Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Culture versus Gender

I'd like to thank Friend of the Bear and JustJulieBean for their comments regarding French women in my Quality? Quality! post.

I'm not quibbling with the statement that French women can be quite obsessed with weight. But that was not what I was trying to get at in my previous post.

In my Quality post I was talking about how we "tamper" with food. We make food-like substances that stay "fresh" for years. We take fat calories out and substitute sugar or edible-oil products. We fear real food and turn to franken-foods in the hopes that these pseudo-foods will help us lose weight. We eat fast food because we fear real food or we look down on food as a waste of time. Eating is something to be gotten out of the way so that we can get back to work. We eat fast food because it is cheap and thus we can save money. It is only since our society has suddenly discovered the "obesity epidemic" that the mainstream press and ordinary people are beginning to question the wisdom of TV dinners or the many fast food joints that dot the landscape. This is a cultural issue and so far, the French (and other cultures too) have been somewhat more successful in fighting the disappearance of real food than have the countries of the English-speaking world.

However, we cannot overlook gender in the food equation. Obsession with weight is, for the most part, something that women live with much more than men. Generally, a man can live quite happily with 20-30-4o pounds too much. It's perhaps only when they get into the really obese category that some men start to realize they might be a "bit" too heavy.

Women, on the other hand, freak out about 5 pounds and feel totally defeated if they don't measure up to the airbrushed standards that typify our magazines.

And these feelings of not living up to a certain standard of beauty (or a BMI number, or a clothing size) cut across cultural lines. These are gender issues.
I do agree that, from my experience, French women are quite concerned about weight and appearance in general. And they're not afraid to say exactly what they think of you! When I was in Paris in the 80s--at a time when I probably weighed a good 10-15 pounds less than I weigh today (remember this is a huge amount of weight when you're only 4'10")--I went for a facial and the esthetician had no compunctions whatsoever about telling me that I had blotchy skin (here, we call it rosy cheeks) and could stand to lose some weight.

Here's another story about French women: An acquaintance of mine (who by the way speaks fluent, continental French) went to France once and has vowed never to go back. The one time she went to Paris on vacation she was in her twenties. At the time, she was rather "round". Now, she's quite overweight (or at least when I last saw her a few years ago). She walked into a women's clothing store in Paris to look for a dress to wear to a party for her brother's fiance. The saleslady looked her up and down and then said, "We don't have anything here for women like you."

I told a French colleague of mine the dress story and her reaction was that the saleslady had said the right thing. Why let the woman wander around the store when there was nothing there for her? BTW, this colleague is super-thin.

So there is no contradiction between saying that the French have a much healthier attitude towards food and saying that French women are obsessed over their weight. One is a cultural issue while the other has to do with gender.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Psychology tells us that the greatest source of stress in the workplace is a lack of control over one's work. This describes to a T my work. I work in a very niche market, so it's hard to describe from the outside. Suffice to say that once the contract is signed, everything is out of my control. Amazingly, things work out relatively well most of the time, but the feeling of powerlessness--repeated contract after contract, year after year--is starting to overwhelm me.

Of course, the kicker is that I work in a well-paid profession. I guess that even though people make it incredibly hard for me to do my work in a credible fashion, they figure that they're paying top dollar so I might as well shut up, do the job (as well as possible, under often impossible conditions) and cash the pay cheque. Today, I felt like a high-class whore. You pay her, you do what you want with her. I'm sure these women are even more used and abused than I could ever be, but the parallel still seem sound to me.

I've been vaguely thinking about changing professions for several years now. I still don't feel anywhere near finding a solution, but I'm going to have to do something--either to calm my nerves (and the unnerving, yet frequent feeling that I want to rip someone's throat out) or to get out while I still can. I just have to find a different way to make a decent living. Easier said than done.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quality? Quality!


Recently, the blogging world and the healthy foodie world in general have been all abuzz with Michael Pollan's latest book, "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual". I haven't bought the book myself, though I did enjoy riffling through it at the airport while on a recent business trip.

