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.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The commencement speech I'll never give...

Flickr: Cupcakes Cubed
They say never say never, but I'm never going to give a commencement speech. I wasn't valedictorian of my high school, my college had the class president give the speech, and I didn't bother to attend my graduate school's graduation ceremony.  I'll never be famous enough to give one of those speeches that gets 'shared' on Facebook like Steve Jobs', although I find it really bizarre to ask someone who dropped out of college to inspire recent grads.  Wouldn't it have been more honest of him to say: "hey, the best way to be successful is to be a total genius and that way you don't need a degree?"

Many years ago, there was a list of advice tidbits to graduates which began with the words 'wear sunscreen.' It became very popular amongst people who like to quote 'inspiring advice.'  This was in the 90s, before social media, but with all of the 'graduation stuff' I was thinking, what advice would I give to graduating kids (both high school and college)?  I mean, I'm not rich and successful, but shouldn't that make me even MORE qualified to tell you what you shouldn't do?

1. I do agree you should still wear sunscreen and floss--that hasn't changed since 1997.  Make sure to wear a cream with a high enough SPF and reapply. Go to the dentist. Teeth are one of those things that don't heal on their own and the more you put it off the worse it gets. If you have any remediable health problems, get them taken care of now while you are still on your parents' health insurance, which is likely to be better than the insurance you will get at your first out-of-college job.

2. Don't get fat.  I know this sounds really mean, but kind of like letting your teeth go, it is much harder to repair the damage after it happens. I know it's tempting to prop up your mood or your eye lids with an extra doughnut when you are working crazy hours but if you really hate your body any extra money you make doesn't seem that meaningful. If your job is making you fat, stressed and sick because you have no time to exercise or cook a meal, try to find something different to do.

3. If you can swing it, major in the sciences or another in-demand field that pays well.  You can always double major or minor in something that is your passion, but until you 'get out there' you don't fully appreciate how many crappy administrative jobs there are out there for kids who majored in the liberal arts.  Have a skill, learn something unique that is highly desirable so you can walk away from a job if you need to do so.  That's a good measure of whether a major is worth it: like a romantic relationship, they should want and need you more than you need them. There is no shame in being poor, but there is no reason to seek out poverty either.  Of course you should take risks, but having something you can fall back on actually makes it easier to do so--it's more likely you'll have a long career as an acrobat if you use a net. Even if you are a genius, it doesn't hurt. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank before he became a famous writer, and you are probably not a better writer than he is.  Of course, if you are a science major you might not know who T.S. Eliot is, since Cats is no longer on Broadway.

4. Learn how to 'do something,' whether it is how to design websites, cut hair, repair motorcycles--something tangible that can keep you afloat if you are struggling. No one cares if you major in English, Communications, Women's Studies, whatever. It kills me to say this, because it shouldn't be that way.  I hate to think of what my life would be without studying Shakespeare and the Brontes on a graduate level and I think the words of all the writers I studied do subtly infuse my writing and my life. But honestly, being able to write well is becoming less and less important.  We're becoming a more technologically-driven society and the ways most humanities and social science majors are taught are designed to prepare you to teach and write academic research papers, which has very little to do with what 99.9 percent of the population is reading today. Yes, you can 'always teach.'  But two of my friends who are tenured teachers just left the profession because they can't stand all of the crap they have to deal with that has very little to do with teaching.

5. That said, use good grammar and spell correctly.  It matters because it discourages sloppy thinking and is good for your brain and your ability to express yourself.  Even though you will get rejection letters back from employers with misspellings that really piss you off.

6. If you believe in something, don't be a obsessive asshole about it.  I don't care if you are Christian, atheist, vegan, paleo, Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, or whatever, if you're really militant and everyone around you can predict 100 percent of the time how you will respond to a news article or to a comment, you're not converting anyone or doing your cause any favors. The best way to be an advocate for something you believe in is to be nice, helpful, and to have a sense of humor.

7. Don't listen ONLY to the same music you listened to when you were young, or wear the same types of clothes, or read the same types of books, but don't forget about them, either.

8. Money, even if you're not a super-materialistic person, is MUCH more important than you think it is right now. Money isn't just new clothes and name brands. It's travel, education (and you will still want to educate yourself even after you graduate), and the ability to have new and exciting experiences.  Money is the difference between watching a documentary on PBS about London or an African safari--versus actually BEING in London or on an African safari.

9. You can work at a sucky job for great pay or a great job for somewhat sucky pay.  Don't work for a sucky job at sucky pay. And if you find a great job that pays well, appreciate how lucky you are.

10. Your parents are human beings: treat them that way.  They aren't gods and they aren't monsters (although you really should see the film Gods and Monsters).  They are probably very much like you. They don't owe you a living but you don't owe them a diploma from law school/grandchildren/ or the need to sacrifice your happiness to meet their standards. Unless your relationship with them is profoundly dysfunctional, few people will love you as much as they do right now.

11. Learn how to cook a chicken, make banana bread, and make one vegetable dish really well. Even if you don't eat chicken, you will have to make chicken for someone at some point in your life.  Banana bread can't come out wrong, and makes a lovely, cheap, tasty gift. If your are in your 20s and your main source of Vitamin C is Skittles, know that nothing says 'I am not a grownup' quite like giving yourself scurvy in an affluent, industrialized nation. 

12. Unless you're really rich and stressed out, don't buy your lunch and your coffee everyday.  It's a waste of money and McDonald's really isn't that good. And even if two slices of pizza or a club sandwich is worth it to you taste-wise and financially, you shouldn't be eating that stuff every day unless you are Michael Phelps. In which case, none of this advice applies to you.

13. Despite what I said earlier, it is still important to read, expose yourself to new cultures, and learn things that have nothing to do with making money and--if I can say this without making you throw up--enrich your soul.  In fact, these are the really important things in life but don't get expect to get paid for doing them.  It's nice if you can, but opportunities to do so are very rare.  And if you get one, seize it. 

14. Don't be superstitious.  Don't believe in astrology or pseudo-science.  Although I just included this to avoid having a list with 13 on it, so maybe you shouldn't trust me.  After all, 13 is a baker's dozen.
Flickr: bunchofpants

15. But having 13 doughnuts in the house if you are alone is usually not a good thing. Trust me on this one. And although numbers 3-13 don't really apply to you if you are Steve Jobs and a genius with a highly lucrative idea, the rules about wearing sunscreen, flossing, not getting fat, and not eating too many doughnuts still apply to you geniuses, too.   Which is some comfort to us mere mortals. I guess.