Fat Doesn’t Mean Not Fit

Eric “Butterbean” Esch, having weighed 425 lbs at his heaviest, was one of the best boxers of the 1990s. He regularly knocked out his competitors in under a minute. He didn’t look impressive, besides being obese. He wasn’t the best trained nor did he fight with much style. But he was a powerhouse. He could take punches and give them in return. And when he landed a punch, it was devastating.

As with many others, Butterbean’s obesity was not an indicator of a lack of muscle, stamina, and aerobic health. Even in later fights when his power was decreased, he still could hold his own for many rounds. In 2002, he remained on his feet for 10 rounds with one of the greatest fighters of all time, Larry Holmes, before finally knocking him back against the ropes with the fight ending after the referee did a standing 8 count. He expanded his career into professional wrestling and MMA matches, winning many more fights. As late as 2011 in his mid-40s, he was still knocking out opponents and he was still fat.

This is why so few people can lose weight through exercise alone. All that more exercise does for most, specifically on a high-carb diet, is to make them hungrier and so leading to them eating more (exercise on a ketogenic diet is a bit different, though). And indeed, many athletes end up focusing on carbs in trying to maintain their energy, as glucose gets used up so quickly (as opposed to ketones). Long-distance runners on a high-carb diet have to constantly refuel with sugary drinks provided along the way.

Americans have been advised to eat more of the supposedly healthy carbs (whole grains, vegetables, fruit, etc) while eating less of the supposedly unhealthy animal foods (red meat, saturated fats, etc) and the data shows they are doing exactly that, more than ever before since data was kept. But telling people that eating lots of carbs, even if from “whole foods”, is part of a healthy diet is bad advice. And when they gain weight, blaming them for not exercising enough is bad advice stacked upon bad advice.

Such high-carb diets don’t do any good for long-term health, even for athletes. Morally judging fat people as gluttonous and slothful simply doesn’t make sense and it is the opposite of helpful, a point that Gary Taubes has made. It’s plain bullshit and this scapegoating of the victims of bad advice is cruel.

This is why so many professional athletes get fat when they retire, after a long career of eating endless carbs, not that it ever was good for their metabolic health (people can be skinny fat with adipose around their internal organs and have diabetes or pre-diabetes). But some like Butterbean begin their athletic careers fat and remained fat. Many football players are similarly overweight. William Perry, AKA The Fridge, was an example of that, although he was a relative lightweight at 335-350 lbs. Even more obvious examples are seen with some gigantic sumo wrestlers who, while grotesquely obese, are immensely strong athletes.

Sumo wrestlers are also a great example of the power of a high-carb diet. They will intentionally consume massive amounts of starches and sugars in order to put on fat. That is old knowledge, the reason people have understood for centuries the best way to fatten cattle is to feed them grains. And it isn’t as if cattle get fat by being lazy while sitting on the couch watching tv and playing on the internet. It’s the diet alone that accomplishes that feat of deliciously marbled flesh. Likewise, humans eating a high-carb diet will make their own muscles and organs marbled.

I speak from personal experience, after gaining weight in my late 30s and into my early 40s. I topped out at around 220 lbs  — not massive, but way beyond my weight in my early 20s when I was super skinny, maybe down in the 140 lbs range (the result of a poverty diet and I looked gaunt at the time). In recent years, I had developed a somewhat protruding belly and neck flabs. You could definitely tell I was carrying extra fat. Could you tell that I also was physically fit? Probably not.

No matter how much I exercised, I could not lose weight. I was jogging out to my parent’s place, often while carrying a backpack that sometimes added another 20-30 lbs (books, water bottle, etc). That jog took about an hour and I did it 3-4 times a week and I was doing some weightlifting as well, but my weight remained the same. Keep in mind I was eating what, according to official dietary guidelines, was a ‘balanced’ diet. I had cut back on my added sugars over the years, only allowing them as part of healthy whole foods such as in kefir, kombucha, and fruit. I was emphasizing lots of vegetables and fiber. This often meant starting my day with a large bowl of bran cereal topped with blueberries or dried fruit.

