Supersize fibs

Of all the bullshit that is bullshitted, some of the sloppiest, stickiest nonsense is the stuff about diets and exercise, and there’s more of it around in January than at any other time of year. Well, apart from the bikini diets in June, the Christmas party body blitzes, the Easter eggs-ercise routines and, for all I bloody know, the Ascension Day ass-sculpting. The point is, this stuff just goes on and on, accompanied by the low whine of concern about the obesity crisis as journalists wibble on about how the nation got so fat (and meanwhile, picture editors wibble on about how they didn’t get into this business to source endless footage of broad, trembling backsides shuffling down highstreets).

There are two important things about weight. One: losing it is pretty simple in theory. If you exercise a bit more and eat a bit less, your body will turn on its fat stores to sustain itself and you will get thinner. Two: there are several hundred ways in which circumstances beyond your control will conspire to stop you from eating a bit less and exercising a bit more. Modern life is radically sedentary. Commuting? That’s sitting down, on a train, a bus or in a car. Office work? Sitting down. Relaxing? You’re probably watching telly or on the internet – again, sitting down. The most encouragement to activity you’ll get is pottering around the supermarket for your weekly shop (obviously, you drove there, because it’s an out-of-town megastore that’s sucked all the trade away from the high street), where the high-calorie value-added snacks are heavily promoted and convenience foods promise to claw back some of the time you lost on that godawful commute.

Work habits, town planning, transport policy and the food industry are all ganging up to keep you chubby. No wonder most people in the UK are classed as overweight or obese (66% of men, 57% of women). And you’ll get bugger all help from the government when it comes to resisting those pressures, because policy is all directed at helping people make “healthy choices” and “individual responsibility” – which is a shabby and craven get-out for successive governments that are terrified to govern in any way that might put them in conflict with cars or the food industry. Change4Life can print patronising recipe leaflets up the wazzoo, and it will not make a lick of difference as long as things like “building a decent bike lane” or “refusing planning permission for a massive Tesco on the green belt” are seen as dangerous hippy radicalism.

As well as all these barriers to losing weight, you’ve got your own body, which is a treacherous hoarder. Humans just aren’t made for living with perpetual plenty – more for scraping along on a thousand-odd calories most days, with the occasional feast of mammoth fat. Try explaining to your evolutionary archetypes that you couldn’t possibly eat another doughnut because you’re watching your waistline, and they’d probably grunt in your face. And then steal the doughnuts. So with all of this against us, it’s tempting to believe either that there’s some arcane science to weight loss (here come the nutritionists, with their forbidden food groups and mystical ordering principles for your plate), or that it’s just not worth bothering at all.

Diets — that is, drastic, short term changes to your eating habits — are awful. Diets are misery and restriction and failure. They’re the copy of Rosemary Conley’s Hip And Thigh Diet I found in a charity shop, with cruel grids at the back for you to record every body measurement week by week; the previous owner had put down her thigh girth to the mismatched quarter inch in the first column, and then never gone back (maybe she’d taken the next lot of numbers after a week on the pasta and baked potatoes, found no change and simply despaired). Or they’re the eBay seller I found, flogging a wardrobe’s worth of size 6 clothes and a Dukan Diet book. I like to imagine her waking up one morning, thinking about another day of eating nothing but eggs, and deciding, “Fuck it, no Topshop tea dress is worth this malarkey.”

But a change in your general diet can be a very good thing indeed, and there are a few diet plans that are quite successful in helping people achieve this. Weight Watchers, for example, has a good record for weight loss, a fairly low drop-out rate, and seems to show decent long-term results. (I haven’t used it myself, but I know people who’ve found it really helpful.) Which makes it an odd target for Susie Orbach, who has singled out the slimming clubs for locking members into “straitjackets for the rest of their lives”. She was speaking to a parliamentary inquiry on behalf of lobby group Endangered Bodies, which has said, “The diet industry claims to offer solutions – to the ‘crisis’ it has just funded researchers to determine,” making it sound like type-two diabetes is an evil invention of Slimming World.

There’s a miserable insistence that women should hate their bodies, and it depresses the piss out of me that plainting about how fat you are is level one ladies’ smalltalk. No one – whatever size and whatever shape – should be made to feel unhappy in their own skin. But the reaction to that can’t be, “And so let’s get on with being jolly and round.” Alongside the bad, self-loathing reasons for wanting to lose weight, there are some really, really good ones too. Anyone who tells you there aren’t health risks that go with being overweight is telling big fibs, and possibly big self-serving fibs.

