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.
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.
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)!
One 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?
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.
The 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.
I 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.
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):
Here’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!
Last week, a friend reported how horrible she felt when someone in her workplace whom she didn’t know very well complimented her on her recent weight loss. As it happens, my friend is losing weight to prepare for a figure competition. But this remark made her question her “before” look. In her case, her “before” body is the one she has whenever she’s not prepping for a competition because the competition body isn’t sustainable. (see here for why that’s the case)
Implicit in the so-called compliment about weight loss is the assumption that you really didn’t look so great before. But now! Wowza! Looking good!
There are lots of reasons to think that you’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to give them the “look at you! You’ve lost weight!” compliment.
1. When we think of it in that way, it’s not such a great compliment. It’s a set-up for self-consciousness and negative self-judgment of our past selves. When remarking on weight loss is offered as a compliment, the speaker clearly thinks that there’s been a noticeable and notable improvement in how the person looks. Without the normative standard of “thinner is better,” the comment would have no value as a compliment at all.
2. It’s also a set-up for our future selves because, for the most part, diets don’t work in the long run. Much of the research out there shows that those who lose weight by dieting now have a pretty good chance of gaining it all back and more within 2-5 years (if not sooner). Diets and weight loss programs have very poor results over time. See Regan’s post, “The Thing about Weight Watchers” and this report from UCLA.
3. It reinforces the notion that it’s okay to monitor other people’s bodies. When the blog first began, I talked about “the panopticon” in relation to tracking. The panopticon is a prison design (from 18th C philosopher Jeremy Bentham). Its key feature is that the prisoners cannot tell when they are being watched and when they are not. The uncertainty about when they are under surveillance means that prisoners begin to regulate themselves. Philosopher Michel Foucault, and later, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky, offered the panopticon as a metaphor for contemporary society. Bartky uses it to explain how women fall into line with the standards of normative femininity. If we condone comments on people’s weight loss (or gain, but we are loathe to do that since it’s thought to be an insult), we are promoting a panopticon-like scenario where people the expectation of random surveillance becomes the norm.
4. It reinforces the idea that it’s okay to let people know that we are monitoring and judging their bodies. One thing that shocked my friend in the story I opened with was that she really didn’t even know the person who commented on her weight. And yet the person felt completely entitled to say something. What kind of a twisted world do we live in where the state of our bodies is fair game for comments from whoever feels like making them?
5. It assumes that we are trying to lose weight and that, therefore, our weight loss is an accomplishment worth congratulating us for. I know, I know. For lots of people this is actually the case. When I attended Weight Watchers, we would literally applaud people for losing weight. I’m sure I read somewhere in WW literature that receiving compliments from family and friends was a good motivator to keep us on track in “our weight loss journey.” But hello! Not everyone, everywhere is always trying to lose weight. It’s offensive to make that assumption.
Almost 20 years ago, Sam and I learned our lesson about casually offering, “You’ve lost weight; you look great!” as a “compliment.” If that’s the compliment you’re looking for, you won’t get it from us. We ran into someone who used to work in our office but had moved to another unit. We complimented her heartily on her lost weight. Her response, “I have cancer.”
Awkward moment ensued.
If I could push rewind, I would approach it differently. I would say, “It’s so great to see you. How have you been?” At that point, she could choose either to tell us of her health issues or not tell us. We could have a conversation about what we’ve been up to lately that focused on things that really matter instead of how her body looked to us. Thankfully, our friend has since recovered from her illness. But we re-live the mortification of that major faux pas on a regular basis, pretty much any time we catch wind of anyone saying to anyone else, “You’ve lost weight. You look great.”
I do know that lots of people are in fact trying to lose weight and change their body composition. They are putting in an active effort. They are not hiding it from anyone. They themselves regard their progress on these fronts as accomplishments. That’s all good. I myself would like to gain more muscle and I do have another trip to the bod pod scheduled to see how that’s going (for the sake of research, I swear!).
Nonetheless, I still urge everyone to re-think the weight loss comment as compliment for the reasons outlined above.
It’s nobody’s business whether someone has lost weight or not. Friends, family, co-workers, and strangers do not have a right to monitor our bodies closely enough that they notice changes in our weight. Even less do they have the right to talk about it, among themselves or to us.
You might want to say that it’s okay if we ourselves initiate the conversation. Still, I feel wary (and weary) of embarking on conversations in which the main topic is somebody’s weight.
And despite the good intentions that most have when they offer this compliment, it often comes across as a covert way of telling someone that they really didn’t look so good before. We live in a society obsessed with “before and after” shots (it’s through those that WW “leaders” gain their credibility with the clients). “Before” is always unacceptable. “After,” the “new you!” is to be congratulated and praised.
