My wife and I. We like each other. Most of the time. 2016
One of the things that I’ve struggled with my whole life is weight. Too much of it, actually. And I’m not alone. If you believe the statistics, in the U.S., some 36% or so of us are obese (more than 30% body fat) and two out of three of us are overweight. Even Stephen Hawking has weighed in. From the previously linked web page:
““We eat too much, and move too little,” he says. He also offers the solution, which we all already know is true: “More physical activity and a change in diet.”
Well, we kinda know that that solution is true. Except when it’s not. What we really know is that mental model of that solution is widely accepted. We’ve covered Stephen Hawking’s issues with aliens eating us in this piece. So it’s pretty fair to assume that we know that he’s speaking about weight loss from the same Authoritarian v-Meme that he talks about how us plumping up making us attractive for the space alien barbecue.
The reality of weight gain, however, is far more complex. And I’m here to tell you, it’s very poorly understood. It’s certainly not as simple as calories in/calories out. Here’s a statement from the same NIH page that had the weight statistics:
There is no single cause of all overweight and obesity. There is no single approach that can help prevent or treat overweight and obesity. Treatment may include a mix of behavioral treatment, diet, exercise, and sometimes weight-loss drugs. In some cases of extreme obesity, weight-loss surgery may be an option.1
That’s a rare admission from a Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme organization! Always great to see scientists/doctors displaying some profound metacognition. Though to be fair to the v-Memes, it’s no surprise that the good doctors at the NIH do interject their ultimate solution — weight-loss surgery — while not talking about anything else in this little blurb! You can run from those v-Memes, but you can’t hide.
So what does the v-Meme landscape look like in weight-loss land? Well, it’s pretty desolate. People are desperate for answers, for one, because being fat is pretty much a constant, reinflicting trauma in our society. There’s fat shaming, and skinny models, and ideals of femininity and all that. There’s the actual trauma of being fat — pre-diabetes, leading to diabetes, and clothes that don’t fit or look terrible. So you can assume that a lot of us that are carrying around more than a few extra pounds are deeply aware of it. And the trauma may grow so great, that we’re dissociated from our actions. Trauma is a mother-scratcher. Ask Daniel Siegel.
So how did I come to realize that there’s a v-Meme problem with all the usual weight loss nonsense? Well, once again, I’m just the crazy exception to the rule. I’m a fit fat guy. I love to ride my bicycle, and I’m a veteran whitewater junkie and Class V kayaker. I backpack, and have cruised the backcountry of multiple continents, from jungles to mountain peaks. I’ve also been told that I’m fat my whole life by my family, especially by my mother and father (that’s a book to unpack!) even though there were times when I was working out literally four hours/day, and feeling like Rambo. Grad school, I miss you. But now, I am fat — I’m 6’2″, and weigh 285 lbs. And while I keep up the bike riding (1500 miles or so last year) and go to the gym, it’s pretty clear from all trends, save for a bad divorce and a depressive loss of about 40 lbs. (that happened!) that I’m going to be a blue whale if I can’t figure this out. The good news is that I think I have. But that has to do with (you guessed it!) my v-Memes and my social network. And empathy.
But back to the v-Memes.
If you’re severely overweight, and you think you’re going to die if you don’t lose weight, I think it’s safe to assume you’re in a deeply traumatized state, and down there in the Survival v-Meme. That means you’re simply receptive to anything. You go to a doctor, who’s an Authority, and if they recommend Gastric Bypass Surgery, you’re going to go for it. You got there because, for some reason, you couldn’t avoid eating. And as the Legalistic Authoritarians in the crowd will tell you, you’re a fat hog because you just couldn’t put down the donuts. It’s a moral failing, and you deserve to be fat. Your lack of restraint got you there, and now they’re going to replumb your system to prevent you from indulging your fundamentally decadent personality. You deserve the muumuu you’re wearing.
And here’s the other ringer. You’re just like everyone else who IS fat. Except you’re worse. You pig. You don’t even get the lateral from the NIH in the eyes of society. But here’s the thing. That’s telling you more about the v-Memes of the society than your actual situation.
Moving up to Tribal/Magical, we see lots of interventions start appearing for your weight problem. They’re not all dubious, of course. Sometimes, herbal medicines work, and are the results of thousands of years of aggregated societal knowledge. Much of Chinese medicine is a great example of integrated information that can have amazing holistic effect. There are definitely advantages of 3000 years of stable culture, even if it’s narcissistic authoritarianism. Because long-term, systems will get to the truth and ground themselves to reality. Or they fail.
But more often, it’s stuff like this. Amanda Bacon sells magic in the form of Moon Dust, Moon Juice and such icks. If you’re desperate to lose weight, and you want to be as beautiful as this 34-year-old snake oil salesperson, who’s made millions and lives in a 4000 square foot home in L.A., then you can buy her stuff over the Internet.
