I was reading some articles on nutrition and obesity yesterday and I had one of my “depressed and confused” moments that I get from time to time. Ever since I have started seriously trying to figure out a good diet for myself, I have times where I get overwhelmed by how much contradictory information is out there. When it comes to nutrition you can find an “expert” who will take a contrary view on just about anything. Some will tell you that saturated fats are the devil, and others will say eggs and butter are perfectly healthy and should be back on the menu. Some advise you to restrict fruit and eliminate all grains. If you read enough for long enough you won’t feel safe eating anything! If someone starts trying to prove that drinking fresh water and breathing clean air is bad for you I won’t be surprised. So what is an ordinary, struggling person to make of all this? I am not a dietician, doctor or personal trainer, but I have been to many of them, and have tried their advice with limited success. I have no wish to become an “expert” on any of this, but I do feel compelled to learn enough to navigate my own way through the maze of nutritional advice in an effort to recover my health and well-being. After all, if my weight is my “personal responsibility” then I need enough reliable information to behave responsibly, don’t I? Yet when I see how even the experts can’t agree at the most basic level, I think I must be naive in the extreme to think that I can work this all out for myself.
The only way I can stop myself from going stark raving bonkers is to think about what has been going on in my own body in the last few months. I can’t help but conclude that something is working. My diet is a success by every possible metric of success that means anything to me:
- My diabetes is controlled without medication.
- I am no longer hypertensive.
- I have lost 26 kgs and 5 dress sizes in 4 months.
- I sleep like a baby, have plenty of energy and get restless if I sit still for too long whereas I was barely able to move off the couch before.
- I have no cravings, never get ravenously hungry and love my food enough to eat this way forever.
- My skin and hair look noticeably better and healthier.
- People are starting to comment.
- I am no longer plagued by headaches, diarrhea, constipation, excessive thirst or getting up multiple times a night to use the loo.
- I get on the scale every morning and every morning I weigh a little less. The weight loss will stop for a few weeks from time to time, and then resume on it’s own. This stop/start progress seems unrelated to my food intake or activity level in that I am eating and exercising fairly consistently whether I am losing or not. But there is a definite, steady downward trend and as long as that continues I can just keep doing what I am doing for as long as it takes.
I should be over the moon, so why do I still have crushing moments of self-doubt? I’ll tell you:
- My diet is not low-fat enough for the low-fat people. Even though I have a pair of old pants so big that they simply drop off me (they fit a year ago!), I worry that I may be clogging my arteries with coconut oil or raising my bad cholesterol by eating too many eggs.
- My diet is not low-carb enough for the low-carb people. Sure, I have cut out all refined grains, haven’t touched a white potato in months and have greatly reduced my sugar intake. But I still eat any fruit I damn well please, pretty much whenever I feel like it and I flatly refuse to cut out whole grains and legumes.
- My diet is not low-calorie enough for the low-calorie diet police. Without really trying I am eating far more human-sized portions and not having seconds, but I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and that means more calories than a committed calorie counter would think prudent and certainly far too many to explain my rate of weight loss under the “calories in/calories out” model.
- I cook too much of my food for the raw foodists and refuse to juice my veggies and throw away the precious fiber.
- The amount of eggs and dairy I eat would make a vegan cry. (Raw milk btw, which is illegal in some countries! Not mine apparently.)
- I eat no meat or fish at all and any self-respecting cave man would laugh me to scorn. (In my defense I supplement with fish oil, but that’s as far as it goes!)
By just about any diet theory out there I should be getting fatter, not thinner. Sicker, not healthier. Robert Lustig argues that the common features of all successful, healthy diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber and that is about the only thing that makes a modicum of sense to me. I think his argument at least partly explains it, because I get fiber every which way I can think of and watch sugar like a hawk (although I probably eat more than he would like me to and I do use alternative sweeteners like xylitol and stevia, which I understand is risky until there is more research on these). However, I would suggest that there is a third feature of a successful diet that is just as important: you have to love it enough to marry it and live happily ever after! You can’t be fantasizing about when it will all be over and you can eat chips again!