This whole approach comes perilously close to casting thinness and those who “achieve” it as virtuous. The occupants of our “before” pictures are seen in a negative moral light. Not only were we not so attractive with our unwieldy bodies that everyone noticed but kept silent about until we changed them, but also we were not so virtuous, were we? It may be subtle and covert, but it’s shaming nonetheless.
Please join me in the boycott.
Read more about body image, body shaming, and the assumption that thin is better:
Recently, in response to a comment I made about the calories in fruit juice, a friend said to me that fruit juice is “evil.” I am a philosopher who does a lot of ethics. So “evil” means something quite severe to me. Hitler and Pol Pot were evil. Fruit juice, not so much.
I checked back with my friend. No, he didn’t mean it was literally evil. Just that it’s as bad as a can of Coke. Still pretty bad, if not downright evil. It’s a “sometimes” food, not an everyday food. Other anti-juice people jumped in to clarify further. Juice is really, really bad FOR you. Harley Pasternak demonized it the other day in his talk too. He said that a cup and half of OJ has 240 calories. That’s not quite right, since a cup has 112 calories.
But I don’t want to quibble about orange juice in particular. It’s this whole notion of good foods and bad foods that really gets under my skin. Very few foods, eaten in moderate quantities, are actually bad for you. I ate a big and delicious piece of vegan chocolate cake yesterday. I don’t believe it was in the least bad for me. Why? Because I don’t eat cake every day. I eat it about once or twice a month.
I can’t trace the quote exactly, but a long time ago I read a great response by George Cohon of McDonald’s, to the claim that McDonald’s food was “bad for you.” He said something like that McDonald’s never said you should eat its food three meals a day, seven days a week. I hesitate to agree with him (because McDonald’s is problematic in other ways, in my view), but I agree. McDonald’s and orange juice, chocolate cake and potato chips…all of these can be part of a healthy diet without doing damage to the person who ingests them.
Moralizing food by calling some of it “bad” and some of it “good” gives the false impression that foods in themselves have moral qualities. It isn’t a huge jump, and people make this jump all the time, to the claim that people who eat “good” foods in the “right” amounts are virtuous and people who do not are bad.
We frequently think of chocolate cake as “sinfully delicious” and “decadent.” I’ve spoken to many a dieter who said, not that they had a good week, but that they were “good” that week. If they wandered off the plan by eating something they weren’t supposed to, they were “bad” that week. Some foods are considered “guilty pleasures.”
One of my favorite parts of both the intuitive eating approach and the the demand feeding approach to food is that they both tell us to “legalize” all foods. Carrot sticks are as legal as carrot cake, neither better nor worse than the other. I can already hear the rumblings in the comments. “But carrot sticks are better for you than carrot cake!” I can even hear those who would jump in against carrot sticks because they have a higher sugar content than celery sticks.
The whole thing brings me back to the idea of moderation, which Sam wrote about in such a lovely way recently. We can live life by strict rules and have all sorts of forbidden foods on a black list if we like. But forbidden foods are, for many of us, more attractive for being forbidden.
I know that when I finally truly legalized all foods, french fries, which I’d considered my favorite food for all of my life, suddenly lost their appeal. They’re okay, and I do enjoy them from time to time. But are they my favorite foods? No. If I had a choice of giving up fries for the rest of my life or giving up mangoes for the rest of my life, I’d give up the fries. And not because they’re “bad” or even “bad for me,” but because I simply love a good fresh mango.
The food police are those people who like to jump in and tell you about the evil foods that are bad for you and that you should avoid. I’m not interested in what they have to say. I am extremely well informed about nutrition and used to be able to rhyme off all sorts of fun facts about countless foods. I wrote them down every day and kept meticulous count. I avoided fruit juice and all caloric drinks so as not to waste the stingily parceled out grams of this or that. Like so many people, I felt so incredibly virtuous when I stuck with it, often for months and even years at a time.
I convinced myself, as I have heard so many others do, that I just loved this way of eating. It was so great! And I was so good! Meanwhile, I felt deprived, especially around celebrations and special occasions, which are enhanced by taking a meal together. I had my false sense of virtue, but it wasn’t much fun.
I have also witnessed the effect of “virtuous” eating on others who were not so virtuous but who thought they should be. People would apologize for themselves for eating. “I shouldn’t be having this, but…” That is always a preamble to the next day’s self-flagellation, “I was so bad at my daughter’s wedding yesterday.” Or this one, “I’ll just take a sliver.” When I was a young adult, my mother and I polished off close to whole banana loaf over the course of an evening by taking little slivers. Even today I look back and think I should have just cut off a good sized slice, slathered it with butter, sat down with it, and enjoyed it. Instead, I sneaked into the kitchen a few times and shaved off inadequate pieces that left me wanting more.
When we moralize foods into good, bad, evil even, we deny ourselves permission and set ourselves up not just as failures, but as moral failures.
