Wednesday, August 29, 2012

For Whom The Bell Tolls

A friend said to me yesterday that he was looking for the shortcut to losing weight. I could have laughed and said, aren’t we all? But I didn’t. What I said was: There isn’t a shortcut and that sucks, but too bad, that’s the way it is. Maybe that sounds harsh. I suppose, but that’s really how I feel.

Losing a lot of weight and keeping it off for a long period of time is a difficult enterprise and it takes a toll. Every day I have to pay attention to what I eat, morsel by morsel. Every day I have to find time to exercise, preferably for an hour if I can manage it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday, or a birthday, or a long day at work, I still have to do these things. If I don’t, if on a particular day I say oh to heck with it, I pay the price, which generally means gaining back a few pounds. There is no vacation from this and that fact has done a number on my sense of humor. It’s had an even bigger effect on my ability to conform to the social etiquette, which dictates that you don’t speak the blunt truth about things like weight.

So I guess you could say that long-term weight maintenance takes a toll on your relationships too. I was never the most outgoing person in the world, but I could go to a party, make small talk and generally enjoy myself. Now, social gatherings feel like a minefield. First, there will be all kinds of things to eat that I should not eat. Then, people will offer those things to me and I’ll have to find a way to say no without offending anyone. Or say yes and beat myself up later. Inevitably, someone will make a funny comment about how all the calories in the munchies will be cancelled out as long as we don’t sit down; since I know from bitter experience that this is not true, at least not for me, my choice will be to laugh politely and feel like a schmuck, or be the jerk who can’t take a joke. Or just stay home.

We all want to fit in. When I was fat, I dreamed that if I could ever lose the weight and be slender for good, I would finally be a normal person and fit in. But sometimes I think the opposite has happened. Many days, I feel more like the odd woman out than I ever did when I was obese. It’s not quite what I expected, yet as someone once said, that sucks, but too bad, that’s the way it is.

Why do I persist with this then? Well, I feel pretty damn good physically, better than I ever felt when I was heavy. I also think keeping my weight low will make getting older easier, and I’ve realized that I don’t fear dying nearly as much as I fear being disabled in my golden years. I guess I also still have a tiny bit of optimism left inside me, a mini-hope that someday this will all get easier.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Body Knows

In a piece I posted about a week ago, one commenter suggested that listening to your body could be a way to find the path towards health. While I have no quarrel with this as a concept, I have to admit that I’m afraid to listen to my body. For so many years, my body said things like “eat more ice cream,” which lead eventually to the day when I tipped the scales at 250 pounds. So is it any surprise that I’ve come to regard my body as a less than trustworthy source of advice?

One of the reasons I lost weight and have managed to keep it off so far is that I’ve stopped listening to my body. I listen to my doctor, I listen to my nutritionist, I listen to other people who have been successful at maintaining a large weight loss. If I listen to myself, I just hear a lot of whining. “Oh woe is me, this is soooooo hard!” “But I don’t wanna stop eating after dinner!” “This is not fair! Not fair at all!”

Still, I like the idea of listening to my body and, in ways unrelated to food, I do. When I feel tired, I go to sleep. When I’m cold, I put on a sweater. When I get really grouchy, I know it’s time to kick back and have some fun. But when I’m hungry? Whole different story.

The thing is, how do I know I’m really hungry? I think there’s a big difference between being hungry and having an appetite for something. We blur that line an awful lot (at least I did), eating not because our body actually needs nourishment, but because we’re seduced by the anticipation of a flavor that we’ve become addicted to. Or because we’re in the habit of eating something sweet after dinner. Or because it’s a family tradition. Or because whatever. Yada yada yada. There are a million reasons why we eat; hunger is just one.

And let’s be honest. I know for a fact that chocolate causes cravings, as does ice cream, and cheddar cheese, and heaping bowls of macaroni. But does anyone really crave broccoli? Cauliflower? Brussels sprouts? I like those vegetables and I’m glad when I eat them. But I don’t lay awake at night having cruciferous dreams. So to say that my body would somehow tell me to eat those foods because they’re super-nutritious doesn’t jive with my experience – it’s my head that tells me to eat those foods. Decades of being extremely overweight have severed any connection between what my body really needs and what it tells me it wants.

