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Happily Ever After & Neuroscience - POSTED ON: Feb 20, 2017
Once upon a time, there was a fat woman who wanted to become thin. She began eating less food than her body used day after day, and eventually her body became a size “normal”.
After she crossed the “finish line” to her weight goal, she slightly relaxed her rigid eating behaviors, but in order to maintain her weight-loss, she paid close attention to the hunger signals from her body, working to eat only when she felt hungry, and to stop as soon as she stopped feeling hungry.
And she lived happily ever after…..
…........... NOT exactly .......….
I advise anyone struggling with - or interested in - maintenance issues to go to DietHobby’s
BLOG CATEGORIES, Research - Science and read the articles that have been scrapbooked there.
The following article was written by Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist, author of “Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss” (2016). It was posted in the New York Times in May 2016.
Dr. Aamodt makes the point that the problem with Dieting is not Willpower. It’s neuroscience. I found her book to be well researched, and I believe she accurately states the basic problem. Dr. Aamodt’s information is extremely valuable, and I recommend her book for people working to maintain weight-loss. However, although the “solution” to the dieting and maintenance struggle that she proposes could be effective for some people, it is not one …. for various reasons … that I find personally acceptable or one that I’m willing to adopt.
Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet
by Sandra Aamodt
SIX years after dropping an average of 129 pounds on the TV program “The Biggest Loser,” a new study reports, the participants were burning about 500 fewer calories a day than other people their age and size. This helps explain why they had regained 70 percent of their lost weight since the show’s finale. The diet industry reacted defensively, arguing that the participants had lost weight too fast or ate the wrong kinds of food — that diets do work, if you pick the right one.
But this study is just the latest example of research showing that in the long run dieting is rarely effective, doesn’t reliably improve health and does more harm than good. There is a better way to eat.
The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience. Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. When dieters’ weight drops below it, they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones and find eating more rewarding.
The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 120 pounds and drops to 80, her brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal. The same thing happens to someone who starts at 300 pounds and diets down to 200, as the “Biggest Loser” participants discovered.
This coordinated brain response is a major reason that dieters find weight loss so hard to achieve and maintain. For example, men with severe obesity have only one chance in 1,290 of reaching the normal weight range within a year; severely obese women have one chance in 677. A vast majority of those who beat the odds are likely to end up gaining the weight back over the next five years. In private, even the diet industry agrees that weight loss is rarely sustained. A report for members of the industry stated: “In 2002, 231 million Europeans attempted some form of diet. Of these only 1 percent will achieve permanent weight loss.”
The specific “Biggest Loser” diet plan is probably not to blame. A previous study found similar metabolic suppression in people who had lost weight and kept it off for up to six years. Whether weight is lost slowly or quickly has no effect on later regain. Likewise — despite endless debate about the relative value of different approaches — in head-to-head comparisons, diet plans that provide the same calories through different types of food lead to similar weight loss and regain.
As a neuroscientist, I’ve read hundreds of studies on the brain’s ability to fight weight loss. I also know about it from experience. For three decades, starting at age 13, I lost and regained the same 10 or 15 pounds almost every year. On my most serious diet, in my late 20s, I got down to 125 pounds, 30 pounds below my normal weight. I wanted (unwisely) to lose more, but I got stuck. After several months of eating fewer than 800 calories a day and spending an hour at the gym every morning, I hadn’t lost another ounce. When I gave up on losing and switched my goal to maintaining that weight, I started gaining instead.
I was lucky to end up back at my starting weight instead of above it. After about five years, 41 percent of dieters gain back more weight than they lost. Long-term studies show dieters are more likely than non-dieters to become obese over the next one to 15 years.
That’s true in men and women, across ethnic groups, from childhood through middle age. The effect is strongest in those who started in the normal weight range, a group that includes almost half of the female dieters in the United States.
Some experts argue that instead of dieting leading to long-term weight gain, the relationship goes in the other direction: People who are genetically prone to gain weight are more likely to diet.
To test this idea, in a 2012 study, researchers followed over 4,000 twins aged 16 to 25. Dieters were more likely to gain weight than their non-dieting identical twins, suggesting that dieting does indeed increase weight gain even after accounting for genetic background. The difference in weight gain was even larger between fraternal twins, so dieters may also have a higher genetic tendency to gain. The study found that a single diet increased the odds of becoming overweight by a factor of two in men and three in women. Women who had gone on two or more diets during the study were five times as likely to become overweight.
