While there are plenty of losers in the growing obesity epidemic facing Americans today, the estimated 40 billion a year weight loss industry sure isn’t one of them.
As the waistlines have gotten bigger, so too have the aggressive, almost magical, guarantees made by diet and exercise gurus.
Everyone’s got a way to trim those pounds, and for only five easy minutes a day! It isn’t just infomercials and the diet section of your Barnes&Noble either, walk into any local health food store and you’ll be bombarded by a sea of superfoods, liver cleanses and natural, antioxidant, vitamin-enriched, gold-encrusted wonder pills long ignored by the medical establishment.
To any first timer looking to finally get rid of their unsightly and unnoticed by everyone but themselves pudge, it’s a mountain of labels and too-good-to-be-true guarantees that bear down on them. Which is exactly why I decided to take on a 2 week cleanse of my own!
Let’s be clear here, this was in no way any sort of scientifically rigorous or hard-hitting investigation of what’s really going on at the Diet and Nutrition aisle at the local Whole Foods, especially since *Spoiler Alert* I only lasted a week on the restrictive diet I set up, but there’s important lessons to be gleamed from my, and many others’, failed journey to weight loss nirvana.
Lesson #1- It’s hard.
Let’s get this out of the way first. We often hear (I certainly have) that it’s just a matter of self-control and discipline to overcome those pounds, and those fat are simply lacking in it. So, yes, there is recent research showing that those with higher self-control exercise more and ate less when embarking on a diet, and other studies that show kids with poor self-control are more likely to gain weight as adults. Some figure that the idea of self-control itself is like a gas tank, that slowly depletes over the course of the day; the more self-control you need to exert, the less you have available, with those with a smaller gas tank or overspent by the end of the day less able to resist unhealthy behaviors like overeating. All of that is likely true, and has been for millenia, but it doesn’t begin to address how rigged the game has become for gaining weight in America. After all, people with bad self-control is a phenomenon that’s always existed, 2/3rds of the population being overweight is not.
As mentioned in last week’s post, losing weight flies against every biological and nutritional impulse in our bones. On the light-hearted side, we poke fun at that one celebrity who manages to yo-yo back and forth between thin and pleasantly plump, but there are serious and possibly irreversible changes to our body when we take on a diet. The formula we hear from doctors is that calories burned>calories taken in=weight loss, and while it’s simple*, it’s vastly harder to put into practice.
Lesson #1b- Math is hard.
Aiming for a daily 1000 calorie regimen, I tried to stay away from meals I couldn’t easily figure the caloric value of, mainly sticking to nutrition bars, salads and yes, a protein shake (I attempted to keep to a lowered running schedule so didn’t want to end up deprived of that sweet sweet protein). Whenever I ate something whose nutritional value wasn’t easily written on the back, I could only type in an estimation of the size of the meal into one of the many on-line foodtracking sites that have popped up in recent years. While handy, it suffers from the problem of needing the website on hand (easier with a smart phone, but still not convenient), and human error. And dear god, are we horrible with estimating how much comes in a meal.
It’s a double-edged sword for the dieter as overweight people are shown to be worse at estimating their meals than their thinner counterparts, undercutting their daily intake by up to 40% as opposed to 20% for the average joe. Some of it bogs to being uneducated about the million combinations of food that come across our dinner table, some to the fallibility of memory (did I eat one cookie at lunch or two?), and a lot to being a bad judge of size. A series of studies in 2010 looked at people who ordered fast food and asked them to estimate their caloric content. The smaller meals were nearly spot-on, but the larger the meal got, the worse they became at figuring it out. This held true no matter what size the person personally was, but of course since overweight people usually eat the bigger meals, that mental gap strikes them hardest.
That’s not to say we just aren’t suckers for making things easier on ourselves either; forgetting a quick snack between lunch and dinner when thinking of that day’s meals a week later makes it easy to believe we were being healthy, even if the memory loss is unintentional. It’s a mental strain to recall the events of a day in perfect detail, especially when overworked, overspent or sleep deprived (lack of sleep is yet another possible correlation to weight gain) or to simply stay from that muffin at work. That’s why people who go on a diet are advised to keep a food diary, which will help mitigate the human error in counting calories. Those who maintain food diaries have been shown to report better success. That isn’t necessarily why I gave up after a week though.
Lesson#2- All those guarantees are actually too good to be true!
Letting aside the fact the only thing that matters for weight loss is indeed calories burned>calories gained, many of the items I saw walking down the aisle offered vague promises of supporting my immune system, increasing my metabolism or flushing away the numerous toxins that have accumulated in my body for unseen decades (there was also an offer to help with my dating life, though I’m not sure whether that was from the pill bottle or a lonely stock associate whispering to me from behind the counter). All these claims of course came with the caveat “This statement has not been endorsed by the Federal Drug Association” tucked away on the bottle as inconspicuously as possible.
