My grandmother had what the family called a Fibber McGee room. If you don’t know this term, it is a reference to an old radio comedy series called Fibber McGee and Molly. In it there was the recurring gag of the closet, which was stuffed to bursting so the contents would spill out whenever the door was opened.
My grandmother saved many things she thought were potentially useful. Twine, wrapping paper to be re-used, buttons, cloth, thumbtacks, pencils . . . all just in case they were needed later.
The Fibber McGee room was the result of my grandmother having lived through the Great Depression. This economic trauma had a profound impact on her, and she saved anything that could possibly be useful in case something like that happened again. And she considered throwing usable things out as wasteful.
So, the result was a room stuffed to bursting with things that might be useful one day if the bottom ever fell out again. My grandmother had learned from difficult circumstances and was prepared in case similar circumstances ever arose again. A very solid survival instinct, really.
The Body as a Fibber McGee Room
My grandmother’s response to the Great Depression with a Fibber McGee room is a perfect analogy to how most human bodies respond to dieting.
Dieting (caloric or nutritional restriction for weight loss) is an unnatural behavior. You are deliberately replicating a famine. As far as your body is concerned, you are starving. Your body doesn’t care if the crops failed and you are starving, or you just aren’t eating and you are starving. It just understands you are starving. (Please understand this is still true even if you call your caloric restriction a “cleanse” or a “detox.”)
Caloric restriction signals a life or death matter from your body’s standpoint, and it acts accordingly. The reaction of the body is to perhaps lose weight in the short-term but to get very savvy about saving every possible ounce of energy in the long-term.
It learns the same lesson my grandmother learned from the Great Depression: hold on to everything that you might need someday in case serious deprivation happens again. If you go on another diet, the body learns the lesson all over again.
(Another kicker is the body also alters the hormones circulating in your body to support weight gain. Remember: starving is a life or death matter.)
This is why after the initial period of weight loss, many dieters plateau and eventually regain the weight and then some. This is human physiology. Our bodies are designed to give us the best chance of survival during fundamentally life-threatening situations like famines.
We all got a lesson in this process courtesy of the television show The Biggest Loser. A study of Season 8 contestants showed significant slowing of their metabolisms six years after their participation.
This is not a metabolic disorder. This is the body doing what it is designed to do: survive. It becomes a Fibber McGee room.
The conclusion is that dieting is actually a horrible strategy for losing weight for everyone but a small minority of people (which is why people up on the research question it as sound or reasonable medical advice).
What Can You Do Instead of Diet?
If you are asking yourself what you are supposed to do if you aren’t supposed to diet, you might consider some of the following.
If you have “failed” at a diet, let yourself off the hook. It wasn’t you. It was the diet. And I’m serious about this. Take at least a moment and give yourself a break. You may want to take longer than a moment if you have spent time beating yourself up for failing to lose or for regaining weight. You are entitled given how our society shames people who do not lose weight.
If you are concerned about your health, attend to your health rather than to your weight. No, losing weight and caring for your health aren’t the same thing. If you have been dieting for the alleged health benefits of weight loss, consider there are lots of things that improve your well-being immediately that do not require a change in body shape or size. These include moderate, enjoyable exercise, adequate amounts of sleep, a variety of nutritious foods, close and caring relationships, massage, meditation, and acupuncture. (You knew I was gonna slip that one in, right?) None of these depend on weight loss to have a positive impact on your body.
Learn more about what we know about health and weight from people who, you know, actually study it. The relationship between weight and health is turning out to be more complicated than was previously thought. Here are some resources you may find helpful:
Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight–and What We Can Do about It by Harriet Brown
Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health by Glenn A. Gaesser
Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon
A Different Way of Thinking
There are consequences for depriving your body of calories and/or nutrition, and they probably aren’t the ones you are after. In essence, a diet is like a Great Depression for your body, and the body starts stashing away for the future just like my grandmother learned to do.
Another possibility is to nourish your health and start to critically examine your beliefs and the evidence surrounding weight and healthy eating. What might it be like to enjoy your food, enjoy your body, and just get on with the rest of your life?
I would love to support you if you would like to explore a new way of relating to your body with the wisdom of Chinese medicine.
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