myth and poetry

Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Mythopoetry Scholar 2010
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This Issue: Health & Well-Being


Holy Wars: Dieting and the Devil Within
by Catherine Svehla

All people are made alike -
of bones and flesh and dinner -
Only the dinners are different.
—Gertrude Louise Cheney, People, 1927

People used to think that successful dieting depended on will power. To get thin, simply restrain yourself. But for many people, weight loss is not that straightforward. As medical science delves more deeply into the issue, researchers discover a host of variables that may explain why the plan that works for you does not work for me. The relationships between food and health, diet and weight, are seemingly complex. Today we have much more information about the body and subtle differences in essential physiological functions that have large consequences, for example, metabolism.

The idea that weight loss is a matter of kick starting a sluggish metabolism came into the mainstream consciousness of today’s dieting Americans due to the efforts of Dr. Robert Atkins. In 1972, Dr. Atkins, known as the “Diet Doc,” published The Atkins Diet Revolution, his high protein, low carbohydrate prescription to boost metabolism for weight control and improved physical health. A German physiologist, Theodore Schwann, coined the term metabolism in 1845, to describe the chemistry of digestion and decomposition essential to life and growth. Metabolism is important to dieters because it dictates the rate of energy conversion in the body. People with a “high” metabolism have lots of physical energy relative to those whose metabolism is “low,” and they can eat relatively more food without gaining weight

The Atkins effect on American eating habits has been revolutionary. Dr. Atkins redefined the “healthy” diet. Until Atkins, the conventional medical definition of a healthy, balanced diet was one low in fats, sugar, and refined flour products, and high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Dr. Atkins turns this dietary formula on its head. According to Atkins, the “enemy” is a sluggish metabolism that must be stoked with protein. His plan strictly limits carbohydrates, including those contained in vegetables and fruits, in favor of high protein (and often high fat) foods like eggs, meat, cheeses, and other dairy products. To lose weight, count carbs, not calories.

The tremendous popularity of the Atkins prescription gave birth to a low-carbohydrate movement. His seventeen-book franchises have sold an estimated 23 million copies, and between ten and thirty-five million Americans follow the Atkins plan. Millions more count carbohydrates or follow similar diets. The South Beach Diet by Dr. Arthur Agatston, for example, has estimated sales of 14.5 million copies and has been on the USA Today best-seller list for six years. The tremendous expansion in “low-carb” consciousness is reflected in the rapid proliferation of recipe books like The Low-Carb Comfort Food Book, and Living the Low-Carb Life, the appearance of low-carb meal options on restaurant menus, and the availability of hundreds of new products that claim to low in carbohydrates, including desserts and alcoholic beverages.

Dr. Atkins and other low-carb spin-offs remain popular for several reasons. To begin with, lots of people see results. A low-carbohydrate, high protein plan artificially induces a metabolic condition called “ketosis.” People in ketosis lose a lot of weight, fast. Sound science and simplicity are also a large part of the appeal. “Thoughtful Approach. Powerful Science,” is the motto of Atkins International. Ketosis and the dietary method for inducing it are straightforward and factual. Atkins also provides a scientific explanation for the mysterious desire to eat what one knows is “bad.” In the subsection “Life Out of Control,” Atkins writes: “You may have picked up this book with the secret inner conviction that you’re a ‘compulsive eater.’ In all probability, you’re a carbohydrate addict.”1 This is a curable physical condition, a matter of diet, not determination.


Low-Carb Science

Science is where the low-carb revolution begins. People generally expect science to provide objective, provable, factual explanations of a wide range of phenomenon, and Dr. Atkins developed his diet on the basis of empirical evidence, measurable results, scientific laboratory research, experiments and control groups. But the seemingly uncomplicated program, the clear directions, lists and charts, and the limited reliance on jargon belie serious disagreements in the medical community. Supporters say the Atkins diet safely harnesses a naturally occurring metabolic phenomenon in the service of the laudable and healthful goal of proper weight maintenance. But others claim that forced ketosis puts the body into an unhealthy state of shock., for example, labels Atkins a “Nightmare” diet. Their website is replete with testimonials from nutrition and health experts like the Chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Food and Nutrition, who reported to a Senate Subcommittee on Nutrition and Human Needs: "A careful scientific appraisal was carried out by several council and staff members, aided by outside consultants. It became apparent that the [Atkins] diet as recommended poses a serious threat to health.”2

The controversy surrounding Dr Atkins and his diet, which seems, on the surface, to be a rational matter of sorting scientific facts, is very personal and highly emotional. The arguments swirling around the Atkin’s revolution extend to the diet doc himself. His death at age 72 generated a heated debate about the real cause. At the time of his death, Dr. Atkins was significantly overweight at 258 pounds, with a history of heart attack. The official diagnosis is bleeding on the brain after a fall on the ice, but the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine told the Wall Street Journal that they suspect congestive heart failure.3 These details, like the other evidence proffered in the ongoing low-carb diet debates, don’t lead one to a clear conclusion. Is the low-carb
method discredited if the Doc was fat, or is this contradiction just another example of the gulf that often exists between knowledge and behavior, public wisdom and private folly?


