Why 'Life Had To Have Been Designed' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence

“Just look around you. Look at life, and the universe, and everything. Doesn’t it seem like it had to have been designed?”

A lot of arguments for religion are very bad indeed. A lot of arguments for religion aren’t even arguments: they’re deflections, excuses for why the believer isn’t making an argument, bigoted insults, expressions of wishful thinking, complaints that atheists are mean bad people to even ask for an argument, heartfelt wishes that atheists would just shut up.

But some believers do take the question “Why do you believe in God?” seriously. Some believers don’t want to believe just out of blind faith or wishful thinking; they care about whether the things they believe are true, and they think that the question “What evidence do you have to support this belief?” is a valid one. And they think they have good answers for it. They think they have positive evidence for their spiritual beliefs, and they’re happy to explain that evidence and defend it.

The argument from design — the argument that life had to have been designed, because it just looks so much like it was designed — leads the list of these answers. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, the argument from design is the single most common reason that religious believers give for why they believe.

So since these people are taking atheists’ questions about their religion seriously, I want to return the favor, and take their religious answer seriously.

And I want to talk about why this is really, really not a good answer. At all. Even a little bit.


Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet: Why ‘Life Had To Have Been Designed’ Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why 'Life Had To Have Been Designed' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not Having a "Schism"

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

The atheist movement is not having a “schism.” We have differences and disagreements. But this is not new — it’s been true for as long as we’ve been around. And we see this diversity as a strength, not a weakness. We don’t need to adhere to the same dogma to be part of the same movement. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not Having a "Schism"

Why "Everything Has a Cause" is a Terrible Argument for God

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Blake god
“If there’s no God, then where did all this come from?”

I’ve written a fair amount about some of the more painfully bad arguments for religion and against atheism. I’ve written about the argument that religion is just a story, not meant to be taken literally… a story that still somehow makes people get very bent out of shape when atheists point out that it isn’t true. I’ve written about an assortment of arguments from wishful thinking, from the insulting (and irrelevant) argument that atheists don’t stay atheists when faced with death, to the baffling (and irrelevant) argument that religion gives us a needed feeling of mystery. I’ve written about the arguments that essentially just tell atheists to shut up. And I’ve written about the ways that, when asked what evidence they have for their religious beliefs, many believers simply deflect the question. Instead of saying, “This is why I believe what I do,” they offer a list of excuses for why they don’t have to show us any stinking evidence.

But that’s not true for all believers. When asked why they believe what they do, some believers take the question seriously and sincerely — and they try to answer it.

I want to return the favor. I want to look at some of these more earnest answers to the question, “Why do you believe in God?” I want to take them seriously, and assume that the people presenting them mean them sincerely. And I want to point out — in as much detail as I can in a single blog post — how they still don’t hold water. They’re less bad than a lot of arguments for God — at least they’re trying to actually answer the question about the evidence for god, instead of just treating it as stupid or meaningless or patently offensive. But in my years as an atheist writer, not one of them has made me stop and think, “Hm, that’s a poser.”

Today’s argument: But All Of This Had To Come From Somewhere! Otherwise known as the “First Cause” argument. “Things don’t just come out of nowhere,” the argument goes. “Everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, the entirety of physical existence itself had to have had a cause. Therefore, God exists.”

Yeah. See, there are some big problems with that argument.

For starters: If everything has to have a cause… then what caused God?

And if God can somehow have always existed or come into being out of nothing… then why can’t that be true of the universe?

I agree that the question “Where did the universe come from?” is baffling and intriguing. To say that physical existence either has been there forever or somehow popped into being from non-being… it does seem to call into question our basic understanding of cause and effect. It’s a legitimately tough question.

Circle of two arrows
But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer this question. The God hypothesis simply begs the question. It simply moves the question back a notch. It gives an answer to the question of where the universe came from (“God”)… but then we have to ask the exact same set of questions about God. “Where did he come from… and if he just always existed, how is that possible?” “Where did the universe come from” is a legitimately tough question… but “God is a terrible answer. No, it’s worse than that. It’s no answer at all.

What’s more, the “God did it” answer cuts off further inquiry into the question.

Many astronomers and astrophysicists think that the question “Where did the universe come from?” might someday be answerable. In fact, many of them strongly suspect that the answer may indeed call into question our basic understanding of cause and effect… in much the same way that Einstein’s theories called into question our basic understanding of matter and energy and space, and Galileo’s theories called into question our basic understanding of the structure of the universe. (For instance: One idea that’s being tossed around is that the beginning of the universe was the beginning, not only of matter and energy, but of space-time itself… and that it therefore makes no sense to talk about what happened “before” time itself began.) They think “Where did physical existence come from?” may be an answerable question… and they’re busily researching possible answers.

