09 Aug

Continuing to Alter Course

Boiling beets and eggs

I commented not too long ago on my Facebook profile that I had lost 50 lbs since moving to England. In one sense, it’s been just adapting to the English way of life that I’ve set out for myself, and in another, it also has consisted of a lot of hard work. When we moved to Nottingham, I weighed about 250 pounds. Over the last two and a half years, I’ve lost about 20 pounds by just walking more, but at this point I hadn’t changed my eating habits much as far as portion size (although the constant injections of veggie burritos have been absent for a while, and those were huge). In the last 6 months, however, I have shed another 30 pounds thanks to inspiration from Tiana and her sister Shalina.

We’ve gone on this ’17-day diet’ thing, although we never bought the book, but have been following, more or less the regimen and the recipes that the books suggestions. In general we’ve found it to be quite different from most other things we’ve seen: it’s not gimmicky, doesn’t reduce to things like ‘only’ eating peanut butter or ‘only’ abstaining from carbs. It has a ton of ideas and isn’t interested (as far as I can tell) in also combining with a line of products (like Weight Watchers), but is really orientated toward inspiring one to just be healthy in a big-pictured way. (But like I said, I haven’t read the book and so have only gotten the inspiration and general planning mediated to us so this is not meant to be a judgement upon the book or diet.)

The biggest problem with diets, though, is that they are diets: we fool ourselves into thinking if we have the ‘diet’ version of the exact same things we already enjoy, then it’s okay. Like Coke? How about Diet Coke — or the stylish Coke Zero! Like a certain dish that tends to be overloaded with carbs? How about buying this Weight-watchers version, so that now we can be ‘guilt-free’ and have a ‘clean conscience’ about eating. Usually, however, these clean consciences remain haunted by the fact that our bodies are still pretty lazy and that really, we’ve gone from picking one thing off the shelf in the grocery store for that other thing three products over. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we can still enjoy what we want by making the minimum of real changes to our lives, as if it all boils down to consumer choice, as if it would kill us to be seen without that orange mocha frappaccino. I’ve even seen a ridiculous device (‘As Seen on TV’!) that you have to buy that you put on your plate that measures out the various portions of food — again, as if buying this one device will fool us into thinking that this was all that was needed to alter course.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has often commented upon this phenomenon, referring to the act of drinking caffeine-free diet Coke as drinking “the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect merely an envelope of a void” (The Fragile Absolute, p. 20). In other words, what we’re already consuming is a kind of pure enjoyment that doesn’t actually taste very good to begin with (yet we’re addicted to it), but we seem to actively fool ourselves by putting a ribbon on the proverbial pile of dung, by wrapping up this junky thing in “caffeine-free, diet” labels. Not to mention the fact that as Americans we tend to think that our Grandparents fought in World War II “for our freedoms” which include the freedom to consume and choose whatever we want, damnit! (Of course, the real reason for fighting in WWII–to defeat the Nazi’s and stop Japan from bombing us–seems to be lost, not to mention the fact that our Grandparents would rightly pour our bottles of diet Coke down the drain because they’re disgusting.) We get so caught up in thinking that the ultimate thing about existence is choice, let alone a kind of perverted consumer choice, that we feel entitled to all of our bad mistakes, as if making these stupid mistakes is a part of what it means to be American, or whatever.

Tongue-in-cheek paragraph to make a point: Did you choose to be born? Doubt it. You didn’t make the choice to be born, so in being born, you’re an enemy of freedom! Do you choose to go to sleep every night, or does your body take over ultimately over-riding your own choice to stay up? Your body is an enemy of freedom! Do you choose to urinate and defecate every day (or so, sometimes us enemies of freedom get constipated!), or is this an involuntary choice that you must ultimately succumb to, that you must ultimately do even though it interrupts your precious movies, your decisions about whether to buy this fragrance of perfume, or this cool tech gadget? You allow your American choice to be overcome by even your body? You. Commie. Scum. (Don’t let me get started on hiccups…)*

There’s multiple problems with all this nonsense. The first main one is that it denies the body and its needs and so in its ridiculous spirit of consumer choice it ultimately denies the body. There is much more that can be said about this, but the thing I really wanted to talk about in this post has more to do with the fleeting, temporary aspect of ‘diets’. A diet is instantly a non-commitment to do anything, really. Sure, you might lose a few pounds at the beginning, but the the main reason diets never ‘stick’, never remain is because we tell ourselves we’re “only on a diet,” as opposed to–and this is the point that I’m getting to–this is what I do now. Diets fail because they aren’t habits but are ways of conscience-cleansing. What really needs to take place is the constant forming of new habits over time. Call it a new lifestyle, or whatever, a new form of life, but everything has to change.

