Perhaps the most common new year’s resolution is to lose weight. You’d think that would be a great way to get ourselves into better shape — and also to enlist ourselves as citizen warriors in the all-out war on obesity.
But the reality is far different. Our quest to lose weight is a big mistake: for ourselves, for our health and for our world.
Let me explain. And let me also acknowledge someone who has greatly helped me better understand this important issue. My sister, Ann McConkey, is a registered dietitian in Winnipeg. She has a wealth of insight from her work over the years with the Women’s Health Clinic and the Provincial Eating Disorders Prevention and Recovery Program. So, thanks, sis!
The problem with trying to lose weight is that we are confronted by two almost insurmountable obstacles: biology and economics.
First, biology. When we reduce what we eat in order to lose weight, our bodies rebel. We have evolved over millions of years to maintain weight during times of food shortage. If our bodies suspect that a famine is imminent, then we go into weight-conserving mode. This happens at a deep inner level, below any level of consciousness. This explains why almost everyone who goes on a diet will eventually gain back all (and often more) of the weight that they initially lose. Go on a few “yo-yo” diet-weight gain cycles and our bodies become extra resistant to losing any weight.
As a result, many of us become discouraged dieters with our self-esteem battered. And then we don’t want to even think about exercising or eating those vegetables like we know we should.
That brings us to the second obstacle: economics.
Unhappy people are just what corporate marketers want. Billions of dollars are to be made when we crave buying more of everything — including diet programs — in an endless attempt to feel better.
Making us desire being thin (especially for women) is a very well-planned and well-funded effort. Fashion models have been getting skinnier over the years. Today’s super svelte bodies of magazine models are increasingly not even real; they are just computer-generated images. We are trying to live up to an ideal that can’t be achieved.
As we consume more and more, we feel worse and worse. When shown a picture of chocolate cake, the top response of Americans is “guilt.” The top response of the French? “Celebration!”
So what can we do? Because after all, we do want to live well and be healthy. And not just for the first few weeks after new year’s, but for the whole year and for the years after that.
Fortunately, we have options. Here are four ways to think about alternative perspectives, to engage in more holistic approaches to eating and food:
First, put positive practices — eating more healthy foods and getting more exercise — into a more sustainable context. Don’t think about losing weight. In fact, try to forget about weight altogether. Embrace the body you have. Embark on a goal of “health at every size” (being as healthy as you are able to be in your own body).
Second, think old-fashioned, as an antidote to today’s fad diets, fast foods, processed foods, and drive-thru foods. Instead, think of real foods that are slow, locally grown, home-cooked and contain ingredients that one can pronounce. Rather than simply rushing, consider mindful eating. Check out Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.”
Third, appreciate the specific notion of “adding” rather than “reducing.” In other words, look at adding healthy foods to your menu instead of restricting and denying foods as in dieting. And, when adding, think nutritious, delicious, intriguing and satisfying.
Fourth, explore eating in a more globally conscious way: eating for our personal health and for the health of the planet. One aspect is less meat, again, for our own health and because raising livestock for food usually consumes more resources than growing plants for food. (A bonus: this way of eating is usually more economical.) Take a look at “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating,” a book by Mark Bittman.
These alternative approaches go against much conventional wisdom. And they don’t fit into an easily stated new year’s resolution.
But why not make a resolution to increase our enjoyment of food, to increase our awareness of ourselves and the world, and to increase our promotion of healthy living?
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns: davidmcconkey.com