This is the real tragedy of obesity, this disconnection of our minds, our spirits, our souls, from our bodies. As I can no longer trust myself, I have to trust others, which is good if they are telling me to do something that is healthy, not so good if they are selling a scam. I often feel quite self-righteous about my resistance to dietary mumbo-jumbo since, after all, I’m following the advice of a doctor, but then I remember that doctors used to think letting blood was an acceptable treatment. Who’s to say that a hundred years from now, people won’t laugh at what passes for standard medical advice now?

So, should you listen to your body? When I have an answer, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My Big Fat Job

My job is making me fat.

It’s not what you think. It’s not because I sit around all day staring at a computer. Or that I put in such long hours that I can’t find time to exercise. It’s not even because I’m so stressed out from work that I have to eat all night to cope. What is it then, you ask? It’s quite simple.

My co-workers keep bringing in food.

I often wonder what drives them to do this. Surely their jobs aren't so onerous that the only way they can bear to come in at all is to have lots of delectable edibles to distract them from their miserable lot. Surely they aren’t so lacking in creativity that they can’t think of ways other than eating to mark the birthdays, weddings, new babies, retirements, and myriad other joyous celebrations of their colleagues; after all, we could make the birthday guy or gal wear a funny hat all day and blow party horns at them every time they pass by. That would be fun. And of course don’t forget the holiday spreads, the Christmas cookies, the Valentine’s Day chocolates, the bagels and cream cheese for National Bosses Day (a real holiday, I assure you!), not to mention the bumper crops of zucchini bread at harvest time.

But you know what the real rub is. It’s not just the preoccupation with food, rather the type of food. No one says, “Hey, make sure you have a piece of Joe’s birthday salad!” No, my little one, to celebrate, the food must be decadent, for everyone knows that vegetables make lousy party companions. Instead, there must be a plethora of cakes, pies, cookies, banana nut breads, muffins, donuts, and brownies, along with the obligatory bowl of melon and grapes, the token nod to “healthy food.”

For the longest time after I reached my goal weight, I found it hard to deal with the relentless onslaught of “goodies” that had such a bad effect on me. I worried about whether my co-workers would be offended if I said no, until I realized that was more about me and my fear of making fuss than anything else. So, for a while, I tried just saying in the politest way, “No thanks.” That worked for most people, but every now and then I’d encounter a real pusher, someone who would say something like, “Oh for Gawd’s sake, one little piece won’t hurt you!” I was a bit flummoxed about how to deal with that, until my nutritionist suggested this gem. “Just tell them it gives you gas. They’ll be too embarrassed to say anything else.” Gadzooks! Why didn’t I think of that?!

What seems to work best for me is to approach the most prolific of the office bakers ahead of time, tell them that I won’t be participating in these types of events and that they shouldn’t take it personally because it’s just something that I need to do for me. Recently I overheard someone saying, “Don’t expect Sandy to have any of those cookies.” It seems I’ve become “that” person, you know, the big, wet blanket for everything fun. Sigh.

Nobody said this was gonna be a piece of cake. Arghhhhh! Not cake!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


A few random thoughts on a late summer evening…

My neighborhood had an end of summer picnic last night and I didn’t go. It’s not that I’m anti-social or anything, but every time I thought about going, I had a picture in my mind of all of the food that would be there. I saw one folding table after another, covered with festive paper tablecloths and endless bowls of potato salad, pasta salad, baked beans in brown sugar, cookies, cupcakes, casseroles and baked ziti. Whether this was the actual menu or not, I have no idea, but it scared the crap out of me.

I went out to lunch with a few co-workers today. One guy asked me what I was going to order and when I said I was getting a salad with chicken, he said, “Oh, you’re so predictable.” I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. Did he mean something virtuous, that I can be depended on, as in, “I knew you’d be there for me. You’re so predictable!” Or did he mean something totally opposite, that I’m a plodding stick-in-the mud, as in, “I knew you’d be afraid to try something new. You’re so predictable!”

Why is it so easy to eat right during the day and so hard at night? I am the saint of healthy eating between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM. But once I finish dinner, it’s the attack of the snack monster. I’ve been doing pretty well in the last two months, fighting the good fight against the night nibbles, but make no mistake, it has been a fight. Why does food suddenly become so much more appealing when the sun goes down? There oughta be a law against that! Where is Mike Bloomberg when you really need him?

