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How not to get fat

Even as a child, I knew what was wrong with math teachers. They were mathematicians. Math was easy for them, which meant they hadn’t a hope of explaining it to me.

In a similar vein, I have to throw in my two cents’ worth about staying thin. I’ve always been thin, both my parents were thin, and I should really just keep my mouth shut. But I can’t stop myself. There’s so much nonsense out there, I have to point at it, even if it’s not political nonsense.

1) A huge proportion, say 80% in round numbers, of anyone’s weight is determined by genetics. Trying to fight that is like trying to have the will power to grow black hair if you’re blond. There is no point. Forget it. Besides, obsessing about oneself doesn’t make anyone attractive, even if it does make them thin. Attractiveness comes down to health, fitness, cheerfulness, and caring. That’s true regardless of gender. So, could we all just stop the useless, ga-ga admiration of thinness? (Madison Ave., I’m looking at YOU.)

2) Fitness, on the other hand, is not useless. Get out there and move. Enjoy walking. Do it. (That’s all. There’s really no more to say about it. Memo to self: remember to keep New Year’s resolution about exercising more.)

3) Food, which is not that big a deal unless you don’t have enough of it, should be way down the list of concerns. The most important thing about food is to enjoy it. If there’s any difference — besides genetics — between me and people who have more trouble with weight, it’s that I seem to enjoy food much more than they do. I savor it, and I’m the slowest eater I know. I don’t eat just to have something in my mouth, because there’s little enjoyment in that. And I almost always wait to eat until I’m hungry, because food eaten when you’re not hungry tastes about half as good.

About hunger, one thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people don’t seem to distinguish between wanting a treat and actual physical hunger. It goes so far that sometimes I’m not sure they mean the same thing by hunger as I do. Hunger (when not due to malnutrition or starvation) is a physical sensation at the bottom of the chest, accompanied by a pleasant feeling of heightened alertness and an interest in all food, not just treats. Someone who’s hungry for pizza but not for plain bread is not actually hungry according to me.

I’m just like the next person, as far as that goes. If I eat when I’m not really hungry, I gain weight. The genetic component may be the brain chemistry that signals real hunger sooner rather than later in some people. But the sensation of hunger is also something whose degrees one can train oneself to recognize. And then it’s possible to train one’s reaction to different degrees of hunger. (If it wasn’t, there would be no anorexics, although their overtraining is something to be avoided like the plague that it is.)

Retraining reactions to hunger involves paying very careful attention to the physical feelings of it that your body gives you, and then deciding at which level you’ll act on it. That process is a mental habit, and it can be changed like any other habit. It takes careful and continuous attention for about six months to a year to change the habitual setpoint, but after that it’s just as automatic as the old habit was. It does not involve a lifetime of effort and self-control. (I’m not just gassing, here. This is something I’ve had to do as I get older and my metabolism slows down.)

As to what to eat, that’s easy. In Michael Pollan’s memorable words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (And if you want to cheat, remember: chocolate is a plant.) No, seriously. Eat what you enjoy, with people you enjoy, and all the rest will fall into place.

Technorati tags: fitness, health, diet, weightloss, New Years Resolutions

(Postscript. For information from someone with actual experience, see, for instance, Kyle Pott’s post on losing 50 pounds, via Lifehacker.)