The diet wars

By Eileen Daspin
April 11, 2012

What would you do if she were your little girl? At age 7 and 4 ft. 4 in., she weighs 95 pounds – clinically obese according to her doctor. At school the other kids make fun of her. It’s a problem.

A little more than a year ago, that was Bea Weiss, an overeater who failed to self-regulate, in the words of her mother, Dara-Lynn Weiss. You may have read about Bea in recent days. Fat no more, she graces the pages of April Vogue, along with said mother, who cut back little Bea’s calorie intake until she hit 79 pounds. Then she wrote the Vogue story. And then she got a book contract.

I’m not sure which of these details sparked the outrage, but news of Bea’s diet, her mother’s chutzpah and the book deal lit up the Internet like the latest news of a Lindsay Lohan probation violation. Much of the anger, at least initially, was heaped on Dara-Lynn for having the audacity to put her child on a diet. She was accused of humiliating Bea, setting her on a path of lifetime eating disorders and taking out her own obsessive-compulsiveness about food on her daughter. Slate labeled Weiss “self-absorbed” and “fanatical.” Jezebel called the story “The Worst Vogue Article Ever.”

All this for a diet that involved a weight loss of just a little more than a pound a month. That it also produced a healthier child, one who had achieved a significant goal and who was no longer the butt of fat jokes at school was nowhere to be found in the early reactions, though the points cropped up eventually. Had Dara-Lynn chosen to allow Bea to continue fattening up, she could have had her daughter taken from her under federal child welfare laws, which define neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm … or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Granted, it is rare for the government to remove a child from parental custody on obesity grounds, but it has happened in New Mexico, Ohio and elsewhere, and presumably could have happened to the Weiss family, too. Imagine the outrage then.

Over the past few years, I have spent a good amount of time interviewing women in New York about their food and exercise habits for a book called The Manhattan Diet. My subjects happen to be some of the healthiest, longest-living women in the U.S. And in the course of my reporting, I discovered their secret: They work at it. They think about food and exercise and diet pretty much all the time. It’s fairly easy to lose weight (witness the endless parade of fad diet books) but is really hard to maintain that loss. It takes mindfulness, determination, will power, effort in cooking from scratch, in working out, walking, and yes, even self-denial.

For suggesting in my book that thinking a lot about what one eats is a good idea, I have been accused by bloggers and online commentators of being “pro-ana,” a term I never heard of until it was applied to me. It means pro-anorexia. I have also been described as supporting eating disorders in general, or less viciously, of just promoting unhealthy eating. (As a size 10, I have also been accused by readers of being too fat to dole out diet advice.) In pretty much every interview I’ve done about The Manhattan Diet – with reporters from the U.S., Ireland, England and Chile – I’ve been asked about my pro-eating-disorder stance.

As you probably have read elsewhere, more than a third of the U.S. population is obese. It’s not a fact that makes most Americans proud, but it has given rise to a familiar attack-the-messenger syndrome. Point out that it takes work and desire to be slim and healthy and you almost certainly will be criticized, because implicitly you are suggesting that some people who are overweight and out of shape are responsible for their own condition. Those who take offense, in turn, go after Dara-Lynn and me.

Not to be overly simplistic about it, but it doesn’t take a team of experts or specialists to understand why people are fatter than they used to be. They are fatter because they eat more and exercise less. They eat more processed foods and fewer whole foods. They walk less and sit in front of the computer more. What is hard to justify is the hope for a quick fix – the “17 Day Diet” or juice cleanse or bariatric surgery or Alli. Things that are worthwhile aren’t easy. They take practice, or what my mom used to call elbow grease.

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Why do we do this weird delicate dance with fat people? We don’t do it with smokers. We’re open about calling smokers…. self-destructive people. Yet the stock photos in articles and CDC reports on obesity universally show fat adults from the neck down so as not to identify them embarrass them. We act like it might be a ‘glandular issue’ even though most doctors agree, that makes no sense. It’s just plain old lack of self-control, coupled with plain old laziness.

Like most people, I got fat in my 30′s. I have since lost it and and I am slim again. At no time when I was gaining weight, eating McDonald’s french fries did I think, “I can’t help it. It’s my glands.”

And it’s not just the fries. You really just HAVE to know calories if you want to lose weight. For example, a whole wheat bagel (390 calories) will make you roughly twice as fat as a typical glazed donut (190 calories). Counter-intuitive, but true. And that’s WITHOUT putting the cream cheese on the bagel.

So it’s not just a matter of eating more ‘whole foods.’ You can get perfectly fat on whole foods or organic foods. A bowl of organic oatmeal with real maple syrup and walnuts (sustainably harvested) has the same calories as a big mac (540). Whole foods have their other benefits, but if you’re talking weight control…. it’s ONLY about the number of calories in vs. out. Not how many were carbs vs. fats. Not how many were ‘empty’ or what the glycemic index was. None of that matters in weight control. Just the number of calories. Eat the donut. Enjoy life. Stay skinny. Just don’t eat too many :)

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