"Rules" is a short book that is full of common sense. Probably the people who need it least are buying it and those who need it most either don't know it exists or think it's a bunch of hooey. Sad.

As I was leafing through the book, the rule about "eating food that rots" (I'm paraphrasing) really stood out for me. It makes me think of the term "edible food-like substances" and how "food that rots" is diametrically opposed to such "substances". I am feeling more and more like I just want to eat food--not something that looks like food, but has fewer calories --no, real food, like olive oil, fresh fruit or high-quality chocolate.

Recently, I bought a fairly expensive, large bar of 70% cocao chocolate. The calorie count per square was about 40 calories and the squares weren't big. My family and I (2 adults, 2 teenagers) went through the bar in about a week, eating 2-3 squares each at a time. The taste was so wonderful, so real and satisfying that no one felt the need to eat more than a few squares at a time. I can guarantee you that eating a box or two of Smarties wouldn't have been half as satisfying.

Our junk food nation runs on pseudo-food: food that is full of preservatives, salt and sugar. I suspect that it's easier to say one has a salt or a sugar addiction if the salt permeates a Big Mac or the sugar sits in a Twinkie. Yesterday, at a conference I had half a minuscule square of cheesecake. And it was enough. Because it was real.

What are people pigging out on? Fresh green beans or Brussel sprouts with some real butter on top? A loaf of whole-grain bread? Or that wonderful chocolate I mentioned above? I don't think so. They're pigging out on garbage.

As I was leafing through Scientific American Mind the other day, I came across an ad for a Scientific American cruise, featuring PhD speakers from a number of different areas. One of the speakers, psychologist Paul Rozin, will be giving a talk on the psychology of food, entitled "Obesity and Unhealthy Choices in Cultural Perspective: The French-American Contrast". Allow me to quote the blurb for his talk:

Americans worry about their weight and eat low fat food, and French eat a higher fat diet than Americans and worry less. Doesn't that make you wonder why obesity is much lower in France than in the USA? [...] we'll compare how French and Americans adapted to major changes in the food world and get the scoop on how the French have managed to be less afflicted by obesity and more engaged in the enjoyment of eating.

I don't care if you still think the French are surrender monkeys or if you prefer freedom fries, they (and the Italians, and probably the Spanish too) still know a heck of a lot more about eating fresh, real, quality food than the average North American or Brit.

I'm not going on that cruise, but I'm sure it will be interesting and if Paul Rozin convinces just one person to drop the "diet" food and eat reasonable portions of real food, he will be a saint in my book.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I wasn't planning to write about this. I'm afraid that I'm betraying confidences, but this blog is fairly well insulated from my real-world life. I believe that my husband reads it from time to time, but he has never talked to me about it. So I'm going to spill some beans because I'm having trouble right now.

Our older son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) at the end of 2009. He had been having intermittent problems at school but in the past year his marks had started going all over the map--but mostly markedly down, even in the subjects he loves. Our son is gifted. He was tested in Gr. 6 at the request of the school and has been in a gifted programme since Gr. 7. He is now in Gr. 11.

S. reads books on physics for fun. He reflects on the state of the world constantly, reads the newspapers and is much more aware of current events than most adults. He is a profound thinker. He also cannot sit down and do an assignment. He just can't gather all his thoughts and mould them into a coherent whole. In a classroom setting, he is a delight. He participates with great animation in discussions and always has something interesting to add to the debate. He is not disruptive (there is no hyperactivity involved in his disorder). In fact, some teachers have called him a good influence on his fellow students, even a role model. Take him out of the classroom, though, and almost nothing gets done. He procrastinates, his self-esteem is dropping like a stone and yet he still can't do anything.

