Dear Eric Hentges

September 2, 2004

Dear Eric,

I read about you over at Mo‘s blog — no, Mo’s other blog. She linked to the article about the new food pyramid. You know the one. The one where you were talking about how if people eat wisely and exercise, they can earn “discretionary calories” that are the ones that are available for things like the occasional pat of butter or the occasional small dish of ice cream. It’s the article that has this passage in it:

Discretionary calories are the reward for living right. And Americans who are overweight or obese don’t have discretionary calories, Hentges said. “They used them up a long time ago,” he said. To get them back, they will have to burn more calories by being more active, he said.

Eric, don’t take this the wrong way, but I say this in total seriousness. The article says you are the executive director of the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, so it sounds like your job is mostly giving general advice about eating healthy, and perhaps in that role, you are qualified.

But I am here to tell you this: You owe it to the health of the people you have been appointed to serve not to say one more word about obesity, obese people, or losing weight until you have figured out what you are talking about, because as it stands now, you are one of those people who makes it worse.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Your background, after all, isn’t exactly in medicine or psychology. Your background appears to be in political advocacy. For pork, specifically. No — literally, pork. I see from the press release announcing your appointment that you were “vice president of Applied Technology and Education Services for the National Pork Board” before arriving at the USDA. As I understand it, the National Pork Board doesn’t actually work to improve the health of fat people. Neither does the National Pork Producers’ Council, where you were the director of Consumer Nutrition and Health Research before that, and neither does the National Livestock and Meat Board, where you were the director of human nutrition research before that. These groups are there to put money in the pockets of pork producers, Eric, not to give sound medical advice.

What you say suggests that when it comes to fat people, you don’t know anything. And because you don’t know anything, you owe it to the people you’re supposed to be helping in your capacity as a government official to shut your mouth.

You see, your little comment — your smug, self-satisfied, tsk-tsking, finger-waggling, smirking little comment — is, while far from the most offensive thing I have ever heard, a remarkably concise, perfectly formed, densely packed example of the one approach to helping people get and keep their weight under control that I absolutely promise you will never, ever work.

It does not work to tell people that they must suffer now to make up for their past mistakes, and that they’ve already spent a lifetime of indulgences and can now look forward to living like monks. Let me repeat my objection, lest you mistake it for a soft-focus, psychologically generous, misty-eyed plea for kindness to people who have suffered enough. It does not work.

I’m appealing to your practical side. I’m appealing to you as a strategist. You know, the kind of strategist who knows how to move some money on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council. I’m appealing to you as a planner. As an operator. As a guy who wants results.

Trying to shame people — to embarrass them, to make them hate themselves for every drop of Coke they have ever swallowed, to make them believe that the reason they haven’t changed their habits yet is that they have not offered adequate repentance for a lifetime of sin — this does not work.

I mean, honestly. This is the one approach that has been tested on more people than any other. Telling fat people how much they suck, how much they have to make up for, and how much they should appreciate all of the great times they’ve had eating ice cream because they will never know them again? This does not work. It doesn’t.

You know why, Eric? Because no one knocks herself out if the only reward is absolution. If all she can hope for is to get back to zero. To be forgiven.

Don’t you see it? All of these people you are talking about, who have “used up” all of their calories — used up their treats, their slivers of birthday cake, their opportunities to have just a taste of what everyone else is having — they don’t owe a debt to anyone but themselves, and deep down, they know it. They are the only ones they’ve put at a disadvantage. Oh, sure, public health implications and so forth, but that’s not really what it’s about. When it’s just you and the mirror — or you and the scale, or you and the bread, or you and the treadmill — it’s not about insurance costs or the national debt. It’s about you.

You’re the one who’s going to benefit. You know who benefits when I choose to change how I eat? Me. You know who benefits when I hit the Precor? Me. Those benefits go to me.

Is this beginning to make sense to you? Are you there yet? Do you get it?

You’re asking all of these people to stop treating themselves. You want them to live a pared-down, apologetic life until the scale says “Ding!” and they can live among the Regular People again. Sure, you say they could earn their “discretionary calories” back by being more active, but there is no mistaking what you are really saying when you say we have “used them up a long time ago.” You are saying that the cupcake we do not eat today is to make up for the cupcake we ate . . . when? Last week? Last year? When we were six years old? How long will it take? How sorry do you want me to be about a handful of potato chips when I was twelve?

See, all of this debt? It’s not owed to you. It’s not owed to the Vatican, or the United Nations, or the Pork Board. It’s owed to ourselves. And because it’s owed to ourselves, you can’t convince us to pay ourselves back if you tell us all we’ll get out of it is that we’ll be as virtuous as everyone else has been all along.

Don’t you get it?

Do you really think I could get up at 4:00 in the morning to pay a debt I owe to someone I don’t have any respect for? Do you think I could change the way I eat, or drag myself into the kitchen to make dinner instead of ordering in, or pass up the free pizza lunch . . . in order to pay off a wedding from 1993?

People don’t work that way. They don’t. You don’t work that way, and neither does a fat person.

