Diets

Humans are social creatures (duh). We want to do what everyone else is doing. If it’s new and people are trying it, we want to try it too, even if it’s dumb. I believe The Offspring said it best in their immortal work “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” when they sang

Hey, hey, do that brand new thing

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I was making small talk with some guests at a party recently and they were telling me about their work, which involves studying how presenting information in a different way to different groups of people could influence how they make decisions that may affect the environment. Their study involved designing four different user interfaces that displayed information about a household’s energy usage. One display showed how much energy the household was consuming over the month, one compared the energy consumption to the previous month (I think? I might be getting this one wrong), one showed how much money the reduced consumption was saving the household, and one showed how much energy nearby households were using.

Guess which one was actually the most effective at reducing energy consumption? If you guessed the “keeping up with the Joneses” option, you guessed right. People tended to use less energy when they thought their neighbors were using a lower amount than they were. Competition drives a lot of our decisions, I think, and we don’t want to miss out on the party that we think other people are attending.

I bring this up because I believe diets can be equally socially motivating and motivated. I mean, Weight Watcher’s groups exist. And that’s cool, since sometimes we need a little support.

But that doesn’t mean I want to hear about your diet in normal, everyday social situations. I’ve already made the point that I don’t think obsessing over weight loss is shallow and might just be belying some other issues. And if you have some kind of legitimate dietary restriction, I’ll respect that if I’m throwing a party or something. So my reasons for not wanting to talk about your diet is not because I think you’re shallow or lame.

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When it comes down to it, unless I bring it up, I just don’t want to think about diets. It’s not that I think diets are silly (although some definitely are), and I know that when it comes to weight loss, they tend to be more effective than exercise alone (by like 85% or something—oh wait, that’s the statistic I use when I’m making stuff up, never mind), it’s just not something I can afford to talk about.

Admittedly, I’ve never really tried to diet, for medical reasons or weight loss or otherwise, so maybe I’m being unfair. The people reading this who have found some kind of solace in dieting may be mollified to know that I don’t know how to lose weight in a healthy way. I did attempt some Caloric restriction when I was overweight, but like many people, I underestimated the Calories in the food I was eating and overestimated the Calories of what I was burning, and then rewarded myself for being “good”—you can do the math there. Maybe dieting does require some military-esque level of commitment or some reinforcement from others and I’ve just been too weak or indifferent to really buy into that. I have considered diets, but by “diet” I meant “magical thing that I can do for a few weeks to lose a few pounds and then stop doing”. I’ve never tried a lifestyle-change type of diet. Actually, I was about two seconds from trying paleo, but 1) I love bread, 2) I love pasta, 3) I don’t like saying I “don’t” eat stuff as opposed to I “can’t” or “am physically unable to” eat stuff, and 4) I’m a runner and I just need the easy carbs. I also almost went vegan, but…bacon.

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Diets also scare me. As an already pretty neurotic person, I tend to obsess about things. I was pretty unhappy when I was counting Calories and I never seemed to be “winning”. When other people talk about their diets, a teeny tiny part of me worries that I should be doing some kind of diet too or that I must not care about my health if I am not being as proactive or dedicated or something. I don’t like talking about diets because they make me feel like my ~7 hours/week of exercise are inadequate.

Something that I’ve been trying to follow lately, with some success, is, when presented with a choice, to pick the option which will matter to me most a month or a year from now. For example, do I want to go out with friends or stay in because I’m tired? A month from now, I won’t remember if I had a good night’s sleep that night, but I may have fond memories of a fun night out. I think this can carry through to eating and the idea of eating crap in moderation, so that’s usually what I go for. Besides, who wants to miss out on their own birthday cake because they gave up sugar?

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Probably the most frustrating thing about diets is the holier-than-thou bullshit people following them sometimes try to pull. Even just the term “clean” eating bugs the shit out of me. I’m not the only one who has noticed this, and I won’t talk about it anymore. Attacking someone’s diet is like attacking their religion, and it’s not really worth it to me. You keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, as long as you understand the roots of the lifestyle you’re adopting.

Michael Pollan points out the evolution of the American diet in the last four decades or so in the introduction of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, called “Our National Eating Disorder”:

“Somehow this most elemental of activities—figuring out what to eat—has to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?

