Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Diet and Anti-Diet

Instead of reading diet books, lately I've been reading what might be called “anti-diet” books by Michael Pollan, Harriet Brown, Brian Wansink, Traci Mann, and Paul Campos. These books claim that we've all been sold a bill of goods when it comes to weight loss. Almost nobody can, through calorie restriction, go from an obese weight to an approved weight and maintain it for a lifetime. Sooner or later, the body's instinct for survival will overcome whatever intentions you have, unless you have an eating disorder. Consider these statistics:

1. Only 20% of dieters lose more than 10% of their body weight while dieting. Most dieters hit a plateau that stops their weight loss unless they cut back their calorie intake ever more severely, as the body reacts to what it reads as starvation. By this standard, I did pretty well. I lost about 13% of my body weight before I hit the impassable plateau. I tried to further cut back on my calories, but just couldn't. I could go on very low calorie diets when I was young; I suspect the diabetes drugs make it really hard to go too far, or maybe it's just the effect of age.

2. Only 20% of dieters maintain weight loss for more than two years. Over five years the number shrinks to 5%. Virtually anyone can lose weight temporarily by cutting back calorie intake. However, virtually no one can maintain a restricted calorie intake voluntarily for years on end. Again, by this standard I was a very successful dieter, even though I was trying very hard to “change my eating habits” rather than “diet” per se. I kept the weight off for pretty close to five years, although my memory is hazy about exactly when I reached my lowest weight, and when the weight started coming back. The most frustrating thing is that I didn't go back to my old eating habits--I still was eating healthy enough that I had to eat separately from my husband—I just started thinking about other things in my life. It takes 24/7 monitoring to keep weight off, which is why people mostly fail. Not to mention the question of whether or not that is a worthwhile focus for one's life.

3. Over 80% of dieters not only gain back the weight they lost, but they put on additional pounds. This is the familiar and well-known, “yo-yo effect” of dieting. That is, for most people, dieting results in weight gain over the long term. So, like most other people who try it, I am ten pounds heavier than I was before I started. I'm fearful to lose weight again lest I end up even fatter a few years down the road. Before my weight loss, I had pretty much stabilized for over a decade. The kicker is that I eat healthier now, at a heavier weight, than I did back then. I certainly exercise more.

4. Dieting causes cortisol levels to rise, indicating stress and causing the body to retain fat. This has a number of unhealthy psychological effects, such as an obsession with food, disordered eating, mood swings, irritability, and depression. I've been experiencing a great deal of anxiety over the issue even though I'm not dieting. My stress levels go up big time when medical appointments draw near, fearing that the issue of weight will come up. Or just fearing what I'll see when I step on the scale.

5. Willpower is a myth: Virtually no one, aside from those who have an eating disorder, is able to resist foods that are both desirable and available indefinitely. However, making such foods less available has an impact. This isn't just making excuses for the weak – studies are pretty consistent that, everyone is weak, no matter what they weigh. Now, there are people who simply don't like chocolate or pasta or sweets, but that has nothing to do with willpower. I dislike yogurt, so I really can't claim any special prizes for self-discipline when I don't eat it. Brian Wansink, among others, has been advocating the manipulation of the environment to discourage overeating, rather than the steely determination of willpower, which will inevitably weaken and fold.

6. Exercise does a variety of things that are good for the human mind and body, but it does little to maintain healthy body weight. We'd be better off if we could separate the encouragement of healthy exercise from the vain hope of weight loss. I don't know if studies have been done, but I'd be willing to bet a major reason exercise programs are abandoned is because the diets that very often accompany them have crashed and burned. That certainly happened to me more than once. These days I try hard to keep up with the exercise, even though it is more difficult when I am heavier.

7. The most radical idea of all: Excess weight is not as detrimental to health as is commonly believed, and the moral panic surrounding obesity is primarily driven, not by science, but by current tastes and mores and the profit that can be made from anxious, and repeatedly failing, dieters. It's a perfect racket – if a diet fails, blame the dieter, not the diet, so the customer keeps coming back. We pretend it's about health, but it's really about the fashionable obsession with thinness, and even doctors are influenced by this bias.