The “God did it” answer doesn’t do this. It doesn’t pose possible ways of investigating whether the God hypothesis might be the right answer to this question. It basically just says, “Everything has to have a cause… except God, who by definition can do anything.” It’s a non-answer. It insists that every question have a valid, comprehensible, cause- and- effect answer… except questions about God. It’s like a parent answering every question with, “Because I say so.” It’s what atheists call the “God of the gaps”: it takes any question about the physical world that’s currently unanswered by science, and says, “Oh, we don’t know the answer to that, therefore it must be God.” It’s like taking every empty space in the coloring book, and reflexively filling it in with a blue crayon.

There have been countless times throughout history when we thought that Phenomenon (X) had a supernatural cause. Must have had a supernatural cause. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural. Why the sun rises and sets; why people get sick; what causes the weather and the seasons; why children look like their parents; how the complex variety of life came into being; etc., etc., etc. We didn’t have a clue what caused it, or even the shadow of a clue… so we assumed it was God. (Or spirits, or demons, or whatever.)

And every single time that we eventually got a conclusive answer to the cause of Phenomenon (X), that answer has been entirely natural.

So why on earth would we assume that any currently unanswered question about physical existence — even a massive and baffling question like how it all came to exist in the first place — would eventually turn out to be caused by God? It’s never been the right answer before. Not even once. Why would we assume it’s the right answer this time?

Finally, and most importantly:

Slash circle
There is not a single scrap of evidence that the God hypothesis is true.

There is not a single scrap of evidence suggesting that the universe had a supernatural cause, or that there are any supernatural beings or forces affecting it in any way.

As my wife Ingrid likes to point out: The universe does not look like one in which an independent outside agent is intervening. The universe does not look like one in which miracles happen and physical laws are violated by someone who’s above these laws. The universe looks remarkably like a system of physical cause and effect: an unimaginably massive, intensely complex system of physical cause and effect, but physical cause and effect nonetheless. And every single attempt to demonstrate the existence of any supernatural force or entity affecting the universe — at least, every attempt using careful, rigorous, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, etc. scientific methods — has fallen flat on its face.

When it comes to the question of how the universe came into being, the only reason for thinking that “God” is the answer to this question is the assumption that “God” has to be the answer to this question — the assumption that no other answer to this question is possible. And again, throughout history, whenever this assumption has been made in the past, it’s been shown to be bullpucky. Countless phenomena once considered not only to have a supernatural cause, but to have no possible cause other than a supernatural one, have been shown to be entirely explainable by natural forces.

We have no reason to think the universe’s existence is any different.

If you have evidence showing that the universe was caused by a supernatural creator, I’d be interested in hearing it. But if your only reason for believing in a God who created the universe is, “There had to be a creator because… well, because there just has to be, because everything has to have been caused by something, because I can’t imagine a universe without something making it happen”… you’re going to have to find a better argument.

Why "Everything Has a Cause" is a Terrible Argument for God

Jesus H. Christ with Biscuits and Gravy

Last week, my mothers- in- law gave me a gravy boat for a late birthday present. (Three gravy boats, actually. Long story.)

This morning, Ingrid and I went out for breakfast, and brought home the leftover biscuits that we didn’t eat.

And this afternoon, when I got home from breakfast, I found a religious tract that had been slipped under our door.

Jesus H. Christ with biscuits and gravy.

Jesus h. christ with biscuits and gravy

Jesus H. Christ with Biscuits and Gravy

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion is a Bad Answer for the Unexplained

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“Science can’t explain X, therefore X must be supernatural” is a lousy argument for religion. It takes the empty spaces in a coloring book, and fills them all in with blue. Unexplained phenomenon have never been eventually explained by the supernatural; why would we assume “supernatural” is the best answer for anything we don’t understand? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion is a Bad Answer for the Unexplained

Penitence as a Perpetual Motion Machine

Fishnet logo
“I’m here to see Sister Catherine.”

“Yes. It’s nice to see you again, Mary. Please have a seat. Catherine has just finished up with another — visitor. Why don’t we take care of business now. She’ll be with you in a moment.”

Mary Elizabeth nods. She hands the woman behind the desk four hundred dollars in cash, and sits, keeping her coat on and her purse clutched in her lap. She tries not to look at the lobby: the garish red and black decor, the velveteen curtains tied back with steel chains, the worn spot on the black leather sofa. It makes it harder for her to think of this the way she needs to think of it. She sits, and stares at her knuckles gripping the handle of her purse, and waits.

“Mary Elizabeth. Please come in.”

Catherine has stepped into the lobby. She is dressed, as always for their meetings, in a modified modern habit: the knee-length gray dress, the heavy hose and sensible shoes, the small, unimposing wimple. She has carefully wiped all traces of makeup from her face.

She takes Mary Elizabeth by the hand, and leads her to the now-familiar room, the one fitted up like a schoolroom. An office or rectory would have been better, but this was the closest they had.

“Sit down, Mary. We have to have a difficult conversation.”


