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Gerson: Dieting's A Bore We're Ill-Prepared For

Regular readers of Michael Gerson's column in the Washington Post know he usually tackles timely issues in politics, religion, foreign policy and global health and development. Recently, he dealt with what may be an even more challenging — and personal — issue: the difficulties of dieting.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Readers of The Washington Post turn to Michael Gerson's column on the op-ed page for serious discussion of religion, politics, foreign policy, global health. Last week, though, he addressed a personal challenge: The difficulties and the intricacies of his diet. In a piece titled "The Superiority of Slim Pickings," Gerson denounced the tedium of healthy dieting, the temptations of moral superiority and what he calls the civilizational trends that have made us — taken us lean mean hunter-gatherers to lives as chubby desk jockeys who hunt for nothing but cool websites. We're all been there, bored and miserable. So what's been the worst part of your diet?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Michael Gerson, the noticeably slenderer columnist for The Washington Post, joins us here in studio 3A.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yeah, you bet.

CONAN: Nice to have you back on the program.

GERSON: Great to be with you.

CONAN: You declare unequivocally that if you never see another piece of lean protein again, it will be too soon.

GERSON: Yeah, I know. It's true. The sameness eventually gets to you when you're dealing with fish and chicken without any sauces to leaven it. But it's also the permanence, which is when you begin a diet like this, you eventually realize it's not just a diet change. It's a lifestyle change. And it's, you know, it's a tough prospect. The first day of your diet is the first day of the rest of your life without pasta whenever you want it.

CONAN: So this is not just to get in shape for the beach.

GERSON: No. I did find myself a chubby desk jockey, however. You know, 20 years in front of a computer screen almost eight hours a day is not really good preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon, and there are health effects to that. And you have to take it seriously when you get to middle age.

CONAN: Was there some hammer that dropped or was this a personal motivation?

GERSON: No. Some of it is you find out that, you know, something like your weight is actually a better predictor of health - bad health problems than serum cholesterol. And I was like 66 percent of Americans. I mean, you know, I was - I not just a few pounds overweight but significantly overweight, and it was having an effect on my energy levels and other things. And so almost 60 percent of Americans have embarked on a diet at some time or another, and I've been on mine about four months and thought I'd finally write about it.

CONAN: And as you - but as you look at the options available to you, I'm sure everybody you've run into has said, oh, wait a minute. You've got to try this. It's fabulous.

GERSON: Yeah. Well, my diet started really in an encounter with my friend and Washington Post colleague E.J. Dionne, who's lost a lot of weight himself, and I asked him, how did you do this? And he said, two secrets: One is a low-carb diet and the other one was getting a stomach flu.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: So I decided to take the low-carb route, the low-carb, low-taste route and so that's what I pursue. It really involves lean proteins and raw vegetables and getting rid of pastas and sugars, refined sugars. And it's, you know, it's been a discipline but not as bad as I thought. So...

CONAN: And - but people will say that there's plenty of variety. Think about all those wonderful vegetables.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: Yeah. You know, at some point, raw vegetables of any variety, they just seem to not be as appealing anymore. Probiotics eventually - even healthy probiotics seem more like parasites when you take them. And so, you know, it is the sameness that kind of gets to you. But I had very few cravings. I've - I come from an Italian background. I thought I'd really miss pasta and bread. But I found myself in the middle of the night going down for peanut butter, which was strange, like a pregnant woman in the middle of the night.

And you feel these unbelievable biological urges, and it's kind of a reminder of the mind-body problem. You're, you know, I work in essentially an intellectual field. But you're tied to this animal that craves certain things and it's a reminder of (unintelligible) and the mind-body problem and how you're mind is tied to this craving being, so...

CONAN: The peanut butter, is this something that you ate regularly before you went on...

GERSON: No. It was an unexpected craving, and, you know, it feels like a biological urge, like you have to fly south for the winter or something. And...

CONAN: But as you pointed out, we are hardwired to bulk up to prepare for the next famine?

GERSON: Yeah, that's exactly right. And this is the central challenge. I entered this, and as a columnist, of course, I research things too much. But I entered this and...

CONAN: More time in front of the computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: That's right. And, you know, realize that this is a vast historical trend that your fighting here. Which is really, that human beings were designed, through 99.5 percent of our history - we've been hunter-gatherers. And that means two things. It means you're prepared for long-distance running and should do it a lot. And it also means that your body stores fat for lean times. And so when you take that person, like me, and you put them in front of a television - the average American, 4.8 hours a day in front of a television - and then, you know, if you consume 150 to 170 pounds of sugar a year, which is the average in America, you end up with what Americans are, and what I had become.

CONAN: I would point out that lean, mean, hunter-gatherer, Michael Gerson - we would have read this obit 20 years ago on average, so there are advantages.

GERSON: That's really true. There are advantages to the modern world.

