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Writer's Block: Hocus pocus

Have you ever purchased a lotion, potion, or pill that promised miraculous weight loss, perfect skin, or fantastic sex even though you knew it was (probably) a hoax?
Got diet candy once in high school, which you ate a piece twenty minutes before a meal to spoil appetite. It worked, along with dropping all carbs. I lost a lot of weight, about 50lb. I got thin, bony, sick and looked in the mirror to see that I didn't look any better bony than I had stocky, so gave it up and went back to eating.

I looked at the idea of it and figured it would work. I knew I could probably just use regular caramels but liked the taste when I tried it. I checked the vitamins content, it was a decent multivitamin too. So I checked it out before trying it and am not giving a product endorsement at all. Why it worked was that I quit eating any carbs or any other sweets and kept on not eating much for most of a year. I got stubborn.

I also got sick and too thin without looking any better. That's something no diet plan or diet product ever tells you. If you ddon't have the genotype of a tall lanky build, you won't get one by dieting and reaching some target weight.

Many diet plans, pills and vitamin things do work if you do them. They can also ruin your health if taken to the extreme. I'd been teased for being fat all through grade school. I was sick of that. So I stuck to it and lost all that weight.

By the time I did it though, people at school weren't teasing me about my weight any more. High school was different and I had friends. I was much more likely to get called weirdo or freak, things I took as compliments along with all my other artsy-intellectual hippie friends.

I also didn't understand then that as time went by, all the kids that looked good and strong and healthy would get older. They got pot bellies, got fat, got flabby and went out of shape. I look better by comparison all the time, especially on good days. I look ugly when I get really sick, look good on my strong days.

I've also been gaining strength and losing weight again from my daughter Kitten's good cooking. She's into Stealth Nutrition. She does things like grate zucchini into muffins, bake with whole grains and prepare good food from raw ingredients. We hardly get any packaged food or eat out. I've quietly lost another 20lb since moving in with her, slimmed down and actually gotten stronger this time -- all on a genuinely healthy diet that involves treating junk food as treats.

A lot of health food in supermarkets tastes bad. Whole wheat bread has a bitter undertaste I despise, why I always liked white bread better. When Kitten and Karl first started doing the whole wheat bread it took them some experimentation to get good recipes. Their first efforts were very heavy, brick-like loaves. We all found out that bitter flavor is caused by mixing whole wheat flour with bleached white flour.

When you use just the whole wheat flour and adjust the amounts of wet ingredients to compensate, it comes out tasting nutty instead. Very rich tasting. Yummy. I'm spoiled now.

Bread is still heavier, not as light and fluffy as commercial white bread. You know you've eaten something solid with Karl's bread. That's another reason it's harder to overeat it.

Honey is actually sweeter than sugar. It's expensive but ludicrously healthy in a lot of ways and very strong. So we went more and more toward honey-based treats and the occasional blackstrap molasses or other sweets as treats. But we got used to not having sugar in or on everything all the time.

I used sweetener in coffee instead of sugar from years ago because I've got bad teeth. Sweetener doesn't give me toothache, sugar drinks do. So I do use one diet aid that's inexpensive and easily found anywhere but think of it more as a flavoring than a nutrition item.

White bread is so light that it seems like you hardly ate much. It's easy to cram down half a loaf of empty calories and not think you ate a lot, because it's not very filling. It's that your body's still craving the proteins and vitamins and complex proteins and stuff that I get if I have some of that good Karl or Kitten bread with actual butter on it.

We have steel-cut oats, one step better than rolled oats for healthiness. They get it by the 50lb bag and cook it up in different ways, usually with some dried fruit in. Usually with a bit of butter and some honey. The proteins in the butter do me a lot of good.

Kitten, a pastry chef and savory cook (technical skill levels among culinary professionals) has made it one of her personal hobbies to make our healthier diet taste better and look more appealing. She gets into presentation too. She wound up inventing a mayonnaise substitute with low-fat yogurt for Karl since he's gone on a pretty strict diet to peel off some pounds.