8. Finally, there is the simple truth that we don't know how to make fat people thin in the long run. It is not simply “calories in, calories out” – the human body and brain are complex, and so are eating behaviors and the way the body responds to food.

Dieting is a lie, even when you use euphemisms like "changing your eating habits" or "chronic restrained eating". Every study on the subject from the 1940s onward has consistently come to the same conclusions concerning the use of structured eating patterns to achieve weight loss. If any other treatment had so poor a record, the medical establishment would have dismissed it as quackery long ago. We'd do as well treating our obesity with homeopathy, colon cleansing, or the laying on of hands. In fact, those alternatives might very well do better, because they induce less stress.

So, that's it. Millions of people are agonizing and obsessing over their weight and what to eat, with damaged body image and facing very real discrimination over something that they really have little control over--not to mention those who diet their way into eating disorders that threaten their health in a more serious way that fat does. Exactly who does this benefit outside of those who make money in the weight loss industry?

Count me as one of the obsessors. I'm very aware of this trap of being expected to do the impossible or you are seen as lazy, stupid, and disgusting. The “sitting on the couch eating bon-bons” cliché about fat people just doesn't apply to me – nor to most fat people. I like my food, but I've never been a binge eater;I don't care if I ever eat fast food (except for a weakness for hot dogs); I eat healthy snacks like fruit and cheese; I buy non-processed food from local farmers when I can; for the last decade I've put strict limits on sweets; and finally, I exercise most days. However, I'm finding myself very confused about what “normal” or “moderate” eating is. Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full? Or are your instincts untrustworthy and need to be either ignored or tricked? The government advice has gone from a pyramid with grains at its base to a plate that is supposed to be half-covered with fruits and vegetables. How can carbohydrates be so horrible when they have been the basis of the human diet ever since we learned how to plant seeds into dirt? Who am I supposed to believe with the advice, even medical and government advice, is shifting all the time? That is, what am I supposed to do even if I'm not dieting and just trying to eat healthy?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Time is an Illusion, so Can I Have a Beer?

I had intended on making blog posts about the Chico Taoist Study Group's discussions of the Tao Te Ching when we started again with Chapter 1, but as luck would have it, a combination of illness and weather prevented me from going over to Chico until the group was on Chapter 4. I don't intend for these posts to be a in-depth analysis of the text, but rather a report of the kind of discussions we have in the group, along with my own thoughts.

After meditation,the Front Cushion (i.e. the guy who leads the group) read a koan from the Rinzai Zen tradition which, as far as I understand it studies koans as a means for sudden enlightenment. (There is more than a dollop of Buddhism in this Taoist group.) Koans are designed to stop logical thought; they don't make sense, so they kind of make you crazy trying to figure them out. Part of this one goes “Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is confusion.” So . . . we're royally screwed, right? No, it's that enlightenment is transcends knowing and not-knowing. As long as we think we know, we don't. As long as we keep things open, we have a shot at real understanding.

Now, here is Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching, Derek Lin translation:

The Tao is empty Utilize it, it is not filled up So deep! It seems to be the source of all things
It blunts the sharpness Unravels the knots Dims the glare Mixes the dusts
So indistinct! It seems to exist I do not know whose offspring it is Its image is the predecessor of God

We usually look at more than one translation, but always include one from Derek Lin's Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained, which is said to be the most literal interpretation of the Chinese text. I'll only give one translation here, to save space.

One lady in the group said she's so fond of this particular chapter that she has it posted on her refrigerator. I have no idea why this particular one stands out to her, but why a text strikes one person and not another is just one of those mysteries. After all, I was a Baha'i for around 27 years largely because I was attracted to the Baha'i Writings and I'd be hard put to explain exactly why.

