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Warning: Your pack-rat habits could be making you fat

Peter Walsh is putting me on a diet - one that has nothing to do with food. The organizational guru and regular Oprah guest is standing in the tiny kitchen of my tiny house going through my cupboard in an effort to help me lose five pounds.

"What is this?" he demands, holding up an empty jar that has been sitting on that particular shelf for about a year.

"Originally it was for saffron," I say, "but it's such a cute jar and it cost $12, so I thought I might use it to shake up salad dressing or maybe -" He hands me the jar and pretends to slit his throat. "You are utterly indulgent," he says. "Throw it out."

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I shuffle over to the recycling bin - inconveniently located, I have just learned, outside the "magic triangle" of fridge, sink and stove - and drop the empty container inside. The parting is surprisingly painful. It makes me think of a Wallace Stevens poem I used to like in school: "I placed a jar in Tennessee/ And round it was, upon a hill/ It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill."

I am sorry about the jar. But when I hear it hit the bin bottom, a funny thing happens: I feel lighter. Better. Even (is it possible?) thinner.

This is all part of Walsh's plan. The Los Angeles-based Australian is in Toronto this week to promote his most recent book, Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? (Simon & Schuster).

Boiled down to its essence, Walsh's notion is that excess stuff in your living space is inextricably linked to excess weight on your body. It's a working theory that brings a whole new meaning to the term "junk in the trunk," and one that, in Walsh's view, defines every aspect of our lives, including work, health and relationships.

"The stuff we own has such power over us and the food we eat also has such power," he says, eyeing my jumbled and overflowing silverware organizer. "People buy the product or eat the food to invest in the dream - the dream that says, 'If you eat this junk or buy this crap, you will have more and feel better.' Invariably though, the dream never delivers. The myth says more is better. But when is more enough?"

Walsh stumbled upon the connection after publishing his first book, It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, and hosting a popular show on TLC called Clean Sweep, in which he and a crew dug people out of their self-created squalor.

He noticed that when people cleaned up their houses, they often lost weight, and vice versa.

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It's purely anecdotal, but it makes sense. As North Americans, most of us are guilty of eating too much and buying far more than we need. It follows that if we could gain the tools to solve one problem, we might be able to solve the other. In his book, Walsh offers a nine-step guide to losing weight through household organization. Like most good self-help, the conclusions are obvious - the challenge is in the implementation. (Example: Keep an organized fridge full of healthy food so you never have to eat on the run. Easier said than done.) "I'm not saying that clutter itself makes you fat," Walsh explains. "I'm saying that people who struggle with weight often struggle with balance in other parts of their lives as well."

Seen through this lens, the pile of unopened mail on my staircase is making me fat. So are the dishes in my sink, the gunk in my crisper and the jumble of suitcases in the darkest corner of my basement. My muffin top expands, apparently, with each pen left on the counter, each book abandoned beside the bath, each fat-free, naturally sweetened, lemon meringue yogurt left to fester in the fridge.

While some may take offence at the implied correlation between excess weight and slovenliness, I have to agree with Walsh. Most of the truly overweight people I've known have been messy hoarders, while my super fit, gym-going friends usually keep their homes in good kip.

Personally, I have always fallen somewhere in between - too lazy about laundry to be considered a neat freak, but reasonably tidy all the same. Ditto in the body department. I'm not overweight, but I'm no Jennifer Aniston either.

Like most people, I could improve. And having Walsh in my house makes me want to. He explains that my irrational attachment to books (I cannot bear to get rid of one, no matter how trite or badly written) is really a fear of losing memories and ideas. The same goes for my need to finish everything on my plate, even when I'm not particularly hungry. I'm scared of losing things, you see, even when I don't need them.

What Walsh is operating from, of course, is the ancient Buddhist principle that attachment leads to suffering and suffering leads to death - or at least cellulite. I get it.

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But the idea of letting go can be frightening - especially in deepest, darkest February.

"What do you want from your life?" he demands. "And more immediately what do you want from this room?"

I glance at the wilted duvet cover. The broken humidifier in the corner. We are now in my bedroom.

"Uh, I guess a sense of calm and quiet?"

"And what else?"

I look at him blankly.

"Intimacy? I presume you want intimacy in your bedroom?"

"Oh, yes, of course!" I nod vigorously, hoping my enthusiasm will conceal my embarrassment.

He points at yesterday's jeans, abandoned on the chair with yesterday's dirty underwear inside them.

"How are those jeans contributing to your sense of intimacy?"

I stare at my slippers. He shakes his head as if I had just shown him a handful belly button lint. "Every day of your life, these are the questions you must ask yourself."

He doesn't need to add: If you don't, soon you'll be too fat to fit into those jeans anyway.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More


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