I was doing what Americans have been told is healthy. I could not lose any of that extra fat, in spite of all my effort and self-control. Then in the spring of last year I went on a low-carb diet that transitioned into a very low-carb diet (i.e., keto). In about 3 months, I lost 60 lbs and have kept it off since. I didn’t do portion control and didn’t count calories. I ate as much as I wanted, but simply cut out the starches and sugars. No willpower was required, as on a keto diet my hunger diminished and my cravings disappeared. It was the high-carb diet that had made me fat, not a lack of exercise.

“Simply, we were dumb.”

Dr. Richard David Feinman*: “Whatever else we know or don’t know about Paleo, we know that our ancestors did not get three squares a day, and evolution must have invested far more in ketogenic metabolism than was reflected in our research interests.

“Simply, we were dumb. We’re trying to fix that now.”

Dr. Robert Lustig**: “The thing is I’m a practicing physician and a scientist and for every one patient I took care of and got better ten more would show up in my door. There was no way I was ever going to fix this.

“And the thing that really really bothered me was I learned virtually everything I know about nutrition in college because I majored in nutrition and food science at MIT. And then I went to medical school and they beat it out of me and told me that everything I’d learned was the irrelevant, it had no place in patient care, it wasn’t necessary, and that really all I had to do was focus on calories. I figured these are the clinicians. I’m gonna be closer. I better listen to them and so I practiced that way for like 20 years.

“And then I started doing research because my patients weren’t getting better and I started doing research to try to figure out what’s going on and it like all came rushing back to me, kind of like post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s like, oh my, I knew this stuff back in 1975. So I got pissed off. So I think part of the passion actually is sort of the the being dumbfounded and the anger of what I see going on in medicine today. So I’m glad it translates in a positive way and that people appreciate the passion but I’m just like really ticked off.”

* * *

*”[Dr.] Richard David Feinman is Professor of Cell Biology (Biochemistry) at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center  in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Feinman’s original area of research was in protein chemistry and enzyme mechanism, particularly in blood coagulation and related processes.

“Dr. Feinman has worked in several scientific areas including animal behavior and he has had a previous life in the visual arts. His friends consider him a Renaissance Man but he has made peace with the term dilettante.

“His current interest is in nutrition and metabolism, specifically in the area of diet composition and energy balance. Work in this area is stimulated by, and continues to influence, his teaching in the Medical School where he has been a pioneer in incorporating nutrition into the biochemistry curriculum. Dr. Feinman is the founder and former co-Editor-In-Chief (2004-2009) of the journal, Nutrition&Metabolism. Dr. Feinman received his BA from the University of Rochester and he holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Oregon.” (from bio on his blog)

Dr. Feinman is quoted by Kathryn Goulding in a Paleo Magazine interview for an article on his book Nutrition in Crisis (June/July 20019).

**Dr. Robert Lustig is a Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. He specializes in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity. He is a leading expert on the obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemics.

His career has included working as a physician, involvement in research (authored 125 peer-reviewed articles and 73 reviews), public speaking (videos of his talks have received millions of views), and authoring books (Fat Chance, Hacking the American Mind, Sugar Has 56 Names, and Obesity Before Birth; also the introduction to John Yudkin’s classic Pure, White and Deadly). He has also been a co-founder, president, director, chairman, member, and consultant of numerous public and private medical, health and dietary task forces, committees, board of directors, institutes, and other organizations.

His focus has been primarily on sugar, not carbohydrates in general. Dr. Feinman has been critical of him on this account. But it appears that he is moving toward the low-carb diet, along with a convergence of his views with those of Gary Taubes. See the discussion on the Ketogenic Forums: Has Lustig moved toward us?

Dr. Lustig is quoted from the below video:

 

Obese Military?

I came across some articles on obesity and the military (see below). Metabolic syndrome, obesity being one part of it, is on the rise in the military and in the population in general, along with much else such as autoimmune and mood disorders.

Weight issues are not an issue of mere exercise, as I discovered in aging. The weight began accruing in my thirties and continued into my forties. I’ve always been active and so, in response, I became even more active. I had long done aerobic exercise multiple times a week, often long jogs and sometimes carrying extra weight. Weightlifting was added to my regimen these past few years. Still, the body fat wouldn’t budge. Besides, the worst rates of obesity are found among the young and so aging is not the issue, as further demonstrated by age-related diseases (e.g., what was once called adult onset diabetes) hitting hard at younger and younger ages.