Getting down to basics, a young woman who I had not seen before asked the Front Cushion what the Tao is. “Is it life? Is it energy? Is it spirit?” The answer to all of those questions is “Yes.” He explained that it is as vast as the Universe and as minute as atomic particles. “It is a universal concept.” And, in any case, as another new member of the group pointed out, if you can explain what it is, you have missed it entirely. My own contribution was to refer to my previous blog post and to explain the idea that the Tao is essentially a moving target that you can't pin a precise label on. Another lady elaborated on this determined imprecision of language by talking about the word “seems” in the translation. It seems to be the source of all things rather than “It is . . . .”

Yet another woman talked about how she came to grips with her health difficulties when she simply gave up – when she stopped fighting the illness, she felt peaceful about it. These personal stories have only the most tenuous relationship to the text, but it's fairly common for people to share this way. They need to, and we all listen. In fact, there are times when I feel like my whole presence there is an exercise in listening-- something we could all do a bit better. It's not uncommon for me to say nothing at all.

Another man talked about the recent science questioning the Big Bang theory, saying that he found a certain comfort in the beginnings of the Universe being a complete mystery. He related this to his trip to Macchu Picchu and how he looked down at a blanket of fog covering the ruins, which he poetically described as being “like the Mother's nightgown”, that he really didn't want to peek behind, but to leave it obscure.

The final bit of wisdom was from one of the older members who said, “If there's no Big Bang, then time doesn't exist. So, can I have a beer?” We all laughed, of course. Now that I've had time to think about it, the comment sounds very much like a koan, and thus the perfect way to end, as we began the discussion.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

One of the teaching of Buddhism that I've struggled with from the very first time I ever heard of it is that of anatta, or “no self”. That is, the perception we have of the existence of a permanent self is an illusion. Nothing about us at all is permanent, not even the “soul” or whatever it is you want to call what survives of us into the afterlife. I really have a tough time wrapping my head around the concept that something of us reincarnates according to our karma (meaning our actions), but it isn't anything permanent. (I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, but that's an entirely different blog post.) The classic explanation is that we are like a candle flame that lights another candle – the flame is the same, yet different. Yeah, I don't understand it, either – a lot of Buddhism is like that. You aren't really supposed to understand it logically; real understanding transcends logic.

Even though we think of ourselves as being a permanent thing, our impermanence is pretty easy to demonstrate. First of all, our bodies are continually changing. I think most of us are familiar with the old saying that every cell in our body will be different once seven years has past. I don't know if that's true, but I know my body is very different than it was ten years ago – more weight, more aches and pains, fewer teeth, more gray hair, different lenses in my glasses, more medication I have to take. It's not all bad – I have less pain from TMJ, less trouble with allergies, fewer hot flashes, better muscle tone. Ten years is easy, but if we look at ourselves our bodies change even from moment to moment. We're hungry, we eat, and then we're not hungry. Our body tightens with tension over something, then relaxes. Our organs silently perform functions as needed, changing without our even being aware of it, We think of our bodies as being part of “ourselves”, but it certainly is not a fixed entity at any point in our lives.

Our minds change even faster than our bodies do. For one thing, the mind is influenced by how our body feels; it's not really a separate thing at all. Thoughts flow in and out. New impressions and memories are constantly put into the brain. Memory, especially, contributes to the illusion that we have a permanent existence, but memory itself is not a concrete thing. Everyone is familiar with the “Roshomon” scenario, where several people describe the same event very differently. Sometimes we completely forget events that someone else who was present remembers vividly. Our past is not static; memory changes as we change, and events look differently as we grow and learn. And if memory is erased because of injury or illness, who are we then?

Sometimes you'll hear people say about an earlier time “I wasn't the same person then as I am now.” In fact, if we're honest, we are different, even in the present, with different people. Don't most of us lose a few years (or a few decades) when we visit our parents? We are different when we are with coworkers than we are with family members. The local Baha'i community knew an entirely different Karen than the online Baha'i community did. I know I'm a different person with Jeff than I was with my ex-husband. My children would probably describe me in yet a different way than my students. Which one of these is the “real” Karen? Truth is, none of them. The real Karen is the person who is thinking and typing right now in the present moment, but when the circumstances change, so will I.

