The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update

Doll tape measure
I promised I wouldn’t turn this into a diet blog, and I meant it. The thought of turning my beautiful atheist sex blog into a tedious daily update on what I’m eating and how much I weigh fills me with existential horror. It’s not going to happen.

But when I wrote my series a few months back about weight loss — and about the assorted issues it raises with feminism and skepticism and self-image and whatnot — a fair number of you seemed interested. And since I’ve recently hit a new milestone — as of this writing, I’ve lost 50 pounds — I thought I should give y’all an update.


Scale 1
I’ve been reading over the stuff I wrote when I was starting out with this. And I’m struck by how difficult this process was for me then… and how much easier it’s become. I actually feel bad that I might have frightened some people off from trying weight loss themselves, with all my talk of conflicted emotions and political battles and crying fits in grocery store parking lots. This has all gotten so much easier with time; when I read the stuff I wrote earlier on in the process, it seems almost alien.

I’m not going to say that this has been easy. But as I’ve gotten accustomed to it — as my body has adjusted, as my psychological strategies have become second nature, as calorie counting has become a habit — it’s gotten easier. It continues to get easier every week. And the benefits are greatly outweighing the costs — much more greatly than I’d anticipated — which makes sticking with it easier when it does get rough.

I don’t want to evangelize about weight loss, though, and I hope it doesn’t sound like I am. The cost- benefit analysis on this stuff is different for everybody, and what’s good for me isn’t good for the entire world. What I’m writing here — it’s all just what’s true for me. More on that in a bit.

The thing is — it’s hard to speak honestly and accurately about both the difficulty and the ease of weight loss. In a strange way, this has been both easier and harder than I’d expected. On the one hand, weight loss has required a major reworking of the way I structure my life: not just food, but all the things associated with food, things like friends and family, time management and money. I have to plan most of my meals ahead of time, and forego almost all impulse eating that comes my way. I’ve had to let my friends and family know about my new eating regimen, and I’ve had to ask them to take it into consideration when we eat together. (And even then I have to budget and be careful, since other people’s ideas of “eating light” are often very different from mine.) I have to treat parties where lots of food is available with kid gloves and careful planning. I have to structure my life so that I can get a good amount of exercise virtually every day (and this in a life where time is an enemy, the demon dog constantly yapping at my heels). I have to eat out rarely. Not to mention all the major re-thinking I’ve had to do about the politics and psychology and emotions of food and body size… re-thinking that’s involved some painful realizations about how much denial I was in about my body, for years.

And I’m one of the lucky ones, someone with lots of external factors making this process easier: supportive friends and family; a supportive partner who’s participating in this with me; living in a part of the world where healthy food is readily available; enough money to afford a gym membership.

On the other hand… once I got into a groove with this, it became so natural that I almost don’t have to think about it. The day to day of this has become no big deal. I count calories; I exercise a lot; I weigh myself regularly to make sure that what I’m doing is working. It’s second nature now. I’m almost embarrassed at how much of a stink I threw about it before I decided to just do it. And the difficult emotional stuff is smoothing out as time goes on.

This tricky balance — the weird balance of the difficulty and the ease of weight loss — is complicated by the fact that I’m talking to more than one demographic in this piece. To the people who are considering weight loss, or who’ve tried it and been discouraged, I think it’s important to say that this is do-able, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean a life of misery and deprivation and constant, depressing vigilance. And to the more extremist advocates of the fat-positive movement — the ones who insist that weight loss is never, ever, ever right for anybody — I want to get this message across even more clearly. This has not made my life a misery. This has made me neither neurotic nor physically ill. This has just not been that bad. (More on that in a bit.)

But to the people who deride fat people for being fat; to the people who dismissively say “Just eat less and exercise more — sheesh, how hard can it be?” without having any idea of just exactly how hard it is; to the people in the skeptical movement who fiercely battle (and rightly so, I’ll add) the fat-positive movement for their denialism of the health problems associated with being fat — but who don’t offer any acknowledgement of how difficult weight loss is, or any recognition of the social and economic factors that make it even harder than it has to be — it’s important to stress that this is not easy. This has been a hard row to hoe in many ways, both emotionally and practically. And again, I’m one of the lucky ones, with supportive circumstances that not everyone has.

But back to the update. By far the most important thing on my update: My knee is much, much better. I can’t even tell you. My bad knee is the main reason I decided to lose weight: I was having serious trouble climbing hills, and was having to haul myself up stairs by hanging onto banisters. I am now running up stairs. The improvement has been astonishing. (Physical therapy has helped immensely, too… but even before I started PT, the weight loss was improving my pain and my mobility by leaps and bounds.)

There’ve been other health benefits as well — benefits I hadn’t been expecting. My feet, for instance. I didn’t realize how much my feet hurt until I noticed that they weren’t hurting any more. I used to have to wear shoes all the time; I couldn’t go barefoot even for ten minutes without my feet hurting. And I couldn’t clean the house for more than an hour without having to sit down for ten minutes. No more. I can now go barefoot (yay!), and I can now clean the house for hours without stopping (less exciting, but at least I get it over with sooner, and my feet aren’t killing me at the end of it).

My asthma is better, too. I had no idea that was going to happen. It made sense once my doctor explained it — my lungs don’t have to work as hard just to get me around — but it was a lovely surprise. And my overall energy and stamina are way, way higher. I don’t know if that’s the weight loss per se and having less bulk to carry around, or whether it’s simply a result of exercising more and eating more nutritious food… but since the two are directly related, I’m not sure it matters.

Hand mirror
And I’ll admit that I’m happier with my appearance. That wasn’t the reason I started losing weight, and it’s still not the main reason… but I’m going to be honest here, and say that I do think I look better now. Healthier, mostly. More energetic, more libidinous. And more comfortable in my skin. For the record: I think plenty of fat women look great, I think there are fat women who look sexy and delicious and exactly the way they’re supposed to look. But looking back, and being as honest with myself as I can be? I don’t really think I was one of them. When I was younger, maybe… but not for some years now.

It’s not like I think there are objective abstract standards of attractiveness. Of course beauty is subjective, and of course a huge amount of attractiveness has to do with confidence and self-love. But even purely according to my own personal subjective standards, I don’t think I’ve been an attractive fat person for some years now. I had some degree of confidence and self-love… but it was interlaced with a sizable portion of unhappiness and ill health and disconnection from my body — and a great heaping portion of denial and cognitive dissonance about how unhappy and unhealthy and disconnected from my body I was. Some of my confidence and self-love was real… but a chunk of it was bravado, and me lying to myself. I now feel more like myself, more comfortable in my skin. And I’m happier now with how my clothes fit, and how many more options I have for what to wear. There were only so many kinds of clothes that looked good on me when I was fat… and that range got narrower and narrower as I got older. (I’m wearing jeans again, for the first time in over a decade. I love jeans.) This pleasure in my new appearance is complicated… but I’m not going to pretend that it’s not there.

All of which leads me to some of the stranger emotional stuff about this.

(Tomorrow: The stranger emotional stuff about this.)

The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update

An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement

Dear Fat-Positive Movement:

Here is a fat-positive manifesto I could live with.

We need to make major changes in how our society views weight, fatness, and fat people. Our society has an excessively narrow definition of what constitutes an acceptable body type, and it’s a definition that is unattainable for the overwhelming majority of people. People can be healthy, happy, and attractive at a variety of sizes; the standard medical definition of a healthy weight range is almost certainly too narrow, and some evidence suggests that it may be too low. Furthermore, many popular weight loss programs are grossly unhealthy, both physically and psychologically, and are aimed, not at maintaining good health, but at an almost certainly fruitless attempt to attain the cultural ideal of beauty. And many people who try to lose weight have no earthly medical reason for doing so.

Shallow hal
We demand that people be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their size. We demand an end to job discrimination based on size. We oppose the moral outrage that is commonly aimed at fat people, and the persistent media representations of fat people as objects of disgust and ridicule. And we demand an end to medical discrimination based on size: we expect doctors to treat fat people with respect; to discuss weight loss with fat people as one option among many instead of the one course of action that must be pursued before any other; and to treat non- weight- related conditions equivalently for all patients, without regard to size.

