Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On the difference between being thin, fit, and athletic

Flickr: PunkJr
Recently, I overheard some women, about fifteen or so years older than myself, talking about their diets:
"I can't even LOOK at something like Swedish Fish without gaining weight."
"I have to walk RIGHT PAST the popcorn at the movies.  It is SO HARD." 
When they saw the wrinkled expression on my face, I explained that even if those foods had no calories, I wouldn't want to eat them because I found them too sweet and too er, chemical and carcinogenic, respectively.
They looked at me as if I had suddenly begun speaking gibberish.
It took me a long time (like thirty years) but gradually I began over time to realize that even though being thin (or at least at your optimal weight) greatly enhances your life, it is not synonymous with fitness.

When you are just dieting, you will always be like those women--focusing on how many calories 'burned' you can rack up before you can eat crap. I was like that in high school.  I would come home and have Weight Watchers ice cream sandwiches for dinner because I was 'dieting' and when my mother would yell at me for not having a salad, I'd just shrug my shoulders.  I thought of eating almost like  how I thought of spending money as a kid.  I had xxxx amount to spend every day, and if I wanted to spend it all on fat free corn muffins and Healthy Choice pizza and ice cream, what was wrong with that? Kind of like how I thought that it was 'better' to spend money on cheap shoes because I could get more of them, versus a single, expensive pair that could last.

Flickr: phil_websurfer

Now that I'm taking the athletic pursuits that I love seriously--running and horseback riding--I realize that simply being thin or 'not being fat' is hardly synonymous with fitness, much less athleticism.

I have to be honest--being a reasonable weight helps.  I know it is fashionable to say 'you can be fat and fit at the same time.'  But regardless of what medical data you spew about cholesterol numbers, the people I know who are too heavy for their frames (I'm not talking waifish as an ideal, just able to move around comfortably) have quite a bit of trouble being active enough to enjoy their lives (i.e., walk comfortably around on a nice day), let alone work out.

It's definitely possible for some people to be thin and eat crap.  For years, I maintained a low-to-normal weight eating a minimum of nutritious substances (mostly low-calorie soy burgers, fruit, and the occasional yogurt or cottage cheese tin) and leaving the bulk of my allotted calories to dessert.  However, I had zero muscle tone and my blood sugar was a roller coaster. I worked out a lot, but my results, given the amount that I worked out, weren't that great.

I want to be able to go for a run, mow my lawn, lift weights, ride a horse, enjoy an intense yoga class without feeling crappy, and the only way to do that--for me--is to be fit, which means caring about nutrition.  

That's why I roll my eyes when I see headlines like NUTRITION PROFESSOR LOSES 27 POUNDS EATING ONLY TWINKIES. From CNN of all news sources.  Yes, if you reduce how much you eat you are by definition taking in fewer calories (and carbohydrates, by virtue of the reduced food volume) than under normal circumstances. Yes, you will lose weight. Yes, you will probably even improve all of the health indicators directly tied to maintaining a healthy body weight.  But will you have the energy to run around the block more than twice? 

Flickr: photognome

Another article I remember reading on this subject a long time ago was on the writer Paul Rudnick's candy diet.  OMG!  He is thin and eats nothing but crappy candy!  Film at 11!

Personally, I think many people struggle with this mathematical approach to dieting because eating stuff like Hostess cupcakes and M&Ms usually makes you want more food, rather than satiates you.  I have so many friends who swear by Weight Watchers, which tends to stress portion control rather than altering the types and quality of foods you eat.  And although they lose weight, they always go back to their old habits.  Even if you eat one piece of cake in the context of your diet one week and lose weight, all of the same habits and the same physiological responses will be crying out for more cake the next week.

I have just found it more painless, lately, in the long run, to have a good piece of cheese.

Of course, 'everyone is different.'  I have known some healthy, athletic girls who were thin, bubbly, energetic, and had tons of energy to do badass sports like lacrosse and crew, get straight As and 'power snacked' on bowls of Frosted Flakes.

But athleticism is a very different thing from fitness or thinness. Although both help when playing sports, there are many freakishly kinesthetic people who are neither and can totally kick my ass at any competitive physical activity.

I guess my new philosophy is: why just be thin when you can be fit as well? Of course, my age and my (total lack) of athletic talent limits my fitness.  But maybe in a way that is good, because fitness is something you can always work to improve, versus once you hit your target weight, then where do you go from there? And focusing on being fit is much more interesting than giving a shit about how certain (questionable) numbers correspond to food.

Still, to be totally honest, my revulsion for gummi candy and popcorn comes from my dieting in the 1990s, when I would periodically 'Romy and Michelle' it by satisfying food cravings with fat free food like jelly beans and microwave diet popcorn, versus the fatty, cheesy foods I actually craved.  And if you haven't seen Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, you totally should, although just be aware, some of the diet advice is somewhat questionable.

I've learned to replace my love for sugar with protein, but thank goodness protein includes Provolone cheese and chicken skin.


  1. Both the "I'll do anything to be thin" people as well as the "fat acceptance" people annoy me because they all seem to be in denial about basic facts of nutrition and physiology. At the same time, I don't think fitness is a big concern for them; they're more worried about either how they look or about people not giving them grief about how they look. People who are very underweight or very overweight will often claim to be healthy (and maybe even believe it themselves) -- when they are clearly and visibly not healthy -- just to shut people up.

    But I suppose I go too far in the other direction. Recently when my doctor said I needed to exercise more to lower my cholesterol, I took a different tack and said, "yeah, I know I should, but I don't feel like it." I think she had been ready to respond to my either lying and claiming that I work out all the time or to my making an excuse like "too busy," but me admitting to being a lazy sloth was a new one, I guess.

  2. I work with one of those thin, skittles-for-breakfast, never exercises woman, and it really galls me that she also never gets sick. Unfair! But that is her, not me. Wanting to keep up with my granddaughter has goaded me into exercising more, and while I'll never be a sprinter, I can plod along all day long. I am amazed at how much more energy I have, once I passed that magic mark whereby activity begets more activity. I make (mostly) healthy food choices but still eat too much. Maybe I'll pass another magic mark whereby activity does not stimulate my appetite.

  3. @flurrious--that is exactly how I feel! I know people in both camps, and their lack of health is SO obvious (I am not talking about people 15 pounds below or above normal but people on the extreme ends of the thin/fat spectrum). If someone has to to constantly 'prove' to the world how healthy he/she is, usually there is a problem. But I have to say, from the story of you having to mow your lawn with a 'push mower'--you are definitely getting more exercise than most of the population!

    @bittenbyknittin--I'm much more of an 'endurance' athlete as well. I love working out, but I don't think I have fast twitch muscles in any organ of my body, including my eyeballs.

  4. LOVE this post! It took me a while to realize that about the difference between skinny v. fit...and at this point I'd rather be fit than crazy thin. Anorexic-looking sticks are really just not that attractive!

  5. @Joanne--it is so true--and so sad how many women who could actually be 'fit' and really enjoy what their bodies can do just restrict and restrict and restrict for the sake of being 10 pounds 'too thin.' They end up leading a less joyful life and limit their capabilities in so many ways.