Why I floss but don’t diet

I recently started flossing regularly, partly because it’s good for my teeth but also partly because it’s potentially good for my heart. It seems utterly absurd to think that periodontal disease really causes heart disease, and I’m inclined to think that either the studies that found the association were flawed, that there’s a serious correlation/causation mixup going on, or that the causation actually runs the other way and heart disease causes unhealthy gums. But what the heck, right? I’ve got no illusions that healthy behaviors will make me immortal, but I’d like to put off dying as long as possible. Why not do something that might potentially keep me from getting sick?

Well, there are also flawed, correlation-and-causation-confusing studies out there saying that losing weight will lower my risk of heart disease. The research is no better than the gum research, the conclusions are no more solid, but they might not be a hell of a lot worse. If I’m willing to take one dubious approach to improving my heart health, why not another?

Here’s why: Because if flossing doesn’t prevent heart disease, what’s the worst that’s happened? I’ve got healthier teeth and gums and my dentist is happy with me. If I try to diet my way into weight loss, the consequences are a little more dire: I risk disordered eating, anxiety, depression, undernourishment, low self-esteem, immune suppression, metabolism changes, and weight cycling (not to mention becoming totally boring). Even in the unlikely case that it is as simple as that, that weight directly correlates with heart disease risk, it’s not clear that I’d come out ahead. Flossing means undertaking an immediately healthy behavior in the hopes that its ill-proven future health effects also turn out to be real. Dieting means undertaking an immediately unhealthy, unpleasant, and eventually counterproductive series of behaviors in the hopes that its ill-proven future effects might outweigh present misery. (Oh, and of course I would become totally pretty. But it’s all about health, dontcha know.)

Some stuff that’s healthy, or might be healthy, is worth doing. These things vary according to what’s healthy for your individual body — someone with a torn meniscus might not find it healthy to jog, for instance — but it’s a sure bet that some things will make you feel better over the long and short run, and might even make you less likely to get sick. But it’s also a sure bet that you’re not going to live forever, not even if you do every supposedly healthy thing you can think of — and you don’t have to do them all to benefit from some. What that means to me is that it’s a no-brainer to miss out on things some study says are potentially healthy if they’re also going to cause me immediate harm. If I’m worried about heart disease, I can floss (definitely helps teeth), exercise (definitely helps mood and sense of well-being), and eat foods high in antioxidants (definitely delicious). Or I can try desperately, painfully, and ultimately unsuccessfully to lose weight. Even if the disease-avoiding benefits of the latter are much higher, and there’s no good reason to believe they are, deciding to give it a miss because it’s horrible doesn’t cancel out the benefits of the first three. And if none of them keep me from getting heart disease, which is also quite possible? Well, then I’ll have clean teeth, a good mood, and tasty things to eat, and I’ll die just like the thinnest person alive.

It’s great to do stuff that you find is good for you — you deserve that kind of care. But be aware that there’s not a lot we know about the long-term effects of our daily choices, and what we know is changing all the time. Is it really worth it to ruin your “now” in the hopes of maybe possibly tacking a few years onto your “later”? You can find a version of “healthy” that works for you — that decreases pain rather than increases it, that improves mood rather than wrecking it, that contributes to your quality of life rather than considering “quality of life” an affront to Puritan virtue. Figuring out what will extend your life is a guessing game. Figuring out what will make it enjoyable? That’s not nearly as hard.

Quick hit: Another reason not to make weight loss resolutions

I can see why people find it really appealing to vow that they’ll lose weight in the new year. Of course there’s the eternal return of the FoBT — “this year is the year I get my new life underway.” But there’s also the fact that, man alive, is it ever easy to eat a lot over the holidays. Even those of us who are relatively secure with our bodies can end up feeling a little logy, bloated, and sugar-poisoned — I know I do. It’s tempting to think of a diet as the ticket to feeling cleansed.

Before you give in, though, check out this BBC News article on why now is actually the worst time to diet. You need your immune system during the winter months even more than usual, and surprise surprise — when you’re restricting calories, you can’t choose what gets shortchanged. At least in mice, dieting leads to reduced ability to fight off the flu.

