Essays on Technology and Culture

Healthy Living isn’t One Size Fits All

I’m fat. Not so fat that I would need two seats on an airplane, unless we’re talking RyanAir, but I weigh about 200 pounds and I’m 5’8″. In other words, I’m built like a hobbit. My BMI has hovered around 30 to 31, so I’m borderline obese by that criteria. Could be worse—just a few years ago I was over 230, and would get winded bending over to tie my shoes. I dropped the pounds by calorie counting for the most part, but I’ve been stuck at 200 for a while. I’ve also been heavy all my life, in a family whose body types range from heavy to very heavy. My mother even underwent gastric bypass surgery several years ago to deal with her weight. (It’s helped a lot.)

As someone who’s been trying, though maybe not as hard as he could be, to shed pounds, I see a lot about food and diet flying around these Internets. I see even more of it at my day job in medical journalism, with diet articles running through my inbox several times a week. Thankfully, the kind of diet articles I work with are ones that approach it from a scientific and medical standpoint, so it’s not as annoying. Still, the volume of talk about food, and what one should eat, and shouldn’t eat, almost has me annoyed enough to just drink three glasses of Soylent a day so I don’t have to think about it—if a supply of Soylent wasn’t back-ordered for the next decade.

Part of the problem is that I like food too much. That’s not why I’m overweight—well not the only reason why I’m overweight. It’s also why I’m unwilling to commit to any sort of elimination diet (e.g. Paleo/Keto/Vegetarian/etc.) unless a physician orders me to as a matter of life or death. I grew up not on Saturday Morning Cartoons, but Saturday Morning PBS Cooking shows. The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook hold dear places in my youthful memories, as does cooking out of a children’s cookbook with my Mom. Even now, I actively enjoy cooking, whether something as simple as a weeknight thrown-together stir-fry, or a Sunday roast chicken. (And I make a mean roast chicken.) I don’t want to give up what I enjoy, if I don’t have to.

I don’t want to say that if you find eating by a certain elimination diet works for you to not do it. That way lies madness. And certainly if your doctor tells you to cut something out, I won’t tell you they’re wrong. That way lies madness, too. It just frustrates me when I see so many people suggesting so many different diets that I immediately check out. I have the same problem when trying to settle on an exercise plan. (I still don’t have one besides “walk a lot.”) I have a copy of Staring Strength, considered to be the book for people who want to begin weight training, and I begin to smell toast partway through the first chapter. Best I’ve managed is Couch-to–5K, or the bodyweight exercise routines in FitStar, because they explain what to do in small words and pretty pictures in the case of FitStar.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the nutrition and diet talk that flies through my daily life, it’s that we don’t really know anything about what makes for a proper diet. We’re slowly figuring it out, but we still don’t know. The sheer diversity of human beings on this planet, the biomes they live in, the food supplies available to them, and the adaptability of the human digestive system means that a diet that works great for someone could put someone else in the hospital. From my own experience, I’ve tried doing the Paleo thing, and I spent those three days constantly hungry until I gave up and shoved some bread down my gaping maw.

We have all this technology to track what we do—I’ve walked nearly 16,000 steps today, as of time of writing—but very little to give us guidance on what we need to do to reach our health and fitness goals. Then again, we barely have a scientific understanding of fitness and nutrition, so it’s a leap to think the computers in our pockets and on our wrists will have that understanding too. It’s also easy for someone who claims to have it figured out approaches the topic with a holier-than-thou attitude that “counting calories will help you lose weight, but it won’t make you healthy” or some other platitude that misses the point of what we’re trying to do. At least we’re thinking about it.

Ultimately, the foods we choose to eat, and the number on the scale in the morning doesn’t make one more, or less moral. Much like the nerd entitlement attitude around fancy gizmos and gadgets, the attitude around health and fitness, from the people who found a system that works is often the opposite of constructive. There’s a key difference in that there’s aspects of health and fitness that are achievable for everyone, even those who can’t afford a personal trainer, gym membership, or organically grown kale—or have time to fit in a full fitness regimen around working full-time and taking care of their family.

Dropping the attitude is the first step to making that happen. Second is calming down, and coming to terms with the fact that while we have some of the facts, we don’t know enough to be prescribing a single diet and exercise plan for everyone. Finally, it’s accepting that not everyone has the desire to be at peak physical fitness. Support and understanding are more useful than body shaming and lifestyle prescriptivism. I don’t desire to be Adonis, I just want to drop my spare tire and, hopefully, live a little longer. That’s not a bad goal to have.