You can get a sniff of the eagerness to believe that weight loss is hopeless in a New York Times article called The Fat Trap, which leads off on an example designed to show the futility of the whole enterprise. A group of obese subjects lost a great deal of weight on a diet; a year later, they’d regained about a third of the weight. Damning, except the diet they were on was a crazy, below-starvation-level business. For two months, they ate less than 600 calories a day. No surprise that they were left with shanked metabolisms and food neuroses. But instead of querying the experiment, the article takes it to mean that the whole idea of weight loss is a con. Because, when something is so bloody hard, wouldn’t it be reassuring if it really was impossible – even unnecessary?

Here’s Sally Feldman, extemporising the acquisition of an extra stomach roll: “Let’s indulge in our greed, give thanks for our original sins and join together to say no to easy answers and yes to life with all its cruelties, dangers and fabulous guilt-free food.” Lovely. Except, of course, what if getting fat isn’t a joyous expression of appetite, but another straitjacket? What if, rather than yearning to be a size 0, people are just hoping for a relatively long, reasonably active life with minimal risk of losing their toes to unmanageable insulin levels? What if the anti-dieters are as full of bullshit as the supplement pushers and meal plan hawkers? Eat a bit less, exercise a bit more. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it really does work.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo by jamelah, used under Creative Commons

14 thoughts on “Supersize fibs

  1. Lots here! First, agree re the whole “body image” thing. I know many, especially the young, who feel fat because they can’t fit into that tea-dress, except at the largest size, and it looks all wrong. And sometimes that is down to their shape not fitting the template. If you have large hips most of the High Street skirts that fit on hips will rotate because the waist is too loose. The big problem with fashion not that it glorifies a single size, but that it glorifies a single shape. No matter how much I diet, my hips and top will be different sizes (my sister, who shares my body shape, kindly did the experiment for me). Acceptance that women come in different shapes IS a feminist issue.
    And bizarrely it also impacts on weight gain. If none of your clothes fit, it’s easy to miss weight gain.
    Being healthy is also a feminist issue. A diet thst means we break our hips or get heart-attacks at 70 isn’t very empowering. At the same time, you certainly can be over-weight and healthy. So this is complex too. In Ireland one group is focusing on exercise, especially amongst the young. Being fit, whatever your shape, is positive for your health – there is some research suggesting it is more protective than being in a normal health range. We need to encourage exercise, which may be difficult in this sedentary society.
    The third thing is, this is a wide topic. The New York Times article was citing research on major weight loss. Does the metabolism react the same if you are losing weight over a long time? Unknown. Losing 5% of your weight? Unknown – but since we all gain and lose weight over the course of a year, unlikely. Note also the research that suggests your body doesn’t “get used” to your higher weight for years. So getting back to last years weight – doable?
    On the whole I wonder, would we be better just deciding not to gain weight? Put on a little over Christmas, lose it in the New Year by cutting out the treats? Exercise all the time (not killing ourselves, just enough to keep bones and muscles healthy)? Find clothes that fit and flatter (find specialised or retro stockists, get them altered) and just keep wearing them? Get health check ups regularly to make sure WE (because we ARE our bodies) are still working well? Just normalise our relationship with weight? Is this too idealistic?

  2. make sure WE (because we ARE our bodies) are still working well

    That’s the key thing, isn’t it? Our bodies aren’t just vessels, they’re us. Lindy West wrote a piece I really enjoyed, rejecting the shame and humiliation she’s expected to feel for being a fat woman, but it included the line, “My brain rides around in [my body] all day and comes up with funny jokes” – making it sound like, sometimes, she thinks of herself as just a passenger. Which is a bit weird. I wonder whether a sense of body/brain separation is behind a lot of self-loathing (“my body is a separate thing, and I hate it”) as well as inspiring a little bit of irresponsibility about health.

    I wasn’t sure how much to approach the idea of fat being a feminist issue, because of course the figures are that overweight is more of a problem for men than women, even though we live in a culture that suggests being fat is much more problematic for (and worrying to) women than men. (And that said, men’s fitness magazines are much more popular than their women’s-interest counterparts, so I wonder if we’re missing some nuances of the way body dissatisfaction is gendered.) What fat definitely is for women, in a way that it doesn’t seem to be for men, is a class issue: lower-class women are more likely to be obese, higher-class women are less likely to be obese. That’s very interesting.

