Thursday, 18 October 2007
On Losing Weight
I've done it. I lost 12 kg in 2006. In 2007, I've gained and lost and gained and lost a couple of kg, but I've kept the big loss. Eventually I want to lose maybe another 15-20kg, which would take me down to the "normal" BMI range. I'm not really doing much about it now, though. I'm settling around the BMI overweight/obese border - and if you think that makes me an elephant, well, here I am in my burlesque alter ego. Not skinny, sure, but not exactly spherical. (Photo credit to the amazing Allyeska.)
I've been reading some sites that made me think about this thing. The evidence of harm from obesity per se is nowhere near as solid as you might think from the media. Or, for that matter, from common wisdom and diet books and government advisory offices. I'm especially impressed by Junkfood Science here at blogspot. And this particular post from Shapely Prose summarises a lot of the common arguments. As a die-hard skeptic, I especially appreciated CSICOP's take on the subject. I'm not quite so sure of the credentials of this one, from The Center for Consumer Freedom, whoever they are; it has a slight astroturf flavour. It can be hard to judge the truth of what's on teh internets.
It's looking more and more as if the main health issue is fitness, well over and above diet. And with diet, it's about being mostly healthy, rather than obsessively meticulous about counting calories and avoiding fat or carbs or whatever. And BMI is a sucky measure. People with lots of muscle turn up as overweight or obese. People in the "overweight" category seem to have a lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and most other diseases, than people in the "normal" category. And the whole fat-morbidity correlation goes away when you factor in fitness. I'd better get back on that bicycle!
This ties in with some other things I've been reading, such as the "Don't Go Hungry Diet" of Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis and the "low GI diet"of Dr Jennie Brand-Miller. There's sound scientific reasons for not starving yourself, and eating the slow-release carbs can help with that. All you need to do is simply eat a good variety of food, with most of it healthy, traditional foods - whole grains, fruit, veg, dairy, seafood, lean meats. Or even more fatty foods if you're off for a day's heavy toting of barges and lifting of bales, but most of us aren't these days. And add a bit of sugar or oil for the taste; it will not kill you. Listening to your body is the best guide. That New York Times article by Michael Pullan that was being passed around the net a while back was similar - remember, the one that started with "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
It sounds sensible and unarguable, but surprisingly, even this is unsupported by actual research. Diet seems to matter less than anyone thought. On the whole, though, I think the popular idea of healthy eating is largely correct. When really eating "ad lib", I naturally want to eat plenty of fruit and veg; I start feeling logy and bloated if I eat too much high fat food. I'm satisfied by very small servings of chocolate or cake.
One thing that I think is missing from most of these discussions is the problem of "portion distortion". This page has some contrasts in standard serving sizes from 1950 to 2003, or you could look at the slightly annoying portion distortion quiz. Other research suggests that we are psychologically very easily led to overeat simply by large plates and containers. The "not too much" in Pullan's piece is a very important part of the puzzle. It's also a theme in the popular "French Women Don't Get Fat" book. Sure, eat your patisserie and fry your steak in butter - but in small amounts. Take the filet mignon, not the 2lb steak challenge. The Japanese variant mentioned the same thing, as I recall from skimming in the bookshop. (I couldn't bring myself to buy "Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat". Really?? What do they do? Shoot them? I have every intention of getting old thank you.) But anyway, it's like the French one: eat many tiny portions of varied and beautiful food, and stop when not quite full. Mmm, must go to Iori again sometime.
I found that my few months with Weight Watchers was simply invaluable for getting a grip on sane serving sizes. I needed this. I hated the primary school hectoring style, and the group-think, and the commercialism, and the lame educational materials that assumed that everyone was a housewife, but I still feel that I got my money's worth. I've never been much of a junk food eater. I couldn't give up soft drinks, or stop eating chips in front of the telly, because I'd never started. But I could reeducate myself on how much pasta or rice or butter or steak was a reasonable serve. It took a few weeks of feeling that I was eating far too little, but it eventually stuck, and I readjusted. I'll need to watch that this does not creep back up.
I'm pretty sure that I will lose more weight eventually. I'm getting more active, although I lapsed badly over winter with my many illnesses. I'm getting better at stopping eating when I've had enough. And I'm get better at eating what I really want, rather than just what's there on the tea table, or comfort food. This is surprisingly hard - genuinely eating "what you want, when you want" requires a fair bit of emotional self-awareness and maturity. A bad day at work doesn't necessarily have to mean chocolate or beer - though usually it does, still. A plate full of chips doesn't need me to eat it just because it's there. There is no shortage. Over time all of these changes have got to have some effect. But if I just get healthier, will that be enough for me? I don't know. I'm not too obsessed with the BMI and kilogram numbers. But I do want to be a size 14 again, as I was in most of my 20s.