Saturday, October 06, 2012

This Food Thing: The Family Curse

“You know,” I found myself saying to Martha the other day, “I think I have this food thing whupped.”

I went on to walk it back and qualify it and add disclaimers: a long way to go, just maybe over the hump, could still be wrecked by this or that – you know. That's my way. I'm a cautious man. I don't believe in rashly drawing the gods' attention. But really, I do think I have this food thing whupped.

“This food thing,” what thing would that be? Overeating, eating compulsively, eating lots of things that I know are bad for me. It's an embarrassingly big deal for me, and always has been. I've been struggling with it all my life: I've hovered on the official overweight/obese line, sometimes ten, twenty pounds from it one way or the other, as I tried various approaches and lost control of them, but always within hailing distance of it, and always, until recently, always with the dread that it will get away from me altogether, and that I'll become downright enormous.

I've noticed with friends and clients that many of them, maybe most of them, believe in a family curse. It's their fate to die of cancer, or to always make bad relationship decisions, or to be unwise with money. It's the fatal weakness of their family: and it's bound to get them eventually, no matter what they do. There's a grain of truth to it, often – all these things do run in families. But they believe in them much more strongly than the data warrants.

The curse my family laid on me was, that I was going to become fat, and I was going to die of a heart attack. I've known this all my life. My mother's father – the one everyone exclaimed I was the spitting image of – died of a heart attack at 62. My mother was fat, and hated being fat, and told me over and over that if I kept on eating as I was, I would become fat too. Which would, of course, be the worst thing that could befall anyone. But she also came from an Illinois farm family that believed one of the cardinal virtues was stuffing your menfolk, so at the same time that she warned me about this, she fed me unlimited amounts of rich food. Everything I liked to eat was on hand, all the time.

I ate. This was my fate. I'd eat, and become fat, and die early. Serve me right for my wickedness: but there was nothing to be done about it.

Oh, I'd go on diets. All of them worked, for a while, and I'd lose ten, fifteen pounds, maybe – quite quickly – and I'd picture losing the rest of the weight, how easy it would be, and I'd escape the family curse, and be free! And then the weight loss would, mysteriously, stop. Following the diet would become harder and harder, the sruggles against myself would become epic, titanic. And then – suddenly – I'd break. I'd eat. And eat and eat and eat, and accept my fate.

The state of obesity research and nutritional science, in those days, was abysmal, and the dietary advice was almost uniformly bad. One of my “diet” foods was low-fat fruit-flavored “yogurt,” sweetened to a candy with corn-syrup. Medical authority solemnly told me to avoid things like butter and red meat, and eat this poisonous processed crap instead. It wasn't until much much later that I discovered how little and how bad the science behind this advice was. It was science, right? It was the Surgeon General. It had to be true.

Medical authority also told me how to exercise to lose weight: low-intensity, endlessly repetitive, supposedly “aerobic” exercise. Here again the science was bad or simply non-existent. No one has ever been able to demonstrate that exercise of this sort, or of any sort, leads to people losing weight. It simply doesn't. Exercise and obesity basically have nothing to do with each other. But again, the recommendations were laid down by all the authorities I knew of. I wasn't a science guy. I was an English major. I took the authorities at their word. So when I did undertake exercise, what I did was try to jog, daily, for longer and longer amounts of time. Eventually I'd hurt myself, or need to do something else with all that time, and I'd give it up. And again, I knew, anyway, that there was really nothing I could do. My fate was waiting for me: there was never really any getting away from it.

It's been a long hard haul since then. I've had to learn a lot, and unlearn a lot. I've had to get stricter with myself in some ways and easier on myself in others. I've had to run a lot of experiments in what Paul Ingraham calls “the laboratory of me,” and make up new approaches based on the results. But I do think that I have, finally, whupped this food thing.

I sat down and drew up an outline of how I did it. I might write a post on each of these. Or I might not. But here's the outline:
  1. A habit of exercise, and learning not to “train to failure”
  2. Protecting my sleep
  3. De-stressing my life
  4. Learning to distrust carbs
  5. Commuting by bicycle
  6. Keeping the kitchen work-ready
  7. La Grande Salade
  8. Training the will, getting help, and hiding treats
  9. That palatability study, and learning to trust carbs again. Some of them. Some of the time.
Who knows if I'll actually follow this out and write all the posts? I might. And who knows whether I've really escaped the family curse? We'll see. Stay tuned.


delagar said...

This may or may not be your problem; but my husband, who has also struggled with obesity his entire life (his parents put him in Weight Watchers when he was ten) was finally diagnosed by our excellent doctor with insulin-resistance.

She put him on a new drug called Biata, which aids the pancreas, and he has lost nearly 150 pounds in the past year and a half. He does exercise, but then he always did; nothing else has changed about his lifestyle.

You might ask your physician about it.

Dale said...

Thanks! And welcome. (I do exercise, actually, and always have: I just got very bad advice about how to do it, and it took me a while to learn to ignore it.) I'm not very interested in losing weight any more, although I do seem to be losing some. I think it's often a bit of a red herring: it correlates with a lot of bad health conditions, but it doesn't cause many. What I'm really interested in is eating good food in reasonable quantities, something I've only recently been able to do.

Wow, 150 lbs! That's a lot.

NT said...

Rooting for you as always, Dale.

FWIW, here's my big food tip: NUTS.

The amazing thing for me about nuts is that I find it virtually impossible to overeat them. A handful or two and I reach satiety.

They also give me something to crunch 'n' munch, which I find gratifying. They have healthy oils and they come in tremendous variety.

Dale said...

Yes. Nuts are wonderful food. Real whole foods that you don't have to prepare that keep wonderfully! Not many things fit that description.

Sabine said...

Check here:

Scroll down a bit to the 10 point summary and take a deep breath.

Dale said...

Yes, Taubes had a big impact on me. I still think he has a major piece of the obesity puzzle right -- refined carbs are a big problem, and not just because of the calories -- but I don't think he has all the pieces. I read Stephan Guyenet's blog which I like a lot: I think the "reward theory" he talks about is another major piece. (Basically, that some artificial foods taste so good that they override our ordinary satiety mechanisms.) And probably ubiquity is another big piece: few of us in the first world live more than 5 or 10 minutes away from the satisfaction of practically any food yen.

Sabine said...

Thanks for pointing me to Guyenet. While we're at it, I also recommend Susie Orbach's "On Eating" - a slim little book which makes a lot of sense. It ends with these two lovely sentences:
"If dieting is the answer, what's the question? And remember: scales are for fish not people."

Zhoen said...

I wouldn't trust a nutritionist as far as I could throw 'em. Not the traditionally educated ones, certainly. The class I had to take (and pass) was a huge muddle of contradictions, that the teacher didn't seem to notice. Still not sure how I got through it. Not logical, not supported by good studies - this was 20 years ago, but I haven't seen much improvement.

I agree, though, that it's all the processed crap, designer foods like designer drugs, with a high addiction rate and inexplicable side effects.

Steven Cain said...

I'll trade you... one Hollywood body for that English Major.