I’ve come across some head-scratchingly strange stuff lately. Before I begin, I just want to say that I’m all for doing whatever makes you feel good. I’m not so sure of my own path that I believe it is the only righteous and good path. I know it works for me, but I also know that others have their reasons for their choices too. We are all sums of our experiences, and none of us could have gotten to where we are without each step taken and stumbled along the way. Besides, adaptability is crucial to long-term success, so there may come a day when I’ll need to reverse my own positions in order to do the healthy thing for myself or my family.
Lately I’m seeing otherwise intelligent people saying that it isn’t about what kinds of foods you eat, it’s all about the calories. That if you are overweight, it’s because you eat too much and don’t move enough. That exercise is the right way to lose weight. That if you eat a Paleo diet, you are a poor, suffering orthorexic who is so neurotic about their food that they drive everyone around them crazy. That we should all relax and pour ourselves a big bowl of cereal or eat that pizza we’ve been craving.
And then in the same breath, they tell me to relax and eat more because I’m not eating enough. I should eat all I want of whatever I want!
So let me get this straight. Back in my SAD-eating days, as glorious as they were with acne, painful bloating, horrific gas, anxiety, and weight gain—all of that was happening because I didn’t exercise enough? Well, I guess I could’ve tried to exercise more than 5 times a week, but that gets a bit extreme, don’t you think? A typical week for me looked like this: 2-3 runs of 3-4 miles, 1-2 gym visits with elliptical/bike/treadmill plus some circuit weight machines, 1-2 yoga classes, and 1 swim of 2500 yds, plus a day or two of fun activity like mountain biking or skiing. And still I gained weight, noticeably in my lower half. Have I mentioned I had cellulite on my ankles?
When I went Paleo, I had a knee injury from running and even swimming hurt, so I stayed off it. For 4 months. And in that time, all 15 pounds I’d been holding onto came off. Hmm…and exercise is the key to weight loss?
As for that orthorexia business, I never was someone who worried about food or calories. I was fortunate to have avoided weight issues as a teen and never had to contemplate a diet. When I hit my brick wall, I knew that something wasn’t right BECAUSE I was working out so much, I was breastfeeding an infant and that wasn’t helping me lose weight the way they said it would, and I was eating “healthy” black beans, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread. And then, during my first Whole30, I lost weight even though I was eating massive quantities of meat, vegetables, starchy tubers, and some fruit and nuts. So according to this revolutionary diet plan, it was clearly okay to eat more because that’s what they told me to do. Wait…I thought if I ate too much, I would gain weight? Well let’s just throw a bunch of advice around and see what sticks!
I realize my experience is not the same as everyone else’s, and that n=1 doesn’t disprove a theory, but c’mon! Maybe this advice could conceivably help someone (who?), but it would not have helped me. It would have simply driven me further into the pathology of a modern world that doesn’t have my best interests at heart. In fact, one of the biggest advocates of this method has gained 20 pounds but is happier? I’m just so confused.
What I’m trying to wrestle with at this point: How is this advice any different than the conventional wisdom that got us in this mess in the first place? Shouldn’t they just rejoin the ranks of the standard-bearers that are driving masses of people into bad health and unhappiness? If they’re advocating pizza and cereal, how are they any different? What exactly is their message, then? From a marketing point of view, it’s a message based on a non-message.
You hear that, America? Just keep on keeping on with what you’re doing! And if it’s not working, then you’re doing it wrong! Oh, and it’s all your fault you’re a fat-ass!
This position is hazardous and irresponsible for these reasons (in no particular order):
- Calories are a human construct and are not recognized by nature. Jamie Scott covers this beautifully here and here. It’s like asking if we think a deer recognizes a minute. No, they do not. In the same way that we do not see that deer checking its watch to see what time of day it is, we will never see that deer weigh its food or track calories. That deer would overeat only if its satiety signals were screwy, either due to something physiological or the food itself not providing the proper shutoff alerts. The only fat chipmunks I’ve ever seen have been at human sites, like national parks.
- You can track intake, but you cannot track what is absorbed. Just because you ate it doesn’t mean it is going where it needs to go or that it’s registering in your body appropriately.
- It ignores the role of hormones, our gut microbiota, and our immune system response. There are people who need to hear a different message than “It’s your own damn fault you’re in the predicament you’re in.” We don’t understand everything yet, may never, so we might want to sit back and see what happens while we do the best we can to do the least amount of harm to ourselves.
- It ignores the bigger picture. We are organisms with a complex interwoven network of needs. There are inputs and there are outputs, and some are both. Sleep, sunshine, exercise, sex…I haven’t even gotten to food yet.
- You can continue to contribute to everything that’s fucked up about modern life. Granted, fighting the power is not everyone’s cuppa tea. If you want to ingest GMOs, I guess that’s your business. If you want to aid in the degradation of the world and our health via industrialized agriculture, go for it. Full Disclaimer—I think it’s important to recognize that we’re all a part of this cycle. Our dollars are the most important way we vote these days, so vote wisely. You can decorate our zoo however you want, but at the end of the day, it’s still a zoo.
I’ve even seen some comments from people on these sites that they are exhausted, overweight, and not feeling well, and when they eat more they gain weight, but when they restrict their eating they don’t lose weight either. It makes me cry inside that there is so much suffering out there, and that this advice contributes to it. I think it’s telling that these comments appear to be largely ignored and are not responded to. I understand that Paleo is not the magic bullet for every individual on Earth either, but a real foods-based diet is a prescription everyone can benefit from.
I guess I feel bad that we’re at this point in history, that things have gotten so obnoxious out there that people are giving up entirely. It’s like my dad explained to me the circle of politics, that liberal and conservative viewpoints aren’t linear, they’re more circular and at some point they come around to meet each other again. Its like people have breezed through ancestral health, for whatever perceived reasons they decided it didn’t work for them, they employed the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, and they have a whole “new” theory. Except it’s the same old shit.
Fine, but don’t dress it up in evolutionary clothes.