Thirty Pounds in Thirty Days

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We got to talking in the Open Thread yesterday about weight loss. I was arguing that part of the problem with weight loss in this country is that there's an industry specifically dedicated to making you think it's easy, that it doesn't require fundamental change, and that it won't take a lot of time and effort to achieve stable results. 


Anyway commenter Katryzyna wrote the following:

Human bodies are designed to store fat. Your body is built to get fat, if it can, and hold on to that fat, if it can. In an environment with abundant calories (ie. the USA in 2010), the human body has ample opportunity to store calories as fat. At the same time, the body burns those fat calories in a very, very efficient manner. If you run a mile, you burn 75 to 105 calories, roughly. A six mile run is around 600 calories. A pound of fat is 3500 calories. It takes a lot of miles and some calorie restriction to lose weight. It's very, very tough to do.

I'm not up on the science of weight loss, but this sounds about right. In this culture, we have a bias toward aggression in the best sense. So when faced with a weight problem the immediate thought is to join a gym and go on a diet. Pumping iron, knocking out some miles, and then eating a caesar salad with a steak makes you feel like you're doing something. It's a radical change and we intuitively feel that it will yield radical results.

I am sure this approach works for some people, but not for me. I've never been able to stick to a diet. I love bread, rice, potatoes and, to a lesser extent, sweets. I also fail at doing exercise that I don't actually enjoy. A little pain is good. But it can't be the kind of pain that makes me say "I'm glad that's over." In short, I couldn't macho my way out of being fat. I couldn't out-muscle obesity.


I did join the gym. But I didn't do it to lose weight, so much as I did it to make me feel better. It certainly helped me to lose weight, but I didn't much think about how many calories I was burning. I just did what felt good, in that painful but feel good way. I did start running. But when I thought about why I did it, it was mostly because of the meditative effects, the deep calming aspect. I tend to run really slow. The East African cats in Central Park lap me while warming up. I might be slow for the rest of my life. It's fine. I'm not in it for that. Again, I'm sure I burnt some calories, but that wasn't my focus.

My attention was toward something more mundane--inserting less food into the gaping orifice just above my chin. In general, I ate the same food. But I tried to think before eating. I became much more conscious of how I felt after eating. I came to regard being stuffed--a feeling I used to crave--as feeling sick. I don't really know how much I cut, in terms of calories. But I know that I'm a lot more conscious of how food makes me feel, and how much of it I'm eating.

When the way out became clear, it was really depressing. It meant that this was going to take a while, and that I would have to actually, you know, pay attention. I'm joking about that, but this is real talk. I think I was very lucky to have the kind of job that allowed for flexibility. It meant that I could carve out time to actually think about and what I was eating and why.

It's interesting seeing people on the street these days. The common reaction is "What did you do?" And the only honest response is "Shove less shit down my throat." Weight loss, for me, is depressing in its essential passivity. When we talk about an obesitity epidemic, I strongly suspect that what we're talking about is the cost of societal lifestyle choices presently made manifest. If we want to have food that is pleasurable, but we don't want to expend time now--either in the form of money, or the form of actual time preparing and cleaning--expect that we will have to expend time later in the form of health problems. 

There's a cost for everything. Our only choice is how, and when, we want to pay.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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