Tuesday, March 31, 2015

When to Walk Away from the Experts

I was challenged the other day over my decision to go through with Bariatric surgery, when it is entirely possible (in theory) to lose weight the "natural way" through diet and exercise. Indeed before I was approved for surgery, I had to demonstrate that I could lose weight on my own. And even though it sounds counter-intuitive, I will continue to lose weight and increase my strength and mobility through diet and exercise. The surgery is a boost but it is not an answer to significant and sustained weight loss.

I won't go in to all my reasons, but there was a mental switch that triggered, where I had enough of the conventional wisdom. How many times should a gal beat her head against the same wall, before she walks away from the wall?

I am reminded of another story of expert advice gone horribly wrong, in the story of the settling of the prairie dry belt in the book, "Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt" by David C. Jones. When I was young, I learned in school that prairie farmers were partly responsible for the dust bowl because of poor farming practices. They cut down trees and deep-furrowed the loose soil which then blew away. All through my young life I watched farmers in our parkland, a little farther north from the dust bowl, faithfully plant tree lines around their property. This was the farmer's penance, to compensate for the ignorant practices of the past.

Then I read Jones' book and found out that the deep fallowing farming practices were the prevailing wisdom of the time.  Promoters and agrarian experts alike claimed that bumper crops could be gleaned from a land short of rain, solely on the moisture retained in the soil. Many farming families, hopeful for a new life, answered siren call of free land. The prairies were settled, then abandoned again, in huge numbers between 1909 and 1926.

Imagine a farmer following all conventional wisdom. Some years he experiences success. In dry years he loses it all again. He plants again in hope of a good year. He follows the "Campbell Method" ever more finely, believing it must be somehow a failure in execution. Sometimes he succeeds and he believes again. Then drought follows drought in successive years. Finally he is exhausted, destitute and entirely driven from hope. To save his family, he packs up and quietly leaves, indebted, the fallow land left in the hollow hands of the banker. For the farmer, his former faith is fatally snapped by reality. To survive, he must launch out on his own wisdom, taking an untrod path, and holding his breath that he and his little family will survive.

It boggles my mind that even today, this failure is left resting on the shoulders of the poor farmer, who was simply following the experts.

There's a time to step back and admit when a pet method simply does not work. There is no shame or failure in trying something else. It may be the only way to survival.

When it comes to weight loss, it is possible to simplify the whole process to a matter of Calories In - Calories Out (CICO). It does come down to this. Logically, if a person is gaining at a certain calorie intake, the only way to lose is to reduce the intake or increase the burn. Eventually the energy deficit will reap the expected result, as the body can't be built on air alone. But for some reason, some people seem to be able to eat more and still lose weight, while others struggle. Why some fail is baffling. Are they measuring their food wrong, failing to log all their entries, closet eating, or messing up their metabolism to such a degree that they require a dangerously low calorie intake? The dieter is left to blame.  She follows the instructions ever more finely, believing it must be somehow a failure in execution. Finally she is exhausted, entirely driven from hope.

I smell an expert failure. There are factors at play yet left undiscovered.

Oh, and in case this story has you wondering, I'm hopeful. The surgery went well, I have very few food intolerances, and I am close to achieving a weight target that will take me out of the obese range.