Weight loss is both very difficult and very uncommon, especially in the long term. And we don’t yet know why it’s so difficult, or why a few people are able to do it while most people are not. We therefore think it’s completely valid for a fat person to decide that weight loss isn’t where they want to put their time and energy. Many of the health risks associated with being fat diminish significantly when people eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise — even if they don’t lose weight. We therefore encourage fat people to be as healthy as they can be: to eat healthy diets and get regular vigorous exercise, even if they don’t lose weight doing so. And we encourage people who do choose to lose weight to do so in a healthy, sustainable way.

We understand that there are health risks associated with being fat. There are health risks associated with many things — things we have control over, such as playing rugby; things we have no control over, such as carrying the breast cancer gene; and things we have limited control over to differing degrees, such as where we live. We think it is reasonable for people to decide for themselves whether they are willing to live with these risks, or whether they want to take action to reduce those risks — whether that’s by quitting rugby, having a pre-emptive mastectomy, moving, or losing weight. Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.

Fast food nation
We do understand that fatness is a health concern — and we think it should be treated as such, as a public health issue and not as a moral failing or a character flaw. We support social and political changes in the way our society is structured around food and exercise — changes that will improve the health of people of all sizes. We support bike lanes, cities and neighborhoods designed to be walked in, farmers’ markets, accuracy in food labeling, laws prohibiting wild and unsubstantiated claims in the advertising of weight-loss products, yada yada yada. We passionately support healthy eating and exercise programs for children, since fatness in children can cause even more long-term harm than it does in adults… and is easier to address as well, at an age when set points and eating/exercise habits are more malleable. And we oppose the American food-industrial complex’s use of psychological manipulation to sell excessive amounts of unhealthy, highly- processed, non- nutritious food, and their prioritization of profit over all other concerns.

Science it works bitches
Finally: We want to base our movement on the best understanding of reality we can get. We encourage people of all sizes to base their cost/ benefit decisions about food, exercise, and weight, not on wishful thinking, but on a realistic assessment of the best hard data currently available. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into why people come in different sizes, and why sizes vary not only from person to person but from culture to culture. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into maintaining and improving people’s health at the size that they are. And we also support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into safe, sane, effective weight loss for people who choose to pursue it. Our bodies, our right to decide.

Now. Here is a fat-positive manifesto I can’t live with:

Slashed circle
Weight loss never works. Never, never, never. Virtually nobody successfully loses weight and keeps it off for the long term; the number of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off is statistically insignificant. Weight is entirely or overwhelmingly determined by genetics, and behavior and environment have virtually nothing to do with it. There are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat: health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. And if there are health problems caused by fatness, they can always be better addressed by some method other than weight loss. Even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it — physical, psychological, or both — is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits. If weight loss happens naturally, as part of a healthy diet and exercise program, that’s fine. But nobody should ever consciously attempt to lose weight, under any circumstances. People who are attempting to lose weight, for whatever reason, even to address serious and immediate health concerns, should be actively discouraged from doing so.

In my recent discussions of weight loss here in this blog, the fat positive movement responded vociferously with this second manifesto, both in comments and in private emails. And here’s why I can’t live with it:

It is completely out of touch with reality.

Scale 2
It is flatly absurd to argue that nobody ever successfully loses weight and keeps it off for the long term. Just in my life, in my not- very- large circle of immediate friends and family, I could name you a dozen or so people who have lost weight and kept it off for years. And as far as I can tell, they are not psychologically damaged: they seem to be fine and healthy (or if they’re neurotic, they’re no more neurotic than they were before they lost the weight). Yes, they’re in the minority… but it’s not an insignificant minority. It’s a big enough number for me to pay attention to. And the studies on weight loss support this: most people who try to lose weight either fail or regain it in the long run, but there are a handful of people who succeed.

Circle two arrows
There’s a weird circularity to the arguments as well. “Weight loss never works… but when it does work, it’s harmful… but even if it would be beneficial, it doesn’t matter, because it never works.” And the arguments are rife with logical absurdities. If set points can get re-set upwards with crash diets or poor eating and exercise habits, then why can’t they be re-set downwards? If it’s okay to accidentally lose weight as a side effect of a “health at every size” food and exercise plan, then why is it so unhealthy to consciously lose weight… even if the “conscious weight loss” plan is identical to the “health at every size” plan? If weight is genetically determined and diet and exercise have nothing to do with it, then why have Americans become so much heavier in the last 50 and indeed 20 years… and why do other cultures who start eating an American diet almost immediately start putting on weight?

But this second manifesto isn’t just unrealistic, or circular, or logically absurd. It seems to be unfalsifiable as well. Here’s what I want to ask the fat-positive movement: What evidence would convince you that you were mistaken? How many people would have to successfully lose weight for you to change your mind about it never working? How long would they have to keep the weight off for you to change your mind about it not being sustainable in the long run? And what would you consider as valid evidence that they haven’t been psychologically damaged by the process?

Portable goal posts
Or are you just going to keep moving the goalposts? Are you just going to make the No True Scotsman argument? Are you just going to argue that nobody successfully loses weight… and that people who do are suffering from eating disorders or other psychological damage? Or that if they seem healthy and happy, they’re psychologically scarred on the inside, or have sustained unseen but serious damage to their health that will ruin their lives in years to come? Are you going to argue that conscious lifelong attention to weight loss and weight maintenance is an eating disorder by definition? Or that the people who do sustain healthy long-term weight loss are statistical flukes and don’t count?

Is there any way that your hypothesis could be proven wrong?

Because if there isn’t, then that’s not a hypothesis. It’s an article of faith. And there’s no reason I should take it seriously.

Extreme poster
In addition, an unsettling tendency has apparently developed in the fat-positive movement: a tendency to take the most extreme positions — no matter how logically absurd or morally repugnant — simply to avoid having to concede any points whatsoever. Many fat-positive advocates insist that weight loss never, ever, ever works. Others insist that there are no health problems caused by any degree of fatness. Still others insist that even if some health problems are caused or exacerbated by fatness, weight loss is never, ever, ever the more healthy choice for anyone to make. Ever. Even if you weigh 400 pounds and have had three heart attacks  you still shouldn’t try to lose weight. And if you’re me, if you weigh 200 pounds and are having serious mobility impairment due to knee problems and have exhausted all other treatment options for it… forget about it. It’s better to have a fourth heart attack, it’s better to gradually lose mobility over the years to the point where you can no longer climb stairs or walk more than a block, than it is to try to demonstrate that any belief of the fat-positive movement might be mistaken.

I was frankly shocked at how callous most of the fat-positive advocates were about my bad knee. I was shocked at how quick they were to ignore or dismiss it. They were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I’d tried those things already? Well, whatever.

I’m going to repeat something from my first manifesto, the good manifesto. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle, and it’s important, so I’m going to call it out here:

Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.

Yes, this manifesto applies to rabid weight-loss advocates: people who insist that anyone who’s even 20 pounds over the medical definition of a healthy weight should start losing immediately, even if their blood pressure and blood sugar and cholesterol and joints and exercise habits and family history of heart disease are all totally fine. But it also applies, every bit as much, to the fat-positive movement. It is not up to you to decide for me that the costs of losing weight are greater than the costs of losing my knee. It is not up to you to decide for me that the long odds against successful long-term weight loss (roughly 10 to 1) mean that my attempt to treat my bad knee by losing weight isn’t worth it. My body. My right to decide.

Let me ask you this. If you read a post from a blogger saying that they were a heavy drinker, but it was adversely affecting their health and they’d decided to quit… would you send them comments and emails saying, “Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time and energy, the overwhelming majority of problem drinkers who try to quit eventually fail, and the ones who succeed get obsessed with it and have to go to all these meetings for the rest of their lives and aren’t any fun to be around any more, and anyway the connection between heavy drinking and poor health has been totally made up by our anti- drinking society, so instead you should just focus on being the most healthy drinker you can be”?

If not — then why would you say it to someone who’s losing weight?

And here’s the thing I’ve begun to realize about the “weight loss never works” mantra:

It’s not actually very fat-positive.

In fact, it’s actively fat-negative.

The stubborn insistence that healthy, sane, long-term weight loss is impossible — in flat denial of evidence to the contrary — seems to concede that if fat people could lose weight, then therefore they should. It’s essentially conceding that the only valid justification for being fat is that fat people have no choice. IMO, it’s a whole lot more fat-positive to say that people have the right to decide for themselves whether the difficult, time- consuming, attention- consuming, “10 to 1 odds against success” process of weight loss is something that’s worth pursuing.

