Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Diet and Exercise Wars

Dr. Susan Roberts is not totally opposed to exercise. She just doesn't believe that it is going to help you lose weight. Her advice for those who want to slim down: buy her book, "The Instinct Diet."

Roberts wrote a recent article called "The Exercise Myth" and states in its preamble: "when it comes to losing weight, the treadmill gets you nowhere fast." Link here.

She concludes by saying: "Exercise is great medicine for general health and a great add-on to dieting, so feel free to kill yourself in the gym if it makes you feel good. But it isn't essential; and by itself doesn't do much. All the research suggests that exercise is less important than what goes in your mouth, and when."

I am tempted to say that what comes out of your mouth-- or your pen-- is probably more important than the rest, but that would merely be a reaction to Roberts' condescending tone: "feel free to kill yourself in the gym if it makes you feel good."

I would hate to think that people are going to read her and cease exercising, because they think that exercise is only going to make them healthy.

What does Roberts have against exercise? Perhaps she dislikes it because it is work, and because work is for chumps. People who exercise, like people who work with their hands, have a lower status than those who lounge around drinking mango juice.

But why is weight-loss the only frame of reference that counts? What is wrong with healthy?

If mindset matters aren't we better off trying to achieve good health than to fit into a certain pair of jeans? And wouldn't good health make it more likely that we could fit into that pair of jeans anyway?

If exercise contributes to good health, why dismiss it contemptuously. And if it is difficult to maintain an exercise routine, who cares if you use appeals to vanity to keep yourself going?

There is nothing wrong with doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Or for the right reason.

It is better to think that you are nourishing a healthy body than to imagine that you are engaged in a losing struggle with your appetites.

I think Roberts understands this. She is promoting and marketing her diet book as a way to overcome the extremes of deprivation and gluttony that torment so many dieters.

Her instinct diet values balanced nutrition and correctly observes that we all eat better when food tastes good. By following her diet you can reprogram your brain so that you will love eating healthy food and feel something akin to disgust when faced with food that is bad for you.

Now all you have to do is learn to cook. If you know how to cook, healthy foods always taste good. After you have finished Roberts' book you need but enroll in cooking school. That will surely slim you down.

Or else, go out and buy a copy of Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious." Seinfeld's cook book shows how you can reprogram a child to like healthy food by mixing some broccoli puree with the cheese whiz.

The real problem is that diet books... as opposed to guides to good nutrition... imagine that human life is a struggle between a human being and his or her appetite. Strangely, they often assume, in a Freudian twist, that it is always a losing struggle.

To some extent Freud was right. If you define your existence as a struggle with your appetite, you are going to lose. Not for lack of willpower, but because by defining yourself as an autonomous human unit you are depriving yourself of the human fellowship and ritual that normally accompanies food consumption.

You cannot eat healthy by using food to medicate your despair at eating alone.

Dieting and nutrition, to say nothing of health and a good attitude, involves far more than your ability to control what enters your mouth, and when. It must balance exercise, nutrition, social activities, family functions, and work.

It is much easier to control your appetite and to eat well when you eat with others. Eating with others is not infallible, but it is surely a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the culture is not friending your good health. In some circles, it is a badge of honor to be on a diet. If you are not on one you will have nothing to talk about when your friends share their alimentary issues. If you are comfortable with your weight and like your body as it is, many people will find that you are abnormal.

Now, let's change the question a bit and ask: how many people would put their sexual appetites on a diet? How many would make sexual self-control and deprivation a point of pride? Haven't we been told that it is a moral imperative to satisfy sexual desires?

If there is no such thing as being too rich or too thin, there is also no such thing as having too much sex.

Someone will want to interject here that the difference is that sexual activity does not cause anyone to put on weight.

But if that is true, then perhaps it is because sex involves a certain amount of... exercise!

How can people have healthy lives and temperate appetites when they are being tossed between two contradictory cultural imperatives: one says that appetite must be rigorously controlled while the other says that it must be indulged.

Wouldn't it be better to say that neither appetite should suffer excessive deprivation or indulgence, and that they should both be exercised frequently and in moderation? Wouldn't that move us out of the realm of weight-loss and into the world of healthy.

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