  3. Exactly! Coming from my philosophy I have a big problem with the idea that our minds are ourselves and could be put on a hard-drive somewhere. We are (it seems to me) intrinsically embodied; our brain is affected by our body and vice versa. Annoyingly the ancients got there first – sound mind in a healthy body. That’s one thing not two.

    Yes, something odd about the relationship of the female and fat. would it be too conspiracy theorist to wonder if women are pushed more to find value in consumption, whether of sweets or diet pills?

  4. After spending my twenties hating my body and dieting, fasting, expanding, reducing, hallucinating (due to faddy diets),crying etc etc I’ve been doing the exercise and don’t eat quite so much idea for about two years. Kate moss I’ll never be but Im happy!

  5. I ended up here after a blog post of mine was sent your way and you commented in reply about the need for cereal grains to sustain the world population. First, as I suggested in my tweet to you, I would be interested to see actual evidence that demonstrates that the efficiency of food energy outputs to inputs for grain is such that without it the world would starve. But even if it is the case, we can still say nonetheless that the problem obesity is a problem of not excess calories but of poor diet. The problem of the calories in, calories out model of human metabolism that is used to explain – and apportion blame for – obesity is that its a simplistic model of a complicated system.

    As Gary Taubes has pointed out in great detail, the research demonstrates that our bodies treat different forms of macro-nutrients differently. 100 calories of protein is not treated the same way as 100 calories of sugar (and when it comes down to it, all carbs from bread to potatoes, end us as sugar). Sugar is, in fact, a funny thing. A certain amount in the blood can provide energy to the muscles, heart and brain. But anything more than about a teaspoon in our blood volume is poison. The inability to metabolism sugar via insulin is why diabetics die (or did before insulin shots were discovered. To stop our bodies from being poisoned by sugar we secrete insulin which moves as quickly as possible to shunt that sugar out of the bloodstream – with most of it going into fat tissue.

    Taubes points out the metabolic irony that a side-effect of this is that the fatter we get, the hungrier we get because not only are our muscle tissues becoming insulin resistant, meaning we can’t even utilize the sugar energy that we intake, and our bodies turn more and more of it directly into fatty tissue. In other words, we’re not fat because we eat all the time, we eat all the time because we’re obese. And we are obese because the vast majority of processed food is made up of processed carbs – in particular: corn. Protein and fat are treated entirely differently by the body, in particular by the liver, which converts some proteins into sugar (gluconeogenesis).

    But this begs another question: the whole idea that eating less, in other words going on semi-starvation diets is bunk, whether its the moderate version that you propose or the more extreme version that you excoriate. Again, our bodies are smart and constantly try to balance themselves out through homeostatic mechanisms. When it is 85 degrees outside and when it is 45 degrees outside, your internal body temperature remains at 98 or so. When you eat less, your body adjusts by doing less, lowering your energy and thus activity levels. When you exercise more, your body gets hungrier. To resist these pressures can only ever be temporary for the vast majority of people. That’s why “eat less do more diets” never work for more than maybe ten percent of people.

  6. No apology needed! Two things here: high quality protein and no refined carbohydrates would probably be a huge improvement for most people’s diets, but there’s a reason the introduction of grain farming historically heralded an expansion in civilisation and population. They’re reliable, storable sources of calories, and most of the world’s poorest population (barring rare true hunter-gatherer groups) live mostly on grains, and aren’t anywhere near fat. From what I understand about Taubes, he’s got smart ideas about what constitutes a good diet and offers an interestingly counterintuitive argument, but it’s not a diet that could be adopted by large populations — it’s a luxury.

  7. Taubes wrote an interesting article in the NYT last year about the toxicity of sugar. It links to, and discusses, a talk by Robert Lustig on the same subject, which despite boasting 90 minutes of full-on biochemistry has clocked up almost 2m hits on YouTube at the time of writing. Lustig makes a persuasive case for the disturbing degree to which sugar is implicated in obesity, type-2 diabetes, and related problems (obviously he doesn’t ignore the fact that other variables are also critical, not least the amount of regular exercise we get).
    It’s quite a few years since I read it, but I seem to remember Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Fat Wars: The Inside Story of the Obesity Industry being a good critical investigation of the facts and myths.