It's working too, he's peeled off about 50lb since he started and been walking daily, he's getting fit and trim. He'd gotten heavy on the goodies while he was cooking and now it's coming off.

So the best way to lose weight is to really discover what you genuinely like in healthy foods, put in the effort to fix it so that it tastes good and develop the maintenance habits that keep you thin. Adding one new nutritious food a month first in a small serving once or twice a week, then gradually a little more and a little more till you've integrated it into your habits over a month will work.

Some of why people will overeat is cravings for nutrients, minerals and vitamins not actually in the junk food. It tastes as if it should have those nutrients, but doesn't. With some uglier twists as she goes on researching it.

Take fat-soluble vitamins. You take a multivitamin and eat a low-fat or no-fat 'healthy breakfast' and it shoots right through your system. It doesn't actually get into your body. But you think it did so that craving comes up and what you want is foods that have that vitamin and some oils to help dissolve it. The best thing to have with a multivitamin is buttered toast, preferably done with an actual whole-wheat bread like Karl makes or at least the bad-tasting storebought kind.

She'll put butter and things like that right out top as a garnish. Where I can taste it. Then not load up the food with fats more than it ought to have, so I'm not getting the double dose that many prepared foods have.

Nutrition is a massive study. It's not easy to do it the way she did. She knows cooking, knows nutrition and health by studying everything from herbalism to pharmacy tech. But that has kept our family a lot healthier and it sure is peeling the pounds off Karl.

Potato skins are nutritious. He came up with this great way of doing twice-baked potatoes that he used the low-fat yogurt to whip with them and a little cheddar garnish and some spices. Potato skins have a ton of nutrients. What he did to reserve them was to reuse the water they boiled in as the liquid in whipping up the potatoes.

Tricks like that slaughter a lot of cravings at the biological level. The psychological one is to not eat for loneliness -- actually do something else that doesn't involve food in order to treat yourself. For me it first involved just buying treat foods that took work to prepare and knowing I had them in the cabinet.

I hoarded treats and then on the odd moment I really wanted something, I'd go ahead and fix it. This was so rare after a while that it stopped being a big deal and I shifted over to art supplies as personal treats. Or paperback books. Something that is a personal treat and makes me feel happy and appreciated.

Part of the trick is also to stop and look at all the social pressure to things. Disbelieve the ads. Ads are there to sell you something and do not usually reflect even actual public opinion, though sometimes they can sort of do so in a backwards way because everyone's so used to the content.

Like the assumption that Health Food has to taste bad, like medicine. It doesn't. The health food that Kitten and Karl prepare tastes so much better than normal packaged foods or even a lot of restaurant foods that I'm spoiled. The whole social process of "Binge > Guilt > Suffer > Buy Skinny Clothes > Binge" drives an enormous junk food industry and probably textiles too, since anyone that gets hung up over weight winds up buying twice as many clothes as they need so that they have something to wear at either end of the miserable cycle.

If you wear your baggy "fat guy" clothes then you look like you lost weight and people respect that.

I don't think it's some grand conspiracy on the part of advertisers to get Americans to become passive overweight consumers of junk food, bad-tasting health foods, exercise equipment and multiple sizes of clothes. I think those processes took off on their own because of market demand and that the whole Puritanical notion that dieting and self punishment are virtuous is a self destructive idea.

What I do think is that television ads have a visceral weight of social pressure that people take for granted. It's not real. It's fiction. They're all just little stories. Well written, high paid little stories with good actors acting them out.

The memes go back and forth and reinforce each other. The Puritanical meme that you have to suffer to be "good." Its corollary that anything that feels or tastes good is "bad." The vicious "All or Nothing" idea that you're either absolutely the best looking human being (and richest and most successful at what you do and most socially appealing to the most others) or you're worthless.