I’ve been having a love affair with English muffins. It’s not the nooks and crannies because I don’t put butter or jelly on them – I just toast them and eat them dry. Every single morning. (See that predictable thing above.) There’s something so comforting and satisfying about chewing on an English muffin first thing in the morning. It really gets me ready for the day. I have to say that breakfast is my favorite meal. I know some people say they can’t eat early in the morning; they don’t know what they’re missing.

Peaches are another one of my current obsessions. There is nothing like a ripe peach. Really. Nothing. A few weeks ago, I bought half a dozen peaches. One night, I was making my lunch for the next day and there were no peaches left, but I knew I hadn’t eaten all of them. I asked my husband if he knew what happened to them and he said, “Yeah, I threw them out. They were bad.” Threw them out? Threw them out? OK, they might have been a little soft, but threw them out? I get quite attached to my peaches.

Enjoy the rest of your evening.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Truth About Hot Fudge and Deep Fat

It’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to diet and weight. Every day brings new information about what’s healthy and what’s not, often in direct contradiction to what we were told yesterday.  Eat lots of fish – don’t eat lots of fish, it contains mercury! Eat fresh fruit – watch out for pesticides on fruit! Eliminate fat in your diet – make sure you eat “healthy” fats! Sugar is bad – Splenda is worse! It reminds me of that Woody Allen movie “Sleeper,” where a man who was a health nut in the 1970s wakes up in the distant future, only to discover that the new health foods are hot fudge and deep fat.

Here are two common and contradictory beliefs about diet and weight. The first is that people who are successful in losing weight are completely transformed and will never be overweight again. The second is that it is impossible to lose a large amount of weight and keep it off for any length of time. While these concepts seem to cancel each other out, I see them as two sides of a coin. One belief serves us as we lose weight, promising that once we reach our goal, all the hard work will end and our new thin life will go on effortlessly and happily ever after. Then, when the weight starts to creep back on, the other belief keeps us from feeling too bad about it. Well, in my world, there is no transformation and weight maintenance is not impossible. In fact, rejecting the myth of transformation is what I believe makes long-term weight maintenance success possible.

If there is no transformation, then what’s a formerly fat girl to do? What works for me is to treat my tendency to obesity as a disease that I happen to have, one that I have to work on every minute of every day. As soon as I go automatic, start eating mindlessly or skipping exercise, I’m in trouble. I went automatic last winter and, before I knew it, I had gained ten pounds. That might not sound like much, especially compared to the hundred pounds I lost, but it’s easy to delude yourself about weight. I could say I was busy, stressed out even, and it wasn’t really my fault, but does that matter? Ten pounds gained is ten pounds gained. I’ve spent this summer losing those ten pounds, one excruciating ounce at a time.

Would you believe it if I told you that those of us who have managed to lose weight and keep it off are successful because: 1) something has scared the living daylights out of us; and 2) we have a lot of help? Consider this. I had minor foot surgery in 2005 and it crippled me for weeks. Why? Because I was so out of shape that I couldn’t use crutches. I hobbled around with a walker for a good two weeks; it was the most humbling and terrifying experience of my life, forcing me to confront my extreme weight and what it was doing to me. It also posed a frightening question: if I’m having this much trouble recuperating from minor surgery at age 48, what will happen if I weigh 250 pounds at age 70 and have a health problem? Will it be curtains for me? It took a while to figure it out, but in 2007 I enrolled in a medically supervised diet and exercise behavior modification program. In other words, I got help. Even once I reached my goal weight, I continued to get help by seeing a nutritionist on a regular basis. And believe me, I need the help. If I was trying to do this left to my own devices, I probably would have regained all the weight I lost, and then some, by now.

It’s hard to know what’s true about diet and weight. It’s easy to throw up your hands and say to hell with it. But take it from me, health is possible.

You just have to believe.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Get Mad About It

You’re familiar with the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can make an argument for either possibility, but you can’t ever settle it for good. If the chicken came first, where did it come from? If the egg came first, who laid the egg? That’s how I often feel when I think about obesity. Is the cause primarily genetic and biology-based? Or is it cultural, the result of what some have called an obesogenic environment?

