In my last post, I gave a brief history of being fat in the United States, and I also included a bit of personal history. I’d like to expand on the personal history before moving on to biology and will power.
I went on my first diet when I was 10 years old and was decidedly chubby. It was a 1,200 hundred calorie diet, and I bought a little book that listed the calories of commonly-eaten food so that I could make my very own food diary and keep track of how many calories I had consumed. Lo and behold, it worked! I lost weight and continued dieting all through my teens. At one point, I lost so much weight my shoulder blades stuck out. When I had the flu, I was delighted. More weight lost. In retrospect, I can see I was on the edge of anorexia, but I was too much of a foodie, even back then, to stay that way for long. I gained some of the weight back, but because I was such an active teenager, my weight stayed within acceptable limits. Then I had children, and ever since, I have swung back and forth between being overweight and being less overweight. How many pounds have I lost and gained over the past 30 years? Hundreds of pounds, I am sure, and the guilt of not being able to keep those pounds off weighed on me as heavily as the pounds themselves.
What was the matter with me? Why didn’t I have enough will power to eat sensibly and maintain a healthy weight? Spurred on by the literature of the 1980s and 90s, I was convinced I had some deep psychological issues, and this made me feel even worse. I got counseling, but the worst thing I could come up with was that food was a big deal in my family—my parents loved to eat and to cook, and grocery shopping was a joyous event in our house. Not so very bad, especially when compared with physical or mental abuse or deprivation.
Around that time, I was discussing dieting and losing weight with a friend of the family, who also struggled with being overweight. I suggested that there must be some underlying psychological disorder that prevented me from losing weight and keeping it off. She said, “Laurie, those theories are all very well and good. But let me tell you something. I just love food, and I love to eat. Plain and simple.”
At the time I dismissed what my friend said. Surely it couldn’t be that simple, that people just loved to eat. But as our country headed toward the 21st century and more and more people became obese, it seemed that my friend had a point. While there would be a certain percentage of the population that was overweight because of psychological issues, there were simply too many people putting on weight for this to apply to the majority. Unless, of course, we were afflicted with a national neuroses that was making the country fat. Possible but not probable. And with obesity spreading to countries that are becoming more affluent, there is even more indication that being fat is not just the province of a select group of neurotic women.
As scientists and food writers have studied food and human evolution, they have discovered that, in fact, people are prone to eating until they are really, really full, and the foods they are drawn to can jokingly be referred to as the true food groups: fat, salt, sugar, and carbs. (Chocolate, perhaps, should have its own category, especially for women.) While eating until very full does not make sense in the context of modern times in our country, with its supermarkets stuffed full of chips and donuts and cookies, it does make sense from an evolutionary viewpoint. It’s only recently that food has been so abundant. For most of human history, people had to work hard for the food they ate, and that work entailed lots of physical labor. Sometimes crops would fail, and people would face hunger and famine. In that context, it was very sensible to eat as much as you could whenever you could. I would also like to posit that people who gained weight easily had an advantage when hard times came. They had a surplus of fat that thinner folks did not have, which perhaps came in handy when food was scarce. (I want to emphasize this is my own supposition.)
As for fat, salt, sugar, and carbs—these are things that the human body needs—albeit not in the amounts we consume today—and once upon a time they were very hard to get. Again, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense to feast on them whenever you can. However, in almost a blink of an eye, modern society has skunked evolution. Fast food as well as stuffed supermarkets beckon from every corner, making it difficult to resist what our bodies naturally crave. Even worse, government subsidies go to supporting those industries that produce such a surplus of high-fat, high-caloric food.
Are we slaves, then, to our own evolutionary biology? No, but it’s important to realize how normal it is to want to eat until you are really full and how difficult it is to override this tendency. Bodies truly don’t like losing weight, and Parker-Pope’s “The Fat Trap” sheds even more light on how hard it is to keep weight off. More on that in a post next week.
But take heart! There are strategies that can be employed to convince the body to shed weight. It still isn’t easy, but there is at least some hope, and I will be writing about this as well.