Thus begins the latest story on Fishnet, the erotic fiction magazine I edit. And this one is written by me: Penitence as a Perpetual Motion Machine, by yours truly, Greta Christina. To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.)

Please note: This is not a nice story. This story contains content that some people may find disturbing, including references to non-consensual sex. If you don’t like that sort of thing, please don’t read this story. But if you’re a sick fuck like me — enjoy!

Penitence as a Perpetual Motion Machine

Atheist Meme of the Day: Reality Trumps Wishful Thinking

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“People find religion comforting” is a terrible defense of religion. It treats what’s really true as less important than what we would like to be true. If you believe in God, don’t you care enough about the universe he supposedly created to want to understand the reality of it as best you can? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Reality Trumps Wishful Thinking

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not Narrow-Minded

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Most atheists say, “I don’t see any good evidence for God… but show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” So why are atheists seen as narrow-minded? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not Narrow-Minded

The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet

(This is Part 3 of a three-part series. You don’t have to read Part 1 or Part 2 to get this, but it doesn’t hurt.)

Scale 3
So how, exactly, have I been going about losing weight?

In the last 10 months, I’ve lost 50 pounds. And in the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about the process: the emotional ups and downs, the letting go of old neuroses and the adjustments to a whole set of new ones, the arguments I’ve been having in my head with the fat-positive movement and with the skeptics who are battling the fat-positive movement.

But I haven’t talked yet about how, exactly, I’ve been losing the weight. Which I realize is a little cruel of me. After all, when anyone talks about weight loss, that’s what most people want to know: “How did you do it?”

So here, at last, is the actual “diet” part of the Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet. It’s not a diet, per se; I’m not going to tell you that I eat twelve meals a day every two hours, or that I limit myself to six servings of pork a week, or that I only eat plankton and spelt and a vodka martini on the full moon. What I’m going to talk about is practical strategies that have helped me lose weight… and emotional/ psychological strategies that have helped me stay on track with the practical strategies.

I should spell out before I begin: None of this is meant to be prescriptive. I’m not an expert: I’m not a physiologist or a nutritionist or a researcher on weight loss. I’m a lay person who’s found some things that are working for me. Some of it may work for you. Take what you need; leave the rest; pay attention to the current research; talk to other people about what works for them.

(A little of this, by the way, is stuff I’ve written before. I apologize to regular readers for the repetition; but it seemed like a good idea to have it all in one place.)


I’m basing my weight-loss program on some relatively recent research done in the last few years. As anyone knows who follows the science on weight loss, losing weight and keeping it off is difficult and rare. Regardless of the specific weight loss plan — high-protein, low-protein, high-carb, low-carb, the Fruit, Bourbon, and Astroglide Diet, whatever — only about ten percent of people who try to lose weight succeed in doing so and in keeping it off for more than a year.

So some researchers decided to reverse engineer the process. Instead of asking, “Why don’t these weight loss plans work for most of the people who use them?”, the creators of the National Weight Control Registry asked, “What, if anything, do those ten percent of people have in common? Is there anything the success stories are all doing — regardless of which particular plan they’re following?”

The answer was “Yes.” And the things the success stories had in common turned out to be almost embarrassingly straightforward. They are:

Counting calories.
Keeping a food diary.
Measuring food.
Eating a low-fat diet.
Not skipping meals — in particular, not skipping breakfast.
Losing the weight slowly — no more than two pounds a week.
Exercising regularly.
Weighing yourself regularly.
Getting support from family and friends.
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change — not just pursuing weight loss as a one-time thing and then going back to old eating and exercise patterns, but continuing to do all these things even when the weight is lost.

It sounds so easy. The devil, if I believed in one, is in the details.

So let’s talk about the details — both the finer points of these basics, and some of the psychological and emotional tricks for keeping the basics on track.


Counting calories. This does not mean “counting calories” as an idiom for “trying to eat less.” This means literally counting calories — keeping track of the calories of everything you eat, and keeping those calories within a daily budget.

“Calories in, calories out” is something of an oversimplification of the mechanics of weight loss. For one thing, if it were true, crash diets would work — and they really, really don’t. But there’s a big chunk of truth to it. To lose weight, the main thing you have to do is take in fewer calories than you expend; to maintain weight, the main thing you have to do is take in the same amount of calories that you expend.

And every study I’ve seen or heard of shows that people — pretty much all people — are terrible at estimating how much they eat… both how large their portions are, and how calorically rich the foods they eat are. (When I started counting calories, I had some serious sticker shock about some of the foods I ate on a regular basis. Nuts? Bagels? Snickers Bars? Cornbread? Oh, my God! I had no idea! But the flip side of that is also true; donuts and chocolate chip cookies aren’t nearly as calorically rich as I’d have thought, and I incorporate them into my food budget on a fairly regular basis.) What’s more, studies show that fat people — which includes me — are worse at estimating their food intake than other people. Counting calories — not trying to reduce my calories, not trying to eat a low-calorie diet, but literally counting the damn things as they go into my mouth — is essential.