The team at Michigan State University found even though the mice on the lower calorie diet received adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, their bodies were still not able to produce the amount of killer cells needed to fight an infection.

As well as being more likely to die from the virus, the mice – which were consuming around 40% of the calories given to their counterparts on a normal diet – took longer to recover, lost more weight and displayed other symptoms of poor health.

“Our research shows that having a body ready to fight a virus will lead to a faster recovery and less-severe effects than if it is calorically restricted,” said study author Professor Elizabeth Gardner.

Hilariously, even though a well-fed body is described as “a body ready to fight a virus,” the scientists warn that their results “should not be seen as a carte blanche to avoid dieting all year.” Flu season is apparently the only time when you need the ability to fight off infection more than you need to be a pretty pretty princess. Still — thanks, guys, for giving us leave to care more about our health than our weight for four months out of twelve! (It goes without saying, of course, that we here at SP give you carte blanche to avoid dieting all year. We tend to think it’s foolish to court a compromised immune system, even in the summer.)

Quick Self-Promotion/Good Article

My sister-in-law just sent me this article that she first saw in the print version of The Toronto Star. She sent it because it mentions the blog, the book, and my Dear Oprah post (woo!), but I’m actually posting it because, holy cow, it’s really good.

Well, mostly. I think the “vanity sizing” detour is crap, since the underlying belief there is once again that fat people don’t know they’re fat. The numbers on the tags stay the same, so they’ll never realize their asses are getting bigger! Which totally makes sense, if you think about it. I mean, I know that once petite clothes became more widely available, and I could just put on a new pair of pants without having to hem them, I started looking in the mirror and thinking I must be about 5’8″. 

That aside, check this out:

A U.S. survey tracking substantial weight loss found that individuals had to do the equivalent of 40 kilometres of walking every week just to maintain any weight loss.

“That’s a pretty big commitment,” says [University of Guelph obesity researcher Paula] Brauer. “We really underestimated how much it takes to lose substantial weight and keep it off.

“The big thing, really, is not the food,” she says.

“It’s the degree of physical activity that people have to do to keep the weight off. Most obese people are not overeating,” Brauer stresses.

And then the article ends with quotes from the Dear Oprah post — instead of with the usual quote from an obesity researcher saying, “Well, that’s all well and good, but fat people still need to lose weight for their health.” Awesome. Thank you, Diana Zlomislic!

ETA: Do I really still need to tell you people not to read comments on newspaper articles about fat? Sanity Watchers warnings always apply!

Dear Oprah

Dear Oprah,

Please just stop. Please. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way (though some of my commenters will). I mean please, stop doing this to yourself.

I know saying that is pointless, because I’ve been there, and I know it’s hardly a matter of just telling yourself to get over it and accept that this is what your body always does, what your body always will do if you keep dieting. But gosh, it would be so nice if you stopped. 

A few months ago, I was on your show via Skype — as an average viewer, not a guest or an expert in anything — and we exchanged a little preliminary banter that was eventually cut from what aired. You said, “Kate, I understand you have a blog — tell us a little bit about it.” And I said, “I write about body image and self-acceptance.” That’s my stock answer for anyone who might not be prepared to hear the words “fat” and “acceptance” right next to each other. It’s a bit of a cop-out, frankly, but the fact is, no matter how proud I am of what I do here, I’m not always in a mood to explain or defend it. I don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle every day. That doesn’t mean I back down from my principles, it just means that sometimes — like when I’m freaking out because I’m on national TV, and Oprah just asked me a question, and the topic of the day is not anything fat-related — taking the path of least resistance is the best way to protect my own sanity. So that’s what I said to you. 

Unfortunately, the sound was still buggy on the Skype connection at that point, so I could barely hear what you said back. It took me a moment to process your reply, during which time I was all, “Holy crap, Oprah just said something, and I don’t know what it was, and now I have to attempt to respond without sounding like an idiot.” But then, your words finally arranged themselves properly in my mind. 

What you said was, “I’m still working on that.” 

