Dieting and all that

This article gives a pretty good overview of the current insane attitudes towards weight and weight loss. I like how it manages to negotiate the space without being guided by a hidden agenda. I thought at first that it might end with a clarion call for fat acceptance, but it acknowledges problems with that as well.

Even though the writer makes clear how complex the issues are—and how much money certain people stand to make by insisting they are simple—she doesn’t even touch on the issue of how the modern diet has changed people’s weight for the worse, or how much of the modern economy depends on convincing us that we are obliged to pursue peak experiences with food. That’s not a criticism of the article, since she is focused only on whether dieting works and whether it is worth the current emphasis on it. I only bring it up to point out that, as complex as her narrow take on eating is, the reality is much more so.

She ends with an example of a chronic dieter who eventually went the acceptance route but with a twist, switching her emphasis from restrained eating to competent eating:

About 10 years ago, Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and therapist in Madison, Wisconsin, developed a concept she calls eating competence, which encourages internal self-regulation about what and how much to eat rather than relying on calorie counts or lists of “good” and “bad” foods. Competent eaters, says Satter, enjoy food; they’re not afraid of it. […]

Not that abiding by competent eating, which fits the Health at Every Size paradigm, is easy; Robin Flamm would tell you that. When her clothes started to feel a little tighter, she panicked. Her first impulse was to head back to Weight Watchers. Instead, she says, she asked herself if she was eating mindfully, if she was exercising in a way that gave her pleasure, if she, maybe, needed to buy new clothes. “It’s really hard to let go of results,” she says. “It’s like free falling. And even though there’s no safety net ever, really, this time it’s knowing there’s no safety net.”

As I’m losing weight this time around, I am fairly confident that I will be able to find an acceptable weight—and stay there—because I am working not to view this as a temporary stretch of pain and deprivation in prelude to my old uncontrolled eating, but more a matter of getting my eating under control—forever. I am losing weight due to the only factor that leads to weight loss, namely a calorie deficit. And I’m OK with that!

I suppose I could be fooling myself—it’s only been 6 months, after all—but right now I feel like I could continue this menu forever. I’m also working to be OK with a more daunting fact, namely that the averages say I’m in a 1000 calorie per day deficit, but the scales say it’s only 500 calories. If true, then it’s not like I can add a lot to the menu once I reach a weight where I’d like to stay.

But that’s fine too, I’m not dreaming of eating all the good things I’ve been denying myself once my diet is done, I’m instead reviewing that list and learning that, in truth, I don’t miss them all that much. Passing up a piece of cake on my birthday wasn’t hard. Eating fried chicken for once (the birthday meal of choice) was nice, but I had no desire to gorge myself, even with the excuse of a special occasion. Saturday I’ll be taking Debbie to a highly recommended Indian buffet in Lexington for our 30th anniversary. I dearly love Indian food, and may not run a calorie deficit on that day—or I might, and in any case I don’t expect to come away from the buffet stuffed.

One day she was craving a hamburger, a food she wouldn’t typically have eaten. But that day, she ate a hamburger and fries for lunch. “And I was done. End of story,” she says, with a hint of wonder in her voice. No cravings, no obsessing over calories, no weeklong binge-and-restrict, no “feeling fat” and staying away from exercise. She ate a hamburger and fries, and nothing terrible happened. “I just wish more people would get it,” she says.

This is pretty accurate. In fact, the birthday menu was originally grilled hamburgers and homemade fries, except that it snowed 20 inches the day before. I picked it partly because it’s a family favorite and I’m not the only one who eats on my birthday, and partly to remind myself that I shouldn’t be a slave to anything, even a diet menu. So far I haven’t had any cravings, for hamburgers or fried chicken or Mexican or BBQ or any of my other beloved favorites. But due to circumstances I’ve eaten a couple from that list—and survived. I ate them without concern, enjoyed myself as I did, and was perfectly happy to my restricted menu afterwards.

Of all the topics on which I share personal experience, this is the one where I’m most reluctant, because I don’t think my experience is easy to generalize from. From what little I do understand about how food and our relationship with it works, I know that change in this area is extremely difficult and even harder to maintain over the long term. Worse, I am also aware of how little I actually understand. Worst of all, I don’t really understand why critical aspects of my attitude seem to be different this time around, and I certainly don’t give my conscious efforts the credit for that.

So I would never give advice any stronger than “I tried this and it seemed to work for me, you might want to ponder that.”  So weak that it’s hardly worth writing up! But on the off chance it might prove useful to someone, I will go ahead and write it up.

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