Epicurus thinks that if we’re honest with ourselves, though, it’s more that we want to want greater understanding, freedom from our phones, time to cultivate and maintain close friendships, etc. Or, to be more precise, we wish our desire for these things were more powerful than our desire for less important things. Epicurus might say, “Now, of course you want to walk out the door to enjoy the beautiful fall afternoon with your friends, and it’s in fact quite easy to walk out the door, but people often do not leave because they want to stay alone indoors on their phone more.”
— Emily A. Austin, Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life
Both authors reference research that demonstrates that, while exercise has a number of health benefits, weight loss isn’t among them; Dimbleby has a chapter titled “You can’t outrun a bad diet”, which underlines the fact that exercise increases food cravings, which prompt eating that undoes calorie loss. This has grown to become a bit of conventional wisdom over time, but the age-old advice to eat less and exercise more is hard to shake.
But what can you do? Van Tulleken suggests… just about nothing. He’s insistent that genetics, the presence of unhealthy food options, and marketing essentially hold fat people hostage. Ultra-processed foods, he argues, “hijack our brains”. Even his brief final chapter on trying to live without UPFs is positively fatalistic, mostly counselling people not to hold out hope. As is the fashion, he laboriously argues that poverty effectively prevents the impoverished from making any decisions at all.
In 2015, when Jurgen Klopp took over as manager of Liverpool FC, one of the major changes he made was to bring along a backroom staff, including a nutritionist and a conditioning coach. Such specialists weren’t entirely unknown in the sport, but, shockingly to me, they weren’t ubiquitous either. Multimillion-dollar athletes at the top level at their profession would still eat the equivalent of fast-food takeout after games, which itself was still an improvement over the not-too-distant past, when players often partied like rock stars. Anyway, Klopp, who had a background in sports science himself, brought a stereotypical German efficiency with him and his staff and set about raising the standards. The club would release promotional videos for the fans, behind-the-scenes stuff, showing the staff at work and having them describe their methods and goals. It was then that I realized I had a serious interest in nutrition and sports science. I couldn’t get enough of it. The Lady of the House suggested one day that there was a gym in town where I could indulge my interest, and the rest is history.
A couple years ago, I convinced my stepson to start doing a nutrition program, even if he didn’t want to train yet. He’s lost seventy pounds since then, without doing any exercise at all. It’s not even a diet, per se. You just learn how to combine the optimal amounts of protein, carbs and fat at each meal to achieve whatever your goal is. True, certain foods don’t fit within the meal plan. He hasn’t eaten pizza, ice cream, etc. in two years. But it’s not like you’re forced to eat nothing but salads. I have more possible variety in my own meal plan than I could ever make use of, plus, because I also train, I get a cheat meal once a week. Point is, it doesn’t really take superhuman levels of willpower and self-control. Best of all, it only costs twenty-five dollars per visit. I go in every two weeks to get my body fat and proportions measured. My stepson only has to go about once a month. Twenty-five, maybe fifty dollars a month, to have expert advice on how to structure your diet and adjust it if needed. Trust me, fellows, this is not esoteric knowledge or unattainable luxury.
I’ve often mused out loud that if I ever had the chance to meet anyone from Liverpool FC, I wouldn’t choose any of the players. I’d want to meet Klopp, of course, but also Mona Nemmer, the nutritionist, and Andreas Kornmayer, head of conditioning and fitness. Oh, for a chance to sit and pick their brains! Dreams aside, though, I still often marvel at the fact that here, in a small, unremarkable town in the middle of Virginia, for an insignificant amount of money, I can still get the benefits of a comparable level of expertise. I don’t blame individuals for not realizing how easy and affordable it can actually be to be fit and healthy. I do feel nothing but hatred for people who profit by promoting the fatalistic message that technology, marketing, genetics, whatever, have robbed you of your agency. We’ve always been constrained by “structural” forces, whether man-made or natural, but within those limits, there’s still enough freedom left to use. As Epicurus knew back in antiquity, though, the relevant thing is whether you actually want what you claim to want. Honesty and self-awareness are, as ever, rare commodities. We’d rather lie to ourselves and pay others to lie to us even more. Anything to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives.