My urge to write often seems related to the me coming across two colliding ideas, or if not colliding, at least divergent ideas. In this case, I’ve recently started reading the excellent “The Paleo Coach” by Jason Seib, and also seen snippets/chunks of the series “The Men Who Made Us Thin” on the BBC, written and presented by Jacques Peretti.
Peretti’s TV series offers up some extraordinary insight, my favourite moment being when the former CFO of Weight Watchers in the United States almost gleefully pronounces that the company he spent 20 years working for was a good business model because their product didn’t work, but kept people coming back and paying for more. It was if, instead of being interviewed by a journalist, he was making a secret presentation to potential investors.
Overall, the series seems to be a sincere attempt to uncover why so many people are becoming obese, and what solutions, if any, are effective. Peretti points out a number of misleading generalisations, but makes plenty of his own in the process. The most striking thing for me in all that I saw was this comment: “Personally I think people should stop worrying about their weight and focus on being healthy and happy, at any size.” This seems to me to highlight the degree to which our thinking about health has been torn away from any grounding in evolutionary biology, and outright bizarre. If your brain and body are under the impression that your situation is so stressful, or that a time of famine is imminent, and that you need ample stores of fat, is there any possibility that you are healthy?
It’s widely accepted that being fat is unhealthy, yet it seems that the opposite extreme has become the definition of healthy. There is no middle ground – Fat is bad, ergo skinny is good. When skinny is patently unattainable (not to mention ‘unhealthy’) the response is to celebrate being too fat, as in “I’m happy the way I am.” There may be a case to say that, in some sections of the UK media, the pressure to be happy the way you are is nearly as great as the pressure to look like someone else a good deal smaller than you. The idea of being fat and fit is bound up somewhere in all of this. For Peretti, the fact that two obese women, who had some previous experience, could keep going in an aerobics class longer than he could was a sign that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the message seemed to be that nothing is truly effective in combating obesity long term – dieting doesn’t work, exercising doesn’t work, surgical intervention doesn’t work etc. Not great news for the concerned viewer who really wants to change themselves.
Then I picked up Jason Seib’s book, and was delighted. Having ‘Paleo’ in the title means I know he’s going to be talking about an ‘ancestral’ model for living now. In other words, taking the physical activity and nutrition of our ancestors as a template for how to live now. This is another way of saying that he uses evolutionary biology as the basis for his assertions about health and fitness (more of ‘health and fitness’ anon).
It fits that our concerns about our size and weight are related to how other people perceive us, or how attractive we are. Using that evolutionary model, we are wired to propagate our own genes, and mix them with other genes that are going to be resilient, robust etc. From that perspective, what attracts us to others is their appearance of health – “Does this person have what it takes to survive and flourish, and produce children that will do the same, in this adversarial world?” Just as excessive body fat won’t signal a promising mate, nor will being very skinny. In other words, as life has become easier and easier, we have developed some twisted ideas about what the roots of attraction are.
Seib argues that people who begin a diet, or programme of exercise, with aesthetic goals are largely bound to fail. That said, it’s not unreasonable to have a goal of fitting into clothes that you wore a couple of years back, or to want a smaller waist circumference, BUT weight per se is a red herring. You might change your body composition significantly, effectively exchanging stored fat for muscle mass, and not lose much weight. The whole notion of ‘losing weight’ is misguided in fact. Bathroom scales tell us next to nothing about how healthy we are. I know someone who has recently succeeded in losing weight, and I’m certain that, as well as shedding some body fat, she has also lost muscle mass. Did anyone’s health ever improve as they got weaker?
As an aside, Seib refers to research that indicates that yo-yo dieters become more efficient at storing body fat. In other words, if you get into a cycle of dieting to lose weight, and then regaining that weight, then you are likely to become progressively fatter. I can’t articulate how or why, but this is surely a natural response of the human body to the stress of deprivation and signalling the need for storing greater energy reserves.
The solution of “The Paleo Coach” is to have a goal of health, rather than a number that you read on the scale. If you take the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible then aesthetic goals will be achieved as a by-product – again, we’ve evolved to find the appearance of robust health desirable. This brings me back to the ‘health and fitness’ point. Under the heading of “What is fitness?” the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, CrossFit, again) contains this line: “We have observed that nearly every measurable value of health can be placed on a continuum that ranges from sickness to wellness to fitness.” This is to say, health and fitness are not separate – fitness is the optimum state of health. If we accept this idea then the notion of “happy and healthy at any size” is exposed as a nonsense.
Bathroom scales can tell you how heavy you are, they cannot tell you how healthy you are (I know there are some that purport to measure body fat but since one such scale told me that I was borderline morbidly obese I doubt their accuracy). Unless you’re wanting to go on, say, a theme park ride with a weight limitation, or wondering if the lift can cope with one more body in it, what you weigh is of minimal significance – your fitness will take care of your weight.
Oh, and don’t settle for wellness (“How are you?” “Oh, fair to middling.”) – is that really going to be good enough for you?