Well, let's not go that far, probably not David Brooks. But one time Allan and I were driving home from Baltimore, trying to find a baseball game on the radio, and we heard something on talk-radio that we agreed with... and it turned out to be Bill O'Reilly! This was at least five years ago, and we still remember it.
So if I could agree with Bill O'Reilly once in a lifetime, I can surely agree with Margaret Wente once a year or so.
I love this column. Three cheers for Margaret Wente. Eat, live, enjoy.
Cancer is your fault ... or is it?
I see you out there. I am looking straight at you from this page. I can see you sipping on your weekend latte, as you stuff that warm, flaky chocolate croissant into your mouth. You know you're killing yourself, don't you? But maybe you don't care. Are you irresponsible? Or are you simply weak?
That was the message of the biggest health story of the week. "Poor diet ratchets up cancer risk," blared the headline in the paper. According to a massive scientific study, one that made news around the world, a significant amount of cancer is preventable - if only the public makes the necessary lifestyle changes. Shape up, people! You're too fat! Your gluttony and sloth are killing you!
"The most striking finding in the report is that excess body fat increases risk for numerous cancers," said Phillip James, one of the study's authors and chairman of the British-based International Obesity Taskforce. Millions of cancer deaths could be prevented, said the experts, if the public paid more attention to diet, exercise and weight.
Well, who wants cancer? Not me. So I read carefully to find out what I have to do. The first thing I learned is that I'd better lose weight. In fact, almost everybody should. Not being overweight isn't good enough, the experts say, because what you really need to be is thin. A 5-foot-4-inch woman (not unlike myself) should weigh, say, around 117 pounds and fit into a size 6. Even a slight amount of excess weight is bad.
As for food, I'll have to cut out steak and other kinds of red meat, especially if it's barbecued. I should stay away from bacon, beer and wine, as well as anything with a high calorie count. I really should restrict myself to skinless chicken, whole grains, water and lots of fruit and veg. Exercise? An hour a day is best.
I ought to be thrilled at the news that I can significantly cut my risk of getting cancer. So why am I so depressed? I'll tell you why. Unless you are genetically blessed with skinny genes (I'm not), avoiding cancer means a lifetime of vigilance, calorie-counting, portion control and deprivation. The alternative is a lifetime of guilt and fear. I know what I'm supposed to do. And I'm not doing it!
Fortunately, there are two fundamental problems with this study. It isn't nearly as authoritative as it looks. And even if it were, the advice it offers is worthless. That's because the vast majority of people who want to lose weight are unable to keep it off, no matter how hard or how often they try, no matter how little they eat or how much they exercise. You might as well tell them they ought to walk on their hands instead of their feet.
That's not to say you've got a licence to gorge on chocolate croissants, or disregard what you eat. What I'm saying is that your control over your weight is quite limited. Each of us has a natural weight range of perhaps 20 or 30 pounds, and you should be thrilled if you can stay toward the bottom of yours. Even the most motivated, disciplined, focused people with the best possible behavioural, nutritional and exercise support cannot maintain a significant weight loss. Even Oprah gains it back.
Why do we refuse to face this sad but liberating truth? Well, lots of us would really, really like to weigh less. And we've been thoroughly brainwashed by the obesity industry, whose relentless message is that people can lose weight if only they try hard enough, and if they can't, it's their own fault.
The obesity industry is vast and growing. It includes drug companies, weight-loss centres, government bureaucrats and thousands upon thousands of nutritionists, doctors, scientists and academics. It encompasses a huge range of economic and professional interests. As New York Times reporter Gina Kolata says in her indispensable book, Rethinking Thin, there's something in it for everyone. Read it, if only so you'll stop feeling guilty.
Okay, so maybe you're not as weak and hopeless as you think. But according to that cancer study, you're still doomed. Doomed to significantly higher risk of cancer because you're fat, or even a size 12.
Don't believe it. There is no epidemic of cancer among fat people. There is an epidemic of cancer among people who live in the developed world in comparison to the Third World, which means that if you really want to cut your risk you would be well advised to live like a Chinese peasant (minus the cigarettes). If you're a woman and you're scared of breast cancer, you should also skip the proteins, not menstruate till you're 15, make sure to have eight or nine kids and breastfeed them.
A useful critique of this week's cancer study, which was issued by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research Prevention, is available on the JunkFood Science website. I highly recommend it. Although this study bills itself as the definitive meta-study of all time, it leaves a whole lot out. For example, it leaves out a massive Harvard study (71,910 women and 37,725 men followed for 15 years) to find out whether eating fruits and vegetables lowers cancer risk. The short answer: No. It also leaves out the largest meat study ever done, which aimed to find out whether eating red meat and processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. The short answer: No. Nor does it mention a landmark study of diet and health, known as the Women's Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial. In this massive trial, 48,835 postmenopausal women (the age most at risk for developing heart disease and cancers) were randomly assigned to two groups. One group ate an unrestricted diet, and the other group ate the kind of low-fat "healthy" diet prescribed in the cancer study. Both groups were followed for more than eight years.
The researchers expected to find significant clinical benefits from the "healthy" diet. But the results, published last year, were a major surprise. Eight years of "healthy eating" made no difference to the women's health. There was no effect on the incidence of cancer or heart disease. Not only that, there was virtually no long-term effect on their weight. They wound up weighing around a pound less than the women in the unrestricted eating group.
Wouldn't you be mad if you were in the healthy group? Think of all those calories counted and chocolate croissants forgone, and for nothing.
So here's my two cents of advice. Don't blame yourself if you can't stick to a diet. Don't blame yourself if you get cancer either. Honest, it's not your fault! Eat a steak once in a while.
Pick one with lots of fat. Enjoy it.
In case anyone wants to discuss this (and it's fine if you don't), let me put this right out there. I eat healthfully, because I care about myself and my well being. I exercise, because it's healthier for a body to move than not move, and because I feel so much better when I do.
Of course it's healthier to eat fresh, whole foods than fast food. Of course we shouldn't load our bodies with salt, trans fat, processed white flour and white sugar. Of course it's healthier not to drink alcohol to excess, and not to smoke. Garbage in, garbage out. I know that, and my life reflects it.
But having lived on the weight-loss treadmill for many years - and having driven myself nearly insane on it - and having written about people who almost died on that treadmill - then having liberated myself from it through years of hard work - I've come to see these perennial scolding weight-loss stories in a new light.
Food is wonderful. Eating is wonderful. Creating good food belongs with music, art or architecture, on the list of wondrous human endeavors, and eating good food is one of life's great pleasures. For me, so is drinking wine. Neither needs to be done to excess to be enjoyed, but a little excess once in a while is all right, too.
Food is not poison, always to be avoided, or only sampled with apology. Life is too short for so much self-denial.
I don't want to go into my whole diet and weight-loss history. It's boring, and it's behind me. I'll just say this: I used to care a lot more about weight. Now I care a lot more about health, and happiness. I am heavier, healthier and happier. It's a gift I wish I could give every person who beats herself up (usually herself) over her weight, or lives in a state of constant denial*.
In all the years I've been writing wmtc, I have only touched on this issue once. That's because part of my healthy attitude about my body shape and size - my hard-won, liberated attitude! - is that I don't talk about it. I have wholly rejected the obsessive discussion of weight-loss that much of our world engages in (and that I used to do, too), and I don't want to bring it to this blog.
But this column was just too good to pass up. Thank you, Margaret Wente. There, I said it.
* Denial meaning restriction, denying yourself things that you want, not the psychological defense mechanism of not acknowledging potentially painful subjects.