I know I have to be there for my son, but it's hard. I'm not perfect--far from it. I procrastinate too. We all do. But generally speaking, I am extremely well-organized, a self-starter and pretty much always on top of what has to be done, both in my personal, blogging and professional life. I could not be a successful self-employed person without having these traits. So in profound ways, I am the opposite of my son. Like most people, my husband has a regular 9 to 5 job; he too is generally fairly well organized and does a good job. I know that he is highly regarded in his field. He is currently writing a book; he didn't pitch the idea to anyone: the publisher approached him to do it.

And we have a son who is brilliant, but floundering.

Although I never would have thought it possible, I have now come around to the idea that our son could benefit from medication. In fact, it was due to him starting medication for the ADD that we found out about his heart defect. As you know, he has just begun the medication again. When the medication works, it is said to work almost instantaneously. So far, with our son, we see no results. Either it does not work, or the dose is too low. He has been started at a rock-bottom dose, so the work of adjusting it has just begun. Next Friday, the dose goes up. We'll see.

Let me make it clear right now: I do not think that diet has anything significant to do with ADD. First, he has an extremely well balanced diet: lots of fruit and vegetables, very little refined sugar or flour. I have started doing reading on ADD and so far have not found any credible study that points to a relationship between diet and ADD. There is also another element that food purists seem to have trouble comprehending: controlling an adolescent's diet is a losing proposition. The hate and frustration it causes totally cancels out any nutritional benefits. Anyway, fortunately, he has a taste for good food and even left to his own devices, he is not a junk food junkie.

PLEASE DO NOT ADVISE ME TO CONTROL HIS DIET. If you do, it will be crystal clear that you are not reading what I'm saying.

What I do know is that ADD is related to significant differences in the frontal lobe of the brain between ADD and non-ADD people. This is the area that controls self-regulation. Medication is not the only solution, though. He is now seeing a psychologist and has begun working 1-2 times a week with a coach who is also a teacher. Her role is to help him find appropriate strategies so that he can focus and get his work done.

Unfortunately--and perhaps due to the fact that he sees me as everything he is not in terms of organizational skills--I cannot discuss anything with him. He perceives asking him if he's doing his homework, or finished a particular assignment, for instance, as the height of harassment. He is slightly more open to what his dad says. I am required to studiously butt out at all times. This is the rough part for me. The woman whose work depends on almost instantaneous results must sit back and watch her son turn in circles, not knowing how, if and when things will begin improving.

So this is what's trotting around in my brain right now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Heart Bill of Health!

The cardiologist appointment went great. It was a bit crazy getting to the doc's office. It was much further than I thought and we arrived a bit late. But the doc was running quite late, so it all worked out. The doctor looked at his file, re-did two tests (an ECG and an ultrasound) and said that everything's fine and my son can get back on the other medication, which he really needs for a much more pressing situation.

Now we're back where we started about three weeks ago--getting him back on the medication, finding the right dose and finally seeing some positive results. The situation is far from solved but we're back on the right track.

Thanks for all your good wishes!

Cardiologist Appointment Today

Today, hubby and I are going with our older son to the cardiologist. I'm eager to find out what's going on and what it means for him in terms of taking a medication that he really needs for another issue he's facing. We'll also hopefully find out how to deal with his fatigue (his heart beats slowly and he has low blood pressure), how much and what type of exercise he can do, etc.

It will be an important appointment and I really hope we'll see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Going It Alone

Everyone knows that doing something with a buddy makes things easier, more enjoyable and more successful. When the gang's on board, all that mutual support makes a difference.

Unfortunately, after almost a year of implementing a new mindset, my "gang", aka my husband, is still merrily doing as he's always done and steadily gaining weight.

It's not that my husband eats "badly". He eats a balanced diet, rarely consumes soft drinks or junk food and has made a real effort to introduce more veggies into his life. He just eats too much. I wouldn't say that he wolfs his food down, but he eats large forkfuls steadily, with few pauses and goes back for seconds almost all the time. On the exercise front, he walks about 1/2 hour every day, but does nothing else. Thank goodness, he doesn't smoke (never has) and has no more than 2 beers a week and the odd small glass of wine.

