Posted by Pattie on 4/12/2006 06:57:00 AM

It is NOT about the FOOD

Unsurprisingly, in all the reactions I've read to the Top Ten List and the attention it has received, the two most vehement negative reactions have been against my assertion that prejudice is prejudice (Number 8) and that food is not relevant to weight (number 3).

The prejudice question is one that I think has been discussed ad naseum and I think I've been as clear as I can be on the point, so define me as you like. I don't really care. I know who gets it and I know who does not, and why. Enough said.

The food question, however, may have some nuances to address and since I've just given a talk at Smith College this past weekend in which I addressed some of my complaints about the food question, I think I'm going to take it on again, even if I am tired of discussing it.

Here's my beef (pun definitely intended):

Several people have posted (on various comments where the series was referenced) that they are convinced that fat people eat too much or eat the wrong kinds of food as compared to other people who weigh less.

They seem absolutely sure on this point. They KNOW.

So my question is epistemological in nature:

How the hell do you know that that one type of person eats more or less or even the same as other types of people?

When I read these statements, visions of people with notebooks sitting in cafeterias, restaurants and bars across the country, counting the number of bites their fellow diners are taking come to mind. I mean, are we all sitting around watching each other's eating? Do we follow the skinny girl home and see if she eats in private after ordering salad only at the steak house? When a fat boy eats a salad in public, do we assume that he is on a diet or just hungry for a salad? De we follow him home to verify that he goes to bed without a snack?

I am just having trouble understanding how these comparison studies take place in the real world.

I am married to a man who eats more than I do when he sits down to a meal and less than I do between meals. I don't really keep track strictly, but my sense is that we eat about the same amount of food. We both pretty much eat when we are hungry and eat what we are hungry for. I had to learn to do this. He has done so for most of his life and as such hasn't been that conscious about it.

For most of our life together, I was on a diet. I generally ate much less than he did during that time. Once I stopped dieting, my weight stablized and without much effort has been pretty much the same for six years now.

In public, at restaurants, any of you guys who are watching everyone around you eat would see him eating about twice what I do. I don't like big meals and generally take home part of my plate. At home, between meals, I graze and he does not. I don't each much at one sitting, but I do eat about 5-6 times a day on the average. Though I've been known on busy days to not eat anything till the evening.

Okay, so there is the data. But for the life of me, I'm not sure what you are supposed to make of it. I mean, we are two different people with different tastes and different pattens of hunger. That's about all I can glean from it. Other than, when I stopped dieting, I generally ended up consuming about the same amount of calories every day that he does, though along a different pattern. BTW, since I weigh a lot more than he does, I think that means I should be losing weight or he should be gaining weight in the strict calorie in/energy out model of weight.

At the risk of repeating myself, I just don't understand how so many people can be so sure than they know and understand the intricate eating histories of all the people around them. Yet their blanket statements about eating and weight suggest that they have this knowledge, that they know what other's eat both in volume and in quality.

Of course, I suspect that they "just know" or that they notice those things that are consistent with their knowledge and ignore things that are not.

Okay, so there is evidence about food and weight and weight gain/loss. Amp has outlined this in a great entry over at Alas, A Blog, so I won't spend a lot of time outlining it here.

If you believe that food consumption is the most relevant factor to weight gain, please review Amp's data. I think this might be the most convincing part of his argument on food:

From the New England Journal of Medicine (emphasis added):

Many people cannot lose much weight no matter how hard they try, and promptly regain whatever they do lose…. Why is it that people cannot seem to lose weight, despite the social pressures, the urging of their doctors, and the investment of staggering amounts of time, energy, and money? The old view that body weight is a function of only two variables - the intake of calories and the expenditure of energy - has given way to a much more complex formulation involving a fairly stable set point for a person's weight that is resistant over short periods to either gain or loss, but that may move with age. …Of course, the set point can be overridden and large losses can be induced by severe caloric restriction in conjunction with vigorous, sustained exercise, but when these extreme measures are discontinued, body weight generally returns to its preexisting level.

The other piece of the puzzle to note is (and Amp does in an earlier point in the post) that when these extreme measures are taken to lose weight, people get sick. Turns out that starvation isn't good for the body. WHO knew!?

So if starvation is bad and yo-yo weight cycling is bad and dieting in general is bad and the whole relationship between food and weight loss is exaggerated, then why do the myths persist? Why are we torturing the children who live with plenty by starving them in the midst of enough food to sustain them? Why are we torturing ourselves?

I'm only asking that you do the basic critical thinking. Do you really know what you think you know? Trace the history of that knowledge. Even if you eat less and lose weight, do you really know you are eating less than your neighbors, your skinnier friends? How? I suggest that you only know about your own body and that even that knowledge is filtered through a lot of cultural meaning. So question even what you know about yourself.

Eating is a rather personal activity and with the exception of the most controlled of situations, it is really hard to track another person's consumption.

What is your source of information?

If you can't answer that, if you "just know" then chances are you are simply repeating a meme.

It turns out this is a particular damaging meme to repeat, so I ask you to stop. Just simply don't repeat things you don't know.

It's not that hard. It only requires you to shut up.