Unpacking the true perils of the much-envied Asian metabolism
I recently had a discussion with an acquaintance regarding extreme diets, including the benefits of intermittent fasting. A keto devotee, she commits to a no sugar, no carb, organic, non-GMO diet while also participating in intermittent fasting to maintain her goal weight.
Now, I’m not personally a believer in super restrictive diets. Perhaps ignorant — because I’m a child of the ’80s when cheese came in pressurized cans and slumber parties always entailed the offer of eating raw cookie dough or frosting right out of the container (both of which I declined because I’m Chinese and these are not things we were raised to do or understand) — I take food kind of as-is, the way God and/or CPG conglomerates intended.
I once visited a popular cupcake shop in Los Gatos and listened on while a friend was beguiled by the description of a gluten-free cupcake sold there. After hearing that it was not only gluten-free but also sugar-free, butter-free and egg-free, I had to wonder if the shop worker was still describing a cupcake, as those — to the best of my knowledge — were the building blocks of most baked goods. The delicious ones, at least.
I am also wary about the virtues of intermittent fasting. When she became adamant about its benefits, I explained to my acquaintance that my body (and my sanity) just wouldn’t survive prolonged intervals of not receiving food. The lucky (I suppose) recipient of an “Asian metabolism,” I am the type of person who can eat throughout the day yet continue to be hungry and rarely gain any weight.
Her response was one I hear often: I wish I had your problem. Having a fast metabolism is the “champagne problem” wished for by many. While I admit that I don’t have to adhere to the calorie-counting, ingredient-removing eating habits of others to stay trim, having a fast metabolism comes with its fair share of challenges.
Growing up, my bottomless appetite was the butt of family jokes. In what we considered funny then (but I will also admit may be triggering to some now), I would weigh myself before a steak dinner, eat the entire steak, and then weigh myself again. Often, I would have somehow managed to lose weight in the eating process — which we would laugh about, my family playfully branding me a money pit and/or human garbage disposal.
When my parents left the room, I’m sure they would burst into tears, wondering why this succubus of insatiation has come to their home, driving them to financial ruin. I ate a lot and often; yet, I remained this string bean of a child, wearing only sweatpants for a period of my life because we couldn’t find jeans that were thin enough to stay on my tiny frame. Drying their eyes, they would return to the dining room with a Black Forest Cake purchased from Costco earlier that day because a whole 15 minutes had passed and it was now time for my dessert.
I have always been slightly envious of vegetarians — like how they are able to subsist on a diet of beans and tofu while maintaining radiant, supple skin and not having all their hair fall out. I lived a quasi-vegetarian lifestyle during a 3 month period working in India. I still had meat at times, but it was bits of it stirred in with rice or pasta, not a large plank of animal protein like we meat eaters are used to. I would wake up almost every night and take my 4th bowel movement of the day, the carb-heavy diet just running through me. And then I’d lay in bed hungry, groaning and rocking as I waited for the sun to rise. Waking up to poo in the middle of the night felt like I was moonlighting with a whole second job. I came to work exhausted every day, but also unable to explain to anyone why I was so tired.
Incidentally, I returned to the US from this work assignment weighing 90 pounds, my body basically ravaged by low level malnutrition and intermittent diarrhea. I knew that I looked terrible because coworkers would work in comments like “When’s the last time you saw a doctor?” during otherwise unrelated conversations. And when they would hug me, I could tell they were trying to make as little contact with my body as possible, the way you would hover-hug your 86 year old grandma for fear of breaking her bones.
Beyond the hunger, there is also the incessant fear of being hungry which (if you pardon the pun) is all-consuming. While working on the 4th floor of a building a few years back, there was a finicky elevator that would often get stuck. Were I one of the unlucky tech workers stuck in that elevator for hours, I imagine that I would have panicked and consumed the tube of Aquaphor that I always keep in my back pocket (for another life fear: chapped lips) while waiting for the rescue squad to arrive.
