To Build A Birdhouse: Why “MyPlate” and All The Lifestyle Guides In the World Aren’t Enough
(Or, well, some of the reasons, anyway.)
I’ve been reading some really good articles about re-framing our cultural conversation around body size and, for once, reading the comments*, and I’ve discovered that, when it comes to talking about things like diet an exercise, many of us lose sight of one really critical idea:
Knowing about a thing isn’t the same
as knowing how to do that thing.
*You guys, deciding not to even look at the G-d-forsaken comments except in special cases has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
Knowing about a thing isn’t the same as knowing how to do that thing.
…And it really isn’t the same as knowing how to do that thing in a way that works for us, that feels good (which is far, far more important than we like to acknowledge), and that lets us keep doing it indefinitely.
If it was, a lot more of us would look exactly the way we want to look (within the limitations imposed by our genetic makeup, anyway — some of us build bigger muscles easily, some of us have long and elegant muscular insertion points, etc.).
Most of us grew up hearing messages about good nutrition in the classroom, from our parents, and even on TV (the more you know!) — but knowing that we should theoretically eat more veggies and less pizza, or what have you, doesn’t actually tell us anything about how to implement that sort of thing.
By way of analogy: I can describe how to do triple tours en l’air. I am pretty sure I can’t actually do them**.
**Full disclosure: as a function of not wanting to break my neck just yet, I haven’t actually tried.
I can reliably do a nice single tour, no sweat, but I will have to work my way from here to there just like I had to work my way from knowing that single tours exist to being able to do them (and land them). Even then, it will take a lot of practice before triple tours are second nature; a lot of practice before I can reliably do them as part of the choreography.
Likewise, I can describe how to build a wooden birdhouse, and could probably follow the directions for doing exactly that from start to finish and wind up with, you know, an acceptable birdhouse — but, even having done that, I wouldn’t then say that I had mastered the art of birdhouse-building.
I know what a birdhouse is, I could even probably draw up plans for a birdhouse, and I know what I would have to do to build one — but I lack the experience and skill with most woodworking tools that would allow me to just whip up birdhouses daily without really having to think hard about it.
Moreover, because I do have some sensory issues, using big power tools isn’t really a viable option. Many of the standard sets of birdhouse-building directions out there won’t work for me without modification (in my case, either using hand tools or getting someone else to cut the wood). I could follow the standard instructions, but I wouldn’t be likely to keep building birdhouses, because I wouldn’t be happy.
Even if I did get a set of instructions and some appropriate bits of wood in appropriate sizes, I would bet my initial birdhouse-building efforts wouldn’t go as smoothly or end as beautifully as those of experienced woodworkers (and even more so, those of experienced birdhouse-builders). I would probably bungle some of the steps, have to re-do things, put parts on crooked, and generally produce an imperfect (if still, perhaps, acceptable) final product.
By way of example, in my Mom’s house, there’s a beautifully-finished blonde wooden shelf with curved corners, a lovely routed edge, and a fine, satiny texture … and a plate rail that deviates from left to right by at half a centimeter because it was the first shelf I ever made in shop class and my ruler was crooked when I marked out the holes for the feet of the railing.
If I kept at it, of course, I could eventually get quite good at building birdhouses — but it would take a while before I could get up in the morning and just sort of instinctively and effortlessly create birdhouses every day.
That’s actually perfectly fine: learning is always a process. Even the virtuoso birdhouse-builder was once a bumbling novice.
In a sense, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with where diet and exercise are concerned … and yet we expect everyone to magically get it exactly right the first time with no real guidance.
Part of the problem is that we imagine that eating well (I’m deliberately avoiding the word right, here: right that implies that there’s only one correct, magical way to eat, and that’s not true) is instinctual.
It’s not. Anyone who has ever more than dabbled in the care of horses can tell you that.
If you think only humans make stupid food decisions, leave the grain bin wide open and the gate into the orchard full of unripe apples wide open (you guys: don’t really do this; it really can kill your horses), then stand back and get ready to witness an epidemic of colic and founder, both of which can be fatal.
By nature, horses are highly specialized trickle-feeding grazers, designed to eat grass (and the occasional windfall) a little at a time all the time.
They evolved in places where apples, grains and other sources of highly concentrated carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and … frankly, even just calories … were scarce. Horses’ wild ancestors could afford to love the taste of fruits and other concentrated feedstuffs because they were deeply unlikely to find themselves loose in an orchard packed with apples or a feedroom stuffed with grain. Their encounters with concentrated food sources were few and far between. They had to eat grass, mostly, and they had to eat a lot of it. Even if their earliest discrete ancestors — fox-sized forest dwellers that were browsers rather than grazers — might have (and that’s a big if), had a “stop eating” switch, modern horses have lost it.
Worse, horses can’t vomit — so a case of indigestion that would, for you and me, simply mean a night spent praying at the Our Lady of the Porcelain, can kill a horse. Even a bad case of gas, if it leads to rolling and torsion of the gut, can kill a horse. Sheep may be the only farm animals constantly in search of the quickest way to die, but horses probably have them beat in the results column, there. Horses are great at many things, but they’re really great at dying of completely ridiculous causes.
Most horses will literally eat themselves to death, given the chance. It’s not that they’re dumb — it’s that they haven’t evolved any system for managing that kind of excess. Their wiring isn’t equipped to tell them to stop.
Compared to horses’ disastrous food choices (the scourge of every horse-lover ever), our persistent-but-not-immediately-fatal choices don’t seem so drastically bad after all.
Same goes for dogs.
Like us, dogs are essentially omnivores (which is to say that they will neither die from eating meat, as a white-tailed deer eventually would, nor will they die from not eating it, as a cat rather quickly would) with strong attractions to certain taste profiles. Still, some food sources work better for them than others, so they’ll do crazy things for the right combination of fat and protein.