And what I said — because I was still panicky and felt like you’d been waiting a day and a half for a response from me already — was, “Well… uh… um… good luck!”

I beat myself up for that answer for days, until the show aired and I learned that that part was gone anyway. As soon as you turned away from the screen with my head on it and started the show, I started running through all the better answers I could have given you. “Well, have me back in May 2009, when my book comes out!” was one obvious response, but really, here’s what I would say if I had that moment to do over: “We all are.” 

We are all still working on it. Even me, even people who have been waving the fat acceptance banner for decades longer than I have. We’re all still working on it, because the messages are relentless — the messages that tell us we should hate ourselves, starve ourselves, make dieting at least a part-time job (for our health!), the messages that tell us we will never be loved if we “let ourselves go,” the messages that tell us there is only one acceptable female body type, and you and I are both too fat for it, and you’re too black for it, and millions of women — the majority of us, actually — are too something (even too skinny) for it. Those messages never, ever let up, and rejecting them involves a conscious choice, every dingdang day. And some days, like I said, you don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle.

Some days, you feel like it would be so much easier to take on that old part-time job again — especially when you’ve done it so many times, for so many years, you could do it in your sleep. All you have to do is carve out three or four hours a day to exercise more vigorously, obsess about what you’re going to eat next, and prepare it; stop listening to your body and only pay attention to your food plan and workout schedule; cut out some hobbies and social time to make room for the job; recall all the tips and tricks for not eating at holiday gatherings, at restaurants, at your dear friends’ houses, at your own birthday party; retrain yourself to believe that salad dressing — let alone artisanal bacon, creme brulee, whatever — doesn’t taste good enough to warrant its negative effects on your job performance; talk constantly about what you’re not eating and how great it makes you feel, in hopes that some of your friends will join you at this lonely little workplace; and — most importantly — continue to believe with a religious fervor that your body is an ugly, hateful thing that must be punished and diminished. As long as you really believe that, the rest isn’t so hard to keep up, once you get used to it (again). 

Some days, all that sounds a hell of a lot easier than resisting the messages — especially when you think of all the praise you’ll get once you’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight, or how good it will feel when you get to put on a smaller dress (though that feeling goes away quickly, as it must, or else you might lose your motivation to keep going). How proud and in control you’ll feel — again, for a few minutes at a time, for as long as it’s working. How much better people will treat you, as long as there’s less and less of you. I totally get that. 

But I stopped giving in to it. And boy, I wish you would, too — because you’re way too smart to take that sucker bet yet again. 

It kills me to hear you say things like, “”I can’t believe that after all these years, all the things I know how to do, I’m still talking about my weight. I look at my thinner self and think, `How did I let this happen again?'” Honey, you didn’t “let it” happen again. Your body made it happen again, because your body does not freakin’ want to be thin. And every time you quit the part-time job of dieting — or even just cut back your hours — your body goes, “Thank god!” and starts storing fat hand over fist. It happens to nearly all of us. I know you’re a woman who’s used to defying odds by quite a lot, but there is no shame in having a body that responds to dieting in exactly the same way as pretty much everyone else’s. 

You say you’ve been eating too much and not exercising enough. Maybe that’s even true. But defining “too much” and “enough” is tricky business, and when you’re trying to do that in the context of shame and self-loathing, chances are, you’re going to come up with values that represent punishment, not healthy moderation. When I see you say things like, “I was so frustrated I started eating whatever I wanted — and that’s never good,” I just… Gah. Oprah, we’ve been over this. Grown women are allowed to eat whatever we want. More to the point, we are allowed to want, period. The fact that so many of us have come to believe “whatever we want” equals “never good” is heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure. 

You also say, apologetically, “I definitely wasn’t setting an example.” Well, you were, actually — just not the example you wanted to set. You’re not an ideal role model for either dieting or self-acceptance, but in terms of the latter, you are — forgive me if this comes off as harsh — an ideal object lesson. One of the Shapelings (hi, Rebecca!) who sent me a link to the Yahoo article this morning also offered her response to it:

I guess the main thought I had was, “Thank you, Oprah, for showing me that my struggle to give up dieting is the right struggle.”  I have been fighting the diet demons this week, but reading this article was a nice shake-up.  I don’t want to look back at my life at her age and see the same story and body hatred.  It’s nice to see confirmation that I am doing the right thing for myself, despite the cacophany of voices telling me I’m not!

