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'Tis the season... to diet!

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. ‘Tis the season... to diet. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, December:16–17.

December is once more upon us, and if this year follows the pattern of the last few holiday seasons, the turkey is not the only thing that's going to get stuffed.

My memories of Christmas past seem to revolve around primal displays of gluttony. Although the family never quite managed to finish off an entire bird in a single sitting, it was not for want of trying; in fact, I suspect that my grandfather, who was a restaurant supplier in Montreal before he retired, probably abused his contacts with the meat packing business to be sure he got the largest bird in the city. Sure, there were always piles of gifts in the living room—large piles, as the number of grandchildren was typically in double digits—but it was the dining room table that always lingers in my mind.

There was, of course, the guest of honor itself, lovingly roasted by my grandfather over the course of the afternoon. Stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes, and a variety of vegetables and desserts were courtesy of my grandmother, who kept our tummies primed with sweet and sour meatballs and other delicacies while we awaited the turkey. Then there was this game the children played with Gramps, who had a sweet tooth that was legendary in his part of the city. (He didn't get a Christmas thank-you card from Laura Secord [a large chain of chocolate shops], but I suspect that this was simply an omisssion on the part of her staff.) The game would begin with the arrival of the first grandchildren, and after a round of hugs had been exchanged and Gramps went back to the kitchen, the kids began a relentless hunt to find the hidden goodies. We gorged ourselves on what we found, leaving only enough room for the amount of dinner we would have to be permitted dessert afterwards. (Of course, Gramps was smarter than we realized. After the first or second flock of locusts had wiped out his carefully hoarded sweets, he began hiding some sacrificial caches of candy where they were sure to be discovered, thereby ensuring the safety of his main supply.)

Of course, the adults did their share of eating too, although the food was noticeably more nutritious. But the result was the same: a row of somnolent bodies packed to the gills with food. When I was younger, this wasn't so much of a problem, because I always had enough extra energy to burn off the calories. Now that I'm more sedentary, it takes a little more work to shed the extra weight, and from what I hear, the older family members have an even worse version of this problem. Inevitably, looser clothing was taken from the closets, mirrors were discretely avoided, and Weight Watchers books became a common sight before the New Year had even had time to remove its coat.

There was always something that bothered me about all of this, and it was that the ones who went on the diets were the same ones who spent the last few months preceding Christmas eating hard to "get in shape for Christmas". As I was an inquisitive tyke even back then, I couldn't help noticing that there was a distinct connection between the patterns of eating and the degree to which the bathroom scales were avoided. Now that I'm older and immeasurably wiser (be nice to me... it's Christmas!), I can come up with an explanation for this observation.

"Diet", my biology textbooks told me, is the pattern of eating adopted by an organism. You might find this definition in the dictionary, but my guess is that you'll find something more like this: "A diet is the eating habits one adopts when one's ordinary eating habits get out of hand." Just incidentally, this gives a strong hint as to why most people who "go on diets" inevitably regain the weight they lost while dieting: if your regular diet causes you to gain weight, then the only possible method of keeping your weight constant is to reduce your intake of calories or burn more calories. Permanently. For this reason, the only diets that work consistently in the long term are those that you can stick to (and enjoy) for the rest of your lifetime. Diets that require you to eat only one type of item, such as cottage cheese, are the worst approach to managing your weight. No one wants to eat only cottage cheese for the rest of their life, or even for the few months that the diet will take. Cheating is almost inevitable, and when the diet is over, back come the pounds. (In my opinion, a fitting reward for anyone who would abuse himself or herself in such a manner. Then again, I don't like cottage cheese.)

Of course, there is an actual danger in dieting: you may cause yourself to become malnourished. Most fad diets are deficient in vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which comes as no surprise when they are compared with the balanced diets recommended by doctors. Weight Watchers and similar diets, in which your intake of calories is reduced to a sensible degree but the variety of foods you can eat remains large and interesting, work well, and are also safe. If you select a diet, make sure you check it out with your doctor first. You should also expect a long haul if you have a lot of weight to lose. Most experts agree that it is physically dangerous to lose more than a certain amount of weight per month; this figure varies from person to person, but is on the order of 10 pounds. Starvation diets are unequivocally bad for you. (However, there is something to be said for occasional moderate fasting.)

What about exercise? Exercise as a method of weight reduction is vastly over-rated. I've been told, half seriously, by a knowledgable friend that you'd have to walk from St. John's [Newfoundland] to Vancouver to work off the calories in a single hot fudge sundae. Then there's the little-mentioned fact that exercise builds muscle, which is heavier per unit volume than fat, so exercise alone could actually make you gain weight. The main benefit of exercise, at least as far as weight loss goes, is that muscles consume more energy for maintenance than fat does, so building muscles can help you use up some of those extra calories you consumed. Moreover, any loss in fat that does occur from exercise is likely to be a long-term change. The reason for this is that the human body seems to have a "fat thermostat"... that is, everyone's body has a set level of fat at which it feels comfortable. Some experimental evidence suggests that dieting without changing the level on this thermostat causes your body to convert muscle tissue into energy rather than digesting fat. In this view, exercise can reset the thermostat so that the fat is digested instead of muscle.

What's the moral of this story? Simply this: the old advice that recommends "moderation in everything" is the path to follow. If you overdo it, as I expect to do over the holidays, you can expect to pay for it. Maybe I'm on the verge of coining a new phrase here... the "undiet": a pattern of eating that differs from your normal habits and that makes a return to those habits difficult. Enjoy your undiet this year!

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved