Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The other day, Danielle Bean at Faith and Family Live waded into the topic of diets. Read the whole thing; but I want to talk about a couple of aspects of what she wrote:
Diets can be good things. They can help us break life-long habits of gluttony and sloth and put us on a path toward physical health and fitness. But they can be dangerous things too. When we find ourselves fretting over 3 pounds, I think things have gone too far. [...]

In the end, physical health comes down to eating a balanced diet and being physically active—it’s a no-brainer really. But why do so many of us struggle so very much with it? Why do so many of us look for a quick-fix magic solution, even at the expense of our mental and physical health?

Our children are watching us. Let’s think about what they see.

Self-loathing and unhealthy physical obsessions ... or a balanced, responsible approach to caring for the bodies God gave us?

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and make a guess: I'm guessing that at no time in her life other than while she has actually been pregnant has Danielle ever been more than about 20 pounds overweight.

Why do I think that? Well, for whole hosts of reasons, some of which are personal. But in some ways she sounds like I might have sounded once upon a time.

In fact, long ago I might have been the kind of woman she was talking about, the kind who while relatively slender and healthy still obsessed about her weight.

From high school through college and up till I got married I weighed between 115 and 125 pounds--and I thought of myself as a fat person. I am five feet, two inches tall, and I have very skinny sisters, and a mother who after having nine children could still wear a size 6, and sometimes a 4.

So at a decided size 8 to size 10 I was the fat one in the family. Whenever I could diet and exercise my way to the size 8, or even occasionally buy a size 6 in something, I was proud of myself. Whenever I had to buy a ten I was mortified; this was especially true of my size ten wedding gown. I told myself that the only reason I needed a ten was because they didn't make the gown in petite sizes, and so what was supposed to be the waist was hitting my hips--but I was embarrassed to have to wear such a "big" wedding dress.

Little did I know that marriage and three successive pregnancies were going to change my figure in ways I would have done almost anything to avoid. I had no idea I'd end up fluctuating, not between 115 and 125, but between 140 and 150, clearly overweight for a person as short and small framed as I am. I had no idea I'd end up wearing size 14 in just about everything. I had no idea the excess weight would negatively impact my health as it has done. And I had no idea what it was like to try to lose, not a mere ten pounds, but thirty.

I've been trying to lose that weight for a decade, now. The closest I came was on one of those restrictive obsessive weigh and measure everything diets that Danielle seems not to like much; I got down to 132. But it wasn't enough; I was still fat. And all it took was a few pounds of weight gain for me to give up on the thing and head back to the 140s. Nobody could tell the difference anyway, I thought, so why try?

Of course there were reasons to try. Of course, as Danielle says, it's a no-brainer, really. But we could say that about lots of things: holiness? No-brainer. Being a good mother? No-brainer. Taking up our crosses, daily? No-brainer...but it doesn't make any of these things easier to do.

And being reinforced in the belief that it was "life-long habits of gluttony and sloth" that kept one at a size 10, 125 lb figure (however good that sounds now!) when every other female in one's life was the "right size" isn't necessarily helpful. Maybe it is gluttony and sloth, or maybe it was, once upon a time (because surely after the youngest baby was weaned those extra thirty pounds ought to have melted right off!) but the reality is that even for a sensible healthy portion-conscious eater who is getting regular moderate exercise it takes a very, very long time to lose a significant amount of weight--and then it takes even more work to keep it off.

I would never tell someone who needs to lose twice or three times the weight I do that all they need is a balanced diet and some physical activity. Even for me, the calculations are depressing: a woman my age and height who gets at least 30 minutes a day of exercise and who limits herself to 1200 calories a day can expect to lose a whopping 0.2 pounds per week. Yep, that's right: three years to lose thirty pounds, three years of a 1200 calorie/day diet. I can't even imagine how much harder it is for women who need to lose significantly more.

So the diet calculations and blog posts and forum conversations that spring up everywhere this time of year aren't necessarily signs that women are self-loathing and obsessed with some impossible standard of weight. I'd be thrilled beyond belief to get back to my old "fat" weight of 125; the notion that I'd really need to be a size 4 or less than 110 lbs to be "right" is long gone. But if all it took to lose thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, etc. pounds was a "balanced, responsible approach" then very few people would willingly remain overweight.

It takes grueling effort, single-minded focus, and a disconcertingly large amount of time. It takes determination, the ability to get back up when you fall down, a deliberate and conscious effort to turn away from cultural food celebrations and anything else that pulls you off the path. It's an arduous journey, and I'm full of admiration for the ones who have made it successfully and who stretch out their arms to those of us starting over in the face of odds no gambler would accept, calling out words of encouragement and hope. It takes prayer and humility and grace.

But of course, for those women who really are fretting over a mere three pounds or so, it would probably take counseling--because compared to an actual health-related need to fight and struggle and sweat and pray and work to drop dozens of pounds, such fretting must come from a very dark place indeed, and any woman afflicted by such a concern would have my utmost sympathy.


Dawn said...

Great post. This is one of those topics that is so personal. Usually only the skinny folks feel comfortable talking about it. I recently lost 40 pounds..on a diet. It was a lot of work. It took a year of getting up working out for an hour or more every day and severely restricting the foods I ate. I say severely and I don't mean just cutting out ice cream and cookies. But just about everything else. I ate fish and lettuce for about 6 months! I didn't realize how overweight I had been until I began to lose weight. Now I am much more careful of what I eat, but it is a lifelong struggle. The older you get the easier it is to put on the pounds. So many factors contribute to weight gain that ice cream and cookies are usually the easiest to get rid of.

Willa said...

I think you are right in your points. I took Danielle Bean's point to be that while improving our eating habits MIGHT be a benefit of diets, it would be a mistake to have an attitude of self-loathing about our efforts.

I am not overweight, yet I have an addictive attitude about food if I don't watch it. That's the heart of the matter, it seems to me -- the spiritual issue -- it shouldn't be tied to overweight or not, because a lot of overweight people are fairly disciplined about their eating, as you say, because they have to be, while a lot of people of normal weight don't have a particularly healthy attitude towards food.

Anonymous said...

It is definitely much harder for some people to lose weight than for others. I watched my sister get down to a "healthy" weight (she's about 5'). She was a vegetarian, and ran three miles each morning. That's what it took for her to be the weight she's supposed to be. Well, her doctor told her to put some meat back in her diet. She'd become anemic, and was constantly exhausted. She put on about ten pounds right off the bat.

I'm about 5'2" and I've only been at my ideal weight for one year of my post-adolescent life. I was 120lbs my sophomore year of high school. The reason? I was depressed, and never felt like eating much. I was stressed all the time. When I got over that, I put on about ten pounds my junior and senior years. After college and two kids I'm in the 150s. I'd really like to get at least back down into the 130s before my 30th birthday, but I'm not sure I can commit to the drastic measures it would take to get me there.

For some of us, weight loss almost has to become an obsession if we want to actually, you know, lose any weight.

--Elizabeth B.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing an issue so personal and pertinent. Because I was the largest baby my mother birthed - a mere 6 lb 6 oz -I endured many derogatory jokes in my childhood about my size, even though my weight was actually always right on according to my dr's. My sisters,mother, brother and even my father's family were all small boned and petite - girls topped off ay 5', guys 5'10 - while I shot up to 5'6 by the end of high school.
Athletics was always a big part of my childhood; track, soccer, basketball, all year round conditioning. We never had snacks in the house, and I was not an overeater, but no matter how much conditioning I did, I never looked slim compared to my family; They referred to me as the Polish Farmgirl - though they never meant harm.
Once I started having children, I really just gave up trying, and my body shows it - 6 children in 8 years has taken its toll, and I am finding it hard to face the fact that I will not be the zero that my sisters, cousins, even nieces are. I have to believe God has given me this cross for some benefit He has yet to reveal and just focus on my vocation.

Anonymous said...

My mom has been overweight most of her married life, and neither she nor anyone could figure out why. She was slender until she had children and has always eaten healthy foods and reasonable portions, but kept gaining weight. She discovered finally after years and years that she has a thyroid disease which of course really affects metabolism. It's not just the weight as you say but the whole effect on health...overweight can be a symptom of other stuff going on.

I know this is off topic but I so recommend "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon, which has been really revelatory about diet and health...she has studied the work of Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who lived a century or so ago and traveled around the world, and found to his astonishment that many natives all over the world had beautiful teeth and facial structure (room for all their teeth), and practically no occurrence of obesity, heart disease, etc. There were common threads running throughout the different diets, and most of them are things that we've been told aren't good for us, for the past several decades. The book also really reveals the self-interestedness of the people doing the "research" (they're funded by the processed food companies). Reading it for me has been for food the way reading John Gatto was for education. Lots of good stuff in there about food and its effects, one of which is that weight loss has nothing to do with limiting calories and everything to do with limiting carbs and increasing fat intake esp. animal fats like butter. The one time my mother was successful losing weight was last year, when she lost about twenty pounds in a couple of months simply by really modifying carb intake and *increasing fat intake*. She "fell off the boat" and gained most of it back because of a couple of difficult events in her personal life but she knows she can do it and she felt good when she was doing it. The "line" of the last 30 years is a lie, that limiting calories is the answer. Limiting calories doesn't do anything but throw your body into starvation mode and burn muscle, and it's dang hard to keep up, both physically and psychologically. I'll get down now...I know your point is the spiritual angle of things, but being in poor health can really have an effect on the spirit.

