September 20th, 2011

cooking, food

Talking about health, part 7,534 of an ongoing series

So, I came perilously close to dispensing weight-loss advice to someone yesterday, and I still feel kind of dirty. I guess this post is my penance.

I'm not categorically against the idea of pursuing weight-loss. It just seems hard for most people to do it without a) getting hung up on unrealistic standards for what their bodies should look like and b) falling prey to people peddling weird diets backed by dubious science that promise to provide that missing link that explains why just eating less and moving more didn't do much for them. (As indeed it doesn't for many people.)

I'm constantly struck, lately, by how often I hear something roughly along the lines of, "I want to be healthy, so I'm going on a diet." And it always throws me, because there's a huge logical leap happening between the two halves of that sentence, and we're so culturally conditioned to equate thinness with health that most of us don't even notice that leap. I'm still trying to come up with a way to say, "If you want to be healthy, how about doing something that actually promotes health?" without totally harshing people's squee.

I'm either the world's best or world's worst advocate for a health-first approach: I've been overweight my entire life, and throughout my twenties, I sporadically dieted in an effort to avoid various weight-related health problems that I was assured were headed my way. Basically, I'd lose twenty pounds and then gain them back, along with twenty of their friends. At some point in my early thirties, having dieted myself all the way up to being morbidly obese, I was sitting in my doctor's office, looking at a particularly dispiriting set of lab test results, and I thought, "You know, this weight-loss thing has kind of been a bust. How about we just focus on being healthy?"

So, I did. And within a couple of months, my lab test results had gone from being nearly universally crappy to being normal to excellent. And then over the course of the next year, I lost about a third of my body weight.

Which is where I become a bad advocate, because when I talk about this, people understandably find the whole "third of my body weight" thing rather arresting, and then we're having a weight-loss conversation again. Except that this time it's "If you really want to lose weight, you have to focus on health instead of on losing weight." Which is sort of interestingly Zen, but is it an improvement?

I don't know. I still think the best advice is: If you want to keep up with your kids, or climb stairs without getting winded, do some aerobic exercise. If you want to be strong, pick up heavy things repeatedly. If your cholesterol is bad, eat more fiber and less saturated fat. If your blood pressure is high, eat more fruits and vegetables and less salt. If you want to stop falling asleep at your desk mid-afternoon, consider whether you can balance what you eat at lunch so that it doesn't make your blood sugar spike and crash. Doing any or all of these things might also result in your wearing a smaller pants size, but setting out to wear a smaller pants size might not get you anything but smaller pants. If that.