I picture the firemen prying open the elevator doors, where they would find me, my mouth smothered in petroleum jelly — which I guess wouldn’t be so weird given that’s where petroleum jelly goes. But then the empty tube tightly gripped to my chest would be the dead giveaway. I would look at the fireman and explain, “I didn’t know when or even if you would come. I grew hopeless.” Then I would insist that he (or she!) carry me to the micro-kitchen so that I could regain my strength by consuming some dehydrated apple chips and fruit flavored seltzer. “Help me,” I would beckon, my arms outstretched. “I’m so weak right now” (even though only an hour and a half would have actually passed).
To combat this, I have a snack either on my person or within reach at all times. During this period of shelter in place, a coworker noted that I am always eating during videoconference calls, to which I responded I am also always eating not during videoconference calls and also possibly while asleep, for what else could explain all these candy bar wrappers scattered about my bed when I wake up in the morning? Hey, what can I say? The body wants what it wants, even while deep in REM sleep and wearing a retainer and a mouthguard.
In fact, this shelter in place, with its indefinite work from home, has been especially taxing for a person like me. It’s so clear now the value that comes from a well-stocked, all-you-can-eat micro-kitchen that we tech workers have long taken for granted. I imagine a scene where the facilities manager at work, in doing her weekly rounds, happens upon a ravaged snack area with open packaging strewn about. “A wild animal must have gotten in!” she would suspect, panicked, only to immediately realize, “…or perhaps it was Stephanie Kong. I should go check the logs to see if she’s badged in recently.” And 9 times out of 10, yes, it would have been me but in my defense I love Doritos and Honest Tea and they are so damn expensive to purchase at the rates that I need them. “Forgive me,” I would beckon, my arms outstretched. “I’m so weak right now” (for only the 23rd time this year).
I actively think about what would happen in the event of a plane crash, where passengers are stranded for days on end awaiting rescue. I am confident that my extremely fast metabolism would certainly hasten my demise. After (secretly) nibbling on the multiple nutrition bars that I strategically place in my purse and jacket pockets to battle the surges of hunger that hit when I’m out and about — and yes, not sharing because goddamnit, I just want to LIVE— I know that I would quickly succumb to the starvation by day 3, day 4 max.
I have already told my friends that they are welcome to feast upon my remains if we are ever in this situation, like the survivors of that crash in the Andes. “I won’t be offended,” I told them. “You have my full permission to eat my body in order to survive,” to which I was told that my sinewy body, further diminished by days of hunger, would provide little nourishment and thus be virtually useless in the circumstances that I have just described.
I take from this reaction two things. One, my friends are incredibly spoiled / ungrateful, for who would turn away a perfectly good, albeit very lean but also probably very tasty little body — especially when stranded and with limited possibility of survival? I mean, really — what are they waiting for? Filet mignon to fall from the sky? I’m very certain that by day 7, day 8 max, they would look over at deceased little me and think, “Man, that Stephanie is looking so yummy right now” and that they would have to eat their words (followed soon after by them having to eat my body).
But also, two, where Lizzo proclaims, “No, I’m not a snack at all / Look, baby, I’m the whole damn meal!” I am reminded by my friends’ callous rejection that I am at best the human equivalent of a meager crudité platter, and not even the kind that comes with a small container of hummus. No, friends, I suppose I am not even a snack by standard definition, but regardless, please do let my body be your amuse bouche until that much fatter, much juicier passenger finally passes.
I guess this is all to say: the grass is always greener on the other side. You may look at me, the slim Asian woman eating a turkey drumstick while riding the bus and think, “Wow, I’m so jealous of her right now.” But I assure you: mine is not as glamorous a life as it may appear. So, whether you’re actively managing your diet to maintain a strong, svelte frame or, like me, anxiously carbo-loading for the 30 minute drive across the Bay Bridge, I say do what you want, eat what you want, live how you want. The world is your oyster and in my case, I’ll take it with a side of fries and also that slice of cherry pie, thankyouverymuch.