially wouldn’t pay $240 for it!

Here’s are the deets:

Kippy’s, a vegan ice-cream store in Venice, is offering a $240 cleanse in which dieters eat five pints of raw coconut-based ice-cream a day for four straight days.

The cleanse, which amounts to 1,000-1,200 calories and 70 grams of fat per day and boasts 20-25 grams of sugar per ice-cream pint, is designed to help people lose weight and achieve a clearer state of mind.

What you get is four days worth of ice cream and you eat it five times a day. They’ve got a “master cleanse” flavor and a “Superfoods” flavor, as well as dark chocolate with Himalayan fire salt, coconut yogurt (for breakfast), and orange creme.

There are lots of reasons I wouldn’t do this.

First, you can’t lose weight in four days and expect to keep any of it off.  The journalist who tried out the cleanse learned this first hand:

A reporter for Gizmodo, who reviewed the ice-cream cleanse with his girlfriend, revealed that despite their typical cleanse grovels (missing the feeling of chewing, salty foods, and solid foods in general), they both lost a similar amount of weight – approximately six pounds each.

But he admitted that ‘in the span of one long weekend, I managed to put all of that cleanse-weight back on (plus another pound or so).’

No surprises there.

Moving on:  all this talk of “cleanses” is just ridiculous. This article on the website “Science-Based Medicine” talks about the whole “detox”/”cleanse” trend as a scam ($240 for four days of ice cream, anyone?)  and gives suggestions about how to avoid it. According to the article, the premise that our bodies ingest and accumulate toxins that we need to cleanse ourselves of is just plain bad science:

Today’s version of autointoxication argues that some combination of food additives, gluten, salt, meat, fluoride, prescription drugs, smog, vaccine ingredients, GMOs, and perhaps last night’s bottle of wine are causing a buildup of “toxins” in the body. But what is the actual “toxin” causing harm? It’s nothing more than a meaningless term that sounds scientific enough to be plausible. A uniform feature of detox treatments is the failure to name the specific toxins that these rituals and kits will remove.

The colon remains ground zero for detox advocates. They argue that some sort of toxic sludge (sometimes called a mucoid plaque) is accumulating in the colon, making it a breeding ground for parasites, Candida (yeast) and other nastiness. Fortunately, science tells us otherwise: mucoid plaques and toxic sludge simply do not exist. It’s a made-up idea to sell detoxification treatments. Ask any gastroenterologist (who look inside colons for a living) if they’ve ever seen one. There isn’t a single case that’s been documented in the medical literature. Not one.

We see this vagueness about cleansing and what is to be cleansed in the claims made by Kippy’s coconut ice cream diet: “It helps us digest, repairs the gut, feeds the brain, boosts the metabolism and is a powerful agent of detoxification,” or so claim its developers and purveyors.

That the offending toxins are either unnamed or, if named, invented or falsely identified, leads to the debunking of the second assumption of cleanses: that the toxins are the root of illness.

And the final suspect claim is that these detox regimens and cleanses remove toxins.  According to the article, “there is no evidence to demonstrate that detox kits do anything at all.”

Yeah so what that says to me is that the very idea of a cleanse of any kind is just a waste of time and money.  My radar for that sort of thing is fairly sharp. I just have to hear the word “detox” or “cleanse” and my hackles go up.

And I think too that there’s a ton of slippage between the cleanse motive and the weight-loss motive.  If you challenge someone about a detox on the grounds that they’re not going to lose weight and keep it off, they will claim that what they’re really doing is detoxing.

Another thing worth pointing out is that there are medical applications of the term “detox.” It refers to a pretty horrible process of withdrawal that people addicted to substances like alcohol or narcotics go through when they are attempting to quit, or people who have ingested poison have to go through to literally clean out their systems. So it’s not a completely bogus idea, it’s just not the sort of thing that is covered in things like an ice cream diet or a cayenne and lemon juice drink or a “rapid cleanse” (which sounds just scary).

Here’s the conclusion of the article I’ve been referring to from the Science-Based Medicine website:

Any product or service with the words “detox” or “cleanse” in the name is only truly effective at cleansing your wallet of cash. Alternative medicine’s ideas of detoxification and cleansing have no basis in reality. There’s no published evidence to suggest that detox treatments, kits or rituals have any effect on our body’s ability to eliminate waste products effectively. They do have the ability to harm however – not only direct effects, like coffee enemas and purgatives, but the broader distraction away from the reality of how the body actually works and what we need to do to keep it healthy. “Detox” focuses attention on irrelevant issues, and gives consumers the impression that they can undo lifestyle decisions with quick fixes. Improved health isn’t found in a box of herbs, a bottle of homeopathy, or a bag of coffee pushed into your rectum. The lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. Our kidneys and liver don’t need a detox treatment. If anyone suggests a detox or cleanse to you, you’d do well to ignore the suggestion, and question any other health advice they may offer.

So I’m saving my money. I have nothing against coconut ice cream, by the way. I love it. But I’m not about to spend $240 for a four-day supply, eat it as my only meal for days in a row, and try to fool myself that I can use it to improve my health.

 

 

diets · eating · weight loss

Diets Don’t Work but They Do Make Us Suffer

diet-fix-bookI had a few errands to run this morning before work, so I hopped in the car just in time for CBC Radio One’s The Current.  This morning Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Dr. Yoni Freehoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail (and how to make yours work).

