How long can you hold your breath?

Just ran across the comment “If you regain weight, it’s because you eat more calories than you burn,” on Twitter. (It was from Suzanne Lucas, aka Evil HR Lady, whose unhelpful advice to fat job-seekers I’ve mentioned before.)

Technically, that’s a true statement. Your body can’t create adipose tissue out of nothing, and calories that are used through the day aren’t available to be turned into fat stores.

*But* there’s no guarantee that “more than you burn” isn’t still “less than you need to get through the day” or even “less than you need to avoid passing out.” (My first hint that the South Beach Diet forum I was participating in may have been a tad unhealthy was when people were talking about feeling faint and light-headed and experienced dieters responded, “Oh, yeah, that’s detox. It’s totally normal and it’ll be fine.”)

There’s also a limit to willpower. Sure, in theory, every bite you put in your mouth is a choice, but bodies are good at overriding conscious controls to do things that ensure survival. For instance, have you ever heard of someone holding their breath until they pass out? (There’s apparently a “fainting game” but it sounds like you need to press on the arteries in the back of your neck or have someone else make you hold your breath. So not quite the same thing.) Even toddlers throwing tantrums, if they pass out, it’s apparently breath-holding syndrome, where they stop being able to breathe. Not just that they hold their breath out of stubbornness until they fall over.

Similarly, pain tolerance tests are done by having the subject stick their hand in cold water (called a cold pressor test). The cap is usually five minutes, and between half to two thirds of people can actually make it that long. One interesting test showed that tolerances were the same whether participants were offered a dollar for every 15 seconds they could keep their hand in or only a penny per 15 seconds. (To me, that indicates that it’s a pretty involuntary thing, if money is no motivator when your test subjects are undergrads. Make it the whole five minutes and you can order pizza.)

So if you can’t hold your breath until you pass out, and you can’t hold your hand in cold water indefinitely, why would we think that most people could ignore hunger by sheer force of will, not just one day, but for the rest of their lives, eating only enough to keep them below their target weight (regardless of whether that’s enough to actually function on)?

I mean, sure, I “choose” to be fat in that there are things I can do that would make me temporarily less fat, and I might have a tiny chance of maintaining them permanently if I want to make it a part-time job. Or possibly a full-time job. I’d probably destroy my joints and my gall bladder in the process and further wreck my metabolism, but sure, that’s a choice. Not a choice I owe someone who doesn’t like looking at me. No more than I owe it to someone who doesn’t like looking at acne to take Accutane for the rest of my life. (I know, silly me, being selfish and wanting to have a family, rather than taking meds that cause fatal birth defects so I can fulfill my sacred female duty of being as attractive as possible to random men.)

And that’s really what it comes down to. Bodies, particularly fat and/or female bodies, are seen as public property, so in this bizarro-world, it’s reasonable to expect someone to reshape their whole life and risk their health to make their bodies culturally acceptable. And because it’s “a choice,” it’s totally okay to discriminate against those who can’t pull it off, or who aren’t willing to try because, you know, they aren’t masochists.

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