Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.
Count Ugolino in Dante's Inferno, canto xxxiii, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Over the last few months, I have managed to lose a reasonable amount of weight, going from approx. 102 kg to approx. 88. I have been following the advice in John Walker's book The Hacker's Diet, which despite the title is a collection of really commonsense advice from which anyone may benefit. Although many of his ideas seem kind of obvious after you have read them, it is nevertheless very good that you had the opportunity to see them explicitly. (“Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him.” The Picture of Dorian Gray ch. 10.) And it's based on his personal experiences, too; you can see on page after page that it was really written by a person who has been through it all.
What I appreciate about Walker's book is that it says, in a very plain and forthright way, that to lose weight you must, on average and over a period of time, obtain fewer calories with your food than you consume for your bodily activity. This is all; everything else is just technical detail. In particular, this means that, at least as far as losing weight is concerned, you need not resort to eating different kinds of food than you have hitherto been accustomed to. This is one of the things that used to deter me from dieting; a “diet” is usually taken to mean something that upsets one's whole eating habits, introducing strange new kinds of food into one's life, usually things with horrid ingredients and undoubtedly equally horrid taste; it makes the whole thing far from appealing, and generally upsets one's life and habits in unacceptably many ways. Instead of doing this, a possible alternative is to stick to the food you have always been eating, just eat less of it. This is exactly what I'm doing now. As it turns out, although I have been overweight practically all my life, my weight has been stable for many years, which suggests that I wasn't really eating much more than my body needed. Only a moderate reduction in the amount of food I eat was therefore necessary to make me start losing weight. I used to eat two meals: breakfast and dinner. Now I gave up breakfast, as well as ice-cream after dinner.
I also took up a bit of exercise. I run from one end of the house to another for about half an hour in the morning, and I stopped changing buses when I go to work, which means that I have to walk about half an hour to get to work. I even do some sit-ups and push-ups every day. I've read somewhere that when losing weight, your body attempts to dismantle muscles first and fat afterwards, so unless you take exercise you will end up not only slim but completely emaciated. Besides, exercise also consumes some calories, though unfortunately not very many.
Frankly, I am a little disappointed with my progress in exercise. I still find push-ups fairly hard to do; the exercise doesn't seem to be making my arms any stronger. I had better success with the sit-ups, where I was originally completely exhausted after thirty, and now, a few months later, I can do twice as many in much less time. Well, I guess that these things take time. Maybe eventually the push-ups will start feeling easier too.
Incidentally, I've often read that one's body emits some addictive chemical during exercise, which makes people feel a kind of happiness after e.g. running for some time, and which makes them feel a physical need to repeat the exercise day after day. Well, I must say that I haven't experienced anything of that sort so far. Even after half an hour of running, and sometimes in fact I run for nearly an entire hour, but even after that I don't feel anything remotely resembling pleasure or happiness. Maybe I run too slowly? Or does the happiness-inducing chemical only start appearing after a longer period of time? Either way, right now I'm just about ready to start calling it all a big lie. Don't be in a hurry to ditch your dealer's phone number, folks. Thinking of getting high on running? You might want to think again.
Life is not important. Only calories are important.
One thing which made it somewhat easier for me to start this dieting process is that my life sucks anyway. If I start dieting, it will suck a bit more, but so what? It's not like it really makes a big difference anyway. Of course, this argument could also be turned around: if food is one of the few remaining pleasures in one's life, then the loss of it will be all the more keenly felt. But it hasn't really been so bad in my case.
Every day, I die a little more inside.