I do think I see where a lot of this stuff is coming from. Our culture is powerfully biased against fat people and fatness; and even when they are being moderate and evidence- based, the fat-positive movement often gets dismissed as wackaloons, by both the medical community and the culture at large. So given that they’ve largely been ignored even when they make valid points, I can see how the movement would become increasingly insular, increasingly unwilling to listen to anyone but one another.

Greta simpsons
But that’s no excuse. I am here today, not as an outsider, but as a fat person, and as someone who has thought of herself as both fat and fat-positive for many, many years. And I am saying to you now: It is possible to be fat-positive and still acknowledge that being fat does carry some serious health risks. It is possible to be fat-positive and still acknowledge that some people do successfully lose weight and keep it off. And it is possible to be fat-positive and still be supportive of people who are trying to lose weight. Being fat-positive doesn’t require you to treat people who disagree with you as objects of excoriation or pity. And being fat- positive doesn’t require that you deny reality.

Now, I’m sure some fat-positive advocates are going to insist that their position is reality- based, and they’re going to point to papers and books supporting this conclusion. To them, I say in advance: Yes, you can find papers and books supporting the idea that weight loss never works and is always harmful. You can also find papers and books supporting the idea that vaccines never work and are always harmful. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that global warming isn’t real, and that even if it is, it isn’t caused by human activity. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that the moon landing never happened. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that the earth is flat.

But that’s not the scientific consensus.

And as a skeptic, I need to be informed by the scientific consensus.

Scientific method
Yes, the scientific consensus could be wrong. It certainly has been in the past. Scientists are fallible humans, shaped by the biases of their culture… and our culture is very strongly biased against fatness and fat people. The overwhelming scientific consensus that fatness is a major contributing factor to a whole host of serious health problems… that could be wrong. Or it could be exaggerated. Or it could be right when it comes to some health problems, wrong about others. Or it could be getting the nuance wrong: it could be right about fatness being one co-factor, but wrong about the emphasis it places on it compared to other co-factors. There are some real problems with the ways medical researchers have studied the health effects of fatness: they tend to conflate moderate overweight-ness with serious obesity, for instance, and they often don’t control for different eating and exercise habits among people of similar sizes. And an important part of the scientific method is questioning and opposition — both from inside the scientific community, and from smart laypeople outside it.

But if the fat-positive movement wants to be a serious voice of opposition to the current scientific consensus, it needs to stop denying reality. It needs to stop with the circular reasoning, the cherry-picking of data, the “all or nothing” thinking, the taking of good ideas to ridiculous and repugnant extremes, the logical absurdities, the elaborate rationalizations, the insularity, the flat denial of simple facts that are staring them in the face. It needs to be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads… even if where it leads is unpleasant or upsetting. It needs to stop with the true believerism. It needs to treat the principles of fat positivity as hypotheses that can be debated — not as articles of faith.

And I heartily wish it would do that.

Because we really, really need a sane, evidence- based, reality-based fat-positive movement.

I completely stand by my first manifesto. I think these are important issues, and I think we need a social and political movement that’s speaking out about them and is working to address them. And just speaking personally: I want and need a fat-positive movement. The smarter, more reality- based ideas of this movement have been invaluable to me: they helped keep me sane and happy as a fat person, and they taught me to think of my fat body as valuable and worth taking care of. And even when I’ve lost all the weight I plan to lose, I’m still probably going to be seen by most people as overweight. I could really use a community that supports me in my new size as much as it did in my old one.

Blackbelt in crazy
But in my years as an atheist and skeptical blogger, I have learned to tell the difference between thoughtful disagreement and close-minded true belief. I have learned to recognize denialist crazy. And as it stands now, the fat-positive movement has really started bringing the crazy. It’s moving away from being a serious voice in the social/ political/ medical worlds, and is instead becoming an insular, cultish community that only listens to itself. It has taken some very good ideas and has completely run off the rails with them. It has become utterly unconvincing to anyone who isn’t already predisposed to agree with it. Hell, it’s not even convincing to me — and I agreed with it just three months ago. I started writing about this issue, in part, to figure out what I thought about it: to think out loud, to get some new perspectives, to hear the best arguments from both sides and refine or rethink my own shifting ideas. And nothing the fat-positive advocates have said so far, in either comments or private emails, has convinced me that I’m wrong to try to lose weight. It has, instead, convinced me that the movement has gone off the deep end.

I really, really want to be part of a sane, evidence- based, reality- based fat-positive movement. But it looks like I may have to find a way to do that on my own.

An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement

Dream diary, 8/4/09: The singing alarm clock

I dreamed that when my alarm clock went off, instead of making a series of buzzes, it sang. Specifically, it sang about food, making suggestions about what I might eat that day. If I got up right away, it gave me a broad range of suggestions in its song; but every time I hit the snooze, the range of what it told me to eat got narrower and narrower. I hit the snooze four or five times, and it ended up just singing, “Grapes, grapes, grapes, grapes…”

Dream diary, 8/4/09: The singing alarm clock

The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2)

Scale 2
So how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?

Yesterday, I wrote about being a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight. Today, I’m finishing up with a look at one of the trickiest and most loaded balancing acts in this struggle: being both fat-positive and a skeptic.

See, here’s the thing. As you may or may not know, there is something of a pitched battle between feminist fat- positive advocates, and advocates of a skeptical, science- based view that fatness is medically harmful. (I’m not sure what to call the anti-fat-positives. Fat-negatives?) The fat-positives think the fat-negatives are hysterics who exaggerate the health risks of being fat; the fat-negatives think the fat-positives are denialists who dismiss those risks too easily. The fat-negatives point out the well- documented connection between being fat and a whole host of health problems; the fat-positives point out that many of these health risks significantly diminish with a healthy diet and regular exercise… even for people who don’t lose weight.

Now, I don’t generally cotton to the “golden mean” fallacy: the misguided notion that in any dispute between two opposing sides, the truth will probably fall in the middle. But in this case, I genuinely do think that both sides have some valuable ideas… and that both sides are missing some seriously important truths.

I completely agree that the fat-positive movement does often trivialize the very serious, extensively documented, no-joke health risks of being fat. I think they focus on their political ideology about bodies and feminism, at the expense of the actual scientific facts on the ground. I think they’re often guilty of wishful thinking: of acting as if the mere act of saying “Fat is as healthy as not-fat” over and over again will somehow make it true, regardless of the medical evidence. And I think they dismiss the fact that, while it’s fairly easy to be a healthy, active fat person in your youth, it gets increasingly harder as you get older.

I also think that when the fat-positive movement keeps repeating the “Dieting doesn’t work” mantra, they support this view by stubbornly focusing on the stupidest, most extreme diets out there. It’s certainly fair to point out that a lot of popular diets are essentially semi- starvation, guaranteed to make you crazy and miserable and ultimately guaranteed to fail. But it’s also fair to point out that not all weight-loss programs are that dumb. (Of course, this is also true for fat-negative skeptics, who focus on the stupidest, most extreme forms of fat-positivism while largely ignoring the more moderate, pro- exercise- and- eating- right, “be as healthy as you can at the weight that you are” folks…)

Medical journals
And when the fat-positive movement insists that weight loss doesn’t work, they’re ignoring the fact that we now know a whole lot more about weight loss than we used to. Good, careful studies have been done, looking not at the details of specific weight loss plans, but instead at the 10% of people who do lose weight and keep it off, and what they have in common. And apparently, it doesn’t matter so much what kind of diet or exercise plan they’re on: low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, high-vodka, whatever. What matters is that they’re counting calories, keeping food journals, weighing themselves regularly, getting lots of exercise, losing the weight slowly (no more than two pounds a week on average)… and seeing all these things as a permanent lifestyle change instead of a one-time thing.

(Of course, that does beg the question: Why are some people able to sustain behavior changes like these, and others aren’t? Diets generally don’t work partly because many diets are stupid and unsustainable… but it’s also partly because people don’t stick with weight loss plans even when they are reasonable. But why is that? There’s a whole science about behavior change and why it’s so hard… and we need to not frame it as a moral judgement about weak character. It’s common across humanity. As a society, it’s been like pulling teeth to get people to quit smoking and wear seatbelts. If we’re serious about addressing the American obesity epidemic, we need to be looking at major social and political change about how we deliver food and design our cities… not just haranguing people about how fat they are.)

