Last week, Gene [not his real name] the computer guy showed up at my office for the first time in a while. Right away, I knew something had changed. I said, “Gene, how are you? You’re looking very well!” He responded with an uncharacteristic grin, and answered by telling me one thing all of us know, but few believe (despite numerous confirmatory personal experiences!). I sat up fast when he said, “Diets don’t work.”
He motioned to a small machine on his belt that I had noticed only peripherally, assuming it was a cell phone, or pager, or maybe even an insulin pump. It was a pedometer. He said that he had started slowly, satisfied at the start with even 8,000 steps per day. In the beginning, his goal had been to get to 10,000 steps every single day. That was then. Now he frequently walked close to 20,000 steps a day, and related that “if I have time, and I feel like going a little further” he was walking even more. His pants had gotten loose, and he, proudly, had taken in his belt a notch.
Change begets change, and health begets health. It wasn’t long before Gene realized that the daily fast-food lunches he had eaten for years were not part of this new program. He decided to try eating a bag of nuts instead and discovered, to his amazement, that it satisfied his hunger. He took in his belt two more notches.
Tip O’Neill, the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., once said, “All politics is local.” He meant that all members of Congress bring the concerns of their hometowns to their offices in the Capital. The issues they consider most important are the ones that affect them most deeply.
In the same way, I would say that all nutrition is personal. One size never fits all. I know: I’m barely 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, and “one size fits all” never fits me! Some of us enjoy the taste of cilantro; some truly despise it. It amuses me to see that some people at my gym carry their water in gallon jugs, whereas others carry small bottles or none at all. Some folks seem to thrive on a vegan diet, and others have never been able to manage their weight unless they cut their carbohydrate intake to just about nil. If you have a mini-food processor and you like dill, then you loved last week’s post about dill pesto. Otherwise, maybe you scrolled down to find out what else I’ve posted lately.
The same goes for exercise. It’s not just about food. If you live close to a track, or in a safe neighborhood with sidewalks in good repair, and you enjoy walking, then you may be wondering, just about now, where to buy a pedometer. If your knees are giving you the blues, and you have always loved being in the water, maybe you’ll check this week to see if there’s a pool nearby. Or maybe the idea of checking out a yoga or tai chi DVD or videotape from the library sounds good. The point? Do what appeals. Work with, not against, your inclinations. You can’t fight City Hall.
What is the secret to Gene’s success? The main thing is that he is not trying to make change based on “a diet.” He understands that diets don’t work. As I discussed in Go for the Gusto, a system built on deprivation will never provide a basis for constructive change. Secondly, Gene figured out which aspects of his lifestyle were most troublesome, and he fixed just those. One step at a time. Literally. And then one meal at a time. Small changes.
Gene increased his activity in a way that was pleasurable to him. Then he removed one major source of refined carbohydrate and trans fat, the daily fast food lunch. Finally, he stopped drinking soda pop. And that did it. He continues to feel better and better as these changes settle in for the long haul. He didn’t stop eating all processed carbohydrate. He didn’t say that he will never again drink a soda. He just decided that he will no longer be doing it every day. And what keeps him going? The fact that he feels so much better. And his son.
Almost all my patients tell me that the changes they make for themselves go on to be reflected in their entire families. Gene said that he now gives his 6-year-old son only water (or milk) to drink. He says to him, “If you don’t want water, you’re not thirsty. If you want something sweet, eat a banana. If you’re really thirsty, you’ll drink water.” He has a great point here, and one I intend to share around. Plenty of my patients complain that they don’t like to drink water. I believe that this is a learned response, and one that can be unlearned. I advise them to dilute their drinks by ½, then ¼, then 1/8, and so on, until they no longer use the sweet stuff. Small changes, always. Gene is right. If we’re really thirsty, water is fine, even desirable.
Change is reflected first in the way we think about it, whatever it is, and then in the way we go about it. Change occurs first in our minds, and then in our bodies. As our conversation came to an end, Gene said, “I still have a long way to go.” I guess he means how far he intends to walk. Mentally, I’m delighted to report, he’s already there.