The Metabolism of Joy

I feel that I need to say a bit more about why I am so exhilarated by what I have been reading in Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories (not, as you know, by any means the first book that I have read on diet or the experience of being fat).  It is not strictly speaking because he is telling me something that I have never heard before.  Rather, it is more like the snowflake that starts the avalanche: I have been building up to this insight for several years now, and Taubes has put it all into perspective.

Maybe, indeed, French women don't get fat because they concentrate on eating only the freshest, most appealing foods only when they are hungry--but how do you deal with needing to eat those pastries and cookies and cakes not because you're hungry, but because you have learned that eating all those yummy sugars and starches makes you feel better, at least for a little bit?  Maybe, indeed, slim people are better at paying attention to the cues that their bodies give them about when they are hungry and when they are full--but what about the fits that you can feel coming on when it gets to be that time of the month?  Maybe, indeed, (reduced calorie) diets don't work (as I am sure now they don't)--but how do you magically start loving yourself when food has been both your bane and your most precious support?

It is not just that I never seemed to be able to count calories accurately enough or to have enough willpower not to eat when I am truly hungry.  It's that being thin had this mystical aura about it of being okay, being loved.  "If only," I used to think (and, of course, still do in the deepest, least rational parts of my soul), "if only I were thin, then everything in my life would be fine."  I would feel loved, cherished, special, important, beautiful, energetic, intelligent, well-dressed. Even better, I would not only feel loved, I would love myself because I would really and truly be myself, not this fat stranger who had somehow taken over my body.

As, somehow, she did when I was seven and again when I was fifteen and then again when I was nineteen and again when I was twenty-three and again when I was thirty-one and again when I was forty.  Because, you see, she wasn't always there.  Somehow, when I was eleven and again when I was sixteen and again when I was twenty-six and again when I was thirty-eight, she vanished and the real me emerged once again.  Not because I went on a diet (except when I was sixteen).  Simply because somehow, I have no idea how (at least, not at a metabolic level until now), my appetite changed, and I lost weight.  Magically, without dieting, I no longer ate the way that I had been before, and the weight simply fell off.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit.  I was, of course, conscious of the fact that I was losing weight at these times (I was weighing myself every day, after all).  And I could feel that something was different, but it wasn't so much in my body, as in my mood.  I was happy, and the weight simply went away.  When I was eleven, I think it was because I had finally made some friends, but it could also be because I had recently been moved into the advanced stream of classes in school and didn't feel like I had to apologize all of the time for being smart.  When I was sixteen, I was a senior in high school and looking forward to going off to college; I also had a boyfriend for a time.  When I was twenty-six, I had just met my now-husband and we were intoxicatingly, breathlessly in love (I lost thirty pounds that summer).  When I was thirty-eight, I had just gotten tenure, my first book was out, and I was looking forward to my second teaching leave.  And I had just started fencing (gently, maybe twice a week).  I lost thirty pounds plus that summer, too.  Without dieting.  Without counting a single calorie.  Simply by living on joy.

Which is somewhat hard to do when life hits you the other way.  I had yet another book in college that promised The Only Diet There Is is love.  That is, if you can love yourself (I did all the exercises), then you will eat right (no nutritional information here), and that's that.  Geneen Roth's advice is more practical: it's about feeling the feelings that you haven't allowed yourself to feel, some of which are going to be rather difficult.  But it still comes down to mood and its swings.  Q. How do you make yourself feel happy enough to lose weight?  A. You don't--unless you understand the way in which what you eat contributes to your mood.

As Taubes' discussion in Good Calories, Bad Calories has at long last for me.  Yes, I've read before about the role of insulin in metabolism, but nobody thus far whom I had read had explained it in such detail with so many historical examples which likewise made sense.  Particularly about the rise in sugar consumption over the course of the nineteenth century.  And the correlation between obesity and poverty as soon as populations started having access to the refined grains and sugars of the modern industrial diet.  "Taste and see," as the psalmist said, "that the Lord is sweet."  As are the cookies and cakes and caramel-covered popcorn that have been my habitual crutches when feeling low. 

Only now I appreciate that all those carbs were also the reason that I always felt so hungry, so unable to go without eating every few hours without suffering a major mood swing.  Remember I was also a vegetarian (more to come on that): I ate dairy and eggs, but no animal meat or fat.  Now that I've been eating meat (lots of it, all grass-fed and free-range, I still have my ethical concerns about what it means to eat meat), lo and behold, I do not feel hungry in quite the same way.  Nor, when I am hungry, do I look first to carbs to satisfy me.  I understand that they work well as appetizers (thus all that bread that they serve us in restaurants), but that I can eat and eat and eat of them and never feel satisfied, not in the way that I can after eating a steak.  (My dad, bless his carnivorous heart, is loving this, I know.)  Maybe, in fact, like Lierre Keith, part of the reason that I have suffered so much from depression is that I was low on fat.  And meat.  All I know now is that I actually feel nourished.  Plus, my tendons are finally starting to heal.

Have I lost weight?  I have no idea.  I feel better.  I look better when I look in the mirror.  I seem to have more energy at practice.   Which, if you think about it, is really the whole point.  Although I still would like to be thin(er).  It's just that it doesn't seem any more like a failure of will or self-love if I'm not.

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