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“For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall of 2002, when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia dating to the Carter administration [when Congress warned Americans to steer clear of red meat].”

So we hated on red meat and then we hated on bread and pasta, a prejudice that still exists today thanks to “clean” and “paleo” diets. Low-carb diets do work, but at what price? I will concede that the overall quality of wheat products these days is not as good as in decades past. But that’s not the fault of wheat gluten or carbs.

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That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with our modern diet. And there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

I’m not saying don’t ever talk about food. I don’t think I am “above” talking about food. Eating is a big part of our lives, and to ignore it completely is silly, especially from a cultural standpoint. But I would rather not talk about what you “don’t” eat. Food is not an enemy to be subdued.

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Perhaps we’ve gone from a culture of talking about good food to a culture of talking about good-for-you, fat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, organic, free range, super “clean” whole food. Perhaps we’ve gone from experiencing food to purposefully not experiencing it.

I’ll turn again to Michael Pollan, this time to his thesis statement in his In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If I am going to change my entire eating life based on some nutritional advice, I think I can live with something as open-ended as this.

Numbers

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So it’s no secret to anyone within texting distance that I’ve been struggling with some more-acute-than-usual body images issues the past few weeks. As I’m not a holiday-weight worrier, the only explanation I can point to is a recent, significant weight milestone: I am now officially 20 pounds heavier than I was exactly two years ago.

Although I believe in being open about this sort of thing in theory, just as I am open about that brief period when I dealing with disordered eating (because I do not think poor mental health is anything to be ashamed of), when talking of pounds and fat, I can’t help but feel a teensy bit shallow.

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Rationally, I know that comparing my weight two years ago to my weight now is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, I was thinner, but I also couldn’t climb stairs, run a half marathon, or lift pretty much anything. I was also thin because I spent about 12-15 hours a day sleeping and therefore not eating. Do I think I’ve just gained 20 pounds of pure muscle in those two years? Of course not, but the point is, no matter how unreasonable I know it is to connect the numbers on the scale to my overall health, I still feel like shit when the numbers go up.

I’ve talked about qualitative and quantitative goals to death already. I still think it’s important to have a mix of both, but the fact is that the latter are a lot easier to track. You can see it numbers in the weight of the dumbbells you’re lifting, the amount of reps you can do, Calories you’re burning, your heart rate, running pace, mileage, and yes, pounds on the scale. These are all numbers that we have given meaning to, for better or worse. On the qualitative side, you can really only judge your progress on how you feel and how you look.

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Unfortunately, the types of goals that I am not interested in tracking are the ones tracked by everyone surrounding me. You can’t follow a fitness personality or hashtag or even check your feed on social media these days without being bombarded with progress pics, fitspiration (i.e. cute or clever sayings somehow revolving around pushing through something, overcoming laziness, or how the reasons you’re exercising are better than the reasons other people might be exercising, and lots of toned-but-not-bulky girls with six packs and full make-up), and people posing with weights or fitbit readouts.

I should say something here about how I don’t care what goals other people have. If you don’t want to be “skinny”, sure, that’s fine, whatever, I’ve already put in my two cents about that. If before-and-afters pump you up, who am I to rain on your parade? When you’re proud of how many Calories you’ve burned, is that really that much different than my being proud of breaking a running distance PR? You made a goal and you achieved it, and I am proud of you for that. Daaaawwww hugs.

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However, as isolationist as I try to be (browsing my Instagram feed notwithstanding), other people’s goals can still affect me positively and negatively. Fitness is first and foremost an investment, and where my self-loathing comes in is when I feel like I’m not getting a return on that investment. But an ROI according to whose investment? Yeah, so I’ve gained a few pounds seemingly overnight (maybe I’ve been a little too moderate on my whole eating crap in moderation thing…) but I don’t have a clear weight loss goal, I don’t track my Calories in or out, I don’t care about target heart rate, and I don’t care about muscles (although I’m generally pleasantly surprised to notice them). The point is, I feel like a loser only when I evaluate myself on the same metrics that other people value. When I stick to what I care about—how I feel—I’m generally on top.

Moral of the story: Sometimes there’s more to an obsession with weight gain than simple vanity. The lesson I’m slowly learning (and not very well) is that the hardest thing about this health craze is staying focused on what is important to you and if that’s not what you’re bombarded with day in and day out, well, just try not to feel craptastic.