Well, I think it’s both. It’s obvious that some of us are pre-disposed to gain excess weight and some of us aren’t. It also makes sense that having the ability to pack on a few was an advantage in the bad old days when humans lived in caves and spent most of their time searching for something to eat. In those pre-historic times, pudgy folk had a better chance of surviving a famine and, more importantly, going on to procreate. Even though countless millennia have passed since then, in evolutionary terms it wasn’t so long ago that fat was literally where it was at.

But, we also live in a modern culture that defines overconsumption as the norm. We are inundated with in-your-face food marketing and subliminal food messages on an almost minute by minute basis. Sometimes it makes me a little paranoid; are we all subjects of a mass hypnosis experiment? What other explanation can there be for those sudden midnight cravings for Cherry Garcia, or *gasp* Hot Pockets? Gee, I sure hope I don’t start craving Kool-Aid!

Even though I believe that both biology and culture have joined in 21st century America to form the perfect obesity storm, I prefer to focus on food culture. That’s not because I think I have no personal responsibility for my weight, but rather because most of the attention in medicine and the media has been on individual solutions to the problem. We’d rather change the fat person than the culture that made them fat, even if this means changing the person literally, through the new obesity-cure darling, weight-loss surgery.  It’s rarer to hear proposed solutions for the obesity crisis that involve changing the environment. When you do hear one, what usually accompanies it?


Ah yes, good old outrage. Consider the cautionary tale of Michael Bloomberg, Caporegime of the Health Nanny State, and his ban on big sugar drinks. (Perhaps we should call him Cuppa-regime?) How dare he try to take away our freedom to eat what we want? A statement which I find hysterically funny, because I think we are anything but free when it comes to how we eat (see my comments above). The typical response to those foolish enough to wade into the carbonated waters of cultural change goes something like this: Keep your grubby little know-it-all fingers off of our plate. We’ll eat what we damn well please. You have no right to beat us up for our food choices. We’ll do that to ourselves in the privacy of our own homes!

Now, that makes me mad. That people struggling with their weight also have to struggle with self-blame for eating things that they were hypnotized into eating in the first place. As long as it’s all about your own personal shame – if only you had more willpower, if only you could stop snacking after dinner, if only you hadn’t eaten that BK Bacon Sundae (I’m not making this up) – you will never notice the damage being inflicted on you by Big Food. I’d rather you were mad at McDonald’s, who took a healthy food like oatmeal, loaded it up with sugar and then sold it to you as new healthy menu item. That’s just plain wrong, though I have to admit, I admire the chutzpah.

For all the blather about food and freedom, I wonder if a day will ever come when we have real food choices. By that I mean, affordable fresh vegetables and fruits. Meat that isn’t pumped up with corn and hormones. Transparency about what’s actually in all those “convenience” foods. What passes for choice now seems to me mostly a game of “pick your poison.” And I believe it will stay that way until enough people get mad enough about being hoodwinked in the name of free choice.

It’s hard to stay hungry when you’re angry.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Talking About It

When I started writing this blog, I had no idea where it would take me. I distinctly remember the moment when I pressed the “publish” button for the first time – now that was one strange feeling. Good grief, I had just sent my innermost thoughts out into the big, bad blogosphere! What would happen now?

Well, reality check. That first week my efforts produced only a handful of page hits from a few loyal friends. Over the course of these last few months, my readership has grown a fair bit and I’ve met some wonderful people in the process. All in all, it’s been a great experience.

It’s also been a challenge. Between my job (Where, believe it or not, they actually expect me to work! Don’t they know I have a blog?!) and my other family and personal responsibilities, finding time to write hasn’t been easy. But I feel compelled to do it. You see, this is the one place where I can talk about weight. I can’t do that in the Real World.

There was a brief time, right after I reached my goal weight in 2008, when I could talk about it. In fact, I couldn’t stop talking about it because every person I encountered did a double-take and then asked me about my weight loss. Oh my God, they’d say, you look completely different! How did you do it? The spotlight was relentless. Eventually though the excitement died down and people’s reactions started to change. The general vibe that developed goes something like this: OK, you lost some weight. Good for you. Can you stop talking about it and just go back to normal now?