Then there’s the Authoritarian/Legalistic niche. First, the Authoritarianism’s main problem, which is the way that these social structures maintain power and control is, as we’ve covered before, through suppression. Which leads too often to depression. Which, well, can certainly lead to overeating. Which then means you’re a worthless piece of flab. And your problems would go away if you’d just stop eating so much! Nothing like a little black-and-white dichotomous thinking to get your day going! Now put down that bear claw!!!
Moving up into the Legalistic v-Memes, we now see that there are simple algorithms that explain your problem. The calories you eat — easily calculable with a diet scale — are more than the calories you’re expending. Also easily calculable! There are tables for BMI, and one-size-fits-all! If you’d just buy a Fitbit, or some other new, infernal device, you could track this down to the last microjoule! Now, every 30 minutes, stand up and move around. I do want to pause, and say that there’s nothing wrong with many of these things at this v-Meme. But it’s still categorization and simple input/output relationships. Hard to represent the extremely complex and complicated cause-and-effect of the human body, of which only 10% is you. And the other 90% are those different biotic/bacterial systems that have co-evolved with us.
But if you’ve noticed — that would be you, you fat person! No one’s ever asked you how you feel.
And that right there is exactly what you’d expect out of all the v-Memes below the Trust Boundary. We’re externally defined, and statically belief-based. You’re a professional, you should know better. You just have to get with the program!
OK. It’s time for a little more personal background on me. When I was young — like four years old — my father would grab the back of my head and stuff food in my mouth. “You’re not going to starve like I almost did!” he would bellow. He was an immigrant from Iran, and he nearly died during the Great Depression from hunger. He’s since passed on, but he had a story of a time he was standing in a bread line, and a soldier behind him came forward to steal his loaf of bread. He put up a fight, and the soldier attempted to stuff him in the bread oven, which happened to be lit. His father, who was a colonel in the army, came out and beat the soldier to death in the streets. And my mother also nearly starved during the Depression. Her story (potentially apocryphal — gaslighting has a long history in my clan as well) was when her older brother offered to cut off his leg so they could eat it. Epigenetically, it doesn’t look good for me and weight loss. Compound that with big Scotch Irish genes from my mother’s side, add in a quarter of Swedish long sea voyage stock, and you’ve definitely got someone who could survive a cold dunking for a long time. Fat? You betcha!
And then when you add the fact my father would throw a large bag of Doritos at me for a treat, what can I say? I definitely COULD have a tendency to overeat. I COULD lack self-restraint. I obviously wasn’t counting calories when as a 14-year-old boy, I stuffed a bag of Doritos down my gullet.
Except my siblings aren’t fat. Just me. Huh.
But back to the v-Memes. Once we move up into the Performance/Communitarian space, there starts to be a little hope on the horizon for us fatties. We’re individuals now, with our own histories, including family histories. Yet at the same time, if you’re overweight, you’re interacting with medical hierarchies, who are all generating thinkers who are not interested in you as an individual. Empathy is not their gig. You might be symptoms, but we as a society have decided that, for the most part, being fat is a moral failing. And just like smoking, you just need to quit. You have a problem. Look at me and tell me about your experience, you say to the doctor.
Except they can’t. I just Googled up ‘percentage of doctors who are fat’ — and the number is 51%! According to the NPR article, doctors who are fat aren’t comfortable giving advice on how to start losing weight. Because, well, they’re in a hierarchical, status-based v-Meme of a social structure, and you’re supposed to feel embarrassed if you’re doling out health, and you turn out to be unhealthy. Our doctors are all failed moral actors as well! Talk about the Principle of Reinforcement!
So you turn to the nurses. More nurses are obese than doctors! 54%! At least this article acknowledges stress as a potential cause. Which would be expected, in the rigid hierarchies that dominate the medical profession. Nurses, more predisposed to be empathetic, are under these doctors, that are all about their titles. Not fair! Give me a brownie!
But back to our more hopeful, empathetic, data-driven space. People like myself are out there looking for answers, and being told the usual stuff. You don’t exercise. You don’t do the RIGHT kind of exercise. You’re a moral failure. And so on. And after a while, at least in my case, you just accept it. It’s out of your control. It’s must be large scale environmental toxins, like endocrine disruptors. Food additives. Not enough organic food. Something. That’s a large scale systemic problem, our whole food system, and there is likely evidence that this is part of the problem, as well. But overall, there are no answers you can use. And the deprivation of agency is crushing. You’re going to be fat forever. At least you can be comfortable in your own skin. See below.
Someone’s got to be the paterfamilias around here. 2007?
The wildest thing in my journey, though, is that no one ever asked me the simple, empathetic question: how do you feel when you’re hungry?
If any of my health care providers had asked me that question, I would have told them this:
- I feel light headed.
- I feel ravenous.
- I want to cram food (especially carbs) down my throat until I feel beyond full.
- It’s especially bad after exercise.
- I can eat all the celery in the world and it doesn’t make me feel any better.
The end conclusion I’d tell them is that I become non-functional when I get hungry. I feel miserable, and want to die. (Think Survival v-Meme here.) If I don’t have that Cheeto snack from the vending machine down the hall, I’m done.
