Sunday, May 20, 2007

all or nothing

I've been thinking about Lori's last AFG post, which focused on a book by Gina Kolata of the New York Times, Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss -- and the Myths and Realities of Dieting. Kolata's basic premise seems to be that most people are shooting for a goal weight that is unrealistic for them, given the role that genetics, age, and other factors play in weight.

It seems, from the reaction to this article in the Times article about Kolata's book, as if people think Kolata is suggesting that we all sit around, eat junk food, and sigh about our genetics as our butts expand to fill the couch. I read the same article, and I really didn't see it that way. I saw it more as a call to focus on being as healthy as we can be, and letting our weight settle where it naturally wants. Though the conventional wisdom seems to be that all women should be able to look like Victoria Beckham if we only tried hard enough, most of us don't have that genetic potential. Focusing on unrealistic goals just makes most of us feel hopeless and defeated, it doesn't inspire us to get thinner. Doctors who really want to help their patients could focus on small steps, like striving for a 10% weight loss, which has been shown by a lot of research to help improve health. Kolata just wants to help people be more realistic when thinking about weight loss:

The researchers concluded that 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.

The results did not mean that people are completely helpless to control their weight, Dr. Stunkard said. But, he said, it did mean that those who tend to be fat will have to constantly battle their genetic inheritance if they want to reach and maintain a significantly lower weight.

The findings also provided evidence for a phenomenon that scientists like Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Leibel were certain was true — each person has a comfortable weight range to which the body gravitates. The range might span 10 or 20 pounds: someone might be able to weigh 120 to 140 pounds without too much effort. Going much above or much below the natural weight range is difficult, however; the body resists by increasing or decreasing the appetite and changing the metabolism to push the weight back to the range it seeks.

When I was a junior in college, I started running daily and eating healthier. After about a year of this, I had lost a few pounds and a couple of clothing sizes. Right before graduation, I decided to take a fitness test offered by my school. I was "lucky" enough to be tested by the Ph.D. whose research these tests helped fuel. My blood pressure, cholesterol level, V02 Max, and other disease risk factors were all "excellent." My body fat percentage, however, tested at 29%. I weighed 135 pounds. The doctor scolded me and said I needed to lose "at least" five pounds if I wanted to be healthy. It has been years since I have been anywhere near as thin as I was on that "fat" day. But as a college girl, it was easy to look around at the other women in the fitness center or at the models on magazine covers and conclude that I was hopelessly, disgustingly overweight.

I think this kind of all-or-nothing attitude is what Kolata is trying to combat. Looking at family photos taken long before anyone invented fast food, it's pretty obvious that my ancestors were not supermodel material. They tended to carry some extra weight.

This doesn't mean I think I have no control over my weight. The thinnest I have ever been as an adult was about 135, and the heaviest was somewhere just north of 200 pounds. I had to work incredibly hard to stay at 135, even in college. Most of my adult life, my weight has been between 150 and 175. In that range, I feel pretty good. Above it, I feel tired and uncomfortable. It's worth the extra effort to stay toward the lower part of this range because I am happier with the way I look and feel. I know a lot of people, especially the commenters on the various blog posts that ask if some celebrity is "normal or fat?" might think I should be disgusted with myself for being happy in this range. But if you read enough of these kinds of posts, you'll learn that no one is ever thin enough to be immune to being called "chubby."

As the old expression goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I used to always think that just meant that beauty was subjective. But now I think that it means that we can choose to focus on the beauty around us, or like the Snow Queen's mirror, we can focus on the faults and flaws of those around us, and just look for things to ridicule.

I have a sort of mystical friend who says not to worry about what other people are thinking, because "If their thoughts aren't thoughts of love, then they don't mean anything." Sometimes I think he's weird, but more and more, I think he's the wisest person I know.


  1. In AA we say 'what you think of me is none of my business.' Of course it's difficult if you insist on telling me what you think of me. But what's really important is what I think of me. Am I doing my best? Am I giving it a good effort? Am I a good example?

    Your highest and lowest weights are almost exactly what mine are. I've had such a tough time getting back down to 135, but I still think that's achievable and maintainable.

    Perhaps I'm delusional.

  2. I don't think you're delusional. I just figure I am going to get to 155 first and maintain that for a while before making any plans to lose more. I figure if it's easy to maintain at that weight and I feel I'd be okay with working a little harder to lose more, I can always make that decision later.

  3. I like the analogy to the Snow Queen's mirror - and you're right, we have the choice of what we focus on. I can certainly see beauty in others that I overlook easily in myself. This is a good reminder to look again.

  4. Great post. I'm sending "thoughts of love" to you


  5. excellent post and those low/high weights could be the same for me too... i don't even know what my lowest weight was in college but i do know it was achieved in an unhealthy way (no breakfast, lunch, and cereal for dinner)... i know and have accepted that i'm not made to be 5'7" and 135 and i'm okay with that - i am eating better, feeling better, and heck - even running a 5k in june...

    as your body ages, i think we all struggle at what it can and can no longer do... i would rather be where i am today over starving myself and exercising 2-hours a day to be 135... hell no...


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07