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Big Fat Lies

Everything we're told about being fat in America is wrong. Weighing too much isn't the problem. The problem is that you have to lose your mind to get thin.

By Allie Gottlieb

YEAH, YEAH, Americans are super fat. We know. It's our fault. We eat too much bad food and sit in front of the TV, watching other people exercise and burn calories--or, if we're women, starving ourselves to death. Ultimately, one could argue that we bring upon our jumbo selves the annoying stream of research revealing the amazing scientific breakthrough that--brace yourself--weight loss comes from dieting and exercise.

But really, the blame should go elsewhere. For starters, I'd like to say f--- you to the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

You government geeks, you've labeled 60 percent of the population as porkers, shrilly identified obesity as "an epidemic" and scolded Californians for being the second-fattest population in the country, but where are you to cook us a fabulous and nutritional but satisfying dinner with an exquisite crave-quelling low-fat dessert? To personally train us at the gym, rub our feet and offer psychological counseling to disarm our poisonous stress after our long, tiring day at work, school or unemployment? You're too busy calling us names and fixating on our eating problem, that's what, you lab-coated, closet-Yum-Yum-Donut-eating bastards.

The truth is, we don't have a problem, Mr. and Ms. Scientist. We are not the ones who are sick, but rather, the sanest ones alive. Yes, we veer away from painful and uncomfortable behavior, and you know very well that the steps toward losing weight are unnatural and counterintuitive: Who would want to eat less of the things they desire, spend precious spare time in a horrible, brightly lit place that plays suicide-inducing music and is stuffed with sweating strangers in ugly clothes who purposely drink lite beer and don't bother wiping their sweat off the machines?

In the end, the only way to become like Elyse on America's Next Top Model (otherwise known as squeezing into a mythological weight bracket based on some bizarre formula) is to become--I'll say it--a little bit crazy.

Opiate of the Massive

Legitimate explanations abound for why U.S. residents are large. Foremost among them: food that's "bad" tastes good.

Donuts, pancakes, Alfredo sauce, Hollandaise sauce--I'm so hungry right now, I could bail out Martha Stewart or eat an Iron Chef. Sometimes on Sundays, I'm so excited about brunch that I get mental images of everything I could ever enjoy eating and can't decide among them. Usually, I pick what to eat by asking myself, Do I want sweet or salty? My answer traditionally has been: Of course, I will have both.

This could perhaps explain how I had expanded to 163.4 pounds as of Feb. 10, the day I joined Weight Watchers and was forced to step on a scale, even though the Weight Watchers healthy weight range for a 5-foot-6-inch 32-year-old is 148, max. And that would be for the body type known as Rubenesque, not the teenage boy look I'm going for.

But gaining weight paves the way to more weight gaining. The fatter one becomes, the less one wants to stop eating, experts have found. Researchers at the University of Florida's Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute released their discovery in February that obese people take almost twice as long as "normal" people to feel full. If one is normal, the researchers say, it takes 10 minutes to feel compelled by natural forces to stop sucking down food. (The "normal" people, of course, are the proud, the few, the one-third of Americans who are not overweight.)

I fit in statistically because, even though I'm a vegetarian, I'm kind of a pig. My mouth waters when I watch fast-food commercials. It's not the cow that tempts me. It's the promise of salty, fatty flavor. Clearly, in America, I am with my kind.

Fast-food chains predict they'll take in $121 billion selling high-calorie deep-fried lard and salt-based food and sugary soft drinks to Americans this year. They're probably right. McDonald's fries are so damn tasty people in New York are trying to sue the chain for making their unsuspecting children fat. Last month, a lawyer in San Francisco filed a suit to ban the fat that makes Oreos so delicious to kids. George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf is demanding that McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy's and Pizza Hut post signs declaring their food addictive.

But the warning probably won't help. Indeed, indulgent, "bad" food would seem to be the cocaine of the new century. And like coked-up rats with unlimited access, we grow more and more addicted, and fatter and fatter and fatter, until, finally, mercifully, we die.

The McKnight Brain Institute scientists assert the companion theory that people who eat more seem to take drugs less. "Our work suggests that Thanksgiving is the single day of the year with the least amount of drug use," Mark Gold, University of Florida psychiatry and neuroscience professor, says in an article posted on Scienceblog.com.

Neal Barnard, president and founder of the health-obsessed D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and also a GWU prof, flew into San Francisco the week of June 23 to lecture on his new book, Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings--and 7 Steps to End Them Naturally. The book is about escaping from the particular thrall of cheese, meat, chocolate and sugar, which clearly control us all.