Like horses, dogs’ instincts lead them to make ridiculous food-related decisions, though death is a less likely outcome for dogs — unlike horses, dogs can vomit.Boy, can they ever vomit. My old roommate, who had never had a dog before, once slipped my dog (for frame of reference: a 75-pound coydog) a treat in the form of 8 pounds of beef tallow from an enormous roast. My dog, being a dog, turned herself into an exclamation point of glee, scarfed down the entire pile of tallow before I even knew it had been offered to her, and then proceeded to be Very. Very. Sick.
This, for the record, was one of the objectively smartest dogs I have ever personally known.
She knew names for lots of things; understood that she could bite the arm inside the doggie hand puppet, but not a naked arm, unless that arm was threatening me; discerned right hand from left when someone offered to shake; played “strategic fetch” to maximize laziness (that is, she would lie in wait a few meters out, ambush whichever of her buddies got the toy, steal it, and bring it back triumphantly); could actually figure out how to back up if she needed to get out of a tight spot or untangle herself, etc. — but she was definitely not equipped to say “no” when her mouth was busy saying “OMFG YASSSSS!”
…Which goes to show you that just being an unusually intelligent dog doesn’t make you immune to poor choices.
Most dogs, given the chance, will not only gorge themselves to the point of illness, but will happily grow as roly-poly as the summer sausages, pumpkins, potatoes, or giant yams that they happily consume and may ultimately come to resemble.
A dog’s life is an unending festival of sensory delights, and a dog does not care about his or her waistline.
Like us, dogs evolved in conditions of alternating feast and famine, and their “cavedog” brains have never let go of the idea that they should swallow their sweetbreads while they may (good food is swift a-flying!).
We would do well to remember their innocent example when we judge ourselves, because we’re not that different, where food is concerned.
Like horses and like dogs, we humans do not instinctively make the best decisions about food for our current circumstances. Instead, we tend to instinctively like certain combinations of flavors, and simply knowing that often those combinations occur in foods we should enjoy in moderation doesn’t really help***.
***Especially since “moderation” is a fairly nebulous concept — a “moderate” portion of cake or lasagna or steak or even broccoli looks pretty different for me, a 150-pound dancer, than it does for my best friend, a 300-pound non-dancer; it would look different still for a 250-pound weight lifter or a sumo wrestler, who would surely have the sense to measure his or her weight in kilograms).
Unlike horses and dogs, we humans have pretty good satiety-signaling mechanisms, at least when they’re working … but some flavors combinations are so compelling that they temporarily disable those mechanisms.
Worse, those mechanisms can be altered by experience (the collection of factors that researchers call “environment”) — medications can wildly alter them, as can habitually overeating. So can our mood states. So can exposure to insulin. So can endogenous and exogenous hormones. So can a bazillion other things.
Thus, we can’t always rely on hunger or satiety signals alone. Like horses and dogs, we are driven by instinct to eat stuff that maybe isn’t so good for us when we eat it day in and day out.
Instead, we have to learn how to use external signals to figure out how much to eat, and that takes time — as does figuring out which foods we simply cannot stop eating (Doritos, I’m looking at you, here) and thus perhaps should not keep around in large quantities.
To sum all this up, knowing about what makes up a reasonable diet is like being told, “Make a birdhouse.”
Realistically, that isn’t going to do the job.
In order to implement healthier diets, we have to learn a lot of things — and a lot of that learning ultimately has to take the form of habit-building; the experiential kind of stuff that’s so danged hard to quantify and teach. It’s a process not unlike learning which intersections have the shortest wait times for pedestrian crossing signals.
Meanwhile, the “food pyramid” (one of the single worst health tools ever implemented) or “MyPlate” gives us about as much information as a picture of a finished birdhouse.
It shows us what current consensus more or less dictates A Birdhouse should look like.
A more thorough version — the kind you might get in a basic health class at high school or college — can tell us what parts we need for the birdhouse. It tells us little or nothing practical**** about how to find, buy, prepare, or store those parts, or about how to put them together so they make a birdhouse and not, say, a mailbox or a useless pile of splinters.
****”You find this stuff in the grocery store” isn’t quite what I’m talking about, here. What I’m talking about is the experiential end of things: the experiential process of discovering which stuff that fits into the guide also fits into your mouth, your budget, your habits, and your work-life balance, which takes time. There’s also a question of awareness: we gravitate towards the familiar not because we’re cowards but because the familiar is better-represented in our brains, so it takes a while to re-map things so Broccoli or Spinach occupies as much space as Doritos or Hot Pockets, and that effects what happens when we make grocery lists and go shopping. And let’s not even get started about confusing and conflicting all-or-nothing messages.
For that matter, none of these pictures of finished birdhouses tell us anything at all about why we, personally, as individuals, should feel driven to build birdhouses.
They don’t spark a love of birdhouse-building — and when we criticise people for not being able to use these birdhouse-pictures as full-scale blueprints with detailed instructions and personal guidance, the birdhouse-pictures themselves become instruments of anti-change.
Just telling people to build birdhouses because purple martins are beneficial and eat mosquitoes doesn’t get the job done. It certainly doesn’t make anyone love building birdhouses.
Haranguing people about how they should be turning out birdhouses hand over fist now that they know that purple martins eat mosquitoes is even less helpful.
When we whine, “But you learned about square meals/the food pyramid/MyPlate/birdhouses in school, you should be able to construct a healthy, balanced diet for yourself/build all the birdhouses you need to solve your mosquito problem,” this is exactly what we’re doing.
We’re criticising people because we showed them a picture of a birdhouse, told them purple martins are good to have around, and told them to go build birdhouses.
We’re missing the fact that if it was that easy, they’d already be doing it.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t say that seems to make much sense to me.