I visited friends this weekend; former neighbors of mine with whom I have developed a rather close and unlikely bond. Michael is the pastor of a Baptist church. He has worked extensively in the most impoverished corners of Africa, primarily to address systemic causes of AIDS and the impact of crushing poverty.
Michael’s life experience has had an influence on his family’s eating routines and food choices. His family eats a simple, primarily vegetarian whole foods diet and tends to keep portions small. They make their own bread and actually grind the whole wheat berries themselves! Michael also fasts for spiritual enlightenment. When I saw him this weekend I was immediately struck by how thin he looked. Sure enough, he’d recently done a 40-day fast that took 23lbs off his already slim frame.
As you would expect, Michael believes that his faith and prayer made it possible for him to complete the fast but he happened to admit this—He’s never been that concerned about food and he’s never had to manage his weight. Now in his forties, he says that throughout his life, he’s never experienced weight fluctuations. Add to this the fact that his work in Third World nations has inspired a deep commitment to simple eating and we can expect that he and his family are likely to be thin. Michael’s four children are all thin, particularly his two boys. His teenaged son is not “skinny” so much as his build is so lanky I think his entire body could slip through a basketball hoop. No exaggeration. His teenaged daughter is a very slim young lady and I remember her through the years as always being a petite girl. Her younger sister is a tiny little thing and a very finicky eater who, at 7 years old, moves her food around on the plate more than she eats it.
Is Michael’s body thin because of the choices he makes? Or have the traits of his body, brain, and genetics made it possible, even easy, for him to make certain food choices? It seems like a chicken or the egg dilemma but it’s not really. It has to be acknowledged that Michael’s been thin all his life and he admits that food has never been a big priority anyway. I know he’d like to believe his god carried him through the 40-day fast but it’s obvious his nature gave him a bit of help! His children are also proof that this family has that tendency to be thinner and to be less concerned with food and eating.
When people make food choices to be vegetarian or vegan, to eliminate all processed food or sugars, to eat raw or Paleo, to follow a sports training regimen, or even to endure a highly restrictive diet for spiritual/religious reasons, our culture praises them for demonstrating laudable discipline. We believe that these decisions require mental toughness and persistence and even daily conscious choices to resist “temptation.” These people are considered to have mastered the ability to “think like a thin person” and reap the benefits.
But there is a flaw in this paradigm. It assumes we all start from a place of equal footing. We don’t.
The paradigm hides another particularly pernicious flaw in logic. Diet choices made for any reason other than weight loss are generally applauded and encouraged. But when a person goes on a weight loss diet, they’re immediately warned to “treat” themselves or they’ll be setting themselves up for a binge. They’re told to go ahead and eat “anything in moderation.” They’re encouraged to take a “cheat day.” And why? Because it’s assumed overweight people are weak-willed, undisciplined, unable to make health-supporting food choices, and unlike their “thin-thinking” counterparts, it is expected fat people are likely to fail.
Our culture refuses to recognize that we are NOT all on a level playing field when it comes to managing our eating and our weight. It is a tougher battle for some of us and the assumptions made about us only make the road even more difficult. “Diets don’t work” because they don’t work for us. Our bodies are unique as are our health, diet, and fitness goals. It takes a lot of strength to turn away from the noise, the “advice,” the labels, the accusations, the assumptions, the findings of some latest study, the projected shame—and start focusing on your own body, your own daily life, how your mind works, the routines you adopt readily or have to work at.
What’s the “best” weight loss diet? The one that you decide works for you.