I do not work hard to make up for the things I’ve done. I work hard to put myself in the position to have the things I want. I haven’t been sentenced to three hundred hours at a cardio sweat to make up for anything. It’s not punishment, and it’s not penance. I’m not bailing out a sinking ship, you arrogant jackass, I’m just steering it in a different direction, and nothing makes it harder than people who can’t tell the difference.

And it’s so sickeningly ironic, because speaking solely for myself, nothing worked until I gave myself a clean slate. Nothing worked until I stopped writhing around trying to make up for everything I had done wrong. Nothing worked until I stopped assuming I had “used up” anything. Nothing is used up. There’s no expiration date on your right to make your own choices and make yourself feel better. You wake up every day in whatever situation you’re in, and if you do it with shame, like you’re sorry — like you’re apologizing for being in the room, for making people see you, for taking up space — you will get nowhere. It’s unfair, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think so, too.

But do me a favor. Until you’re ready to talk to me about what’s in front of me instead of the pouring sand into the barrel of guilt you expect me to be lugging around? Just close your mouth. You’re making it worse.

I know! Twice in two days. But this was so striking, I had to run right home and prattle about it.

So, the Precor, right? To review, it’s an elliptical trainer, and I’m in love with it. It’s not one of the ones with arm thingies, so it’s really mostly . . . well, if you’ve never used one, it’s sort of halfway between running and pedaling a bike. That’s as close as I can get to a decent description. And the reason it’s so awesome is that it’s a really, really hard workout, but it’s absolutely cake for your joints.

See, even as I’ve gotten into better shape, I haven’t ever been able to pound a treadmill for, say, 45 minutes for several days in a row, because something winds up hurting. A knee, an ankle, a shin, a hip. It’s just a lot of pounding, and something winds up taking a beating. Bikes are even worse — I can tell you what will hurt. That one will be a hip for sure, and the next day, I will feel like crap. So, of course, when you do something that makes something hurt, then the next day, it’s very hard to go back and do it again, because it’s hard to tell whether to push through it or rest it, so you wind up on a very erratic schedule trying to work around this week’s sore whatever.

But. I can sweat like a pig — an athletic pig — for an hour on the Precor, working my ass off, and nothing will hurt. Absolutely nothing. Not that day, not the next day, not any day. My legs are kind of jelly when I first get done with it, and they were even more that way when I was first starting on it, but nothing hurts. At all. And that’s a major accomplishment, and that’s why I’ve done it for seven out of the last eight days.

So far, so good, right? Right. Well, anyway. I get up this morning to go to the gym, and I wind up putting on this pair of shorts. Now, the shorts I usually wear aren’t all spandex-shiny by any stretch of the imagination, but they are fitted, not because I think I look hot in them, but because it’s the most comfortable thing to wear. They’re like, you know, mostly-cotton bicycle shorts or whatever. So I own them in, like, forty colors or whatever. But the last time I went to buy a couple of new colors, I didn’t really realize they had started cutting them shorter by, like, two inches. And it turns out it’s a very crucial two inches. Because, as I discovered today, the shorter onces react to the Precor by rolling up on me. Which is seriously the most unflattering, embarrassing, totally obnoxious thing to have happen when you’re trying to work out. You feel like turning around to the people behind you and being like, “I know you’re looking at more of my thighs than you probably want to, and . . . you know, sorry.” But I was already there, and it wasn’t like I was going to go home and change. So I decided to just endure it.

It pretty much brought back every gross, self-conscious feeling from gym class, ever, even though I think that if you’re already sweating when somebody gets there and you’re still doing it when they leave, they have little room to look down their noses at you. And honestly, most people are thinking about themselves. They’re not thinking about you, no matter what you’re wearing. It’s much more in your head than anybody else’s. But still, I was kind of annoyed by it the entire time, and I was reeeeally looking forward to being done.

And at one point probably halfway through, this woman came and got on a treadmill right near me, and I was just thinking, “Yes, her too, she’s all, ‘That girl on the elliptical machine needs some fashion advice.’ Believe me, lady, it’s unintentional, so BACK OFF.” Yeah. My mind is paranoid.

But I survived the thing, and I left, and I went and had a shower, and when I got back to the lockers, she was there, having just come back from her workout, and only a couple of lockers away. Now, this was about 8:00 on a Sunday morning, so there was practically nobody there, and I was thinking . . . Great. I can’t get dressed in peace, because the one person in this place besides me decided she wanted to locate right here. Yeah. My mind is bitchy.

And as I’m putting my shampoo and stuff back in the locker and starting to get my clothes out, I hear her talking to me. “Can I ask you a question?” she asks. I swear to God, I thought for a minute she was going to say, “Are you aware that what you were wearing really wasn’t flattering?” I really did. But she didn’t. Here’s what she said.

“That thing . . . that machine you were on. Is that hard? Is it hard to get used to?”

So, to review, I was on the thing thinking, “That lady is on her treadmill thinking about how stupid I look,” and she was literally — literally — actually thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if I could do that.” It is at moments like this that you become embarrassed to be in the same room with your neuroses.

