There’s nothing new

January 22, 2014 § 11 Comments

I’ve watched the online debate about diets over the past year or so with great interest, partly because I’m a fatty, but mostly because I write about health for a living. And I’ve been a health journalist for, gulp, almost two decades.

For those who don’t know which debate I’m talking about, I am referring to the current trend towards a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet (LCHF), one branch of which is the so-called Paleo diet. Maybe it’s just the people I follow on social media, but there is a lot of discussion online about this way of eating at the moment, and it’s extremely polarised – people are either evangelical about it, or completely anti-it, and never the twain shall meet, as my mother was fond of saying.

And here’s what I think. (And I’m taking an ethnographic approach, which is to say, I’m coming from an observational point of view.) This too shall pass. Yes, you heard me. It’s a fad, and it will pass, or at least go out of favour and cycle back into favour, as all diet fads do.

Here’s the thing. Not only am I a fatty, but I come from a family of fatties, so I’ve been around diets all my life. I remember the typed food plans stuck to the inside of one of the grocery cupboards. One proclaimed: “Cut all fat out of your food!” When my mother had lost weight on that one and regained it all afterwards, the next typed food plan proclaimed: “Fat burns fat!” Sound familiar? Simply put, there is nothing new under the sun.

Remember food combining? People were evangelical about that too. Remember Atkins and South Beach? They are the forerunners of LCHF. In my career as a health journalist I’ve seen eggs flip-flop – several times – between being paragons of perfect protein and the chief cause of cholesterol, designed to clog your arteries by the devil himself. I don’t know what to believe about eggs anymore, so I just eat ’em because I like ’em and they work for me. Fat has been good, and fat has been bad. Ditto carbohydrates, cholesterol, salt, sugar, even certain fruits and vegetables! I think the only thing we can all agree on is that broccoli is good for you, whether you like it or not.

And all the while, my cynicism grows. Because here’s what I know about diets – and I’ve tried a vast number of them: 1. All diets work and 2. Diets don’t work.

Yes, I know, I know, but let me explain. If you pick a diet and stick to it rigidly, you’ll lose weight. For the most part, they work, unless you have a very weird metabolism. But then you’ll stop, because most of them aren’t sustainable in the long run, and soon you’ll stop measuring or weighing, or you’ll sneak a piece of cake or binge on a packet of biscuits, or have the forbidden glass of wine, and the deprivation cycle will kick in.

I love how Martha Beck illustrates this in one of her books: she suggests you try to not think about polar bears. What happens? Your brain immediately transports you to the snowscapes of the north pole and you see a polar in your mind’s eye. The same thing happens when you swear off pizza or beer or chocolate. And that’s what makes diets unsustainable.

But I also say diets don’t work, because if they did, weight loss wouldn’t be the ongoing two-steps-forward-one-step-back process that it is for so many. And there certainly wouldn’t be a multi-million dollar industry that revolves around the adipose tissue on your stomach and thighs.

Here’s what I think, and yes, I’m not a scientist or a weight-loss expert outside of my own struggle with my weight or what I’ve observed. But for what it’s worth…

I think we don’t cook from scratch enough, and we lean too heavily on food that is laden with hydrogenated vegetable oils, corn syrup and other things designed to keep food on supermarket shelves for as long as possible. I shudder every time I see words like ‘industry’, ‘manufactured’ and ‘factory’ used in conjunction with food. It just seems wrong to me. Surely food is ‘grown’ or, in the case of meat, poultry and fish, ‘reared’?

And when I see some of the psychedelically-tinted trash that people eat by the truckload, I shake my head and wonder why we’re all so confused about why there’s an obesity epidemic.

I also think we’ve forgotten how to enjoy our food, and how to listen to our bodies. We eat mindlessly. Our cues are all wrong: we eat because we’re watching sport, watching TV, watching movies, not because we’ve felt that familiar tummy rumble. (And obviously I’m not talking about a third-world rural setting here; that’s a whole other issue.) So we eat when we’re not hungry, and then we eat well beyond our natural satiety levels.