Which leads me to the next two parts:

Keeping a food diary. This serves the obvious function of being the way I count calories. But it serves some other functions as well. Mainly, it helps keep me conscious of what I’m eating. Writing down everything I eat makes me think carefully about whether I really want to eat it. It also gives me an objective picture of my eating habits, so my rationalizations and other cognitive errors don’t take over. And it helps me figure out my food budget. If I know I’m going to be having a rich dinner that night, I can do more than just make a hopeful attempt to eat a light breakfast and lunch — I can actually make it happen, by writing it all down. (This works on a weekly basis as well as a daily one; if I know I have a super-rich meal coming later that week, I’ll make an effort to go a little below my daily food budget for a couple/ few days beforehand, so I can eat the rich meal and not worry about it.)

And in a weird irony, keeping a food diary is a way of keeping myself from obsessing over food. In the past, when I was trying to do “natural” eating and just follow my “natural” hunger cues, I’d get seriously hung up on whether what I was eating was right for me or not, or whether I even was hungry for it. I have finally accepted that my “natural” appetites and hunger cues are idiots. They think that I’m living in the African savannah 100,000 years ago back when our species evolved, and that I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and that if I don’t eat this entire gazelle right now I might starve to death. The food diary keeps me much more sane. With the food diary, I plan what I’m going to eat; I write it down; I fit what I’m eating into my budget; I don’t eat what doesn’t fit. And then I forget about it, and go do something else.

I do my food diary on a free iPhone app called LoseIt, which I passionately love, since it does the math for me. But you can just write it down in a notebook (or get an electronic calorie counter). And the Internet makes this a lot easier, since you can look up the calorie count of virtually every food anyone has ever eaten in the history of the world.

Measuring cups and spoons
Measuring food. Like I said above: Studies consistently show that people are terrible at estimating how big their portion sizes are. Ask someone to tell you how many cups of cereal are in their bowl, how many teaspoons of butter are on their bread, and they — we — will give you answers ranging from too low to absurdly low. And again, fat people — including me — are worse at this than non-fat people.

So when I eat at home — and when I prepare my lunch to eat at work — I measure. Everything. My cereal, the milk on my cereal; my yogurt, the honey on my yogurt; my pasta, the sauce on my pasta, the Parmesan cheese on the sauce on my pasta.

It sounds like a hassle, I know. But I got used to it very quickly. And now that I’ve been doing this for almost a year, I’ve gotten better at estimating food quantities when I can’t measure (when I’m eating at a restaurant or at someone else’s house).

Eating a low fat diet. I’m not going to talk about this much, since I personally haven’t been paying much attention to it. The LoseIt iPhone app tracks nutrients like fat and fiber, as well as calories… and I’m finding that if I stay within my calorie budget and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, my fat intake stays pretty low just of its own accord. But the National Weight Control Registry research shows that this a low fat diet is a common factor of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off. So it’d be irresponsible for me to not at least mention it.

Skinners raisin bran
Not skipping meals. We have to eat. Really. Our bodies demand it. Skipping meals is a terrible, terrible way to lose weight. It’s a great way to screw up how our bodies process food, and how our brains process hunger. It’s a great way to make ourselves really hungry… and when we’re really hungry, we tend to make unhealthy food choices, like bingeing on rich or starchy food. It’s a great way to make ourselves miserable as well. And it’s not sustainable. (Skipping breakfast seems to be an especially bad idea — and it seems to be especially common.)

So I eat already. Regularly, throughout the day. Including breakfast. (See “Eating multiple small meals” below.)

Losing weight slowly. I’m not 100% sure about the physiology of this. Some researchers think that losing weight too fast shocks our bodies into thinking that they’re starving… and as a result, our bodies start to store fat more efficiently. Losing weight too fast may also fuck up our hunger triggers, making us more hungry. But whatever the reason, losing weight too fast is an excellent recipe for gaining it back again… and maybe gaining even more. With the exception of the morbidly obese, one to two pounds a week is as fast as weight loss should go.

I found this very demoralizing when I first started losing weight. “One to two pounds a week? That’s going to take forever!” But I was startled at how fast this really is. Two pounds a week means ten pounds in a little more than a month. And a weight loss of ten pounds is where most people start noticing a difference in how they look and feel.

Exercising regularly. This is the other side of “calories in, calories out.” The less you eat, the more weight you’ll lose (again, as long as you’re doing it slowly). But the more you exercise, the more weight you’ll also lose. And the more you exercise, the more you can eat.

An acquaintance of mine put this in a way that I love: “I like to eat — so I exercise a lot.” That’s me in a nutshell. I love to eat: I’m a sensualist, and food is one of the great sensual pleasures life has to offer. I’m willing to eat my rich treats less often and in smaller portions… but I’m not willing to eat nothing but brown rice and vegetables for the rest of my life. So I exercise.

