Friday, March 01, 2013

Diets I Have Known: Evolution, Deprivation and Insanity

So I decided to try a day of fasting. To remember what it feels like, to be in solidarity with all those who don't have enough food, to re-train myself not to use that tired American hyperbole "I'm starving" when in reality it's only been a few hours since last I ate. To quote a friend who spent several weeks traveling around Africa, where lack of adequate nutrition is a legitimate problem, "The next time I hear a middle-class American say they're 'starving,' my head is going to explode." Maybe it could even be a joyful experience.

It turns out that, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am not yet...comment se dit?...evolved enough to use fasting as a spiritual discipline, or at least it's still a major trouble area. Despite my efforts not to see it as a deprivation but rather as an elevation and a cleansing experience, a removal of one of far too many distractions that keep me from focusing on bigger priorities, that's still what it became (thanks in large part to that nasty little critic/weight-body-food monitor that lives in my head--if you're an American woman I'm guessing you know the one I mean). Did I like that empty, hollowed-out feeling (which ideally can enhance someone's ability to be a receptacle for Divinity, like an empty cup)? Oh hell yes. I liked it way too much, and to the point that it became a distractor. So, I suppose, this is not the discipline for me. Ah, well, there are others to choose from.

Yesterday I also happened to read this Jezebel article by Lindy West (love. her.) describing the US News and World  Report's rankings of the 'best and worst' diets of 2013 (about which, BTW, don't they rank graduate programs and medical schools and such? Is this some sort of weird crossover? Is someone running around with a bacon-fat-streaked acceptance letter from Atkins University?). She covers the sane--the DASH diet, recommended by the National Heart Institute, which consists largely of fruits and veggies, and is an ideal diet for slowing the development of heart disease--and the obviously cray, like the Dukan diet, where you're limited to lean protein and a veggie here or there. It's beyond restrictive. Fun Fact--Dr. Dukan was called onto the carpet by the French medical community for "encouraging anorexia" with his diet, so you know that shit works (just kidding...but you know that's what a lot of people thought when they heard about his censure). Apparently Kate Middleton is totally into it, though hopefully not while she's, you know, building another human being inside her body. Anyone else think it's less than awesome that USNAWR is treating what's essentially an eating disorder with a marketing plan as a legitimate "diet"?

This got me thinking about all the diets I've experimented with over the years. To be honest, the majority of them were more-or-less crazy diets of my own making, partially because I'm not super into being told what to do and partially because of, you know, the whole disordered eating thing. The only semi-legit (read: recognized by other, sane human beings) diet I've ever done is the most recent, using the "Lose It" app, where you set a weight-loss goal, enter some basic information like height/weight/age, get a daily caloric allowance, and catalogue your daily food intake and exercise. The app keeps track of your calories in/ calories out, and lets you know with a simple diagram whether you're still green (under your calorie allowance for the day) or "in the red" (over your allowance, though you can get back in the green by doing some exercise). It's easy to use and eminently sensible--for instance, it won't let you drop your goal calories below a 'healthy' level, nor will it allow you to set a weight loss goal greater than 2 lbs. per week. Refreshing. And no, I'm not being paid to advertise it--though I would be willing (hint, hint, Lose It LLC).

Like I said, though, the majority of diets I've done over the years haven't been anything close to that reasonable. None of them, in fact, have even had names per se, and so I'll just be making up descriptive titles as I go along. The most extreme was probably the Coffee-and-Cigarettes-Only Diet of my junior year in college --tobacco is a vegetable, right?--which is super effective for weight loss but has some major side effects, like heart palpitations, insomnia, hair loss, amenorrhea and literally dying if you do it for too long. Before you embark on this diet, you probably want to make sure you're going to have some free time in the near future for your inevitable hospitalization. The same is true of the Eat-Literally-Anything-You-Want (I saw your ears perk up, but wait...there's a pretty big--I'd say, frankly enormous--caveat) As-Long-As-You-Throw-It-Back-Up Diet. With this one, you not only get all the health risks of the Coffee-and-Cigs-Only Diet, but you also still have to pay regular grocery bills (with the C-A-C-O diet, your grocery bills fall to near zero) and, with enough time, you get to say goodbye to your teeth. Seriously, pick a few favorite teeth, because like the crazy Hummel figurine enthusiast on Hoarders, you're not going to be able to keep them all. There were others--the Liquid Fasting Three Days a Week Diet (I got tired of all the dashes, OK? They're a pain in the ass and they mess up the formatting), the Exercise Three Hours a Day Diet, the Oatmeal, Yogurt and Apples Diet (true story: I lived on nothing but oatmeal, fat free yogurt and apples for three months once. It was exactly as much fun as it sounds). So, yeah. Bad times.

All this just reaffirms my commitment to the Lenten discipline of knowing joy, and in a weird way, of speaking Truth to Power (power being, in this case, the multi-million dollar advertising and diet industries whose SOLE purpose is to make women feel like shit about their bodies so they'll buy more product). So, dear body-shaming-industrial complex, please consider this an engraved invitation to go f*ck yourself.


Anonymous said...

Been there, done them all. A new one I've recently created but still haven't tried: "The eat like the peasant you really are and learn about the world at the same time diet". Picking a country randomly from a world atlas, finding out the main diet/staples of the resident 95% and eat that diet for a week...allowing one day of amnesty each week for 50 weeks. Oh, I forgot to mention the transportation and budget constraints' portion...Do you think this would equal weight loss?

John C. said...

My most embarrassing diet was the Shangri-La Diet, with the book of the same name popularized by the Freakonomics book and blog. A long string of junk science (complete with rat studies!) gets you to swallow the premise that tasteless food suppresses hunger and, therefore, also to swallow a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil twice a day. Then you convince yourself you feel full. Basically, it's permission to go through the day without eating--starvation, introduction to eating disorders, etc. It was an interesting experience, but not exactly the route to a healthy way of eating.

I moved on to the LostIt! app myself after that, and that really worked while I was on it, both in terms of weight loss and in making sure I was meeting reasonable nutrition targets, but after enough months the routine of measuring and counting and logging absolutely everything drove me absolutely bonkers. The drive necessary to maintain that level of discipline drew on such a weird mix of self-loathing and desire for health and unmet emotional need that it just didn't feel healthy. Of course, the alternative, sitting in front of the TV with a big bag of potato chips, isn't exactly healthy, either, for body or mind.

But I do have to credit the LoseIt! app for encouraging exercise in its scoring system. Making hacking your health into playing a game is pretty effective. In my experience it really works short-term, but for me it wasn't so good at teaching me to intuitively feel my way to similarly effective and healthy habits without keeping track religiously.