Basically, I think we just overthink the whole thing. What we eat has become an obsession – every mouthful is analysed, pulled apart, discussed and often villified. No wonder we don’t enjoy eating anymore. I’ve resolved, this year, not to eat anything I don’t enjoy, and to eat consciously, in the sense of paying attention to the food – its taste, texture and aroma. I’m also going to pay attention to my body’s response to it. Is it delicious? Am I really hungry? Am I satisfied? And if that means putting the fork down when it’s halfway to my mouth, then that’s what I aim to do. That’s it.

No counting, no weighing, no demonising of food groups or forbidden foods, no skipping meals to make myself feel virtuous.

I really like Michael Pollan’s approach to food, although I confess I haven’t quite got it right. But it makes sense to me on an instinctive level. (And if you’d like to read his thoughtful, balanced take on Paleo and raw food, click here.)

This is what Pollan says about the way we should eat: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple as that.

I think he might be on to something.


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§ 11 Responses to There’s nothing new

  • Moderation in everything. We are following a non-fanatical version of the Paleo diet. Dave is in week 8 of no insulin even over Christmas. He used to inject up to 5 times daily. We both have loads more energy and I feel a lot less bloated without the carbs. Yes, it is scary when you read labels. Sugar and salt added to almost everything.


  • jabedi says:

    As always, loved it.
    The voice of reason in my Twitter feed.
    My mom always says,”everything in moderation” Food has indeed become too big for it’s boots. It must be put back into perspective. It is not art, we do not need to obsess about it, and please, please, can this fad of photographing food and sharing the pics end soon.

    Moderation, raw, minimal processing, less fast, more slow.

    Enjoy all your meals this week. Tofu, hummus and lentil sausage are not, and never will be food for me.


  • Kit says:

    Totally with you on the over-thinking thing. I know several people on the current eat fats not carbs diet and it takes so much extra effort thinking about what to eat and what not to eat. Plus you are doomed to fail if you ever come to our house, where I bake things with carbs practically every day.
    Stopping just before you’re full is the hardest trick to master. i vaguely remember reading that it takes the brain a few minutes to get the I’m full signal from the stomach, so you usually end up eating too much, if you wait until you actually do feel full. Explains that post-Sunday lunch feeling of bloatedness.


  • Alan Mills says:

    Mandy, Very much enjoy your blogs and your tweets (and your conversations, which I cheekily observe whenever I have side eyes to Twitter.
    Re diets….my daughter (she is with the UN) lives and works with her Italian husband in Bangkok (Bkk). I stay with her often. During my recent trip my daughter put me on a regime where I lost 17 kilos in just over 2 months.
    What she did….NOTHING….except the following:
    a) Ate small portions for meals (mainly Italian and Thai food) 3 x per day
    b) Very much reduced sugar intake, virtually to nothing.
    c) No alcohol
    d) Plenty of walking exercise and gym every 2nd day.
    e) Plenty of water (you need it in Bkk anyway!).
    f) NO FOOD AFTER 6pm every day.

    = -17 kilos and 5 notches in for my belt….trousers worn not worn for years.


  • charliesbird says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I think there in some method in everyone’s madness. As they say, there is a lid for every pot. What I eat to loose weight may not work well for someone who has normal insulin levels. What they eat to loose weight may not work for me.
    Moderation in anything works, but sometimes the kickstart of a bit of weight loss with a ‘diet’ helps move us into better habits. I think?


  • Bo says:

    You’re gonna hate me for chirping my two cents worth but ya, I’m that chubby gal who tried majority of the diets listed in your post. I was forever bloated, weight yo-yo’ing and thinking gym would solve all my problems. But then I started LCHF last year March and lost 10kgs by November. The weight has stayed off and I enjoy eating this way. It may not be for everyone. I think each person needs to find that ‘something’ that works for them. I’m glad I did.


  • pipmarks says:

    The latest here in Australia seems to be a diet where you eat in moderation most days of the week but for 2 non-consecutive days each week you limit yourself to 500 calories. I haven’t tried it myself though. I like Dr John Tickell’s advice (who did some of the early celeb makeover shows here) ‘Everything in moderation except laughter, sex, vegetables and fish’!


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