The causal relationship between diets and weight gain can also be tested by studying people with an external motivation to lose weight. Boxers and wrestlers who diet to qualify for their weight classes presumably have no particular genetic predisposition toward obesity. Yet a 2006 study found that elite athletes who competed for Finland in such weight-conscious sports were three times more likely to be obese by age 60 than their peers who competed in other sports.
To test this idea rigorously, researchers could randomly assign people to worry about their weight, but that is hard to do. One program took the opposite approach, though, helping teenage girls who were unhappy with their bodies to become less concerned about their weight. In a randomized trial, the eBody Project, an online program to fight eating disorders by reducing girls’ desire to be thin, led to less dieting and also prevented future weight gain. Girls who participated in the program saw their weight remain stable over the next two years, while their peers without the intervention gained a few pounds.
WHY would dieting lead to weight gain? First, dieting is stressful. Calorie restriction produces stress hormones, which act on fat cells to increase the amount of abdominal fat. Such fat is associated with medical problems like diabetes and heart disease, regardless of overall weight.
Second, weight anxiety and dieting predict later binge eating, as well as weight gain. Girls who labeled themselves as dieters in early adolescence were three times more likely to become overweight over the next four years. Another study found that adolescent girls who dieted frequently were 12 times more likely than non-dieters to binge two years later.
My repeated dieting eventually caught up with me, as this research would predict. When I was in graduate school and under a lot of stress, I started binge eating. I would finish a carton of ice cream or a box of saltines with butter, usually at 3 a.m. The urge to keep eating was intense, even after I had made myself sick. Fortunately, when the stress eased, I was able to stop. At the time, I felt terrible about being out of control, but now I know that binge eating is a common mammalian response to starvation.
Much of what we understand about weight regulation comes from studies of rodents, whose eating habits resemble ours. Mice and rats enjoy the same wide range of foods that we do. When tasty food is plentiful, individual rodents gain different amounts of weight, and the genes that influence weight in people have similar effects in mice. Under stress, rodents eat more sweet and fatty foods. Like us, both laboratory and wild rodents have become fatter over the past few decades.
In the laboratory, rodents learn to binge when deprivation alternates with tasty food — a situation familiar to many dieters. Rats develop binge eating after several weeks consisting of five days of food restriction followed by two days of free access to Oreos. Four days later, a brief stressor leads them to eat almost twice as many Oreos as animals that received the stressor but did not have their diets restricted. A small taste of Oreos can induce deprived animals to binge on regular chow, if nothing else is available. Repeated food deprivation changes dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain that govern how animals respond to rewards, which increases their motivation to seek out and eat food. This may explain why the animals binge, especially as these brain changes can last long after the diet is over.
In people, dieting also reduces the influence of the brain’s weight-regulation system by teaching us to rely on rules rather than hunger to control eating. People who eat this way become more vulnerable to external cues telling them what to eat. In the modern environment, many of those cues were invented by marketers to make us eat more, like advertising, supersizing and the all-you-can-eat buffet. Studies show that long-term dieters are more likely to eat for emotional reasons or simply because food is available. When dieters who have long ignored their hunger finally exhaust their willpower, they tend to overeat for all these reasons, leading to weight gain.
Even people who understand the difficulty of long-term weight loss often turn to dieting because they are worried about health problems associated with obesity like heart disease and diabetes. But our culture’s view of obesity as uniquely deadly is mistaken. Low fitness, smoking, high blood pressure, low income and loneliness are all better predictors of early death than obesity. Exercise is especially important: Data from a 2009 study showed that low fitness is responsible for 16 percent to 17 percent of deaths in the United States, while obesity accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent, once fitness is factored out. Exercise reduces abdominal fat and improves health, even without weight loss. This suggests that overweight people should focus more on exercising than on calorie restriction.
In addition, the evidence that dieting improves people’s health is surprisingly poor. Part of the problem is that no one knows how to get more than a small fraction of people to sustain weight loss for years. The few studies that overcame that hurdle are not encouraging. In a 2013 study of obese and overweight people with diabetes, on average the dieters maintained a 6 percent weight loss for over nine years, but the dieters had a similar number of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease during that time as the control group. Earlier this year, researchers found that intentional weight loss had no effect on mortality in overweight diabetics followed for 19 years.
