Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Calorie Commandos

As readers know, last month I had a bit of a heart scare. One of the fears expressed to me repeatedly by the somewhat hysterical resident cardiologist at the hospital was that I had all sorts of ticking time-bomb things wrong with me, including diabetes. (Much of her overblown predictions of doom seemed to come from her immediate assessment that, since I was fat and I'd just had atrial fibrillation, I was at high risk for just about everything.) This led to, among other things, my primary care physician recommending I visit an endocrinologist, which I did earlier this week. The endo confirmed my suspicions that I'm at fairly low risk for diabetes despite a family history, but she also recommended I try to drop about ten percent of my body weight (not coincidentally, just about the amount I've gained since my myomectomy six years ago), as that would put even less strain on my system, lower my blood pressure and probably leave me in the clear as far as having no chance to develop diabetes.

Now, like many size activists I tend to have something of a knee-jerk reaction to the "lose weight or else!" crowd, but this was somewhat different. The endodoc stressed exercise first and foremost, suggesting I work my way up to a half hour daily on my stationary bike over a period of however long it takes me, perhaps breaking it up to 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the evening (as my current commute exhausts me and includes a third-mile walk each weekday morning, I'll be starting on the bike when I get my car back). She was disappointed to hear that I sometimes only ate one meal a day in the evening, bringing up the havoc that might wreak with my metabolism in terms of putting my body into temporary starvation mode (the next best thing to setpoint theory that an endodoc could say to me). Neither did she insist I lose stone after stone of poundage to arrive at some sort of "normal" or "ideal" weight. Lastly, she emphasized that the desired-by-her weight loss, while it would indeed relieve some of the strain on my 48-year-old body and probably lead to lowered BP and such, wouldn't be some sort of instant miracle but rather involve a gradual lifestyle change for me.

Then she gave me this corporate-sponsored booklet (yes, it even has a picture of the latest incarnation of the "here's what science says is good for you until the next gimmick comes along," the food pyramid scheme) and told me to aim for between 1800 and 2000 calories per day.

Um, yeah, right.

In any case, I took the chart home, where it still sits because it's been One of Those Weeks and I'm not starting any lifestyle change until I have my now-familiar lifestyle back. But I made the mistake of mentioning the doc's weight-loss advice to a couple coworkers.

You know how ex-smokers are among the most adamantly anti-smoking zealots around? The same goes for people who've been on diets, particularly fad ones like South Beach or Atkins. So I casually mention the food chart, and suddenly one coworker decides to gently chastise me for the sodium-free breadsticks I've been munching on since I cut back on my salt intake because "you know how many carbs are in each of those?" (According to the pyramid scheme, after all, if I eat 6-11 of those a day all my carb servings are used up!) And this weird pity-sympathy mix in their voices - it's truly like they consider fatness some sort of disease to which we're all privy (another rather thin coworker is constantly talking about how she needs to lose 10 pounds), only some more than others, and if you're overtly (i.e., visually) more privy to it than they are you're obviously crying for that helping hand which they will gladly give because who wouldn't want to lose weight?

And I find myself in a long pharmacy queue a couple days later renewing a prescription and munching on unsalted macadamias, where I make the mistake of phoning Robin to pass the time and chatting about my hunger and The Chart to a woman within earshot ahead of me on the queue, who promptly chirped "What diet are you on? I was on the South Beach diet and lost 100 pounds! I lived on those macadamias!"

You don't need me to tell you that modern society is calorie- and pound-counting crazy, but no mention ever seems to be made on all these diet-substance(less) ads of actual nutritional improvements like lowering one's salt intake. I'm sure 100 calorie soups are very inviting for many dieters and profitable for the corporations pushing them, but try searching the same sites for "low sodium" (let alone "salt free") and see what you get. My less-sodium lifestyle shift has made supermarket shopping way trickier (in much the same way that Steve's gluten intolerance made me read labels more back when we were married), but if all I'd sought was "diet" this and "diet" that, no problem finding those claims labelled on every other product! What a racket.

The idea of weight loss as the ultimate goal and physical proof of a healthy life, rather than a possible-but-not-guaranteed by-product of a sensible diet and exercise, has always niggled at me. It's gotten so bad that health itself is almost never mentioned as the primary goal at all. I know that discussing health is boring and weight loss stories seem more interesting and dramatic, but you know, that's TV, that's storytelling. Human beings are supposed to be sensible enough to tell the difference between fictional drama and humdrum old real life.

Here in my real life, I do things by increments. So I might get around to trying out that pyramid scheme caloric-intake program by spring, which may amount to nothing more than halving dinner portions and creating more leftovers to bring to the office. But first I concentrate on becoming less sedentary and more active, and taking better care of my actual health, not the corporate-driven visually-expected appearance of health.