In that respect, to my mind, you’re setting a terrific example — you’re showing the world that no amount of money, or hard work, or discipline (whatever guilt you feel over easing out of that part-time job, come on, don’t even try to tell me that Oprah Winfrey lacks self-discipline and determination!) can make a stubbornly fat body remain thin for long. I just wish, for your sake as well as for the millions of women who look up to you, you could find a way to reframe your struggles with your weight, to practice and promote Health at Every Size, to believe that you are a beautiful woman — you so are! — who does not need to keep apologizing for what she eats or what dress size she wears. I wish you would choose to be the role model you’re perfectly suited to be, instead of trying to be one you’re not — and instead being an object lesson. 

I’ll tell you a secret, Oprah — I also hit what you call “the dreaded 2-0-0” this year. At least, I think I did. The last time I weighed myself was on a dog scale at the vet’s office, and I was about 185 lbs. I’m pretty sure I’ve gained about 15 since then. Why? Well, there are a zillion possible explanations and contributing factors, but the simplest one is this: My last diet ended in 2003, which you’ll note was 5 years ago. When I started that diet, I weighed about 190. The vast majority of people who deliberately lose weight gain it all back within 5 years, and a huge chunk of those gain an extra 10 lbs. or so, to boot.  And I do seem to have plateaued at this weight after gaining steadily for quite a while, so… I could sit here and tell you how I went on Lexapro, and I started eating out more and resumed putting the dressing directly on my salads and slacked somewhat on exercise — in a nutshell, how I gave up dieting as a part-time job and relegated food and exercise back to the category of  “things I think about, just not to the exclusion of having a life” — but the real reason for the weight gain is, I’m just not that special. I do not have magic powers that allow me to transcend my genetic predisposition to fatness, and I was not so much more committed or determined or desirous of thinness than everyone else who diets that I could somehow, through sheer will, overcome the massive odds against keeping it off for more than five years. I’m just not that special.

Neither are you, in that regard. We’re both plenty special in other ways — I mean, love you or hate you, I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that you’re not an extraordinary woman — but just not that way. In that way, we’re both just normal fat women who dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back, as normal fat women do. But here’s the difference between you and me, when it comes to that. You hit 200 and sent out a press release detailing your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I hit 200 and shrugged. Because it’s not any different than being 199, and not really any different from being 185, and when it comes down to it, not all that much different than being 115. I can’t shop at as many stores, I don’t get hit on quite as often (though I still do, as recently as Sunday night), some people aren’t as friendly to me, and some people are downright hateful in ways they wouldn’t have been when I was thin. But as trite as it may sound, this is the damned truth: I’m still the same person I was when I was thin — and when I was in-between, and the day before I cracked 200, and the day after. Cracking 300 or 400 or any other arbitrary number would not change who I am, either.

The weight regain did not make me bad or lazy or ugly or sick or stupid or broken. It just made me fatter. 

That’s all that happened here. You got fatter. You’re still one of the most accomplished women on the planet. You’ve still got more money than god. You still give away a lot of that money and do real things that help real people. I know there are people around here who can’t stand you precisely because your refusal to stop believing you can and should be a thin person too often manifests as yet more heartbreaking, infuriating, wounding messages about how fat people are bad and thin people are good. But I can’t help admiring you anyway. And I can’t help feeling for you when I read about your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I know exactly how that goes — hence my last diet. I still get twinges of all those feelings and have to work my butt off to resist them. As I should have told you during that brief moment when we talked, we are all still working on it.

I admit I’m tempted to get angry at you for wasting your phenomenally powerful bullhorn on promoting body shame instead of telling other fat women that they’re not bad, undisciplined people. But I can’t, because I know just how loud and demanding those voices in your head are, the ones that say, “It doesn’t matter that you’re one of the most accomplished women on the planet, because you let yourself get fat again!” I know the pure, unfettered irrationality of that train of thought isn’t obvious when you’re in the grip of hating your body. The voices are too insistent.

