Times Discovers Women Who Don't DietS

Today's New York Times "Thursday Styles" section has (another) article about how some people eschew dieting in favor of eating what they want — even if it doesn't make them thin.

Writer Mandy Katz's analysis of the zeitgeist is a little silly (is the show More to Love really an example of Fat Acceptance? Is Oprah, with her public confessions of "embarrassment" about her weight, really a paragon of Health At Every Size?), but the basic message of her article is worth repeating. "A loose alliance of therapists, scientists and others," she writes, believe,

that all people, "even" fat people, can eat whatever they want and, in the process, improve their physical and mental health and stabilize their weight. The aim is to behave as if you have reached your "goal weight" and to act on ambitions postponed while trying to become thin, everything from buying new clothes to changing careers. Regular exercise should be for fun, not for slimming.

It's not a new concept, as Katz acknowledges, but it's still a controversial one. Katz quotes Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, who says,

Virtually everyone who is overweight would be better off at a lower weight. There's been this misconception, fostered by the weight-is-beautiful groups, that weight doesn't matter. But the data are clear.

Leaving aside his dismissive tone, Willett doesn't mention how "everyone who is overweight" is supposed to get to "a lower weight" and stay there, probably because there's no reliable answer. Given the fact that trying to change your weight often leads to yo-yo dieting (Kathryn Griffith, interviewed in the article, has been through Weight Watchers 27 times), it's no wonder a variety of people have decided to just eat what they want already — that is, to choose "intuitive eating." A companion article, also by Katz, defines intuitive eating thus:

Intuitive eating involves returning to basic drives, dispensing with the notion of "good" or "bad" foods and rules about when to eat. Absent a fear of deprivation, the philosophy holds, one's hunger and taste cues - rather than cognitive rules - provide the most trustworthy guide toward balanced, healthy eating.

Some claim (this is Corinna Tomrley's critique of Susie Orbach) that this kind of eating will make you thin. But Kate Harding of Shapely Prose tells Katz that when she quit dieting,

I thought, ‘O.K., maybe I could be a size 10, and it won't be so bad.' As it turned out, I ended up as roughly an 18, which was exactly where I started.

Really quitting dieting may mean not just letting that Weight Watchers subscription lapse, but also giving up thinness as a goal. It's still incredibly difficult, because people like Willett (and every women's magazine ever) continue to insist that it must be everyone's goal. But psychologist and eating disorder specialist Deb Burgard says, "the pursuit of thinness as a dream is a place holder. It gets in the way of asking, ‘What is it I am dreaming of?' "

This may be true not just for individual dieters, but for our diet-obsessed society in general. Also in the Times, Roger Cohen writes about the recent study that shows that calorie-restricted monkeys live longer. The child of a primate expert, he examines a now-famous photo of two monkeys, Owen and Canto — and thinks Owen, the well-fed one, is probably happier. He writes,

It's the difference between the guy who got the marbleized rib-eye and the guy who got the oh-so-lean filet. Or between the guy who got a Château Grand Pontet St. Emilion with his brie and the guy who got water. As Edgar notes in King Lear, "Ripeness is all." You don't get to ripeness by eating apple peel for breakfast.

"When life extension supplants life quality as a goal," he continues, "you get the desolation of Canto the monkey." Long life and even health have become goals in themselves, and we seemed forgotten that a long healthy life is for something — enjoyment. When we take health, longevity, or thinness for that matter, as ends rather than means, we get our priorities screwed up. We think it's acceptable to tell people to starve themselves so that they can fit Willett's definition of what's healthy — or Vogue's definition of what's attractive. We'd be better off remembering that health is about being able to do things with your life — including eat — and that thinness is about, well what is in thinness about exactly? If you look at a women's magazine, it's about health, yes, but also attractiveness, happiness, and personal empowerment — all of which can be achieved at any size.

Tossing Out The Diet And Embracing The Fat [NYT]
To Eat Well, Be Instinctive [NYT]
The Meaning Of Life [NYT]