If the foods that made people feel so bad weren’t forbidden or “sinful” in the first place, they’d be less attractive and people would be less likely to eat more of them than is comfortable.
Are there any foods that, for health reasons, we simply should not eat EVER, that even in tiny amounts are “evil”? For some people, there are “trigger” foods that they simply cannot moderate. I will have more to say about that in another post. And of course, some people are allergic to things that will kill them if they eat them. And as a vegan I am keenly aware of social, moral and political reasons for avoiding certain foods.
But those foods aside, I’m not sure if there are any foods that should never, ever, under any circumstances, be eaten because of our health. And if there are, fruit juice is not among them.
Some other posts about food, diets, and moderation:
A few weeks ago I announced that I’ve given up the scale — no more weigh-ins. This new commitment to dispensing with weight as a measure of my fitness progress came in part because I’ve been following some of the recommendations in Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter.
The book is aimed at chronic dieters who feel ready to break free from the cycle of weight gain, weight loss, weight gain, and the food obsession and body hatred that accompanies that cycle. I first encountered the book back in the early nineties and its methods have helped me get perspective over the years.
Today’s post is about the plan outlined in Overcoming Overeating. The authors do an excellent job of explaining the psychology of the diet-binge cycle and the horrible feelings associated with it. They are also pretty convincing on the futility of the “Change Your Shape, Change Your Life” game. The game has a few well-known rules: 1. Fat is bad, 2. Fat people eat too much, 3. Thin is beautiful, 4. Eating Requires Control, 5. Criticism Leads to Change. The rules take us in one direction: dieting.
The game is futile because….drumroll please…DIETS DON’T WORK. Roughly, they don’t work because the natural response to rules and control is rebellion (i.e. the binge). They also have a metabolic impact that undermines our efforts. If diets don’t work, then we need a new approach.
Their approach begins with two radical ideas. The first is to accept the weight and body you have now as if it will never change (for this, they have you engage in a thought experiment where you live on a planet where they inject a gas into the air that, once inhaled, makes it impossible to gain or lose weight ever again. They urge us to think about how we would approach food in this scenario). The second is the idea that you can eat your way out of your “problem.”
I was good with lots of their recommendations. They encourage people who do not own a full-length mirror to get one and to stand in front of it, naked, and observe their bodies in a purely objective, descriptive way. For example, “I am round here, smooth there, bony here, hairy there.” This is supposed to get you in touch with what your body looks like in a neutral way.
There is the old stand-by: the closet clean-out. This is where you get rid of the clothes you plan to wear when you lose a few inches and the clothes you plan to wear when you gain a few inches. You get rid of that dress that pinches at the waist, the beautiful blouse that pulls across the back, the bra that needs constant adjusting, anything with a hole in it. You keep only the clothes you feel good in.
If that leaves you with very little, go shopping. Buy according to fit, not the size on the label. I’ve always liked cleaning out my closet because it serves the dual purpose of helping me declutter. Occasionally, I even discover things that I forgot I had and can start wearing again.
And finally, the one suggestion that makes all chronic dieters absolutely terrified and giddy, sad and relieved: dump the diet. If you can’t face this idea, they remind you of the facts: 1. The vast majority of dieters regain their weight plus some, 2. Diets make you fat, 3. Deprivation ensures a fight-back response—the binge.
With the diet dumped, many of us need a new way to live. I had already pretty much resolved not to diet for weight-loss anymore. But diet-like behaviors and thinking started creeping back into my eating when I started personal training and began to concern myself with “sports nutrition.” For me, tracking and planning and measuring and counting, even in the name of sports nutrition, created a diet mentality. This might not be the same for everyone.
The new way to live involves legalizing food — carrot sticks are not any better or worse than carrot cake. No food is forbidden (allergies and moral commitments aside, of course. If peanuts will kill you, don’t eat them. If you don’t eat animal products, you don’t have to start).
Up to this point in the plan, I’m on board. It’s the next part where I jumped ship this time. That’s where they tell you to stock up on all your favourite foods in quantities so vast you couldn’t possibly eat them in one sitting.
If you adore dark chocolate, don’t buy one chocolate bar, buy ten. If you love carrot cake, don’t buy one cake, buy three so you can keep two in the freezer. If you like crusty bread, buy a few loaves. If you want the whole soy milk instead of the light, buy it! Cashews and almonds—buy the family sized packages.
This part just didn’t speak to me this year. It may be that I am already over the food categories for the most part from the work I have done over the years with the very ideas recommended in the book. I do have bars and bars of dark chocolate in my pantry already and that’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I eat a few pieces of chocolate. Other times it just sits there for weeks or months untouched. I do prefer the regular soy milk over the light so that’s what I buy. And I haven’t found a vegan carrot cake that I like, so carrot cake is off the menu these days anyway. The triple chocolate cake at Veg Out is bar none the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. But I am happy enough to know that I can go have a piece whenever I like. I don’t need a few cakes in my freezer.