I don’t give a shit what kind of exercise you do. Some weight control experts insist that you have to exercise for at least half an hour at a time to get any benefit, or that you have to do a combination of cardio and weight training, or that you have to exercise in the morning. Fuck that noise. The best exercise is the one that you’ll do. Baseball or ballroom dancing or bocce; walking or weightlifting or water polo. Find a physical activity you like to do, and do it.

That being said, there is something to be said for making exercise a daily or near-daily habit. There are almost certainly physiological reasons for this (in fact, daily exercise is very high indeed on the National Weight Control Registry’s list of stuff that successful weight losers have in common.). But for me, the main reason is psychological. When I was working out twice a week, it was much easier to convince myself that it was okay to blow it off. Now that I exercise every day (or almost every day — five or six days a week most weeks), it feels like more like brushing my teeth: a part of my daily routine, one that I don’t blow off unless there’s a really, really good reason.

Regular exercise does a whole lot more than just help me lose weight. It improves my energy, my mental focus, my sleep, my tendency towards depression, my libido. There are lots of excellent reasons to get regular exercise… even if you don’t lose weight. But it’s a pretty essential part of weight loss as well. (When I don’t feel like doing it, I always try to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Well, except for two or three times when I was seriously sleep-deprived. No matter how crummy I felt when I headed to the gym, I have always felt better afterwards.)

Digital scale
Weighing myself regularly. This is one of the basics that the research has shown to be essential. And in my experience, it makes perfect sense. If I just go by how I feel or how I look, I’m not necessarily going to notice if my weight starts creeping back up. It’s too easy to rationalize and fool myself. I need an external metric — one that doesn’t lie.

Once a week works really well for me. If I weighed myself every day, I’d get obsessed and freaked out over every minor meaningless fluctuation. Once a week keeps me aware of where my weight is and what its broad trends are, without freaking out over minor changes (see below). If I’ve gained weight for more than a couple weeks in a row, or if my weight loss has plateaued for more than a couple/ few weeks, that tells me that I need to change something: I need to dial down my calorie budget, or step up my exercise, or be more rigorous about keeping my food diary. (Or do some fucking cardio already instead of just doing my beloved weights all the time.)

Now, “once a week” is an area where I’m departing somewhat from what the research suggests. The research suggests that weighing yourself every day is correlated with successful weight loss and maintenance. But I know myself, and I know that it would take me to the bad place. So as long as what I’m doing is working, I’m not going to stress out over this one small modification to the program. And what the research most strongly suggests is that, however often you weigh yourself during weight loss, the important part is to keep doing it that often once you’re on maintenance. Consistency seems to be key.

Helping hands
Getting support from family and friends. I cannot emphasize this enough. Doing this with Ingrid has been what has made this possible. If you asked me which part of all this process I’d be willing to drop if I had to, the part where I talk about it with Ingrid would be at the absolute bottom of that list. I would sooner quit working out than quit talking about this with Ingrid. Having someone to strategize with, to process the emotional ups and downs with, to celebrate with when it’s working, to vent with when it sucks…it’s huge. I don’t know how I could do it without her.

It doesn’t have to be a spouse or a lover; it can be a friend or a family member or a support group. (Although some sort of support from people you live with is obviously a big, big help.) But getting support from other people who are also working on weight management seems to be one of the most central factors in doing it successfully. And it also helps to get support from the other people in your life who aren’t necessarily losing weight but are supporting you in your efforts. (If for no other reason, it helps to not have well-intentioned people pressing rich food on you because they don’t know that you’re trying not to eat it.)

Road ahead
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change. I can’t yet speak about this from experience. Everything I’ve read about weight control is that loss is the easy part; the hard part is maintaining the new weight. And I’m not there yet — I still have another 10 or 15 pounds to go before I’m done with this — so I can’t yet talk from experience about how to do this.

But according to the research I’ve seen, the key to maintenance is to keep up all these patterns once the weight is lost. The mistake that too many people make is to see weight loss as a one-time thing, something you get over with so you can get back to your old eating habits. That doesn’t work. I’m going to have to keep counting calories, keep measuring my food, keep up the food diary, keep exercising, keep weighing myself… for the rest of my life.

Again, I can’t speak about maintenance yet. (Assuming I do keep the weight off, I’ll give another update.) But I’m assuming that once I’ve reached my target weight, very little is going to change about how I manage my food and exercise and whatnot. My calorie budget will go up somewhat. That’s going to be the only practical difference.

So those are the fundamentals.

How do I make it work?