The fat positive movement also often claims that being fat is purely genetic, not behavioral… a claim that ultimately isn’t supportable. Yes, there’s clearly a genetic component: in a perfect world where everyone ate a perfect diet and got loads of exercise, people would still come in different sizes, and one of those sizes would be fat. Besides, it’s not so easy to draw a bright line between “genetic” and “behavioral.” Appetite triggers, for instance, may be genetic, some people may be born being more easily triggered by external food cues than others… but the triggers shape our behavior, and we can make choices to deflect those triggers, or alter them, or avoid them. But if it were true that fatness is purely genetic, then why are Americans — and non-Americans who eat an American diet — so much fatter than the rest of the world? And why are Americans so much fatter now than we were 50 years ago, or even 20? If size were purely genetic and eating and exercise behavior had nothing to do with it, none of that would be true. Evolution doesn’t work that fast.

So yes, I think the fat-positive movement has been missing the boat. A lot of boats.

But I think the hard-line fat-negative skeptics are overlooking some important truths as well.

I think they often overlook the degree to which American obesity is not a personal problem, but a political one. I think they often overlook the ways that American obesity is created and exacerbated by deeply-laid social and economic structures: city planning based around cars instead of walking or biking; an economy in which people are overworked at sedentary jobs and don’t have time for exercise; the phenomenon of food deserts (large urban areas with no access to healthy, unprocessed food); the multitudinous evils of the American food industry, with its emphasis on shelf life over nutrition and profit over absolutely everything. I think they overlook the ways in which weight loss is a privilege, far easier for people in progressive cities with ready access to healthy food… and for financially comfortable people who can afford trainers and gym memberships. (Both categories that I freely acknowledge I belong to.)

I definitely think the fat-negative skeptics can be dismissive of just how difficult and complicated this issue is, and how loaded it is — emotionally, psychologically, indeed politically. Especially for women. (The practical mechanics of how I’m losing weight are insanely simple: counting calories, keeping a food journal, regular exercise, patience. The emotional and psychological and political mechanics are a minefield. Did I mention the endless processing, the obsessive planning, the hysterical crying fits in grocery store parking lots?) I think the skeptics often ignore our culture’s obsession with an unattainable ideal of physical perfection — especially for women — and the effect this has on people who are never, ever going to even come close to that ideal, no matter how healthy they become. And I think the skeptics can be oblivious to the effect their words have on people: how, for a fat person, especially for a fat person who’s tried more than once to lose weight, hearing something like, “Weight loss is simple, it just takes will power, just eat less and exercise more” basically translates as, “And if you don’t, it’s your fault, you’re weak and lazy and you deserve to get sick and die.”

Shallow hal
I also think that fat-negative skeptics tend to overlook — or are maybe just ignorant of — the venomous contempt and hostile bigotry that gets aimed at fat people in our culture on a regular basis. I’m not just talking about third-graders who get teased at school, or the scores of personal ads seeking partners who are “fit and trim” (or, more bluntly, “No fatties”). I’m not even just talking about endless, degrading fat jokes in the media… and the way said jokes are a normal, unquestioned part of the media landscape. I’m talking about things like actual, well- documented job discrimination, and medical discrimination in areas that have nothing to do with weight. We need some sort of pride, some sort of positivity, just to keep from collapsing into depression and self-loathing.

And for all their passion about being reality- based and sciencey, the fat-negatives have a serious blind spot when it comes to one very important, extensively- documented fact about weight loss:

It rarely works.

Consistently, across the board, about 90% of people who try to lose weight either fail, or gain it back within a year. To my knowledge, every single method of weight loss that has ever been rigorously tested has a failure rate of roughly 90%. (Interesting tangent: If you join Weight Watchers, and you lose and re-gain the same 20 pounds three times? They don’t count that as a failure. They count it as three separate successes.)

10% success. That’s not a very good rate. And it’s something that fat-negative advocates need to deal with. I mean, what the hell is the point of raising the Dire Warning Alert System and telling everybody, “Being fat is horrible for you, being fat will ruin your health, being fat can kill you” — if, once you’ve successfully freaked everybody out, you don’t have anything constructive to offer about what they can do about it?

Medical scale
Now, as Ingrid often points out: Quitting alcoholism or other drug addiction also has about a 90% failure rate, and you’d still advise addicts to kick if they can. The fact that weight loss is difficult and rare doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. (And we are learning more about weight loss, and are beginning to get a good, science-based, reality- based picture about what works and what doesn’t. Again: counting calories, keeping a food journal, regular exercise, regular weigh-ins, patience.)

But given that this 90% failure rate is true, and until it is no longer true, then at least some of the visions and goals of the fat-positive movement are still pertinent. The idea that it’s useful to eat a healthy diet and get regular vigorous exercise — even if you don’t lose weight? As long as weight loss efforts fail about 90% of the time, that’s a pretty damn important message to get across.

And here’s a freakish irony: The ideas and ideals I learned from fat-positivism? They’ve been incomparably useful to me in my efforts to lose weight.

Here’s what I mean. The degree to which I’ve had to alter my life in order to lose weight has been pretty dramatic. If I’d had to do it all at once, I probably wouldn’t have done it at all.

But I already had a head start. I was already exercising regularly: not as much as I needed to for weight loss, but more than probably 90% of Americans, and enough to improve my mood and my energy, my sleeping and my libido, my joint problems and my mental health. And I was already eating a healthy diet: not low-cal enough for weight loss, but better than probably 90% of Americans, and mostly consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lowfat proteins. So shifting gears from “generally healthy lifestyle” into “weight loss,” while it was hard, was not nearly as hard as I’d thought it would be. I was already more than halfway there.

And a huge part of why I was more than halfway there was my fat-positivism, and the ideals I learned from that movement. I was flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream media industry that wanted me to look like Paris Hilton… but I was also flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream food industry that wanted me to eat a steady diet of Cheetos and Hot Pockets and Stuffed Crust Pizza. I was committed to being as healthy as I could be at the weight that I was… and that involved eating well and getting regular exercise. Goals that the fat-positive movement actively and passionately encourages. (The fat-positive activists I was reading, anyway.)

Plus, the fat-positive movement gave me the tools I’ve needed to frame my weight loss primarily as a health issue and not as a cosmetic issue: to pursue it, not to fit some mold of ideal womanhood, but for myself, for my health and the enjoyment of my life. If my efforts to eat better and get exercise had been entirely focused on the goal of looking better, I might well have given up long ago. After all, no matter what I do, I am never, ever going to look like Paris Hilton. Or even Heather Graham. I’m short, I have a square, stocky frame, and I’m 47. It’s not gonna happen. But because of the fat- positive movement, I was already thinking of how I eat and exercise, not in terms of what society expected of me, but in terms of my own pleasure and health. So paradoxically, once my weight started being a serious impediment to my pleasure and health, it didn’t take much to shift gears.

Yet at the same time, I’m ticked off at the fat-positive movement as well. I do think that I put this off for a lot longer than I should have, at least partly, because I drank the Kool-Aid. I bought the idea that I could be every bit as healthy at 200 pounds as I would be at 140. I pored over the handful of studies saying that weight loss was no big deal, and ignored the mountain of studies saying, “Is Too.” I ignored the fact that my bad knee was getting worse, until it got almost too bad to do anything about it.

And the skeptical movement has also given me tools that I need to do this. Being part of the skeptical movement inspires me on a daily basis to face reality, no matter how difficult or emotionally loaded it might be. It inspires me to base my decisions, not on wishful thinking, but on the best hard evidence currently available. It’s gotten me thinking more clearly about the evolutionary aspects of food and appetite and weight loss… and has thus given me some seriously useful practical strategies to bypass the triggers that evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago.

So I’m not sure what to do here. I’m ticked off at both sides. I’m grateful to both sides. I see truth and value, and stubborn obliviousness, on both sides. In my personal life, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing: taking what I need from wherever I can get it, doing whatever works for me to be as healthy and sane as I can. But as a writer, and as a member of two conflicting social and political movements, I’m not sure how to handle this.