It gets better. I started to explain to her about how it’s easier on the joints and stuff, and she started to talk about how much less she weighed when she was younger, and I started to talk about how much more I weighed a couple of years ago, and we had about a three-minute conversation — really, three minutes — in which we discussed the fact that (1) I had done the stupid shakes and the fasting and we both think that’s really stupid, because you can’t not eat forever; (2) she’s an alcoholic and has to constantly tell people that weight is actually a harder battle for her because she doesn’t have the option of never eating again; and (3) she’s bulimic, which has made it even more complicated. And all this took place while I was changing into my clothes. And it didn’t feel weird, like TMI, it’s just that we were there, and we had this conversation, and . . . there you go.

Sometimes, the lessons just reach right out and grab you by the neck.

Changing Tracks

August 28, 2004

So, one week down on Core.

I am eating, as we speak — er, write — one of my best discoveries of the week. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that I invented this. People have been doing this since forever. But this is a great example of how this new program has turned my head around in a really good way.

The thing is, I used to be a snacker on stuff like reduced fat Cheez-Its and baked tortilla chips and stuff. It’s munchie-seeming, and low in points, but there’s basically no food in it. Again, don’t misunderstand — I’m not dissing the salty or sweet snack. However, it’s not going to make you less hungry, usually. I can buzz through a pack of little lowfat cookies, and while I will have satisfied the desire for a sweet, and the desire for a snack on a psychological level, I’m just as hungry.

See, I think a lot of people sell themselves short and assume that they can’t stop eating when they’re full, when in fact what they’re doing is eating such that they’re never full. Maybe of calories they are, but not of, you know, food.

So what am I eating? A bowl made of cans. You take a can of petite-cut diced tomatoes, a can of black beans (rinsed), and a can of corn. Dump in bowl. Drizzle with bottled lime juice (not Core, but far from enough to add up to a point). Drizzle with small amount of olive oil (which the Core plan wants you to eat anyway). Eat.

That’s it. So now, in my fridge, there’s a big plastic tub of that stuff. Hell, if I threw some cilantro in with it, that would be a bona fide recipe. And it’s basically Core (like I said, not enough lime juice to worry over), so I can eat it “until I’m satisfied.” So after I had lunch — which consisted of a real hamburger, made of real extra-lean meat on a light wheat roll for 1 point — and I was still hungry, I had a bowl of Linda’s First Core Week Stuff From A Can Bean-Corn Salad Thingy. It doesn’t take five minutes to make that, and as I said, you can then throw it into a container, save it (I save it without the dressing and I drizzle on the juice and oil a bowl at a time), and spoon some into a bowl whenever you want. And it’s really very tasty. Yesterday, I mixed it with a little lunch-sized can of chicken, and that was my lunch.

And there’s FOOD in it. You can’t compare what you give your body to run on when you feed it tomatoes, beans, and corn, as opposed to when you feed it reduced-fat Cheez-Its. You just can’t. And I feel like I ate some real food, as opposed to that “I just ate a snack, why am I just as hungry as I was before?” feeling.

So how was the week generally? It was good. My biggest struggle was making sure I ate enough. Core-type food — real food — takes a little longer to make than some of the quick stuff I had gotten used to. So this week, sometimes, when I didn’t feel like cooking, I would respond by not eating at all, and that’s not a great idea, because then I would wind up having lunch at 3:00 in the afternoon and dinner really late and kind of be thrown off by the end of the day. I wasn’t skipping, I was just being slow to get down to eating a meal sometimes.

Was I hungry? Only when I got busy. Trying to find some quick Core meals was how I happened on the Bean-Corn Salad Thingy in the first place. Like I said, it takes longer than a Lean Cuisine, the whole-food eating.

Did I feel restricted? No. I ate ice cream, drank beers and a margarita, had a couple of light mocha frappucinos (best way EVER to spend three points), and had a serving of potatoes every day for about the first five days I was doing it.

BUT. I would also point out that I earned about 35 activity points this week that I counted, and I counted conservatively. I became — as I’ve said — totally infatuated with the Precor, and spent four and a half hours on it between last weigh-in and this one. The day I had to quit after thirty minutes, I’m almost sure it was because I did it at about 1:00 and I hadn’t had lunch yet. Breakfast had been oatmeal and berries, so not much protein there. I think if I had eaten some protein before I went, I wouldn’t have punked out at the half-hour mark. But yeah, I worked out five days this week, which is very unusual. As I’ve said, Core is very motivating for exercise, because not only can you spend your points on treats like my beloved light mocha frapp, but you can spend them on things that are really good for you but not Core, like whole wheat bread and nuts and things.

I ate a steak this week. A STEAK. Not a big steak, not a huge steak, not a “run for the hills, she’s renaming the blog Eating The Cow” kind of steak, but a steak. Only once, but I ate it. I ate real eggs — not a lot, because I still am happy with southwestern Egg Beaters for breakfast much of the time — but a couple. I ate shrimp and beans and carrots and raspberry-banana smoothies and mandarin oranges and chili and cornbread and improvised hash browns, and I drank milk and coffee and lattes and a giant margarita.