Talking to a health care provider first. If I’d tried to figure out for myself what a reasonable calorie budget was, I’d have had no idea where to even begin. But I have Kaiser, and Kaiser has an online weight management program that can give you, not only pointers on how to lose weight, but a reasonable, medical, evidence-based assessment of what a sane weight-loss goal is… and what a sane calorie budget is to reach that goal, based on your current weight and activity level. (BTW, that budget is going to change as you lose weight; more on that in a bit.) If you don’t have Kaiser, talk to your doctor or other evidence-based medical provider. (And if anyone tells you that your calorie budget should be less than 1,200 calories a day, head for the hills. Nobody should be eating less than 1,200 calories a day. As of this writing, my own daily calorie budget is 1,700.)

Eating multiple small meals. If I let myself get too hungry, I get hungry for richer food: fatty proteins, big carbs. But if I eat every couple of hours, an apple or some veggies and hummus will be enough to make me happy. So on a typical day, I have three decent-sized but not huge meals, and a whole bunch of little healthy snacks (fruit, raw veggies, whole wheat crackers, etc.) every couple of hours in between. (And usually one small not-so-healthy snack. But I’m getting to that.)

Small plates. There’s actual science behind this. (That is, if Food Detectives was telling the truth.) Apparently we feel fuller and more satisfied with the same amount of food if it’s served on a smaller plate. And the converse is true: whatever size plate we have, we tend to fill up. Ingrid and I almost never use dinner plates anymore; we almost always eat dinner on the little lunch plates. If it’s not enough and we’re still hungry in an hour, we can always get some more.

Which reminds me:

Waiting. This was hard to learn — but it’s huge, and it got a lot easier with time. If I’ve had one of my planned and budgeted meals, and I still feel hungry… I wait.

The part of our brains that tells us “That’s enough food” has a delay — about 20 minutes, the last time I read the research. (And while I don’t know this for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this is slower for fat people.) Like I wrote in Part 2: Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. Our appetites evolved to get us to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. Our appetites have not yet figured out that we live in an environment where food is easily and cheaply available on every street corner. Our appetites are dumb.

So if I’ve eaten what I’ve budgeted for, and I’m still hungry in 20 minutes, I wait. If I’m still hungry after that, I have a glass of water. If I’m still hungry after that… then I eat already. That’s not fake hunger, that’s real hunger, and I have a piece of fruit or something. But ninety percent of the time, waiting and water does the trick.

Avoiding hunger cues. Again, our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. We evolved, among other things, to get hungry whenever we see food. Which, in America, can easily be about forty times a day. (More if you count ads. See below.)

So when I’m at a party, I try not to sit within eyeshot and arm’s reach of the food table. When I’m at a buffet, I try to sit with my back to it. When I’m in any sort of place with an essentially unlimited supply of food, I browse first, looking over the options to see what I really want; I put the things I want on a small plate; and I go hang out somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.

Oh, and speaking of which:

Avoiding TV commercials. I almost never watch TV now without TiVoing it first and skipping the ads. There are food ads on TV approximately every seven seconds. Ads for foods that make the food industry rich — not foods that keep us healthy. Ads that are carefully designed to manipulate our hunger triggers and our psychology about food. So TiVo your TV if you can; reduce your TV watching if you can’t, and try to read or leave the room or something during the food ads.

In defense of food
Eat food that’s, you know, food. This is the Michael Pollan diet, and while it doesn’t work for weight loss — I still need to count calories — it does give me a good guideline as to what to fill that calorie budget with. Fruit; vegetables; meat; eggs; nuts; rice; beans; cheese; bread; tofu… you get the gist. None (or almost none) of what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances.” This is the food our bodies evolved to eat… and it’s the food that nourishes us and makes us feel satisfied.

If you’re a big lefty pinko freak like me, it may help to think of this as a political issue. Fat positivism may feel like a big “Fuck You” to body fascism… but eating healthy can feel like a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

Packing on muscle. If you can stand it, building muscle is one of the best things you can do to help lose weight. Muscle eats more calories than fat — so if you have more muscle mass, you’ll use up more calories just sleeping or watching TV.

If you hate weightlifting, don’t do it. I am, as I said, a huge advocate of doing whatever form of exercise you enjoy and will stick with. But if you can find a form of exercise that will put on muscle as well as burning calories, go for it. (And don’t assume you’ll hate weightlifting if you haven’t tried it. I’m having a ball with it. It has become one of the great sensual pleasures of my life.)

Not freaking out over minor fluctuations. I wish I’d realized this earlier in my weight loss program. A couple of weeks into it, I had a major upset when I gained a pound. I was like, “This is already so hard, and now I have to make it harder to make it work?” No. Not necessarily. Minor weight fluctuations are going to happen. Even if you magically ate the exact same amount of calories and expended the exact same amount of calories in exercise every single day of your life, your weight would still probably fluctuate a bit: depending on what time of day it is, how much water you’ve been drinking, how recently you went to the bathroom, your menstrual cycle if you have one.