Fast Food wasteland photo by Apathetic duck.

The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2)

The Fat-Positive Diet

Scale 3
How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

Don’t worry. This isn’t going to turn into a diet blog. I’d rather hit myself on the hand with hammers. But this thing has been happening with me: it’s kind of a big effing deal for me, and I think it may be of interest to my readers. So although I’m finding myself with an uncharacteristic reluctance to talk about something this personal, I’ve decided to take the plunge.

I am, as anyone who knows me or has seen photos of me knows, fat. I have been fat for a long time, and have been more or less okay with it for a long time. My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

But a few months ago, my bad knee started getting worse. I’ve had a bad knee for a long time (I blew it out doing the polka and it’s never been the same since); but as bad knees go, it wasn’t that bad. I had to be careful getting in and out of cars; I had bad days when I had to rest it; I had to quit doing the polka. No big deal. I can live a rich, full life being careful getting in and out of cars and not doing the polka.

But a few months ago, it started getting worse. Like, having trouble climbing hills and stairs worse.

Lombard street
That was not okay. I live in San Francisco. I need to be able to climb hills and stairs. And I know about knees. They don’t get better. I could see the writing on the wall: I knew that if I didn’t take action, my mobility would just get worse and worse with time. I could easily lose more than just stairs and hills. I could lose dancing. Fucking. Long walks. Walking at all.

Short of surgery, there’s really only one thing you can do for a bad knee that I wasn’t already doing.

And that’s to lose weight.

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

And even apart from feeling like a traitor, there are about eighty million emotional traps along the way: traps that threaten to upend years of hard mental health work spent learning to love myself the way I am.

For starters: I know that weight loss typically fails about 90% of the time. So far this weight loss thing is working; but I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, and I know that in the long run, it could easily fail. And if this fails, then I get to feel like… well, like a failure. I get to be back at Square One, with my bad knee and everything — but without the emotional supports I built up during my “Fuck You, Body Fascists” anti- dieting years.

But if I’m one of the 10% that succeeds… well, then I feel like an idiot for having whined about it for so long, and for not having done this sooner. (I’m already feeling like that now. In a purely practical sense, this has been easier than I’d thought it would be, and so now I’m feeling like a jackass for having insisted all these years that it was all but impossible.)

And if I am successful, the last thing in the world I want to do is get all smug and judgmental about how easy it was and how if I can do it, anyone can. If there’s anything I hate, it’s when people who’ve lost weight (or never gained it) get smug and judgmental about how if they can do it, anyone can. (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage.) That is a huge, ugly trap, and it’s one I’m desperate to avoid.

Plus, it’s so hard to let go of thinking that food and the appetite for it should be “natural.” I mean, it’s food. It’s one of the oldest, deepest instincts we have. (Reproducing and escaping from predators also leap to mind.) The fact that I can’t just “eat naturally,” the fact that I have to pay careful, conscious attention to everything I eat and when… it’s hard not to see that as a failure of character.

And as much as I want my weight loss to purely be about my health, the reality is that, now that I’m in the process, it’s become more about my appearance than I’d like. I really don’t want that: I find it politically troubling and emotionally toxic, and I think in the long run it’ll undermine what I’m trying to do. But it’s hard. As much as I like to think of myself as a free-spirited, convention- defying rebel, the reality is that I’m a social animal, and social animals care about what other animals think of them. And since I’m non-monogamous, I have to be aware of the realities of the sexual economy… and the reality of the sexual economy is that I’ll almost certainly get more action and attention as I lose weight. I dearly wish I didn’t care about that, but I do.

Scale 5
In case you’re curious: So far, I’ve been successful. As of this writing, I’ve lost 20 pounds in two and a half months. And in case you’re curious, I don’t have any great secret to my so-far success. Counting calories; keeping a food diary; regular exercise; patience. Absurdly simple in theory. In practice, it’s been a fucking minefield, especially at the beginning: crying fits in grocery store parking lots, heavy conversations with family and friends, planning that at times borders on obsessive compulsive, a painful and complicated emotional dance every time I have dinner with friends or eat out, and way more processing with Ingrid than I ever wanted to have to go through. (And I don’t even get to call this a success yet. 90% of people who lose weight gain it back within a year; so until I’ve lost all the weight I want and have kept it off for a year, I don’t get to relax and think of this as a win. And to some extent, I’ll never get to completely relax: I’ll probably have to do some form of calorie- counting and weight management for the rest of my life.)

But it is getting easier with time, as I get more and more used to my new eating habits. It’s getting physically easier: for the first week or two, 1800 calories a day just didn’t make me feel full, and I was cranky on good days and despairing on bad ones. Now 1800 calories feels like plenty, as my body has adjusted its sense of how much food is enough. And it’s gotten easier mentally as well, as I’ve found some strategies — emotional, psychological, practical strategies — that so far have helped.

It’s helped to remember that my appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity. The taste for sweets and fats; the tendency to gorge when I’m hungry; the impulse to keep on eating even after I’ve had enough; the triggers that make me hungry when I see or smell food… that’s not weakness or moral failure. That’s millions of years of evolution at work: evolution that hasn’t had time to catch up with the modern American food landscape. And as a rationalist and a skeptic, in the same way that I’m not going to let myself believe in deities just because evolution has wired my brain to see patterns and intentions even where none exist, I’m not going to let myself eat three brownies at a party just because evolution has wired my brain to think I might starve to death if I don’t.

Chocolate chip pancakes and sausage on a stick
It’s helped for me to think of this as a political issue. It helps to remember that the multinational food corporations have spent decades carefully studying the abovementioned evolutionary food triggers, so they can manipulate me into buying and eating way more food than is good for me. It helps to think of weight loss, not as giving in to the mainstream cultural standards of female beauty, but as sending a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

It’s helped for me to remember that my other “natural” impulses aren’t so natural, either. It’s worked for me to remember that as a non-monogamist, I have to think carefully about who to have sex with and when; that as a city dweller, I have to think consciously about whether I’m genuinely in danger or am just being paranoid (or conversely, whether I’m genuinely safe or am just being oblivious). Food is no different. It’s “natural” for humans to be rational animals, and to think about our choices instead of just reacting.

Doing this with Ingrid has been a huge help. Being able to support each other, encourage each other, plan meals together, share strategies, vent… it’s been invaluable. I don’t know if the people studying weight loss have looked at whether it’s more effective to do it with a partner or friend… but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Lose it ihpone app
Keeping a food diary has helped enormously. It helps in the obvious way: that’s how I keep track of my calories. But more than that, it helps me be more mindful and present about how I eat. I’m a lot less likely to run to the corner and get a Snickers bar if I know I have to write it in my journal. (If you have an iPhone, btw, there’s a wicked cool calorie- counting app called LoseIt. I can’t tell you how much easier it’s made this process. If you don’t, though, not to worry: the Interweb has made calorie- counting a relative breeze.)

It helps to think of this as a permanent lifestyle change. It’s hard, but it helps. If I think of this as something I’ll just have to do once and will then be finished with… well, that wouldn’t just make this harder to sustain in the long run. It’d also make it harder in the short run: easier to blow it off for a day, and then another day, since all I’d be doing is postponing my “final” goal by a day or two. Thinking of this as “This is just how I eat now” makes it easier to keep it up.

It helped a lot to get a sane calorie count from my medical provider that took into account how much exercise I get. (As much as I love my little LoseIt iPhone app, if I’d have gotten my daily calorie count from that, it would have been way too low… since the gizmo apparently assumes that anyone using their program is about as active as a recently- fed boa constrictor.)

It helps to avoid using moral language about weight loss: to avoid thinking of “cheating” on my diet, “forbidden” foods, etc. It’s hard enough to not eat the things I’m trying not to eat, without making them seem more attractive because they’re naughty and wicked.

In defense of food
It helps to eat real food… and to avoid “diet” food like the plague. No diet shakes, no power bars, no lowfat cardboard cookies from the industrialized food industry. Fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, rice, beans… that sort of thing. I don’t even eat lowfat cheese. I’d rather just eat regular cheese, and eat less of it.

It helps to eat slowly. Partly because it gives the “fullness” trigger in my brain time to catch up with my stomach… but partly because I get more pleasure from my food, and don’t feel deprived. And it helps to eat smaller meals more frequently: since I never get all that hungry, I can make smarter and more conscious choices about what to eat.