Um, no. To maintain a weight loss this large, you can never go back to normal, not unless you want to risk regaining the weight you lost. And I do not want to risk that. You see, I wasn’t just overweight. I wasn’t even just obese. I was F A T. Scary, crazy, attention-grabbing F A T. I was the kind of fat that makes little kids shout, “Mommy, look at that F A T lady!” The kind of fat that makes even adults stare. The kind of fat that makes going to the doctor for routine medical care, going to the beach for a swim on a hot summer day, even going to buy a dress for a special event, an exercise in shame and embarrassment.   

So, here I am, wanting desperately to share what has become the defining experience of my life and doncha know, no one wants to hear it. It seems that weight is in the company of those other taboo topics – politics, religion and intimate bodily functions – not for discussion in polite company. For a few years I tried to keep it under wraps, do what I needed to in the privacy of my own home and hold my tongue whenever the conversation turned to “did you know wine is a fruit” and all that. In other words, I tried to pass for normal. But, I’m not normal. And suppressing something that is so big, so important to me, well, it just doesn’t work.

You could say that writing this blog has helped me to find my voice. At age 55, I’d say it’s about time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Diet Insanity

I’ve come to believe that most Americans are not interested in finding the optimal diet for maintaining a healthy weight. I say this with a heavy heart for obvious reasons – the last five years of my life have been dedicated to learning how to eat for long-term health and well-being. But, alas, it is true. You may ask me what evidence brings me to my conclusion and I would have to admit that I have no rigorous, scientific research to pull out of my back pocket. It’s just my observation based on talking to people I know, as well as consuming my daily serving of mass media fodder. You may also be tempted to ask, well then, what do I believe? It’s simple:

Most Americans want to lose weight and keep it off while eating any damn thing they please.

That’s crazy, you say? Funny, but this is almost exactly the definition of crazy as famously stated by Albert Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Once I came to grips with this realization, however, a lot of things suddenly started to make sense. For one, the unending quest for a magic diet pill. The recent media hoopla over the approval by the FDA of Belviq and Qsymia underscores how much we want all of this to be easy, as we implore the Cruel, Cruel Gods of Fat to just make our hunger go away, pretty please! If you can’t get a doctor to write you a prescription for these miracle drugs, fear not. There are a plethora of herbal diet supplements to choose from, available over the counter at any pharmacy in America. And they’re all safe, rest assured, because they say they’re safe right on the label!

This also explains the relentless pursuit by the food industry of newer and better Frankenfoods. Just this week, it was announced that a new healthier chocolate has been invented, one that tastes as good as the real stuff but contains 50% less fat. Now, wouldn’t that be a perfect world, if you could gorge on double-fudge, deep-fried, Krispy Kreme cheeseburgers all day long without ever gaining an ounce? All you need do is trust in the wonders of modern science to make all of your food fantasies come true. And the additives that make up these engineered edible marvels are all safe, rest assured, because “they” wouldn’t let them be sold if they weren’t safe, right?

I spent the first fifty years of my life looking for the secret to weight only to finally learn that there is no secret, no magic pill, no miracle food. I desperately wanted there to be an easy cure and in some ways I still want that. Yet I haven’t found it and, at fifty-five, I don’t want to waste any more time looking for it. Eat less, move more is all I’ve got these days. It might sound boring, or hard, or crazy, but it works and that’s good enough for me.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Paradigm Shift

In my last post, I suggested that perhaps we should consider obesity a cultural problem instead of a badge of personal shame. That idea got my imagination going – what exactly would we do if we approached solutions to our national weight crisis from a primarily cultural perspective? If instead of trying to change fat people so they could maintain a normal weight in a food-obsessed environment, could we change the environment so it enabled healthy eating?

The first thing that often comes to mind when we talk about cultural solutions to problems is the punitive approach. Tax the bad stuff. Outlaw the really bad stuff. But, as I’ve noted before, we Americans are a notoriously obstinate bunch. The minute someone suggests that a bacon double cheeseburger on a Krispy Kreme donut may not be the perfect meal, legions of indignant freedom-lovers will suddenly feel an urgent need (and God-given right!) to consume as many of these culinary abominations as is humanly possible. I don’t understand it, but in the good old US of A, it is what it is.

Yet what could we do if we ruled out penalizing folks for less than stellar food choices?

