The Psychology of Extremes; or, Why Diet Language is Making Us Sick

Get a cup of tea, guys. This is likely to be a long ‘un.

You ready?

Okay.

It’s been a bad week for international bullshit connoisseurs and my long-standing nemesis, the diet industry. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a moment to rub my hands together gleefully to prepare my typin’ fingers. Feel free to join in, if you feel so inclined.

Now: first up, and so I can publicise this a lil’ more than it has been – Dr. Pierre Dukan, of Dukan Diet fame, has been struck off the French medical register for peddling what can only be described as dangerously unhealthy quick fix quack-toolery that studies are increasingly suggesting causes kidney stones, and all sorts of other renal diseases. Oh, and also ’cause he wanted to fat shame kids.

One word, you guys: asshat.

In the interests of full disclosure – in darker times, I tried the Dukan Diet. My old housemate and I gave it a damned good shot, for about three weeks – which shows some serious willpower living an experience that I can only assume is a lil’ like going through a war. I lost about 20lbs, and gained bad breath, horrible skin, frizzy hair, fatigue, headaches – oh, and about 22lbs, shortly after. So I’d like to think that constitutes a very scientific real life study, on my part.

That news goes nicely with Wednesday’s BBC2 Horizon show, Sugar vs. Fat, which I’d strongly recommend you watch, ’cause it caused me to do some serious fistbumps. The gist was that some (quite cute – ahem) twin doctors each tried diets that cut out sugar (or, rather, carbs – which metabolise into sugars) and fat, respectively.

They concluded – after a whole bunch of tests – that cutting out either sugar or fat on the whole is a terrible idea. Both will make you sick, in different ways – so don’t do it.

Seriously. Don’t.

Their advice was thus: you’re more likely to stay healthy and live well if you minimise the amount of processed foods that you eat, and don’t buy into any ridiculous fad diets.

I hate to say I told you so. I really do. I’m British, after all. But come on guys – how long have Matt and I been saying things to that effect?

(It’s two years, FYI. That question ain’t rhetorical.)

Now, they also touched upon the fact that sugar and fat, combined in the right ratios, create that ‘taste sensation’ that makes us go all soft and gooey for the ol’ processed foods – like donuts, cookies, pizza, and so on – which is what makes them so compulsively damn delicious. This isn’t exactly news – and if you’re interested in this kind of thing I’d strongly recommend reading Dr. David Kessler’s ‘The End of Overeating’ which basically concludes:

Chronic exposure to highly palatable foods changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation. Over time a powerful drive for sugar, fat and salt competes with our conscious capacity to say no.

Let’s talk about that first word: chronic. I don’t believe in extreme dieting, and I don’t believe you should ever have to entirely cut out anything from your diet unless it’s medically advised (by a real doctor – not Monsieur Dukan). I do, however, believe – along with Dr. Kessler and Dr. Jepp, quoted in the Horizon documentary – that we live in a society that makes it incredibly difficult to avoid hyper-processed foods. It’s all too easy to choose unhealthy, quick options than healthy, nutritious ones – and it’s something you have to actively think about, and more often than not, plan in advance.

However.

I think there is a dangerous rhetoric around this well-intentioned logic that can do more harm than good – because it’s still buying into a psychology of extremes. The word ‘chronic’ means long-term, or habitual – so once in a while, treating yourself to something that’s got that sugar/fat combo won’t really do you any harm.

I’ve talked at length about the way our language around our bodies colours the way we see ourselves, and interact with the world around us – and I think there’s a lot to be said for the language we use around food and exercise, too.

We talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods; we ‘cut out’ food groups, or ‘never’ eat, say, processed foods – and when we do, we declare ourselves ‘failures’ and run headlong into a two month binge.

We injure ourselves diving headlong into workouts we found on Pinterest, and we try to go from couch potato to marathon runner, only to end up hobbling back to the couch.

And we’re disappointed when we only lose 2lbs a week – even though 2lbs a week can mean over 100lbs in a year. And – as I’ve said many times before – we ‘hate’ our bodies, because they ain’t perfect.

In other words, the pervasive language of extremes – the ‘all or nothing’ mentality that the diet industry thrives upon – is screwing us all out of a healthy lifestyle. And this, to me, is the ‘ticking timebomb’ nobody’s talking about.

I mean, another study published this week claimed that physical inactivity is on the rise in the UK – with inactivity defined as ‘less than 30 minutes of exercise per week.’ But I think we – culturally – need to redefine our idea of exercise. You don’t have to be doing a Biggest Loser style training session or running an ultra-marathon to be improving your health.

Hell – the catalyst for me losing half my body weight was walking, one painful step at a time. I’d still falter at what those Biggest Loser contestants go through, even now.

But unfortunately, as I’ve said many a time, extreme language is what makes it so attractive, and such an easy sell. Just like nobody ever sold a product (except maybe Ronseal) by saying ‘it does exactly what it should do, and that’s about it,’ there’s no hook to ‘everything in moderation.’ And the ‘wow’ factor in ‘I lost 130lbs over two years,’ is a lot less likely to draw in a person who’s stuck in diet-language than ‘I lost half my body weight in two months’ (unless we’re talking about me, obviously. I’m wow factor to the bone.

But moderation, and long-term good health, is something you’ve gotta take on trust. A happy, good life isn’t one of extremes (thank gawd) – it’s one of day-by-day positive choices, occasional treats and the million tiny lil’ boring, unglamorous, quietly imperfect things that make life worth living.

So don’t fall into the rhetoric of extremes, and please – for god’s sake – don’t diet. It ain’t worth it. Instead, make moderation cool. Exercise a lil’, eat things that make you feel good – and make happiness something that happens while you’re living, rather than after you’re perfect.

‘Cause chances are, the second you give up diet language, you’ll realise you’re already pretty damn perfect as you are.

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Comments
  • comment avatar lozette 3 February, 2014

    Do you have a good definition for what constitutes processed foods? It seems to be a bit of a nebulous term and I’m never quite sure what’s processed or not!

  • comment avatar Diane 22 February, 2014

    Excellent blog post. The sooner we give up this need for quick fixes and focus on commitment, focus and taking small steps towards our goal the better off we will be. Unfortunately, clever marketing will get people all the time. Fell for it myself for quite a few years, especially all of that “low fat” and “non-fat” stuff. Now I run a mile from anything that says that on the label.

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