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The Moral Implications of Dieting

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Dance around the issue all you want - the core principle of all diets is abstinence. Sooner or later you're going to crave something you're not supposed to eat. Welcome to the moral crises of the overweight.

In the initial stages of weight loss, these acts of denial become a form of Primal Therapy. They strip away emotional armor and phony sociability faster than a six-year old opening birthday presents. The idealistic goals of better health and longer life disappear. Even vanity, that ever-stalwart motivator, loses its sway. The battle has moved from the war room to the trenches and it isn't pretty.

Dieting, to paraphrase Bette Davis, is not for sissies.

In order to survive, one must first acknowledge and then repudiate a host of dearly-cherished but completely preposterous beliefs about food consumption. Among the most common:

DELUSIONAL EATING PRINCIPLE #1: ANY FOOD EATEN IN SECRET WILL NOT CAUSE YOU TO GAIN WEIGHT. This is a variation of the "tree falling in the forest with no one to hear" paradox. If no one catches you, the food has no caloric reality, but if you're discovered, the weight goes on. Observation is the linchpin in this digestive version of "Schrà dinger's Cat."1

DELUSIONAL EATING PRINCIPLE #2:THE CALORIC EFFECT OF ANY FOOD EATEN WHILE IN MOTION IS NULLIFIED BY THE ENERGY BURNED IN THAT MOTION. This axiom, which sounds like it sprang from the mind of a portly Isaac Newton, is only valid if you're eating celery while climbing a mountain. If you're strolling in the park with a large meatball sub, forget it.

DELUSIONAL EATING PRINCIPLE #3: ANY FOOD WHICH IS PROVIDED FREE OF CHARGE WILL NOT CAUSE YOU TO GAIN WEIGHT. This arcane superstition has been cited for centuries to justify free sample grazing in supermarkets.

As ridiculous as these notions sound, they are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the dieter, and rejecting them, while necessary, is another blow to his fragile equanimity.

As civility disintegrates and inner demons emerge, it becomes increasingly hard to remain disciplined. Most diets address this problem by relieving the practitioner of choice. Once you've pledged allegiance, you can shut down your higher brain functions and activate your mental cruise control. Having adopted a pattern of behavior, it requires minimal energy and no thought to keep going in the same direction.

To achieve this state, all directives must be followed without question, even if they seem beyond the realm of diet. If your program says, "Wear lederhosen to work," off you go in jacket, tie, and leather shorts.

Personally, I'd rather not sacrifice free will. According to Sartre, we're ultimately responsible for all our choices anyway, and he was one trim Existentialist.

There is another powerful incentive for staying the course, self-righteousness. Overcoming the siren call of your stomach even for an hour entitles you to instant sainthood, and the longer you maintain your diet, the more virtuous you become. Pretty soon, piety is just leaking out your ears, and compared to your ascetic sensibilities, Gandhi was a bon vivant. If you have to give up chili dogs, the theory goes, you might as well be smug about it.

There is, however, a drawback to consider while polishing your halo. You've transformed eating from a biological need wrapped in ritual pleasure into an indicator of moral rectitude. Straying from your program now has consequences more grave than a few extra pounds and the derision of your neighbors. Having once dazzled the world with your self-control and having condemned lesser souls for their lack thereof, it's a long humiliating trip back to fallibility. You've shown yourself weak, unworthy, no longer fit to dwell in civilized society. Try bouncing back from that in a couple of days.

Once you embrace the "weight equals virtue" principle, people are only too happy to hold you to that standard. No longer will you be judged simply as healthy or unhealthy, attractive or ungainly. Your size is now a benchmark of good and evil. The world may have made some limited progress in its tolerance of physical diversity, but it remains medieval about moral and ideological transgression. Is your dietary hubris strong enough for this kind of scrutiny? Remember The Crusades? The Inquisition? The Cultural Revolution? Look how well they turned out.

More is at stake than your waistline when you travel the path to sveltehood. Your confidence, mood, identity, even your standing in the community may become hostage to the continual shedding of pounds. The more successful you are and the more noticeable the improvement, the higher the stakes become and the greater your insecurity and dependence on the process for reinforcement. Break this cycle at your peril. For if you fail, it's not a misdemeanor but a fall from grace.

1 Thought experiment of physicist Erwin Schrà dinger (1887-1961) in which the fate of a cat is determined by the observation of an atom's state of excitation.

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Jeff Brawer is a writer and television editor in the Boston area who has worked in broadcast, medical, and industrial TV for over 25 years. He has been dealing with weight issues for over 50 years and ranting about them for an eternity.
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