So I guess all I have left to say to you is what I already told you in person: Good luck. I so hope that one of these days, you manage to make peace with your body. And man, when that day comes, I sure hope you go on the air and tell your millions of viewers you’ve discovered that not hating yourself is about a bazillion times more rewarding than mortifying yourself, literally and figuratively. That right there is what I know for sure.

All best,


Today in Things that Make You Fat and Things that Make You Thin

Things that make you fat, based on a Google news search of the last few days. 

How fast you eat

A high-fructose diet

Genes/faulty dopamine receptors

School vending machines

Your fat mom’s uterus


Watching too much TV

Crappy food labeling

A history of dieting (hallefuckinlujah!)

And things that make you thin…

Pokok kaduk

A gene mutation

Tart cherries

Yet another new obesity drug

Please note that with the exception of genes and a history of dieting, every single thing on the list of things that make you fat (IT’S SCIENCE) is something judgy people frown upon in its own right. Could it be that some folks are using the vague threat of fat to push their own moral agendas? MY GOD.

Also, I’m thinking this will be a weekly feature. Maude knows we’ll never run out of material.

What Are Your Survival Techniques?

All right, folks, I’ve got two long, thinky, almost-finished posts in the drafts folder, so I swear you’ll get some real, old-style content at some point this week. But right now, I just had to stop working on them and post about one of Samhita’s latest posts at Feministing. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m about to quote huge portions of it. The deal is, she’s just moved back in with her parents, and, well…

Before moving in, I set some ground rules for my parents. They were not allowed to talk to me about my lack of allegiance to our religion, my dating and/or marriage status and my weight. I got to give it up to them, they have definitely not bothered me about religion or dating (too much), but they have failed miserably at making comments about my weight.

Since I was young, it was considered totally acceptable for my family to pick at, poke fun of or make me feel bad for being chubby. Even when I thought of myself at a “skinny” place, I was told that I had gotten fat. In my teen years this led to struggling with multiple forms of eating disorders, including dieting, fasting, starving myself and even a small bout of bulimia. Looking back, I don’t totally know how I worked through it but having a strong community of women’s studies professors, feminist friends and queer men certainly helped me right along.

Samhita says that generally, she’s got a positive body image (yay!), but it’s a daily struggle (nodnod), and being criticized for her weight is making her think more about the hysteria over fatness. 

What bothers me is that if you are overweight (whatever THAT means) you are somehow a bad person and everyone has the right to judge you or make comments about the way you look. I would be lying if I said I always feel great and confident about myself and the way I look. I struggle on a daily basis with food choices, emotional eating and feeling “fat.” But when can we move passed this belief that being larger than the hideous exaggerated fat-hating images of women we see in the media makes you unhealthy, lazy and self-loathing? It is totally acceptable to be hateful towards fat people and mask it with, “but I am worried about you.” Seriously, fuck you.

Yup. And finally:

It is the worst feeling in the world to hate yourself because of your body weight and one of the deepest wounds in my psyche. My mom is starting to understand the impact it has on my emotional/mental health and I have worked hard not to take it personally and recognize that she doesn’t mean it to hurt me. But that doesn’t always change the way I internalize it.

What are your survival techniques?

That last line is what made me drop everything to post. The comments over there are terrific — though frequently heartbreaking — so far (which they’re not always when Feministing talks about fat, quite frankly), but I wanted to see what Shapelings have to say. What are your survival techniques? What would you tell Samhita?

Quick Hit: Fat Talk Free Week

This is awesome, and I’ll be posting more about it on Broadsheet shortly. Happy Fat Talk Free Week, everybody! (Video is all text, so no transcript necessary.)

Update: Karen pointed out in comments that transcripts are also for the visually impaired whose screen readers don’t read video — d’oh! of course! — and llencelyn has kindly provided one. It’s below the video, after the jump.

Update 2: Here’s my Broadsheet post about it.


