(Wake up, Sam, this one’s especially for you.)
I’ve got a lot of writing projects to do before I can leave the house to do anything, but one of the first things I intend to do next week is go to the next town over, Zachary, and book a membership at one of their gyms. I’ve got to get back to exercising. I’ve been off my routine for a couple of months — I was sick for a whole month this fall, and couldn’t exercise, and then didn’t get back into it because we were busy preparing to move — and the weight I’d lost is coming right back. Very frustrating — but at least I know how and why it’s happening. Eating all this rich holiday food doesn’t help.
I was at my mom’s last night. “Can I send some of this cake back home with you?” she said. “We’ll never eat it all.” NO! KEEP THAT CAKE HERE!
As I’ve written in this space many times before, I’ve struggled with weight all my life. I was an obese child who had horrible eating habits: sugar, fat, starch, I ate it all, and lots of it. I lost all that weight when I hit my growth spurt, but have been struggling to keep it off for over 30 years now. Sometimes I’ll go for a while being relatively then, but mostly I’m at least 20 pounds overweight, sometimes more. There is never a time when I don’t think about food, and not just in a foodie-enthusiast way. In fact, my foodie-ness only complicates my response to food.
I was very surprised to learn from this important New York Times Magazine article that Tara Parker-Pope, the paper’s wellness columnist, is 60 pounds overweight. She writes about what science can tell us about why people are fat, and stay that way. Here’s the depressing gist:
For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.
As you’ve no doubt intuited, this is because once you become fat, and remain fat for a certain period of time (a period that we can’t yet define), certain biochemical changes take place within the body that make it very, very difficult to shed those pounds permanently. As Parker-Pope writes, it’s not that we should give up healthy eating and exercise, and surrender to our fates. It is, however, that we should understand exactly what we’re up against: not only willpower, but biology. This should help us have realistic goals about what we can achieve, and what it will take to achieve it. In so doing, we can avoid the pointless moralism and guilt tied to weight.
Science indicates that it’s also the case — as Erin Manning has brought out so eloquently in our past discussions of this topic — that each body has a different response to food and weight loss. I have tended to side with Sam MacDonald’s view, based on his own experience, that a proper application of heroic self-discipline can result in permanent weight loss. This resonates with my own experience. I ran across the other day a photograph of myself taken when I was at my thinnest this past summer, and I was startled by how trim I’d become, simply from daily exercise over a sustained period. In my case, I know it can be done — but the minute I fall off the wagon, my body rebounds to its flabby standard. Parker-Pope writes that scientists have demonstrated what many of us know from experience: that you can feed the same people the same diets, and get the same amount of physical activity out of them, and some will gain a lot more weight than others. It’s all about metabolism.
I think this is the most important point in Parker-Pope’s article:
Given how hard it is to lose weight, it’s clear, from a public-health standpoint, that resources would best be focused on preventing weight gain. The research underscores the urgency of national efforts to get children to exercise and eat healthful foods.
In my case, I was always going to be genetically predisposed to being overweight, given my father’s genetic inheritance, but I will always wonder how much easier it would have been to have maintained a normal weight had I developed better eating habits as a child — specifically, if I hadn’t had junk food available to me 24/7, and eaten it constantly. Julie and I have worked hard to help our children develop good habits in this regard, and boy, is it ever difficult given this culture. Despite all the supposed health consciousness we have around us today, there seems to be even more junk food, and an eat-constantly mentality in the culture today than when I was a kid in the Seventies. But it can be done, even if you have to endure the disapproval of other adults, who think you’re being mean to your kids by not letting them eat junk all day long. In a way, getting your kids to adulthood at a healthy weight, with good eating habits (versus shaming them into dieting; I have a friend whose mother gave her diet pills as a young teenager), is a physiological analog to helping them get through college without taking on crippling amounts of student debt.
Finally, given how sharply the obesity rates have risen in our country over the past two or three decades, it can’t be the case that we are biological determinism explains it all. The kind of food we eat, the decline in physical activity — these environmental factors also play a role. Parker-Pope’s article makes me think that one especially significant factor is the rise in childhood obesity. Obese kids, it seems, will be highly likely to become obese adults, because of biochemical changes that take place during their obese childhoods. It makes sense that American parents allowing their children to become overweight set into motion a biochemical phenomenon that has proven extremely difficult to reverse — and that may only be reversed once those parents resolve to be strict (relative to permissive American cultural standards regarding childhood eating) about what they allow their kids to eat, and how often.