First, We Kill All the Diets

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, then our society’s approach to the wide spread increase in body mass throughout the nation is spectacularly psychotic. If dieting doesn’t work, then dieting needs to stop, and a new approach given a try.

Scientific health studies and surveys consistently find that dietary changes for the primary purpose of weight reduction lead to short-term loss and long-term gain, more than if no loss had been attempted. Dieting does not merely fail to produce persistent reduction in body mass, it appears to be materially responsible for accelerated increase in body mass among those who diet. The dramatic increase in body mass across society points to structural environmental changes larger than any one person’s choice of food. Diets are too varied to be able to attribute the obesity rise to some specific food element, such a HFCS, sugar in general, refined carbohydrates, “additives”, etc.

Even so, the food police waste no opportunity in which to ride the fat pig of obesity in hopes of promoting their particular ideological (and whacked out) cause of the week. They want a monster to slay, something big and scary which they will bravely face down and so be heroes. The target is “the food industry” but the battleground is the bodies and psyches of Teh Fatz, a social group othered as poor, dark, low-class and/or female, who may therefore be used as social experiments for these high-minded servants of the public interest. Of course, the poor, the non-white, the lower class and the non-male parts of society have always been appropriated for the amusement of their social betters.

Fat is a result of calorie storage, and thus of food and eating, which seems to make a focus on food a logical place to start when trying to stem the Fat Tide. The obsession with food intake is leading us to forms of invasive regulation and pervasive monitoring of the subject class that is not compatible with respect for adult autonomy and free will. “It’s for your own good,” is the refrain, as if we fat people cannot judge for ourselves.

Increase in societal body mass is not the result of some nefarious plot by our evil corporate overlords. It is not the result of “fat pigs” going on food “binges,” scarfing down mountains of “processed” food. It’s not our poor, weak, sinful wills that can’t set the Doritos down. It is a quiet combination of a slow but steady increase in calories in amounts that are easy to ingest without noticing (slightly larger portions, richer ingredients, food in ready-to-eat forms) accompanied by a steady decrease in opportunities for activity (rise of the computer, decline of manual labor, greater reliance on the automobile vs. bike or feet, decay of public amenities like sidewalks and parks), leading to an overall increase of weight across all socioeconomic classes.

Ordinary people eat a bit more during the day than they did 25 years ago and move substantially less. We eat out more. We buy more kinds of foods because they are available and because they are cheaper than other things we could buy, and we do more eating because it is cheaper than other things we might do. Food shows encourage us to try this, advertisements demand we try that, friends offer up a wide array of snacks when we go over to watch the game. We nibble. We nosh. We snack. We eat things that, a few decades back, would be feast food or special occasion meals because they make us happy and they taste so good and we can afford them now. If we live under conditions of food insecurity, we eat all we can when its available because tomorrow it might not be there. These are small changes to our traditional eating patterns and they add up.

Maybe this is why so many food police frantically want to find a monster (or at least a self-indulgent fatty) under the obesity bed. It doesn’t seem right that so great a change can happen with so little fanfare. Something must be sapping our vital essences! Something must be poisoning us! Something that is amenable to being resolved through short-sighted legislation and public shaming must be at fault!

So, what? What’s the punch line here, Anglachel? If diets don’t work, then what? Just get fat?

Well, to a degree, yes. Or, to be more precise, we need to be less hysterical over the prospect that, at least for now and probably for the foreseeable future, we’re going to be heavier on average than a couple generations ago. We need to lose the fat phobia that keeps us on the treadmill of Sisyphus. Make your peace with that.

First off, we know what doesn’t work – focusing on losing weight as the primary goal and measure of success. We have decades of proof.

Instead of starting with the commandment “Thou shalt lose weight, lard ass!” we need to look at teaching and supporting health habits first. How can the food environment be restructured to allow people to eat the kinds of things they truly love to eat in ways that don’t automatically lead to caloric excess? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Promote eating competence, as defined by the Ellen Satter Institute. This approach has literally upended everything I have thought before about how to eat. Once someone has been trained in eating what they like in a structured way (fighting food ubiquity), then there is time to support more adventurous food choices (i.e., “healthy” food). Chances are, simply by gaining confidence in their food competence, individuals will have personally healthier diets overall.
  • Focus attention on how to become and stay more active. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) I have read by reputable medical organizations indicates that increasing activity regardless of weight loss improves health all around. Every health marker can be improved, often significantly, with moderate increases in activity levels. You can be Clark Kent and do just fine.
  • Promote shopping and cooking competence. The best defense against poor diets is knowing how to make your own food for cheap. Emphasize being able to produce tasty food over any formal nutrition. This really means bringing back Home Economics at schools, and having some good shows on the TV and online that point out how to budget, how to buy and how to prepare food for your family. This is not an occasion for some celebrity chef to come in and pass judgment on the locals.
  • Support the return of PE to schools. (I can’t believe I’m saying this. I hated PE in school, but the reason I did was because I was graded on whether I could make free throws in basketball – which inevitably led me to getting an “F”. Hot, sweaty, public embarrassment and I get my GPA dragged down. Of course I hated the fucking thing.) No grades, all fun, and not for weight loss. Don’t talk about fat. Talk about heart rates. Talk about muscle growth. Talk about bone strength. Or just shut up and play kickball.

The larger picture is social changes that take coordination, regulation and evangelism. Work hours that provide time for being more active. Less commuting by car. Make it easier to get to well stocked grocery stores with wider food selection (and lower prices) for marginalized communities. Strengthen food safety laws. Restrict food (hell, I say all) advertising aimed at children.  Improve public amenities such as parks, gyms, sidewalks, transit, and housing that provide opportunities to be active as part of everyday life. Reduce reliance on the automobile. Better healthcare. Etc. I’m sure you can come up with some others.