Now, there are certain patterns to our lives that tend to repeat themselves. Some tendencies we are born with – even tiny infants will have distinct personalities, with some being fussy and needy, others fairly placid. That's just a matter of heredity and is probably the most permanent thing about us in this lifetime. I don't think anything will change my natural inclination to be introverted, for example. Then, on top of that basic heredity, we have the psychology, which is emotional behavior learned in our earliest years – defenses against pain, ways we seek love and attention, the things which provoke fear or anger. Those things that Buddhism calls “mental formations” that are really tough to change unless and until we become consciously aware of them. But I don't think any of us thinks “I am my behavior patterns” – these are just characteristics of the person we think we are.

So, what does all this mean? Well, it can be sort of depressing, at least I thought so when I first heard the idea years ago. So,we aren't who we think we are and our existence is an illusion? Bummer. I wouldn't blame you if you chucked this notion entirely. But trying to prove the existence of a permanent self is pretty difficult, and the evidence for our impermanence is right there in our very nature.

However, there's a positive side to it, too. We can lay down the need to defend who we think we are, because there's really nothing to defend. We can realize that even if this moment is horrible, the bad feelings won't last forever. We can stop beating ourselves up over past mistakes, because every moment in our lives is an opportunity to be something different. You can't pin a label on a moving target. The classic philosophical question of “Who am I?” should more rightly be asked as “Who am I at this moment?” So, who do you think you are now?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The First Lesson is that Life Sucks

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “Life is dukkha”, which is usually translated as “suffering”, although some teachers prefer the word “challenging”, which is more accurate. Dukkha really means “out of whack” or “unsatisfactory”. Besides those moments where there is serious pain or loss, there are things that you want that you don't have; there are things you have that you don't want. You have unpleasant physical feelings. Sometimes, we'll feel pangs of sorrow or worry or regret, even when life is going well.

On the whole, we don't like acknowledging this. We feel like it's a weakness to admit that we aren't really happy. Certainly, we find it unattractive or childish when others complain. We're taught to be strong and act like everything is o.k. One of the first lessons in Buddhism is that we have to stare our own suffering in the face if we are ever going to find the way to end it. Try meditating on just your own physical aches and pains – checking out all the places in your body that don't feel quite right at the moment. I did this once with the Tuesday night group, and I've never spent a more miserable time meditating. But Buddha insists that you face reality, and your own body is a good place to begin. One thing you notice besides the fact that you have a lot of places in your body that don't feel good is that these unpleasant feeling change, they ebb and flow, twist and pang, getter a little better and a little worse. The very fact you're always having to cope with the way life changes is a form of dukkha.

Mental suffering is even worse: We are trapped in an endless cycle of desires. Even when we get what we want, it's never enough – we'll want something more, or better, or crave it repeatedly. Even worse, we have a hard time letting go of thoughts that make us sad or angry – there just seems to be something about our brains that wants to hang onto those things. One theory is that we've evolved so that our memory records bad experiences so we can avoid them in the future. I know that one reason I keep turning over bad situations in my mind is I think that I will be able to defend myself better – but it never seems to happen that way.

I find it sort of ridiculous sometimes: One one level, I'm really quite happy with my life. I love my job; I'm happy in my home life. My kids are grown, so the tough job of getting them through adolescence is done and I can just enjoy their company. Yet, I also have a long list of complaints – the aches and pains of middle age, stressful situations come up at work that I worry and stew about, regrets from the past pop up in my head for no reason whatsoever, I worry about money even though we're getting along fine and have everything we need. I run into people that irritate me, or conversely, I worry that I've offended somebody accidentally. My life is great, but I still suffer from pain, anger, and, fear, and most of it is completely needless and self-induced.