That it's not worth becoming healthier if that doesn't make you look like a TV actor and turn into an athlete, or even someone capable of getting a C in gym. Which, in the year that I lost 50lb, I did not. I scraped a D minus for showing up and trying every day of the year that I wasn't sick.

That's what physical disability will get you if you don't have the right diagnosis and IEPs (Individual Education Plans) hadn't been invented yet. The year after that I got out of gym for good on the scoliosis getting diagnosed, with a doctor's note. I got on the honor roll without those F's and D's dragging my GPA down.

I look better when I'm clear-eyed, alert, engaged in what's going on, clean and happy. Wow. This is actually true of anyone, no matter what nature handed you for features. If you feel good, you will look better. Genuinely good, as in not always pinched and hungry, not running around needy and desperate for company.

Appearances aren't even appearances. People routinely overguess my height as well as underguess my weight because I wear loose clothing in dark colors and have a lot of character. I'm confident. This does a lot for how I look, or makes people fill in the blank with 'good looks' if like most non portrait artists, they couldn't remember what my features actually are. But tag what I wore and what color hair/eyes on a voice and a manner and a personality that doesn't fit "ugly and pathetic."

What that confidence comes from has nothing to do with my face or my build. It has much more to do with my success at writing and somewhat at drawing. It's from knowing I'm good at some things I really enjoy doing and I'm not in dread of losing my housing or livelihood.

I can write a short novel in three days. I would not trade that for perfect normative health and TV star looks even coupled with youth again, not if it meant losing that capacity and dummying down.

It's just as hard to look in the mirror, get to know yourself and dare the perceived crowd by being who you are as it is to lose weight. Maybe more. Plenty of high school kids get anorexia or bulimia. Others get on steroids to bulk up and maybe grow their own breasts while abusing their bodies.

I was trying to fit the tall skinny Maynard G. Krebs stereotype, the tall intellectual geek in black who was a tormented genius. Well, I had the genius bit and certainly the tormented down. I didn't fit in a thousand ways, a lot of them just because I was running where everyone else walked. By the time I was in my 20s though, people saw it whether I looked that way or not because I really was that introspective, that brainy and that dedicated to becoming a writer.

So wow. I've gotten to middle aged writer and come to terms with being disabled. It's good. I think of all the kids that hated themselves without some real definitive problem like that going on though, just from some accident of dysfunctional family or whatever, and shudder.

The only solutions are personal.

It helps to turn off the television or download the programs you like minus the ads. Eliminate that constant interruption that involves nasty personal criticism by implication. What happens with advertising is that your visual and audial centers respond to it as if those were real people -- acquaintances. Familiar ones if you see it over and over and over.

Their opinion starts to matter. They blend into the Greek chorus of modern life, defining what's desirable and what's not. Defining your goals for you when their real goal is -- buy our brand of whatzit, not the other one. They succeed. Fortunes go into them for good reason.

Disbelieving these unreal people is a big step toward living in reality. It may have some unendurable elements, bad relationships or bad working conditions, debt or health problems. Those can be faced though. Those can be resolved if they're faced -- not easily but they can be fought down.

Then actually find out what health foods you like. Discover what your cravings actually are, start trying vitamins -- and take the fat soluble ones with buttered toast so they actually stay in your system.

One of the big things that happens with "all or nothing" thinking is that treats lose their potence as treats when they're everyday and every meal. We don't have dessert every single day. Maybe every week or two -- and then it's a really good one, then it's something special and they took the time to make it. Holiday feasts are special.

The big grand Thanksgiving blowout we had was gorgeous. Groaning board and two pies and it comes annually. Wow and it's fantastic. But we don't have pie all the time so having pie at about three or four dinners till the pie was gone, that was this great annual treat and tasted all the better for it.

Karl on his strict diet compensated with fewer calories for a few days before Thanksgiving so that he could afford to indulge a bit. He took smaller portions of the pie too, I saw his. He didn't gain over the holiday.