The two elements that must be present, however, are promotion of individual control over their activity and food choices, and dropping weight loss as the primary objective of health improvement. If someone is fat and content with their life, then that’s their choice. If you are fat and discontented, you are free to choose what course of action seems best to you.

Most of all, none of the above will automatically lead to weight loss for those who are already fat. That’s not the point. The point is to help people navigate the contradictory and unhealthy conditions of food ubiquity without falling into a no-win dieting cycle; it is to keep their dignity and sanity intact. It can help children escape the dieting trap in the first place. It will allow people who are fat to simply be, without harassment and punishment.

No more scare tactics. No more alarmism. No more shaming.

No more diets.

Anglachel

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Posted in Culture, Economics, Food, Health, Obesity, Politics
7 comments on “First, We Kill All the Diets
  1. Klassy says:

    Here’s an experiment. Ask the fatphobics to imagine that there is a pill. We know it has no side effects. It is entirely safe. It will keep you thin. It is low cost (ha! I said to imagine this). It is available to all. Our population will be thin practically overnight. What do you think would be the reaction?

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    • anglachelg says:

      Half the fatphobes would demand that everyone over 25 BMI be forced to take it RIGHT NOW, while the other half would scream and squall that it’s unnatural, full of chemicals and who knows what long-term effects it will have and will demand it be pulled off the market.

      The pharmaceutical industry would try to make a buck, as would the insurance companies. Congress would dither until it figured out how to get kick-backs for their biggest campaign contributors out of the deal. The FDA would keep sending it back for clinical trials, being assaulted by the diet industry on one side and the half-baked naturalists on the other. Food manufacturers would see if they could build the formula into their products so you have zero calorie foods – all the mouth feel, none of the weight gain!

      The rest of us would quickly give it a try, see if it worked, then take it only when we need to “drop a few pounds” for some special occasion.

      The sad thing is social pressure to be thin is so powerful that people would take this stuff even if it killed them or made them sick as long as it made them thin immediately and was moderately affordable. Most medications fail because they are ineffective, not because they are health threats.

      Anglachel

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      • Klassy says:

        My thought is that there would be a great outcry over doing things “the easy way” which would expose their true motives in fat shaming- I mean if you think fat is the cause of bad health, and we have this drug (with all the hypotheticals I included) that can rid of us this cause then why would you be against it?
        And I know the OMG obesity types would decry such a drug. No logical consistency there.

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      • anglachelg says:

        Hmm, yes, you’re right, the puritans would object to the failure to mortify the flesh and would be offended that us fat cows were “getting away with it.”

        The purpose of the Teh Fatz in their moral universe is to let them preen and pat themselves on the back for how wonderful they are. Their thinness is their visible sign of grace. I also suspect that a significant number of the puritans are locked in a cycle of disordered eating and frantically want to justify their behavior by pointing to the result of their self-abuse – look, I’m not faaattt!

        Of course, there are many, many people who are in the normal weight range who don’t do anything particularly unique in their eating and activity habits, who don’t actively try to shame or intimidate heavier people (though they will share the cultural prejudice against fat), and who just go on with their lives. They probably don’t understand what the big deal is since they just, you know, eat, and are baffled by both fat people and the anti-fat crusaders.

        Anglachel

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  2. Klassy says:

    “Increase in societal body mass is not the result of some nefarious plot by our evil corporate overlords.”

    I always laugh when I hear (or read– more likely) the conspiracy theories i.e. “Big food” is working in concert with Big Pharma to get us “addicted” to processed and sweetened foods so that we may all be customers of the pharmaceutical industry (because as we all know, if you ingest sugar –aka “poison”– with any sort of regularity you will inevitably develop diabetes. Scientific fact).
    These pronouncements are made as if they represent truly radical thought.
    They never stop to think, hey, maybe it is in the interest of the powers that be that we spend our time worrying about the purity of our diets and that we focus on personal habits rather than turn our attention to what is really hurting us.

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    • anglachelg says:

      Or, perhaps, because so many things are beyond our reach to control, things that really, truly offer substantial harm to our lives, such as climate change, or because there are so many things that are irritating and wearing even if they aren’t precisely dangerous, like working continuously to a timed schedule, we seize on one thing that is literally in our hands, our food, and make it the whole world, so we can feel there’s something we have control over.

      There’s no need to create a Big Bad who is out to get us. Life as such is trouble enough. While I don’t recommend complacency (and I get so pissed off at people who airily declare that “privacy is a myth anyway so who cares?”, as if there’s no reason to tell Google to get its search engine out of our underpants), I also warn against paranoia, and even more against conspiracy theories for fun and entertainment.

      The food police are the modern day equivalent of the nosy, moralistic neighbor who wants to run to the local priest and tattle on all the sinners. The “powers that be” are simply and only and shockingly focused on making money. They don’t have time for anything complex. They just throw things at the consumer wall and see what sticks.

      Mostly, I get weary of the moralistic arguments about eating because we have so much scientific evidence that our usual approaches simply don’t work. If it’s not working, don’t keep flogging the dead horse. It’s pretty much puree by this point.

      Anglachel

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  3. Klassy says:

    Well no, I don’t think it is a conspiracy. I just think that there is a history here in America among our plutocrats and their lackeys in the media to discredit collective action and trumpet individual solutions to societal problems. Unions? Who needs them when we are rational economic actors bargaining for our interests on a level playing field!

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