Measuring cups spoons
It helps to measure my food, as much as I can. For calorie counting, it’s pretty much essential. My instincts about what constituted a cup of soup or a teaspoon of butter were way, way off. I don’t whip out the cup measure when I eat out, obviously… but I almost always do it at home, and since I’ve been doing it, my estimates on portion size when I do eat out have gotten a lot better.

It’s helped to break down my ultimate long-term goal into smaller, more manageable goals. When my health care provider told me I should lose 60 pounds to be at my maximum good health, I just about gave up in despair right then. Instead, I decided to fuck that noise, I was simply going to lose 20 pounds… and then I’d see how I felt, and how hard it was, and whether I wanted to continue or stay put. I am now shooting for another 20 pounds… and when that’s gone, I’ll once again re-evaluate and decide whether or not I want to keep going, and how far.

It’s helped to make incremental, non-drastic changes in my eating and my exercise. I think this is what trips up a lot of people who are trying to lose weight: they want to become health- obsessed gym bunnies overnight, and when that’s too hard, they give up. It helped instead to add one workout a week to what I was already doing… and then, when I got used to that, to add one more.

And on a related topic: It’s helped to be aware that weight loss can happen in fits and starts: there are natural fluctuations, with some weeks where I lose a lot and others where I don’t or even gain a little. One of my big hysterical grocery-store crying fits came early on in my program, during a week where I gained weight… and it took Ingrid forever to convince me that this didn’t necessarily mean I was doing something wrong, or that I had to make an already difficult weight-loss program even more strenuous. But she was right. It makes much more sense to keep my focus on the big picture, the overall arc. If I gain half a pound a week three weeks in a row, then I might decide that I need to step things up. But if I gain half a pound one week, I’m not going to decide that what I’m doing isn’t working. I’m just going to stick with it.

It’s helped for me to find exercise that I love doing. I am now doing bicep curls with 20 lb. dumbbells. I feel like a fucking Amazon goddess. Weightlifting rules.

It’s helped for me to do some sort of exercise almost every day. It’s not just that I burn more calories that way. It’s that it makes exercise into a normal part of my daily life: not a special thing I do a couple times a week and can blow off if I’m not in the mood, but an everyday routine like brushing my teeth.

When I’m not in the mood to exercise, it helps to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Ever. No matter how crummy I felt when I started, I have always felt better afterwards.

Going to the gym helps. It’s not absolutely necessary; if you can’t afford a gym membership, you can get good exercise without one. But for me, the gym has been a lifesaver. The thing about the gym is it takes minimal willpower. All I need is the willpower to get in the car and get my ass to the gym. Once I’m there, of course I’m going to work out. I mean, what else am I going to do?

But it’s also helped to have some exercise equipment at home. Nothing fancy or expensive: some dumbbells, a stability ball, a resistance band, a mat. Having exercise equipment at home means I can easily do at least a little exercise every day, even if I can’t get to the gym. And that’s helped turn it into a regular part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth.

It’s helped to get a trainer. (Hi, Marta! We love you.)

It’s helped for me to to find healthy foods that I love. (Summer fruit season has made this so much easier: I can eat peaches and cherries and strawberries for months and never get tired of them.)

Dynamo donut
And it’s helped to not be a purist: to eat the occasional cheeseburger, the occasional barbecued ribs, the occasional donut. I have to budget my day’s calories for it (or else budget for the occasional day when I don’t worry about it). But thinking, “I can never have another donut again as long as I live” would make this intolerable. Thinking, “I can have a donut today if I have a light dinner” makes this do-able. An entertaining challenge, even. Like my food for the day is a puzzle, and I’m trying to get all the pieces to fit together.

Knee joint
Finally, more than anything else, it helps me to remember my knee. It helps to notice how much better my knee already feels now that I’ve lost the 20 pounds: to notice that I’m climbing stairs and hills again, with little or no problem. It helps to think of how much better my knee will feel when I lose another 20, and then another. It helps to pick up the 20 lb. dumbbells at the gym and think about how rough it would be on my knees to walk around carrying them all day… and how much better it would feel to set them down. It helps to think that I might even be able to do the polka again someday. And when I start thinking that this weight loss thing isn’t that big a deal and I can have that ice cream if I want it, it helps to imagine my old age, and to think about whether I want to be spending it dancing, walking in the woods, exploring new cities, on my knees committing unspeakable sexual acts… or sitting on a sofa watching TV and waiting to die.

There’s something Ingrid has said about this, something that’s really stuck with me. She’s pointed out that if I were diabetic or something, and I was told I had to change my eating habits in order to stay alive… I’d do it. I might gripe about it, but I’d manage, and I’d even find a way to enjoy it if I could.

Well, the reality isn’t that far off. I have a choice between a good shot at a healthy, active, pleasurable middle and old age… and a long, steady decline into a vicious circle of inactivity and ill health. I am, as the old ’80s T-shirts used to say, choosing life.

So that’s what’s working for me. If you’re doing this as well: What’s working for you?

Important note: I am most emphatically NOT looking for diet tips. Anyone who offers diet tips will be banned from this blog. I am only partially kidding. I already know the mechanics of what I need to do: count calories, keep a food journal, exercise regularly, be patient. Rocket science.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable. Ways of answering the question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

And for that matter, how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?

(To be completed in tomorrow’s post.)

The Fat-Positive Diet


It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post, and since I recently revived this recipe and put it back into my rotation, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

Frittatas are, IMO, one of the great unsung food items. They’re easy, they’re quick, they’re portable, and they’re massively versatile. You can eat them hot, warm, or cold; you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; they’re good in summer or winter; you can carry them in a lunchbox or a picnic basket. And you can put just about anything in them — so you can personalize them to your own preferences, or use them to clear out bits and pieces from your fridge.

Here’s my recipe. Except I’m not sure it could be called a “recipe,” exactly. It’s more of a broad concept.

What you’ll need:

Eggs (duh).

Stuff that you’d like to have in a frittata. (I told you this was versatile.) Peppers, onions, olives, sausage, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms, ham, spinach, peas, corn… pretty much any sort of vegetable, or any sort of meat. I’ve made frittatas with potatoes (more on that in a moment); and while I haven’t yet made this myself, I’ve heard tell of frittatas being made with day-old cooked pasta.

An ovenproof skillet. A non-stick one is ideal — if you have something like a good Calphalon pan that can be put in the oven, that’s what you want — but any skillet that can be put in the oven will do. Cast iron is classic, but in my experience it’s hard to get a frittata cleanly out of a cast iron pan. Pretty much any size is fine: you can make little frittatas, or big ones.

Oil or butter.

Salt and pepper.

How to make it:

Heat your oven to 375 Fahrenheit.

Take the eggs out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. (You never, ever, ever want to cook cold eggs if you can possibly help it. Cooking cold eggs makes them rubbery.) For a little pan, like a 7″, four eggs will probably be enough; for a 10″ pan, I use six; for a bigger pan, eight or ten.

Put oil or butter in your skillet, and heat it up. (Less if you’re using a non-stick pan; more if you’re not.)

Take the stuff that you want to put in your frittata, and put it in your skillet. If it needs cooking, cook it: it won’t cook for very long in the frittata itself. (If it doesn’t need cooking, just warm it up a bit.) Sautee your onions or peppers or sausage or whatever, until they’re pretty much as cooked as you like. (You can also roast your veggies instead of sauteeing them if you prefer.) IMO, veggies and stuff should be cut up into smallish dice, since the frittata will be hard to eat otherwise. If you’re going to do potatoes, slice them very thinly, and sautee them until they’re crispy and golden brown. If you’re going to use tomatoes, cut them up and drain out the liquid and seeds on paper towels first; otherwise, your frittata will be soupy. Onions are extra-good if they’re caramelized.

“How much stuff?” I hear you cry. You want enough stuff that the skillet will be full to about halfway up… but not so much that it’s packed solid. When you pour the eggs in, you want a fair amount of the egg to filter down around the veggies and whatnot to the bottom of the pan.