I did an experiment a few months ago. When I was at the gym, I weighed myself at the beginning of my workout, and again at the end of it. And I found, very much to my surprise, that I’d gained half a pound. (I think it was the massive amount of water I drink when I work out.) If I can gain half a pound in an hour and a half workout, it makes no sense to get all worked up if I gain half a pound in a week. If I keep gaining half a pound week after week — or if I don’t lose anything week after week when I’m trying to lose — that’s something to pay attention to. I might need to step up my workouts or dial back my calorie budget. But if it just happens one week, I just need to keep doing what I’m doing… and see what happens.

Avoiding moral language about food. I make a conscious point of not saying that I’m “bad” when I eat high-calorie food, or talking about “wicked,” “sinful,” or “forbidden” food. (Or for that matter, “virtuous” food.) Human brains are weird: as soon as we’re told we can’t have something, that becomes the thing we want more than anything. Even if it’s us doing the telling. And since I do include treats in my eating program (see below), I don’t want to feel bad about them. I want to thoroughly enjoy them.

Instead, the metaphors Ingrid and I have been using are about money. We have food budgets. We call high-calorie foods expensive; low-calorie foods are cheap. I can spend or save my daily budget as I like: I can spend my calories on a donut if I’m willing to have a light lunch, or I can save my day’s calories if I know I’m going to have a rich dinner out.

I don’t think of high-calorie foods as a forbidden sin that I’m a bad person for wanting. I think of them as expensive luxuries that I can treat myself to if I save up.

Dynamo donuts
Not being a perfectionist. If I’d tried a weight-loss program where I never got to eat chocolate or butter or donuts (mmmm, donuts), I wouldn’t last a month. Even if I did last a month, I’d be so miserable that it wouldn’t be worth it. I’d be so obsessed with the things I couldn’t eat, I’d be thinking about them more than I if I actually ate them. For me, it’s just not sustainable in the long run.

So instead of saying, “I can never have butter or chocolate or donuts again,” I say, “I can have butter and chocolate and donuts if I can fit them into my food budget.” I can have butter if I have small portions; I can have chocolate if I had a fairly light dinner and have room in my food budget at the end of the day; I can have a donut if I’m willing to skip my end- of- the- day chocolate.

And once a month, I give myself a meal where I don’t count calories at all, and just eat whatever I want. Again: If I never let myself relax and just fucking eat already, I’d go nuts. Every time I counted calories, I’d be wishing that I didn’t have to, and longing for the old days when I wasn’t. But I know that I can forget the calories once a month… so it’s not that big a deal. (Twice a month in December. I let December be a maintenance month: as long as I didn’t gain weight, I wasn’t going to stress out if I didn’t lose any.)

Caution tape
Now, I will say that this is a tricky one. More than anything else I’m doing to manage my weight, it falls squarely into the This Works For Me But Doesn’t Work For Everybody category. Different people have very different psychologies/ hunger triggers/ etc. about food. Some people are more like me: they can enjoy rich, high-calorie foods as an occasional part of an overall balanced and healthy diet. For other people, this is too hard to manage: a small amount of high-calorie food will trigger out- of- control hunger and bingeing. These folks need to treat high-calorie food more the way recovering alcoholics treat booze. For them, the way I do it would be too hard. And the stuff I’d find impossible — refusing to eat even a small amount of rich food, ever — they find much easier.

But if you’re like me, and the thought of a life without butter and chocolate and donuts scarcely seems worth living, this is at least worth trying.

Breaking rocks
Breaking my goals up into chunks. When I first started losing weight, my health care provider told me that, for maximum good health, I should lose 60 pounds. That seemed completely impossible to me. So I broke that up. I said I’d lose 20 pounds… and see how it went, and re-evaluate.

It went great. It went faster and easier than I’d ever expected. So I kept going. But if I’d started out thinking that my goal was to lose 60 pounds, I think I would have gotten very discouraged, and might have even given up. 20 pounds seemed achievable. (And in fact, when I lost the 20 and decided to keep going, I again said “I’m going to lose another 20… and then re-assess.”)

Cracker on plate
Being extremely rigorous at first, and more relaxed as the process continued. When I first started counting calories, I was extremely rigorous about getting it exactly right. If it went in my mouth, it went in my food diary. If I couldn’t find the exact food I was eating in my calorie-counting app, I’d look it up on the Internet. If I went to a party, I’d calorie-count every single hors d’oeuvre I ate.

And I think that was the right thing to do. I needed to completely change my habits — not just the ways I ate, but the ways I thought about food and eating. I needed to think about food as something I always keep track of. And my instincts and guesses about how large a serving was, or how much was in a cup or an ounce or a tablespoon, were way, way off. Not to mention my instincts and guesses about how calorically expensive certain foods were.

Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m a little more relaxed about it. I have a better sense of what things cost, and I know which foods I really need to keep rigorous track of and which ones I can guesstimate. I’m more likely to do rough equivalents: if I can’t find sweet potato pie in my calorie counting app, I don’t bother to look it up on the Internet — I just call it pumpkin pie, and call it a day. I’m more likely to collapse all my hors’ d’oeuvres into one or two that are pretty similar. And I’m less likely to bother writing it down if I have just one bite of something.

Which is where weighing myself regularly comes in. See above. If I start gaining weight again, I’ll know that I’m slacking too much, and need to get more rigorous.

Framing weight loss as a stress management technique. According to everything I’ve read, one of the hardest thing about weight loss and weight management is maintaining it under stress. Stress can be an appetite trigger, making you physically hungry; it can make you want to eat comfort food, which tends to be high-calorie; and it can make you put things like exercise and calorie counting on the back burner, as a low priority.

I know all that’s so. But last year was among the most stressful in my memory. I won’t bore you with the details; suffice to say that it sucked beyond my powers of telling it. And I was still able to lose weight.

I was able to do it, I think, because forewarned is forearmed. I knew that stress could be a hunger trigger — so I learned to tell the difference between stress hunger and real hunger. And I was able to do it by reframing. Instead of saying, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year, I deserve those six donuts,” I said, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year — and weight loss is one of the few things in my life that’s working. It’s one of the few things I’m being successful at. It’s one of the few things that’s making me feel better. It’s one of the few things that I have some degree of control over.” And, of course, being in good health and eating a good diet and getting regular exercise are all excellent stress-management techniques. So I framed weight loss, not as something that was adding to my stress, but as something that was alleviating it.

Remembering other behavior changes I’ve successfully done. One of the things that kept me from trying to lose weight for so long was the depressing research about how rare it is. Behavior changes in general are extremely difficult for human beings to maintain… and weight loss involves multiple major behavior changes. I kept thinking, “Sheesh, only 10% of people who try to lose weight succeed. You have a better chance of quitting smoking or drinking or drugs, and staying quit, than you do of losing weight and keeping it off.”

But as Ingrid reminded me: I have quit smoking. I quit drinking caffeinated coffee. I quit eating pork (well, mostly). I started a writing regimen that I’ve stuck with. I learned to be a better housekeeper when Ingrid and I moved in together (and believe me, that was a major behavior change). Behavior change may be hard… but I seem to be someone who’s reasonably good at it. And in fact, many of the strategies I used to change those behaviors are ones I’ve applied to weight loss.

If you’ve made other behavior changes in your past, and have stuck with them… remember that. Use the memory to bolster your confidence. And think about what you did to make it work.

Reframing previous “failures” as practice. One of the things that made me reluctant to try weight loss was the simple fact that I’d tried it before, and failed. Which made it seem impossible.

But as everyone knows who’s studied behavior changes — from quitting smoking to quitting heroin to quitting leaving disgusting piles of dishes in the kitchen sink — setbacks and slips are often part of the process. Setbacks and slips are part of how we learn what does and doesn’t work. And the reality is that when I was trying to lose weight before, this new research about weight loss wasn’t available (or if it was, I didn’t know about it). So when I started this new weight loss program, I started reframing my previous failed attempts, not as evidence that weight loss was impossible, but as part of the process of learning what does and doesn’t work.

Making peace with the times that it’s hard. Even with all these strategies, there are times when this is hard. I have days when there’s rich, delicious food being offered to me that I hate to turn down. I have days when I don’t have much control over what I eat, and staying within my budget is extremely difficult. (Travelling especially can be a weight loss nightmare.) I have days when I realize that, no matter how much weight I lose, I’m still never going to look like the cultural ideal of female beauty, or even like my own personal ideal of it. I have days when my food budget just doesn’t make me feel full. (Rarely anymore, but I do occasionally have them.)

And in one of the cruelest ironies of weight loss: As you lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie budget. It takes fewer calories to maintain a lower body weight than it does to maintain a higher one. When I started, my daily calorie budget was about 1,850; it’s now just under 1,700. And every time I’ve had to dial down my budget, I’ve had a bad week or two, before my body and my hunger triggers adjusted to the new allotment. And that was especially true the very first time I had to dial down my budget — the first couple of weeks of the program.

But the bad times pass. I can move on from the birthday cake I’m not going to have… and enjoy the conversation I am having. I’ll have a day where I go over budget due to circumstances beyond my control… and then I’ll be back on my budget the next day. I’ll have a moment of regret over my body not being what I want it to be… and then I’ll get back into feeling how much pleasure I’m getting from it now. I’ll feel a little hungry for a week when I have to dial my calorie budget down… and then I’ll adjust, and be fine.

It can be hard.

But it gets easier.

At least, it does for me.


So how does this work for you? If you’ve lost weight successfully… what have you done to make it work? And if you’ve been unsuccessful at weight loss… what made it hard? And what do you think might make it easier if you try again?

The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet