Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Hunger Game

What should you do if you’re hungry? Why, that’s easy! Eat!

Isn’t this the most basic of all beliefs about food? If you’ve read magazine articles or medical literature that discuss the difficulty people face losing large amounts of weight and keeping it off, the subject of hunger almost always comes up. And how many advertisements have you seen for the latest and greatest diet breakthrough telling you how, on their plan, you can lose weight without feeling hungry? It’s a given that if a person on a diet is hungry, then the diet will probably fail.

Of course, hunger is not as simple as it seems. When I was losing weight five years ago, my nutritionist said I needed to learn to distinguish hunger from other sensations. For example, if it was nine in the evening and I had a sudden craving for, oh say, massive quantities of crackers and cheese, she told me to use a technique called “HALT.” HALT is an acronym for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” In other words, was I really hungry, or was something else at play? This was pretty useful advice, but it begs the essential question: what should I do if I am truly hungry?

One of the reasons that programs like the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet are so popular is that they deal directly with hunger. These types of diets recommend a low-carb approach to eating and it’s been empirically confirmed that low-carb equals less hunger. I can attest to this from personal experience. The diet that I followed to lose 100 pounds was a low-carb variation on South Beach and I was not hungry very often while I was on it. So is that the answer? I suppose it could be, if your plan is to never eat another high-carb food again. I’ve found that’s pretty hard to do in practice, in this bread and pasta-crazed world we live in.

But still, my question has not been answered. If I’m hungry, does that mean I should eat? To put it another way, is being hungry a bad thing?

As is true for most serious questions, the answer is: it depends. If you’re so hungry that your physical survival is in doubt, I’d say yes, being hungry is a bad thing. If you’re so hungry that you feel dizzy and faint, then again, yes, being hungry is a bad thing. If it’s three in the afternoon and, knowing you will go out for “Italian Night” at your favorite diner in a few hours, you feel a slight rumbling in your stomach, is being hungry really a problem?

For some reason, we treat hunger differently than other physical sensations. How many of you have had the experience of feeling a little tired, but you stayed up anyway to see the end of the movie? Have you ever had an ache or a pain somewhere, but went out dancing anyway? We often have no difficulty ignoring all kinds of minor discomforts, but when it’s hunger, all bets (and bacon bits) are off. One little rumbling in the belly is a call to immediate action.

It’s puzzling to me, in a country where as many as 17 million children go to bed on an empty stomach, that the rest of us are so squeamish about the occasional minor hunger pang. I’ve actually found the experience of being slightly hungry to be liberating. I’m not glorifying an eating disorder, just suggesting that allowing yourself to coexist with mild hunger from time to time can be an invigorating thing.

So, what should you do if you’re hungry? You tell me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Myth of Moderation

The topic for today is the phenomenon I call the Myth of Moderation. You know how this one goes: there are no bad foods as long as you practice moderation. This is the core belief behind the assertion that “one little cookie won’t hurt.”

In my former life as a fat girl, my habits were as far away from moderation as it was possible to be. I did not eat a scoop of ice cream, I ate an entire half gallon. Now, I eat ice cream only on rare occasions. You could say I have learned moderation when it comes to ice cream. So, what’s wrong with that?

There’s nothing wrong with that, except that actual moderation and the Myth of Moderation have very little to do with each other. The Myth of Moderation goes something like this: Let’s say I’m an average obese person and I want to lose weight. The Myth tells me that all I need to do is change my habits to habits of moderation, you know, do more exercise, eat a “sensible diet.” If I do those things consistently (this is sometimes referred to as a “lifestyle change”), then over time I will lose weight; I may even lose weight “effortlessly.” This sounds plausible if you believe in the concept of calories in, calories out, but the body is a wondrous thing. The one of the key goals of your body is to keep you from starving. When you eat a few less calories every day, as part of your “sensible diet,” the body does something magical; it slows down your metabolism so you need fewer calories to maintain your weight. Pretty neat trick! Diabolical also, as any intrepid dieter will attest.

In my experience, losing a large amount of weight and keeping it off is not something that can be attained by a “sensible diet” or a “lifestyle change.” Moderation just won’t do – this kind of weight loss requires radical action. In my case, I followed a very low calorie, very low carb diet that essentially tricked my body into thinking it was starving, and thus it allowed my precious, life-preserving fat stores to be burned. Since I reached my goal weight, I’ve had to convince my body that it should stay at this smaller size, something it seems reluctant to do. And so I find I must watch my diet with a rigor that is meticulous and unforgiving – if I eat even one cookie, my weight starts to creep up immediately. I must also exercise nearly every day, preferably for at least an hour, doing something that works up a good sweat. It’s not a routine remotely related to anything I’d call moderate.

But the main reason “one little cookie” hurts has nothing to do with calories or metabolism. “One little cookie” sends the message that losing weight and keeping it off is just a “sensible” nip/tuck, something any and everyone should be able to do with ease. If you’re a person struggling with excess weight, you might wonder if you’re the only one who can’t get the hang of it. You might feel like a failure. When weight becomes synonymous with personal shame, it becomes that much more difficult to reach out to others for help and community and solidarity.

