I recently gave up a very bad habit. I had tried to ignore the implications for years, plus every time I quit I gained weight and the self-loathing drove me back. But finally I had to face up to the facts: it was limiting my social options and destroying my health. I was making myself miserable, not to mention a social pariah; frequently I had to abandon or even alienate my friends in order to indulge my habit. I wasn’t getting any pleasure from it, and meanwhile I was increasing my risk of some pretty horrific health problems. So I gave it up. I’m now more than three years clean.

Of course by now you know what I’m talking about: dieting.

Haha, gotcha.

Thanks to crusaders like Sandy Szwarc and the improbably-named Gina Kolata, some people are finally waking up to what the fatties always knew: dieting is a filthy habit. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ve already heard The Rotund’s story (her guest post at Elastic Waist is particularly great). Mine is similar, featuring lifelong restriction and shame, with bulimia in a starring role. I’ve probably spent $3000 on weight loss over the years, and that’s not counting the money my increasingly desperate mother put into making me thin. Net result? A permanently fucked metabolism, an increased chance of heart disease and stroke, lingering stomach problems, and guess what? Still fat! Much fatter, in fact! Scratch any fat girl (and a lot of fat guys), and you’ll find the same: layers of shame and disordered eating, weight loss and weight gain, an increasing sense of failure, and decreasing good health. Most of us already knew that dieting sucked.

Writers like Kolata and J. Eric Oliver are working to get the word out that dieting is a racket. A small number of physicians are embracing the eminently sensible principles of Health at Every Size instead of recommending strict weight-loss dieting as a cure for every ill. But as Brian points out, it’s slow going. The media does not want to lose the security blanket of the Obesity Epidemic. It’s so compelling, and they have so much stock footage of headless fat bodies, and they already paid for the first season of Shaq’s Big Challenge! And besides, nothing sells magazines like moral panic.

If I’m being flippant, I assure you it’s out of exasperated rage. While not every writer deserves the name of “journalist,” one does expect a certain amount of openness to fact and evidence. But for whatever reason — because dieting sells so well, or because it’s easier to write within an existing paradigm, or because of cognitive dissonance — people are looking at research that conflicts with conventional wisdom and yet not making the logical leap that maybe conventional wisdom is more conventional than correct.

Slate has a real beauty of an illustration for you. Ladies and gents, I present “What if dieting makes you fatter?” as a spectacular example of missing the goddamn point. Sydney Spiesel, who is apparently a doctor for crying out loud, spends a page and a half (that’s quite a lot for a Slate piece) describing the failures of dieting. He mentions the fact that the beloved “calories in = calories out” equation just doesn’t work in the human body, and considers studies that show the flamboyant failures of calorie restriction. He addresses the psychological and physical ramifications, which are nasty, and the paradoxical (though all too familiar to us ex-restricters) fact that dieting slows the metabolism and makes you gain weight more easily. Then he finishes thus:

There’s no easy fix, but in addition to increasing exercise, we need to somehow encourage families to shop and live differently. Perhaps we need to devise new kinds of calorie-limiting diets that don’t make people feel deprived, because the hard fact is that they should never stop dieting. And, of course, we all hope for a magic pill to come out of the huge body of research now devoted to understanding how hormones regulate appetite and how the body’s weight thermostat is controlled.

You can almost hear the gears screeching. “Dieting is bad for the health and the mind and the weight… so… you… NO! NO! Can’t… understand… YES! So you should diet PERMANENTLY while awaiting a magic pill!” Nice work, Doc.

I feel for Dr. Spiesel, I really do. The idea that dieting is good is as ingrained as the idea that fat is bad. It’s very, very hard to deconstruct, and very, very hard to resist. But when you’re staring right at the evidence, you’ve got to do just a little better than completely ignoring it. Especially when you’re someone who’s in charge of the health of children. Anything less than logical, evidence-based thought is really irresponsible in that case.