Why is that? Some of it is basic biological changes in aging, of course — still, that couldn’t explain it all since it is happening in all age groups. I had improved my diet over time, but admittedly I was still eating a fair amount of carbs and sugar, even if no where near the amount the average American gets. In the wider population, the consumption of carbohydrates and added sugars has drastically increased over time, specifically as dietary percentage of red meat and saturated fat has gone down while dietary percentage of vegetables and vegetable oils has been on the rise. There are other complex factors that could be mentioned, but I’ll keep it simple.

The point is that the American population, in and outside of the military, are in compliance with official dietary recommendations. The military is even able to enforce a high-carb, low-fat diet on military personnel since they have few other choices when food is prepared for them, and it is specifically during deployment that military personnel have the worst diet-related health decline. There is no greater opportunity than the military for gathering highly-controlled dietary data, as the only other segment with more controlled diets are those locked away in institutions. Also, the military enforces a rigid exercise program, and those who join are those who self-selected for this lifestyle and then had to meet high standards to be accepted. Yet military personnel apparently are getting fatter and fatter.

The amount of carbohydrates we’re talking about here is not insignificant. The USDA recommends 50-60% of the diet to consist of carbohydrates with an emphasis on grains, most of those simple starchy carbs. Even adding some fiber back into processed foods doesn’t really make them any healthier. Grains alone brings up a whole mess of other issues besides gluten (e.g., grains block absorption of certain key nutrients) — it’s long been known that the best way of fattening animals is with grains.

To put in context how distorted is our diet, a recent study compared a high-carb and a low-carb diet where the latter consisted of 40% carbs. If that is what goes for low-carb these days, no wonder we are such a sickly population. Most traditional societies rarely get such high levels of carbs and what they do get usually comes from sources that are fibrous and nutrient-dense. Look at hunter-gatherers — 40% carbs would be at the extreme high end with many groups only getting 22% carbs. As a concrete example, compared to potato chips or a baked potato, chewing on a fibrous wild tuber is a laborious process because of how tough it is, only gaining slightly more calories than you’d be expending for all the effort.

For further perspective, a study published this month implemented a ketogenic diet (Richard A. LaFountain et al, Extended Ketogenic Diet and Physical Training Intervention in Military Personnel). That by itself isn’t noteworthy, as ketosis has been scientifically studied for about a century. What is significant is that it was the first time that such a diet done was done with military personnel. If you’re familiar with this area of research, the results were predictable which is to say they were typical. Military personnel aren’t essentially any different than other demographics. We all evolved from the same ancestors with the same metabolic system.

The results were positive as expected. Health improved in all ways measured. Body fat, in particular, was lost — relevant because the subjects were overweight. Benefits were seen in other aspects of what is called metabolic syndrome, such as better insulin sensitivity. All of this was accomplished while physical fitness was maintained, an important factor for the military. Going by what we know, if anything, physical fitness would improve over time; but that would require a longer term study to determine.

Ketosis is how I and millions of others have lost weight, even among those who don’t know what ketosis is. Anyone who has ever restricted their diet in any way, including fasting, likely has experienced extended periods of ketosis with no conscious intention being required — ketosis simply happens when carbs and sugar are restricted, and even commercial diets like Weight Watchers are quite restrictive along these lines. Other ketogenic gains often are experienced in relation to hunger, cravings, mood, energy, stamina, alertness, and focus. The point here, though, was weight loss and once again it was a glorious success.

That such studies are finally being done involving the military indicates that, after a century of research, government officials are maybe finally coming around to taking ketosis seriously. It’s understandable why drug companies and doctors have been resistant, since there is no profit in a healthy sustainable diet, but profit isn’t a concern for the military or shouldn’t be, although military contractors who provide the food might disagree (high-carb food is cheaper to provide because of high-yield crops subsidized for a half century by the government). If the USDA won’t change its guidelines, maybe the military should develop its own. A military filled with those of less than optimal health is a national security threat.

