Why we diet

November 7, 2011

Roger Freberg


“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know, because I’ve done it thousands of times,”  Mark Twain wrote.

I could say the same thing about dieting.  Those of us who have ridden the dieting roller coaster know what it is like to be thrilled by our thinness and then horrified when we can’t fit into favorite clothes of that skinny friend we used to be. Why is it that we continue the process over and over?

My personal belief is that the yo-yo experience of losing and gaining is very consistent with the development of human society. A steady food supply has not always been a given and it seems to be in our collective subconscious to eat what is before us to prevent future hunger. Maintaining a healthier lower body weight takes effort.

The history of dieting

There is a lot of misinformation regarding the cultural preferences around the world towards thinness. The measure of the “beauty” of a woman in the eyes of men has more to do with the ratio between a woman’s waist and her hips. A certain ratio (0.7) has to do with increased fertility; whereas, the pontoon shape around the middle sends a different message. For both men and women, the sight of a protective airbag at one’s middle is not a sign of arousal.

There have been many types of diets: Atkins, Stillman, Macrobiotic, liquid, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. I have tried them all. My personal favorite is the beer and steak diet, but oddly enough it has never worked for me. The truth is that every diet will get you where you want to go; but staying there is the challenge. Most diets in and of themselves end when you get to where you want to go, and then the weight loss isn’t sustainable. Besides sustainability, another concern I have about many diets is whether or not they are nutritional and complete? Some diets leave people looking strangely unhealthy, much like those who undergo intestinal bypass.

Our diets

As young people, Laura and I would lose weight to better enjoy the outdoors, sports and achieve a higher energy level. I remember buying Laura her first sweat clothes to jog (they came in one color at the time, gray) and she felt strangely out of place in a world where only athletes trained, but she enjoyed the experience.

As our lives became more entangled with children and work, we found that budgeting time to exercise was challenging and our weight would sneak up, we then would diet and then it would sneak up again. The cycle seemed endless. When I was young, losing a few pounds overnight meant not having a second dessert. Today, if I see a twig I gain weight.

Changing lifestyles

Someone once asked me what my ideal daily menu would be. I responded with an answer reflecting my days as a collegiate athlete. Breakfast: Stuffed omelet, sausage, French toast, milk and fruit; Lunch: a pound of beef hamburger with everything including bacon and cheese, French fries and a chocolate malt to wash it all down; Dinner: steak, potatoes, peas, corn and dinner rolls. My ideal dessert would be a bowl of my bread pudding covered with a warm rum sauce and topped with homemade vanilla ice cream. If I was traveling with an old business friend Jean Montdidier, lunch would include a couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of Armagnac. Well, at least I have my memories.

The problem is that this is not a reasonable diet for almost anyone outside of a rather large professional athlete.

Nowadays, I have to stay attuned to issues of blood sugar, blood pressure, pulse and cholesterol. All of my numbers stay in line when I keep my weight under control, but things start to look ugly when the weight creeps up. I have a healthy skepticism of doctors in general; like insurance salesmen, stock brokers and used car salesmen, I often wonder what their motivation really is? Are they pushing medications because they believe this is the right thing to do? Do they feel a need to over prescribe to prevent potential future blame and litigation? Hopefully, they don’t look at us like some sort of annuity? In any event, the important thing for all of us is to understand what is normal for us and what is not. With the internet and sites like Medline, it’s easy to learn more about our own physical situation, take preventive action, and ask appropriate questions prior to invasive procedures or strong medications.

103-year-old man, cute waitresses and walking

When I was a boy with a paper route, I had a 103-year-old customer on my route who tended a garden in his front yard. I would hand him his newspaper each day and he would ask me about my life and I would listen to a story or two of his. Every day, he told me, he would walk down to the local coffee shop, enjoy a cup of coffee and wink at the waitresses. He said that there was a natural and sad progression that would happen if he stopped walking. In the past, a number of his friends would walk with him for coffee, but one by one they found reasons not to walk, they retired to their couches, then their beds where they would pass on. He said, “when you stop walking, boy, it’s all down hill from there.”

So, for over 40 something years, Laura and I have taken – when possible – a walk or two each day. Walking to a ‘destination’ makes the walk pleasant, whether it be a coffee shop or a store, and if someone joins you, then the added conversation makes it perfect. Added exercise is nice, but walking should be relaxed and fun or you will quickly tire of the activity. The idea here is that activity should be “sustainable” over time. This argument should resonate with some of you.

Sustainable body weight

We’ve discussed that almost any diet will get you to where you want to go, but what happens when you take ‘the lid off?” A friend recently lost a great deal of weight on a rather questionable diet and has reached his goal weight. When asked about how he was going to sustain his weight, he smirked. You could almost see him diving into a 10,000 calorie meal topped off with a four layer chocolate cake. I hope this doesn’t happen but I have seen it all too often.

To sustain – or as the dieticians say—”maintain” your weight loss and your ideal weight, it is important to have a dietary plan for maintenance. If you go back to your prior eating habits, it will come back and maybe a little extra. Yahoo! Laura has maintained her weight loss for four years utilizing Jenny Craig’s “maintenance p Laura is also a participant on the National Weight Control Registry at Brown University that looks at folks who have lost weight and are maintaining their goal weights. Brian Wansink of mindlesseating.org has provided some helpful hints on how to reduce your intake and maintain your weight loss by studying how successful people do it:

1)    People who maintain their loss weigh themselves every day. A couple pound surge is easier to deal with than an unexpected 10 or 20 pound leap.
2)    Using luncheon plates rather than diner plates, smaller bowls and oddly enough larger forks makes a difference.
3)    Alcohol puts it back on faster than anything. Gotta keep this one under control.

