Based on a recommendation from Cindy Rollins, I borrowed a Kindle copy of Ari Whitten’s Forever Fat Loss, using the Amazon Prime free trial that I’m offered every so often. The ebook is only $3, and I might have paid it otherwise, but since it only took me an hour to skim through and I won’t ever read it again, I’m just as glad to have the money stay in my pocket.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t worth the time, or even the $3, since I learned a few helpful things—or, more accurately, I had a few thoughts of my own reinforced by the writer’s main points. Whitten’s overall claim is that people will maintain a healthy, stable weight as long as their eating is in proper balance, and that weight problems are caused by various imbalances in the modern diet. Of the food innovations he counts as culprits, three resonated with me.
High reward foods. We can spend a lot of time untangling the threads which have led to the attractive, addictive quality of modern processed food, but the result is that people are driven to eat too much of it. The alternative is to eat a pre-modern menu—and by pre-modern, I mean backing up only a hundred years or so, before foods were carefully crafted to maximally entice the eater.
Call it low reward food, or simple food, or whole food, or use Michael Pollan’s rule of no more than five ingredients, or adopt whatever guideline is most helpful in assisting you to fill your plate with food whose origins are still recognizable. The fact is that you will only eat as much of it as you need, because you have reduced or even eliminated its entertainment value.
By eliminating entertainment value, I don’t mean to suggest that the result must be dull or unenjoyable, just that craving needs to be put to death. I think it is possible to enjoy simple food for its goodness—the taste of a potato or tomato, the mouthfeel of olive oil or chicken fat, the chewiness or aroma of rice—in the same way one can enjoy the goodness of a long walk or a sunset. But I don’t think we crave those things, and when we do crave something it is a signal that something is out of balance.
High variety menus. Whitten nicely observes our addiction to variety in our eating is a source of trouble because it takes too many different foods to satisfy our resulting appetite. The appetizer appeals to a different part of us than the entree. Even though we’re stuffed from the main meal, there’s always room for dessert. Between-meal snacks fill different spots yet. And by the end of the day we’ve consumed far too much.
Contrast this with eating like a peasant, i.e. the way most people have eaten for most of history. The menu consists of a few staples, day in and day out, only occasionally punctuated with something festive. Whitten’s example comes from the sherpas he spent time with in Nepal, who ate rice and lentils at practically every meal, sometimes garnished with carrots and curry. Mine would be Mexican peasants, who subsist mainly on rice and pinto beans and corn tortillas … a meal I can enjoy just thinking about it! But also a meal which serves its purpose exactly, enjoyable in the eating but without the temptation to eat beyond my need for sustenance.
Both these points resonate with me because of the pattern I chose for this latest diet, mostly out of laziness and lack of imagination. I don’t eat breakfast, but will drink a couple of cups of coffee during the morning. At lunch I have a sizeable salad—lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, with an oil and vinegar dressing. During the afternoon I will eat an apple and a banana. For supper the default is rice (white or brown, depending on what the rest of the family is eating or what’s in the refrigerator) with a chicken thigh (skin on), garnished with soy sauce and Louisiana hot sauce. If beans are on the table I might have some of those. Sometimes instead of the chicken thigh I will have three fried eggs, or sauteed greens and mushrooms.
I started skipping breakfast because I wanted to regularly experience a bit of hunger, if only to remind myself that it won’t kill me. During the rest of the day I find that I’m not hungry at all, and any temptation to eat is coming from somewhere else (usually boredom). And I also find myself appreciating qualities in my food that might otherwise be overwhelmed in a more complex menu dominated by high-reward items. For example, I never get tired of that initial jolt of olive oil or chicken fat—where others complain of a sweet tooth, I was seemingly blessed with a “fat tooth”.
(I should also mention that I am blessed with a high threshold for monotony, and my ability to enjoy an unvarying diet is not some sort of moral victory. If a lack of variety is a stumbling block for someone trying to bring their eating under control, I can sympathize but I can’t offer suggestions for how to overcome it—I can only note that it is a skill that help in a powerful way if one can somehow obtain it.)
The other idea I’ve found helpful is movement vs. exercise. I was on my way to discovering this through other reading, but Whitten sums it up nicely—the amount of energy you can burn through intense bouts of exercise pales in comparison to what you can burn by incorporating regular and steady movement into your life. Not that there’s anything wrong with exercise, but it does best when added to regular activity, not as a substitute for it.
I started walking not for weight loss reasons but for health reasons. I like it, but it also highlights for me how sedentary the rest of my day is. I am also limited in the time I can devote to it—and I don’t want to start “redeeming” that time by multitasking, since I enjoy the time away from work and think I need the regular break it gives me. So I’m ripe for Whitten’s suggestion, namely to use a standing desk. Whatever small increase standing gives me over sitting will be multiplied by the many hours I spend at my desk, so I think it’s worth a try. When I return in mid-May from my next trip to El Paso, I plan to make one of these as a relatively inexpensive way of running the experiment.
One seemingly strange thing about Whitten’s book is that it does not say much about how to go about losing weight. This may be for the best, since his greater point is that a focus on weight loss tends to distract from the much more important matter of maintaining a healthy weight through proper eating. Still, anyone who starts out above their healthy weight will need to first reach that weight, presumably by eating at least somewhat differently than they will once a healthy weight is achieved. The only reliable route I’ve discovered so far is the obvious one: calorie restriction.
When I started my diet seven months ago, I sketched out a menu that was roughly 1000 calories short of what I supposedly needed to maintain my weight. That should have resulted in a 2lb-per-week weight loss, and in the early days it did (even faster at the beginning, since I had suddenly put on pounds after staying fairly stable for years). But then the weight loss slowed, even became erratic according to the scale. But my menu is unchanged, my weight is going in the right direction, and I don’t think I’d be happy eating less, so I’m inclined to throw a bit more patience at the problem.
Right now I figure I will reach my original goal in late fall of this year, at which point I will reassess. And whenever I do find the weight I’m happy to maintain, I plan to stick with basically the same menu, except when possible eating reasonable portions of whatever the family is eating for supper. In other words, I plan to abide by my current diet from now on, adding only whatever extra food is needed to keep my weight up.
I know my previous diets failed because I looked at them as temporary mechanisms employed to get me to a particular place, at which time I could go do something different. I’m hoping that by making this current diet into a permanent mindset I can find a way of eating which feels natural to me while still keeping my weight stable. Check back with me in five years to see how it went!