As for the rest of us, maybe it’s time we look to the studies and make informed decisions for ourselves. Not many doctors know about this kind of research. And if anything, doctors have a misinformed fear about ketosis because of confusion with diabetic ketoacidosis. Doctors aren’t exactly the most knowledgeable group when it comes to nutrition, as many have noted. And the government is too tied up with agricultural and food corporations. Any positive changes will have to come from the bottom up. These changes are already happening in a growing movement in support of alternative diets such as ketogenic low-carb, which is maybe what brought it to the attention of some military officials.

Government will eventually come around out of necessity. A global superpower can’t maintain itself in the long run with a malnourished and obese population. The healthcare costs and lost sick days alone could cripple society — even now most of the healthcare costs go to a few preventable diseases like diabetes. I’m willing to bet that when the next world war is fought the soldiers will be eating low-carb, high-fat rations made with nutrient-dense ingredients. Not doing so would risk having an inferior military. For-profit ideology only goes so far when the stakes are high.

* * *

Is U.S. Nutrition Policy Making the Military (and Recruits) too Fat to Fight?
from Nutrition Coalition

This year, for the first time since 2005, the Army fell short of its recruitment goal, according to the recent report, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” by The Council for a Strong America, a group of retired generals and admirals. Obesity was largely to blame. Some 71% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to qualify for military service, says the report. These alarming numbers raise the disturbing question of whether the U.S. will be able to continue the luxury of maintaining an all-volunteer army in the future.

Another recent study, this one by the Rand Corporation found that some two-thirds of the nation’s active military personnel are overweight or obese. Topping the scale is the Army, with 69.4% of its personnel overweight or obese. But even the trimmest military branch – the Marine Corps – isn’t much better, at 60.9%. These numbers may be misleading, since “obesity” is defined by BMI (body mass index), which does not distinguish between whether extra pounds come fat or muscle—the latter being more likely to be the case in the military. Still, rates of 60-69% are disturbingly high. Since these folks are following the military’s exercise program, we certainly can’t blame them for shirking on physical activity.

It seems, in fact, that the U.S. military diet actually worsens health, according to an Army publication six years ago. Chanel S. Weaver of the U.S. Army Public Health Command wrote, “Even those Soldiers who are actually fit enough to deploy can face challenges in maintaining a healthy weight while serving in the deployed environment.”

In the article, Dr. Theresa Jackson, a public health scientist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, states, “Literature suggests that fitness decreases and fat mass increases during deployments.” This is an astonishing fact: fitness declines in the military, despite mandated regular exercise.

This paradox could be explained by the growing understanding that exercise plays a relatively minor role in weight loss. “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet,” is the new common catchphrase among experts. Instead, the principal factor driving obesity, as the data increasingly show, is poor nutrition.

A look at the Army’s nutrition guidelines shows that they emphasize low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. The Army recommends eating “…high protein, low-fat items such as: fish, beans, whole wheat pasta, egg whites, skim or 1 percent milk, and low-fat yogurt” while avoiding “items such as: fried items, high fat meats, egg yolks, and whole milk.” This guidance comes from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), a policy that has been co-issued by USDA and US-HHS since 1980. The military essentially downloads these guidelines and serves food in mess halls to reflect DGA recommendations.

Ironically, this reliance on the U.S. Guidelines could well be the very reason for the military’s obesity problems. This diet tells the entire U.S. population to eat 50-60% of their calories as carbohydrates, principally grains, and just as a high-grain diet fattens cattle, a large body of government-funded science shows that a high-carbohydrate diet, for most people, is inimical to sustainable weight loss.

The argument that Americans don’t follow the guidelines is not supported by the best available government data on this subject—which demonstrates widespread adherence to the Dietary Guidelines.

New military study: “Remarkable” results among soldiers on a ketogenic diet
by Anne Mullens and Bret Scher

Those on the ketogenic diet lost an average of 17 pounds (7.5 kg), 5 percent of their overall body fat, 44 percent of their visceral fat, and had their insulin sensitivity improve by 48 per cent. There was no change in the participants on the mixed diet. Training results in physical strength, agility, and endurance in both groups were similar.