Like most women, I can't keep my mouth shut all the time, but after 21 years together it has become abundantly clear that he will not step an inch outside his comfort zone. I have begged and cajoled him for years to just go for a check-up at the doctor's. He promises but has so far failed to ever go--in 21 years. I honestly think he's scared of facing up to the truth. He might also have an irrational fear that if he goes for a check-up, he too will end up with a myriad of health problems like his wife (aka me). In his world, what he doesn't know won't hurt him...He's a lot more like his mother than he'd ever admit.

I think that if I could lead the way with exercise, he would follow along. But as you all know, that's impossible. I can't go biking, he won't go biking on his own. I can't go to the gym, he certainly won't go on his own. We do enjoy walking together, but since I can only walk at a leisurely pace, it's not really exercise.

He is also not a guy who hangs out with his buddies at the gym. He's got friends, but no one particularly close and the friends he does see are the kind of people who believe in good conversation and a good beer. I can't think of one person he knows who's at all physically active. In fact, all his friends and/or acquaintances are slightly to moderately to quite overweight.

My husband is a really intelligent guy, a nerd, in fact, who hangs out with equally nerdy people. Really nice, but really nerdy.

Have you ever been to a science-fiction convention? Have you ever been surrounded by thousands of pasty-faced, overweight people lost in a world of space ships and aliens? OK, they're not all like that. Many of them are in fact fascinating, intelligent people. The fact remains, however, that I was really struck by the general unhealthiness of the attendees at the World Science Fiction Convention, this past summer in Montreal. And these are basically the people he hangs with--if he's not hanging with university math and physics professors (another group known for its interest in health and fitness LOL).

On Sunday, I ambushed dear hubby in the hallway while both boys were out. I politely gave him a piece of my mind (no, I won't go into details) on how he is shirking his own personal health responsibilities. On Monday, I was at my GP's (perhaps more on that at a later date) and her secretary has been put on high alert, waiting for him to call. His last name is French (we don't share the same last name) and horribly hard to pronounce for someone not used to the language. The secretary is on the lookout for someone introducing himself as my husband. Pretty funny.

Now, he just has to call..........................................

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Numbers

Photo: Auschwitz.org

On Saturday, I read a couple of blog posts that really disturbed me. If you recognize yourself in this post, I'm responding on my own blog since you asked that no one question your feelings on your blog.

The first blogger wrote a post to tell her readers that she was thinking about going down to 600 calories a day since she was planning to go off a medication and had heard that she might gain weight by doing so.

Let's be clear on something: 600 calories is starvation--nothing more and nothing less. You will not be nourishing yourself properly. Your body will start cannibalizing itself in search of nutrition. Your metabolism will slow to a snail's pace to keep yourself going. You will gain back the weight you lose in a snap as soon as you revert to normal eating. This is yo-yo dieting at its worst. It is a perfect recipe for failure. In the Auschwitz concentration camp, people were worked and starved to death. Great diet.

Which leads me to blogger number 2 who wailed most loudly when a trainer told her that she was consuming too few calories and that her large weight loss of the preceding week was only half fat loss with the other half being muscle loss. This again is an example of the body cannibalizing itself in search of nutrition. (See here for further explanations).

Blogger number 2 said something else that made me jump through the ceiling: she wouldn't be happy as a size 6 if the number on the scale was too high for her liking. OK, OK, I know she was being slightly facetious, but let's be clear: in the great scheme of things, it's the measurements that count. The number on the scale can tell a lie, the tape measure always tells the truth. With a healthy diet (not diet in the sense of "weight loss" but in the sense of "what you eat") and exercise, your body will be much healthier than if you simply cut calories. You can be fat and underweight. When you lose inches, you've lost fat. When you lose weight--well, half the time, who the heck knows what you've lost. When I was hyperthyroid, I looked very slim. Trouble was, it was muscle, not fat, that I lost.

But hey, if you want to live and die by the scale, be my guest. Personally, I think I'll be looking at some other numbers too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What a Treat!