CONAN: Let's see, we get some callers in on the conversation. As you've struggled with your diet, what has been the most difficult part of it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Lila, and is that right, in Denver?

LIA: Hi. No, Lia.

CONAN: Lia, forgive me.

LIA: No problem. I guess the hardest part for me actually isn't the weight loss so much as the maintenance. I joined Weight Watchers in 2006. I've been a lifetime member since then, but I noticed it's the same amount of effort to lose the weight as it is to keep it off. And at least when you're losing weight, you're going towards a certain direction, which is downwards. But the other one feels a lot like running, just to stay in place. And it can get discouraging, and like Mr. Gerson says, it's really boring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Really boring. So there's no point in which you could stop and celebrate with a cheeseburger?

LIA: No, you can, but, you know, you pay for it too, I mean, because it's, you know, you're watching - as a lifetime member, you need to monitor your weight daily now, as opposed to just weekly when you were losing it. And, you know, just a little bit has an effect on the scale. So, really, I don't really think you can let up. You can celebrate, but you can't get ever go back. Like he said, it's a lifestyle change and it's a big one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: That's the frightening point that I'm reaching right now because I've lost - I've actually lost about 30 pounds, and it feels good. You feel more energy and other things. I'm close to my ideal weight, but then that's exactly the discipline that's the next stage. I've tried to introduce, now, an exercise regimen to also, you know, take off some calories and gain a little more cardiovascular health. I'm told that that helps, you know, in the transition. But it is a situation where you can occasionally splurge, but you can never go back to the same diet and lifestyle you had or you'd get in the same situation.

CONAN: And do you have, as Lia mentioned, a new relationship with your scale, your bathroom scale?

GERSON: Every single morning. And I find - I have to do it at exactly the same time at every morning, otherwise you get kind of, you know, varied results throughout the day. But it does, you know, it becomes a drama, you know, day by day, about whether you're good or bad. And - but I found - I don't know if others agree with this - that you have to be able to forgive yourself a little bit. Because if you were too hard on yourself, it's a source of discouragement. So you have to - when you fail, you have to be able to get back into it.

CONAN: Lia, thanks for...

LIA: And I guess - yeah, it's always - you have to just start over and do whatever work for you, otherwise you just can't throw out, you know, everything because then you'll...

GERSON: Right.

LIA: ...then there'll be worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Lia, thanks very much for the call. Continued good luck to you.

LIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Gayle. Gayle with us Jacksonville.

GAYLE: Hey. How are you this afternoon?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

GAYLE: Listen. My problem is I have friends who easily lose weight. They just seem to lose it. I have a problem, in the fact that I have a thyroid problem, and the weight takes a while to come off and then I really have to work at it, watch what I eat. And it's a pain, sometimes, to just have to watch everything and exercise and stick with it, and stick with it and stick with it. And being middle age doesn't help either.

CONAN: No. I don't think it gets easier with age. I wonder, Michael Gerson, do you snarl every time you see E.J. now that it was so easy for him?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: Yeah. I know. It's true, it seem to be, but who knows? It also - I have found...

CONAN: If he had suffered, he would have written about it.

GERSON: Right, that's probably true. I find that, you know, there are a variety of forces arrayed against you as well when you're engaged in this. I mean, you know, the food service industry is the second largest employer in America, after government, and they get paid when you eat. That's true of advertising, it's true of restaurants, it's your portion size. You know, there are serious impediments out there that you have, you know, you don't have a whole lot of allies.

CONAN: Well you do - there's a whole industry - and, Gayle, thanks very much for the call. There's a whole industry that's willing to help you lose weight, from Hydrocut(ph) ads on television to Lap-Band surgery.

GERSON: Yeah. Well, that's true. I didn't take that route. I also, you know, did - when I did the research, there are certain other things that the new science of dieting has. You know, if you eat in a blue room, you lose more weight. If you use an oversized fork, you lose more weight. If you eat in front of a mirror, you lose more weight. These are recent studies. All of those seem, like, I don't know now, hallucinogenic dream to me - to have a big fork in a blue room, you know, in front of a mirror. It's like, you know, I think that for some people - obviously, I'm a dieter, not a diet expert. But, you know, some people have, you know, greater needs and need those approaches and surgery and other things. For me, I was consuming a lot of sugar in my diet, and it was completely disproportionate.

And that's the fact with a lot Americans. You look at soft drinks now where you can get half a gallon soft drink. And when your body consume sugar through soft drinks, it doesn't feel full. You can just, you know, drink and drink and drink. And so, you know, for me, it was just taking seriously the fact that my body was not designed, the genome of my body was not designed for the lifestyle that I had adopted.