Freehoff’s main point was that diets fail because they make us suffer, and human beings aren’t built to suffer indefinitely. We can suffer for a period of time, but eventually we’ll say, “enough’s enough.”

Now, I have read and heard and even written quite a bit about dieting and why it doesn’t work. See here and here and here, for example. So I didn’t think there was a lot new for me to pick up, though of course I found the segment interesting. But one thing I learned that was new to me was the idea of “best weight.”  Best weight, according to Freehoff, is whatever weight a person reaches when they’re living the healthiest life they truly enjoy.

I like the idea of best weight because it doesn’t legislate standard weights but rather scales it to enjoyment and choice.  The idea doesn’t totally divorce weight from healthy lifestyle, but it doesn’t suggest rigid height/weight/BMI measures either.

As Sam has done in her post Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI?, Freehoff reminds us to ignore BMI. It’s only a meaningful measure for populations, not individuals.

If you want to hear the whole interview with Freehof, you can tune into it on The Current, here.

And they ended the segment with a country song called, “The Diet Song.” It was new to me, though I guess it’s been around for a while.  It really captures the suffering of a dieter with these lyrics:

Breakfast black coffee one slice of dry toast no butter no jelly no jam
Lunch just some lettuce two celery stalks no booze no potatoes no ham
Dinner one chicken wing broiled not fried no gravy no biscuits no pie
And this dietin’ dietin’ dietin’ dietin’ sure is a rough way to die

Here’s the whole song (not entirely unproblematic in its entirety, but the dieting suffering part gets that feeling of deprivation right):

diets · eating · weight loss

Let’s Talk about the Myth of the Skinny Vegan Bitch

vegan-food-cc-300x400Here’s how the first installment in the Skinny Bitch series (authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin) starts:

Are you sick and tired of being fat?  Good. If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to get skinny...

This is not a diet. This is a way of life. A way to enjoy food. A way to feel healthy, clean, energized and pure. It’s time to reclaim your mind and body. It’s time to strut your skinny ass down the street liek you’re in an episode of Charlie’s Angels with some really cool song playing in the background. It’s time to prance around in a thong like you rule the world. It’s time to get skinny.

It sounds almost empowering.  Almost.

The first red flag?  If you’re full of self-loathing then…wait for it…getting skinny is the answer!  If that’s not clear from the introduction, it is made super-clear on the first page of chapter one where it says: “Healthy = skinny. Unhealthy = fat.”  I’m sorry, but I think that simple equation has been firmly established as utterly false.

Getting healthy is a lot more complicated and is absolutely not correlated to being skinny.  Some of the least healthy people I know are really skinny.  The authors seem to maintain a distinction between a “skinny bitch” and a “scrawny bitch.” That’s when they recommend against over-exercising. Despite warning against over-exercising, they promise that “you’ll soon become addicted to exercising.”

And the mixed messages don’t stop there. They are opposed to fad diets, like low-carb diets (and especially Atkins). They encourage people to eat bread and fruit.  This makes it seem like a not very restrictive way of eating (a lifestyle, remember, not a diet).  But they have a whole chapter that explains why “Sugar is the Devil.”  That would make it thoroughly evil.  I’ve posted about why food is beyond good and evil here.

On the pro side (for me, anyway) they promote a vegan diet for lots of the right reasons too. They quote Linda McCartney, who said that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.”  They remind you that if you adopt a vegan diet, “you’re sparing the lives of at least ninety animals a year.” They even talk about the environmental impact of livestock farming (methane from livestock contributes a lot to global warming).

But I want to take issue with two of their fundamentals.

First, the whole bitch thing.  People are annoyed enough with vegans.  We are inconvenient, not just as dinner guests (“what will we feed you!?”) but as in-your-face reminders that your food choices have moral implications for other animals and for the planet.  So associating veganism with being a bitch. It’s just not the kind of PR we need.

Second, the idea that being vegan will make you skinny.  No. It’s just as easy not to be skinny as  a vegan as it is not to be skinny as a non-vegan.  There’s all sorts of vegan crap out there.

Now of course, the skinny bitch “philosophy” does not include vegan crap.  Nope. A skinny bitch will embark on a regimen of “pure eating.”  Remember: this is not a diet:

Never feel like or say you are “giving up” your favorite foods.  Those words have a negative connotation.  You are simply empowered now and able to make educated, controlled choices about what you will and won’t put into your body, your temple.  Be grateful that you know the truth about the foods you used to poison yourself with…Be excited about feeling clean, pure, healthy, energized, happy, and skinny.

So let me say this.  I’m vegan. Have been for over two years now.  I eat a fairly “clean” diet, in the sense that I choose lots of whole foods, no animal products, I don’t drink alcohol or take any drugs, I’m more active than my peer group.  But I am not skinny. I’m kind of average, really. And I was kind of average *before* I became vegan.  So the magical transformation won’t come simply by becoming vegan.

That’s not to say there aren’t all sorts of good reasons.  But becoming vegan is not to be approached as another diet that will get you thin.  And all this “pure and cleansing” talk–getting rid of toxins and so forth–it’s just not borne out by science. See this about juicing.

That’s my myth-busting message today:  Go for it! Become vegan (which is not just about food, by the way). But you don’t have to be a bitch and don’t listen to the people who promise you’ll be skinny.

Skinny isn’t even a great goal.  It’s not empowering.  And if you are experiencing self-loathing, try loving the body you have and treating yourself with compassion and care.  We have lots of that to go around on this blog!