When I was vegan from 2001-2004 or so, I knew from the beginning that it would only be possible if there was no alternative in my head. The only real option was to do this 24/7. I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but I always grew tired and annoyed at everybody who said to me, “Oh, I could never do that.” “It’s too hard to give up cheese.” “I could never give up food X.” This is all utterly rubbish because, of course you can; you just don’t want to. People confuse their desires with necessity. (Note: I’m not a vegan anymore, so don’t read this as an apology for that, but about something more general.) I always found it easy to be a vegan, usually, and always thought the constant comments I got to be really odd. If this is just what I do now, then why the constant barrage of “oh, I could never do that.” I certainly did it, so why couldn’t they? I was never a vegan evangelist, but the reason I stuck with it for three to four years was because this was my lifestyle. Do runners run every day? Do gymnasts train? Don’t authors write and carpenters build stuff? If one is something, then there aren’t really many other options to not being that thing. It’s pretty difficult for me to be a cat. I’ve tried to be surly all day, but I’m just not that good at catching mice and moths for the 4 total hours I’m not sleeping.

In many ways I’m trying to create a mental space here, but it’s not a fake one, it’s something that bears fruit, I think. One has to stay with things, tarry with what it difficult (Plato says, “All that is beautiful is difficult,” [‘chalepa ta kala’, Greater Hippias 304e], or, think of the Indigo Girls’ “The Wood Song”). Tiana and I have, for example, taken to eating large salads nearly every day for lunch. This actually takes a lot of preparation, because we like our salads friggin’ tasty. We think beetroot (what America calls “beets,” hah!) are simply magic. So we buy beetroot from the market and then boil it in the evening so that we can cut it up and put it in our salads. We’ll boil eggs, or prepare turkey mince or fake turkey/chicken strips from our local Holland & Barretts. Then in the evenings or early mornings we’ll chop up cucumbers, spring onions, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and some nice green lettuce and/or baby spinach. We usually put in olive oil & balsamic vinaigrette for our dressing, but we’ll also use other lighter dressings. It’s kind of a lot of food in one sense, but it’s just tons of veggies (with a smidge of protein) and it’s delicious.

It does continue to be hard, though. We do sneak treats at times. There is a reason we’ve plateau’d at our current weights for a few months, but I have a feeling that at least plateau-ing takes work. I have been fluctuating between 200 and 204-5 pounds for a little while now. I don’t really know what my “ideal” weight is, and I don’t obsess over it, but I do think I still look a bit flabby, and if nothing else, I could use a bit more tone. One thing I haven’t done is more focused exercises. I do quite a bit of walking, to and from campus (mile each way), and to and from the Beeston high road; however, I think the next step is to do sit-ups and pushups and build some tone. I don’t think going to the gym is going to be a good use of my time (or the lack of money we have). There’s definitely some fine tuning that needs to be done.

And the thing is, in the end, limits actually are a part of what ‘freedom’ is–working within constraints. Freedom ultimately isn’t the freedom to choose from an infinite amount of choices, but what one does within certain limitations. We think ‘limitations’ are bad things, but as human, we’re already limited, but also, it’s the nature of creativity. Did Bach and Jimmy Hendrix moan over the fact that they could ‘only’ work within 12 semitones? As an example, I used to play around with electronic music a bit, but my problem was that I would sit for hours just playing with the infinite varieties of sounds that my soft-synths could make. But one time I actually gave myself some parameters: stick with one main instrument, make a melody, and then when you’re done, add any bells you want. When I did this, I had a half-way coherent little song. The same thing applies to actually eating healthy: we are told that we are limiting our choices, but the reality is that the creativity is now really beginning for the first time. There’s so much one can do with so few ingredients. (Just think of the myriad varieties of beer that use only four ingredients!) It’s all about how one combines them and what purpose they’re serving in the dish.

In one sense, meals are the ‘easy’ thing. What’s really hard, though, is snacking. One of the primary changes I’ve made since January was to replace most of my snack foods with just having some fruit. Initially it was clementine oranges, now it’s pears. Wonderfully tasty. And the thing is, even if you ‘indulge’ and have, say, three oranges, think about it: you just had three oranges. How is that even a bad thing? I mean, assuming your tongue is not bleeding from all the acid, you’ve had something amazing. No need to think about how much ‘Vitamin C’ (although it probably doesn’t hurt) because, as Michael Pollan reminds us in a very pithy manner, we should actually just “eat food.” Supplements can be helpful, and for some people they definitely come in handy, but it’s not a way to live by itself. Instead of taking a bunch of pills to get what you need, why not eat the actual foods that contain those things?