As for what I went with, I embarked on the Whole Foods’ 365 2 week liver cleanse, guaranteed to filter my digestive system, revitalize my immunity and find me that frisbee I lost in 6th grade. The 15(!) pill-a-day routine of the cleanse comes in a three-bottle regimen: one to clean out my whole body, another to herbally regulate my lincoln logs, and the last to specifically clean out my liver (he’s been slacking ever since he got streaming Netflix), but while the revolutionary product promises a bevy of vitalizing effects, I couldn’t feel much of anything besides an urge to visit my bathroom more than usual. That might be expected considering the fiber and laxatives as I was taking.
The only other ingredient of note was the 3 pill a day milk thistle herbal supplements for my liver health. Milk thistle has long been indicated by natural health practitioners as useful for liver problems, and there are studies showing a positive effect for those suffering from hepatitis, cirrhosis and chronic liver disfunction. As is the case with nearly every herbal drug (even when it’s found in the upmost peaks of Mt. Everest, if it ain’t food and trying to make you better, then it’s a drug, folks) though, the tighter and better controlled the study, the less positive the evidence gets. A meta-analysis looking at placebo-controlled, blinded and randomized trials of milk thistle found only a slight positive and inconclusive effect for existing liver conditions. Not that any of that even applies, of course, when it comes to a perfectly functioning liver whose job of filtering out toxins and cleaning the body is safely secured.
The trouble with the natural and herbal remedies boils down to the same problem: Either they don’t work or they might work, but since they’re so poorly studied or regulated, it’s tough to figure out what’s what. When it comes to weight loss, it’s often the former. People want the promise of a quick fix, and advertisers are quick to prey on ignorance and offer them just that.
If there’s one thing diet advertisers have gotten down to a T, it’s exploiting the foilibles of the human body and mind. Truth is, many of those diets/exercise plans would work fantastic at permanently shedding those pounds(and at the same rate too, there’s little evidence any one diet is much better than the next) if we permanently stuck to them. That betrays human psychology to expect every person to do so. Especially in lieu of…
Lesson #3- Life gets in the way.
Forgetting the 40 hour a week job (where I’m surrounded by food 8 hours a day), the twice weekly rehearsals with my theatre company and improvisational theatre group respectively, the 20 miles of running, the weekly family dinner and the time spent with friends and significant others that I engage in every week, I also faced the surprising news just as my diet cleanse started that I needed to locate a new place by next month.
Free time never being the strong suit that I’d like it to, as the days dragged on agonizingly, it became a mental chore to meticulously count every bite that entered my mouth, every swig of orange juice, and least of all to ingest the 15 pill a day regimen every morning and night while traveling every other day to another neighborhood, hunting for a new place. As each day passed, and the stress mounted up, I found that the diet itself became a source of stress. I’d get home after a day of work, apartment hunting, rehearsal and realize that the only reward at the end of the day was a grain-filled, newspaper-tasting 3-inch tall nutrition bar. Eventually that self-control gauge petered out and I broke.
I wanted a delicious ham and cheese roll for breakfast, some grilled chicken for lunch or lord forbid some tasty chinese food on a cold Friday night in Queens and it didn’t much matter that I told myself I could only eat 1000 calories a day. Food stopped being merely a source of nutrition for many of us once we figured out to grow and store it on our own, and even more so once it became industrialized and mass-produced. It unites us, it pleasures us and it relieves us.
I stopped my pseudo-diet because biologically and psychologically it stopped being worth the trade-offs I was making (those pills also didn’t work by the way). And that’s precisely why weight gain in America has skyrocketed, because the trade-offs are for many no longer worth it.
Food was a chore to obtain for most of our existence. Now it isn’t, now it’s made for us, sold to us and relentlessly advertised to us. Our bodies and our minds haven’t caught up to that fact. The same goes for physical activity; we no longer live in a world where moving around daily and briskly needs to be routine. So many of us don’t. Yelling at people to eat healthy and walk more ignores the complexity of our society as well as our bodies. It’s just not that simple anymore.
There isn’t a happy ending to this story, least right now. People grow up not being able to afford (time or money), not being taught, or not being bothered to take on a healthy lifestyle, and being the shortcut-driven folk that we are, it’s unreasonable to expect that to change on an individual level. By the time we reach the point we’re in complete control over our diet and exercise habits, we’ve already been burdened by a lifetime of easy access to cheap but unhealthy alternatives and a lack of education on how to navigate healthily through life (doubly so if poor). That’s why we don’t lose weight, because people are hard to change, biologically or mentally.
Either we on a broader scale make it easier to choose the healthy option early on (like spending even half of that 40 billion to expand gym and nutritional outreach programs for parents and their kids), before it’s practically set in stone or we continue down this same path. We’re all worse off if that happens.
*Even that bit of conventional wisdom has come under attack recently, with a study showing that people gain and lose differently from one another, even when the calorie intake is the exact same.
Well it’s been a while hasn’t it? My hectic lifestyle left me both unable to finish a diet or this piece. Ended up halfway done by the time I headed on out to the new place. I’m safely moved in, but sans the internet for least another week though didn’t want to wait that long to wrap this up. As such, it’s not comprehensive as I’d have liked to made it. There was also a planned third part to this piece (a good chunk is in here), but that’s also gonna be on the kibosh for right now.
I will be back to writing on a regular basis about the dumb, irrational and funny ways we all tackle life soon enough though. Thanks for sticking around.