Diets often do improve cholesterol, blood sugar and other health markers in the short term, but these gains may result from changes in behavior like exercising and eating more vegetables. Obese people who exercise, eat enough vegetables and don’t smoke are no more likely to die young than normal-weight people with the same habits. A 2013 meta-analysis (which combines the results of multiple studies) found that health improvements in dieters have no relationship to the amount of weight they lose.
If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead? I recommend mindful eating — paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgment, to relearn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands.
Relative to chronic dieters, people who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full are less likely to become overweight, maintain more stable weights over time and spend less time thinking about food. Mindful eating also helps people with eating disorders like binge eating learn to eat normally. Depending on the individual’s set point, mindful eating may reduce weight or it may not. Either way, it’s a powerful tool to maintain weight stability, without deprivation.
I finally gave up dieting six years ago, and I’m much happier. I redirected the energy I used to spend on dieting to establishing daily habits of exercise and meditation. I also enjoy food more while worrying about it less, now that it no longer comes with a side order of shame.
I listed Dr. Aamodt’s book in DietHobby’s RESOURCES Books & Tools section with the following comment:
"Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss by Sandra Aamodt PhD (2016).
The author, a neuroscientist and proponent of mindful eating, discusses scientific research on weight and health. Her central argument is that our body weight tends to settle at "set points" — that 10- to 15-pound range the brain maintains despite repeated efforts to lower it.
Once people see how the set-point theory reflects their dieting experience, they realize that although they don't have the final say on their weight (their brain does), they do have real influence — through exercise and other health-affirming activities — over their health and well-being."
Dr. Aamodt’s information is extremely valuable, and I recommend her book for people working to maintain weight-loss.
Dr.Sandra Aamodt thinks that you can’t - and shouldn’t - fight back against your Set Point. Her solution is the Behavior of eating mindfully, while following the body’s hunger signals, and to accept whatever weight the body chooses to give you as a Result of that Behavior.
I agree with her opinion that we are stuck with our biological and historical Set Point. However, although the “solution” to the dieting and maintenance struggle that she proposes could be effective for some people, it is not one …. for various reasons … that I find personally acceptable or one that I’m willing to adopt.
Sandra Aamodt’s personal experience is that of a person who has struggled with being overweight or slightly obese, and not of a person who deals with the struggles caused by a history of extreme, morbid, or severe obesity. Dr. Aamodt’s personal Set Point might keep her from meeting our culture’s high standards for “thinness”, but her choice not to struggle against it won’t cause her body to become Fat Enough enough to make her a TRUE VICTIM of our fat biased culture. The majority of offensive comments and other behaviors showing open disgust, ridicule, and abuse are primarily reserved for those who are extremely fat.
The Set Point of someone who has struggled with 10 to 50 excess pounds is very different from the Set Point of someone who has struggled with 100+ excess pounds. Also, someone who has carried 50+ excess pounds for only a year or so is going to have a lower Set Point than someone who has carried that same weight for several years and longer.
This is the ongoing dilemma for those who are Fat. It is a situation in which day-after-day, year-after-year, a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, all of them equally undesirable.
Each of us must make the eating and behavior choices that will work for us personally in our own individual lives. Everyone doesn’t value the same things the same way. Food vs. Body Size vs. Desire and everything else that is involved in those categories. Everyone’s choice is equally valid, despite the fact that those - often difficult - choices can result in making us Thin, Overweight, or Extremely Fat.
My own personal choice is to treat Dieting as a Hobby. For many, many years I have continually dieted; have been vigilant about what I eat; and have diligently worked against my own body’s Set Point in order to maintain my “reduced fat” body inside the BMI weight range that is labeled “normal”.
It's Okay. - POSTED ON: Feb 17, 2017
Status Update - February 2017 - POSTED ON: Feb 13, 2017
Occasionally, I share my numbers here at DietHobby to show some personal details about my years of working to maintain a very large weight-loss.
I post many of my thoughts about my Maintenance struggles here at my website, DietHobby, where I've scrapbooked a great many articles, pictures, and videos. To learn more about my personal history, SEE: ABOUT ME.
Many of these are articles and videos that I've created myself, and many are those of others which I find helpful, interesting, or amusing. I named my website, DietHobby, because I've found it personally necessary to treat "dieting" as a "hobby". To learn more about how and why I do that, SEE: Dieting is my Hobby.
