Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fad Diets

When I was in high school, the terms anorexia and bulimia were just starting to reach the mainstream consciousness. Pat Boone's oldest daughter, Cherry, wrote a book that was published in the 1980s about her experiences with both disorders, and Karen Carpenter, of the then famous sibling duo The Carpenters, died at the age of thirty-three from complications caused by her struggle with anorexia.

There was (and still is) a great deal of misunderstanding about what the two (separate and distinct) disorders entailed, and there was (and still is) the idea that binging and purging are symptoms of anorexia. They can be, but binging and purging is characteristic of bulimia. Anorexia is characterized by obsessive calorie counting, strict dietary regimen, and a potentially injury-inducing exercise routine. Both disorders are about control.

Like most high school juniors, I was assigned the task of writing a research paper. Mine was on fad dieting. The next year, I would write about eating disorders and read Cherry Boone O'Neill's book, Starving for Attention for my research. Exactly as my teachers had hoped, I learned something. Those lessons have stayed with me all of these years.

The very basic, and very key, thing that I learned was that fad diets do not work. The reason they don't work is very simple. People diet to lose weight, and once they've lost the weight, they stop dieting. I've heard a lot of people talk about their calorie counting diet with points or whatever the scheme to encourage dieters to stick with the plan, and then, there are words like reward and cheating thrown in there to describe food items or habits that aren't, generally, allowed on the diet. There also seems to be a lot of rationalizing as in I ran two miles today, and so I can have that cupcake at dinner. Unfortunately, eating the cupcake will pretty well negate any of the benefits of having run two miles, the weight will not slough off as desired, and the dieter will get frustrated from feeling deprived all of the time and discontinue the diet.

Interestingly, even though I know that fad diets do not work, and even though I know that any diet that is promoted as primarily for weight control can be considered a fad, I still succumbed. When Deus Ex Machina and I first moved to Maine, for instance, we stopped exercising like we had been, and noticed a little excess in places we hadn't had excess before. We decided we needed to be watching what we were eating. We believed the whole low fat argument, but contrary to the claims from the low-fat camp, the more low-fat we made our diet, the less low fat our bodies became.

I decided I needed to go back to my vegetarian lifestyle, and at the same time Deus Ex Machina decided Dr. Atkins had the right idea. I found myself trying to plan and cook meals for a family with one person who didn't eat meat and one person who couldn't eat carbs. It was a very interesting month.

And, then, I found out I was pregnant, again, and started eating meat, again.

And it seemed a little odd, to me, that I was okay with being a vegetarian when I wasn't pregnant, but not when I was, because I didn't believe I was getting the nutrition I needed as a pregnant woman on a vegetarian diet.

In this last decade, there have been a lot of other diets that have sprang up with their claims of being the healthiest, the best, the put-your-superlative-here diet for humans. I was a vegetarian without really doing any more than just eschewing meat (my diet was still, pretty much, the typical, high-carb, grain-centric American diet), and I avoided meat eating because I believed it was better for my health ... except when I was pregnant (?!?!).

I've met people who were vegans and vegetarians, but for health reasons were forced to change their diets to include animal products. The fact is that there are certain vitamins and minerals that are only available to humans through consuming animals. The big one is B12, and even lifelong vegetarians, Helen and Scott Nearing, were forced to take B12 shots, because their no meat diet made them deficient (some vegans will turn to sea weed for B12, but there is enough research to suggest that nori seaweed is not an adequate source for the nutrient, and that the only way to really get enough B12 in one's diet is to eat animal products).

I've also heard a lot about the raw foods diet, which I researched, and for a moment, believed the hype and almost decided to try (I actually made some sprouted bread, in an attempt to show my family that raw foods could be good, but it was not as enthusiastically accepted as I had hoped). Interestingly, my teenager found an article the other day that pretty much debunked the raw food diet as a superior option for humans. In fact, according to the article cooking food is what makes us human. In his article on raw foods, Dr. Weil points out that cooking makes certain nutrients available to humans, and it destroys some elements that are dangerous to humans (like carcinogens in some mushrooms and certain pathogens). I found enough evidence against the raw foods diet for me to discount it as a healthy diet choice.

In the end, when it comes to dieting and all of the options for following this way or that, Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, kind of tied it all together for me. I am a human being, and humans have the capacity for making dietary choices, especially in the world we live in. For both health and ethical reasons, the only diet that makes sense, for me, is one that includes foods that grow where I live.

Initially, for me, that meant that if someone grew that plant or animal within 100 miles of where I live, I could eat it, as much as I want, and so, tomatoes raised in a greenhouse in December in Maine would have been okay.

In the years since, however, it's taken on a much narrower meaning. If the plant is native or naturalized in my area, meaning that the seeds can overwinter in the ground and grow, unassisted, it's a food that we can eat. In fact, in the recent years, Deus Ex Machina and I have been doing a lot of research on what people who populated this area prior to colonization ate, and we've started looking at those food choices. A group in Michigan has the same idea, and they've embarked on a year-long project called the Decolonizing Diet Project. Their goal is to spend a year discovering and eating the foods that the indigenous people of the Michigan area ate.

I completely support and agree with the project, and not just as a year-long experiment, but as a way we should all start to view our food. Not just a "local" diet, as in, someone is growing "local" greenhouse tomatoes in Maine (a very energy intensive project), but a truly local and sustainable diet that includes plants and animals that are native and/or naturalized to the area.

In the past year, especially, Deus Ex Machina and I have been moving toward a truly local diet that includes plants and animals we raise on our quarter acre, but also plants and animals we forage in our area. This year, our Harvest Feast (which will be celebrated on the nationally recognized day of Thanksgiving) will include many of those foods, including a wild turkey that was killed (by Deus Ex Machina using a bow and arrow) in our front yard.

It's taken me a lot of years and a lot of research and a lot of trial and error to come to the conclusion that dieting is not about the numbers on a bathroom scale. It is about health, though, and the real problem with fad diets is that they all try to be all things to all people, and they can't. The nutrients necessary for someone living in Arizona are going to be very different from the nutrients required by someone who lives in Maine. The only diet choice that takes into consideration the nutritional needs of everyone is the local diet, and that means, knowing what is native to where one lives, and learning to love those foods ... instead of depending on the foods grown in Florida, processed in Oklahoma, and shipped all over the world.

I do believe that the answer to world hunger is not more food shipped to more places, but a reacquainting of people with the foods that naturally grow where they live, and an allowing of those plants to be grown and/or foraged by the people who live there.

There's plenty of food. The challenge is to learn to recognize it.


  1. Totally agree with all of this. I try to eat more seasonally, but it is difficult to step out of the normal American way of eating. I have a summer and winter CSA and shop at the farmers market, but I still go to the grocery store to fill in what I don't have.

    Overall I feel physically better not eating meat and cheese. We all eat a lot of eggs from our chickens - which is fine with me. I think part of the meat issue is that we want to buy sustainable local meat, and that is cost prohibitive for us. Growing up we always had venison in the freezer, sometimes moose, and once in a while bear. But, my husband doesn't hunt - although he has been talking about trying it out. So we instead eat a lot beans and veggies, and I try and grow what I can and buy what I can't grow.

    I think you are doing great things! And I am always interested in how people "used to" eat around here.

  2. Great post. I too have tried most fad type diets and they did work - for a short time because I just couldn't stick with them. Now, after 2 years of being a type 2 diabetic, I've lost the weight, eat well and raise as much produce as I can. I consider myself a 2/3's vegetarian - I only eat meat/fish/fowl at dinner. This is for health reasons with my doctor's approval. If I could just find locally raised affordable, the key condition, chicken & beef I'd be happy.