The other interesting question no one ever asked me was this: what meal makes you last the longest without feeling hungry? I’d answer very simply: a sausage and eggs breakfast. I can last almost all day on a good breakfast.
Now while I’m a very connected, self-aware thinker when I slow down, the reality is that I, like all of us, spend most of our time down in one of the 1st Tier v-Memes. For me, I’m very Performance-oriented. If you come to me with a problem, the first thing that will cross my mind will be “How can we get this done?” That’s not, if you’ll note, particularly high on the emotional empathy scale. I look at the person asking the question, and since I do have a highly developed sense of rational empathy, I immediately assess their needs (I’ve been raising kids since I was 9 years old — that’s a whole ‘nother story!) and then execute. So when the time window opened in my schedule for another opportunity to do more exercise, which, as we’ve been told, should lead to more weight loss (even though it never has for me!) I got the bike schedule out and got on it. 100 miles/week. I love riding, so it’s not a big deal. I write on the bike.
First week, no weight loss. Maybe I’m building muscle, I don’t know. Second week, the same story. Hungry all the time, light-headed. All the usual. At least I can rationalize that beer I want to drink. Nothing tastes as good as a Bitburger at the end of a long day with exercise.
And then a strange thing happened. My wife, who is Taiwanese, who was leaving for Taiwan, lined up a new set of vitamins on the counter. A multi, of course, as well as some new D3 vitamins. Always happy to have a little more energy. And then one more — a magnesium supplement. I’d never taken that before. So as much to appease her as anything — Chinese people in general like talking about their health like Americans like talking about football — I took it.
And all the sudden, I wasn’t hungry any more. Or rather, I wasn’t hungry like that. I was just hungry. And I could manage it.
I’ve had lots of education, so I started thinking about the Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which states that “growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor).” Obviously, I was chemically imbalanced.
I turned to Facebook and friends. One of my chief collaborators, who is just a little younger than me, recommended this book. What’s interesting about this book is that the writer, Timothy Ferriss, has done a ton of research on nutrition and endocrinology, as well as run experiments on himself. That means multiple things, from a v-Meme perspective. One — from the Legalistic/Absolutistic perspective, is that reliability isn’t where you want it to be. It would be great to see multiple people. I think. To be fair, he has multiple case studies in the book.
Or maybe not. If I’m experiencing an exceptional problem, part of the problem with gaining reliability is that you’d want people to have the same metabolic characteristics. That’s the problem we have with understanding weight loss now. You put too many diverse individuals in the pool, and the real gems of insight are averaged out.
And when it comes to validity, reading the book, it seems like Ferriss is the real deal. He meticulously tracks what he does, and is very data-driven. And he is a white male, like myself, from Northern European stock. So there are at least some genetic similarities. He calls it a ‘slow carb’ diet, and it seems somewhat ketogenic in nature. Deprive the body of carbohydrates, and the body relearns to burn fat, as well as burn some ketones in your brain. You eat until you’re full, and you get to drink two glasses of wine per night. When I read that, I thought — I can live with that!
So I started. And returned to my social network. A lot of the usual advice came through, but one old friend told me about her insulin sensitivity, and how she had lost a large amount of weight. Now I have something to go back to the doctor’s and discuss. One of my younger cousins, Ben Pezeshki, who is also a physician, said the same thing in a different conversation. Reliability from the medical community. And on and on.
During the whole time, I’m also reflective about the process. What was also cool about cousin Dr. Ben Pezeshki (shout-out — Pezeshki means ‘Doctor’ in Farsi!) was that he was the first person to ever tell me that typical hunger pangs were relieved when the stomach was stretched. Hence the eating of celery as a good solution to hunger! Except for me. And by knowing that, I knew that this was NOT what I was feeling. And I could begin to understand myself as a larger system out of balance.
By bringing you this story, I’m harnessing my own development, and in writing, hoping to gain a little Bodhisattva elevation by helping others. Once you get out of the lower v-Memes, and into the world of high-trust relationships, you can start discussing about your experience. Which matters.
What’s the bottom line? If there’s a better illustration of how perspective and social structure shapes the opinions of those telling you how to lose weight, or why you’re fat in the first place, I can’t think of one. And if there’s one that isn’t more tangled up with who we, quite literally, are, it escapes me. One might say “well, I’m being empathetic if I don’t tell this person that they may have a larger problem (like thyroid imbalance, or insulin imbalance.) I can’t say. But everyone’s different. And it’s one of those large, wicked problems that are going to require some experimentation (shout out to Tim Ferriss for affixing a blood glucose monitor onto himself to get at some level of the truth!) and scaffolding. But I think a big first step towards getting to the answer would be for the medical profession to ask each other “so, how do you feel when you’re hungry?” Now that’s an empathetic ladder that would really help.
Postscript — I’m down 5 lbs. on a profoundly linear graph. For me, this has never happened — it’s been crazy 5 lb. fluctuations, never ending where I wanted. Let’s hope when I’m writing 30 days from now, I’m down 30. I think that’s a lot. But I’m keeping on it. And I’ll keep you informed!