Take control of your future

Back at the turn of the 1900’s, diabetics (obviously type 2) were treated with starvation. Did it work? Yes, but was it humane–that’s another question. However, people are always looking for something easier and shortcuts in the tough process of regaining health. There are many drugs that will address your diabetes type 2, but the side effects are considerable and one wonders if this is really a better way. Many have come full circle on how to treat diabetes 2 with diet. However, not all doctors agree and this is strange to me.

Doctors are used to seeing patients as childlike people who need their direction, guidance, understanding and discipline. You don’t have to fight with your doctor, but you should be informed about your condition. Would you blindly accept someone’s recommendation to put all of your money in Heritage Financial or would you have gotten a second or third opinion or investigated the issue yourself?

Let me share a medical moment

Around ten years or so ago, I wrote an article for the Five Cities Time Press Recorder discussing how I was able to walk away from my diabetes medication by losing weight (I am a type 2). The paper published my email address for folks who wanted encouragement and such, but the reaction I received from the medical community was not what I expected. They were outraged. Some thought I was offering false hope and some accused me of practicing medicine, which only deepened my suspicions as to their motivations. Today, most doctors understand that type 2 diabetes can be treated by diet, mild exercise (walking) and weight loss for most people.

Although there is little like the rush from a shot of insulin to a diabetic like myself (I receive my first in an ER over ten years ago with a blood sugar level as high as it would go… 800), it’s best to take off the weight and avoid the entire process altogether and the long term degenerative effects.

Investing in your future

Over the last ten years, I’ve had my weight ups and downs (227 – 287), but I’ve never come close to where I started out (427).  You learn what works for you and what doesn’t.  The key is to understand that being overweight is not a given—people give up smoking, drinking, and drugs, and that’s a challenge, too, so there’s no reason why anyone should feel ‘helpless’ about losing weight.

But once it’s off, you need a liveable, sustainable plan for maintenance, too.  I fix something very sinful, highly caloric and doctor disapproving once a week. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods—that never works—but you can’t have them all the time and you do have to keep an eye on that scale.  If your weight is up—no excuses—fix ittoday.

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The problem I find with dieting is this. Most people I think (rather they realize it or not) look at the diet as temporary. They are so extreme sometimes there is no way you are going to live like this forever and hence bad habits creep back. I like to make little changes here and there and I don’t tell people it is a diet, I tell them it is a lifestyle change. If you don’t change it won’t. It isn’t easy and I still, like most, go up and down but at least for the last 18 months have kept my weight in the same 15 pound range. Oh and on the scale EVERY day. That way if you start creeping up stop what you have been doing. Yes cheating. We all do and the quicker the scale reminds us the quicker we can adjust.

One last. I don’t think people think about the fact that the hardest addiction out there (in my opinion) is food. I have quit smoking (20+ years) stopped messing with drugs when younger and you know what? I found all that WAY easier than food. Why? Think about it. If you just don’t take a drag off that cig. or touch that drug, you will be o.k. Not easy but don’t get the taste. Now food. How in the hell do you cut down on an addiction when you need that same stuff (food) in another form to survive? You can’t get away from it like other addictions. Hence in my opinion food addiction is the worst addiction out there BY FAR and why I think when you look around, why most fail at it. It is very, very hard.

One other piece of advice, if I may. If you are really out of shape don’t start out at the gym. Start by walking and riding your bike and getting your diet in order. learn to make the healthy decisions, not just diet wise but the other little things too. Like taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Parking in the parking lot and walking into the store, stuff like that. If you just up and go the gym and realize how out of shape you are and you look around and see all the people who are way further down the road than you, that can be really really self defeating. It makes it really easy to give up while your still on the starting blocks. Get down the road of healthy lifestyle first. Nothing is more inspiring and encouraging than the first time someone will say to you, “Hey your looking good, have you been losing weight?” and nothing is more discouraging than being the fattest guy in the room. Like all success in life it as to come in steps. Make good choices and set yourself up for success and you will get there.

I think the act of dieting is setting yourself up for failure from the get go. Its as if you have told yourself that getting what you want is only a matter of a temporary solution. I see this at the gym all the time. People come in for awhile on a regular basis until they achieve a body that suits their ideals, or at least close to it. Then you don’t see them again, Its as if they say “Hey I am looking good. I can stop all this nonsense. Goodbye treadmill. Hello country fried streak and eggs!”

Like a lot of people when I hit my mid thirties I started putting on weight. I did diets, mixed in with exercise but they were merely temporary solutions which only produced temporary results. At some point I realized that what I needed to do was not to diet but start making smart choices. I met a nutritionist who taught me exactly what my body type needed to be as efficient as possible. I eat very healthy and its not a diet its just what I do. I made other lifestyle choices too. I ride my bike everywhere but to the store and out of town. I go to the gym5-6 days a week but not as much to keep my body healthy as much as I go to keep my mind healthy. Now dont get me wrong I go out for drinks on a lot of saturday nights and on sundays you will find me going out to breakfast and eating chicken fried steak I just cant everyday. One of the things the nutritionist taught me was that as long as you are eating the right way 80% of the time you can reward yourself with a few slices of pizza.

I know theres few things more insufferable than a convert, and what worked for me isnt going to work for everyone else and I enjoy certain advantages that give me an edge in reaching my goals Mainly not having kids helps a lot, but if your out there and you are struggling with this problem it can be achieved in the long run. I highly recommend working with a trainer and a nutritionist who can really help you be smart and efficient about reaching your goals. You dont have to diet you just have to be smart about what you pt in your body. Its a long process but you got to start somewhere. Good luck! ;)

“Some diets leave people looking strangely unhealthy, much like those who undergo intestinal bypass.”

I believe all weight loss surgeries keep the intestines functional. Some may shorten the small bowel length but you can’t bypass the intestines.