My lunch time eating has been forever transformed by Gillian McKeith and BBC America. By slotting the highly addictive show You Are What You Eat in at around noon my time, I look twice at everything on my plate.
Each show follows the same format. The host, Gillian McKeith struts her blonde, slim, fashionable self into the homes of people who exhibit out of control eating habits. The video clip above is the standard show intro. Each person who participates provides a weekly food journal of what they eat for a week, which is read out by an announcer and then recreated on their dining room table.
Gillian tut-tuts her clients' poor eating habits, examines their physical health, obtains stool and blood samples, and then puts them on a diet to cure their various ailments. They are supposed to stick to the regimen for eight weeks, and then Gillian comes back to check the results. Gillian is hard core - after she gets rid of the table of shame (or at least, that's what I call it), she brings out a stunning array of fruits and veggies that will replace her clients' regular diets. Here, a client named Susan and her husband get a quick taste of Gillian's table:
After all is said and done, there's a recap of the old eating habits compared with the new ones, a discussion of old ailments (normally improving or cured by the time Gillian comes back around), and happy shots of the newly made over person, couple, or family showing off their new healthy habits.
I do have some issues with the program, for as healthy as some of its focuses are, it has a hefty dose of fat-shaming along with its nutritional messages. All the people are described initially as overweight and heading toward obesity, with an intense focus on their bodily functions. Gillian openly ridicules them for having bad breath and smelly feet (among other things - the poo segment is always painful to watch) which plays into existing stereotypes about people with a larger build.
Kate Harding wrote what I consider to be a cornerstone post for the fat acceptance movement. The piece, called "Don't You Realize Fat is Unhealthy" may as well be an FAQ for every person who has come through her site concern-trolling about excess weight being really, really bad.
In her post, she touches on a few key items that tend to come up every time weight, body image, and health are discussed (Kate has tons of links to back up her assertions, which can be found at the source post):
Even in some progressive circles - which are usually known for not hating entire groups of people because of their appearances, not thinking what other people do with their bodies is anybody's beeswax, and not uncritically accepting whatever moral panic the media tries to whip up, but wev. Fat is different! Don't you know there's an obesity epidemic? Don't you know that fat kills? Haven't you ever heard of Type 2 diabetes? Don't you realize how much money this is going to cost society down the line? Won't someone please think of the children?
So, before I start getting comments like that, I want to lay out ten principles that underlie pretty much everything I write about fat and health.
1. Weight itself is not a health problem, except in the most extreme cases (i.e., being underweight or so fat you're immobilized). In fact, fat people live longer than thin people and are more likely to survive cardiac events, and some studies have shown that fat can protect against "infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes." Yeah, you read that right: even the goddamned diabetes. Now, I'm not saying we should all go out and get fat for our health (which we wouldn't be able to do anyway, because no one knows how to make a naturally thin person fat any more than they know how to make a naturally fat person thin; see point 4), but I'm definitely saying obesity research is turning up surprising information all the time - much of which goes ignored by the media - and people who give a damn about critical thinking would be foolish to accept the party line on fat. Just because you've heard over and over and over that fat! kills! doesn't mean it's true. It just means that people in this culture really love saying it. [...]
2. Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle do cause health problems, in people of all sizes. This is why it's so fucking crucial to separate the concept of "obesity" from "eating crap and not exercising." The two are simply not synonymous - not even close - and it's not only incredibly offensive but dangerous for thin people to keep pretending that they are. There are thin people who eat crap and don't exercise - and are thus putting their health at risk - and there are fat people who treat their bodies very well but remain fat. Really truly.
3. What's more, those groups do not represent anomalies; no one has proven that fat people generally eat more or exercise less than thin people. Period. And believe me, they've tried. (Gina Kolata's new book, Rethinking Thin, is an outstanding source for more on that point.)
So McKeith's fat shaming can be a bit grating. The woman above, Susan? Gillian angrily smelled her feet.
However, this is still a series I recommend. Outside of the poking and prodding (sometimes literally, by Gillian) about excess fat, most of her claims are solidly pro-nutrition.
And do some of us ever need it.
Take Nick, one of You Are What You Eat's biggest success stories:
Nick's first words when confronted with his eating habits: "You're joking." But Nick isn't the only one who is confused about portion sizes and general nutritional value of what we eat. He is actually shocked when Gillian points out that he - at his size - is malnourished as most of the food he is consuming provides his body with nothing of value.
In addition, Gillian McKeith debunks a lot of myths about food, and talks about the outward signs of a poor diet. She's been able to correctly call when people are suffering from yeast infections, thrush, and other physical issues, just by looking at their cupboards. Remember Gillian's feet smelling from earlier? She also pointed out that Susan was consuming so much yeast, it was showing through her skin and on her toes and feet.
That poo testing? She does it to prove a point about fiber and how the body's systems actually work:
She also focuses on the healing aspects of food consumption, something most of us have forgotten in the crush of information about things like nutraceuticals.
Here she is explaining to Nick how everything she selected will help him cure one or more of his ailments:
The idea that food can influence health seems like a no-brainer, until we pause to consider how little we actually know about food in its most natural state. As Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma:
So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals" - or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the food "pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat.
How would adopting a different idea about food and health impact us? Just take a look at Nick:
While many times, our conversations around food and health always center weight, we would be far better served if we shifted to the idea of healthier habits and more conscious eating.
So, invasive questions, poo testing, and feet-sniffing aside, here's to hoping Gillian and crew head to US shores soon.