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Eating healthy, being fat

November 19, 2008

Warning for some talk of disordered eating.

One of the things that those who set themselves up as ‘the voices of reason’ in the conversation on fat, science and health love to claim is that there are quick and simple answers. “Stop eating so much junk food.” “Stop drinking gallons of soda!” These priceless and original pieces of advice are almost always accompanied by a variation on the phrase “No one is fat because they eat too much broccoli.”

This is one of those things that make me feel super stabby. Not least because I once believed it and it led me to the worst disordered eating in my entire life. See, I developed an interest in nutrition soon after I became vegan. Everyone was always so worried about me not getting enough nutrients or not eating enough protein and I wanted to be able to answer their questions (both to ease their minds and because it’s good PR for veganism.) The more I learned, the more I realized that my diet was sorely lacking. I had grown up in a house where vegetables were generally microwaved and seasoned with a pat of butter and some salt. Not terrible, but definitely they were something you had to ‘get through’ during the meal. You ate them because you were supposed too. So as an adult living on my own, I didn’t really cook non-potato veggies very much at all. I also pretty much never at fruit. I was slightly better about eating whole grains, but not much. My diet was pretty starchy/simple carby/sugary with lots of fat.

I decided to make a change. Switching from being an omnivore to being a vegan probably made this transition easier because I was already feeling pretty open and adventurous when it came to food. And, surprise surprise, I found that I really liked these formerly only tolerated foods. Roasted brussel sprouts with garlic and olive oil? Yum. Savory sweet potatoes with thyme? Yes! I loved quinoa and fruit smoothies and making my own salad dressings with olive and flaxseed oil.

Not terribly surprisingly, these changes in my diet made me feel physically really good and the daily walks I took with my dogs increased in length. With all of this, I lost weight, about 30lbs without any effort at all. I was happy. I felt good. I had energy and, even though it hadn’t been a goal, I had lost some weight.

Of course, this is when the weight loss stopped. I didn’t understand. I was doing everything ‘right.’ I was a friggin’ vegan who always had at least 6 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I exercised. What was wrong with me?

Nothing was wrong, looking back. I had lost a good amount of weight, my metabolism had likely slowed down to a level in line with my body’s changing energy needs, but I hadn’t changed my diet after the initial set of healthy changes.

But what I believed was that I must not be eating ‘healthy’ because you can’t be fat and eat really ‘healthy.’ It’s just not possible. So I looked at my diet and decided that fats were bad and that carbs were bad and that sugar was evil. I spent several months eating lettuce with low-fat/low-sugar dressing as the main part of every lunch and dinner (and I do NOT recommend this.) I stocked up on low-fat hummus and dipped raw veggies in it and tried to pretend it didn’t taste like ass. I added 30 minutes on the elliptical five days a week to my dog walking. And at least one night a week I totally broke down and would order enough take out to feed 3 people and eat every last bite of it. I bought a scale for the first time in years and I was utterly miserable. In 5 months of this, I managed to eek out a 12lb weight loss. Eventually, I gained a bit of perspective, unpacked my copy of “Fat!So?” and put my scale away.

What’s my point? Well, it’s this: I ate a very healthy diet 8 months ago. I ate a very healthy diet 6 months ago. I eat a very healthy diet today. I get all of my nutrients. I get a lot of fiber. I eat healthy fats and never miss my “five a day.” The concept that it’s not possible to sustain a larger body on these foods is both illogical and a perpetuation of the myth that you can know a person’s habits by their weight. Anti-fat bloggers and websites love to talk about fat people they see eating at fast food restaurants. Look! A fat person daring to eat some fries and a burger! Those have 650 calories combined!!!!! Yes, well so does a plate of scrambled tofu, roasted sweet poatoes and a spinach salad with garlic olive-oil dressing. Energy is energy.

You can support any size body on a diet mainly consisting of whole, nutritious foods. But we don’t want to hear that because it complicates the easy fat=lazy-lard-and-sugar-swiller thing that people cling to.

Encouraging people to eat well and giving them access to healthy foods is a great thing that doesn’t need to have anything to do with weight. Telling people that swapping a small fry to a sweet potato or adding a bit of fiber to a cookie will result in easy weight loss is irresponsible and simply not true.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2008 10:34 am

    I am always stunned at how simplistic people (as in people who have never struggled with weight, or maybe have 10 pounds extra) think weight loss should be. I guess for some people it is easy, I think for people who have “dieted” their way to overweight, not so much. I know that for me, just eating right will not make the number on the scale go down. I have to do major exercise, as in much much more than they tell people they need to be healthy, and even more than they tell folks to do when losing weight. I get super pissed off when I hear “put down the bag of chips and go for a 20 minute walk four times a week! I eat very few chips, and I still have to go on a 6 mile hike up a mountain to see even a small impact on my weight. I resent this somewhat, I guess I enjoy the exercise, I resent that it’s probably the only thing that will burn my fat. Here’s another surprise: exercising this much will allow me to eat the SAD, and not gain weight. But I won’t lose it. I need both together, and even then, it’s mind-numbingly slow.

    It seems a lot of people think that fat people who say they eat healthy are in denial, and there may be some of that, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer either. Just in my own experience, that means I should lose when I don’t binge, without the crazy exercise. Doesn’t happen. And I’m not even vegan.

  2. ladyjaye75 permalink
    November 20, 2008 1:42 pm

    Well, that’s what the point of HAES (health at every size) is: if you eat healthy and are physically active, your health will improve and that is what matters, rather than the number appearing on a scale. There are many factors behind a person’s weight, and the presence or not of healthy habits is but one of them. If many people in your family, regardless of health levels, are fat, chances are you may be fat too, even if you’re extremely healthy. That’s how genetics work, after all…

  3. Barb permalink
    November 20, 2008 2:53 pm

    “No one is fat because they eat too much broccoli”–

    Yes, I hate that kind of thing, too. You can eat too much of anything, especially if it’s out of boredom or for emotional reasons or whatever. I gained 20 pounds on dried fruit and almond butter (and I wasn’t eating them to lose weight but because I love them). I really was eating too much, but it was stress and other things, not lack of discipline. And slowing down how much I ate didn’t mean instant weight loss, either. It means I stop gaining! And then I still have the extra weight…

    Most people, especially women, will lose weight at an excruciating slow pace if it’s going to stick and be sustainable. It doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong, in this case they are doing all right! It’s good to get the word out…

  4. November 20, 2008 5:03 pm

    While I think HAES is a good idea and the approach will improve many people’s health, I also think it has its limits. Since fat acts like an endocrine organ, in some people excess fat in itself can disrupt health in such a way that fat loss as a goal makes sense to me.

    While I absolutely believe that genetics plays a large role in body type, I think environment plays a big role as well. Gene expression is often tied to environmental ‘triggers’ after all as far as I understand it.

  5. November 20, 2008 9:22 pm

    It’s America. We like to feel entitled and thus like to believe in the quick fix. Dietmongers know this and pander to the trend because it makes them money. Dietbloggers and other well (or not so well) meaning tailpipes feed into the myth either because they are struggling and WANT it to be true or because they need to feel superior and touting an *easy* *cure* for fat allows them to feel this way.

    Fact is, people who have *conquered* fat (like it’s an invading virus rather than a natural part of our body’s balance) have done so only through back breaking hard work. And maintained it with the same formula.

    I’m not necessarily down on folks wanting to lose fat and build up their bodies if that is what they are into, but you’re right, it’s bloody irresponsible to suggest anyone ever got that way through anything less than continuously busting tail day after day, year after year, ad nauseum.

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