Frozen banana...quite amazing. Very sweet and filling. A half a banana was enough for me.


See this post for more info. BTW, I just ate mine still frozen. It's a bit hard to peel, but well worth it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thank You, Dr. Oz

Photo: TimesUnion.com

On Tuesday, I was watching the Dr. Oz show and doing some exercise. It's not a show I watch very often because I think this show--like many other shows on TV today--indulges in a lot of fear mongering: this time, it was how your make-up is going to kill you. Look it up if you want to find out more.

But Dr. Oz did have one guest on the show who I thought was great. He interviewed a woman in her forties who had lost 75 pounds and then helped her husband to lose 100 pounds. She did it without joining any particular diet group or "movement" and without joining a gym. She did it by learning about good nutrition and moving her body. Nothing new there. Good common sense, nothing revolutionary.

But here's what I really loved about this woman (whose name I cannot remember) and about Dr. Oz:

She's not skinny. She's got a muffin top. But she's one happy gal, she's now a certified personal trainer who works with overweight people and her inner numbers are great (good vs. bad cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose, etc.). Three cheers for this wonderful woman.

And three cheers for Dr. Oz for introducing millions of people to the face of someone who is very healthy, but still looks like a regular human being. Never once did he ask her if she was planning to lose more weight or make her body more streamlined. He was blown away by how healthy she was--no ifs ands or buts.

So thank you, Dr. Oz!!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Walk Down Sodium Lane

Photo: The Sacramento Bee

As you know, I do not believe in perfection. "The perfect is the enemy of the good", as Voltaire so eloquently said (although it sounds much better in French). I believe in doing the best I can and leaving perfection to Bo Derek, or Itzhak Perlman...

But certain things require a slightly greater effort in that, if you don't really truly try your best, you could end up in bad, bad shape. Like sodium intake, for instance.

Sodium is important to our bodies. It's an element that we do need to be healthy. The problem is, when you overdo the sodium, you risk high blood pressure, leading to heart attacks and strokes--need I say more?

Although the recommended intake is no more than 1,500 grams per day, in North America we average double that amount. Worse yet, as usual, that "recommended intake" is no doubt for a mysterious, 5'10", 150-pound male stranger. That leaves many of us needing even LESS salt.

Even if you personally use very little salt, salt is everywhere.

Processed foods contain excessive amounts of sodium. Just take a walk down the aisles of your local grocery store: peanut butter (if you don't specifically buy the no salt, no sugar version), salted butter, salted margarine, tinned soups, cheeses, bread, cereals, salad dressings, crackers, meals in a box...Clamato juice, BABY FOOD for crying out loud. Oh, and let's not forget restaurant food. It just makes me want to cringe.

Interestingly, some countries have more sodium added to their foods than others. Canadian food businesses are a prime culprit. Our canned soups have more salt than the same soups in the States. The companies say that that's the way we like our food. I say: "no one asked me!"

So what's the solution? Eat fewer processed foods and buy the low or no-salt versions of foods you like. In my house, we haven't bought regular peanut butter in so many years that on the rare occasions when I taste "regular" (read: salted and sugared) peanut butter, my tastebuds are in shock. Read labels. When you have the choice, buy the lower salt version. It might also be the version that contains fewer, or no, preservatives.

And of course, the best line of defence: try to buy fresh, unprocessed food and don't add extra salt.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Total Confusion

Photo: Morningbounce

Here are the "messages" I've been getting from the blogs I read regularly:

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!
Diets don't work. The science is there to prove it.
Track every single calorie you ingest.
Food is not poison.
Fasting will kickstart weight loss.
Up your calorie intake if you've hit a plateau.
Low carb is the way to go.

Then there are the latest scary stories in the media, to whit: we really need a good 60 minutes of fairly strenuous exercise PER DAY to stay healthy. Well, maybe if I didn't have arthritis I'd try, but I guess since I do and I can't, I'm doomed.

What's a body to do?

Do you feel this confused?