Eggs 1
Beat your eggs lightly (they should be thoroughly mixed but not frothy). You don’t add milk or anything; just eggs, plus salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat down to medium low, and pour the eggs into the skillet. (If you aren’t using a non-stick pan, make sure there’s butter or oil on the sides of the pan as well as the bottom before you put in the eggs. If you are using a non-stick pan, this doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t as big a deal.)

Cook on the stovetop at medium low until the bottom is set but the top is still runny. The time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. (About 5 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one.)

When the bottom is set but the top is still runny, put it in the oven at 375 Fahrenheit, and cook until it’s completely set. Again, the time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. Just keep an eye on it. (About 3-4 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one. I told you this was quick.)

If you want the top browned, stick it in the broiler for a minute. If you like cheese, grate it on the top at the broiler stage.

Transfer it to a plate. This is the point where you realize why I keep gassing on about non-stick skillets. If you’re using cast iron, you’ll probably need to slide a butter knife around the edges to loosen it before doing this, and it still may not come out all that pretty. You can also say “Fuck it,” and serve it directly out of the pan. Let it rest for a minute, then slice it into wedges like pizza, and serve.

Have fun! And if you make any interesting or unusual or especially tasty versions of this, let me know, as I’m always looking for ideas.

Sweet basil book
(Credit for the broad concept — namely, “cook on the stovetop until the bottom is set, then put it in the oven at 375 until it’s done” — goes to the lovely book Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes, and Chives: The Vegetable Dishes of Tuscany and Provence.)


Home Carbonation, and Contrary Human Nature

Have you ever wanted to do something that you basically couldn’t care less about, just because someone told you that you couldn’t?

Soda club
Ingrid and I just signed up for this Soda Club thing: a “make your own sparkling water” gizmo with replaceable CO2 cartridges. A keen idea, and one we’re very excited about: we drink a ton of fizz water, and we’ve been going through a ton of plastic fizz water bottles every week. (Yes, we recycle them; but with plastic especially, it’s much better if you can just avoid buying the stuff in the first place.) This gizmo will cut our plastic consumption by a considerable amount. Plus, we can have as much fizz water as we want, whenever we want it, without suffering the miserable indignity of going to the store or waiting for our next grocery delivery.

But here’s the thing. One of the instructions on the Soda Club soda maker says that you should not carbonate anything other than plain water.

And the moment I read that, I was immediately filled with a powerful desire to carbonate things that I shouldn’t.

I now want to carbonate everything. Coffee. Soy milk. Orange juice. Bourbon. Absinthe. I want to go through our entire liquor cabinet and carbonate everything in it. I want to make my own sparkling wine, just by taking regular sparkling wine and carbonating it. I want to go to the supermarket and find a bunch of weird beverages, just so I can carbonate them. I want to buy a second carbonating gizmo, just so I can try to carbonate weird stuff without mucking up the one we use for water.

Now, it’s important to understand: Before we got this gizmo and read this warning, the thought that it might be fun to carbonate coffee or bourbon had never, ever occurred to me. Not once. If you had asked me, “Would you like to carbonate some coffee?”, or, “On your list of things you would like to do before you die, where does ‘carbonate coffee’ fit?”, I would have looked at you like you were nuts.

But now I’m the one who’s nuts. This is driving me mildly batty. I really want to know what carbonated coffee would taste like. I’m sure I’ll forget about this in a week or two (or I would have if I hadn’t blogged about it). But for now, the desire for forbidden carbonation is raging hot in my blood.

What the heck is this about?

Marlon brando wild bunch
I have a strong fondness for this part of me that wants to rebel against everything. It’s a big part of what makes me who I am, and especially who I am as a writer: the part that looks at the ideas and rules that most people accept without question, and asks, “Is there really a good reason for that?” That’s an important and valuable human activity. Fun, too.

But at times, it’s a bit silly, and even counter- productive. As I’ve written before: To reflexively rebel against the mainstream means you’re just as controlled by that mainstream as you would be if you reflexively conformed to it.

And some rules are rules for a reason. According to the company’s FAQ (no, I’m not the first person to ask this question), if you carbonate things other than water with ther gizmo, “you risk damaging your drinks maker, not to mention making a big fizzy mess!” (Exclamation point theirs.) I don’t know why this is — I don’t know if there’s some weird chemical process that happens when you try to carbonate soy milk — but I doubt that they’d make up a rule like that for no reason. If they say it makes a big fizzy mess, it probably makes a big fizzy mess.

I’m reminded of an interview I once read with the actor Klaus Kinski. He was raging against the intolerable strictures of our conformist society, and he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ll be driving along, and I’ll see a sign that says ‘Right Lane Must Turn Right,’ and I think to myself, ‘MUST turn right? MUST?!? FUCK YOU!'”

Right lane must turn right
That line made me laugh for weeks afterwards, and it was a catch- phrase among my circle of friends for a long time. It was such a blatantly absurd example of pointless rebellion. Traffic laws are the perfect example of laws that are there for very good reasons indeed… and in any case, it seemed just a teensy bit out of proportion, a case of choosing one’s battles somewhat poorly. There are far more intolerable strictures of our conformist society than the right turn only lane.

And yet, it’s kind of how I feel now about the home carbonator.

“MUST not carbonate anything other than water? MUST not?!? FUCK YOU!”

Home Carbonation, and Contrary Human Nature

Broiled Chicken Breasts

Marvs broiler

I’ve been looking over my last couple weeks of blogging, and I realize I’ve been big with the heavy topics and the cranky pants lately. So today, we have a nice recipe.

Well, not so much a recipe as a general food suggestion.

It’s the marinated, broiled, skinless boneless chicken breast. And it’s become one of the most beloved and relied- upon standards in our rotation. It’s super- fast, it’s ridiculously easy, it’s healthy, and it’s delicious.

And it’s unbelievably versatile. You can make sandwiches with it. You can make chicken salad with it. You can cut it up to add protein to a regular salad. You can cut it up or shred it into noodles. Add it to a stir-fry. Use it in an omelette or a frittata. Use it in risotto. Or you can just put a chunk of it on your plate, with a vegetable and a starch next to it, and pretend you’re a 1950s American family.


Plus you can flavor it almost any way you want to. And that makes it even more versatile. You can use Italian seasonings, Asian seasonings, Middle- Eastern seasonings, Tex-Mex seasonings, good old- fashioned “whatever you have in your kitchen” seasonings… whatever. Chicken is a subtle flavor, and you can spice it up almost any way you want to. Which means you can use this process for almost any recipe where you want little bits of chickeny protein.

It isn’t strictly necessary to use skinless and boneless, I suppose. But the chicken cuts up better, and absorbs the flavor better, without the skin on it. And it cooks a whole lot faster without the bones.

Here’s the recipe. Such as it is.

Olive oil

1: Make an oil-based marinade. (Technically, I suppose it isn’t really a marinade, but I’m not sure what else to call it. “Oil with flavorful stuff in it,” I guess.) This can be pretty much anything you want, and is your opportunity for your creativity to shine. Olive oil and mustard. Olive oil and Old Bay. Olive oil, lemon, and black pepper. Olive oil and rosemary. Peanut oil, sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce. Olive oil and cumin. Chili oil. You get the idea.

Make enough to coat the chicken thoroughly, but you don’t need so much that the chicken is taking a bath.

Do be sure to put a little salt in your marinade/ oily flavorful goop (unless you’re using something like Old Bay, which is good with chicken but salty as fuck.) I did a sweet marinade once that I thought didn’t need salt, and boy, was I wrong. And be aware that anything with sugar in it will blacken. That may be okay with you — I personally love chicken with a blackened sweet- hot mustard marinade/ goop — but just know what you’re getting yourself into.

2: Put the skinless, boneless chicken breasts in the goop, and let them sit. For an hour if you have time; for ten minutes if you don’t. (The subtler the flavor, the longer you have to let it sit… which is why we tend to go for unsubtle flavors.)

3: Put some tinfoil or a crappy cookie sheet you don’t much care about on your broiler pan, and turn your oven to Broil. (I find that it works best to preheat the oven for a few minutes before putting the chicken under the broiler; but then, we have a really old oven.)


4: Broil the chicken breasts for roughly 7-8 minutes on one side, and roughly 7-8 minutes on the other. You may have to experiment a little to get the exact time right: it’ll vary depending on your oven and the size of the chicken breasts. You don’t want them overcooked and dry… but you really, really don’t want undercooked chicken, either.

