Friday, January 9, 2009

Definining Our Terms

One of the things that I think often leads to online misunderstanding is a too-casual use of words.

Thus, recently, when Danielle Bean wrote about three things she hated about diets, she got enough of a reaction to write this second post. Instead of settling matters, the comments under that post have become a little contentious, as the various commenters throw around words like "diet," "fad diet," "healthy lifestyle," "healthy body image," "thin and healthy," "weight problem," and the like.

Whenever I've written about my struggles to lose weight, I've always said that my experiences will mean most to others those like me: women who need to lose, or have ever lost, more than 10% of their present body weight. In the context of those blog posts I've always tended to define a diet as a healthy eating plan designed to target any bad food habits I've picked up, reevaluate nutritional needs, and decrease calories enough to produce a weight-loss effect without robbing the body of energy or sending it into starvation mode. I've also defined exercise as a commitment to five days a week's aerobic activity (stationary bike riding) for a minimum of thirty minutes a day; I will have to add more as things progress.

In other words, when I say "diet," I don't mean, "fad diet," "weird diet plan of dubious value," or any other extreme method of weight loss of the sort that promises magic pound-shedding and a Hollywood figure in a ridiculously short amount of time. You don't have to tell those of us who've been at this a while that those don't work; we already know.

But there are a lot of women who look in the mirror or step on the scale ruefully on January 1st each year and realize that they've let themselves go, a bit. These are women whose normal weights are well within their ideal weight ranges, and even the few pounds they've put on, while making a favorite pair of pants (or a skirt--let's not have that fight again) fit uncomfortably, don't really push them into an unhealthy weight or BMI. At the most, they might need to lose up to 10% of their present body weight--and doctors and nutritionists agree that this isn't so hard to do; it's people who must lose significantly more than that who hit that first goal and then plateau, or worse, start to climb again in the phenomenon usually called yo-yo dieting.

However, for some of these women even the tiniest bit of weight gain is as productive of negative thoughts, self-loathing, insecurity, and the like as a fifty-pound gain might be for others. Among this group are those who are the biggest prey of the dubious fad diet industry; because their self-image is so caught up in some illusion of bodily perfection, a gain of only ten pounds is enough to send them scrambling for the latest popular diet plan or shopping for meal replacements and pills with a kind of panicked fervor.

Even for those who don't fall prey to this mentality, it's easy to become focused on that 10% weight loss to an extreme degree. Carefully cutting all of one's normal portions in half, for instance, or doubling one's daily exercise with a focus on the numbers on the scale and the clothes in the "thin" half of the closet can indeed be unhealthy; I don't think anyone, thin, plump, or otherwise, would disagree.

The problem comes in when we think that what the "10% group" means when they say, "diet," is the same as what the "need to lose a significant amount" group means when they say "diet." They don't mean the same thing by the term; the one means a temporary decrease in the number of calories consumed/number of calories burned followed by a balanced maintenance plan; the other means a total re-thinking of the role of food in one's life, an aggressive weight-loss program that includes calorie restriction and exercise, the possibility of counseling to tackle emotional eating issues and other problems that derail their best efforts, the potential that they will have to avoid certain high carb/high fat/high sugar "trigger foods" which are linked to these issues for the rest of their lives, and a maintenance plan that not only reflects certain health realities (like low-sodium plans for those with hypertension, or low-sugar plans for those who are borderline diabetic), but in no way resembles the old bad eating habits that accumulated for years and make it hard to know "instinctively" how to eat properly.

I think that one of the frustrations each group has with the other is that we're using the same words--but we're speaking different languages. I'll readily admit that I don't know what it's like to need to lose ten pounds, or even ten percent of my current weight. Right now, I need to lose at least 20% of my current weight in order to be in a healthy weight range--and whether that will be enough to take care of the health problem I'm trying to solve remains to be seen. But I can't lose that weight by giving up desserts I don't eat anyway, or leaving the cream out of the morning coffee I haven't had for years. I can't lose it by taking a twenty-minute walk twice a week, or skipping the potato chips with a lunchtime sandwich. Those little measures will work for five or ten pounds or so--but not for thirty.

So hearing someone say, as one of Danielle's commenters did, that she was back in her pre-pregnancy pants a few months after each child's birth (while she was still nursing) and that therefore anyone can do this, is as unhelpful and unkind as it would be for me to look at a friend genuinely distressed about a ten-pound gain and say, "What are you whining about, skinny girl? Ten pounds is nothing!" Unless we can all learn to listen a little more, to realize that we might mean different things when using the same "diet" words, and to put charity at the center of all of these conversations, we stand to lose a lot more than weight.


Maria said...

I agree. I think many folks were talking past each other in this conversation.