What I hope is that Dr. Spiesel did a seriously hamfisted job of saying the following: instead of EVER putting ANYONE, child or otherwise, on a calorie-restricting diet, we should encourage healthy eating from an early age. (By the way, Doc, I’m sure you know this, but for your readers: that doesn’t just mean letting people know that omg, vegetables are good. It means making sure that people who can’t afford the vegetables and don’t have time to cook them can still somehow get them. Oh, and by the way, “healthy eating” includes the ability to eat a piece of cake without loathing yourself. Does that go without saying? It should.) What I hope he meant is that “diet” can mean what you eat, not just what you DON’T eat, and that since the latter has repeatedly failed we must work on the former. What I hope is that he’d be thrilled if one of his little patients grew up to be fat the way I am fat: no soda, no fried foods, generally sensible portion sizes, sweets when I want ‘em, whole grains ’cause I like ‘em, two liters of water a day, usually getting my five daily servings of tasty fruits and vegetables and honestly who can say that in this day and age? I’d hope that he would recognize that this is preferable to when I was thinner and throwing up every day, or bingeing because I was desperate and ashamed, or making myself and the people around me miserable by counting everything I ate, unable to take even the slightest pleasure in food: the legacy of dieting. I hope he’d be even happier if some of my healthy habits weren’t dictated by digestive damage, or if I’d gotten to this point without dragging myself through the muck of moralizing food and myself along with it (“that’s virtuous food and makes me virtuous, that’s sinful food and makes me sinful”). That’s what I’d hope, from a medical man. But given the temperature of society with regards to fat and dieting, it’s not what I expect. It takes a very strong person to stand up to that by kicking the habit. But as a former dieter who will never go back, I highly recommend that you just say no.

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  1. Posted July 4, 2007 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Dammit! I was going to ask you to guest blog! I hate being too slow.

    Fantastic post, in any case.

    (Wanna guest blog? TR, will you share?)

  2. Jess
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I will guest blog for anyone who pays me sufficient quantities of money!

    Or, you know, who asks. In this case I happened to feel very passionately about this article and simultaneously be communicating with The Rotund. RIGHT PLACE RIGHT TIME

  3. Katie
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this! I read that Slate piece this morning and was so stupidly optimistic till I got to the end when it all came crashing horribly down.

  4. Jess
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    By the way, I should have thanked Laura for the tip-off about the article.

  5. Meowzer
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    **clapclapwhistle** Goddess, but they come SO close to telling everyone dieting is ass, but then they come to the same conclusion: “Diets don’t work, so do them harder and maybe one will work! And if not, it’s your own fault, fatass!”

  6. Jess
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    “Hopefully someday they’ll develop a pill for your fat lazy metabolism!”

  7. wriggles
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    By the way, I don’t feel for these docs at all, they are not well meaning at all.
    Many docs know and have always known that diets don’t work through what you pointed out, observation. The problem is politics, those that support(ed) the diet/weight hypothesis, were the ambitious ones, going against that meant threatening your career, so the ‘obesity epidemic’ was won.

    Also for the record, I am a fatty who is NOT and never was waiting for a pill, I am not interested in becoming a doctor induced drug addict, Thanks!

  8. John Larson
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Impressive, delightful post! You should guest all over town, no matter what the gossipers will say.

    A couple more thoughts about the Slate article: I’m totally willing to grant Spiesel the benefit of the doubt–I think he really meant diet as a thing you ingest, rather than a thing you do. What I’m not willing to grant him is any leeway on writing poorly about it. He’s written about an important topic, and we need more doctors saying that, based on the evidence, they won’t recommend dieting. What we don’t need is half-assed coverage and weak, ambiguous conclusions. That he may have intended another message doesn’t absolve him of his responsibility to state it as clearly and elegantly as, say, you have in this post.

    Also, his final word filled me with an intemperate bloodlust (rather than the other kind): “although more than 90 percent of the participants were no thinner after a year (and may gain more weight as time passes), about 7.5 percent continued to lose weight. Maybe we need to figure out just what contributed to these unusual success stories—and then find a way to apply it to the rest of us.”

    I see this sort of thinking a lot when numbers crop up, and it seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how statistics work, especially when applied to people. When a statistical anomaly exists that represents a tiny sliver of the total population, IT TENDS TO BE JUST THAT. The best thing we can do with a number like that is say, “This isn’t working” and accept that as a given. We can’t change people’s behavior to suit the system–the people are not the problem. In this case, it’s the mathematical equivalent of blaming fat on a failure of character. What we have is a systemic failure that people don’t adapt well to. How many people don’t adapt? Well, apparently 92.5% of people. He looked at a failure of that magnitude and said, “Hey, maybe we CAN make this work.”

    Intemperate bloodlust, I’m telling you.

  9. crash_up
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    fantastic post!

  10. Posted July 4, 2007 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve had a similar journey, although I am much newer to the not dieting thing.

    I did want to say as a sort-of journalist that in many cases I don’t think the problem is the writers themselves–it’s the editors. I have pitched stories that run counter to the CW on the “obesity epidemic” and it’s like crickets. Nobody wants to run them and nobody cares to print them. Even when I have tried to do something body-positive in a MSM publication I have usually found the editor adding the obligatory “OMG teh fat!” where none existed before.