The researchers noted:

The most striking result was consistent loss of body mass, fat mass, visceral fat, and enhanced insulin sensitivity in virtually all the ketogenic diet subjects despite no limitations on caloric intake. Physical performance was maintained…. These results are highly relevant considering the obesity problem affecting all branches of the military.

[…] Although neither group counted calories, the ketogenic diet group naturally reduced their caloric intake while eating to satiety.

The most noteworthy response was a spontaneous reduction in energy intake, resulting in a uniformly greater weight loss for all ketogenic diet participants.

The military should lead the U.S. fight against obesity
by Steve Barrons

That advice, driven by the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, has largely stuck to the familiar low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that calls on us to cut meat, butter and cheese. Yet in recent years, the science has evolved, and it has become increasingly clear to people like me that fats aren’t the enemy. Indeed, as I ate more fat and reduced my intake of sugars and other carbohydrates like grains, I lost weight and became healthier.

Experiences like mine are now backed by a fast-growing body of science, showing carbohydrate restriction to be effective for fighting obesity and diabetes while improving most heart-disease risk factors.

For many, it’s hard to get past the basic assumption that the fat on your plate becomes the fat in your body. But the truth is that it’s excessive carbohydrates that turn into body fat — completely contrary to what Americans have long been told.

So why hasn’t the government’s dietary advice caught up to the science? According to a rigorous investigation in The BMJ on the dietary guidelines, the experts appointed to review the scientific evidence relied on weak scientific standards in their report and failed to review the most recent science on a number of topics, including optimal intakes for carbohydrates, saturated fat and salt. Most critically, the report relied heavily on observational studies in which researchers follow test groups over long periods of time. But even the best epidemiological studies, according to the BMJ, “suffer from a fundamental limitation. At best they can show only association, not causation. Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.” This is science 101.

The U.S. military serves more than 150 million meals per year to its personnel, and when those meals are based on a government-advised, high-carbohydrate diet, our troops have a harder time staying trim and healthy. The Army’s own website warns people to stay away from high-fat meats, egg yolks and whole milk and advises “eating less fatty food for better overall health,” while encouraging a diet that includes pasta and bread. Making matters worse, service members usually have fewer options for avoiding these nutritional mistakes, especially on deployments when they often can’t cook their own meals.

* * *

Obesity Mindset

There is a piece from The Atlantic about weight loss, The Weight I Carry. It’s written from a personal perspective. The author, Tommy Tomlinson, has been overweight his entire life. He describes what this has been like, specifically the struggle and failure in finding anything that worked. One has to give him credit for trying a wide range of diets.

It was sad to read for a number of reasons. But a point of interest was a comment he made about carbs: “I remember the first time carbohydrates were bad for you, back in the 1970s. The lunch counter at Woolworth’s in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, sold a diet plate of a hamburger patty on a lettuce leaf with a side of cottage cheese. My mom and I stared at the picture on the menu like it was a platypus at the zoo. We pretended to care about carbs for a while. Mama even bought a little carbohydrate guide she kept in her pocketbook. It said biscuits and cornbread were bad for us. It didn’t stay in her pocketbook long.”

That is what I’ve read about. Into the 1970s, it was still well known that carbs were the main problem for many health problems, specifically weight gain. This was part of mainstream medical knowledge going back to the 1800s. It was an insight that once was considered common sense, back when most people lived on and around farms. Everyone used to know that how cattle were fattened for the slaughter was with a high-carb diet and so the way to lose weight was to decrease carbs. There was nothing controversial about this old piece of wisdom, that is until the government decreed the opposite to be true in their 1980s dietary recommendations.

The sad part is how, even as this guy knew of this wisdom, the context of understanding its significance was lost. He lacks an explanatory framework that can sift through all the bullshit. He writes that, “I’ve done low-fat and low-carb and low-calorie, high-protein and high-fruit and high-fiber. I’ve tried the Mediterranean and taken my talents to South Beach. I’ve shunned processed foods and guzzled enough SlimFast to drown a rhino. I’ve eaten SnackWell’s cookies (low-fat, tons of sugar) and chugged Tab (no sugar, tons of chemicals, faint whiff of kerosene). I’ve been told, at different times, that eggs, bacon, toast, cereal, and milk are all bad for you. I’ve also been told that each one of those things is an essential part of a healthy diet. My brain is fogged enough at breakfast. Don’t fuck with me like this.”