Anonymous said...

Some of us, however, should really lose like 75 pounds (I'm male) as a matter of basic discipleship.

If y'all are interested, Jen at Conversion Diary has been discussing her struggles with weight loss, carbs and detachment.

Anonymous said...

I think that Danielle's point goes a bit beyond concern over dress size or lack of compassion for those who struggle with weight.

The example our attitude toward food presents our children has a profound effect on them and let's face it, as a culture this attitude is not the healthiest.

When I disparage a friend for only eating organic foods, I'm sending a message to my children. When her attitude is one of smug superiority, she's sending a message, too. When casual discussions with friends or family lead to anxiety about my food choices for my family, or when the overwhelming amount of conflicting information regarding the healthfulness of certain foods leads to frustration, my family suffers.

When children see that their parents make the effort to give them balanced meals and promote a healthy life, the children will most likely thrive, no matter what mom's dress size is.

Those who really have to struggle with their weight aren't doing any harm to their families unless that struggle is truly rooted in excess: for most women it probably isn't. In reality, those who obsess over those last 5 or 10 or 15 pounds do much more harm in promoting a very unhealthy attitude regarding personal image.

Maria said...

I second the comment to read Jen F.'s posts on eating and spirituality at Conversion Diary. They have been really insightful and thought-provoking.

I guess I didn't take Danielle's comments the way you did. It did seem like a no-brainer to me: eat healthy, exercise, don't engage in self-loathing. There wasn't any promise that you would lose weight if you did these things; just that these are good things to do. It's hard to argue with that!

Personally, diets (and I'm talking Weight Watchers type stuff here) are generally good for me to engage in because I do struggle with gluttony. I have a pretty high metabolism and can stay a pretty healthy weight without trying (I'm
5'8 and 150 lbs), even while having three babies in three years. I eat what I want - and I want lots of chocolate and chips and Big Macs - and don't exercise beyond the trips to the park with the kids. However, I am avoiding a physical exam because while I may "look" okay, I'm really afraid of my cholesterol levels and the like. Heart disease and high cholestrol run in the family; my dad had a heart attack at age 40 and wasn't overweight.

It's a complicated issue, though. I know I am sinning by not maintaining a healthy lifestyle. At the same time, when I start dieting I can easily slip into the sin of vanity as well, daydreaming about how great I'll look in those size 8 jeans. So I rationalize my gluttony by telling myself I'm avoiding the sin of vanity. It would be rather humorous, if my physical and spirtual health weren't at stake.

I'm really trying to change things right now. Instead of focusing on myself in the issue, I'm trying to change things for my husband, who does need to lose some weight. It's easier for met to stay out of the sin of vanity if I'm cooking healthier for him and dragging myself to the gym to get him there than if I was just doing it for myself.

Anonymous said...

Erin at Bearing Blog has recently lost 40 lbs (taking almost a year) and she's chronicled her journey and eating choices throughout. Being an engineer she meticulously analyzed every process and thought along the way and it was very interesting. She's now quite thin, though 'perfect' for her body type and seems thrilled.

Willa said...

I read Danielle's post, and was thinking about this a bit more.

I think her general point was basically the same as yours.... that (1) we should not judge our souls by the external standards of our society, and (2) that we shouldn't replace one unhealthy choice with another. For example, it's no advance over eating too many sweets, to eat too many sweets and then toss it up as bulimics do. To take an example at Jen's blog, it isn't an advance in spirituality to get down to a good weight just so you can feel good about wearing your size 6 jeans, or whatever. For some people, that actually might be a setback in spirituality -- they might have had a healthier attitude when they were by society's standards "overweight".

I think the reason that some "skinny" people obsess about their weights almost as much as overweight people is that they sense that their attitude about food is unhealthy. They sense a spiritual problem in themselves, but have trouble dealing with it except by targeting that "last three pounds". Society rewards their appearance, but they know there is still something wrong internally. Weight becomes a focal point.

If a person is overweight and has to lose weight for health reasons it is simply a physical problem. I have eczema, for instance, a skin condition. If I am not very careful to manage it, it goes out of control. This is simply a genetic card I was handed, and is morally neutral in itself. How I manage it does have a moral element, of course. I know that if I eat certain things or don't proactively treat the problem, it will worsen dramatically and quickly. But sometimes, it escalates on its own because of environmental conditions, and that is no fault of mine.

In other words, I didn't *cause* my problem to start with; and you couldn't judge the state of my soul by looking at my skin condition, because it flares up without my control. Yet I can do a few things to manage the issue, and those things ARE my responsibility. I think we all have to do things to manage our various physical and temperamental weaknesses. But no one ought to quickly judge another person by externals, especially physical externals, because as CS Lewis says, when you shake the hand of a person you have no idea if he is heading for unimaginable glory or for inconceivable corruption.

