Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Against Weight Watchers (sort of)

When I was eleven or so, my mother had a friend named Debbie.  Debbie was on Weight Watchers and every week Debbie would go to her weekly weigh-in. A pizza place called Pete &  Elda's was located right next to the WW meeting hall.  Debbie would sometimes bring my (skinny) mom for moral support and they'd go out for pizza after Debbie's meeting.  Mom didn't eat sweets, but Debbie would always get some Circle Freeze after the pizza as well, as a reward for eating the micro-portions of food she was allotted from week to week.

Flickr: Foodnut

"But it is ULTRA-thin crust," she'd say.

I was a chubby, bespectacled prepubescent, so I begged my mom to let me try Weight Watchers.  Really, I wanted the pizza and ice cream afterward.  I took one look at a meeting, though, and realized it wasn't for me.  A Weight Watchers meeting in the 80s was filled with former high school cheerleaders, now faded secretaries donning shoulder pads and stretch pants.  When they were young, they sipped Tab, wore tight jeans, and giggled at boys like it was an aerobic activity. As they grew older and took sedentary desk jobs they mysteriously (in their eyes) put on weight and Weight Watchers was the quick fix. They all measured out their card-sized pieces of boneless, skinless chicken and kept aspartame-laced  hard candy on their desks to fight cravings.

I didn't join Weight Watchers, but with my usual blundering stupidity, I took the WW approach to food as a method of dieting soon after.  Yes, I know they call them 'points' now, but really, points are another word for calories, it's just to conceal the fact that you're spending an awful lot of money to join and basically get someone to tell to to limit your calories.

Weight Watchers and most calorie-counting diets view calories much like a miser views money--it is always better to 'save' than 'spend.'  Thus, a can of Diet Coke is 'better' than a glass of whole milk because it is lower in calories.  A fat-free brownie is better than a full-fat, real brownie because you can 'eat more' of it for 'less calories.'  I realize that WW has changed some of their guidelines over the years to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, but at the time when Debbie was saving up her calories every week before her spending spree for pizza, a hundred calories of gummi bears was pretty much equivalent to 100 calories of broccoli in Weight Watchers terms.

And even though the official party line of WW might be you're better off with the more satiating broccoli, I still feel that a focus on calories uber allies encourages the mindset of seeing food as calories, rather than nutrition: you're still obsessed with the same foods as you ever were, you're just trying to eat tinier portions of them. Even when you're eating vegetables, you're doing so to 'save up' for your cake, rather than actually learning to love vegetables.

I have always disagreed with the idea that 'food is different than alcohol because you have to eat food, you can't just not eat like you can not drink.'  At least, when I was overweight, it wasn't because I loved food or just ate too much of it--I had issues with specific foods, specifically very sugary, highly-processed foods.  And I do think there is a way to eat food that is non-addictive in nature, versus addictive in quality...there is a big difference between satiating yourself with a nice piece of cheese as a snack, versus ripping open an entire bag of Oreos at the end of a bad day and eating them in front of the TV, or worse at the counter.  It is really hard to label them as the same behavior: one is eating, the other is inhaling.

And recent science seems to back me up on this one.

Some foods don't make you full. Just like one hit of cocaine makes you want 'more cocaine,' some foods make you want 'more food'--fast food, processed junk food, and so forth. It doesn't matter if it is 250 calories for a McDonald's small burger versus a 540-calorie Big Mac or 150 calories of a WW ice cream sandwich versus 330 for a full-fat processed ice cream sandwich.  All of these foods just make you want 'more food.'

I have to admit that I HAVE been very thin eating total crap and counting calories. But that just left me cranky, tired, and lethargic, just like being on a diet--and who wants to feel like they are on a diet, especially if they don't need to be?

Which is why I totally disagree with the WW principle that 'you can have anything you want, just control your portions.'  I think there are 'bad foods,' plain and simple, although admittedly my definition of what a 'bad food' is has changed a great deal over the years.

I've known literally dozens of people who have been on Weight Watchers and with the exception of some very, very dedicated people (whom I think would have lost weight no matter what 'program' they were on), all of them lost weight and all of them gained the weight back. One woman I work for is very proud that she was a member of the first WW in her area--and is still a member. Every year she loses a bit of weight, keeping strict track of her points, and puts a little bit on.

Note--Weight Watchers friends who read this blog, I know who you are and yes, I do consider you those 'extremely dedicated people' in all facets of your life, not just weight loss :)  I know you have lost weight, I just think it is because 'you are you,' not necessarily the Weight Watchers philosophy.

Personally, until I learned to love vegetables and understand how delicious they are--not things to 'fill you up because they are low in calories'--I never found food sanity.  But I tell some people on WW that I like eating roasted brussels sprouts with butter, and they are all "omg!  Butter has calories and I am totally spending my points on 100 calorie Weight Watchers ice cream and not eating those veggies."

I just don't think that until you stop focusing on trying to find sneaky ways to eat non-nutritious foods (processed foods) and still lose weight and start trying to make nutritious foods (which I consider veggies, unprocessed meat, full-fat dairy, unsweetened nuts) more tasty and rewarding to you, you will never find Food Sanity and a stable weight that is right for you. At least I couldn't.

To say nothing of the fact that scientifically, a calorie isn't always a calorie. Foods lower in carbs and sugar are burned more effectively, and whole foods tend to be processed more efficiently as well.

I feel bad to some extent 'targeting' Weight Watchers, because I have so many friends who love it but it just seems, based upon my experiences, that there is something 'lacking' in its focus on calories and portion sizes that just encourages the spiral of an unhealthy relationship with food to continue.  People say at first, "oh, this is great, I can have 100 calories of Oreos and still lose weight.'  But I think it is almost impossible for ANYONE to stick with 100 calories of Oreos for long because Oreos are engineered by Big Food to make you want to reach for another, and another, and another, and unlike even making your own chocolate chip cookies, it takes so little and effort and expense to rip open the bag...