Today I am sharing about my own personal experience, as a small, inactive, "reduced obese" elderly woman. It is not a one-size-fits-all-world so my experience may be vastly different from your own. Even people who are the SAME size, age, and activity levels often have bodies with different metabolisms. Some bodies burn through their fuel like large luxury cars, and some bodies burn fuel like really efficient economy cars. The Metabolic Process is an involuntary one, like breathing and temperature, and .... despite what many Diet Guru's, including medical doctors, say, ... an individual's voluntary behavior can do almost nothing to change their personal long-term Metabolic Rate.
Furthermore, you might not share my personal Values. Food may not be as important to you as it is to me, or we might prefer entirely different foods and different eating styles. Your body might be capable of more physical activity, and you might even find some types of strenuous exercise to be enjoyable. Your standards of beauty might be different than mine, and you might consider Thin to be more attractive than I do, or even consider Fat to be less attractive than I do.
So that being said.... here's where I am. Below is a chart that is self-explanatory. It shows my monthly weight totals for the past 8 years. These monthly weight totals are my daily weights AVERAGED out over a 1 month period. Therefore, these monthly weight totals include both the UP-Bounces and the DOWN-Bounces that happen during each month's period.
This weight chart demonstrates an upward Trend, which is an ongoing problem that I struggle with here in maintenance. The chart shows my most recent 8 year period, however, I am now in my 11th year of maintenance. The first 3 years I was able to keep my weight mostly between 110 and 120 pounds, while eating an average of around 1300 daily calories. Then, my weight began to climb, and I began working hard to keep my calorie average lower to drop off the extra pounds or to at-least-compensate in order to avoid further weight-gain.
This is a graphic of my Weight Maintenance Plan. Basically, I've been working very hard in an attempt to keep my weight somewhere inside my "normal" BMI weight range.
For the past 4 years, I've been bouncing around near the top of my "normal" BMI range, mostly between the 24 and 26 range, and no matter HOW long and how hard I struggle to eat less food, I haven't been able to get my weight to drop back down into the lower ranges of my Maintenance Plan ... back to where it was during the first 3 years of my maintenance.
Below is a chart showing some details connected to the 8 year weight-range chart that I posted above.
Notice that on April 1, 2009, my weight was 118.2 lbs. while here in February 2017 it is 134.0 lbs. This is a 15.8 lb. overall gain. It shows me with a starting BMI of 23.08, and a current BMI of 26.17... which is a +3.09 BMI change.
This chart also shows the "average" basic metabolic rate (BMR) for a person my age, weight, size... which is a Starting BMR (at 118 lbs) = 1007 calorie burn; and a Current BMR (at 134 lbs) = 1040 calorie burn. However, the bottom line of the chart says my "Sedentary" total calorie burn is 1248.
Since September 2004 ... the past 12+ years... I have been recording all of my daily food intake in a computer food journal that provides me with ongoing detailed calorie information.
My data in that computer program gives me the ability to view my actual daily calorie intake, after being averaged out over any 1 year period. Here is a chart I made showing that information.
This calorie information includes ALL of my High calorie days and ALL of my low or zero calorie days. It includes ALL of the diet experiments I tried, and ALL of the times where I was not involved in any such diet experiment.
Some of the diets it includes are low-calorie diets, very-low calorie diets, low-carb diets, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting diets, alternate day diets, water-fasting diets, the 5-bite diet, various special macronutrient diets, as well as non-diet or vacation and holiday eating. ... during ALL of these eating occasions - both high and low calorie - I recorded all of my daily food into my computer food journal records.
To give you perspective about my highest calorie days, during ALL of 2016, my daily calorie count rose up to the low-2000 calorie level ONLY three times (3 separate days on 3 separate months). Usually, when I was overeating, my highest calorie days came in somewhere between 1200 and 1600 calories.
Notice that the weight chart above says that my maintenance calorie intake (that of the "Average" person) is 1248. But my own personal calorie records show that my ACTUAL daily calorie intake was somewhere around between 150 to 525 calories LESS than that amount.
My daily food records show that my own personal 8 year calorie average was 986 calories, during which I gained a net 15 pounds.
If that 1248 number were correct, it would mean that for 8 years... 2,920 days... my eating was creating about a 262 daily calorie deficit.
