Monday, July 21, 2014

Confessions of a Dismal Dieter

If God or your Mama didn't make it, leave it alone.

Controlling your weight is a good thing.  Losing a few pounds now and then is a joy. Getting back into your skinny jeans? True love.  But dieting, our national pastime, is big trouble.  Our hearts aren't the only thing that are heavy.

Here's why we worry about food  and diets.  In many instances, the research is incomplete or non-existent. We don't know what happens to us when we are on those untested regimes. You can trust programs like Weight Watchers, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, or Dr. Oz. But some diets are dangerous, difficult, or of dubious result.

So I've dieted, off and on, for 44 years, dieted my weight up to 210 pounds.  So you can see that I was dismal at it.  Since I've stopped dieting, I've lost about half of the weight I needed to lose. It took me two-and-a-half years.   I'm lighter than I've been in 20 years.  Go figure.

The goal was to learn how to eat in a reasonable, sustainable way that enhances health and life over a long period of time.

But here is the part I had to learn: we're hard-wired with spiritual, social, and familial needs and expectations that, sometimes, are satisfied only with food. Really good food.  Which is why it is so hard to lose weight. Most diets don't come close to addressing those ramifications, and our diets fail us when those needs aren't met.

It turns out that dieting is one way to be cruel to ourselves.  Starving ourselves is acceptable in our society—still mean, though.   

Just wanted the Brothers and Sisters to know.  

So, not everything out there is safe or sane: 

1.  Beware of faux foods. Sometimes the food industry produces foods that are chemical stand-ins for the real thing; fake foods. Often they are created and sold on the cheap.  Way cheap.  Those are awful.  They have a metallic or a citrus tang; or they might taste like cardboard.  They might be cardboard. Yogurt cups under 100 calories might not be yogurt at all. Orange drinks that aren't made from oranges; blueberry bits that are not blueberries; chicken nuggets without chicken. 
If you eat faux foods, you are not getting the nutritional profile you want and need. They can be calorie-laden or calorie-free, but they are questionable. We don't know what they might be doing to us. Eat real food. “Food is an important part of a balanced diet,” says Fran Lebowitz.  

2. Beware of foods that strip out all the calories.  A calorie won't hurt you.  It's the basic measurement of energy in food; we all require them, lots of them, actually. It's better to focus on getting the foods you need for high performance and then move or exercise more. 
Here's the nasty little secret: you gain back all the weight you lost, and a little more besides, if you lose weight on too few calories. When the body wants to eat, it wants to eat, especially after a period of starvation. There is little you can do about that. You think that you can, but you can't.  You will eat and eat all the wrong foods in the wrong amounts at the wrong times.  That's not as fun as you might think. 
What we need is a healthy, safe and sane approach. Michael Pollan believes, “High-quality food is better for your health.” Even if there are some calories attached to that. 

3. Beware of diets that leave out whole food groups.  If you leave out the sugar, you also leave out chocolate-more's the pity.  If you leave out all the carbs, entirely, you might not sleep—ever.  Or think.   Then there are the headaches. Moreover, your brain, which functions on carbohydrates, isn't being fed. You not only feel foggy, forgetful, and a little stupid, you are foggy, forgetful, and a little stupid. If you leave out meat, you leave out B vitamins, water-soluble vitamins that help with cell metabolism. You can see how that might be trouble. Food allergies are real, and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease have their antecedents in food.  And then there are moral questions asked by vegetarians. 
But here is the clincher, if you leave out a food group you have to find foods that replace the nourishment that you require. Some of those replacement “health” foods are dubious, both in taste and in nutritional content.  Turkey bacon?  Some people like it; I do not.  Calvin Trillin was not a fan of that strategy. “Health food makes me sick,” he said.
If you are worried about gluten, make sure you really do have an unhealthy reaction to it. Otherwise, you'll never get to eat a wonderful piece of bread again-food that has such deep, rich spiritual and cultural attachments.  Eat a gluten free diet for a couple of weeks, if you are worried, and see how you feel.  It might not make much of a difference. Only a few recent studies indicate gluten sensitivity might exist, but many physicians don't yet accept that it's real, and, further, there's no accepted medical test for it.  Of course, celiac disease is real and serious, and you need your doctor's help with that.

