By the Sweat of Your Brow

A well distributed screen grab from Fed Up shows a swimming pool with two people doing laps. Superimposed on them photo is an icon of a cup of french fries modeled on a standard McDonald’s package and the words “1 Medium French Fry equals approximately 1 hour and 12 minutes of swimming.” This is another bit of food puritanism, trying to redefine food as something you must be punished for in the form of exertion – your (bad) food can only be expunged by the sweat of your brow.

Way down the psycho-cultural rabbit hole, what we trip over is an ancient Western philosophical construct, that the corporeal form is sinful/evil/weak/diseased/sullied. The form must be mortified/purified/healed/schooled to make it whole/healthy/immortal/impervious to decay. The female body in particular lacks integrity, the condition of being self-sufficient, contained and continent. Mortifying the flesh, separating it from this dirtied existence and preparing it for the eternal, is when you deny yourself food and other visceral pleasures. If you fail, if you are corrupted, then you will labor, sweat, exert yourself, know no peace or rest, until you advance/return to the non-corporeal.

Through the ages, much of the overtly religious and philosophical baggage has been jettisoned, but the core logic remains. Food is a necessary evil and exercise is the price we pay for allowing it to pass our lips. It has been put through the blender of pseudoscience, and is folded in to the medicalization of food. It is a pernicious perspective that your calorie intake must always be less than your physical exertion (because the only good weight is one that is less than yesterday’s), and we’re back on the Sisyphus treadmill.

The shame machine really gets into high gear with this juxtaposition. Eat that hamburger and you will have to RUN 3 HOURS to burn it off. Stop eating already! Think about it. Isn’t that really the message being delivered here? Food is bad, the physical manifestation of your lack of fitness, and you will be punished one way or the other for having consumed it. Either you will have to labor (in the pool, in the gym, on the running track) to “work off” the calories, or else you will be faaattt. The logical choice is not to eat at all.

Making exercise the wages of food-consumption sin denatures the normalcy of both activity and eating. The simple fact of munching a few french fries is converted into an existential war of you against your (always possibly fat and diseased) body, and the battleground is exercise to exhaustion. You ate fries? After we told you how bad they are? After we warned you that the corporations (Ooooooh the scary corporations!) just want to sell you more of those fries? After we said that they are processed food?!? Sit ups or die, lard ass! You probably just developed diabetes or high cholesterol or heart disease just standing in line to order that toxic waste. On to the treadmill with you, chop, chop.

It’s incredibly hard to break away from this mode of thinking. I ate a really big dinner tonight, a marvelous homemade smoked pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and corn of the cob. After it was done, I kept thinking, “Oh, man, that was so much. I should go for a walk.” Um, no. I’ve been on my feet all day, running errands, cooking things, doing some gardening, etc. I’ve had my usual active week. I’ll have another usual active week over the next seven days. I do not need to “work it off.” I need to enjoy the wonderful roast the Spousal Unit cooked for us and have fun deciding how we’ll eat up the left overs in the coming days. (It was a big roast.) I can assure you that this fork-tender pork is way fattier and more caloric than any little packet of fries. And there’s a triple-sour lemon cake for dessert, made with fruit off our own tree.

This kind of scare-tactic argument is also just plain bad science. Sure, you can abstractly pick out the amount of calories in one food item and then breathlessly announce what the exercise load would be to exactly balance that particular demonized food item. Or you can look at what a person’s overall caloric needs are for a day, or a week, or a month, and then evaluate the place of that food item in satisfying that person’s overall metabolic needs.

A medium packet of McDonald’s french fries is 380 calories. It has (on average) 19g of fat, 48g of carbohydrates and 4g of protein. It gives you 20% of your daily fiber requirements and 15% of your daily Vitamin C.  This one serving of french fries will fit very comfortably in most individual’s food needs for a day. And for those people who squall that McDonald’s makes these ADDICTIVE!!1!1!, uh, I’m someone who can eat two or three out of a package and leave the rest for someone else. They aren’t addictive, they just taste really good and if I order them, I will eat them and share them with my friends.

They are just food. They have perfectly good nutrients in them. They come in wonderful, portioned sizes that match hunger levels. They are exactly the thing to feed a car full of adolescents who you just picked up from swim class, along with some sodas and burgers. Just tell them not to get ketchup all over the seats.

Finally, this is a really shitty way to encourage people to be more active, which really, truly is something that we’re not doing as much as we used to, that will benefit individuals regardless of weight loss, and that has been shown in reputable study after reputable study to be a bigger factor in overall health than anything except stopping smoking.  Walking, jogging, skiing, Zumba, basketball, soccer, swimming, yoga, elliptical, ballroom dancing, biking, Pilates, skipping rope, going out and having mock Battles of Agincourt with your local SCA chapter – these are all good, all fun, and none of them need to be done to “work off” your last meal.

How about ditching the scare tactics and saying it this way: Swimming takes a lot of energy because it works all of your body. Be sure to eat enough before you do a significant swimming session so you don’t run out of steam half-way through. What are different foods you could eat to fuel you up for your swim, or that you could have afterwards to replenish your energy? Reframing the situation to emphasize the fun and joyful aspects of activity – and, man, in the middle of summer, a pool is a great place to be – instead of creating a doubly hateful situation where your desire to eat something tasty is demonized and your ordinary actions, like swimming, are turned into drudgery, is a lot better for everyone’s psyche, but it doesn’t advance extremist agendas.

The sweat of your brow is a sign that you’re alive and engaged with the world. And a sign that you should go get a bite to eat.


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Posted in Culture, Food, Health, Obesity

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