Monday, October 3, 2011

Why Johnny and Janie Can't Lose Weight


Second only to controlling our budgets, Americans resolve to do more about weight than any other personal issue. Tomorrow. Right away. As soon as I have this or that resolved. Part of the problem is that conflicting demands hit us coming and going. Carbs or proteins? Aerobics or cardio? Starvation or willpower? Three new books only compound the problem.

Ed Boullianne, in You Can't Outsource Weight Loss, tackles the question from the most common angles. The author, hit with bad news about his weight and lifespan as he prepared to retire from the Navy, educated himself on the intricacies of weight science. Now he’s compiled his discoveries so we can all read and learn from him. His approach is entirely conventional, and proud of it.

Dian and Tom Griesel, in TurboCharged, believe Boulliane has everything wrong. They disdain the commonplaces, relying on surprising new discoveries that suggest everything we believe about human metabolism is counterfactual. They present a regimen that forces dieters to reevaluate everything we keep in our kitchens, every workout habit, and every assumption about our bodily needs.

And Kristen Volk Funk, in As Thin As You Think, suggests we pack on weight, and can’t shed it, not because of diet and exercise, but because of learned habits and mental scripts that reinforce bad behavior. A clinical counselor and hypnotherapist, Volk Funk believes that reprogramming our brains will make the difference. Only when we focus inward will we recognize and redress our problems.

We can learn as much from these books’ similarities as from their differences. Most important, they all demand we approach food consciously. Too often, we put on pounds, and can’t keep them off, because passive attitudes let us eat fatty processed filth without thinking. If we pay as much attention to our food as to our finances, we could bank health like we bank our paychecks.

That’s why commercial weight programs fail. They let us pop pills, stick TV dinners in the microwave, or otherwise continue not thinking about how we feed our bodies. Then, when we hit our goals, we resume eating as we did before. Meanwhile, our bodies have new set points against perceived famine. Not surprisingly, every pound we shed springs right back.

Therefore, we must plan not for those pesky pounds we want to shed, but for a lifetime of better health. If we only think of looking good for swimsuit season, we won’t make a lasting difference. Only when we plan for long-term health through nutrition and physical activity will we not only lose weight, but maintain our bodies. Only then will we really live healthfully.

But these authors disagree about how we should take an active approach to our metabolisms. Boulliane, for instance, wants us to police what we take into our bodies. He examines American eating habits, especially in restaurants, and what he finds is appalling. Many prepared beverages have as many calories as a healthy adult male should consume in a day. That says nothing about, for instance, our chronic lack of sleep.

The Griesel siblings think Boulliane’s calorie counts obscure our real problems. They think we often eat when we aren’t hungry, eat foods that don’t satisfy, and confuse weight with real health. Their process involves significant changes drinking water, eating food, and planning exercise. They sneer at intensive workouts, preferring a structured plan of a few minutes a day. And they want us to slam water regularly, not carry a bottle and sip daintily.

Volk Funk thinks neither plan will make a meaningful difference alone. We gain weight, and can’t shed it, because we consider ourselves fat, doomed to fail at any regimen. Only when we acknowledge our inner Thin You (spelled thus, with the capital letters) and nourish that identity with affirmative thoughts, will any change in diet and exercise make meaningful differences.

Reading these books side by side, I realize: not everybody gains weight the same way. Some people eat right and exercise, and still pork up. Others keep relatively svelte while eating like refugees. My food and exercise haven’t changed significantly in years, yet my waistline inflated around my thirtieth birthday. If we don’t gain weight for the same reason, surely we don’t lose it the same way, either.

These books make good companions, because they let readers evaluate different issues, screen themselves, and draw meaningful conclusions. If we take an honest look inward, we can identify how we put on weight. Only then can we read selectively, choosing the aggregate approach that works for our weight. If we gained weight passively, we won’t lose it by passively taking gurus at their word.

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