    How we get to editors, I don’t know. Maybe instead of writing to journalists when they piss us off we should be cc’ing the editors as well? Just a thought.

  11. Jess
    Posted July 4, 2007 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Nicole, thank you! I was just about to make that point, actually. I will repost what I’ve said elsewhere because I’m tired: I’d love to believe that it’s just hamhanded writing, but I know there’s real pressure on anyone writing about fat issues in the current media environment to throw in something about how fat=evil and will kill you. Even if the whole thesis of the article is “fat is maybe not so evil and won’t kill you.” You’re right that the pressure is often coming from editors, who will make the “ZOMGOBESITY” angle a criterion for publication.

    John, superb point about the statistics.

  12. Posted July 4, 2007 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m amazed at how many articles have that sort of progression:

    “Diets don’t work… wait a minute, what? Diet’s don’t work? That doesn’t make sense. Must be a typo. It isn’t a typo? Nope, still doesn’t make sense. Try dieting harder! Diet hard with a vengence! Fat free and diet hard! Yeah, that’s it. That’ll probably work. Geez, why haven’t we been trying that, already? Don’t people know they just have to diet?”

  13. Posted July 5, 2007 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    BStu, Fat free and diet hard made my day.

  14. Posted July 5, 2007 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    How we get to editors, I don’t know. Maybe instead of writing to journalists when they piss us off we should be cc’ing the editors as well? Just a thought.

    Also, give ‘em a cookie when they get it right. I wrote a pathetically grateful letter to the Chicago Tribune editors recently, when they ran a story about plus-size prom dresses that was shockingly free of the expected “But fat teenaged girls still need to diet!” coda. Even more shockingly, the letter was published.

  15. wriggles
    Posted July 5, 2007 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I have read a few articles that report that diets don’t work, the readers are mainly critical.

    I don’t think it can be pinned down to one source(the ‘obesity crisis’ that is), it is a weird conjuction of factors, to be honest, & I don’t think anyone comes out of it well, including us!

  16. Posted July 5, 2007 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    “How we get to editors, I don’t know. Maybe instead of writing to journalists when they piss us off we should be cc’ing the editors as well? Just a thought.”

    I second it! Not to get all Tyra Banks egomaniacal about it, but I know that the reporter for my LA Times piece called me after it ran to let me know that the sentences about what I ate for lunch while being interviewed (the reporter had lunch as well… and I took half mine home) were added by his editor after the fact…

    Fat and Happy?!? But.. but… how did she GET that wayyyy!!!

  17. Posted July 6, 2007 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Doctors are a huge part of the problem. I have been going to the same gyno for over 20 years. Stupidly, I assumed that a female doctor meant fewer hassles about things like weight — and until said doctor was getting ready to go to her high school reunion, she was very cool about it — her attitude was “You’re healthy, your numbers are good, don’t worry about it.”

    Once she decided to go on a diet for her reunion, she insisted that all her patients go on it as well. Here is the diet. Now what this doesn’t tell you is what you actually eat while on this. On day one: 20 oz. of whole milk. That’s it. On day two: 1-1/2 lbs. of vegetables. That’s it. Repeat until you want to kill yourself. I’m perfectly willing to go along with Chi Gong and accupressure, because I’m a great believer in Chinese medicine, but the rest of it? Phooey.

    In the 1980′s, I went on Cambridge diet, which was a 300-calorie a day liquid diet. This isn’t much more calories. I lost less than a pound a week during the time I was on it, even working out five nights a week — and my metabolism has been slow as molasses ever since.

    Now I have to change doctors, because the doctor I trusted for 20 years has turned into a freakin’ lunatic.

  18. Jess
    Posted July 6, 2007 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Repeat until you want to kill yourself.

    Jill, that pretty much sums up every diet out there, as far as I’m concerned.

    Sorry your doc went off the deep end. Maybe if you can get her to eat a cookie, she’ll become sane enough to give you a decent referral.

  19. Posted July 6, 2007 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Funny you should mention that. Her medical tech, who has been with her for most of the last 20 years, responded to my question about why six months earlier my weight was fine and now it isn’t, she said “Don’t tell me she’s trying to send you to Dr. S….you wouldn’t believe what she was like when she was on that diet. I used to tell her if she didn’t eat something I was going to stuff a brownie down her throat.”

One Trackback

  1. By Stunning News at Hoyden About Town on November 23, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    [...] Dieting makes you fatter. (Please also read Jess’s guest post at The Rotund for an excellent critique of this article — but the study it talks about is interesting.) [...]

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