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November 22, 2017

It's Thanksgiving. Stop 'moralizing' your food, one doctor argues.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Nov. 23, 2021.

    Writing for the New York Times' "The Upshot," Aaron Carroll, a physician and professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, describes how after many failed diets, he finally lost weight— and "reclaimed" the joy of Thanksgiving—by learning to stop moralizing food.

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    Carroll writes that when he was a medical resident about 20 years ago, he "couldn't seem to figure ... out" how to fit healthy eating and activity into his life—even as he emphasized to his patients the importance of diet and exercise.

    Eventually, he and his wife decided to lose weight. They tried Weight Watchers, a program that focused on reducing fat, counting calories, and increasing fiber intake at that time. It worked—at first. But eventually, he found he couldn't stick with the program.

    So he tried a different approach, focusing on exercise, trying programs such as P90X and Insanity. The results, however, were the same: While he lost weight at first, eventually his progress stalled. The experience repeated itself when he tried a "low-carb" diet.

    His experience was far from atypical, Carroll writes: Studies show that people who try new diets often succeed at first, but their weight loss slows down and may even reverse over time.

    The false hazards of 'evil' food

    So what's the problem with the diets Carroll tried? All of them, he writes, suffer from the same fatal flaw: the idea that some foods are inherently "bad" and potentially even fatal.

    The idea of moralizing food has strong roots in history, Carroll notes. Back in the days when many Americans suffered from malnutrition, a lack of nutrients such as vitamin B and C really was a dietary "evil" that could be cured by adding "good" foods.

    But even though few Americans suffer from malnourishment nowadays, we continue to view food through this moral lens, Carroll writes. We're so terrified of acting wrongly that we lose the joy of eating and cooking.

    Simple rules for healthy eating

    Ultimately, Carroll gave up on restrictive diets and assembled his own set of "simple rules for healthy eating"—easy-to-follow guideposts that pointed him in the direction of better dietary choices.

    Today, Carroll writes, he and his wife have gotten down to "reasonable weights," thanks in large part to the second rule on his list, "Eat as much home-cooked food as possible."

    Even so, he sometimes slips into old habits, moralizing his eating decisions. Once, when discussing his latest effort to lose weight with his wife, one of his children chimed in to ask why he was dieting in the first place. Carroll "had no answer," he writes, adding, "I don't think [dieting] will make me healthier or make me live longer. It won't improve my quality of life. I won't be in better shape. My clothes would fit the same. I'm not even sure anyone would see a difference."

    The only explanation, Carroll writes, is that he remains stuck in a mindset that believes "being thin is the same thing as being healthy," and that "dieting is the same as healthful eating."

    But "neither are true," according to Carroll. Ultimately, the right approach is to stop focusing so much on the harms of eating and try to recapture the joys of it (Carroll, New York Times, "The Upshot", 11/20).

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