Forbidden Fruit

Every human being has a biological drive for 4 things…air, water, food, and sex. We’ve pretty much accepted the first two as givens, but ever since Eve took that bite out of an apple, we’ve struggled with our need for food and sex, coming up with all kinds of rules about who, what, when and how. I, for one, think its highly symbolic that such a powerful myth in our culture involves a woman eating a “forbidden fruit.” After all, we know the long fixation we’ve had with women and sex. Is it any surprise that we are also fixated on what she eats?

From Meer Images Photography

But just as with sex, these rules about eating get all tangled up in our psyches and come out a mish-mash of myths that are difficult to sort. And while we on the left have at least a bit more awareness about how seeing sex as a forbidden fruit is damaging, we seem to have bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the myths about eating. Of course, we’ve been aided in that process by alot of pseudo-science funded primarily by the $40 billion diet industry.

So what are these myths? The Center for Consumer Freedom has compiled a list of myths about obesity.

1. Obesity Kills 400,000 Americans a year

2. You Can’t Be Overweight and Healthy

3. Obesity Is a Disease

4. Overeating Is the Primary Cause of Obesity

5. Soda Causes Childhood Obesity

6. 64 Percent of Americans Are Overweight or Obese

7. Obesity Costs the US Economy $117 Billion Annually

The Center has also published a 28 page report debunking each myth and you can find the pdf file on the report here. But I’d like to take up the one that is most embedded in our culture, the one that says “overeating is the primary cause of obesity.” This one seems intuitive and has lodged itself so deep in our psyches that, even with evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to uproot.

One of the people working on debunking these myths is Gina Kolata, science writer for the NYT and author of Rethinking Thin. In an article that is an excerpt from her book titled Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall By the Wayside, she cites the work of Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania, who studied both adoptees and twins separated at birth. His conclusion:

The researchers concluded that 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.

Another person who writes regularly to debunk these myths is Susan Szwarc. In an article titled On Obesity, What the Researchers Didn’t Find she concludes:

The GUTS (Growing Up Today Study) and DONALD (Dortmund Nutritional Anthropometric Longitudinally Designed Study) join a profusion of other studies, both clinical and epidemiological, over the past fifty years demonstrating that fat children and adults as a population normally eat exactly the same as thin people. And regardless of their diets, children will still naturally grow up to be a wide range of heights and body weights. “Multiple researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have failed to find any meaningful or replicable differences in the caloric intake or eating patterns of the obese compared to the non-obese to explain obesity,” concluded David Garner, Ph.D. and Susan Wooley, Ph.D., for example, in their review of some 500 studies on weight in Clinical Psychology Review.

I imagine that most folks at this point would say that since obesity is a health problem, it doesn’t matter what the cause is, the cure is eating less and loosing weight. While I’ll leave the mixed reviews on the health risks for another day, the research is also quite clear that dieting is not only ineffective, it is a much bigger health risk than being overweight. It is a much more sensible approach to make sure you eat a balanced diet, preferably containing food that does not have any artificial elements to it. In this day and age you can actually have real eats delivered to your door so there’s no excuse. However, there are many who do not realize the true nature of obesity and often overlook the ill-effects of the same on their body. At the moment there are various therapies (like if you’re from Australia, you could opt for Hypnotherapy Melbourne) and medically prescribed medicines and diets that one can opt for, if only they are made aware of the negative consequences of obesity and other eating disorders.

Kolata addresses the ineffectiveness of dieting in the article cited above by outlining research that demonstrates how genetics dictates weight…when you eat more, metabolism increases to limit weight gain and when you eat less, it slows. But the more serious health implications were actually found way back in the 1940’s when Ancel Benjamin Keys, PhD. studied starvation.

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day — but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats.

The “starvation” portion of the study lasted six months and they followed the subjects for a year afterwards. His findings were astounding – both physically and psychologically. In terms of the physical, as the men lost weight, they found that their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength by about 10%, their metabolic rates declined by 40% and their heart volume shrank by about 20%. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological effects were even more dramatic:

The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed… ­They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things…Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.

In the year-long follow-up, here’s what they observed:

When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites and ate voraciously, some eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, yet never felt full…On average, the men regained to their original weights plus 10%. But the weight regain was largely as fat and their lean body mass recovered much more slowly. Their weights then plateaued despite being given unlimited food, before finally, about 9 months later, most were near their initial weights — giving scientists one of the first demonstrations that each body has a natural set point.

Dr. Keyes called the symptoms he observed “semistarvation neurosis.” And when I read about this study, it had a huge and profound impact on me. I recognized that from the time I was 15 until I was in my 40’s, I had lived this. Almost all of the symptoms were there as I bounced from one diet to the next, always gaining back the weight..and more. Not only living with these symptoms, but being told over and over again that if I just had enough will power, I could curb my eating and loose weight. It was my moral failure that kept me from being successful.

I lost 25 years of my life to this. And I’ll never know how it might have been different if I hadn’t had to battle back from all the depression, pain and shame. It took some grieving to get over that. But at least I’m grateful that I had the opportunity. And I’ll be damned if anyone will ever sell me on the idea of forbidden fruit again! Instead, I’ll follow the path that Mary Oliver spoke of in this excerpt from her poem “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.


Skip to comment form

  1. “Suddenly I See”

    Oh she makes me feel like I could be a tower

    A big strong tower

    She got the power to be

    The power to give

    The power to see

    Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)

    This is what I wanna be

    Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)

    Why the hell it means so much to me.

  2. …though I was hoping from the lead-in that it was going to be about sex…damnit…

  3. seems to be one of the last frontiers of social exclusion.