I was surprised folks were offended by the Danielle's first post because I took "diet" in the "fad diet to lose a few extra or even not-so-extra pounds." This is probably because I have several younger, average-to-thin sisters who weigh themselves daily with scales that go to a tenth of a pound, often report their daily weights to me, send me daily emails with their current food diary, run several miles daily, and think about weight, food, excerise, and appearence far more than I thought was humanly possible. And the sad thing is...they are pretty normal compared to their peers.

However, I could see how those who struggle with serious weight gain could have viewed the post - and certainly some of the commments! -differently.

Anonymous said...

Red I know this isn't your point, but have you read Atkin's book...I am normally slender but gain a lot of weight when I'm pregnant and it doesn't come off with the breastfeeding. This time round I had to lose thirty pounds. It totally does work. My mom lost 20 pounds in less than 2 months, not getting hungry and feeling really good. It does take some thought and some carb-counting when you're doing the losing but then maintenance isn't difficult if you understand the principles. If you're losing the chips but also losing the cream you're at cross-purposes! *Add* cream; make it a breve. It's not a fad diet! People have known this for centuries; it's the lowfat nonsense that's a fad and a lie. For the politics and history behind all this, read a recently published book called "Good Calories Bad Calories".

Anonymous said...

Several thoughts...

This was an excellent clarifying post for those attempting to reconcile the difference in perception of necessity of losing weight by a change of lifestyle for a long-term improvement in healthy outcome or as a short-term measure. Pondering the topic in this light might possibly tip the balance for us that are attempting to grasp concepts in dieting.

Second, discussion of pre-diabetes and importance of low-salt diets for those that cannot afford additional cardiac burden of added fluid volume is a pretty important topic in improving eventual long-term and chronic health issues, in light of the current characterization of an 'obesity' epidemic, and no. 1 health-related concern of heart disease linked to diabetes and atherosclerotic plaque formation.

Thirdly, this particular post seemed especially poignant in its explanation, Red. I seriously think there's something in the writing style that could go into making those unbearably boring school textbooks more interesting, or at least contribute to current journalistic offerings with brevity, wit, transparency (watchword of 2008), and clarity.

Speaking of journals and diet ads, I used to receive many junk e-mails for sympathomimetic diet drugs like phenylpropanolamine and amphetamine-type stimulants, a situation which I only felt better about after replying quite angrily in an personal fashion to one addressee in a message toned to co-conspirators causing death and disability in hopeful young women desperate to lose weight, but unaware of the dangerous mix of birth control pills, smoking, and a drug that stimulates heart rate and blood vessel constriction. I don't recall the last Metabolife spam I've received since.

Another topic I'll be contacting Time in their Vol. 173, No. 1 magazine is the whole page Pfizer ad for Viagra. I haven't formed a comprehensive opinion about the ED and drugs, but an ad with such content is repugnant, stuff fit for an X rating on taste and acceptability in general reading matter for all-age range content. For the past couple years I've had Verizon e-mail, I've been continually spammed with online drug black marketeers wanting to sell me all sorts of similarly-acting ED drugs. I erase the stuff just by looking at the sender name, so really don't know the details of every bit of junk, but a few were enough to get an idea. The voluminosity is tiresome, and I almost thought I was getting desensitized to widespread exposure of these drug ads, until I saw the Time ad. It's not a matter of life and death like illegal diet drugs, but there are issues with FDA and online prescription drug sales without evidence of a doctor-patient relationship, and whatever nefarious related side-businesses in the murky underground of prostitution, etc. which surrounds use of sex-enhancing chemicals.

And, the last point more importantly, if previous matters haven't dissuaded readers from finishing this particular train of thought... though I've written on the irrationality of presidential voting based on an unclear abortion 'agenda', and expressed an opinion on definition of life not at conception--at 13 and 22 weeks fetal growth there clearly is evident response to injury, with NO room for debate over separation of growth from mother, discernible maternal and fetal blood flow.

I wonder why topic of a planned second-semester abortion clinic at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI has been relegated to the religious page of my local newspaper. This is not a religious matter, but a legal and societal moral issue, especially when the government is involved in providing this service, for whatever reasons the mothers state, even in light of recent first pregnancy statistics published from 2006.

Deirdre Mundy said...

On "The number on the scale"

The other thing to remember is that changing to a healthier lifestyle to head off health problems does NOT always immediately result in weight loss.

My MIL was raised with the 'number on the scale' philosophy6-- when she started working out 2 hours a day and eating healthy, her diabetes got less severe, her blod pressure and cholesterol went down and her clothes got looser.

BUT she was freaking out because her # had actually gone up!!!

Why? Because she was working out more than she ever had.... she was getting MUSCLE....

So, I'd argue that even for those whohave health problems and ALOT to lose, the number on the scale shouldn't be the goal as much as better health...

(Ok. Stepping off soapbox)

(wait, getting back on...)