Since my starting weight was 118 lbs, and the bottom of my BMI is 95 lbs... the most weight I had to lose from that starting weight, while still remaining inside my optimal weight range was about 23 lbs. Using the "3500-calories-equals-1-fat-lb" rule, a 262 daily calorie deficit over 307 days should have allegedly caused that 23 lb loss.
In fact, the numbers indicate that over a 2920 day period, instead of gaining 15 pounds, my body should have lost about 219 pounds, ...but of course death would have overtaken me when my body reached a weight of around 50 to 60 pounds. So I would have died about 160 pounds short of that 219 lb loss.
Again, using the 3500-calories-equals-1-fat-lb rule, a 15 pound gain over an 8 year period (2920) days would require taking in about 18 excess calories per day. …. To put that in perspective, 18 calories is about the amount in 3 sticks of sugarless gum; or 1 Ritz cracker; or 1 potato or corn chip; or one-half a level teaspoon of peanut butter; or one-fourth of 1 egg; or one-sixth of 1 oz of cheese; or 1 prune. …. My actual 8 year daily calorie average was 986. Subtract 18 calories from that number and the balance is 968 calories. Therefore, instead of the 1248 calories stated by the chart, my own Sedentary total calorie burn was about 968 calories. This means that my body used 280 calories less than an “average” person of my same size, age, and activity level…which makes my own personal daily calorie burn about 22% less than the average.
NOTE: that during the past 3 most recent years, my daily calorie average totaled only 839 per day, which is almost 150 calories a day less than my daily average for the entire 8 year period.
Calorie counting can never be totally accurate, so it is possible that my personal calorie data is incorrect. However, since I weighed and measured and recorded my calories the same way during the entire 8 years, my erroneous calculations would at least have been CONSISTENT ones. It seems to me that making that big a margin of ongoing, consistent calculation error would have been VERY difficult for me to achieve while following my normal measurement process together with my timely and accurate food recording.
986 calories of food is not a great deal of food, and it seems unlikely that ... while eating and recording such small amounts of food; and considering how careful I have been to accurately weigh and measure and record my food in a timely manner, ... I would have made ongoing mistakes that would total a 20% error for the past 8 year period. If so, why didn't I make those same ongoing mistakes during the previous 3 year period during my 11+ years of maintenance?
What does it matter? Actually it doesn't. It is What it is.
All I can do is my personal best.
The DietHobby ARCHIVES contains many articles that talk about the specifics of my own eating and weight struggles. Every year I become more and more convinced of the truth of the following statements made by the obesity specialist, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, M.D.:
"at the end of the day if you don't like the life you're living while you're losing weight, you're virtually certain to gain it back."
"Physiologically, Plateaus don’t exist. Unless it’s a TEMPORARY trick of the scale, …....... if you’re not losing, either you’re burning fewer calories than you think; you’re eating more than you think; or some combination thereof.
However, although there’s no Plateau, there IS such a thing as a “FLOOR”.
If you’ve truly stopped losing weight, there are really only two questions you need to ask yourself.
1. Could I happily eat any less?
2. Could I happily exercise any more?
If the answer is "yes" then you can tighten things up, but If the answer to both is "no", there's nothing left for you to do.
This is because if you can't happily eat any less and you can't happily exercise any more -- then it's unlikely that this will ever become part of your permanent behavior."
My own current answer to both Question No. 1 and Question No. 2 is "no".
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the Costs vs. Benefits of dieting. Both the Costs and the Benefits involve personal Values, and what’s personally important isn’t a Constant. As Life Happens our Values tend to adjust to fit into our present Realities.
The Cost of dieting. I am now going on 73 years old. The body is designed to wear out so my time left on earth is relatively short. My life is very sedentary, both from necessity and by choice, and I spend most of my time relaxing in my home. Food is one of the biggest pleasures in my life. I handle this in various ways, and you can see the way I eat... and have eaten for many years... by watching my Recipe Videos here at DietHobby, and by looking at my food photos in my Photo Gallery.
For me, the Benefits of dieting to maintain a large weight-loss involves striking a balance between how I want my body to look and to feel at a specific size; AND how little food I am prepared to eat indefinitely.
This morning I ran some numbers for these first weeks of 2017:
6 week calorie average: 849
6 week average weight: 132.4
Cost vs. Benefit
The COST is eating the small amounts that I’m eating.
