Thursday, February 5, 2009


I am not a fan of "The Biggest Loser," the freak show that NBC subjects television viewers to on a regular basis. The parts of the weight loss experience that the public seems to focus on the most are the ones that are the ones that give the program its freak show aura: the public shaming, the weighing contestants in while they're dressed in skin tight garments that emphasize every roll of flab, the boot camp atmosphere.

Besides, having been through my own fair share of failed diet and exercise programs -- is there a woman in the U.S. who at some point or another hasn't fallen prey to Atkins or Nutri-System or Jenny Craig? -- and witnessed just about everyone I know also succumbing to counting Weight Watchers points or cutting back on carbs, I know what the success rate for most weight loss programs is. Abysmal. Something like 95% of people who go on diets gain every pound back with a few more tacked on for good measure within a year or two. Most people simply do not have the ability (metabolism? time? the money to hire a full-time personal trainer?) to make the permanent lifestyle changes needed to keep the weight off, especially when their bodies have been genetically programmed to be a little more zaftig than contemporary society believes they should be. Humans spent millennia evolving to survive periodic famines and have only had a few generations, and then primarily in the industrialized Western nations, to adapt to a different environment, one rife with Big Macs and chili fries and sedentary lifestyles, so it's not surprising more of us are fat.

But that's kind of a digression. What got me thinking about "The Biggest Loser" and dieting in general this morning was a New York Times article about the show and the contestants' relationship with food -- in a paradoxical way, they don't have one. Obviously, they're consuming a lot of it. No one gets to be 400 pounds without eating something. The trouble apparently is that they're treating what they consume like air -- they inhale it without thinking about it or even enjoying it very much. And almost to a person none of the contestants can cook. The article notes that contestants don't even really have a decent sense of taste.
"The food that got them to this point is salty, sweet, fatty, crunchy,” said Bob Harper, a trainer on the show since the first season in 2004, describing the fast food and snacks that are the steady diet of most contestants. “They lose their taste buds, they lose their hunger cues and they want what they want when they want it.”

Second, they learn fundamental cooking skills that they — like many Americans — have lost, or never had.

“Most of them do not have the basic ability to cook a meal at home and very little understanding of how much fat and salt is in restaurant food,” said Cheryl Forberg, the show’s nutritionist, “even on the supposedly healthy part of the menu.”
It's an interesting article that includes little gems like this quote from a contestant:
“The kitchen was full of weird ingredients like quinoa and kale."
Somehow I never thought of kale as weird. Just green.

Bottom line for the article is that people who do their own cooking instead of relying on convenience items (takeout Chinese, pizza, McDonald's, snack foods like Cheetos and Keebler cookies) are almost always going to be eating healthier than folks who don't. You build a relationship with food, you learn to savor flavors and textures, you pay more attention to what you're eating, and you're more likely to know when you've had enough. I don't know if I'd go as far as the article does in claiming spending more time in a kitchen will result in less time on a StairMaster (especially when I spend zero time on StairMasters now), but you never know.


  1. I agree with all of this. All the parts about cooking equals eating healthier and slowly losing weight rings true with me. I have a weakness for cheetos. I find they are easier to give up than cigarettes so I have managed to avoid the chip treat aisle in the grocery store. I spend some money on really good fruit and make large fruit salad that ends up being great on a tiny bit of cereal and is loaded with vitamins and fiber. When I buy a meaty treat like a rib eye steak, I cut it in half and freeze a half. I fill up on side dishes, with are mostly vegetables. I don't consider any of this a virtue, but I have very high cholesterol. So I do what I can dietarily and take my statin drug. I take lots of fish oil, too. But I'm still carrying forty pounds too much. It's drug weight. Bipolar drugs are often bad for adding weight which makes a lot of women non-compliant. At my age who gives a damn about forty pounds. I'd rather be sane.

  2. all i know if i had some little schmuck in my face screaming at me....i'd eat him

  3. Hi, Nan. I hope that my joke post wasn't what prompted this. You did know I was joking right?

    I am losing weight and changing my eating habits and, just like that article noted, the way I'm really doing it is by eating fewer processed foods and cutting way back on simple carbs. (except for that cheap chocolate)

    Because I have a family history of heart disease and diabetes, I have to fix my habits now or face an unhealthy future.

    But starve myself? Impossible. My body wouldn't allow it. The lunch I featured on that silly post was just a fraction of what I eat in a day. I eat something with protein at 10am and then again at 2pm to keep my metabolism cooking.

    The hardest part about being part of the culture of wanting to lose weight is that I hate the message that fat is bad or ugly. For me, it's dangerous and unhealthy.

  4. Lisa - nope. It was more or less coincidence that I happened to see that NY Times article right after you did your tongue-in-cheek post on dieting. I'd read similar pieces before about folks who are really, truly unhealthily obese having problems like being unable to tell when they were full so they'd just keep eating until everything on the table was gone. This one was the first one to make a connection between not understanding (or appreciating) food itself and excess weight. It is definitely true that one problem we Americans have is a tendency to eat fast rather than taking the time to savor tastes and textures, but I'd never thought about correlations between fewer people knowing how to cook and more people having to use freight scales for weigh-ins. Whether or not there's a causal connection between the two is debatable, of course, but it does seem to make sense.


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