Natalie said...

"It takes grueling effort, single-minded focus, and a disconcertingly large amount of time. It takes determination, the ability to get back up when you fall down, a deliberate and conscious effort to turn away from cultural food celebrations and anything else that pulls you off the path."

And I think this is really the crux of it. Any doctor I have heard talk about this agrees that the best way to manage your weight is through diet and exercise. That is a fact. Does that mean that the same regimen will work for all people, or that you will hit some magic weight by doing that? No, probably not. And it is probably wise to consult with a professional about what your individual goals are, or should be, and what is the best way for you to get there.

But even this is hard for us. Look at the society we live in today where every other commercial is for some fast food joint where you can exceed your daily caloric intake in one value meal or restaurant where they give you 2 or 3 times the portions you really should be eating. Holidays, birthdays, celebrations, are all centered around food. Short on time, families buy foods that are processed and loaded with preservatives like high fructose corn syrup. And we like those foods, and we want to eat them. They taste good. Finding time to exercise or putting forth the effort to read labels or control portions is not convenient, and a lot of us don't want to do it. We want to look a certain way but we don't really want to work for it. I know because I'm one of them.

Toward the end of the summer, I decided I wanted to lose about 12 pounds and get in shape. For 2 weeks I walked for 30 minutes several times each week, cut out the soda I was so fond of, started eating breakfast (I'm not a breakfast eater), stopped eating those late-night snacks, and just generally watched what I ate. I lost about 2 lbs. However, then the weather started to turn and it would be cold, or rainy, or I had too much to do, etc. Thus ended my effort to get in shape. I've gained the weight back.

It's not easy to do, but I admit that it was my own laziness that has stopped me from getting healthier. I lost 2 lbs in 2 weeks by improving my diet and getting more exercise, so it really was "that simple". What isn't so simple is our commitment to it and willingness to sacrifice the things we want to achieve our goals. Last week I watched a couple of programs on TLC about super morbidly obese individuals. Two of them literally had to be cut out of their homes. One man was over 1,000 pounds! They wanted gastric bypass surgery to lose the weight. But, in order to get the surgery, they had to lose some weight first so that the procedure would be safer. How did they do this? Diet and exercise. Once admitted to the hospital and put on a restricted diet along with physical exercises they could do from their beds, the weight started melting off. Yet for years before they were confined to their beds just putting on more and more weight until they couldn't even leave their homes. Why?

Some of us may have to work harder at it than others, that's true. And if one is doing "all the right things" in their mind and is still unable to lose the weight, she might want to consider consulting a professional to help. What works for one person might not work for another. Sometimes people have physical reasons why a particular diet regimen is not working for them that have to be identified in order for it to be successful. Sometimes people are just not properly educated about what constitutes proper diet and exercise. After all, it doesn't matter if you make a sandwich with whole wheat bread if you're loading up on fat and calories with what's in between the slices. All of these things have to be taken into consideration.

So I do think it is a "no-brainer". The hard part is doing it.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right on the money, Erin. I'm sure Danielle didn't mean to be insensitive, but it does come across as rather dismissive of those who are 30 or more lbs overweight and ashamed and frustrated.

I am a happy, well-fed husband and gradually gained about 50 lbs before I got serious about changing my eating habits. The first 10 lbs only took two weeks to lose. "This is easy! What the heck was I waiting for?", I wondered. The next 10 lbs took a couple months. Now it's just leveled off for the last couple months. Quite a ways to go yet, and frustrated by lack of progress.

Sure it's a "no-brainer", but there's a big difference between "simple" and "easy".

Kate P said...

(In the off chance a strange comment by me got posted to this discussion, sorry--I was having trouble with commmenting at another site, and it's not intended for here--I usually just lurk here! Sorry for any confusion. Please feel free to delete this comment and the other one if it shows up. Thank you!)

Anonymous said...

I love Danielle's blog--indeed it was my first blog added to my favorites.

I am about 40 pounds overweight (at least) and felt chastised after reading her entry "The 3 things I hate about diets". I am a 42 year old woman, and I was being told that I was "obsessing".

It was similar to the feeling I get when one of my super, organizationally-gifted friends stop by, see my messy house, and says, "Oh, if you just throw out the stuff that doesn't belong" or "A place for everything and everything in it's place."

Well, I'm glad other people felt that way about the way things were phrased. Because I did, too.

We can lead each other by holding hands and hearts (virtually) and building up one another.

I really don't like dieting advice from my blog Moms. I'd rather talk about something less taboo.
Politics and Religion, for instance. (Giggle!)