The wished-for Benefit is ongoing weight-loss
to get lower in my maintenance range…
however…I am NOT receiving that benefit.
The Benefit that I am actually receiving is…
The BENEFIT is avoiding a RAPID regain inside maintenance.
…. i.e. successfully maintaining a large weight-loss.
So my plan is to just
keep on doing what I'm doing,
while hoping for the best.
Eating Toward Immortality - POSTED ON: Feb 12, 2017
I find the article below intriguing as well as appealing. Throughout my lifetime of dieting, I’ve seen a great deal of evidence supporting many of the statements it contains, such as:
“The desire for more life … grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object.”
When we make the choice to follow the rules of any “recommended” diet, we do this because we want to make our bodies conform to cultural standards of “beauty” and/or “health”. Which means, of course, our goal is … to transform our bodies into a more “perfected object”.
Another such statement is:
“People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, all for the promise of relief from choice.”
Every voluntary action we make, or don’t make, is a choice. When we choose one action, … it eliminates the ability to choose an alternative action …. at least for that present time. So, when we choose to follow any specific outside dieting rules, our choice is also to give up making our own ongoing individual food choices.
My current choice is to read, think about, and share the concepts contained within this following article.
Eating Toward Immortality
Diet culture is just another way of dealing with the fear of death.
by MICHELLE ALLISON posted in The Atlantic in 2/2017
Knowing a thing means you don’t need to believe in it. Whatever can be known, or proven by logic or evidence, doesn’t need to be taken on faith.
Certain details of nutrition and the physiology of eating are known and knowable: the fact that humans require certain nutrients; the fact that our bodies convert food into energy and then into new flesh (and back to energy again when needed).
But there are bigger questions that don’t have definitive answers, like what is the best diet for all people? For me?
Nutrition is a young science that lies at the intersection of several complex disciplines—chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, psychology—and though we are far from having figured it all out, we still have to eat to survive. When there are no guarantees or easy answers, every act of eating is something like a leap of faith.
Eating is the first magic ritual, an act that transmits life energy from one object to another, according to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in his posthumously published book Escape From Evil. All animals must feed on other life to sustain themselves, whether in the form of breastmilk, plants, or the corpses of other animals. The act of incorporation, of taking a once-living thing into your own body, is necessary for all animals’ existence. It is also disturbing and unsavory to think about, since it draws a direct connection between eating and death.
Human self-awareness means that, from a relatively early age, we are also aware of death. In his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Becker hypothesized that the fear of death–and the need to suppress that fear—is what drives much of human behavior. This idea went on, in social psychology, to the form the basis of Terror Management Theory.
Ancient humans must have decided, once their bellies were full, that there was more to life than mere survival and staring mortality in the face. They went on to build things in which they could find distraction, comfort, recreation, and meaning. They built cultures in which death became another rite of passage, not the end of everything. They made structures to live in, wrote songs to sing to each other, and added spices to their food, which they cooked in different styles. Humans are supported by a self-created system of meanings, symbols, rituals, and etiquette.
Food and eating are part of this. The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden.
Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical. Wealthy or poor, we eat to celebrate, we eat to mourn, we eat because it’s mealtime, we eat as a way to bond with others, we eat for entertainment and pleasure. It is not a coincidence that the survival function of food is buried beneath all of this—who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.
When it comes to food, Becker said that humans “quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment,” and that the desire for more life—not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely—grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture and its variations, such as clean eating, are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.
By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?
As humans, we are possibly the most promiscuous omnivores ever to wander the earth. We dine on animals, insects, plants, marine life, and occasionally non-food: dirt, clay, and chalk.
We are not pandas, chastely satisfied with munching through a square mile of bamboo. We seek variety and novelty, and at the same time, we carry an innate fear of food. This is described by the famous omnivore’s paradox, which (Michael Pollan notwithstanding) is not mere confusion about choosing what to eat in a cluttered food marketplace.
The omnivore’s paradox was originally defined by psychological researcher Paul Rozin as the anxiety that arises from our desire to try new foods (neophilia) paired with our inherited fear of unknown foods (neophobia) that could turn out to be toxic.
All omnivores feel these twin pressures, but none more acutely than humans. If it weren’t for the small chance of death lurking behind every food choice and every dietary ideology, choosing what to eat from a crowded marketplace wouldn’t be considered a dilemma. Instead, we would call it “the omnivore’s fun time at the supermarket,” and people wouldn’t repost so many Facebook memes about the necessity of drinking a gallon of water daily, or the magical properties of apple cider vinegar and coconut oil. Everyone would be just a little bit calmer about food.
