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Talking about health, part 7,534 of an ongoing series 
20th-Sep-2011 10:24 am
cooking, food
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.
20th-Sep-2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
This topic has been on my mind lately, because I lost 17 pounds over the summer and I did it on purpose. (I used Weight Watchers, mostly because it worked for my mom and I inherited her physique.) And it seemed to be the way I already ate, only better: more fruit, less baked goods.

But yeah, my primary purpose is health. I'm less proud of the 17 pounds than of being well on my way to getting around West Seattle by bicycle, or being able to run 5 miles, or working up to another level in my bodyweight exercises (handstand pushups are a goal, simply because they are totally badass).

On the other hand, I like how I look better. I feel better. I suspect it's more due to getting more exercise and eating better, but either way, I like it.
20th-Sep-2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's a complicated thing. I mean, I do still weigh myself a couple of times a month, so some part of me still thinks it has some value as a metric. And having been both physically active and sedentary at both extremes of my adult weight range, I can tell you that while being heavy and physically active trumps lighter and sedentary, lighter and physically active is better still.

What really bugs me is seeing people chasing an elusive goal of weight loss when there are easier things they could be doing to make themselves healthier right now. You've clearly found something that works for you, and that's just awesome!
20th-Sep-2011 08:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks! And I think you've really hit on it in your second paragraph--I think sometimes people focus too much on weight to the exclusion of all else. It's just one factor, and it trumps nothing. My aunt who had a stroke two weeks ago had high blood pressure and was skinny as a rail and active for most of her life. That's not an argument against eating well and getting exercise, of course--just, you can't tell what someone's health is just by looking. (Conversely, a friend who was over last weekend and who is quite heavy has a bp so low that doctors have checked for every conceivable condition. Nothing's wrong--she just has naturally low blood pressure.)

When I decided to lose weight it was in part because I'd developed some very unhealthy eating habits (and was drinking far, far too much) and I decided I needed something structured to change that--it's just how I am. I created a pretty structured workout routine at the same time, and for similar reasons; otherwise running was just something I'd get back to eventually, you know?
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20th-Sep-2011 11:26 pm (UTC)
That research you linked on "zonulin" is interesting - I hadn't seen that before.
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