medicine! (To paraphrase Mark Twain, never let a lack of knowledge stand in the way of a perfectly good post.)
I vowed from Day One at the JW that I would not devote any time here to dieting issues. Not because this isn't a perfectly legitimate thing to write about, and not because no one would be interested--indeed, weight struggles are something with which many of us are familiar. My rationale has been that I find blogs that concentrate on a person's life rather tiring, especially on their interior life (unless you're just a hell of a lot more interesting than I am... internally). I'm much more interested in reading about ideas and issues than I am about a particular person. (Granted, with a blog it's all personal at some point, but I still think it best to stick to ideas.)
So what to do then when one's personal life brings one into contact with ideas? Well, we just stretch the rules a bit.
So. I've been fat my whole life, really. I remember seeing 202 lbs. on the scale when I was in 8th grade (a time when I should have been what? 120 lbs?) and I was probably 220 when I finished high school. By my 30s I was in the 250 lb. range, and now, nearing the ripe age of 50, I'm around 270. By most calculations that puts me around 100 lbs. overweight. I don't think of myself that way, and I think I carry my weight in such a way that I'm perceived as being stocky but not 100-extra-pounds obese. But I am. I used to be a runner in my 20s and 30s, a tactic for trying to keep my weight under control. But I had only limited success with this, and like many people my weight has been an up-and-down-and-mostly-up-again struggle.
In addition to my attempts at exercise I--like much of America--have spent much of my life trying to diet. I rarely followed a specific program, mostly concentrating on calories-in / calories-out. But that gets harder the older one gets. A few years back I tried the Atkins diet, and I was particularly taken with it, both because I found it worked and because the concepts behind the diet were aimed precisely at me (one of my first clues that calories-in / calories-out may not really be enough). America is suffering a growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and Atkins was the first source I'd come across that made any real sense of this epidemic. I lost around 50 lbs. on Atkins, but I learned that a life entirely without carbs was not really sustainable for me.
But, again, the takeaway here was that Atkins' philosophy had me directly in its crosshairs; I am the poster child for the phenomena that prompted him to concoct his regimen. (There are a lot of people, I know, for whom his diet regimen is not workable, or even applicable.) I also tried Weight Watchers, which I think is a truly great program and one which IS applicable to many people. But while good-sense advice and meal planning are surely beneficial to me, I've come to see that I suffer from a particular and specific metabolic problem, and any real fix for my weight is going to have to grapple with this. (And I think ultimately WW will need to grapple with these issues as well.)
A friend was recently put on the South Beach Diet by his doctor, and that led to us discussing dietary matters. Susan has a copy of the South Beach Diet book, and my perusal of the book and my discussions with my friend reinforced my impression that Drs. Agatston and Atkins are pursuing in pretty similar fashion the same demons (and both are singing my song). Agatston's attempt to differentiate his thinking from Atkins' feels more marketing than substance to me, though I acknowledge his emphasis that fat consumption should be reigned in and specified. But in the final stage of Atkins one is consuming quite a number of fruits and veggies. (So often Atkins is characterized for the first phase of his diet, a shocking plan which runs contrary to just about everything we adults have been told for 40 years; but his "maintenance phase"--my phrase--looks about like what most of us think of as a healthy diet.)
But the South Beach Diet: I read the book--and began the plan--and it all has me chewing specifically on the topic of insulin resistance (or type-2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome or even syndrome X). These terms all address the same phenomenon, or at least stages of it. For my purposes, insulin resistance refers to a dietary condition where insulin loses its effectiveness in metabolizing carbohydrates. The condition appears to arise from excessive carbohydrates in the diet over a prolonged period; all these carbs require the body to produce lots of insulin to metabolize, and over time (for a number of reasons I have not internalized) the insulin loses its effectiveness. As the insulin becomes less effective, the body produces more and more of it to compensate; meanwhile these high levels of insulin contribute to storing these excess carbs away as fat, a condition which exacerbates the whole situation. A vicious cycle develops where the carb addict consumes more and more carbs (because the ones he's already eaten aren't turning into energy), which further increases the need for insulin. The result is the body essentially losing its ability to metabolize carbs adequately--diabetes.
As I say, I'm really a poster child for this problem (while thankfully avoiding diabetes thus far): I've been overweight all my life, and I've eaten over 90% of my meals out for 30 years. This means that a huge preponderance of my diet consists of processed food. I'm also regrettably a product of the food-industry culture, with my almost laughable Diet Coke addiction and my love of candy and chips and all the junk that exactly brings insulin resistance about. Food has long ago been dissociated from hunger and nutritional maintenance for me; it's all about wants and desires. At my twice-yearly medical checkup last week, I learned that my blood sugar is slightly elevated--not enough to be a problem yet, but it's trending where I don't want it to go, and this is on top of my already being on medication for blood pressure and high cholesterol.
This is just a stupid situation all around; I'm gradually killing myself with food.
