Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Think Different ...

[Note: This was written April 30, posted May 1.]

This morning, plodding away on the treadmill - on the weight-loss setting, no less - I caught a segment on the Today show about a new book, Rethinking Thin, and the first thought I had was, “Uh oh.”

The gist of the book seems to be that some people are just predisposed to be heavy and we should get over our obsession with a state we're not destined to reach. (The book is due in stores on May 8, but in the meantime, you can read an excerpt here.)

You’d think I would have let out a whoop, jumped off the treadmill, grabbed a bag of Oreos with a Cheetos chaser, and plopped my ass on the couch.

Except that I don’t buy what Gina Kolata is selling. (What does it say about my obviously food-focused brain that I read her name and thought, “Hey, like pina colada!”?)

Two-thirds of the population struggles with their weight. I’ve been one of them for most of my life. Most of my life. Not all of my life. I wasn’t an abnormally large baby, I was a healthy 8 pounds. I have pictures of myself as a youngster in which I’m rather thin. Me. Thin. Go figure.

I started putting on weight in grade school. And it’s been a yo-yo struggle ever since. These days, I wear a 14. At my height, I can pull it off, but I know I can be in better shape. Hence the treadmill every morning.

Why I gained weight in the first place is a big question. One, my mom is one of the best cooks on the planet. Two, we ate a lot of beef. Steak was our default dinner if mom was stumped for an idea. Three, well, three is where is starts getting more complex. I remember my father talking to me about losing weight. My father’s never been the paragon of healthy eating, so why it became his job and not my mom’s, I don’t know. Maybe mom had already tried.

What I do remember is that I was promised a new bike - a 10-speed bike - if I lost whatever amount of weight I was expected to lose.

I was in third grade.

And I didn’t, in the end, lose all that was expected of me. But I got the bike anyway. Because, my dad told me, I’d tried. Oh, I'd tried, all right. I remember eating really boring snacks, like melba toast. Who in the history of time has sucessfully lost weight eating melba toast? Seriously.

Thus began the downward spiral of trying to lose weight and failing, and then feeling bad about it.

I was 7.

It’s a crazy ride I’ve been on ever since.

But I’m worried that this book is going to be taken as a free pass for those who are fed up with trying to lose weight. Lots of diets tell us it’s not our fault that we’re heavy. “It’s cortisol!”, they cry. “Because you have too much stress in your life!” “You’ve just been on the wrong diet!,” others say. “Stop eating carbs! For the love of God, stop eating carbs!”

And so people pop pills and eat a lot of steak and hey!, they lose weight. But what about when they stop popping the pills and they want a potato? Assuming they haven’t addressed the underlying stressors in their lives, stress will still make them carry weight. And potatoes, well, they’re just starchy spawns of Satan. And I can't imagine life without 'em.

I truly believe that our natural state is not one of excess weight. I think our bodies are naturally inclined to thinness.

So why ain’t I a size 8?

Because I like food and I don’t really like exercise. And I think that’s true for most of the overweight population. Yes, there are medical explanations - out-of-whack thyroids or edema - that cause people to carry weight or fluids, but I think the mystery for most of us isn’t so mysterious.

When I’m honest with myself, I don’t exercise as much as I should and I don’t eat as well as I should. It’s pretty simple.

Exercise isn’t fun when you’re heavy, and it’s easy to get fed up and quit. Just ask the owner of any health club. Attendance spikes in January and starts to dwindle from there. I’m sure there’s a point where the effects of exercise tip the scales (so to speak) and the rewards become further motivation. But that’s a steep hill to climb and it’s pretty easy to lapse into our lax ways.

And bad food tastes good. We all know we should eat salads and grains and fruit and drink water, but cheeseburgers taste better; when it comes to snacks, cookies are more fun; and to our tastebuds, a Frappuccino will beat a glass of water every time.

But if I exercised regularly and ate what I know I should eat, there’s no way I would stay at my current weight, not that I know my weight. I don’t own a scale. I base everything on how my clothes fit and how I feel.

None of which is to say that we should all strive to be a size 2. But if everyone who wanted to lose weight actually got on a program and stuck with it, a realistic program of real, healthy food and moderate exercise, I think pretty much everyone would lose something.

Diets don’t work. We all know that. We have to make - say it with me - lifestyle changes. But those are hard to make because we’ve spent most of our lives eating the wrong things in the wrong quantities. So we try to be good, and then we get fed up, and we slide back down the slope we’re trying so desperately to climb. That food pyramid is a steep mutha.