"It's much weaker than actual morphine," Jennifer Keller, a dietitian with Barnard's group, says, explaining that eating fattening foods doesn't reflect gluttony as previously assumed, but that "these opiates do form in the breakdown of cheese." Keller, who confesses she's fascinated by the druglike qualities of food, says the same goes for meat--and, obviously, chocolate and sugar.

"You don't run to the store at 3am for a box of strawberries," Keller observes. "But people will do that for chocolate or pizza or a donut."

Personal Strainer

Another reason for fat people is convenience. Life is hard enough without yanking away the fundamental things people enjoy. And lives on average have gotten harder.

The U.S. Labor Department specifies that the country's 6.1 percent unemployment rate is the highest in nine years. Just knowing that is stressful, even if you're lucky enough to have a job. Instead of the work day getting shorter with the aid of helpful, labor-saving technology, it has actually grown longer. Rush hour, that friendly little pocket of time that used to cover everyone's commuting schedule, is now about six hours long.

The economy, a June 15 New York Times column read, is "like a lukewarm bowl of mush." (I, as a 163.4-pounder, would eat that if it was the only thing in the house.) The New York Times indicated that while past recessions have spawned more individual horror stories in selected segments of the population, this one is taking an "egalitarian" approach by noticeably denting all classes and income levels, spreading the depression around.

Meanwhile, the working world is not the only realm of despair. Colleges and law schools are reporting huge jumps in their number of applicants, meaning more competition and scantier acceptance rates. Strange diseases are on the rise. Prisons are overcrowded. Drivers have rage. The ice caps are melting. The gym plays the worst music in the world. My cat poops in the sink. America is losing its mind. Have I left anything out?

After a stressful day, a few truths automatically emerge. One, I don't want to go to the gym. Two, I don't want to eat a salad. Three, I want to watch America's Next Top Model. Four, I accept that I will not become America's next top model--and find great relief in doing so.

What binds these truths is their larger context that it feels good to be lazy. My 163.4-pound self's favorite lazy evening centered around ordering a large pizza to split with my boyfriend, a veggie lasagna for myself, garlic bread (sometimes with cheese), while the boyfriend ordered ravioli for himself. Then we'd watch TV and get gassy.

Relaxing and enjoying food that tastes good, unlike moderation or deprivation, is intuitive. Conversely, imposing limits on consumption takes effort. Effort sends hurtful messages to the brain. Hurting feels bad and should be avoided. This evasion solution requires intercepting messages sent to the brain. The best way to do that is to join a brainwashing cult. That's why I joined Weight Watchers.

During the days leading up to my first meeting, I was a little concerned that I'd show up not being fat enough. I was afraid I might unleash the bitter fury of a roomful of self-help pros, thus setting 20 female Hulks on my ass. While it was true that the group attending the weekly session in a small gray space sandwiched between a hair salon and a U.S. Army recruitment station at San Francisco's Stonestown Galleria shopping mall was predominantly female, individuals varied in size and no one looked at me funny. Happily, I was fat enough.

Everything from the welcome brochure to the crowded field of motivational posters on the wall pledged devotion to my specific comprehensive weight-management goals. WW would guide me through the Winning Points food system. WW wanted me to know that "behavioral change" would make my weight loss possible. Furthermore, WW assured me, "all Weight Watchers leaders are role models" who've successfully completed the program.

Point Well Taken

Like most successful cults, Weight Watchers defies nature. Mainly, most Americans are bad at math, and this is the central feature of the Weight Watchers diet.

U.S. leaders insist no child shall be left behind, but history suggests some shall. The U.S. Department of Education found in its latest "national report card" that more than a third of graduating high school seniors were below the basic level of math skills in 2000. And in fact, the report card shows, only 17 percent were competent at math.

Despite patriotic obligation to mathematical ineptness, Weight Watchers has helped me lose weight with math. I've dropped 25.2 pounds since February by substituting WW's "winning points system" for my previous if it doesn't move, eat it system.

WW instructs followers to find the point value attributed to each item they consume (using a sliding cardboard measure that figures in dietary fiber, calories and fat) and to stay within a points range each day. For example (and I can't give much away here, as that would be divulging the secrets of this cult, for which attendees pay a fee), a piece of bread equals two points, an apple equals one point and a shot of tequila weighs in at two points, salt and lime included. When I first started, I could have up to 25 points of food and drink. Now, I get up to 23--fewer points as a reward for losing several pounds.