Continue reading

So that weight loss book thing…

Paul and Marianne have already covered this story about a study of 9 to 13-year-old girls involved in one of Duke University’s weight loss programs, which found that girls assigned to read a book with a weight loss story line (“Lake Rescue”) lost a little bit more weight than girls who read a non-diet book, and girls assigned to read no book at all gained a little bit.

The “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%.

(Note: Marianne says “There is no indication that the girls who read the book that was not about weight loss and the girls who didn’t read a book at all gained weight,” which is accurate in response to the WaPo article she links to, but not in response to the study itself. For some reason, that article didn’t include any numbers on the other two groups.)

Marianne, our editor, and I were discussing this over e-mail this morning, and here’s what I said (yes, I’m blockquoting myself):

What I really want to know is how many pounds we’re talking about here. The fact that I’ve read 3 or 4 different articles on this now and haven’t seen a number other than the percentage by which they decreased their BMI tells me there were probably about 2 or 3 lbs. difference, max, between the girls who lost the most and the ones who gained. I don’t think I touched on this specifically in the “train yourself to read critically” chapter, but now I wish I had. “Statistically significant” weight loss is such a red herring — in these studies, a few pounds can be significant by scientific standards without changing the subjects’ health or even appearance noticeably. And I can’t count how many times I’ve read something like this, looked up the original study, and found out that yep, the difference in question is less than 5 lbs. The classic example is Alli — over a 2-year period, people combining dieting and Alli lost an average of THREE POUNDS more than the control group that was just dieting, and that’s enough to qualify it as a weight loss aid. One that makes you crap your pants.

Also, I can’t seem to find out the exact ages of the girls in the different groups. The whole cohort is 9-13, an age group within which some big fucking bodily changes naturally occur — and the study measured the girls’ weights twice, six months apart. So okay, first, six months have passed, and you’re seriously trying to tell me you can measure the effect of reading a single YA novel, as if no confounding factors might have cropped up in that time? Second, six months for a girl between 9 and 13 can be the difference between a child’s body and a woman’s body. How do we know the girls in the no-book group — a whopping 17 of them — didn’t hit puberty during those six months, or start to, in which case, a gain of .05% of their BMI is nothing? I mean, it’s nothing anyway for growing kids, but seriously, a weight gain so tiny you won’t even tell us exactly what it is in pounds, over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a group of girls around the age where you start to develop breasts and hips is doing something wrong? And meanwhile, a weight loss almost as tiny in a different group of girls who might skew more toward 9 than 13 for all we know, also over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a weight-loss case study disguised as a novel is some sort of magic bullet?

The fact that this has garnered so much attention — all of it, natch, with commentary on the “childhood obesity epidemic,” even though the increase in childhood obesity, just like adult obesity, has leveled off — makes my fucking blood boil on a couple of levels. First, because they have proven exactly squat, but the media is so hungry for new angles on the always crowd-pleasing OMG FAT PEOPLE ARE FAT story, they’ll take anything. And second, because I want to cite these researchers for flagrant misuse of children’s literature. As Marianne said:

Fiction that is written in order to preach a certain course of action rarely succeeds. It winds up formulaic and awful. If a writer isn’t telling a story that they believe in – that contains truth in all the fiction – the story will fail. It becomes propaganda.

Good books can make outsidery kids feel less alone, escape their troubles for a few hours at a time, and imagine possibilities beyond what they’re offered in their own lives. Encouraging fat kids to read novels is a fabulous idea, as far as I’m concerned. But encouraging them to read goddamned weight loss propaganda completely subverts the point of reading for both pleasure and enrichment as an outsidery kid — which is to enjoy being absorbed in a world where you aren’t made to feel like shit about yourself.

Which leads me to my final thought on all this. Given that all these kids were involved in a weight-loss program to begin with, and dieting is often a trigger for eating disorders at that age, if (big if) we stipulate that “Lake Rescue” had a real effect on the group of girls who lost a tiny bit more weight than the others, how, exactly, did that happen? Were they inspired to become even more extreme in restricting their food intake or exercising? If so, is that really a good thing?