Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 2 (a digression)

(Click to start with part 1 of this review.)

The picture on the left shows my maternal grandfather, aunt, and grandmother in the mid 1920s, when my aunt was a young teenager. My daughters dubbed these three "the sturdy ones."

The picture on the right shows my aunt in 1932, the year she turned 20 and got married. Slender, beautiful, and always impeccably dressed, she would never again be an ounce over fashionable.

Yo-yo dieting was not for my aunt. When she lost weight, she lost it for good. But this is not a success story. It is a tragedy.

Tired of being fat, Bessie decided to reinvent herself. As my mother told the story, her sister simply stopped eating. I don't know how long it took or how much weight she lost, but in a fairly short time she plunged from plump to svelte.

She also lost her hair, her eyebrows, her fingernails, and her teeth.

Back in the 1920s people weren't talking about anorexia, and I don't know from my mother's description if Bessie fit the description. To my knowledge, she did not have a distorted self-image, nor did her weight ever go dangerously low. She had a goal and she achieved it, though at the cost of her health. Once she reached her desired size, she started eating again. Her hair and fingernails grew back. She penciled on new eyebrows. She ordered a set of teeth from her dentist.

Unfortunately, her crash diet did not change her eating habits. To use David A. Kessler's term in The End of Overeating, she was still a "conditioned hypereater." Yet she had no intention of ever being fat again. So Bessie, a determined woman, came up with her own weight-maintenance plan. She ate whatever she wanted, and then she excused herself for a few moments in the bathroom. It worked like a charm.

Back in the 1950s when I learned about my aunt's post-prandial pukes, people weren't talking about bulimia. Aunt Bessie seemed normal enough. She was a wonderful cook, she was slender and beautiful, she had a wardrobe to die for.

As it turned out, that's exactly what she did.

The doctors couldn't figure out what was ailing her when she took to her bed in the 1960s. As she grew weaker, her husband flew her hundreds of miles to an excellent teaching hospital for tests. "Failure to thrive" was the best they could do. She didn't eat. She grew thinner and thinner. When she spoke or smiled, her false teeth clattered.

In 1969, at the age of 56, she died, leaving a husband, two children, and approximately 25 linear feet of clothes closets packed with dresses, furs, and shoes.


I don't believe in diets. Most dieters lose a few pounds, gain them back, gain some more, and then try a different diet. A few dieters like my aunt go off the deep end and never come back.

My mother couldn't help bringing up Aunt Bessie when, at age 16, I went to France for a year and gained 15 pounds from eating 100 grams of chocolate every day. She couldn't help bringing her up again a few years later when I refused desserts, bread, and second helpings and lost three dress sizes in a few months. I don't know what Mother would have said if she'd known that several times in college I literally tossed my cookies (a whole bag of sugar cookies devoured in one sitting can make one want to do that).

She didn't really need to worry that I was going to copy my aunt. Anorexia and bulimia do not appeal to me. I far prefer my mother's philosophy: "I'd rather have a little tummy and eat what I like," she once told me, "than be slim and have nothing but grapefruit and cottage cheese for lunch." Mother sometimes wished she had flatter abs and a smaller dress size, but she was never overweight, she never dieted, and she never gave up desserts. If I fretted about gaining a couple of pounds, she'd say, "Don't eat between meals," or "Remember that the second bite tastes just like the first." For her, sensible eating was second nature.

In parts 3 and 4 of The End of Overeating, Kessler explains how conditioned hypereaters--not necessarily people like my aunt who have eating disorders, but people like me who can't resist chocolate and cashews and ice cream--can break bad habits and become sensible eaters. Superhuman feats of willpower, he says, are not required, nor is giving up everything that tastes good. I'll say more about his approach later this week. Or maybe you should just read his book.

(Click to go to part 3 of this review.)

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