Hammer, Ghastly's Ghastly Comic, 19 Dec 2004
Fortunately, this dieting business isn't quite so difficult and tiresome as I feared it would be. During the day I chew on dried wild cherries and the occassional bite of dark chocolate to ward off the feelings of hunger. Then when dinner comes, I stuff myself with tomato salad which makes one feel full without providing too many calories. In fact this is the most inconvenient aspect of dieting for me: I'm just not the sort of person who would be used to eating small amounts of food. I like to eat quickly, I like to take big bites and gulp them down half-chewed, I get a genuinely physical pleasure in stuffing myself with food to the point when it starts to hurt (it can be an agony when dealing with those huge restaurant meals, but it's a pleasant sort of agony). None of this seems really possible if you are dieting. Your portions tend to be smaller and you try to make them last because you know it will be some time before you have a decent meal again. How I wish that some food existed which I could stuff myself with, without getting too many calories in the process. Oh, and it should taste reasonably well, too. In fact I'm not too picky when it comes to taste. I can't really tell the difference in taste between skimmed and non-skimmed milk, for example, or between low-fat and ordinary yoghurt (but in the latter case, I was disappointed to see that there was also almost no difference in calories!). I'm happy to drink fruit juice diluted with water to almost homeopathic proportions. However, I still wish that all this food processing and chemical industry discovered some way of making food taste good without all these annoying calories. Diet Coke is a case in point. It tastes the same as plain Coke (well, almost the same, to me at least), but while plain Coke has a huge amount of calories, Diet Coke has practically none. Apparently they managed to take out all the sugar or whatever calorie-bearing substances Coke contained, and substitute some chemical substances with the same taste but almost no calories. Why isn't this done for food as well? Just think of the potential! Zero-calorie bread, zero-calorie potatoes, etc. It would be a gold mine. I'm really disappointed that the big business hasn't taken up this opportunity yet, especially with the large numbers of people getting obsessed with dieting nowadays. Until somebody discovers something of this sort, I'll have to keep on stuffing myself with tomatoes and nibbling on my measly portions of real food in great frustration.
Incidentally, this discussion of portion sizes brings me to another pet peeve I have with many proposed diets. They suggest that you have five or even more “meals” per day. Meals my ass. As is plain to anybody, five meals a day would probably give you about twice as many calories as you need, so the “meals” they propose are nothing remotely resembling meals at all. They are mere travesties of meals. For these people, an apple and a cup of low-fat yoghurt constitute a meal. What rot! Of course this is not a meal. It is not even the semblance of a meal. It is not even a dessert. It is not even an appetizer. It is plain and simply nothing at all. Yoghurt should be eaten with plenty of honey, which hardly makes it suitable for dieting. As for apples, apples are food for rabbits. The same goes for most vegetables. Alas, it's mighty hard to diet on an attitude like that.
Another tangential point: some books, such as this one, suggest that some people manage to eat well and yet remain slim because they tend to eat good-quality food, from fresh ingredients etc., and eat slowly and with pleasure, which consequently enables them to eat less and to stop before they have had too much and got too many calories. It's a charming theory, but I don't quite see how I could incorporate it into my eating habits. Even supposing that genuinely good food is readily available (it in fact is, by my own humble standards), why would one want to eat just a moderate amount of it? Surely, if it is really good, it makes even more sense to eat lots of it than if it weren't so good; surely, merely because you enjoy eating it, this is by itself no reason to eat slowly, or to stop when you have merely had enough rather than only when you are full to the point of agony. No, I'm afraid this approach wouldn't work for me. It's so frustrating, so tantalizing, to have to nibble like a mouse while there is still enough food on your plate to suffice for a few big bites! Unfortunately, I haven't yet seen any books or web pages with advice on how to get used to eating slowly and in moderate quantities.
His neighbour's fatness makes the envious lean.
Horace's Epistle 1.2,
translated by John Conington
Alas, how wrong Horace was here! I am pathologically envious,
even by the standards
of my own people. If there had been any literal truth to Horace's
claim, I would be so thin as to be practically nonexistent.
No, I'm afraid that nowadays, when high-calorie food is cheap,
plentiful, and readily available (at least in industrialized countries),
having something (such as envy) gnaw on you is more likely to make you gnaw on
something in turn, usually on something with way too many calories
for your own good.
Fatmouse takes umbrage at the sight of your small torso and weak flaccid limbs.