How about introducing nutrition education into kindergarten and primary school curricula? Anyone who’s ever known a five-year-old knows how tenacious and dogmatic they can be. Convince them that veggies are the way to go and they’d be off on a single-minded mission, to nag their families into merciless, healthy-eating submission. Also, as adult life is greatly influenced by things we believed at the age of five, it’s logical to think that good nutrition habits developed then just might stick – after all I believed in monsters under the mattress at that age and fifty years later I still think twice before standing next to my bed! Instead of vegetables being yucky, we could teach kids to have fun with them. Have them make Eggplant Monsters or Zucchini Dinosaurs. Tell stories about comic book heroes named Incredible Carrot Man or Super Bok Choy Boy. The possibilities are endless.

While we’re talking young people, let’s not leave the incredible power wielded by teenagers out of the equation. What if we engaged pop stars to help make healthy eating cool? Imagine if Beyonce, instead of telling fans she wanted to get chocolate wasted after losing the baby weight, had instead proclaimed her desire to get broccoli busted? If Kanye hip-hopped about Kauliflower instead of Kim? Or Ludacris rapped on Asparagus? And if parents brought out the big gun, otherwise known as reverse psychology, forbidding their adolescent offspring from listening to Sugar-Free Rock, who knows how many high schoolers would sneak out at midnight to attend underground veggie orgies? Before you know it, the appropriately named Apple would get on it and develop an app for that.

Here’s another thought: let’s use the power of government to address the scourge of food deserts in low income, urban neighborhoods. These are places without access to supermarkets, where the only food options are corner convenience stores and fast food joints, where fresh produce is hard to come by and cheap, high fat/high sodium ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese abound. Since we can’t seem to abolish the practice of pork-barrel spending by our elected officials, let’s at least encourage them to do something healthy with it. Perhaps grants to subsidize urban grocery stores or tax credits to supermarket chains willing to locate in the inner city. And while we’re on a roll, could we change farm subsidy policies to cover food for people (like green beans) instead of food for cows and cars (like corn)?

Hey, I know, let’s create a new reality television show about healthy living! But instead of a program like The Biggest Loser, where fat folks get tortured and abused – um, I mean coached – by celebrity trainers, this show would feature makeovers of food manufacturers.  A Health Hit Squad would invade randomly chosen food production facilities and whip them into shape, nipping the excess salt here, tucking the added sugar there, to create a final product that people could actually eat without risking an instant heart attack. We’d have to give it a catchy name, maybe Food Fear Factor or Pimp My Candy Bar. It would be the ultimate in Must Eat TV!

I know, I know. This is all nothing but a crazy dream. But then, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Systems Thinking

I read an interesting article today. It was called “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” by Donella Meadows. What I found intriguing was her assertion that the most powerful way to change any system for the better (or for the worse, I suppose) is to change the root beliefs that underlie that system, the concepts that everyone agrees with but rarely speaks of because they are so fundamental. A fancy way to say this would be that you have to expose the cultural paradigm.

Such a simple idea, but not obvious I think based on what passes for political and social discourse in this toddler phase of the 21st century. When was the last time you heard anyone – in the government, in the mass media, in the cubicle next to you at work – question whether their beliefs were the right ones to achieve their goals? No, what we have now is the exact opposite, a state of affairs where people’s beliefs are so hardened and intractable that it seems we can’t agree on anything, but can only hurl insults at each other. (I’ve got to stop watching cable television talk shows.)

I’ve written about many of our cultural food beliefs. How food can’t taste good unless it’s loaded with fat, sugar and salt. How being hungry is to be avoided at all costs. The tenacious coupling of food with celebration. Yet, after reading this article, I wondered, is there something else? Something more fundamental underneath it all?

Try this: obesity is an individual problem.

Why do I suggest that this is the prime paradigm about food and weight? Well, just look around. Where do we spend all of our time and energy, trying to solve the “obesity epidemic”? Developing weight loss drugs, engineered foods (“low-fat,” “low-carb,” “sugar-free”) and techniques for weight loss surgery, all aimed at the individual overweight person. We keep asking the same question over and over. Why do those who lose large amounts of weight regain it so easily? Then we hunker down even harder to find the magic appetite suppressant or a more effective gastric bypass. All of these efforts focus on the person with the weight problem and how to give them the strength to resist the foods that make them fat.

