Unlearning 50+ Years of Health and Fitness Fads (Long post...but 50 years IS a long time!)
Tuesday, March 01, 2016
Over the last few days I have really enjoyed getting familiar with SparkPeople's Nutrition Tracker and the rigorously honest feedback of the weekly nutrition report. The information has caused me to reflect back over a lifetime of conflicting health and fitness trends that have shaped my thinking and behavior around diet and exercise...for better or worse.
I recall my first conversation about weight gain with my mom. I was probably only 6 or 7 and obesity was a lot less prevalent than today. Leaving a grocery store parking lot, out the car window I spotted a very large person and asked my mom "What makes people fat?" Her simplistic answer to me was "They eat too many starches." Her answer was certainly meant to be understandable to a young mind but also reflected the overall understanding of the time period: people were to blame for their own food choices, end of story. Absent from this viewpoint were the additional factors of lifestyle, economics, stress, emotions, and a gazillion other things that impact our food selections and metabolic health.
My first memory of exercise equipment is much funnier on it's surface, but it hinted at the growing obsession for a "magic bullet" to weight loss. Deep in the basement of the next-door neighbor kids, was one of those machines I don't even know the name of but I can only describe as a "jiggler". It looked kind of like a futuristic, shorter version of a scale in a doctor's office. The user would stand on the platform and a wide cloth belt would extend from the motor on top to around the user's waist. When you turned it on it would shake and vibrate to jiggle the bejeezus out of you, shaking away the fat and returning you to a girlish figure! I can still imagine the neighbor kids' mom using this contraption--she was a dead-ringer for a Diane Arbus photo subject: black bouffant, heavily penciled eyebrows, beauty mark and long, smoldering cigarette--and I just can't help but giggle.
The next piece of health advice seared into my memory came from my organic-gardening, nutrition-obsessed mom. At Sunday dinner, I was reaching for a piece of crispy, golden skin from a roasted chicken, and my mother blurted out (with more alarm than now seems warranted) "Don't eat that! It has cholesterol in it and cholesterol causes heart attacks!" While I understand her intention was to help me establish good eating habits for a lifetime, I had little risk of heart disease at the time as I was only eight years old. In fact, none of my older relatives had heart disease either despite some of them being in their 90's. But I learned to fear fat and cholesterol instantaneously.
Before I throw Mom under the bus, I should explain that my mother imparted a lifetime of healthy eating habits that have helped mitigate the effects of my other not-so-healthy choices. We would drive all the way across town to the health food store to buy something called "yoghurt" that wasn't yet sold in supermarkets. We bought wheat bread instead of white bread, natural peanut butter, and plain bran flakes (because raisin bran had too much sugar). Let me tell you how difficult it was to make a lunchtime trade in the school cafeteria if all you had to offer was peanut butter on whole wheat and an apple when everybody else was negotiating with PB&J, fluffer-nutter, a ring-ding, or even a soda.
Despite my pariah-status at snack- and lunch-time in school, the healthy habits mostly stuck. Sadly, all this healthy eating had a very unintended consequence, too. As soon as I was old enough to earn my own money, I realized I could buy and eat whatever I wanted. I exercised my newfound dietary independence by indulging my sugar cravings often. I remember the incredible shiver of joy I felt upon learning you could buy m&m's in 2lb. bags. I ended up a lentil & brown rice-eating, doughnut-binging contradiction. Having a young metabolism and a physically active lifestyle helped me to appear thin and healthy. Stupidly, I assumed my good luck would hold.
But then the 80's happened. Remember the 80's? Diet and fitness as marketable commodities exploded. Aerobics videos, gym memberships, diet fads too numerous to name, all for sale and promising to make you thin, beautiful and healthy. The primary diet advice at the time was fat is bad and will kill you. I was a young adult in this time period, and before the end of the decade I was a newlywed learning to cook. I felt so modern and smug cooking low-fat everything. I remember a diet strategy I learned from a bicycling magazine around that time that I seriously embraced for close to a year: count your grams of fat. That was it--stay under the suggested limit of fat grams and you would be healthy and fit. After a whole grain low-fat dinner, I would sit watching TV and eat a 1lb. bag of Good & Plenty (no fat)! I remember thinking "What does my mom know about health with her quaint 'too many starches' theory? Okay, she knew chicken skin would kill you, but I've REALLY figured out how to eat!"
As you can probably guess, eating pounds of no-fat sugary treats did not result in the healthy result I was expecting. Because of my young age and active lifestyle I managed to only put on enough weight to be mildly annoyed and embarrassed, but my "skinny fat" body began to send metabolic warning signs. Despite low-fat everything, I had high cholesterol in my late 20's. A few years later, gestational diabetes--having to count daily carbs was the first real wake-up call about my diet...even the healthy foods I ate were usually high in simple carbs. Once I delivered and had a normal blood sugar, I stopped thinking about how carb-heavy my diet was. Besides, I was busy with a new baby and work, and then finishing my degree (with a new baby and work), and then a new, stressful job. Sadly, exercise and my social contacts during this time fell by the wayside because they were the only things I could say no to (work, family, sleeping, and eating were not optional). At this point, my weight started creeping upward and I was unable to lose it.
I knew the answer to my problem didn't lie in popular trends that were either recognizably silly (shake weight!) or just not a good match to my lifestyle (Spartan racing), but I didn't really know what to do besides try to eat well and exercise which did not seem to make a difference. It is amazing how long I coasted along doing the same things and getting the same unsatisfactory results before I had an epiphany of sane realization. My sanity kicked in after two consecutive super stressful years at work led to a chain-reaction of circumstances that has left me fat. It started with slumping into a dangerously, deep depression for which I sought help. While waiting for new meds to kick in, and continuing all my life responsibilities, I found I had little energy to cook the healthy dinners I usually did or to exercise after work. I sought out what was easy and soothing: popcorn, cereal, ice cream, chocolate and my couch. For months I endured the side effect of insomnia, so even as my mood lifted, I still found myself still too exhausted to exercise or cook...repeat: popcorn, cereal, ice cream, chocolate and couch. When I exceeded my lifetime weight maximum (pregnant-diabetic-2-weeks-pas
t-due-date-delivery-day weight), I woke up.
Stress, isolation, sleep-deprivation, sedentary life, sugar-addiction and all the factors that led to my weight gain and bad health helped me realize I could not achieve real change as a do-it-yourselfer. I recognized the need to connect with others but knew I needed to do something immediately before summoning the courage to go join a yoga class (or some other thing that I probably, in the end, wouldn't do). I was searching on the internet for yoga and exercise sites when I stumbled across SparkPeople. I'm not a joiner of most things, but I decided to try it.
I'm glad I did. This is only day 4, but in only that short time I see obvious nutritional trends from my nutrition tracker: not enough protein, not enough fat, too many carbs every single day. My starchy, low-fat diet as a legacy of the years of marketed diet fads and conflicting nutritional advice from experts (including my mom) is only one factor leading to my weight gain. But it's one within my power to easily change. I am really grateful for SparkPeople and the tools they offer (for free!). I am hoping the honest feedback of the trackers, the supportive social connection, the sense of accountability I feel to others and the wealth of available resources on this site will keep it from being just another fitness fad and will instead be the source of help I need to get back on the right track to reclaim my health and wellness habits! Have a healthy day, everybody!