Save a little of the marinade, so when you flip the chicken to cook the other side, you can re-coat it.

If you want to go all nutsoid about how the chicken looks, be sure to broil it with the ugly side up first and the nice side up second, since the side that’s up second will be the side that looks prettiest. But if you’re just going to cut it up — or if you don’t care about that sort of thing — then don’t worry about it.

And that’s it.

Make some oily flavorful goop. Coat the chicken with it. Let it sit if you feel like it. Broil it. Eat.

And if you come up with some really good goop concoctions, let me know.

Broiled Chicken Breasts


I haven’t done a food post in a while, and this is one of my favorite cooking tricks, so I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

It’s homemade stock.

I think a lot of people have the idea that making your own stock is a big pain. But it’s really not. It’s ridiculously easy. And homemade stock adds a wonderful richness and complexity to your cooking. It’s delicious in soups and stews; we always make pots of beans with stock; it’s essential in gravy, in my opinion; and you can cook rice with stock instead of water, to give it flavor and a little more substance. Almost any savory dish that you cook with water can be enhanced by using stock instead. And yes, homemade is better than store-bought.

Besides, if you eat meat, making stock out of the bones gives you that whole “using every part of the animal” thing. I’m not a vegetarian, but I sort of feel like I should be, and getting as much use out of the meat as I can is one of the ways that I assuage my guilt about it. (Not eating it very often is another; mostly eating free- range, grass- fed, pasture- raised, etc. meat is another.)

So here’s my EZ, low-stress recipe for homemade stock.

The Meat Version

1. If you cook with or eat meat, save the bones. If there’s meat or fat on the bones, that’s good, but it’s not necessary. Keep them in a big, gallon-sized freezer bag in your freezer. (This is the part that grosses Ingrid out — she had a hard time getting past the “Why are we keeping garbage in our freezer?” issue — but I think I’ve finally convinced her that chicken bones are an ingredient, not trash.) I sometimes even ask restaurants to give me the bones in a take-home bag if there are any left on my plate.

We keep chicken and beef bones separate. I suppose you could mix them, I’ve never tried it — but different animals have distinctive flavors, and I’m inclined to think that mixing them would be a muddle. Also, we don’t cook with beef often, and when we do it’s kind of a big deal — so we like to keep our beef stock for special cooking occasions. (We’re still cooking with the bones from our Christmas roast beef.)

You can also include the rinds of hard cheeses like Parmesan in your frozen bag of bones. It makes for a very rich, smoky, strongly-flavored stock, so be sure that that’s what you want if you’re going to do that.

2. When you’ve saved up enough bones (and hard cheese rinds, if you’re doing that), put them in a big-ass cooking pot. Add in a bunch of cheap, flavorful vegetables: onions, carrots, garlic, celery, bell peppers, corn, pretty much whatever you want. (This is a good use for veggies that aren’t actually rotten but are past their prime — rubbery carrots, wrinkly peppers, that sort of thing.) Just be sure the veggies are the flavor you want: tomatoes, for instance, will give your stock a very strong, tomatoey flavor like ministrone, so don’t use them if you don’t want that. If you want to play it safe and have a very versatile stock, stick with onions, garlic, carrots, and celery. Chop the veggies up some, but you don’t need to do it finely — big chunks are totally fine. And don’t bother chopping the garlic — just peel the cloves and throw them in whole.

Add some whole peppercorns (more or less, depending on how much pepper you like — I usually use a small handful for a big stock pot), and fresh herbs of your choice. (When we make stock, we usually just get the packet that our organic produce delivery service calls “mixed herbs,” and that works just ducky. And no, you don’t need to make a sachet out of the herbs — you’re going to strain it all out anyway, so just throw the damn herbs into the pot already.) The pot should not be too full — say, about a third to a half full of bones and veggies.

Salt is not necessary or called for. You can add salt to whatever you’re cooking with your stock. The stock doesn’t need it, or want it.

3. Cover the whole mess with plenty of water. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, keep it covered, and cook it for about an hour. You can stir it now and then if you like, or you can leave it the hell alone.

4. Strain out the boiled bones and veggies from the yummy liquid. You’ll probably need to do this three or four times to get all the pulp and gunk out. Use a sieve, and keep straining until you’re no longer straining out a significant amount of pulp.
Throw the boiled bones and veggies away. They are now useless: the flavor and nutrition has been boiled out of them and into the stock. That’s the whole point. However, if there’s any edible meat left, you may want to pick it off the bones and keep it with your stock. You won’t want to make a sandwich out of it or anything, since it’s now been boiled to a fare- thee- well, but it can add some meatiness and substance to soups and stews.

You can use your stock right away, or you can stick it in your freezer and use it whenever you want.

Many recipes call for roasting the bones and veggies before you simmer them. Supposedly this makes for a richer, more flavorful stock. But it’s also, obviously, more work… and for me, one of the great joys of stock is how fracking easy it is. I love doing something that adds such a distinctive touch to my cooking, with so very little effort. So I’ve never bothered with the roasting. But if you think I’m wrong about this, let me know.

The Veggie Version

Vegetables 2
The veggie version is exactly like the meat version. Just leave out the “storing the mutilated skeletons of dead animals in your freezer and then boiling them in a pot like a ghoul” part. If you eat cheese, though, hard cheese rinds are a very nice addition to a veggie stock, giving it that smoky richness without the dead animals. So when you’ve grated your Parmesan down to the rind, put the rind in a baggie or a Tupperware in your freezer, and use it when you’re ready to make your stock.

The big downside of homemade stock is that, between the last batch of stock you made and the bag of bones you’re saving for your next batch, it can take up a fair amount of room in your freezer. But IMO, it’s totally worth it.

Any thoughts? Do any of you make your own stock — and if so, what tricks do you have to offer?


Mixing Brown and White: Rice, Pasta, and Pointless Carbs

I’m not an Atkins devotee. Far from it. Grains and bread have been a staple of the human diet for millenia, and I think any diet plan that treats them like Satan incarnate is a bit off the rails.

But I do try to limit what I call “pointless carbs.” White bread, refined sugar, Twinkies. That sort of thing.

And I run into a problem when it comes to rice and pasta.

On the one hand, white rice and white pasta definitely count as pointless carbs. They’re made from grains — in the case of white rice, they are grains — that have had most of the icky fiber and nutrients processed out of them, leaving behind only the glucosey goodness.

On the other hand, I think brown rice and whole-wheat pasta taste like peat moss.

So a few years ago, Ingrid and I went to a restaurant with a wonderfully elegant solution to this problem. (The Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo, if you want to know.)

They had mixed brown and white rice.

And ever since then, that’s how I’ve been making rice. Pasta, too. Half brown, half white.

I actually think it tastes way better than the plain white rice and pasta that my Midwestern palate was nurtured on. You get this lovely complexity of flavor and texture with the mix. The stronger, earthier flavor of the brown gives a nice balance to the milder flavor of the white, and vice versa. And you get the dense, rough texture of the brown, without feeling like you’re chewing through a hay bale. It’s definitely a best of both worlds deal, a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I realize that plain brown rice and plain whole wheat pasta would probably be better for me. But I don’t like them, and I’m not going to eat them, and it’s not better for me if I don’t eat them. Mixing is a good compromise. The harm reduction model of healthy eating.

The only tricky part is the timing. Cooking times are different for brown and white rice and pasta, so you have to finesse that. It’s really not hard, though. You can cut the Gordian knot if you like: make the brown and white in separate pans, and mix them when they’re done. But if you want to cook them in the same pan, just put in enough water for both, put in the one with the longer cooking time, and then put in the one with the shorter cooking time later, timed so they finish together.

Example: If your whole-wheat pasta takes 12 minutes and your white pasta takes 10, just start cooking the whole wheat pasta, and put in the white pasta 2 minutes later.

Or for rice: If your brown rice takes 40 minutes and your white rice takes 20, start cooking the brown rice, and add the white rice 20 minutes later. Be sure to start with the right amount of water for both. (I know, your mother told you never to remove the lid when you’re cooking rice; but really, nothing terrible will happen if you just do it once.)

Anyway. This works really well for us, and I thought I’d pass it along. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Mixing Brown and White: Rice, Pasta, and Pointless Carbs