Did I miss bread? Well . . . I missed bread as a habit. I missed being able to go for bread out of familiarity. Bread, or crackers, or a bagel, or whatever. But this morning, when I actually spent a couple of points on real whole wheat bread at breakfast, I realized that I have been eating mostly light wheat bread (2 slices for 1 point) that has, basically, no taste whatsoever. I had practically forgotten what good bread tasted like. I would much rather do this — spend a couple of points on bread and have really good bread — than be in points-hoarding mode, where I’m constantly afraid to eat anything in case I’m even hungrier later, which is kind of what Mo and I were talking about yesterday. I don’t really miss the kind of bread or crackers that I was eating most of the time. Especially if I can have fruit or something instead. I know that sounds like hippy-dippy happy talk, but it’s true.

So yes, I felt restricted at first just in the sense that I was being restricted from eating some of the things I normally would. But in the long run, do I believe the plan is more restrictive? No. It’s just different. I don’t want to talk down the Flex plan, because it’s worked awesome for a lot of people, and I had a lot of success with it myself. But I’m eating a whole lot better this way, and I’m more inclined to exercise, and I think I’m more well-prepared to exercise (in other words, better fueled).

Is it perfect? No. As I’ve said, if I were designing this plan, I’d have left one serving per day of whole-grain bread as Core. And they didn’t. And I still am not eating fat-free cheese, I don’t think. It doesn’t totally make sense to me that 1% milk isn’t Core, because it’s reportedly better for you, and the fat and calories aren’t that different. And I really am still bitter about lowfat deli turkey and ham not being included. That’s grumping me out.

But I’m digging the whole thing. I feel like I’m eating by feel a lot more than I was before — eating what I’m hungry for, rather than by what’s lowest in points. I’m not really eating more, I’m just eating differently.

And I don’t usually do stats, just because I kind of don’t think it’s the point, but for the purpose of providing complete information, I lost 4.2 pounds this week. Which is partly the exercise, but the program certainly didn’t result in my eating a lot more than I was before.

Commence Freaking Out

August 23, 2004

Well, it’s that time of year again.

Every year, Weight Watchers changes the program. Over time, these have been good changes, for sure — when I was ten, they made you eat liver once a week, and you couldn’t eat dangerous things like . . . ketchup. And there were these treacherous Food Lists, and everything had to be traded in under a particular category, so if you couldn’t figure out whether your fajitas were a Bread and a Vegetable and one-and-a-half Meats or whatever, you couldn’t have them. It was the No Ritz Crackers Diet, as I always remember it, because I remember the leader giving a little pop quiz where he said (yeah, it was a guy — I didn’t appreciate how rare that was at the time), “How many Saltines are a Bread?” And the answer was “six.” And then he was like, “How many Ritz Crackers are a bread?” And the answer was that it was a trick question, because you couldn’t have Ritz Crackers.

Even at ten, I remember thinking, “So, wait. I can’t ever have a Ritz Cracker again as long as I live?” It was stupid, that kind of unrealistic BS. They don’t do that to you anymore.

For the last year, we’ve been on this Flex Points system, which works thusly: Based on how much you weigh, you get a certain number of Points you’re supposed to eat in a day. These are your “Target” points. And then you have 35 “Flex” points that you can spend over the course of the entire week. Basically, Flex Points is calorie-counting, with slight tweaks. Points values are basically 1 point for every 50 calories, fudged up for foods with lots of fat and down for foods with lots of fiber. That’s it.

People have learned to internalize Points values to the point (heh) where Erin and I have discussed the psychological difference between the two-point snack and the three-point snack — we are all constantly on the prowl for the two-point snack. In fact, the new 100-calorie Nabisco snack packs are essentially designed to fit the “I want a two-point snack” mentality. I firmly believe they were designed for WW users, with the “two-point snack” drive firmly in mind.

Not everybody loves the Flex Points thing. Before Flex Points, rather than a set number plus an allotment of Flex Points, you had a range of points every day — same effect, really, but different psychology. Also, if you ate under your maximum, you could “bank” points so that if you went over your max on another day, you’d be covered. Some people have never liked the FP thing as much as the old one (which was called “Winning Points,” because all meaningless names are essentially interchangeable).

Sooooo, of course, now it’s a year later, and they have to change the program again. For one thing, they change it so that they can have a new marketing push. “Didn’t choose us before? Choose us now!” Furthermore, it was inevitable that WW would respond in some way to the low-carb thing. There was just no way they were going to continue to get left off that train.

Which brings us to this week — New Plan Week. Interestingly, this is the first time I’ve ever been aware of them adding the new plan but also explicitly allowing you to stay on the old one if you want to. There have always been people who have stayed on the old plan if it was working for them — that’s why there are still people who do Winning Points with the ranges and the banking and whatnot. But the company has never openly supported the old programs anymore once they’re changed. This is the first time they’ve said flat-out that you can do either. What’s more, you can change from week to week which one you want to follow. Which is . . . interesting.

So what IS the new structure? They’re calling it The Core Plan. What they’re not calling it is Something That Definitely Is Not South Beach For Intellectual Property Purposes.

Yeah. Essentially, the Core Plan has a lot in common with Phase II of South Beach, as I understand it. (I’ve never done SB, but the fact that it’s Phase II means they’re not putting you through the two-week Phase I carb-detoxification thing where you can’t even eat fruit.) They’ve come up with a list of “Core Foods,” and as long as you eat off of the list, you don’t have to write down what you eat. You eat “until you’re satisfied” from the foods on the List, and anything else you want that’s not on The List, you have 35 Points worth over the week. So there are still Points. The 100-calorie snack packs are not in danger of obsolescence.

What’s remarkable about this plan, for people who have done WW for years, is that the act of writing down everything you eat has been the absolute unchanging center of WW for as long as I can remember. No matter what they were having you count, you counted everything, and you wrote down — or “journaled” — everything.

I decided to try it. Sunday morning, after my hour on the Precor (SWEET JESUS!), I came home and made a smoothie for breakfast/brunch. Plain yogurt, skim milk, a frozen banana, some frozen raspberries, a packet of Splenda, and — the only non-Core food — a tablespoon of peanut butter. It was actually really good, but the act of making something without measuring most of the ingredients (how many frozen raspberries? umm, a handful) felt incredibly odd. Not bad, just odd. There’s a place to write down non-core Points you’re using, so I wrote down the peanut butter. But in my head, I was still adding up Points. My little brain is still muttering, “Yeah, would be a couple for the yogurt and milk, two for the banana, one for the raspberries . . . ” It’s hard to stop.

I’m not sure how it’s going to work for me. While the plan isn’t low-carb, really — it allows all the fruit you want, along with quite a number of whole grains — it does have some pretty severe restrictions in terms of stuff that isn’t on the List and will have to be counted as Points. Bread, for instance. All bread, any bread, any bagel or cracker or piece of toast. There is no bread or bread-like substance on the List.

They’re very picky about certain things, too. I love the Louis Rich cooked chicken breast strips, for instance — they’re convenient, fast, and I don’t have to go through the pain in the butt of cooking a big pile of chicken breast fillets. The catch is that Core is, among other things, trying to get you to eat less processed foods, so while plain chicken breast is Core, my precious strips are not. Neither are most of the kinds of very lowfat deli meats I like — so, for instance, very lean ham is Core, but not the thin-sliced stuff I like to put on sandwiches.

Of course, sandwiches aren’t so hot, now that bread is limited.

Having done this for about three days, though, I have to say . . . I really like it. I do like not having to measure Egg Beaters and weigh chicken breasts and all that. And I like being able to eat all the fruit that I need to feel satisfied.

It seems to me that although they’re responding to the low-carb thing for sure, they’re dealing with another problem, too. Basically, when I was growing up, there were two things that your Terribly Restrictive Diet told you: What, and How Much. The result of trying to tell you What and How Much was that you would have commands like Two Milks, Two Fruits, Four Breads (or whatever), usually for a day at a time.

These plans sucked, in several ways. They didn’t accommodate multiple-ingredient foods very well, and they had no room for things like special occasions or wanting an occasional beer. You were On The Diet or you were Off The Diet, and you know how you could get Off The Diet in four seconds? Eat a Ritz cracker.

So ever since then, they’ve tweaked the What and the How Much. They’ve tried being less picky about the What, while being strict about How Much — as when you had to count everything, but the only things you had to count were fat grams and fiber grams. The move to Points was basically the victory of How Much over What. In Points, they told you How Much, but they didn’t really tell you What at all, even though there were technically guidelines that told you to make sure you got two servings of dairy and five fruit/vegetable servings a day. People didn’t really take missing those marks as taking you “off program,” as we would say. Perhaps they should have, but most didn’t.

The problem with counting How Much and not What is that although I lost weight on it, I always was very aware that I wasn’t necessarily making entirely good choices. For example, I would get lazy and not want to make lunch on a weekend day, so I would have two fat-free hot dogs on two super-light, artificially fiber-pumped rolls, with mustard and pickle relish. The pickle relish was probably the most nutritious element of the entire meal, even though it only had — ta-da! — four points. (That’s only as much as two glasses of skim milk, if you’re keeping score at home.) And although I tried to eat salad and stuff, some of those decisions weren’t all that sound.

Basically, the Core plan represents Weight Watchers offering you a What-centered plan instead of a How-Much-centered plan, even though just as Points still had some rules about What, Core has some rules about How Much — particularly the fact that everything that’s not on The List is limited to 35 points a week. Which is not much. Ultimately, though, Core is mostly a What-based plan.

My personal theory is that there are people who are pretty comfortable that they don’t eat too much, really, they just eat goofy things at times — I am this kind of person. The other kind is the kind that got fat on giant plates of theoretically healthy food. That second group is the group that’s freaking out about Core not restricting portion sizes for Core foods. “If I could stop eating when I’m satisfied, I wouldn’t beeeee here!” they say. And I totally feel for them, I do. But I don’t feel that way. I do stop eating when I’m satisfied. My problem is more, as I said above, that I go for a lot of low-point foods that don’t have much actual food in them. So when I eat more later, it’s because I’m hungry.