The American diet has become very heavily weighted toward the foods which cause this metabolic disaster (the exploding epidemic of diabetes in America is proof positive): our convenience stores and drive-thrus and even our supermarkets are stocked with an overwhelming preponderance of processed quasi-foods that are triumphs of marketing and profitability but disastrous to our bodies as sustenance. I know this because these are precisely the foods I have spent my life eating--and much of my adult life fighting against the effects of (as any overweight person can tell you, being fat is a low-grade 24/7 preoccupation).
I'm at risk of sidestepping a crucial fact here: none of us is overweight--let alone trending toward diabetes--except by way of food we've placed voluntarily in our own mouths. We don't get fat without complicity. But that argument adds up to shit when we are being walked doe-eyed into an epidemic. Ongoing appeals to will power and self-control have brought us steadily backward until our present catastrophic state.
It hasn't just happened. Whether we are complicit or not, this is something that has been systematically done to us--and for one simple reason: it makes a shitload of money for big corporations. And it is being increasingly done to the citizens of other nations. Like the tobacco industry or the gambling houses of Las Vegas, the food industry has found the secret button--found, carefully nurtured and cultivated it--that gets us, zombie-like, to pursue a path that is very decidedly NOT in our best interest, and they are hiding with all the other industries behind the tree of individual free will as a means of escaping responsibility for the damage being wrought (it's a very crowded space behind that tree).
Cigarettes and gambling are perhaps instructive analogs. Cigarettes are now universally acknowledged as unquestionably dangerous to our health. They are ONLY deleterious; there is no possible upside to smoking--except, significantly, the relentlessly-marketed "social benefits" (a whole-cloth invention of the tobacco companies). And with the health questions firmly decided, society has in consequence moved consistently in the last 30 years to discouraging smoking, with warning labels and heavy taxes. (My point is not to debate whether this is the correct way to approach the problem of smoking, but simply to note that as a society we are taking active steps against a thing now universally acknowledged as harmful.) With gambling, things are fuzzier. It's possible to gamble without vice or ruin, and one's gambling does not necessarily hurt other people. For millions of folks it's fun to save up a couple grand and live it up for a few days in Vegas; no harm done. But we don't let minors do it, because it's easy for our sense of risk and reward to be misled--indeed, the entire industry is based on a predictable mis-firing of our risk/reward instinct.
Food strikes me as more like gambling. But it differs from gambling or smoking in that everyone HAS TO eat. You can steer clear of Vegas if you feel unable to control yourself at the craps table, but steering clear of food is a non-starter. And what a leg up for industrial food producers! The process of getting people hooked on an obscene proliferation of bad foods--our supermarkets are now about 80% junk--has been a gradual one, but it piggybacks on our inexorable need to eat something. A company need only find a way to make THEIR something THAT something and the profits that are the be-all and end-all of industry will come rolling in: caffeine (in the case of Coca-Cola, it was cocaine originally--the ultimate way to addict your patrons to your product); sugar--LOTS and lots of sugar; intense, lab-crafted artificial flavors.
And billions of dollars spent yearly on marketing, especially to kids.
So all this to get to this question: At what point do these companies bear responsibility when their relentless drive for profit causes them to take actions which they know and we know will cause many people to bypass their common sense and best interests toward an outcome that's disastrous for us (but not for them)? At what point do we hold McDonald's--maybe the largest food vendor in the country--accountable for marketing and selling products which they know to be deleterious to our health--more than this, they know to be actively contributing to a medical epidemic? To say they bear no responsibility is, IMO, bullshit.
(This seems an especially germane question as I look around China and see a new generation of fat, American-looking Chinese. These have never been seen in China! This is like discovering a pristine land and quickly destroying it to get to the precious metals underneath, except the pristine land is 1.3 billion human beings. Convenience stores in China are much smaller than ours and have very little of our standard junk food, but the phenomenon is clearly growing. I generally see only young folks in the 7-11s, and mostly kids in the McDonalds, but there is a huge effort underway by McDonalds and Subway and Burger King and KFC and many other American brands to turn China into an immense new source of revenue. As the population in China ages, hundreds of millions of consumers of American junk food are being created--and, predictably, millions of people who will suffer from insulin resistance and eventually type-2 diabetes.)
So what to do? Good socialist that I am, I propose that what appears to be working for the tobacco industry should be applied to the junk food industry: we should tax the shit out of processed foods which cannot be demonstrated (scientifically, independently) to have some dietetic reason to exist--not marketability, not profitability; manufacturers should have to demonstrate dietary merit for any processed food or we should be required to pay something extra for the privilege of exercising our freedom of choice to eat what we know will hurt us and burden our health care system. Put that money in the health care fund.
I love me some jalapeno Cheetos, but I have to look myself in the mirror and acknowledge that they're killing me; them and peanut M&Ms and Double-Stuff Oreos.
This is not going to happen, guaranteed, because we are easily kept from speaking with one voice and in any case we're no longer in control of our government. But that's another post.