His frustration is palpable and reasonable. But I notice all that gets left out from his complaints. A low-carb diet by itself very well might feel impossible. If you aren’t replacing carbs with healthy fats and nutrient-dense whole foods, you will be trying to swim upstream. Carbs is used by the body as a fuel. Take it away and you better give the body a different fuel. And after a lifetime of nutrient deficiency as is common in modern industrialization, you’d be wise to rebuilding your nutritional foundations.

That is the failure of the deprivation model of diets. They eliminate without offering any good advice about what to add back in. The advantage of traditional foods and paleo is that they are less diets in this sense. They are simply seeking scientific knowledge based on how humans live in traditional communities in the world today and how humans have lived going back to the ancient world and beyond. The point is finding what naturally works for the human body, not forcing restrictions based on ideological demands. If a diet feels like a constant struggle, then you are doing something wrong. For most of human existence, the vast majority of individuals maintained a healthy body weight with no effort whatsoever. The epidemic of obesity is extremely and bizarrely abnormal. Obesity indicates something is seriously out of balance, specifically with insulin sensitivity and the related hormonal hunger signals. Deprivation simply antagonizes this state of disease.

We already know that the ketogenic diet is the most effective diet for weight loss. Not only in the losing part but also in maintaining one’s optimal weight. No other diet decreases hunger and eliminates cravings to the same extent. More generally, a recent study showed that a low-carb diet beat a low-fat diet in burning fat, even when protein and calories were exactly the same in both groups. This possibly indicates that, as some have speculated, a diet low enough in carbs may increase metabolism in burning more calories than one is consuming. Then when you reach your preferred weight, you can add back in some calories to attain an equilibrium. This is apparently the one thing the author didn’t try. He did try the South Beach diet, but it is only moderately low-carb and unfortunately is also low-fat, a bad combination — this diet, for example, recommends low-fat milk which is not only eliminating the needed fats but also the fat-soluble vitamins, especially in the form of dairy from cows that are pastured/grass-fed.

The author is trapped in the dominant paradigm. He doesn’t need to “Eat less and exercise.” And he recognizes this is bad advice, even as he can’t see an alternative. But he should look a bit further outside the mainstream. On a ketogenic diet, many people can lose weight while eating high levels of calories and not exercising. It’s more of a matter of what you eat than how much, although in some cases where there are serious health problems as is typical with lifelong obesity more emphasis might need to be given to exercise and such. But the point is to find foods that are satisfying without overeating, which generally means healthy fats. Your body gets hungry for a reason and, if you don’t feed it what it needs, it will remain hungry. Calorie counting and portion control won’t likely help anyone with long term weight issues. It will just make them frustrated and hangry, and for good reason. But when the old patterns repeatedly fail, it is best to try something new. Sadly, the author’s conclusion is to more fully commit to the old way of thinking. His chances of success are next to zero, as long as he continues on this path.

It’s an obesity mindset. The individual blames himself, rather than blaming the bad advice. He just needs more self-control and less gluttony. This time, he tells himself, it will work. I doubt it. I hope he doesn’t spend the rest of his life on this endless treadmill of self-defeat and self-blame. Life doesn’t need to be so difficult. Rather than losing weight, he should focus on what it takes to be and feel healthy. But it is hard to convince someone of that when their entire identity has become entangled with obesity itself, with their appearance as judged by the same society that gave the bad advice.

* * *

The Weight I Carry
What it’s like to be too big in America

by Tommy Tomlinson

I remember the first time carbohydrates were bad for you, back in the 1970s. The lunch counter at Woolworth’s in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, sold a diet plate of a hamburger patty on a lettuce leaf with a side of cottage cheese. My mom and I stared at the picture on the menu like it was a platypus at the zoo. We pretended to care about carbs for a while. Mama even bought a little carbohydrate guide she kept in her pocketbook. It said biscuits and cornbread were bad for us. It didn’t stay in her pocketbook long.