I am theorizing, based on my vast three days of experience, that the first kind of person will do better on Core, and the second kind will do better on Flex. That’s what I would call my First Theory of Flex People and Core People.

My Second Theory of Flex People and Core People is this: Core will work quite well for people who are at least moderately active, but people who are not exercising will find it to be a bitch. Because really, 35 FP a week for non-Core foods is not very damn much when bread puts you in a hole.

But. As stated above, I’ve just discovered the Precor. This, for those of you who don’t know, is an elliptical trainer. And I will eventually be writing an entire entry about the Precor, because I love it. And I can do it for an hour, working very hard, and it will spit out (as it did this morning) that I burned over 700 calories. Roughly, WW likes to give you an activity point (meaning an extra point that you can eat) for about every 100 calories that you burn — and yes, this means that since food is only about 50 calories per point, you always come out ahead from exercise. I give myself a conservative 6 for that hour spent on the Precor. So now, instead of 5 (the average 1/7 of my weekly 35) to spend on non-Core today, I would have 11. And 11 points worth of non-Core food, I can work with. What I’m trying to do is only use the APs for stuff like bread and nuts and things — stuff that’s good for you but has to be counted — and then I’m saving the 35 for actual “extra” stuff — little cookies or beer or whatever.

It’s scary, change. There are a lot of very freaked-out individuals out there, which is partly a compliment to the fact that Flex has been a pretty happy plan for a lot of people. We’ll see how the new thing goes. Fortunately, if all my theories go south, I can always go back.

Off the Field of Battle

August 20, 2004

“I hate her.”

Boy, do you hear this a lot. Travel a few boards where women are talking about weight and food and working out, and you won’t get far without hearing it.

“I hate her.”

Who is she? You work with her, or she’s a friend of a friend, or you see her every day at the gym or at Starbucks. She is thin and pretty, with no acne or little red bumps on her arms or scars on her knees. She is perpetually tan, but not too much, always with the white teeth and the smooth, subtly highlighted hair. And, of course, she has the little flat stomach you will never have if you work out for fifty years, because past a certain point, you’re not getting that.

“I hate her.”

She compliments you that you look great, and even then — especially then — you are overwhelmed by the urge to poke her in the eye. How dare she? She knows nothing. You have seen her sucking down her chic full-fat white mocha or her chicken Caesar salad on which she has not asked them to go light on the dressing. You have seen her. She is secretly contemptuous of you, you are certain. She thinks she’s better than you are.

“I hate her.”

She complains about those torturous five pounds she wants to lose. Poor dear, with her five pounds. Poor dear, with her suffering. Poor dear, afraid she won’t be the prettiest girl at spring break. She knows nothing. She eats whatever she wants. She prattles about carbs, maybe, but it’s not like it matters. When there are donuts in the office, she always has one. Maybe she doesn’t eat all of it, but she always has one.

“I hate her.”

And really . . . it’s time to stop.

There are enough people to worry about. The rude, the nasty, the insensitive, the stupid, the vapid, the obnoxious, the patronizing, the self-righteous, the dishonest . . . the cheats, the blowhards, the bullies, the fools . . . it’s enough.

Because really, she didn’t do anything. At least not just by being born lucky, which is, in all honesty, what makes her so infuriating. Sure, yes, perhaps she and her friends are the same people who enforced the social order that caused so much agony for everyone else, but . . . she was thirteen. It was a long time ago. You have friends now. You have a job. She’s not in the girls’ bathroom trading Bonne Belle LipSmackers anymore. You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to go to each other’s birthday parties if you don’t want to, and perhaps you wouldn’t want her friends, and perhaps she wouldn’t want yours.

In the end, I’m a pragmatist. Hating her is exhausting. It floats around me like a cloud of sour ashes, and the only person who’s less pleasant because of it is me. Sure, if she’s dumb, she’s dumb, and if she’s small-minded, she’s small-minded. But just for being lucky? Just for not having to get up every day and figure out how many points are in a cup of Berry Burst Cheerios before she’s even had her coffee? Nah.

How do I know her day doesn’t start with Prozac? Or a call to a dying relative? Would I really dare to say I’d trade my battles for hers without even knowing what hers would be? Is she automatically luckier than I am, overall, just because she seems to be luckier in this one regard? Hell, maybe it’s me who knows nothing.

It’s just such a trite business now, women sniping at each other over this one’s hair and that one’s ass and the other one’s obsession with her nails. I’m tired. Some of my friends are conventionally beautiful, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are thin, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are someone else’s “I hate her.” It gets us all nowhere, the epic battles left over from who felt stupid in gym class when we had to climb the rope — not to mention who felt stupid in math class when we had to do problems at the board, or who felt awkward when she got boobs before everybody else.

Enough. I don’t hate her. Among other things, there are few enough people I really like that I can’t afford to rule anyone out for reasons that aren’t entirely convincing. It’s all about supply and demand.

I live in Minnesota, very near the Mall of America. And from time to time, somebody asks me, “What’s the Mall of America like?” And I usually say something like this: “Well, on one hand, it’s remarkable — like being inside a pinball machine with a zillion people and a Sunglass Hut and a roller coaster and giant Lego dinosaurs that move. But on the other hand, you know . . . it’s a mall.”

I saw a comment somewhere the other day from somebody who was expressing frustration about the complicated march through fame of various diet schemes (no fat! no carbs! nothing but grapefruit! nothing cooked!). Her comment was that she was very tired of hearing about all of it, because in the end, as she put it, wasn’t it just a matter of eating less and exercising more?

Now, my natural reaction is to flinch at that, because it’s such an absurd oversimplification of everything, and it tends to discount a lot of very complex experiences that deserve more respect than that. Furthermore, it also tends to be followed by something that equates the simplicity of a task with the easy achievement of it. I mean, running a marathon is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line; the fact that it’s simple doesn’t make it easy. Same with quitting smoking. It’s as simple as never putting another cigarette in your mouth. Simple, not easy.

On the other hand, as much as I flinch at that description, it’s also true in a particular sense, the realization of which, I think, was really important for me personally in figuring out how to do this after years and years of feeling unable to. Because here’s the thing — I think after a certain number of years of gnashing your teeth over your inability to accomplish something, particularly if it’s been going on since you were a child or perhaps even as long as you can remember, you stop thinking of it as a regular, achievable, simple task.

It begins to feel like wish fulfillment, as if you would need a fairy godmother for it, or a wand, or at least some magic beans. (And no, soybeans do not count, even if you can make cars out of them or whatever the hell those smarty co-op types are always getting up to.) It begins to feel like it’s not something you would ever actually do, it’s something you pray will happen to you. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that I ever became passive, sitting around hoping that lightning would strike and I would magically become thin without doing anything. I’m saying that I think I became discouraged to the point where I was sitting around waiting to turn into a different person who would be strong enough to work miracles that my regular self wasn’t capable of.

You can lose track of the part where it’s simple; where it’s possible, I think. There’s a sense in which the Mall of America is just a mall, you know? The Gap. Ritz Camera. Bath & Body Works. Casual Corner. It’s a big mall, and it’s an imposing mall, but for the most part, it’s made up of stuff you’ve seen. And similarly, there’s a sense in which changing what you eat and working out is life-altering and earth-shattering and forces you to take yourself apart and put yourself back together. But ina day-to-day sense, it’s also . . . just changing what you eat and working out. Eat breakfast. Eat lunch. Eat dinner. Eat some other stuff if you feel like it. Go for a walk. You’re done. There’s nothing there that you can’t do. It feels like there is, but there isn’t.

This is where my anger about the gastric bypass surgery doctors come in. I’m not here to judge the surgery people, particularly on the basis that it’s “the easy way out,” because hell, losing much of my intestines doesn’t sound easy to me, and neither do the accommodations you have to make afterwards. And for people who are appropriate candidates for it, if doctors want to present it as an option, that’s fine. But promotion of surgery has become an opportunity for doctors — medical professionals who should know better — to get their names in the paper saying that the reason to have surgery is that fat people cannot lose weight any other way. Cannot. Not “it’s hard,” not “we’re still exploring what works and what doesn’t,” not “it’s uphill.” Just plain “can’t.”

And that’s wrong. I am here to tell you, I have lost over a hundred pounds and not gained it back, and I am not special. I mean, everybody likes to believe she’s special, whatever, but in this sense? No. The hardest stuff to deal with has been, as I’ve said before, all of the nutty emotional nonsense that I unfortunately built up over twenty-five years of frustration and anxiety. That stuff was complicated. As far as the actual doing? Not easy — very, very hard much of the time. But not complicated. Not easy . . . but simple.

Okay, try this as an experiment: Think about something you have in your kitchen that you could eat. Don’t eat it, just think about it for about ten seconds. Close your eyes if necessary. Okay, did you do it? Did you think about it and choose not to eat it? Congratulations, you’re following the Linda Plan. And I’m only partly being facetious. One of the biggest revelations to me was the “You’re doing it right now” moment. I think I expected that for a big accomplishment, there would be enormous moments, like Rocky on the Art Museum steps or something. But there aren’t very many of those. I mean, sure, you work out, and you get off the treadmill all sweaty, and yes, you have visions of yourself saving the world from . . . the Visigoths or the Vandals or whomever. But usually, it’s not like that.

Look, you just had your dressing on the side. Look, you just had Cheerios for breakfast instead of a donut. Look, you just went to Starbucks and had the skim latte instead of the mocha and scone. Look, you just took the stairs. Look, you got on and off a step for a half-hour while you were watching part of What Not To Wear. You’re doing it right now. That’s it — that’s what it looks like. If I made up a photo album of this process in my own case, that’s what it would look like. It would be, you know, pictures of me eating seven Triscuits instead of sitting in front of the TV with a box of Cheez-Its. Look, there I am with a beer and some baked tortilla chips. Look, there I am drinking water. Look, there I am Sweating to the Oldies. (Oh, yes. I did it. We’ll talk about it another day. I beg you not to judge.)

