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.
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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