I've also gotten my key chain (which broke within minutes of my receiving it) for losing 10 percent of my starting weight, four "I lost five pounds!" bookmarks and my 25-pound-loss star magnet. During the Monday-night group meetings, I also earned the occasional "bravo" star for saying something positive like, "I gained weight last week, but I'm here anyway."

What I don't tell my WW fellow cult followers and leader is that I'm there every week not because I'm getting healthy but because I have harnessed my obsessive-compulsive skills to replace my giant dinner fests with a formulaic weight-loss plan obsession.

Even though I have descended six pant sizes by Old Navy standards (I know it's an evil sweat-shop-style corporation, but they make pants that flatter curvaceous bottoms), I don't identify as a thin person. I identify as a person with cellulite.

It's hard to relate to beautiful (non-cellulite-having) people. And why would one want to, since we've already established that they're the small minority and probably crazy?

Think about it. "We prescribe the same behavior in fat people that we diagnose in thin people," points out one woman in the business of being fat, Fat!So? book author Marilyn Wann.

Thin people who think they're fat are exerting control over every curve by getting "extreme makeovers" on TV shows where doctors lob off body sections. Meanwhile, the disease anorexia nervosa includes the following traits, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:

In an anorexic, "there is constantly thoughts about food--how many calories, how many fat grams, how much exercise you need to do if you eat a cookie, etc.," outlines the association. "How many times do you check that scale? There is always the attempt to try to control eating because of the fear of gaining weight. Often, meals are avoided or eaten very slowly, pondering each bite, fearing that surely it will make them fat."

So, when I think about my WW leader explaining as he did several times that one would have to run the length of a football field to burn off one M&M, I now know I've been learning to think like an anorexic. Um, Yay?

Cult of Thin

I will admit that I am somehow obsessed with the number 125. I think I should weigh 125 pounds. That is one pound more than the bottom weight in my healthy weight range according to WW.

During the June 16 Weight Watchers meeting, our latest leader (our group has had three come through) told us to be "attentive" and "do one thing at a time." That meant think about the food we eat while eating.

WW works because it requires followers to closely monitor their points intake. As one leader was fond of saying, the secret to weight loss is simple: It's energy in, energy out. The out must be more than the in.

We scrutinize the energy intake by writing in a journal. For example, today my journal reflects that I have had three cups of coffee with one tablespoon of sugar in each. (I don't include the nonfat milk, and it seems to work out anyway.) Coffee doesn't cost me anything. The sugar comes to three points total. I have 15 points left for the day to reach the minimum in my range. I am aware of how many points I get at all times.

"We have thinking disorders on the subject," says the astute 270-pound writer and activist Wann. Wann disagrees with the country's government and corporate health advisers who claim that thin people are always healthier than she is. "I'm put in the morbidly obese category," says Wann, who eats healthy food and does yoga, and though she isn't supposed to according to the Health Industry, rebelliously enjoys life. "I'm not morbid. ... I've attended the conferences on obesity. I'm not sick. I'm fat."

Wann is, however, sick of the perception that fat people are just lazy slobs who can fix themselves only by correcting their appearances. She maintains the theory that the experts only pretend to encourage weight loss because they care about people's health, but unless they start pushing health insurers to cover fat people, they're not walking the talk.

Wann blames some weight on genetics. But mostly, she says, the country's real fat problem is attitude. "We have this huge societal pressure based on the prejudice and privilege system," she says.

She became a fat-liberation activist about 10 years ago after a really bad day. That day, a guy she was dating confessed he was embarrassed to introduce her to his friends, and an insurance company denied her insurance because of her weight.

"It is so much easier to change the world than to change my ass," says Wann, who tosses out a statistic claiming 90 to 95 percent of weight losers gain it back.

(Incidentally, WW claims that its lifetime members on average keep 84 percent of their weight off two years later, and half of them keep it off longer than two years.)

"It's not like you need a complicated users' manual to live in your body," Wann says (calling bullshit on the math solution). "I'm concerned about the infantilizing quality of society saying, particularly to women, you're so stupid you can't even feed yourself. From a feminist perspective, it's horrifying. ... They don't care that women are being driven quietly mad."

I've enjoyed my WW experience. I like the cheesy group-health meetings where we're weighed and treated like infants. I like the bravo stars, the key chains and the bookmarks. All the fuss gives me the illusion that my weight fluctuations matter to anyone but me.

Basically, I like being driven quietly mad. But I don't pretend to think that's healthy. And I don't like it on the days when I gain weight despite my efforts and feel like I'm going backward in my forward mission to weigh what I weighed in college.

But 125, now that's a much better number than 138.2, which reflects my weight for Monday, June 16. Right? Elyse from America's Next Top Model would have my back.


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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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