Trust Your Gut

The science behind a diet plan is important but expert opinions and research studies are trumped by one source deemed irrefutable---the dieter himself. People buy the argument of their choice, supplemented by personal experience. Read reviews of various plans and diet books by dieters themselves on; visit some of the countless blogs dedicated to dieting,, for example. Peruse the testimonials and support group forums posted on websites devoted to specific plans. This approach is admittedly unscientific but quickly reveals the value placed on experience. Ultimately, the legitimacy of a weight loss plan hinges on four simple words: “It works for me.”

This instinct to trust one’s gut may make sense. All kinds of scientific information is available; reports on metabolism, calories, exercise and nutrition, healthy height and weight charts, federally mandated nutrition labels on foods, with ingredient lists and a breakdown between carbs and proteins and sugars and fats and suggestions about how much to consume in an average serving. There is the appearance of knowledge. But the science of diet and weight loss remains a mystery. In February 2009, the New York Times reported on the largest-ever controlled study of weight loss methods, published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The conclusion: “For people who are trying to lose weight, it doesn’t matter if you are counting carbs, protein, or fat. All that matters is that you’re counting something.”4

But if personal experience is the weight loss crucible, why turn to science at all? For knowledge, validation, or both? Many people love Atkins for the clear presentation of medical fact separate from psychological theories. In the chapter, “Psychology of Weight Loss: Behavioral Changes for a Healthier Life,” Atkins begins by suggesting that many dieters are attracted to his plan because it separates the metabolic chemistry of eating from emotional causes.5 Atkin’s medical description of a physical chemical process seems to avoid the frustrating, murky miasma of intangible emotions, cravings, and psychological compulsions. But is being a “carbohydrate addict” better than being a “compulsive eater?”

People know that they must eat, but they do not know why they eat what they do. Dieting seems to bring some food choices to consciousness. But as Michael Ventura points out; “Confusing awareness with control is the mistake Western thought has been making for centuries.”6 The confusion can be self-serving. Being one’s own best judge can be a way to avoid judgment altogether, albeit unconsciously. The selective use of scientific “fact” may be an attempt to evade questions of willpower, guilt, and personal weakness. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they are sticking to their diets.


The devil made me do it

“Around age 40 I put on twenty pounds. I had always had a perfect metabolism. But, my metabolism betrayed me as it does most people, except a very rare few who will always be thin.”—Suzanne Somers, actress and author of the “Somersizing” diet plan.

Medical science and the Atkins dispute aside; “metabolism” may indeed be the dieter’s enemy. The word comes from the Greek metaballein, meta- "over" + ballein "to throw,” bringing to mind images of toppled tyrants, conspiracy, and military coups. As a member of the linguistic family of ballein-based words, metabolism is one of an interesting cast of characters. Ballein (to throw) is also a root component of the word “symbol” (to throw together), and “problem” (to throw forward). The clan also includes diabellein (from diablos) or “devil,” meaning “to throw over" or to throw apart, that is, attack.

The words on the lips of many a dieter point to a relationship between an important dynamic principal in the body and the existence of an evil “other” lurking within. The metabolic process involves energy and heat, and takes place in the imagined depths of the gut and the bowels. Parallels between the boiling, red cesspool of Hell and the churning of the stomach, the slow journey through twisted intestines where everything turns to shit, are easy to visualize. Christians conflate the “devil” with Satan, but a devil is a demon or evil spirit, an entity with a wider range of malefic interests than lofty matters of soul and salvation. Sabotaging your diet for instance.

Food, eating, weight, and self-control have long been a complicated nexus of moral judgment. To be a glutton or a slave to one’s stomach used to be a serious sin. In the minds of many people, to be fat is to be weak willed, undignified, and emotionally sloppy. Struggles of will are often imagined as a covert battle with the devil in one’s soul, but weight is difficult to hide, and a battle waged against food is subject to public scrutiny. As Orson Welles observes, ”Gluttony is not a secret vice.” Replacing the psychology of willpower with the physiology of metabolism may relieve the dieter of some moral judgments but they haven’t disappeared. Now there are “good” and “bad” foods.