Now that I'm getting a bit slimmer myself (though I'm still fat; I'll probably have to lose at least another ten kilos), I'm beginning to wonder whether indeed being slim has any advantages whatsoever. Walker's book that I mentioned at the beginning of this post contains some very sensible warnings about this, saying that one shouldn't expect one's new thinness to bring about miraculous changes in one's life. In fact, the only thing that can be said for slimness is that, on average, it's probably slightly healthier for you than being fat. That's about it. Expecting anything else is too unreliable and is bound to set one up for a disappointment. For example, one shouldn't expect one's self-esteem to improve, or expect to be able to interact with people more successfully, or to seem more attractive or more popular. And it is all quite true; I already clearly feel that my practically non-existing sense of self-esteem cannot be helped or improved by any change in appearance, whether brought about by a loss of weight or by anything else. Sometimes I think that losing some weight has helped my ridiculously hunched and stooping posture somewhat; there's less fat on my stomach pulling it down, so it's a bit easier to walk a bit more upright. But I find that, even if (perhaps with a bit of effort) I straighten my back and walk upright, my neck remains bent and my look downcast. This is surely caused by the above-mentioned lack of self-esteem, and cannot be helped by loss of weight. It's like the fable of the sheep who put on a tiger's skin but still froze with fear when it met a wolf.
But anyway, to go back to my previous point: now that I'm becoming a bit slimmer myself, I'm wondering whether (apart from the above-mentioned issues of health) there is anything really attractive or desirable about being slim. It turns out that one can be slim and yet be ugly, just like one can e.g. be young and yet be ugly. Of course these things are obvious, but sometimes one isn't quite clearly aware of all the obvious things. Nowadays there exists a fair amount of obsession about being slim; many people not only try to be slim but actually are, and many of them actually visit fitness studios and torture themselves on the implements available there to develop their muscles. And I can't help wondering: all these men, slim, muscular, posture perfectly upright, are they really that handsome? Is this what I want to look like? And I can't help feeling that the answer is in the negative. A few days ago I saw, in the most recent issue of the National Geographic, a photograph of a bunch of Colombian prisoners. Most seemed to lack shirts and had, of course, perfect chests with all the requisite muscles and not an ounce of excess fat. Of course: it's a poor country, with no excess of food, and the people do a lot of physical work, so they can't help being slim and muscular. But does this make them handsome and attractive? Hell no. Sure, it's true that having potbellies wouldn't exactly improve the guys on that picture, but neither did their lack of potbellies make them into ideals of appearance that one might aspire to. In short — and this may be due to my self-esteem problems, which make anything seem worthless as soon as it seems to be genuinely within my reach — although being slim and muscular seems to be mighty popular these days, and people are going to great trouble to become such, I cannot help wondering whether this is genuinely desirable; whether it is a goal genuinely worth aspiring to. All of those people — even though they are slim and muscular, many of them are still idiots, many are shallow (yes, yes, I know; so am I; except that they are merely shallow idiots, whereas I am a fat shallow idiot), many of them still aren't managing to do anything else than merely to somehow get along with their lives; by and large most of them are probably hardly people whom it would be reasonable to envy, and perhaps hardly people whom it would be reasonable to emulate. Yes, they are slim; so what? They still have to go to work every day, waste their time in pointless drudgery just like most other people, they still have to waste their time on solving all the life's petty problems. I just can't see how being slim could be all that much of a help in that. Therefore, I just can't see why being slim would be genuinely desirable (apart from the point of view of health). I see these slim, muscular people with an upright posture, people who spend five hours a week in the gym, and I ask myself whether I want to become one of them, and the answer is, again and again, no thanks.
In fact, sometimes I almost feel something similar to the sentiment of the Fatmouse quote above. Slim people — the really slim ones, especially if they have a slight build to boot — seem somehow puny and measly. Having been fat all my life, I almost couldn't help taking some sort of pleasure, almost some sort of pride, in my fatness. I was somehow glad that there was so much of me. Sometimes when I see a really slim person, with not an ounce of excess fat, wearing a tight-fitting shirt, I really almost feel kind of offended that this weakling (although I do of course realize that in reality, any reasonably fit slim person is of course much stronger than me), this fly dares to share a planet with me! Although I never had a fetish for fat people, I occasionally couldn't help feeling something resembling a delight when seeing, for example, a bunch of really fat Pacific Islanders. And deep down, I still agree strongly with that quote from Spartacus: “You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”
Well, anyway, I guess it's high time to finish this meandering post. I hope that I'll manage to stay on my diet until I lose some 10 or so more kilograms and finally get rid of the obvious pillows of fat that are still attached to my stomach and thighs. After that, I hope that I'll manage to keep on doing the same amount of exercise that I do now, which means that I'd be able to eat quite a bit more than now and yet have a stable weight. How I wish that I could stuff myself full to the point of agony on a regular basis...