Humans do not have a single, definitive rulebook to direct our eating, despite the many attempts nutrition scientists, dietitians, chefs, and celebrities have made to write one. Each of us has to negotiate the desire for food and fear of the unknown when we are still too young to read, calculate calories, or understand abstract ideas about nutrition. Almost all children go through a phase of pickiness with eating. It seems to be an evolved survival mechanism that prevents us—once we are mobile enough to put things in our mouths, but not experienced enough to know the difference between safe and dangerous foods—from eating something toxic. We have all been children trying to shove the world in our mouths, even while we spit out our strained peas.
Our omnivorousness gives us an exhilarating and terrifying amount of freedom. As social creatures, we seek safety from that freedom in our culture, and in a certain amount of conformity. We prefer to follow leaders we’ve invested with authority to blaze a path to safety.
The heroes of contemporary diet culture are wellness gurus who claim to have cured themselves of fatness, disease, and meaninglessness through the unimpeachable purity of cold-pressed vegetable juice.
Many traditional heroes earn their status by confronting and defeating death, like Hercules, who was granted immortality after a lifetime of capturing or killing a menagerie of dangerous beasts, including the three-headed dog of Hades himself. Wellness gurus are the glamorously clean eaters whose triumph over sad, dirty animality is evidenced by fresh, thoughtfully-lit photographs of green smoothies in wholesome Mason jars, and by their own bodies, beautifully rendered.
There are no such heroes to be found in a peer-reviewed paper with a large, anonymous sample, and small effect sizes, written in impenetrable statistician-ese, and hedged with disclosures about limitations. But the image of a person you can relate to on a human level, smiling out at you from the screen, standing in a before-and-after, shoulder-to-shoulder with their former, lesser, processed-food-eating self, is something else altogether. Their creation myth and redemption—how they were lost but now are found—is undeniably compelling.
There are twin motives underlying human behavior, according to Becker—the urge for heroism and the desire for atonement. At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status—they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay.
Only those with status and resources to spare can afford the most impressive gestures of renunciation. Look at all they have! The steel-and-granite kitchen! The Le Creuset collection! The Vitamix! The otherworldly glow! They could afford to eat cake, should the bread run out, but they quit sugar. They’re only eating twigs and moss now. What more glamorous way to triumph over dirt and animality and death? And you can, too. That is, if you have the time and money to spend juicing all that moss and boiling the twigs until they’re soft enough to eat.
This is how the omnivore’s paradox breeds diet culture: Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility. If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging—in short, your share in the human condition, including the random whims of luck and your own inescapable mortality.
Humans are the only animals aware of our mortality, and we all want to be the person whose death comes as a surprise rather than a pathetic inevitability. We want to be the one of whom people say, “But she did everything right.” If we cannot escape death, maybe we can find a way to be declared innocent and undeserving of it.
But diet culture is constantly shifting. Today’s token foods of health may seem tainted or passé tomorrow, and within diet culture, there are contradictory ideologies: what is safe and clean to one is filth and decadence to another. Legumes and grains are wholesome, life-giving staples to many vegan eaters, while they represent the corrupting influences of agriculture on the state of nature to those who prefer a meat-heavy, grain-free Paleo diet.
Nutrition science itself is a self-correcting series of refutations. There is no certain path to purity and blamelessness through food. The only common thread between competing dietary ideologies is the belief that by adhering to them, one can escape the human condition, and become a purer, less animal, kind of being.
This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith.
To eat without restriction, on the other hand, is to risk being unclean, and to beat your own uncertain path. It is admitting your mortality, your limitations and messiness as a biological creature, while accepting the freedoms and pleasures of eating, and taking responsibility for choosing them.
Unclean, agnostic eating means taking your best stab in the dark, accepting that there is much we don’t know. But we do know that there is no One True Diet. There may be as many right ways to eat as there are people—none of whom can live forever, — all of whom must make of eating and their lives some personal, temporary meaning.
The author of the above article, Michelle Allison, is a registered dietitian based in Toronto who blogs at TheFatNutritionist. com.
Trust Yourself - Words of Wisdom - POSTED ON: Feb 11, 2017
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