The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Food is an important part of a balanced diet.".... ....Fran Lebowitz.

Commentary of the Day - April 10, 2007: The Math-Challenged Dieter.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

I received a phone call from the health and beauty reporter at a local newspaper.  "I read your essay in Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul, and I thought I could get an expert quote and some feedback from you about a theory I'm researching," she said.  The essay she was referring to is cute and easy to read, and I had sold it a few times to a few different periodicals before the Chicken Soup folks sent me a contract.  The article does not make me an expert.  In fact, I have written a lot about the success I had dieting and have made a little pocket change from it, but it still does not make me an expert.  Losing a lot of weight just gave me a reason to shop for new clothes.  According to this reporter, however, being in a Chicken Soup book made me worthy of being interviewed.

What she needed from me was a quote. "I'm doing a story about how the math part of dieting makes it hard for people to lose weight if they aren't good at math.  I think everything that people count from calories to steps can intimidate people who want to lose weight.  I'm looking for someone who can say something about how numbers make losing weight difficult.  Maybe you know someone who failed at dieting because she hated counting how many calories or carbs she was eating.  Maybe someone didn't like measuring portions or weighing food."

"I don't think being good or bad at math has anything to do with losing weight," I said.

"Experts say it does," she said.  "Experts in the health and beauty field say it is why so many people fail at diets.  They hate math.  They hate numbers.  So the diets don't work!"  It's kind of scary thinking there's a group of people out there who believe that being bad at arithmetic is going to lead a person to an inevitable fate: Permanent Irreversible Fatness.

My mind started wandering, as it often does when I'm talking to silly people about silly things.  I envision the new topic on news broadcasts being "PIF – Permanent Irreversible Fatness – the disease that goes after those who never learned to add and subtract without using their fingers.  Details at 5!"

I returned to the regularly scheduled broadcast as the reporter continued, "They've just discovered that counting calories helps you lose weight!"

"Are you serious?"  I asked her.  I was referring to the "just discovered" part of her statement, but in retrospect, I think she thought it was news to me.

"If you count calories and keep your caloric intake low, according to the experts," she repeated in a new and more serious way, "a person will lose weight!  If you don’t count calories, you will fail at your diet."

"That's not new," I told her.

"Well, it's a new theory," she replied.

"It's not new," I repeated.

"Well, it doesn't matter if it's new or not," she said, "because if you're bad at math, then you can't keep track of calories and you're going to be fat."

I was wheezing at this point.  There's something about comments like this that sets off my asthma more than a field of pollen-producing plants.  I reached for my inhaler and started scribbling down her comments because I knew there was an article in this conversation.  I was thinking that sooner or later, the health and beauty experts would be pointing their fingers at math teachers across America, saying, "You are the cause of a generation of fat people.  Billy is FAT because BILLY CAN’T ADD!"

"So what you're saying is that if you can't add, you will lack success in dieting?"

"Yupper, you have to be good at math to keep track of all those calories, carbs, or whatever you’re counting.  That's what the experts say.  If you can't keep track of sit-ups and crunches, you're doomed."

"Does it work backwards?" I asked her.

"I don't understand," she replied.

"Well if you're bad at math right from the start, does that mean you'll be fat.  If you're fat, does it mean that you're predetermined to be bad at math?  Is it commutative?"

"Which one is commutative again?" she asked.

I didn't answer her.

"So can I quote you?" she asked.

"I didn't say anything to be quoted yet," I said, "but if you need a quote, try this: 'I don't agree with your theory.  It doesn't make sense.  It's silly.  Losing weight has nothing to do with being able to add or subtract or even do long division.  Dieting isn't about math, it's about really wanting to lose weight.  It's about not putting garbage in your mouth.  It's about exercise.  It's about self-control.  Not math.  Plus, you can buy a calculator for under five bucks if you are really mathematically impaired.'"

"Yeah, but the experts say that it's hard to remember to keep track and write everything down," she said.

"Like I said," I repeated.  "If you want to lose weight, whether you have to add, write something down, or maybe keep track of how many sit ups you do, if someone really wants to, the person will figure out a way.  It has nothing to do with math."

"So you don't think it’s harder to lose weight if you're bad at math?  You don't think being bad at math makes a difference?"

"You can quote me on that," I said.  "One thing has nothing to do with the other."

"But.  I mean if you're on a diet and you want to lose weight, when you have to count all those calories, and keep track, like it makes it so hard for some people."

"Then those people can go on a low carb diet," I told her, "because all you have to do is count up to twenty at first to stay under twenty carb limit at the Induction Phase, and some of the lowest carb foods have zero carbs.  Zero carbs means zero math."

My humor was wasted on her.

2007 Felice Prager.
Felice Prager is a freelance writer and former English teacher from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The IP comments: Calories count whether or not you count calories.  While Felice correctly notes that there is no direct connection between mathematics and maintaining a healthy weight, the current epidemic of obesity in children and young adults begs for better health education in our schools.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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