“Reality counts for a lot.”
Despite the label on the cover (A Geek’s Diet Memoir), Sayonara, Mr. Fatty! is not a “diet book”. If anything, it’s an anti-diet book, much as Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos was an anti-self-help book. The latter was designed to make you laugh at the absurdity of expecting someone else to be able to tell you who and what you are; the former lets you realize that dieting in the abstract is not going to help you lose and keep off weight. It’s an anti-gluttony book, a guide for waking yourself up and making you realize that you are best equipped to carry out your own self-destruction.
Maybe that sounds a bit over-the-top, but if the events of the last decade or so — financial, political, ecological — have taught us anything, it’s that our biggest problem as a species is that we think we want things we simply don’t need. We eat too much, we spend too much, we gobble up far more than our slice of the pie — and we condition ourselves to not even notice any of it. It’s this last part that’s the most damaging, because it allows us to go right back out and start all over again with no thought to the consequences. Toshio Okada’s book is about getting off this thoughtless Möbius strip treadmill of consumption, and the fact that it’s in the guise of a personable, friendly, you-can-do-it-too guide makes it all the better. It’s not a frothing condemnation of the Consumer Culture, but a DIY guide to picking the locks on your jail cell.
Okada is positive most people reading the book won’t know him, although his name carries a certain degree of geek credential. He was the founder of the animation studio GAINAX, which produced everything from Evangelion to Gunbuster and much more besides. As befitting someone of those credentials, he’s an authority on Japanese pop culture, so much so that he even chaired up a position at one of Japan’s biggest universities to teach on the subject. He was also morbidly obese for most of his life, weighing some hundred-odd pounds more than he ought to — but at the same time, he simply accepted it as a kind of otaku’s fate. Then one day he decided he’d had enough of having to deal with things like special seats on airplanes (they had to give him an extension for the seatbelt just so he could strap himself in), and set about figuring out what to do about it.
After several failed-to-disastrous attempts at dieting and forced exercise, Okada dropped back to a much simpler approach. Rather than attempt to modify his existing eating habits, he decided instead to carry a small notebook with him and document every piece of food, every drink, everything with caloric content that went into his mouth. What he found was the exact opposite of what he had expected — that he was eating a great many things that he had no original recollection of ever having eaten. Worse, he was making an effort to seek out such things and consume them. “I had persevered when it came to overeating,” as he put it.
What he also found was that the mere act of examining his behavior led, directly and with minimal work on his part, to eating that much less. That in turn allowed him to start making more detailed examinations of calorie counts, etc. — all things that normally come first when dieting. Okada’s approach is backwards, but for a good reason: he realized it makes more sense to make a person aware of how much they really are eating before trying to impose discipline on it. He extends the analogy to one’s finances: bankrupt people always have no idea how much they really make or spend.
Okada also emphasizes other things that matter. The institution of the meal, as opposed to snacking constantly; portion control (do you really want to eat the whole thing?); understanding the difference between eating for flavor and eating for satiety, since many people have been stuffing themselves so reflexively they can no longer tell the two apart; and so on. A lot of these things are also enjoying some long-deserved scrutiny thanks to other writers; Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food come to mind. Okada is also against starving one’s self (all it does is make you relapse faster) and forced exercise (worry about that after you’re down to a more manageable weight) as part of the regimen. He is definitely in favor of conditioning the dieter to listen to his own body, to understand how hunger sensations are not all monolithic and require some attention to be fully understood.
Much of what Okada says about food, I’d been suspecting for a long time. Our society surrounds us with so much cheap, calorically-dense and nutritionally-bankrupt food that after a while we get inured to it. We don’t think about the cookies that the DoubleTree hotel gives us at check-in, or (as with Okada) the sweets that came with his coffee. When I worked in an office that had a vending machine not far from my desk, I put on at least a dozen pounds. To the best of my recollection I wasn’t eating more than one candy bar a day from that thing, but that’s still one more candy bar a day that I ought to have been eating in the first place — and I’m perfectly willing to believe it was more than one after a while. Later, I realized I wasn’t eating the candy bars because I liked them all that much; it was more a way to stave off the boredom of the long afternoon.
Another personal conviction of mine is echoed, if only indirectly, in this book: people who aren’t obese don’t have an overt attachment to food. A while back I had dinner with a friend who was struggling with a weight problem, and she admitted a big part of her trouble comes from constantly thinking about food in one form or another: not just as a meal, but as a social leavener, a way to fight ennui, a companion during bad times, and so on and on. Me, I forget to eat (candy bar incident aside). Food simply isn’t that big a part of my psyche, and that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I’m not heavy. Okada calls these sorts of people “N-types”, people ruled by need and not desire (“D-types”), and points out that he hasn’t completely given up the things he loves — he just knows better than to stuff himself with them multiple times a week. He’s now a B-type — “balanced”.
The end result of all this is meant to be a long-term change in behavior and self-image — not the image in the mirror, but the sense of how much needs to end up in one’s stomach at any given time. Okada also points out that this approach — recording, raising awareness, examining satiety cues — can apply to most anything else. I have a bad habit of buying cheap CDs — lots of them, in bulk, and I end up listening to only a small fraction of them at any given time. It’s not the listening, it’s the ownership: the idea that something rare and wonderful could be passing me by is hard to give up. But after reading Okada’s book I started to see how to attack my perceptions a little.
The cover of In Defense of Food has Pollan’s advice for eaters in six words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” To this Okada has two more words to add: “Pay attention.”