My recent diet blues have given me a shocking insight. I think the problem with the Western diet is that people no longer know how to feed themselves! Food is a veritable battle ground and the struggle for control begins from the moment someone “plays aeroplane” with a spoonful of pureed carrots and tells you to “open wide.” A critical part of early development is to move a child from breast milk to solid food, teach them the child to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and ultimately to procure and prepare food for themselves. But something has gone horribly wrong and grown adults have reverted to an infant state where we let a variety of “experts” play aeroplane with us while we “open wide” and swallow the whole thing! Most of us have given up on feeding ourselves and alternate between letting the food industry or the diet industry feed us. Or both at once, because the food industry has a product line for every recommendation the diet industry ever came up with!
Until very recently I believed that my weight problem was 100% my personal responsibility, just like the food industry told me it was. Nothing anyone else could say or think of me for being fat was anything close to the hateful things I said to myself when I looked in the mirror. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my only emotion was shame. The voice in my head said “You did this to yourself, you know!” The problem was I thought taking “personal responsibility” meant “making healthy choices” in a supermarket, based on the information they saw fit to provide. Once I realized that this “information” is concocted by their marketing department and the only motive is profit, I started to realize how heavily the deck was stacked against me all along. The aisles in the supermarket are as gaudy and colorful as the Vegas Strip, and just as much of a gamble. No matter how much you are tempted to roll the dice, just remember that the house always wins!
I just finished watching “The Men Who Made Us Fat.” The inescapable conclusion is that taking “personal responsibility” doesn’t mean “making healthy choices” and going for a brisk walk after lunch. It means telling the whole food industry to go to hell and take their “food products” and “labels” with them! They never have and never will have our best interests at heart, so let’s be done with them as much as we possibly can! I realize this may be well near impossible, but at least we can try to send a bit of a message. They can’t be trusted to put 2 ingredients together without jeopardizing our health so if you do buy anything from them it better not need a label or if it does, it should have as few ingredients as possible and you should be able to pronounce all of them.
I had a very different shopping experience the other day buying some fruit and veg from a local farmer. She was remarkably unassuming, just standing behind a table filled with her fresh produce and a scale. Not a price or a label in sight. There was nothing eye-catching, no “specials” no advertising, no “health claims” of any kind and I don’t think anyone was standing around to study my buying behavior! She had grown it all, she hadn’t messed with it and now she was selling it. Since she was there in person she could answer any questions I wanted to put to her:
“Hi, lovely tomatoes you have today. Where do you grow them?”
She pointed, indicating just up the road – “Over there ma’am.”
“When did you pick them?
“This morning ma’am.”
“Are they organic?”
Sounding vaguely offended: “Of course ma’am, we only sell organic here.” (I should have known better than to ask, she wouldn’t have been allowed to sell at this market if it wasn’t, no labeling required!)
Sure the small farmer also has a profit motive. She needs to make a living just like the rest of us. But it’s a profit motive I can work with. She just has a little to sell and, judging by the queues of people who, like me, have come looking for a bit of real food, she is going to sell out before the day is over. And then she packs up and goes home. She has no incentive to employ any special tactics to get anyone to buy more than they need. She has some seasonal fruit and veg. If it’s not in season, you’re out of luck, if you want it you can buy it, when it’s sold out, that’s the end. I leave this shopping trip, well pleased with the day’s purchases and start thinking about what I will make for dinner.
So why is my diet working? I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with who is feeding me these days. It’s not about personal responsibility but shared responsibility. My part was finding a few reasonably honest people committed to producing real food, taking it home and making something decent with it. Their part was not trying to push more and more food down my throat until I explode! 🙂
I am far from smug about this. I realize that it is an unbelievable privilege to live within easy travelling distance of so much fertile farm land, and that some of that land is still in the hands of small farmers. I am incredibly lucky that I have money to buy food and that the food I want and need is cheap enough to fit my budget. I am one of a tiny percentage of people left in the world who can do this. I shudder to think about people in inner cities with too little money and too many cheap calories and not a vegetable in sight. Or people who have been alienated from their land, struggling with poverty, drought and famine who haven’t got enough to eat at all. Maybe it’s time to stop sitting in a corner feeling ashamed of our personal failings and time to start asking some hard questions about who is feeding us. Time to learn to eat our veggies without parental or government supervision, prepare our own food and stop “opening wide” for the guy with a large fork and an even larger profit motive! Maybe it’s time to share and make sure that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Time for more real food, no more drive-throughs and definitely no more diets! How’s that for a radical idea?