Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My new diet

I confess; I have no idea what to eat.
This is not new. I have now endured four decades of dieting madness and confusion, and I am not alone. Look back with me, on diet wisdom through the ages, circa 1970 to the present.

My first diet memory is of skim milk. This must have been an invention of the 60s, since the doctor recommended to my mother that I be switched from formula to skim milk as an infant. That was in 1963. I don't ever remember seeing whole milk in our house growing up. We also did not eat butter, only margarine. We ate chicken and fish, vegetables and fruit, lean meats, eggs, milk and cereal, pretty normal stuff. We had some junk food, some ice cream, some cookies, and of course, the rare but revered TV dinner.

When in 1972 it was determined on my behalf that I needed to lose weight, I remember the diet plans going into effect: the first was Weight Watchers. WW and I have been in a love-hate relationship ever since. Seriously, it's complicated. Weight Watchers is based on an ever-changing plan that results in the same platitude; eat less. Calorie deprivation is the backbone, though it has grown to reflect current diet wisdom to some extent. At the time, however, it was based on the revolutionary concept of low fat, low calorie, near-starvation living. If you're trying to lose weight, this works. But fast-forward a few weeks/months/years and we know that 95% of those losers will gain the weight back, and then some.

My next childhood diet memory is avoiding sweets. I was not allowed soda, or cookies, or chocolate pudding, or any of the treats my thin sibs (I hate you all) were allowed. This method did not affect my weight, however, so more drastic measures were necessary. It did seem to affect my mood. But that did not seem to be as important as my jeans.

The 70s gave birth to the liquid protein diets. By now I was a teenager and well-versed in deprivation dieting. I don't remember losing weight on those diets, but I do remember they were GROSS.
I spent half my teen years eating almost nothing but salad. Some chicken with no skin, some white, tasteless fish, lots of bean sprouts. Again, there was some concept of "diet food," meaning potatoes were fattening, as were butter and beer, but the overall wisdom was that calorie deprivation was the road to weight loss.

The other staple of my teen years was diet soda. Tab, to be precise. In the pursuit of thinness, there was not a lot of talk about health. Thin was healthy, fat was unhealthy. Tab and other toxic substances that supposedly contributed to thinness were good.

Now, welcome to the 80s. Goobye low carb and hello high carb! Low fat, high carb. That's right, folks: the brown rice diet and the grapefruit diet and more liquid stuff. My mom went off to Pritikin and came back with the Absolutely Nothing diet. Now we're on low protein as well. Oh, and vegetarianism. In 1985 I went to northern California for my graduate degree. News flash! Vegans! So, now I'm eating no meat, no fish, no dairy, no white rice or flour or sugar. My cholesterol tested on the high side, so that meant being more extreme: no fat, no eggs. Cereal boxes started printing "no cholesterol!" on the package. Gee, wouldn't have guessed that.

In 1989 I spent a number of months in third world countries. Didn't eat much of anything other than rice, bananas and tea. There wasn't much food but everyone seemed pretty happy. I seem to remember  losing weight on that diet. I should keep that in mind.

 In the 90s I had three babies, and a fourth in 2001. My priorities shifted from my diet to theirs, so I amped up my calories and nutrition to keep the milk flowing, and you know what? That worked! I wasn't thin, but my babies were well-fed and healthy. At one doctor's appointment I complained about not being able to lose my pregnancy weight, and he actually said, "if you were in a concentration camp, you wouldn't be fat." So that made perfect sense. I was, according to the doctor, to try consuming under 500 calories a day. That seemed reasonable. And sensitive, too.

The years rolled on and still the diet crazes kept coming. By the first decade of the millenium I had tried Atkins (hey, I remember this one!) and South Beach (gained weight on both of those, and nearly lost my gall bladder), more liquid stuff like Herbalife (has anyone noticed it tastes like snot? Oh, and I'm starving) and about five more tries at WW.

I've recently been getting a fitness blog in my email box every week, and the hot, buff trainer who writes it says I should be eating grass-fed meat and whole fat dairy products and whole eggs and his outrageously expensive supplements. Did this guy miss the 80s? Oh, right, he was a toddler.

My neighbor gave me a book this week that says essentially the whole history of cardiology got it all wrong. Not low fat, high fat. Carbs are bad, protein and fat are good. Sugar is very bad. Eat butter.
And what about soy? Is it good or bad? I hear wine is on the chopping block now. Two weeks ago it prevented heart disease. But yes, I know, alcohol is a carb. Damn. How about coffee? Good? Bad? And chocolate? Yes? No?

Are you as confused as I am?
If so, try this; I've invented my own diet regimen; joy. I'm going to eat food that I like. Food that tastes good, has as few ingredients as possible and remembers where it came from. I'm going to eat food that makes me happy, because I think happiness makes us healthy. Mae West once said, "Irish coffee has all the food groups: fat, alcohol, sugar and caffeine." I'm thinking of making that my next diet.


  1. No matter what I eat, there's someone who says it's not healthy. But instead of saying "I think" they say, "Did you know...?" When someone tells me, "Did you know soy is bad for fertility?" I feel like answering, "What if the Catholics are right?"

  2. You are by far one of the most intelligent, fascinating and loving people I have ever known. Every thing you say I know has a lot of thought and experience behind it...so i listen!!
    My theory as a person who was a former division one athlete and studied exercise physiology and nutrition in college. It all boils down to this..THERE IS NO MAGIC FORMULA, we don't 'KNOW' for sure what different foods do to different people. All we know is that EXERCISE, is the single best thing a person can do for their health.
    So my personal theory is...Eat what you love, what makes you happy in moderation and exercise a lot..oh and have lots of sex!!! well, look at that, I guess we pretty much have the same theory, surprising (don't forget fat is made with collagen in it, so keep a little on and you'll look more youthful and healthier..skinny and wrinkles is not sexy! :P

  3. from an anonymous reader:
    I totally agree with your assessment of the situation. The whole fat vs skinny thing is a tyranny imposed upon us by people who are genetically predisposed to having low body fat. There are people I know, and am jealous of who are skinny no matter how much they eat and vice versa. Skinny people look down on more full-bodied people out of arrogance as if they are better people for being skinny (I say that out of personal experience) and they have forced diets upon us. A skinny person isn't necessarily healthier than a fatter person and many studies have shown that. The key is to have a healthy cardio-vascular system through exercise and eat reasonably. Body fat is not evil. Kol hakavod.

  4. Read Michael Pollan. His philosophy is 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.' If you do that AND exercise the weight will fall off, even if you cheat a few times a week. Yes I'm still heavy so why should anyone listen to me? Well, I used to weigh 250 pounds, and if I were to get back into exercising the rest would probably fall off too.

    I think you look fine. And joy is the most important thing, we're heavy because our relationship to food is so messed up. I was also in Weight Watchers in 1973.

  5. I was just going to say the same thing - you should forward this to Michael Pollan! He would love it!

  6. I should have added that I swim a km every day. I've always been into fitness and it has never made me thin. Mostly it just makes me hungry :)