Flickr: goodiesfirst

For me, the only thing that works is focusing on healthy food and how the food will make me feel, not calories.

Of course, this could simply be a way of totally justifying my almond butter habit because almond butter is a healthy food, right?  And a quarter of a cup of almond butter is totally a normal serving size...

Flickr: Elana's pantry

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Does good French cheese qualify as an addictive substance?

Oh  Brie, where have you been all my life?

Flickr: chez loulou
I grew up in a very cheese-focused household. Even my mother--who hated cooking--used to melt kasseri cheese on a large baking sheet for a quick dinner when my father was away (we would dip Pillsbury crescent rolls in the melted goo). My father ate whole hunks of Munster and blue cheese as snacks. We ate Gorgonzola tossed with olive oil as salad dressing; lumpy blue cheese rather than runny ranch dressing was also often on the menu. I snacked on hunks of pure Provolone. Even grilled cheese required slices of cheese from the deli, never processed cheese. I've never had macaroni and cheese from the Kraft blue box or Cheez Whiz.

I always felt I had 'had' Brie because I saw it served at parties all the time in college.

Recently, I realized that even at said parties, it was always my default impulse to grab the Roquefort or blue, never the Brie.  And then there were my misguided attempts to go vegan, which often caused me to try to eliminate cheese.
I recently rectified this error of ignoring Brie almost unconsciously.   Gazing at the cheese section I thought: I haven't had Brie in ages, not since...wait...have I ever really eaten Brie?  Blue cheese, yes.  Gorgonzola, yes.  Mozzarella, yes. All sorts of soft, white cheeses...but Brie?

After my first taste I realized that clearly I had not truly been living until this point, despite being on the earth for 39 years.

The problem with eating Brie for the first time as an adult is all other substances pale in comparison for at least a week.  Hell, a month.

But eating Brie with roasted vegetables as dinner, or Brie on scrambled eggs or Brie with turkey is still a far healthier obsession than my sugar and carbohydrate addictions of my past, misguided youth. Also, with age and wisdom, I am just less inclined to get obsessed with a single food.

All joking aside, whenever someone insists that it is due to 'one food' that they made a life major change (either gaining or losing weight, moving to France, going Paleo or organic), I can't shake my head because I do know someone who insisted that was the case.

A friend of mine E-- was a student at Rutgers. Other than being a Classics major (which is kind of weird, admittedly), E-- was one of the most normal people I knew. Not too tall, not too short. Not too fat, not too thin.  A moderate amount of makeup, but could go without wearing it and not regard the experience as traumatic. Went home every few weeks but lived on-campus.  Had a nice, normal boyfriend she saw frequently but wasn't joined at the hip with at all times.

So of course Rutgers housing paired her with someone completely insane as a roommate.

Her roommate begin the year a fragile, doll-like blonde creature with tight blonde permed ringlets who hung posters of her high school career as a cheerleader on the walls. The Doll bought a scale with her so she could check her weight every morning.  Instead of dining in the Rutgers cafeteria, she bought cans of tuna in water and fat free crackers to eat in her room, alone. She never drank or went out and was always at the gym, on the StairMaster.  (This was the 90s). 

My friend E-- wasn't a slob or overly indulgent, but she did get tired of Porcelain Doll looking disdainfully at her if she ordered pizza late at night or left her coat lying on the common room couch.  The Doll's closet, of course, was perfectly organized by color, with her dainty shoes lined up at the bottom. And although my friend kept reasonable hours, she was still a college student, so the Doll's getting up at the crack of dawn to work out was disruptive to E--'s sleep schedule.

This went on until November or so, somewhat before Thanksgiving break.  Of course, the Doll cracked.  E--always attributed it to the grease trucks, the infamous vehicles selling food that are full of...the name says it all.

Suffice it to say that the most famous vendor amongst the grease trucks used to sell sandwiches with names like the Fat Bitch, although in today's politically-correct food era, the Fat Bitch has since been named the Fat Cat. (Shouldn't it have been renamed the Female Dog at very least?  But I digress).  Anyway, grease truck sandwiches were stuffed not only with multiple hamburger patties and bacon, but also French fries and mozzarella sticks...pretty much everything an anorexic would fantasize about in college at 2 AM.

Flickr: Image credit

After eating at the grease trucks, E--swore that her roommate underwent a sudden transformation.  Within weeks, the Doll had a boyfriend.  The roommate stopped perming her hair and dyed it bright red.  The Doll stopped going to her classes (a bad thing to do if you are a science major with labs). My friend had trouble getting into the room because the Doll would sometimes barricade the door with furniture, to ensure she wouldn't be disturbed with her boyfriend.  When E-- did get in, she would find strange, hippie-like people laying on the couch in the common room.  The smell of pot (and worse, cheap incense) became so repulsively pervasive E--said she could smell it in her hair and even in her freshly-washed clothes.

And of course, the roommate gained 40 pounds and left empty take-out containers all over.

By the end of the year (over the course of which the roommate also began to get very seriously into Wicca and had redecorated the entire dorm with lots of purple posters and crystals) my friend was going home more frequently and/or very apologetically crashing with her boyfriend.

"At first I felt bad saying something, because I thought cutting lose was a positive development for the Doll," she said.  "Then, when I finally complained, she was too wasted all the time to care."

Fortunately, my identity is not so fragile that Brie will change my character...but still...it is pretty awesome all the same, even more so, dare I say than one of these.

Image credit: Yelp