I’ve done low-fat and low-carb and low-calorie, high-protein and high-fruit and high-fiber. I’ve tried the Mediterranean and taken my talents to South Beach. I’ve shunned processed foods and guzzled enough SlimFast to drown a rhino. I’ve eaten SnackWell’s cookies (low-fat, tons of sugar) and chugged Tab (no sugar, tons of chemicals, faint whiff of kerosene). I’ve been told, at different times, that eggs, bacon, toast, cereal, and milk are all bad for you. I’ve also been told that each one of those things is an essential part of a healthy diet. My brain is fogged enough at breakfast. Don’t fuck with me like this.

Here are the two things I have come to believe about diets:

1. Almost any diet works in the short term.
2. Almost no diets work in the long term.

The most depressing five-word Google search I can think of—and I can think of a lot of depressing five-word Google searches—is gained all the weight back. Losing weight is not the hard part. The hard part is living with your diet for years, maybe the rest of your life.

When we go on a diet—especially a crash diet—our own bodies turn against us. Nutritional studies have shown that hunger-suppressing hormones in our bodies dwindle when we lose weight. Other hormones—the ones that warn us we need to eat—tend to rise. Our bodies beg us to gorge at the first sign of deprivation. This makes sense when you think about the history of humankind. There were no Neanderthal foodies. They ate to survive. They went hungry for long stretches. Their bodies sent up alarms telling them they’d better find something to eat. Our DNA still harbors a fear that we’ll starve. But now most of us have access to food that is more abundant, cheaper, and more addictive than at any other time in human history. Our bodies haven’t caught up to the modern world. Our cells think we’re storing up fat for a hard winter when actually it’s just happy hour at Chili’s.

Even worse, when people succeed at losing a lot of weight, their bodies slam on the brakes of their metabolism. […] Other studies had already shown that the body’s metabolism slows down as people lose weight, which means they have to eat fewer and fewer calories to keep losing. But this study showed that, for the contestants who lost weight quickly, their metabolism kept slowing even when they started gaining weight again. Basically, however fat they had been, that’s what their bodies wanted them to be. […]

“Eat less and exercise.”

That’s what some of you are saying right now. That’s what some of you have said the whole time you’ve been reading. That’s what some of you say—maybe not out loud, but you say it—every time you see a fat person downing fried eggs in a diner, or overstuffing a bathing suit on the beach, or staring out from one of those good-lord-what-happened-to-her? stories in the gossip magazines.

“Eat less and exercise.”

What I want you to understand, more than anything else, is that telling a fat person “Eat less and exercise” is like telling a boxer “Don’t get hit.”

You act as if there’s not an opponent.

Losing weight is a fucking rock fight. The enemies come from all sides: The deluge of marketing telling us to eat worse and eat more. The culture that has turned food into one of the last acceptable vices. Our families and friends, who want us to share in their pleasure. Our own body chemistry, dragging us back to the table out of fear that we’ll starve.

On top of all that, some of us fight holes in our souls that a boxcar of donuts couldn’t fill.

My compulsion to eat comes from all those places. I’m almost never hungry in the physical sense. But I’m always craving an emotional high, the kind that comes from making love, or being in the crowd for great live music, or watching the sun come up over the ocean. And I’m always wanting something to counter the low, when I’m anxious about work or arguing with family or depressed for reasons I can’t understand.

There are radical options for people like me. There are boot camps where I could spend thousands of dollars to have trainers whip me into shape. There are crash diets and medications with dangerous side effects. And, of course, there is weight-loss surgery. Several people I know have done it. Some say it saved them. Others had life-threatening complications. A few are just as miserable as they were before. I don’t judge any people who try to find their own way. I speak only for myself here: For me, surgery feels like giving up. I know that the first step of 12-step programs is admitting that you’re powerless over your addiction. But I don’t feel powerless yet.