When I was a graduate student, my housemate and I followed the suggestion to overstock the pantry with favourites. We had a big bowl of Halloween candy on our kitchen table and we kept it filled to the brim all the time. The first week or two, we ate a lot of candy and had to refill the bowl frequently. By the third week, the pace slowed. And by the fourth week, it was so commonplace that some evenings it just sat there, or we might take one Aero bar. After a few months, having convinced ourselves that candy was truly “legal,” it had lost its mystique.
Whether you need to do this will depend how game you are to legalize food. Overstocking is part of the process of convincing yourself it’s okay.
The is all a prelude to the central idea in the book: food on demand.
The idea is this. We chronic dieters have spent our lives eating controlled, pre-determined portions of pre-planned food at specific times of the day. How much, what, and when we ate had nothing to do with how much or what we wanted or whether we were hungry. And then there were those times we ate from “mouth hunger” instead of “stomach hunger.”
Demand feeding requires learning to feel and respond to stomach hunger. Imagine a ledger (or even keep one for a few days) that has two columns — stomach hunger and mouth hunger. If a chronic dieter recorded whether she ate from one or the other each tie she ate, she’d have more check marks in the mouth hunger column. The goal then, is to move the checks from the mouth hunger column to the stomach hunger column.
This re-calibration of eating habits requires vigilance. In particular, it requires that we attend to emotional reasons for eating, since a lot of times we seek food for comfort (mouth hunger) even though what comfort it brings is fleeting. How do you move the checkmarks?
Let yourself get hungry as much as possible during the day and eat just enough to satisfy that hunger each time. Carry a food bag, filled with your favourite foods, so that you are never hungry and without something to satisfy that hunger. Stop thinking in terms of meals or of food that is appropriate to specific times of day. If you wake up hungry and feel like eating a bowl of chili, eat it. If it’s “lunch time” and all you want is a piece of chocolate cake, have the cake.
Stop eating when you are satisfied — not stuffed. This makes total sense. Of course it does. For me, this is the one area of eating with which I have always struggled. If I am not paying very close attention, I will eat more than I need to eat, and I will feel over full. The authors recommend sticking with this, learning to forgive yourself, keeping at it long enough to convince yourself that you can stop now because, in an hour when you are hungry again, it will be okay to eat. The idea is that if you know you will have permission to eat later (unlike when you’re dieting), it’ll be easier to stop at a comfortable place.
I tossed the scale and dumped the diet. I didn’t overstock the pantry and I do not carry a food bag. I have not stopped thinking in terms of meals — I like meals. But I do pay closer attention and find myself eating smaller portions. I eat what I want. What I want turns out to be fairly nutritious for the most part. I actually do like salad as much as I like fries, and which I have depends on what I feel like eating at the time.
The authors suggest that over time, the nutrition issue will take care of itself. In my case, this has happened, but my issue has always been more about the “how much” of eating than the “what” or even “when” of it. In order to keep with the program, you need to have a lot of faith in the process and just forge ahead, trusting that the authors are not leading you astray.
The plan is not designed for weight loss, but they maintain that if you have been overweight from the diet/binge cycle, you may indeed lose weight in the long run. At the beginning, it’s pretty normal to gain a bit when all the favourite foods become legal. What they do promise is that over time, people who follow this plan will find that their weight settles. Instead of the crazy range that many of us have become accustomed to, we’ll reach a comfortable weight and moreorless stay there.
I’m not sure about that because I’ve not followed the plan 100% and what little I have followed I’ve only been doing for about a month. Before I started, my weight had been in a four-pound range for quite some time (about a year). Since I’ve tossed the scale, I can’t say where it is now, but I can say my clothes all fit me still.
If you are a serious emotional eater, there may not be enough in the book to help with your “core issues.”
I know I haven’t really come down strongly in favor or against the plan outlined in the book. I like some of the suggestions and think that, as an alternative to dieting, it has potential. But the suggestions about stocking up, carrying a food bag, and feeding on demand were a bit too much for me. Still, I am more in touch with the feelings of hunger and satiety since I started reading this and Intuitive Eating (which I am more partial to and will explain why in a later post).
If you’re tired of dieting and ready to try something else, it’s worth a read and a try. The advice that resonates most strongly with me is: toss the scale, legalize food, dump the diet, and pay attention to how you feel (both emotionally and physically) when you eat. I like the visual of moving the checkmarks in the ledger over to the “stomach hunger” side. Mindful or conscious eating is a good goal.
How has what I’ve tried worked for me this month? I feel freer. I’m drastically less preoccupied with food than I was just a month ago and not at all preoccupied with weight. I’m eating less at a sitting and enjoying what I eat more. All good outcomes.