This has been long enough, but I’ve had some of these thoughts for a while now, and this is also a bit of an ‘open letter’ response to Shalina who asked me and Tiana how we’ve been doing with eating. Tiana has already responded personally over Skype, but I thought I’d flesh my own response out a bit more to work out my own thoughts a bit. For now, we’re maintaining, and it’s still a lot of work, and it takes planning, but if you have a friend or partner to do this with, it definitely helps. The important thing to remember is that so much of what we are bombarded with in the way of advertisements and even down the aisles of our own grocery stores are in fact false choices. Does this product only taste good? Then it could be dumb. And unhealthy, etc. This is the ‘Nothingness’ that Žižek refers to above.  The real choices are made creatively, look at the larger picture, and are choices that are continually made as an entire form of life–they are not merely ‘diets’. This is what we do now. That’s not meant to be pithy, but thus far, for the things that matter, it seems to me indicative of a form of life that bears fruit.

Links and a Note:

  • *Note: This is a ridiculous paragraph, but to be serious for a bit, obviously choice is important and crucial. Freedom in its most basic sense is what Christianity has bequeathed to us rather in the form not of pure ‘choice’ but of gift. We do not choose to be born, but it is a gift to be born and so it is something that, in order for it properly to be a gift, needs to be received. We receive this gift not by making any-damn-choice-we-want, but by attempting, prayerfully, to make the right choices, the most beautiful choices, and the most good ones.
  • Orange Mocha Frappaccino scene from Zoolander staring Brint, Meekus, and Rufus. Meekus, of course, is played by Alexander Skarsgård who is now well-known for his role as Eric Northman in the HBO series True Blood.
  • Meal Measure, “Manage Your Weight, One Portion at a Time.” (As Seen on TV!) This product is so stupid!
  • Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2000), chapter 3 entitled “Coke as objet petit a.” The first part of this chapter is reproduced in this lecture online: “The Superego and the Act: A Lecture by Slavoj Žižek.”
  • “The Wood Song,” by the Indigo Girls. Lyrics here.
  • Holland & Barrett stores
  • A short, simple, previous post I made about walking
  • My sister-in-law Shalina’s inspirational and helpful blog about her own journey: Sincerely Shalina

6 thoughts on “Continuing to Alter Course

  1. Eric you and Tiana have done a lot of hard work. You both look so great- its paid off. The great thing is you’ve sustained a steady increase of health and weight loss over years. It’s inspiring! I liked your comment about the stylish Coke Zero and the hiccups :) You’re a great writer. Hello to Tiana for me and a scratch for Andie.

  2. Sara, thanks! I should have made a confession that I still drink too much Coke Zero myself! I should be drinking more green tea.

  3. Really good post, and lots of things that I have been thinking of late.

    Re: Vitamin C, you excrete any you don’t use so I wouldn’t worry about it 😉 it’s pretty hard to overdose.

  4. Thanks, Tammy! Just a matter of making sure I don’t fry my tongue off with eating too much pineapple. Didn’t know that about Vitamin C — cool!

  5. Wow, Eric. Thank you for this! In a (good) way, I felt like I was being yelled at for my stupidity. I mean, you hit the nail on the head with the diet fad issue. It’s great to take inspiration from the choices that some diets suggest, but you’re right… starting a “diet” refers to a temporary change. This is exactly why I’m constantly failing. When I make one bad choice, I feel like a failure and give up completely. Rather, I should recognize that moment of weakness and continue on a healthy path. So much easier said than done! I’m definitely gonna come back and re-read this post.

  6. Shalina, no probs. I actually was writing this more about myself than anyone else, really. It’s me who drinks tons of Coke Zero. I honestly have no idea what your eating habits are (or anybody else’s besides Tiana’s), so this was just meant to be a what-I-found-bears-fruit kinda post. But obviously it’s inspired you in your own way.

    Also, while we have a tendency to see things in merely black-and-white, the reality is much more nuanced and on a continuum. If eating one ‘bad’ thing was our undoing, I’d be dead at age 7 or something. But our bodies continually adjust, respond, are flexible, plastic, tell us to stop eating sugar with ‘sugar highs’, etc. Your recent post really seems to understand this in viewing the big picture and the overall victory you’re winning even in light of certain small battles. I think that’s exactly the right way to keep thinking forward. Looking backward is for people who think looking like a pillar of salt is cool. And we know that won’t bring the boys (or girls) out to the yard.

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