So the basic calorie counting and exercise and pay attention to how much activity burns it up method of losing weight does work. Build it flexible and build it on what you really enjoy eating and doing -- the habits you'll still have after the diet's over and you got to a healthy weight. Then you don't have to do it again and the real rewards of wow, being able to do things you like and enjoy the less frequent treats more than if they were everyday boring become self reinforcing.

I look forward to Thanksgiving now in a way I really didn't in previous years. I loved that pecan pie. It's been years since I had the food hangups to feel bad about it if I ate something that rich, that fattening and that tasty.

So win the battle within yourself and you won't have to buy the expensive junk.
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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 6th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
Wow, aren't you in novel writing mode? LOL

I agree with you. All these diet aids and beauty spa gimmicks are for the desperate, and my mom is one of them. She "goes to the gym" but she doesn't put the effort in to actually burn the calories she consumes. She is desperate to spot reduce but it doesn't work that way. For 72 years, she looks better than fine, she's just never had a good body image of herself. I know if she were the weight she wants to bet, she still wouldn't be happy, she'd still be desperate and still buying gimmicks.
Dec. 7th, 2009 11:48 pm (UTC)
Yep. Because she doesn't look like her image of self and the advertising world's idealized image for women isn't actually possible.

No woman can simultaneously be waif thin and big-chested. The results when that happens, as when a curvy lady over-diets and becomes waif-thin or anorexic-thin, start to become less attractive as she gets pigeon chested or bony but still not look like a teenager or be a size three.

The perfectionist attitudes going around are so extreme that I once had a friend in multi-roomies situation who could physically be a model -- she was that tall lanky build and the right height and everything -- who used to pinch the skin of her belly and wail "I'm faaaat!" and it blew me away. Because she did look like the ones in the movies or magazines. It wasn't enough.

She wasn't blonde on top of it with blue eyes. Scary. And she actually had a woman's figure in her twenties, not the flat belly of a barely pubescent teen. She had bony hips that were still distinctly wider than her waist, a flattering proportion to the male eye but not to the intensely critical views of other women.

What build is fashionable changes over time. I saw the scrawny-underage type come in when I was a kid with Twiggy and that's held on now for decades. Women who get athletic lose that in favor of some solid muscle under the curves -- and then come up heavier on the scale than the "ideal numbers" predict because muscle weighs more than fat.

I think of it as a virus almost, a meme that came together out of completely disparate sources that mostly get perpetuated to drive a huge industry of diet aids. For everything out there, a small percentage of people will be stubborn enough to make it work. Whether belief in the gimmick drives that or not, it takes them actually doing it and there are health risks you don't find till you've done it.

The other very trippy thing about it is that the more nutrition research Kitten does, the more shocked I am at the amount of periodic misery people go through in cyclic dieting. I did not know, for example, that suddenly switching to a healthy diet with lots of whole grains, vegetables and fruit with less fat and meat would make anyone -- not just me, anyone -- get really sick with about two months of painful digestion problems.

What works better is gradually introducing the healthier new foods and gradually reducing quantity and frequency of overindulged rich foods, to where the new portions are anticipated treats and the treats start to feel special again rather than being an everyday consolation prize for misery.

I think the whole "Guilty Pleasures" thing drives big bucks. Fighting it is something only an individual can do. To me that takes some of the pleasure out of the treat in itself. If you hate yourself for eating it with every bite, how good is that cake going to taste? Really?

Versus this sense of "I earned this. I worked hard to get it and I've been looking forward to it for a long time, I'm going to enjoy." That improves the flavor of anything.

In the actual books there's usually a chapter about how dieting isn't enough and you need to do a maintenance diet, come up with a good set of long term habits to keep it off. But the bad tasting Health Food punishment foods are not something anyone would want to look forward to after months of self denial. That's just saying "you will never have your favorites again."

When having them on your birthday never killed anyone if they kept the portions and frequency moderate the rest of the year.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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Robert A. Sloan, author of Raven Dance

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