4. Beware of punitive attitudes toward sugar.  There are people who shouldn't have much sugar. True enough.  But white carbs are the terrorists of the moment. (It was cholesterol in the 1980s and that was a fizzle.)  And honestly, too much sugar impairs your health.  If you get up in the morning, drizzle a cup of syrup over your pancakes, have a sweet roll mid-morning, drink a high octane Coke at lunch, a candy bar for late afternoon break, and then a big dessert after dinner; you are over-doing the sugar, which might qualify as an addiction. 
But if you limit your sugar consumption to Christmas or Valentine's, for instance, maybe sprinkle in a couple birthdays, and then you have a gloriously festive treat on those days, chances are you won't be over-doing it.  You are putting a serious perimeter around the sugar, yet you are honoring and relishing the great cooks and the wondrous foods that make up our celebrations.   That makes enormous sense. 
Our matriarchs, and sometime patriarchs, bake desserts that are splendid, purely splendid; handmade treats that use ingredients we adore-that we recognize, that we know their histories and their neighborhoods. Butter.  (No longer the bad guy in the food world.)
No-sugar advocates lump the stuff you get at a cut-rate bakery in with your mama's apple pie or an exquisite piece of wedding cake.  Not the same; and not fair.  One feeds you; and one does not. Save your sweet calories for those truly magnificent gifts. Watch the portion size. “Never eat more than you can lift,” Miss Piggy advises. You'll be all right.

5. Beware of your hungers.  Our hungers are mysterious.  Oh, we're clear about cherries and mom's pot roast, but sometimes we're hungry late at night and we don't know what we are hungry for.  We're pretty sure, however, that it isn't in our fridge.  And it might not be. 
We have genuine hungers. We know what to do about that. ”Unlike curing cancer or heart disease, we already know how to beat hunger: food,” mused Mario Batali
But we also might be hungry for community, family, faith, friendship and romance, which all count here; we might be hungry for achievement that really matters to us; or we might be worried, distracted, aroused, or angry. We tend to soothe those feelings with high-caloric treats, setting us up for a weight gain and the problems that go with that.  
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalms sing. That helps with every hunger more than you can imagine. We get shaky and needy, particularly if we haven't connected with God for a while. We all have adamant needs for the Numinous, for the Holy One, for Love.
We can figure out what we're hungry for, sometimes, by journaling, prayer, or by talking to good friends; but those issues might be trickier or deeper, hidden in the folds of some very bad business-perhaps addictions or abuse, bad bum luck, or wretched attitudes. Then we'll need a counselor to help with understanding, a pastor to help with forgiveness, and a dietician to help us sort it out, so that it stays sorted. 

Here's the Best I Can Do:  I eat high quality breakfasts and lunches with lots of veggies and fruits, whole grains, some protein. Snacks are usually yogurt or nut bars.  Then I enjoy a delicious, familiar, family dinner, with a serving of potato, rice, corn, or pasta, coming from within my own tradition.  That lovely food feeds all kinds of hungers. This is where foods begins to sooth and sustain people in healthy ways. Of course, fresh is best.  Of course, eating lightly is one of the ways we can very quickly and very dramatically feel better in a lot of instances.

An example, Hispanic families without grandma's tortillas are lost indeed. A family from the South requires grits, sometimes with collard greens and ham hocks.  My grandparents were Anabaptists, Church of the Brethren, cousins of the Amish or Mennonites. So, I require mashed potatoes, farm food of the most rustic sort. I try not to over-do the portions, or eat eleven of them. 
I cut the fats down; instead of a quarter cup of bacon drippings or butter in a recipe, I'll use a tablespoon.  The food still tastes wonderful, with the same yummy-nummy goodness, but it is lighter. I leave the fats in cakes and cookies, but I share them with as many people as I can find.  Turns out to be the same dynamic: I wind up eating not-so-very-much. 

Three years ago, I quit dieting.  And began these healthy practices, which included walks every day. I've lost 40 pounds.

What we really want to be is vital and strong, enjoy a reasonable weight, have a healthy relationship with food.  Trainer/coach, Reid Merrill, calls that his happy spot.  We want food that sustains the day, which comforts us, invigorates us, and delights us. We want to go for a walk. We want a home where people gather together and share wonderful food. Julia Child wrote, “Life itself is the proper binge.” 


  1. I'd like to write a more educated response, but I have to grab a snack. I'm starving. Seriously, though, your post provides a lot of good info and points out that the goal is good health rather than a number on a scale. Well done.

  2. Excellent post! You address important points about eating and dieting -- and true nourishment.