But what if obesity is not an individual problem? What if our culture is the problem? A culture that glorifies excess and gluttony (how else do you explain a Krispy Kreme Cheeseburger?). That twists logic in order to tell us that we must have regular “treats,” otherwise we will feel deprived and overeat (probably more “treats!”). A 24/7 mass media that smothers us with hard-core food advertising calculated to appeal to our basest culinary desires. It is an elaborate and diabolical system designed to keep people fat and it works!

If obesity is an individual problem, then you will spend all your time lamenting your failure to maintain a normal weight. You may even feel bad enough about yourself that you will give up, decide that you can’t lose weight, no point in trying. You may decide that your only recourse is to go on a food binge, hoping that a brownie (or twelve) will unleash mega-endorphins and make you feel better. It’s an endless cycle.

But, if obesity is not an individual problem, well, then who knows what’s possible?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Food Fanatic

Michael “Nanny State” Bloomberg is at it again! Except this time he’s really trying to create a nanny state, literally. If you haven’t heard, starting next month New York City will implement new policies in city hospitals to encourage women who have just given birth to breastfeed rather than use baby formula. At first glance, this may seem like just another instance of government sticking its nose into places where it doesn’t belong, but if you read past the headlines, you’ll see that it’s an effort to promote breastfeeding, not mandate it. As the Mayor said, "Most public health officials want to encourage women to breastfeed at least for the first couple weeks because the outcomes are better. And if they can do it, that's great. And if they can't, they can't. We're not making anybody do it. We're suggesting."

What seemed to get lost in all the hoopla was this little tidbit, namely that manufacturers routinely provide formula to hospitals for free, to be included in “gift bags” for new mothers to take home. Really? We all know the lengths that food manufacturers will go to to entice us to buy their products, from verging-on-pornography advertising, to strategic product placement in television shows and movies, to celebrity endorsements – the list could go on and on. Many have decried food marketing aimed at children, but my goodness, marketing aimed at babies just a few hours old?

There’s been a bit of a backlash to the Big Apple’s plan to eschew rubber nipples in favor of the human kind. The primary objection should be no surprise. Who is Mayor Bloomberg to tell us what to do??? He’s not the boss of us! First he took away our big sodas and now our big bottles! While I can understand the opposition to the ban on 32-ounce servings of sugary drinks (though I think it’s much ado about nothing), I cannot grasp why anyone would disagree with promoting breastfeeding. Yes, of course, adults should be free to eat themselves sick. It’s their God-given right to abuse their digestive systems anyway they please, in fact I think it’s in the Constitution, immediately after the rights to vote, drink ourselves silly and shoot the place up. But can we get real about the food we feed newborn babies?

Lord knows I’m no expert on the best way to feed a baby, but I do see a pattern here. It starts with formula and then moves on to Gerbers and Beechnut. As soon as the wee ones can sit up, introduce Chicken McNuggets and Fruitables. Once adolescence rears its ugly hormone-soaked head, add in Dominos Stuffed Cheesy Bread and Starbucks Smoothies. When middle-aged spread makes its appearance, call in the Lean Cuisine. And in your golden years, don’t forget to drink your Ensure! You see, it’s now possible to live your entire life without eating a single food in its natural form. And of course, everything that’s added to these industrially produced edibles is completely safe. How do I know that? Because the manufacturers say so!

It seems that in this new millennium simply eating a food in its normal, unadorned state can be the most radical of acts. You mean, you ate an apple? A plain apple? Not applesauce, or apple pie, or Apple Toaster Strudel? Egads! You must be one of those food fanatics.

Guilty as charged.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

As George W. Bush famously said in 2006, “I’m the decider and I decide what is best.” I love that quote because it combines an unapologetic bluntness with a childlike naiveté and so seems a quintessentially American thing to say. But back to my point, that pithy phrase makes me wonder something. When it comes to deciding what to eat, how many of us could actually say those words and mean it?

Not too many, I think, if I believe what people around me say. On a regular basis I hear all kinds of stuff that leads me to the conclusion that chocolate in any form cannot be resisted. Nor can pastries, cookies, ice cream, cake, pie, potatoes, corn chips, pizza, and grilled cheese. Or wine. (Don’t get me started on wine.) And this, by the way, is not the complete list. It seems that each of us has a litany of foods that we are powerless against. If they are in the house, we must eat them. Period.