    I am not sure what I think. I stare at what people buy at the grocery store and I find myself turning into a combination of my mother/grandmother. They don’t buy actual food.

    Nor do people cook as much, citing being “too busy” when in reality one can say throw together a chicken stir fry in almost the same amount of time it takes to do the drive through thing. I learned to cook at a young age partially because I come from a family of decent cooks and also a consequence of growing up in a single parent home and disliking it when my mother made chicken liver and onion.

    I am very weirded out by the number of commercials on TV that focus on food. It would seem snack and eating has become a national hobby.

    Several people in my family struggle with weight problems and I need to lose a few so not trying to be self righteous.

  4. “home ec” because of the implications of sexual division and it was boring because my mother already taught me it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to add to middle school or high school.

    As for adding “healthy choices” to school cafeterias…. Ha ha very funny. The local newspaper publishes the school menu for the week for middle schoolers and high schoolers and most of it is garbage and I suspect mostly because it is cheap.

    • kj on November 16, 2008 at 17:54

    you already know that that particular poem by Mary Oliver is one of all-time top-o-the-heaps.   🙂

    • kj on November 16, 2008 at 17:57

    just because….

    Wild Geese

    by Mary Oliver

    You do not have to be good.

    You do not have to walk on your knees

    for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

    from Dream Work by Mary Oliver

    published by Atlantic Monthly Press

    © Mary Oliver

  5. dieting is damaging and does nothing but add to the problem, both physically, mentally and spiritually. I think nutritional information/education and access to affordable healthy food would help. We also live extremely sedentary lives and the human body was designed for movement. As a society we’ve lost the connection between food and the land,  and food as a source of well being. The real value of our food is long gone replaced by the over processed corporate grown unhealthy products were offered at the store. It’s now expensive to eat whole food.  

    I am blessed with a great metabolism and strangely thank my mother who while she did not buy junk food, was not interested in daily food preparation. Quivering meat and Wonderbread were stables. I must confess I’m a heath food nut, or as my kids say a crack pot. As a hippie I learned at an early age how to eat simply and healthy.  It was easy when surrounded by a community that rejected processed food and shared knowledge and gardening. I now live the real world, but have kept the principle of diet I learned.

    I do not feel superior or look down on overweight people,  I think there must be a way to help get our society to relearn that apples are more pleasurable when organic, and eaten not processed in a Mrs. Smiths pie. Whole grains are not to be shunned but are actually more tasty. I guess I’m saying that rather then dieting we need to reconnect to heathy eating as a sustainable enjoyable way to live. Hard when the images and stores all sell and pump sugar, white flower and lots o meat as the norm.    


    • kj on November 16, 2008 at 18:13

    have galloped on in the last four years.  some of it was comfort eating after the loss in 04, which in my case included rice, rice, pasta, pasta, and more rice and pasta.  but it’s mostly genetics and age.  

    i cook and eat healthy. we eat good fats. no salt, eggs whites with only a couple of yolks for color.  lots and lots of chicken and veggies.  garbanzo beans diced and laced with olive oil and spices, mixed with cooked chicken, is my standard lunch.  a splash of grape or pomegranate juice every day.  i quit cooking oatmeal, and ‘should’ start that up again.

    and i could stand to lose weight, mostly, i could stand to strengthen muscle and bone.  have recently noticed the dreaded upper belly fat, which is a sudden heart attack’s friend.  my mother died just a few years older than i am now, so i really could pay better attention.

    but pomegranate juice is expensive and quite dicey tasting.  organic veggies are expensive.  we’re all drowning, basically,  in the rat race, and i can’t fault anyone for grabbing a mickeyd’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

    and American’s were sold on the bullshit “low-fat” which of course meant “never-be-able-to-process-super-carbs” that is only now coming up as the crap it is.

  6.    News reports on the “obesity epidemic” have exploded in recent years, eclipsing coverage of other health issues including smoking. … Anyone with a Body Mass Index (BMI, weight in kilos divided by height in meters squared) over 25 is deemed “overweight.” … Almost 2/3 of the U.S. population today weighs “too much” today by these standards. Recently, several researchers have argued that, for the overwhelming majority of people, weight is a poor predictor of health and should be less of a public health focus. A recent study by scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that it is only after BMI reaches 35 that there is a meaningful increase in mortality, that people in the “overweight” category actually had the lowest rate of mortality. Still, such skeptical voices remain a minority perspective in public discussion of obesity. …

       This paper exploited a unique sample of: 1) scientific articles on weight and health; 2) press releases on those studies; and 3) and news reports on those same studies … We found that … the news media’s tendency to report more heavily on the most alarmist and individual-blaming scientific studies, and not simply how they frame individual stories, partly explains how the news dramatize and individualize science. … These findings support the contention that scientists work as “parajournalists” writing their stories  and especially the abstract  with journalists in mind. They then frame their research via press releases and interviews with journalists. A reward structure in which, all things being equal, alarmist studies are more likely to be covered in the media may make scientists even more prone to presenting their findings in the most dramatic light possible.

    Via Overcoming Bias.

    Beyond all the many issues with how we perceive health issues, I can’t help but to think that class issues permeate this subject as well.  American public concern about obesity begins directly at the moment in time where American wealth permitted people from lower economic classes to be at or above normal weight; previously, obesity was solely the province of the wealthy and was a socially popular body type.  American prosperity in the 1950s and 60s led directly to the emergence of Twiggy and other symbols of affluent thinness, and to the rise of public health concern about obesity.

Comments have been disabled.