Good foods are healthy, helpful, and deserve a place in your diet. Bad foods sabotage, they don’t work for you, they promise pleasure but wreak havoc. Bad foods can’t be trusted no matter how good they look or taste. The duplicity is part of the temptation (can I afford another piece of pie?) and invokes the voice of the inner adversary (just this once). Every dieter is familiar with such deliberations, the weighing of truth and consequences, the delight and broken promises, the pledges to do better next time. And who knows, finally, what is right? A body’s metabolism determines what is nutritious or poisonous.

The flip side of temptation is sacrifice. Almost everyone has a favorite food, one they’d rather not live without. Some diet plans utilize sacrifice and the feeling that there is something virtuous, almost holy, about doing what is difficult and right, eating only grapefruits, for example, or drinking olive oil and lemon juice for breakfast every morning. Extreme tactics are rarely sustainable but one can feel good for a week or two. For people who can’t stand the feeling of going without there is the option of substitutes, low-fat, reduced sugar, or low-carb versions of the real thing. Atkins Nutritionals and other companies are busy concocting low-carbohydrate chocolate, pancakes, cakes, and cookies, to remove this last vestige of perceived deprivation for their followers. A strategy of appeasement however, depends on the willingness to draw the line at a single serving.

Some dieters enjoy the pleasure associated with giving in to temptation, as part of the sanctified plan of course. The Cheaters Diet is designed for those who know they will. Building weekend cheats into the plan sidesteps guilt but of course the real purpose is managing metabolism. Everyone knows that metabolism drops if you eat too little but don’t worry; this won’t happen if you eat pizza on Saturdays as prescribed. Turn up the heat, or call in spiritual reinforcements and follow the Jesus Diet; a little meat, some plants, bread, red wine —and prayer.

Dieting is like Lent only longer, much longer. The word “diet” comes from the Greek diata, meaning way of life, regimen. No quick fixes or instant gratification, it’s a lifelong wrestling match with metabolism, the inner demon. Our diet language tells the tale. Dr. Atkins claims that his plan is simple to follow, but he describes it battle terms. I know you readers are veterans, he says, “of the weight loss wars.” As the Atkins’ scenario unfolds, the dieter, the body, the hormones, and the metabolism take turns resisting, provoking, assaulting, controlling, challenging, outflanking, preparing, mounting, and planning the next evasion of a dangerous health outcome. The Atkins plan is all about will, he merely lines up a different set of targets. “Teach Yourself, Lecture Yourself, Habituate Yourself,” Dr. Atkins writes.7 The results are convincing, as long as they seem worth the trouble.

All diets are a deal with the devil. The main difference between them is the terms they try to negotiate, and the devil is in the details. Popular culture is full of stories and songs about people who make trades with the devil that they hope never to honor, people who try to have their cake and eat it too. “Inside some of us is a thin person struggling to get out, but they can usually be sedated with a few pieces of chocolate cake,” is a popular dieting quip. Would that moist, chocolate cake be “devil’s food?”


1. Atkins, Robert C. Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Pub, 1992. p. 43.

2. “Obesity and Fad Diets.” U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. 12 April 1973 CIS S581-13.

3. Kleinfield, N.R. “Just What Killed the Diet Doctor, And What Keeps the Issue Alive?” New York Times on the Web 11 February 2004.

4. Parker-Pope, Tara. “No Winner in Major Diet Study.” The New York Times on the Web 25 February 2009. She refers to the medical report by Martijn K. Katan “Weight-Loss Diets for the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity.” The New England Journal of Medicine. Online. Volume 360:923-925 26February 2009 Number 9.

5. Atkins, ibid. p. 275.

6. Ventura, Michael. Shadow Dancing in the USA. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, 1985. p. 25.

7. Atkins, ibid. p.278.

***************************** Mythopoetry Scholar volume one Health and Well-being, 2010 *****************************

Catherine Svehla Ph.D.

Author Bio

Catherine is a writer, artist, and storyteller with a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She leads the monthly High Desert Mythological RoundTable in Joshua Tree, CA and facilitates workshops on what it means to adopt a mythic perspective in one's life and work.


Catherine's Blog

Cultural Mythology: American Notions of Self and Country

Catherine's Joseph Campbell High Desert Mythological RoundTable

It meets the last Tuesday of every month, 7-9PM at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Joshua Tree, CA


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