Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Romancing the Diet

Quitting smoking was not easy, but in retrospect, it was far easier than losing a measly 15 pounds and keeping it off. To stop smoking (seven years ago), I had to change my thinking and my desires.

It turns out, though, that I had help I wasn't aware of. And I now believe that made all the difference, a difference that doesn't exist for the process of weight loss.

From two different perspectives, the article "Beating Obesity" by Marc Ambinder in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic, and the book Savor, by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Leung discuss the issue. Both discuss the interconnectedness of everything. Because of this interconnectedness, we are fat. Only together with everything, can we become healthy and less fat.

First, the bad news -  according to Ambinder, the forces of society, technology, industry, government policy, culture, genes, and demographics work in concert to make and keep us fat.

Technology changes work, changes behaviour, changes patterns and amount of movement; Industry constructs food - food molecules actually - that some suspect create virtual "neurochemical addiction...change our brain chemistry in ways that make us overeat;" non-food industries expose us to chemicals that correlate with obesity.

Society's demands create stress which leads to obesity; society's expectations affect sleep patterns which can help make us fat; society's planning and design of towns and cities affect our level of exercise; business production and distribution models make fast food not only the most calorically dense, but the cheapest and most widely available.

"Agricultural production and subsidies"  - corn fed beef, high fructose corn syrup, for example - increase our waistlines. Advertising with its images of food and the normalization of food as entertainment and acceptance help make us fat. Cultural norms regarding portion sizes have increased dramatically.

It's a wonder that anyone can lose weight and keep it off with all of this, and more, ranged against the individual. According to Ambinder, "America has erected two lines of defense: name-calling, and hectoring about diet and exercise."

Both of these defenses put the entire responsibility for health and weight loss on the individual - rather silly when you think about it. Even with Olympic-class will power, the individual fights a losing battle.

This is the point at which the Thich Nhat Hanh/Leung book Savor enters the picture. Drawing on Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation, the authors stress how we are not alone, how weight loss, like anything else, is together with everything. We cannot lose weight in isolation; people have to work together to create an environment that is healthful for all. We have to be mindful of eating - and of living.

That unseen help I had to stop smoking came from society - policy, regulation, advertising, education, technology, culture - many of the things ranged against the individual when it comes to weight loss. Society is against cigarettes in ways that it is not against cheap food, fast food, hypertasty food, large portions of food, junk food, processed food.

Right now we expect each single, tiny will to stand up to the whole of society. Many will say that the game isn't rigged, that each person can make a rational decision about what's beneficial. It doesn't work.

Only collective will power can get this done. And it's so easy to discuss it over a nice bowl of something and a supersized drink!


cooper said...

I think creating an environment where we are all at our best physically and mentally is a worthy goal, a goal that many will dispute as being too filled with socialist tendencies to be desirable.

ChrisJ said...


You are probably right, but if we could just create an environment in which people could more easily choose to be at their best, that would probably be enough.

Pearl said...

being mindful is the crux of it. to maximize pleasure, fresh-picked "unadulterated" food has that fragrance of subtly that McDs and cake counters can't compete with.

being attentive to that and practice getting bored by the relentless fireworks of Little Boy Blues of Marketing. excitement too hits the saturation point.

ChrisJ said...


If one is ever really mindful of the aromas of McDonalds and KFC it is quite disgusting.

lifeshighway said...

We could perhaps build our own small environment. My husband has taken up training for Triathlons which has changed his social group. With his healthy minded friends, he has changed the way he eats, which has changed the way we eat. Thus I have lost weight just by being connected to his formed society.

ChrisJ said...


The small environment is probably best because it's achievable.

My weight doesn't seem to budge when my husband eats better - usually when I go on a diet, he loses weight (I guess that's still a mini-environment!).

Judie said...

I quit smoking msny years ago. I didn't really want to, but I thought it was the best thing to do at the time.

ChrisJ said...


It is a good thing to do, and I know exactly what you mean about not really wanting to.

I would love to smoke without any consequences!