Funny, but we don’t say the same thing about other foods. No one appears to have any difficulty whatsoever resisting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach or peas. In fact, these items can only be eaten if they are drenched in a magic elixir such as butter, bacon fat or melted cheddar cheese. Sometimes I think the resistibility factor of any specific food is inversely proportional to how healthy it is – that which kills us must be eaten, that which heals us must be shunned. It’s the law.

Well, I don’t buy that we are as powerless as we claim to be. Most people I know are pretty stubborn about what they do and don’t want, so I think the average Joe (or Joanne!) is capable of resisting anything, for no other reason than because they can. Consider this: if I were to tell you that you must eat an entire apple pie – every day – and you had no say in the matter, would you submit to my demand? My guess is that the majority of people would refuse to comply. Not because they don’t like apple pie, but because you’re not the boss of them!

Gadzooks! Why didn’t I think of this before? For decades, nutritional experts have been advising us that we shouldn’t eat the foods that are bad for us. Which of course just makes us more determined to eat them. But, if we harness the power of reverse psychology… Do you see? We tell everyone that they must eat ice cream at every meal. And not a puny scoop, but something on the order of Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster, a 20-scoop Sundae Goliath that has achieved near-mythic status. What you say, you’re craving a salad? Verboten!

Ah, wishful thinking.

Yet the truth is that you are the decider. Only you decide whether you or the Kit Kat bar is in control. If you think you have no choice in the matter, it is because you have become accustomed to surrendering your power, not because a candy bar is miraculously walking across the room and jumping into your mouth. With a simple locking of the lips, the outcome could easily go the other way. This might sound like heresy in the Land of the Baconator, but trust me, it can be done.

Here’s another quote that I like, from American food theorist Ann Wigmore: “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”

Medicine or poison? Poison or medicine? Hey, you’re the decider.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Fruit of the Vine

Today I’d like to discuss something we all do, whether we admit to it or not – we lie to ourselves about food. What do I mean by that? Well, let me ask a simple question:

Do you believe wine is a fruit?

Of course not, you say. That’s just a joke! Sure it is, but when you say it, do you feel you have permission to skip the shiny red apple and quaff a big old glass of dry red instead?

I enjoy a glass of wine just as much as anyone. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a glass of wine with dinner or any other time for that matter. But wine is not a fruit. And it’s not a substitute for fruit in a healthy diet. (I’m ducking as I write this to protect myself from all of the empty wine bottles being hurled at me!)

There are lots of other food truisms that we use to justify our bad diet behavior. For example, you did know that chocolate is a vegetable, didn’t you? That food eaten while standing up has no calories. That a little itty bitty taste sampled when cooking doesn’t count – even a few (dozen?) itty bitty tastes. I don’t think we really believe these things, but the joke makes it easier to smile and say, “Oh what the hell.”

There’s nothing wrong with eating any way you damn well please. As long as you’re willing to accept the consequences, that is. But mostly, we’re not willing to do that. I know that for most of my life I bemoaned the fact that I “hardly ate anything at all” and still couldn’t manage my weight! It was easy to say this with a straight face if I downplayed all the little nibbles here and there that went on for most of the day, along with the “snacks” that I enjoyed after dinner every night. “It was just a teeny, tiny bowl of double chocolate fudge swirl ice cream. Really, it was.” And so the obesity goes on.

It took me a long time to start telling myself the truth about food. But lest you think I’m some kind of superwoman (you did think that, didn’t you?), I must admit that I still have frequent lapses. Like when I pour myself a rather large snifter of Pinot Noir, knowing that it is way more than five ounces (the official amount of “one serving” of wine) but rounding the calories down anyway. I know I’m full of crap when I do that, yet it doesn’t stop me.

It’s part of our food culture, to kid around with a wink and a nod whenever we want to be bad little boys and girls about how we eat. I don’t think this will ever change. All the intrepid weight maintainer can do is be aware and call themselves on it when it happens. Like right now, it’s a warm summer night and I feel like having a cold beer.

That counts as a serving of whole grains, right?