I despise the word diet for its false promise. Americans’ obsession with weight is harder and harder to escape, and yet no less insanity-driving for those promoting healthy lifestyle.
So, recently, I went to a friend’s back-terrace Brooklyn barbecue. In that collaborative summertime fashion, it was potluck, meaning guests carted along side dishes to add to the feast, or slabs of meat or vegetarian meat-like food to be grilled. As options on the serving table grew, eyes lit up–a fresh salsa, a creamy hummus, veggie sticks, chunks of succulent watermelon, bowls of ripe berries, grilled asparagus. To the tune of oohs and aahs, each addition was more enticing than the last, and all of it pleasingly healthy. I noticed that one of the gals wasn’t noshing. She, instead, was nursing a large, plastic water bottle containing a pale yellow liquid. When someone else inquired (I try hard not to butt into others’ relationships with food at social gatherings), we all learned that this spritely woman was on day 10 of a cleanse consisting of water, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Only that. When we next heard, “You know, like the one Beyonce did, before that big movie,” it became clear that the objective behind the “cleanse” was indeed to lose weight. I confess here and now to keeping a close eye on Tiny the entirety of the party, wanting, no needing to make sure she did not pass out. “Be safe,” I said, in the gentlest I-am-trying-to-understand-but-can’t voice I could muster.
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More disappointment ensued when, even at an ashram yoga retreat over the weekend, I happened to always end up standing next to the woman in the food line who, as she approached the buffet, loudly spurted, “It’s way too easy to overeat here.” Each time I heard this, my agitation swelled. My lips pursed, my eyebrows knitted together, my head cocked. However in the world, I wondered, could it be possible to overdo steamed kale, quinoa, black beans, sweet potatoes, beets, fresh tomatoes, carrots, bananas and apples, sunflower seeds and raisins, this array of wholesome no-salt, no-added-sugar vegetarian plates before us? It irked me that even at this compassion-fostering, soul-enriching place one could still not detach from food issues; one could still not see food simply for what it was: nourishment.
There are variations on weight obsession, but however mild or severe (I’ll never forget how disturbing I found a comment stream filled with women, all women, defending the HCG diet, while researching an article) the case, it is increasingly hard to escape. And I find this entrapment people experience terribly sad. The way people comment on weight vexes me. The way that weight makes people feel about themselves troubles me. It has all this power – hugely undeserving.
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Summertime should conjure things frivolous and carefree: swimming in the ocean, twirling in light and flowy fabrics, savoring fresh and juicy produce, running barefoot in the grass, or the sand, tossing Frisbees in the breeze. And yet, it’s the time when those assignments come around, all the renditions on “Summertime: How to Drop Pounds Fast and Look Great in Your Swimsuit.” So instead of looking forward to the liberation of warm-weather leisure, one is programmed to dread having to bare more skin, which is beside summer’s grand point: relaxation, adventure, amusement.
I’ve been writing about health and fitness since my first post grad-school magazine internship some eight years ago. At first, it struck me as odd how health was so inextricably knotted with diet and weight loss. If you wanted to write about health, you would, at some point, cover weight-loss success stories, and the latest fad diets, or worse, so-called cleanses. Having seen enough website traffic reports (at household brands as well as startups), I know the power numbers diet and weight loss, among the most highly clicked-on headline words, produce; yet somehow dread related assignments. I don’t want to give into this unhealthy obsession, or to further its ever-expanding reach.
What I never understood was the ambition to lose weight to achieve a goal of looking thinner, in say, a bathing suit. What I did always get in a very big way was the pursuit of healthy lifestyle in order to feel better, to banish stress and bad energy, to feel clean and to feel strong, to feel agile and active and youthful and free yet purposeful and focused. To me, pursuing a healthy lifestyle meant a healthy mind, body and weight would follow, naturally. Managing stress and creating a healthy relationship with food seemed to be key. But these topics were not covered in diet articles, which outlined the do’s and don’ts, the rules and limitations, the extractions.
Diets Don’t Work
A study in the April 2007 American Psychologist journal analyzed 31 long-term studies tracking adults following a range of diets anywhere from two to five years and found that while dieters did shed plenty of pounds in the first six months, the majority regained the initial weight, and more, back. Indeed a whopping 83 percent of dieters followed two-plus years re-gained more weight than was lost. Researchers concluded that most study participants would have been better off never having “dieted”.
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Diets don’t work. Point blank. If diets worked, we would have no need to come up with new iterations, because the first ones that came about would have covered it. The word diet, while it has multiple definitions, is most used to mean a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight. It is temporary, a means to an end. But what is one to do when the end-goal is reached. Stop? Shifting to a healthy lifestyle is permanent. It’s replacing unhealthy shopping-list items with healthy staples, forever. Instead of buying salty chips as a snack, buying unsalted, roasted peanuts, and having only those available at snack time.
Crash Diets Are Not Safe
Recently, I was asked to do an article where the ideal formatting would be, in x amount of weeks, or days, lose y number of pounds by doing z. But that was impossible. I couldn’t stand the idea of suggesting that crash diets were safe. The expert nutritionist pointed out that, for most people, safe weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Sweat Is Not Optional
Turns out, someone on a lemon-juice-hot-sauce-whatever-other-flavoring water diet has no energy to safely exercise. And it is fitness and nutrition together that equal healthy lifestyle. Healthy eating alone just doesn’t cut it. We, so often, are a culture seeking easy ways out. Slap a band-aid on. Staple it shut. Pop a vitamin. But healthy lifestyle requires making a conscious choice. It’s everyday decision-making. A shift in priorities that puts you in control. Perhaps it even requires making new friends who also prefer evening runs or yoga class to happy hour.
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I am aware that, according to CDC, more than 35 percent of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 19 are obese. I’m also aware that the average American consumes three fruits and vegetables daily despite the latest dietary-guidelines recommendation of five to 13 servings (or 2.5 to 6.5 cups), depending on caloric intake. My favorite way of eating (yes, diet, if you must, but there is nothing temporary about it) is the Mediterranean style. A recent New England Journal of Medicine study found this heart-healthy eating style to reduce risk of heart attack and stroke by 30 percent. Going Mediterranean is about choosing a healthier approach to life—not only by eating mostly fish and whole, plant-based foods but also by regularly exercising and enjoying leisurely, social meals, often with a hearty glass of red wine. Try it, but please, whatever you do, don’t call it a diet.