So, sure, we should rethink “thin.” We should realize that most of us will never be Size 0 and that’s OK. But that doesn’t mean size 30 is OK, either. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about health. Our zaftig culture spells heart disease and diabetes and a whole host of ailments. Yes, you can be overweight and be healthy, but you can also lose weight and be healthier.

Does this mean I will never eat another ice cream cone? Hell no. But I know I can eat better than I do. Yes, there’s something to brain chemistry that often overrides willpower, but if I’m honest, I don’t give my willpower much of a chance. I cave pretty quick.

As for me, my quest for fitness is driven partly by a killer family history. Literally. I have heart disease on both sides. One of my dad’s doctors once illustrated my predicament for me. “Fifty percent,” he said, holding out his left hand. “Fifty percent,” he said, holding out his right hand. And then he brought his hands together. “One hundred percent.” Heart disease isn’t an “if” for me. It’s a slam dunk, as George Tenet would say.

But my quest is also driven by curiosity. I once saw a picture of Hilary Swank in Vanity Fair when she was training for “Million Dollar Baby” and I thought, “I wonder what it’s like to live in that body. To live in a body that can do whatever I ask it to do.”

Well, there’s only one way to find out.



Anonymous Ethan said...

Minor quibble: If the doctor was trying to say that you had a 50% chance of heart disease from one side of the family, and 50% from the other, then in the aggregate you're still at 50%. (1/2 to 2/4). If he meant 100% per side, then it probably would have been best to say "if the right hand doesn't get you, the left one will."

And if that is indeed the case, then I'd come down on the side of "do whatever, since you're doomed anyway." But I'm willing to bet that you can indeed beat the heart disease rap. Plus with early detection etc there are a wider array of options.

Remember, any amount of even moderate exercise puts you way ahead of the curve, sad to say. Keep plugging away!

3:04 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

What the doctor was saying, Mr. Literal! : o ), is that I get half a helping of heart disease from my mom's side, and half a helping of heart disease from my dad's side, since I am genetically half of each of them, and those two halves add up to a whole.

I'm not suggesting that I'm doomed to die from it, just that it's a reality I need to be aware of, and as such, I gotta be vigilant.

But yes, any amount of exercise is a good thing. So I do. Just got back from walking to the post office, actually. A couple miles here, a couple miles there, it's all good.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Friends don't let friends watch the vacuousness of the Today show. I've seen evil. I've looked in the face of evil. Lauer and Roker and Curry are the face of evil. Do you need an intervention?

4:16 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Aw, thanks for the concern, Marc. For what it's worth, I don't usually watch Today but I turned to it from GMA because Rachel Ray was making an appearance.

And I can't tolerate RR and her EVOO.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Mikeachim said...

Genetic predispositions are....exactly that, I reckon. And there's always room for some personal input in correcting the predisposition.
I have a minor confession. It's...it's a humiliating one.
*deep breath*
I use to watch Hercules: The Legendary Journeys because I wanted to be in as good shape as Kevin Sorbo. (This was back when I was 30 pounds heavier). I still do.
Yes yes yes I know it was some of the worst television this century. But....well....yeah, anyway, is that the time, must run.
*door slams*

7:13 PM  
Blogger Mikeachim said...

I meant predispositions are nothing more than that. I also believe in editing comments for coherence, although I don't generally do so often enough.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I'll back you up, homey. Except I liked Hercules for its sheer absurdity. Salmonius was "my guy", so to speak. Just smile, grit your teeth, and say, "Hercules, watch out for the cyclops over by the ancient cool video games."

8:31 PM  
Anonymous girl and dog said...

As a formerly fat girl, I think this stuff about people not being able to help being overweight is pure hooey.

My uncles and aunts on my dad's side are morbidly obese. My dad was overweight when he got married but became a marathoner and has been a healthy weight for over 25 years.

I was a size 16 in college. I could've argued that it was in my genes. After all, my aunts and uncles are obese. However, I shut my beak and started running, and I've been a size 6-8 ever since. I had a TON of stress in my life last year, between a divorce and a growing business, but I focused on eating well and working out, and I dropped 15 lbs. Cortisol, my butt...

The only way to lose weight is eat less, move more. NOBODY who tries it (without cheating) will be dissapointed. Nobody.

10:04 PM  

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