I’ve been thinking a lot lately about diets, and not because I want to be on one. It’s because I work at a bookstore where a large table/display of nutrition and diet books was set up, and I walk by it and stare at it probably dozens of times a day, and by the time I get off work I want nothing more than an entire extra-cheese pizza topped with mini-doughnuts.
I think the repellent part of the books boils down to two main categories:
- Fad Diets — diet books that recommend eating habits far outside the natural human spectrum of eating
- Semantics Diets — diet books that aren’t really diet books at all, but massive compendiums on common sense
An example of a Fad Diet book that is very popular right now is Bethenny Frankel’s Naturally Thin. You may know Frankel from The Real Housewives of New York — or not, I didn’t — and after reading this book of hers you’ll know her as The Lady Who Wrote a Book About How to Be Anorexic. I’m not being snarky here: in the book she advises that you can eat “whatever you want” provided you only take three bites. Literally, truly, this is her primary diet tip. Aside from that she advises that you refrain from eating until you are really hungry (which scads of research has shown does the opposite of what she thinks; it sends your brain into ‘starvation mode’ which then tells your body to grip tight to all that fat), her real secret to being “naturally” skinny? She eats less than 1,000 calories a day.
To give you an idea of what 1,000 calories a day is, the average, sedentary adult needs 1,400 calories to maintain weight. In other words, if you were on a ship lost at sea, unmoving except to drink water and eat some raw fish you caught, you’d need to eat 1,400 kcal of that fish¹ in order to keep from dropping pounds. An active average woman needs more like 2,200. Frankel, who we are to assume is also exercising regularly, based on her book and her TV appearances, is either lying about what she’s eating (since she’d quite literally be dead if she ate less than 1,000 calories a day), or … wait, no, that’s the only answer. She’s lying about what she’s eating. Her little “I can eat whatever I want” splurges must consist of three metered bites of seal blubber.
And this shit sells like crazy! People love this garbage!
I’m less critical of the Semantics Diet books, which are primarily just lessons on how to eat less fat, and how much you should be exercising. They are by themselves harmless, though in the long-run of the psyche I suspect they’re pretty harmful anyway. I don’t think people just don’t know they’re not supposed to eat a whole box of Ho-Hos. I think we all know. And I’m not even totally sure that counting calories is going to help most people (though, education on that front is certainly needed – I have a nurse friend who told me an anecdote about teaching women and children how to read the nutrition labels on a package of tortillas, and all of them confidently answered that the serving size represented on the label was for the entire bag of 30 tortillas.)
In fact, if I had to recommend a diet book to someone, I’d recommend The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler. And surprise: it’s not a diet book at all. It’s an examination of what he calls “conditioned hypereating,” a sort of brainwashing we as Americans are subjected to by the mere presence of Big Macs. I mean, I’m obviously paraphrasing here. What I like about The End of Overeating is that he provides a culprit and a solution while acknowledging what no diet book does: there is no quick fix. For many Americans, this will be the hardest thing they’ll ever do. Many generations of Americans have worked toward making sure that we eat a lot of processed foods, but it should hearten most to know that mere understanding of this fact is sometimes enough to stop people. Though, as a side note, I have to say that I don’t think I like what the cover of his book is implying, that instead of eating carrot cake we should eat carrots. I think we can all vote a hearty “fuck that shit,” yes my readers?
Also to my great agitation: The Fat Flush Diet Plan by Ann Luise Gittleman. Oh my dog (<—actual typo!), I want to punch this woman in the tit. Like many of her ilk, under the guise of some kind of medical hooey, Gittleman walks you though subsisting entirely from a slurry of ground flax seed, unsweetened cranberry juice and and fuck knows what else. Dubbing herself the “First Lady of Nutrition” does little to earn points with me, particularly after advising that people with Crohn’s disease follow her liquid purge fiascoes (she believes, in part, that bacteria are responsible for why people with Crohn’s disease feel bad, despite all medical and scientific evidence to the contrary). And sure, all her Whole Foods rampage shit is many times better than Miss Bethenny up there, but they are two ends of a really ill-conceived whole. One should never, ever, ever forget that these people are selling you their advice. They tell you: you cannot do this without me. Gittleman is the First Lady for sure, but of needlessly complicated, fussy and expensive fasting.
But I suppose no one will get get rich off of a book that merely reads: burn more calories than you consume and you will lose weight.
¹Also to give you an idea of how healthy fish is, 1,400 calories of fish is about three edible pounds of fish meat, depending on the species. Bad news if you’re actually lost at sea.