And as someone who's been nursing for 5 years straight and developed the associated chest of doom, if I went by the scale # instead of muscle mass, waistline, etc, I'd always be depressed......

Anonymous said...

I followed this blogument with interest. But I have to disagree with you here. A ten pound weight gain in a healthy, adult woman (assuming she is not pregnant or going through menopause)is a sign of one or two things: she is eating too much food and not active enough, or perhaps her thyroid is out of control. Assuming the third is not the case, this woman would be forced to confront reality, and the reality is, she's not taking care of her body.

It's not easy being disciplined about food, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be practiced. If one wants to get closer to God and spiritually grow, one has to DO certain things, like go to Confession more frequently and perhaps attend Eucharistic Adoration and receive the Eucharist more often. But to tell people to give up that you are too much of a loser or a sinner to try and gain perfection is nonsense. I think the commenter who said that she had children and lost her baby weight was making the point that it is POSSIBLE through discipline and hard work to maintain a healthy body weight.

In college, I was fat. I ate with wild abandon, drank beer like a fish and never once stepped foot in a gym. I've managed to get myself back on track by simply eating three meals a day, not snacking between meals ever (yes, it can be done) and pushing a stroller or walking a dog. It takes a daily commitment to yourself, and it's hard work. For us thin people out there, it's very insulting to be brushed off with the old genetics thing. Genetics is only a small part of the equation. The rest is hard work.

Anonymous said...

I'm the baby weight loser...and no, my point wasn't "work harder"! No, my point was that the "health industry" has lied to people about food, and if you "work hard" at it according to their standards, avoiding fat and getting lots o' exercise, you will just end up depressed and your system will go into starvation mode, which is conserve fat mode! So my point isn't "work hard" it's just about becoming aware of what foods do what to you. Lowering carbs and adding fats is almost counterintuitive because we're all so brainwashed, so it takes some thought at first but it actually is not very hard. How hard is it to make sure you put lots of butter and sour cream on your baked potato instead of eating it plain? Or eating a nice fat steak with veggies for dinner, don't forget the wine?

I think many people have compromised metabolisms because of many factors such as formula feeding and high-sugar, refined-carb childhood diets. I think metabolisms can often be normalized or at least kept somewhat in line through changes in diet. I do not feel, as you do, that the problem with most people is that they're lazy and they eat too much.

Nzie said...

Thank you for this post. I just read the whole topic you linked to, including comments. Clearly, this is a contentious issue.

I'm in a somewhat different category than most if not all of the commentors I read there and here. Besides not being a mother (early 20s single), I have no idea what I look like thin. I've been gaining weight since 8 and packing it on since puberty. It's miserable. Forget 10% or less - it's waaay past that. I have a medical condition, and I wish there were a way to talk about it so that I wouldn't feel like people who see me eat assume that it's all my fault (not that some of it isn't, or that bad habits gained in despair haven't compounded it). The doctors who diagnosed me said it causes weight gain, and impedes weight loss, and the closest thing to a cure is losing weight. Now I'm trying to get back on a med that might finally make a difference; it only took getting to the heaviest I've ever been to push me.

On the other hand, I don't want to be all doom and gloom. Today, I took that pill that makes me feel sick (until I get reaccustomed to it), and I did half an hour of aerobics and some yoga, and didn't eat everything in sight. But more importantly, I feel like being the 'fat girl' has taught me a lot. I don't think about people's physical beauty as that important; I feel like it's taught me compassion, and that luckily I've been blessed to give encouragement to other folks who didn't quite fit in. I have gained a lot besides weight from being a fat girl, and even managed to be shy enough in high school that I didn't really get teased. I even finally stopped being so depressed when it came to shopping, ignored the numbers, and stopped deciding I had to cover every inch of me to look good (it didn't work anyway).

I've tried a lot of diets; at one point, my mom told me to eat everything my older sister did, hoping that maybe something she was doing was causing her thinness. As a result, I can tell you that peanut butter in an ice cream cone is pretty weird, and it didn't help me lose any weight. I'd say the most balanced approach is probably South Beach, which addresses some of the issues with Adkins (which is that the weight folks lose tends to include muscle mass, or so a dietician told me), but something with accountability is always a good idea.

Anyway, I didn't exactly mean to spill my guts, but I've been thinking about starting a weight-issues blog lately and I just saw this (added you to my RSS feed!) and had some thoughts. Thanks for "sticking up for" those of us for whom it's not an issue of a few extra pounds.

Anonymous said...

I like your point about compassion. I was badly cross-eyed until I had surgery at age nine, and I was made fun of and received many strange looks/comments, and I never have tolerated anyone making fun of another's looks or disabilities. You're right that this kind of stuff can really be a blessing.

Dawn said...

This is a good post. Thank you.