It’s really not that glamorous. It’s not magical. And I don’t say that in the insulting, condescending, “there is no magic bullet, lazy-ass, so take responsibility” kind of way. I say it in the “there’s nothing there that you aren’t perfectly capable of doing” kind of way.

I think it’s healthy to think of the Mall of America as nothing but a string of retail shops that sell mostly the same stuff you can get anywhere else while still holding in your head the notion that it is a landmark, a big achievement, and very impressive when you first see it. Similarly, I think it’s healthy to think of changing all of these habits as nothing but a series of really not very singularly significant decisions.

You’re probably doing it right now.

Irrational Numbers

July 23, 2004

Administrative note: Thanks to everybody who joined the notify list. I have moved it to MT, and it appears to be working. If you want to get on it, just drop your email in the box over there under “Notify.” Now, it should not give you trouble. And . . . sheesh, where did all you people come from? Heh.

If you were trying to learn Spanish, you’d understand that your progress was best measured by looking at a variety of factors, right? Your vocabulary, your reading comprehension, your ability to speak and be understood? You wouldn’t stand there tracking the number of words you understood on the Spanish-language news broadcast that night and do all the math, and if you understood 46.7 percent tonight as compared to 47.2 percent last night, you wouldn’t conclude that all your efforts were in vain and the enterprise was best abandoned, right? And you wouldn’t conclude that you needed to spend $500 on Spanish immersion classes, right?

And yet.

I don’t know how it works in other places, but Weight Watchers measures weights in 0.2 pound increments. So they’ll tell you you’re up 1.2, or down 2.4, or down 0.4, or whatever. It used to be, of course, that nobody tried to get any trickier than a half pound. No more. Someday, I’m sure, scales will go to four decimal places, so that they’ll be able to tell you, “Congratulations, you lost 2.4337 pounds this week!” And I can equally guarantee you that someone will react to that development by saying, “But last week, I lost 2.4339 pounds! Why are my losses getting smaller? Why? WHY, WHY?”

And they won’t want to hear the answer, which will be, “Because the underwear you wore this week was more linty.”

Everyone’s been to the weigh-in where you know you had some extra cookies . . . and that one day, Chinese food . . . and you never got off the couch . . . and there was some beer that never got counted. And then you step up. “Congratulations, you’re down 1.6!” And you run away from the scale as quickly as possible, before it changes its mind. “Thankyouverymuch, Iwillbegoingnow.”

That kind of unwarranted result is to be embraced. It is not irrational; it is whimsical. Just another wacky chapter in the Wacky Adventures of Shrinky-Girl! Sooooo funny!

Not like the other kind of week. You ate all your vegetables. You drank bathtubs full of water. On your birthday, you politely declined cake and had a bowl of antioxidant-rich berries. You worked out six times, and once, while on the elliptical trainer, you believe you saw God.

“Congratulations, you gained a pound!”


It’s surprising to me that the leaders who weigh people in don’t wear full protective gear, like umpires.

Because yes, that will make you want to beat the living crap out of someone. You want your reward. You want your point. You want your pat on the head. Ah, those impish scale pixies, having their way with you again.

It is fear of the scale pixies that makes WW tell you not to weigh yourself more than once a week. They don’t want you to hurt yourself banging your forehead against the towel bar in your bathroom every morning. But honestly, I think that if you can learn to handle it, it’s not any worse to climb on the scale a lot than a little. Because if you do it a lot, you learn to look down at it and spit, “Yes, I’m sure I gained three pounds since lunch. Bite me.”

Because it’s true. It will go up for no reason, and it will go down for no reason. No — it will. First of all, most scales aren’t really awesome enough to reliably distinguish between 150.0 and 150.2. You’re lucky if they can reliably distinguish between 150.0 and 151.2. And you drink and eat and digest and go to the bathroom all day and all week, and you wear different clothes, and there’s nothing to be done about the fact that if you think all you’re doing when you step on a scale is measuring your level of Bad Nasty Fat, you’re going to find that it isn’t the case.

There are a million things going on in terms of your body chemistry and composition when you change those habits, and only one of them is going to show up in that one number. That number doesn’t tell you whether you got stronger, or your blood pressure went down, or your cholesterol improved, or you can walk farther without stopping than last week. It doesn’t tell you if your arms got smaller, or if upping your yoga allowance has made you more intrinsically bendy.

Yes, eventually, it will go down. Gravity works, physics works . . . in all likelihood, it will eventually go down. If you take, let’s say, a four-week moving average, that might tell you something. But one week? Pfft. Anticipating that drop of two pounds every single week is a good way to make yourself crazy, not to mention a good way to make yourself quit.

I just envision myself as a smoky Parisian jazz singer. “Zee scale, she goes up, she goes down . . . eet is very . . . how you say . . . mysteeerious. She is temperamental, unfaithful . . . she will make you cry weeeth sadness, make you shout weeeth joy . . . ah, zee scale.” And then I just mutter, you know, “Sacre bleu,” and have lunch.