  8. Interesting thoughts here. Sarah, I think however you got some of what you read wrong.

    Weight Watchers (at least its original incarnation here in the US) NEVER releases ANY stats about their rates of success, or how many drop out of the program. So it not true that they “have a good record for weight loss”. They have no record at all, despite being around for 50 years or so. My own experience of it is that it fails 97% of the time for permanent weight loss, just like all diets do. (Do you ever wonder why they keep “revamping” the points program?) And over time, it can be surprisingly costly if you keep paying $13 per week simply for meetings (no personal attention or medical supervision). The meetings also shill for WW products, like “diet brownies”, snacks and treats.

    The New York Times article (by Tara Parker-Pope) that you reference was very good, and fair in its treatment of the whole problem. I think you should re-read it; the study you refer to was NOT a study of diets so much as a study of how metabolism changes in response to food deprivation. They also studied slower diets (instead of the 600 calorie a day types) and the US National Institute of Health recently completed a massive long term study comparing all the popular diets (Atkins, WW, Jenny Craig, etc.) and found that NONE OF THEM produced much in the way of results (average yearly weight loss: 9-13 lbs, most of it regained).

    In short: while it is healthier to be slender, the fact is that medical science HAS NO IDEA WHATSOEVER how to take a fat person and turn them into a slim person. NONE WHATSOEVER.

    My own personal take on it: until we understand more fully the mechanisms behind hunger and satiation, we will never remotely address this issue. 99% of what you read about diets and dieting promise falsely “you can eat foods you love!” and “you’ll never be hungry!”, which is patently false. Dieters fail because they are HUNGRY. Fat people are (for many biological reasons) hungrier than thin people, YET in order to keep weight off, they must eat far less than a naturally thin person and exercise more — a Catch-22 that ensures 97% will fail long-term.

    Again: I suggest that A. you re-read the Tara Parker-Pope piece. And look up a book by the NYT science writer, Gina Kolata, called “Rethinking Thin” — it’s the best book I’ve ever read on the issue and extensively footnoted.

  9. Sorry I left off this bit: you state the popular belief that “just eat a bit less and exercise a bit more”. The books and articles I have quoted show in a very detailed and scientific way, that this simply does not work. After a few months (or at the most a year or two), your body will naturally compensate for a slight increase in exercise and/or decrease in eating — raise or lower your metabolism by tiny increments that can only be measured (expensively) in a laboratory. Then subtly change your appetite or metabolism in a way to ensure you return to the heavier weight. This is again, why diets (or exercise) do not work.

  10. I read the Parker-Pope piece three times. People kept retweeting it. They just loved it. But the study she leads on really isn’t relevant to any sensible healthy eating plan – it’s presented as evidence that changing your diet is futile, when it’s actually evidence of the harm done by starvation. I liked to some relevant figures for Weight Watchers if you’d like to take a look. As I said, it’s not perfect, but it’s hardly selling the impossible dream, and can be useful to the right person. I agree that human biology is obscure. Yet people do get fitter and they do get less fat. Lifestyles and diets make that really hard, and so do our bodies – sometimes, to the point of being practically impossible. But anyone who thinks a starvation diet is comparable to cutting the refined sugar and walking a bit more is someone who really, really wants confirmation that their actions aren’t related to their own health.

  11. Absolutely agree on the sugar stuff (and I think I was unduly snarky about Taubes above). A better formulation of what I’m trying to say is probably “eat less crap, do more exercise”.

  12. Interesting discussion. I’m a PT so I’m going to leave it to the scientists to work out the exact cause and effect, but I and any other decent PT know that if you get all of the following right, you will lose weight, keep it off and feel great:

    – eat right
    – sleep well
    – build muscle and train it

    If you only do one or two of those things, it makes it more difficult as they all influence each other.

    I don’t include ‘moving’ as it’s not necessary for fat loss if you do the 3 things above, since ‘building muscle’ inherently involves moving muscle to some extent!

    Also before people get worried about terms like ‘building muscle’, remember that an extra 3-5kg of muscle spread around your entire body isn’t going to make a huge visual impact. You’ll just look better in a ‘can’t quite put my finger on it, did you change your hair?’ sort of way.

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