My plan is to lose weight in a simple, steady, sustainable way. I’ll count how many calories I eat and how many I burn. If I end up on the right side of the line at the end of the day, that’s a win. I’ll be like an air mattress with a slow leak, fooling my body into thinking I’m not on a diet at all. And one day, a few years down the road, I’ll wake up and look in the mirror and think: I got there.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism is one of the drains around which my mind slowly revolves. My mind revolves around it for that stinky dark hole is the center of our society. I poke and pick at the detritus clogging up the works until whatever lay hidden oozes out.

You get the picture. It’s a fun game I like to play. Join me, if you will.

Let me begin with obesity. We Americans are fat and lazy. I almost feel stupid to state such an obvious fact. Everyone knows this simple truth. It’s no big secret, pardon my pun. 

It’s a good thing we have a morally superior elite to tell us what to do (and to sell us the products to help us cover up our failures and lessen our inadequacies). And we know they are morally superior because they aren’t fat like all us poor schmucks. The elite may consume more than everyone else, but they go to the gym regularly to work it all off. The poor could work it all off too, if they weren’t lazy and morally inferior.

To continue with the obvious, we Americans are a hungry people ready to devour all of the world at the first chance we get. Our military and our consumerism is an endless gaping maw, ever hungry and waiting to be fed. We are the Borg… blah, blah, blah… assimilate… blah. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s the natural order for the lean and mean to prey upon the fat losers.

To put it in more prosaic terms, here is a sampling of an article that lists all the excuses for being obese (i.e., ugly, disgusting and generally worthless):

The obesity era
As the American people got fatter, so did marmosets, vervet monkeys and mice. The problem may be bigger than any of us
By David Berreby
Aeon Magazine

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

[ . . . ]

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

To put it in proper context, next up is a passage from the book where I first learned of Capitalist Realism. Reading this book has misled me from the true path of profit. I think I may have been brainwashed into socialism. Read the following at your peril!

Capitalist Realism:
Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher
pp. 18-20

At this point, it is perhaps worth introducing an elementary theoretical distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis which Žižek has done so much to give contemporary currency: the difference between the Real and reality. As Alenka Zupancic explains, psychoanalysis’s positing of a reality principle invites us to be suspicious of any reality that presents itself as natural. ‘The reality principle’, Zupancic writes,

is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real( s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.

Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market (In the end, Wall-E presents a version of this fantasy – the idea that the infinite expansion of capital is possible, that capital can proliferate without labor – on the off world ship, Axiom, all labor is performed by robots; that the burning up of Earth’s resources is only a temporary glitch, and that, after a suitable period of recovery, capital can terraform the planet and recolonize it). Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

In part, I have chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becoming increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalist realism: education.

Ah, education. I was just discussing that earlier today. In that post, I labeled it as a Dangerous Pragmatism.

Everything must be measured by profit and transformed into capital. To blame the individual, society must create the individual. Education in capitalism, first and foremost, is about manufacturing this product of individuality. In Capitalist Realism, individualism is defined by freedom, both the freedom to accept the system and the freedoms denied by the system. We are free when, where and how we are told to be free. You are completely free within the reality tunnel, just as long as you play within the boundaries and draw within the lines.

A bit further on in the book (pp. 73-74):

There’s no doubt that late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programs like You Are What You Eat, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the ‘consentimental’ regime.

Freedom to seek pleasure. It is in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

We have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, endlessly pursue it. Some might say it is our civic duty to never stop pursuing happiness, like the man lost in the desert following a mirage in the distance. But sometimes it isn’t even about the happiness or even the pretense of seeking it. As Dubya famously said, 

“Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

Happiness is just the selling point. The real purpose, though, is what is being sold. It’s not just a product being sold. The entire system of capitalism must be sold to the American people… hook, line and sinker. We the People must buy into Capitalist Realism or the American Dream will die and the Terrorists or Commies will win.

When you buy, you are bought. You buy to consume and you buy to solve all the problems of consumerism. The only thing that can’t be bought is your humanity, but it can be sold very cheaply.

To learn more of my deep insight and profound analysis, explore the wonders of my previous blogging about Capitalist Realism:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-unimagined-capitalism-and-crappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/pkd-vs-the-american-mythos/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/symbolic-conflation-empathic-imagination/