Part of Buddhist practice is that we have to be aware of our suffering, accept it, live with it, and learn to let go of those thoughts and desires that cause us to suffer. I've just been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kornfield's Bringing Home the Dharma, where he tells how his teacher in Thailand used to send his monks right into situations that would cause them the most stress: The monk who was afraid of the dark would have to go meditate in the forest at night; the one afraid of public speaking who be required to give an extemporaneous dharma talk, and so on. And the point isn't to be mean, or even to force them to get over the fear, but to be mindful of what the stress does to body and mind. No matter where you start in Buddhist practice, the lesson is always about mindfulness. You learn to be in the present moment, even when the present moment sucks the big one.

The lesson is also always about compassion as well, because we become aware that if life is difficult for us, we realize also difficult for everyone else to one degree or another, and if we can remember that, it ought to make us a little kinder.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


I've been working on this topic for a while – at times abandoning it because it can be a depressing and emotionally-fraught thing to think about. But, with everyone out there making New Year's resolutions, this seems like a good time to post on it.

The way temptation works is pretty similar, no matter what the object – food, drink, smoke, video games, shopping – whatever the particular individual's weaknesses are. The want pops up in the mind – and the closer and more available the object is, the more often it will pop up in the mind. And you say “No”. Good for you. Then, it pops up again. “No.” And again, “No” Then, there comes a point that unless the object is completely out of reach, you're gonna cave. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating says that the average person makes 200 decisions a day about food, including each of those times we say “No.” His whole system is built around making it easier for the idea to not pop up, and for you to say “No.” when it does. The point is that so-called “will power” isn't just a matter of dropping a bad habit once, or limiting it to a reasonable level once, it means you have to do it over and over, maybe for a lifetime. It's a really boring and bleak way to have to live.

So, eventually, we will cave in to our desires. It takes something big and powerful for the desire to go away. I was a smoker for years, since I was a teenager. I continued to smoke as it fell out of fashion and smokers were shuffled into unpleasant corners, then to the cold outdoors. I continued to smoke while doctors gave me lectures every time I or either one of the kids had to go in for an upper respiratory infection. I tried to quit several times, but the reward of being a non-smoker just wasn't worth the misery of the nicotine fit. What finally got me to quit was that the smoker's cough became so severe that it interfered with my ability to teach – and that, I couldn't stand. I switched to nicotine gum, and later, lozenges and stayed on those for years and only finally quit them when I couldn't afford nicotine any longer.

In some ways, addictions are easier to kick than other bad habits, because the physical craving does go away eventually. (Although I still miss nicotine from time to time.) Food is probably the most difficult, because it's not a matter of getting something “bad” out of your life, but a complex set of choices that often has consequences for your social life and even your closest relationships. When you stop eating (or drinking) with someone, it creates a distance -- which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. The alternative of sitting there with something permitted while everyone else indulges is uncomfortable, and probably not sustainable for long.

Other desires fall in between those two, but they still involve the same process of saying “No” to yourself repeatedly. You give yourself rules, limiting the tempting object to a certain time of day, or to a number of times a week. Or the ultimate in obsessive rule-making – the calorie count diet, which requires you to keep track of virtually every mouthful you eat. It does work to a certain extent, though; it's easier to postpone or limit a desired object than it is to deprive yourself forever. “I'll only drink after 7:00”; “I'll only spend $50.” “I can eat this and still be under my calorie limit.”

I don't think anybody has ever been successful at making changes when feeling bad about themselves. That's the reason shaming and nagging are so ineffective. It's better to start from a place of self-nurturing and to proceed with a commitment to mindfulness, rather than the tension of white knuckles and forcing yourself to “be good”. Will power works only in the short run; it's brittle and can be easily shattered. I don't know if metta and mindfulness are more effective as tools in reaching a specific goal, but I do know they are effective at creating more happiness in your life – which is pretty much the end of all those goals.