CONAN: Here's an email along those lines from Pascal in Sunnyvale, California: Worst part of my diet, sugars. High, fast carbs, breakfast sugars is everywhere. Safeway has only one brand of bread without sugar. It's the most expensive at about $6 a loaf. Second, dairy products - too much cheese, milk, yogurt. Well, we could all sympathize.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Gerson. His column was called "The Superiority of Slim Pickings." There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I was also curious that you wrote about the temptation to moral superiority, that as you lose weight, you join, well, a slim elite.

GERSON: Yeah. It was an unexpected lesson in moral philosophy for me, this diet, as I was reflecting back on it. All of the sudden, I was looking down on people heading in to McDonald's. About seven percent of Americans go to McDonald's every day. Or going into Dairy Queen and getting a blizzard. And, you know, it seemed like a shoddy little sin and sort of, you know, it was easy to have this feeling of moral superiority, and then you step back and think, well, I was doing that just a few months ago. And I could go out to Massachusetts Avenue, here at the studio, and fall, you know, this afternoon. And so it was just a revelation to me about how easy it is.

CONAN: I'd recommend, actually, a couple of blocks, there's a really good barbecue place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERSON: Exactly. Just how easy it is once you've adopted a diet - or I'm sure in other areas of life, how easy it is to lapse into judgmentalism.

CONAN: Let's go next to Don. Don with us from San Lorenzo in California.

DON CALLER: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

CALLER: Hi. My comment is, I'm going on two years now of changing my diet drastically, encouraged by my kids who became vegetarians, who are junk food vegetarians. So we all went vegetarian, but our biggest struggle now that it's coming on two years - I understand the boredom factor. But it's - if everyone were around, it's (unintelligible) like the family parties, the family barbecues that's letting the cheese and the sugar and those things that you know affect the scale creep back in, almost on a daily basis. That's been our biggest struggle.

CONAN: And has it meant, well, changing your relationships?

CALLER: Well, you know, as far as, like, the acquaintance friend-type thing, sure, I can decline quite often now, if I know that a dinner party is going to be disastrous for me.

CONAN: Oh, so you find that you have you to wash your hair that night, if you get an invitation from the scalloped potato people?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CALLER: Exactly, especially if my will power is feeling low that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I wonder...

CALLER: Because I find once I've cheated on the diet or once I've kind of gone back with cheese or sugar, it's not just that day for me, especially, it sometimes creates a week-long struggle.

CONAN: Oh, it's interesting. Thanks very much. Michael Gerson, we're coming up on barbecue season here in Washington.

GERSON: Yeah, no, I think that's difficult. My wife was kind enough, at least the beginning stages of the diet, to join me even though she didn't need to lose weight and did it in solidarity and helped cooked these boring meals. And that's changed a little bit now, but it's - it is helpful when you have people around you that are supportive, rather than sabotaging, which is really quite easy. One of my big challenges is I travel so much, and I get into the rhythms of eating at home.

You know, if I'm hungry, I'll get a cottage cheese, a little, you know, which is allowed on my diet. When I'm in Africa, which I am often, you know, eating starches is the safe food - you know, rices and potatoes and other things. And so I and a lot of people have this challenge when they travel. So you have to try to, you know, build in some - a little room to cheat in those circumstances, but also exercise and do other things.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jason. Jason with us from Boise.

JASON: Hi. First of all, it's a great thrill to be on the air. I can't believe I made it on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JASON: I just wanted to say that, really, overall, there's no free ride here. I mean, it's calories and calories out, whether you got a big fork in a blue room or whatever - is the craziest thing I've ever heard. But there is sort of a - if you exercise a lot, which is something that I've had to do as gas got expensive - I ride a bike and I burn about four, five thousand calories a day. And so, I can pretty much eat whatever I want whenever I want to. And I found that if I do ride the bike and I keep on that regime, if I eat healthy food and do that, I can get in spectacular shape. And I'm 42, you know, and I consider - I call it my second youth. I'm in better shape than I was when I was 18.

CONAN: But I have to ask, Jason, is your job bike courier? I mean, that's a lot of time on the bike.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JASON: There are undeniable tradeoffs. And when it rains, there's just no way around it. It haunts(ph). I just sucks when it rains.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JASON: I (unintelligible) on the radio, but besides that, I mean, if you can get around those - no, I'm not a bike courier, and fortunately, I live in the Pacific Northwest, so...

CONAN: Where it hardly ever rains, so...

JASON: Yeah. It's very nice to be a bike rider here. I was born in the metroplex, and to ride a bike here, it's like they - it's like red carpet to ride a bike. It's ridiculous. But there is one problem. If I stop exercising and I don't change my diet to fix that, so I start eating potato chips instead of the big bag of lettuce that I now replaced it with, I'm going to get fat.

CONAN: All right, Jason. Thanks very much.

JASON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Good luck on the bike. And, Michael Gerson, we'll invite you next to our lasagna fest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Congratulations. You're doing great.

GERSON: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: Michael Gerson of The Washington Post with us here in Studio 3A. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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