Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Second Wife in the Stately Manor; or, a Discourse on Methods of Measurement

If you're going to lose weight, you're going to have to do at least one of two things: 1) declare some foods (including some of your favorite ones) off-limits, or 2) measure what you eat. Successful diets vary wildly -- it's well worth your time to browse through the National Weight Control Registry and get a sense for the diversity of ways people have accomplished their weight loss -- but they all have a least one of those two components. 

Popular diets tend to stress the first thing, declaring foods off-limits, both because it's easier -- no fiddling about with scales or measuring cups -- and because it suits our general approach to problems: find the wicked evildoers and cast them into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth! So you identify some foods and declare them evil, anathema, taboo. And I do that too, with a few things. I love pizza, french fries, and soda pop, but I'm probably never going to eat them again. They are so tasty, so dense in calories, and so slow to induce satiety, that I can't figure out any way to work them into a rational diet. They just don't fit. Some people are skillful at creating a disgust-response to these things, which probably helps a lot in avoiding them. I've never managed that though, and don't really want to. I take a dim view of demonization and disgust-responses as guides to living.

But anyway, that's not what I want to talk about now. What I want to talk about is the second thing, measuring. Far less sexy, I get that. But critical.

The thing about dieting is that only the top flap of your brain, the cerebral cortex -- and not necessarily all of that -- is really into it. The rest of you is designed, top to bottom, to load up on calories when they're available, and even to overload when some windfall turns up. This worked fine in environments where calories took effort to obtain. You might have a lucky hunting day or find a terrific honey-comb, and have a huge feast and invite all your friends, every once in a while, but what weighed on the other side of the scale was that usually it took a fair amount of effort to get your food, and you weren't really motivated to put the effort in until you were hungry. Effort-free food, among hunter-gatherers, sends up the Party! Party! Party! signal. Everyone eats too much, everyone has a good time, everyone sleeps in the next morning. But then it's back to the leisurely, but full-time, job of finding and wringing calories out of stuff that didn't have that many calories in it in the first place. 

Now we live in a world where the Party! Party! Party! signal is going off all day every day. Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a good thing. Having enough food is wonderful. Compared to not having enough, having too much and getting fat is a minor problem, a problem many people in the world would dearly love to have. But still it is, for us, a problem, and if we're not going to solve it by cultivating disgust-responses, we're going to have to solve it by eating less. To eat less we're going to have to know how much we're eating. And that means measuring.

At first glance, this seems trivial. Well, of course. So you just eat a little less. How hard is that?

As it turns out, it's excruciatingly hard, for some of us.* The thing is that we do most of our eating habitually. We don't ordinarily think about it much. We just eat what we always eat, and maybe decide what's for dinner, but we're not used to steering and micromanaging with the cerebral cortex all that much. It's tiring to do so, and leaves us less capacity for doing everything else we need to do. And the rest of the brain is not down with this project at all. So when we want to change what we eat, we're in the position of the second wife in a stately manor, surrounded by servants who are determined that things will go on as they did before. At any given time she can intervene and give orders, and while the servants are directly under her eye, they'll do as they're told. But as soon as her attention is elsewhere, they go back to doing it the way the old missus would have wanted it. The right way.

So what the servants do is -- fill up the plate, even if it's technically what our grandparents used to call a platter.** Add an extra spoonful of this and an extra dollop of that, because you wouldn't want to have to go back and get more. And condiments, condiments are just flavorings, right? Who wants to fuss about how much mayo, how much ketchup? As for apples, you pick the larger apple, because, after all, an apple? Who gets fat eating big apples?

By the time the servants are done, you're eating a lot more than you meant to. And you can't understand why the number on the scale isn't going down. You're being so good!

Well, no, you're not, actually. If you were running a calorie deficit your weight would in fact go down. You're going to have to lean on the servants, to get this right, and take as much of it out of their hands as possible. Here are my strategies:

1) Put the measuring phase as far away as possible from the eating phase. Ideally, do it when you're not hungry. Measure out the ingredients of anything you're cooking ahead of time -- not as it's actually transforming into food. When I'm making breakfast, I get a certain amount of cream with my coffee and a certain amount of sour cream with my eggs-and-salsa. The amount I get of each, each morning, goes into its own little cup: they're on the table before I put the eggs in the pan. You never, never, add from the big container right there at the table. You think they won't add two ounces of cream to a single cup of coffee? You think they won't look at that spoonful of sour cream and decide it was a little one so you should have another? You don't know the servants very well, then. If it's there, they'll do it.

2) Eat stuff that comes in natural units, and buy a lot of them at once. That way you don't keep choosing the biggest ones. A dozen large eggs are all about the same size. If you buy a dozen apples of various sizes, and you get just one each day, it doesn't matter than some are bigger than others: on average, you'll get an average apple. But if you buy just one or two apples at a time, you'll pick the biggest ones. You will. Trust me on this. Uncle Dale knows. Or if you're not buying natural units, measure the bulk and figure out how many servings ought to be in it. That's how many you get, and if they're too big early on they'll be smaller later. "This box is eight bowls of cornflakes, period. If there's nothing left on day eight, I just don't get any cornflakes on day eight."

3) Use dishes that are just barely big enough. I get a bowl of soup or stew for lunch every day. It's the same bowl, a little pyrex bowl that I can stick in the microwave. I have no idea how much it holds. I have no idea how many calories are in the soups and stews I make. But I do know this: those pyrex bowls hold only so much. It's not possible for me, even at my most absent-minded, to trick myself into eating more than they hold. The servants will fill it as full as they can, but they can't gradually fill it fuller on the sly. It holds what it holds.

These are my strategies for outwitting the servants, adapted to my own circumstances. You may need others. Each domestic staff will have its own particular methods of subverting the new regime, so it's hard to generalize. But you do need to be aware that the household is not all on your side, in this. They will thwart you if they can.

* Nobody really knows yet why it's so much harder for some than for others: there's an obvious large genetic component to it. Variations in will power explain little of it, less than you would expect. Stay tuned: science is working on this one.)

**  Did you know that a "dinner plate" used to be nine inches across? Fact. They're often, now, eleven or even twelve. The area of a nine inch circle is about 64 square inches; the area of a twelve inch circle is about 113. Pause on those numbers. 64 versus 113. "A full plate" holds nearly twice as much food now as it did in 1960. In fact that difference tracks pretty well with the waistline difference between the average American in 1960 and the average one now.

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