The Myth of Moderation makes the seductive promise that maintaining a healthy weight is easy, except it’s not. Obesity, it turns out, is one tough little cookie.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Three Little Pigs

Let’s start at the beginning with the story of the Three Little Pigs.

Once upon a time, there were Three Little Pigs. Their names were Fat, Sugar, and Salt. It is gospel in the foodie world that a dish cannot taste good unless it contains at least one, and preferably two, of these sacred ingredients. Whether it’s creamy and sweet or salty and crispy, to be considered “good food,” a meal must comply with this edict. This puts the average person in quite a bind because if they want to eat for health, which has been defined as limiting the amount of fat, sugar and salt in their diet, then what follows logically is that they are doomed to a lifetime of bland and unappetizing eating.

The food industry, trying to sell all things to all people, has responded to this dilemma by creating “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” and “low sodium” versions of all of our guilty favorites. And so, tragedy leads to atrocity – I once bought a tub of fat-free cream cheese. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten fat-free cream cheese, but it’s pretty vile. The dirty little secret, don’t ya know, about the “fat-free” label is this: because food manufacturers live and die by the story of the Three Little Pigs, any product labeled “fat-free” will probably be loaded with sugar and salt. It’s a similar sad tale for “sugar-free” and “low-sodium” foods.

If this seems an impossible quandary, it is only so if you buy into the gospel of the Three Little Pigs. After all, who says you need fat, sugar and salt in order for food to taste good? In a way, these three amigos are like the most addictive of drugs. I read once that the reason crack is so habit-forming is because it creates an artificial high that can’t be replicated by anything in the natural world; I would argue that refined sugar is not so different. Just imagine trying to appreciate the subtly awesome sweetness of a perfectly ripe peach after you’ve just eaten a piece of peach cobbler slathered in whipped cream and laden with high fructose corn syrup?

What’s even worse is that if you buy into the tenets of the Three Little Pigs, then after you eat that exquisite peach, you will not feel satisfied and happy about the wonderful bounty nature has provided for you.  Instead, you will feel deprived because you couldn’t eat the peach cobbler, which the food culture anoints as one of the “good foods.” That feeling of deprivation leads to temptation, and then to desperation, and before you know it, you find yourself waking up in the morning, groggy and unable to remember the previous night yet surrounded by empty tubs of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

So what’s a girl to do?

The food culture will tell you that you can eat these fatty, sugary, salty foods as long as you are careful to consume them in moderation (stay tuned for a future post on the myth of moderation). You can also find some crutches, things like zero-calorie sweeteners, to help satisfy your taste buds without a caloric overload. In my experience, those things work in a pinch, but they’re not long term solutions because they leave the root of the belief untouched, that fat, sugar and salt are necessary for “good food,” and also, they keep you addicted to the rush of their super-saturated ├╝ber-flavors.

It’s not easy, but you can free yourself from the tyranny of the Pigs. Give your taste buds a break sometime. Think of it as detox. Once you’ve cleansed yourself of the Three Little Pigs, you’ll start to notice some strange things.  Like just how good a perfectly ripe peach can really be.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Greetings from a Former Fat Girl

My name is Sandy Daigler and I’m a radical weight maintainer. What do I mean by that? I mean that I’ve lost 100 pounds and kept it off for four years. The National Weight Control Registry defines weight maintenance success as losing at least thirty pounds and keeping it off for at least a year, so I guess I qualify! According to the research, less than 3% of people who lose a large amount of weight are able to do what I’ve done – if you’re wondering why this percentage is so tiny, let me say that my experiences in the last four years make me wonder how anyone, including me, is able to do this at all.

It’s a commonly held belief that long-term weight loss is nearly impossible and the statistics seem to support that idea. We’ve all heard how our biology and psychology conspire to keep us heavy. I can say from personal experience that the body and mind can be formidable foes when it comes to weight, but there’s an even more difficult terrain that I’ve had to travel, namely the social culture of food. In our social and cultural life, food is love, food is ritual, food is how we show we belong. Because we’ve grown up with it and because it’s ubiquitous, we can’t always see our food culture.  It’s not something to be observed and analyzed; it’s just the way it is. And, in the United States at least, food culture seems to have little relation to health.

Unless you make a conscious effort to connect food with well-being, it’s easy to fall prey to the cultural narrative. In that story, a cheeseburger with fries is a good lunch. A hot fudge sundae is your reward for a trying day. “Normal” eating means consuming extremely large quantities of bread, pasta and potatoes; vegetables and fruits are mostly missing in action. If you have the strength to reject that story, to eat in a different way that makes you feel good and keeps your weight in a healthy range, you will be labeled as odd, difficult, perhaps a little crazy even. If anyone has ever sighed loudly and said to you, “Oh come on, one little cookie won’t hurt,” you know what I’m talking about.

Those of us who have lost large amounts of weight have no choice but to buck the cultural tide if we want to maintain our weight loss. It can be discouraging and disheartening, but maintaining a large weight loss is not impossible – it’s only hard. In my observation, it’s made unnecessarily harder by the culture that surrounds food, which is especially ironic when you consider the daily drumbeat about “the obesity epidemic.” In this blog, I hope to illuminate and dissect our collective attitudes about food, with the hope that someone out there will read this and realize that health is a real possibility after all.

Because, contrary to popular belief, one little cookie can make all the difference.