Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's Important to Fail Sometimes

I grew up with a mother who had emotional problems and would take the least little mistake on the part of others in my family (mostly my sister and me) to let loose with her anger. Because the most reasonable mistake, such as making an unexpected noise, forgetting some small part of a chore, or simply putting some object in a place she didn't prefer it be, would set off a temperamental outburst, I became a perfectionist. I held myself to a very high standard and I'm sure that that was in part because the consequences of screwing up were seemingly so dire.

To that end, I worked hard in school and was very disappointed in myself when I not only didn't get A's, but high A's. Anything below 95% wasn't good enough. In fact, as far as I was concerned, 91% was close enough to a B that it might as well be one. Most of the time, I lived up to my absurdly high standards, but I was miserable when I didn't. Failure was always an inch away and success was always a mega-marathon of effort away. Somehow, I still managed to succeed most of the time, but that sort of energy investment takes a toll. It became very hard to be me under such circumstances. I spent much of my third year of college coming home and sleeping all evening because I just couldn't deal with the stress.

After I left home, this sense that I had to always be "perfect" started to slowly unravel as my husband is a calm, reasonable sort of person who very, very rarely gets worked up about anything, let alone the sorts of trivial matters that would set my mother into fits of verbal abuse. I learned slowly but surely that messing up wasn't the end of the world, except in one case. That case was my eating habits.

When it came to eating, I often felt that any time that I messed up and ate more than I should or foods that perhaps were not healthy, I was a complete failure and that those times meant that I would never, ever be able to control my eating or stick to an eating plan for very long. Every time I messed up, I felt I might as well give up because I clearly couldn't manage. Perhaps I couldn't manage in my previous failed attempts, but chances are that my attitude defeated me as much as anything or everything else.

One thing I've tried to incorporate into my thinking in the past year is a form of confidence training when it comes to my eating habits. Every time I ate more than I would have preferred to, I felt a little shaky about my ability to continue and worried that one day in which I didn't follow my plans exactly would lead to another and another and another until my resolve and weight loss efforts collapsed in one gigantic heap of accumulated failure. It was a little like how I saw my 91% "A" grade as being a failure because it was on the road to a "B". One day of overeating is a step away from doing so forever.

I've had quite a few days where things didn't go according to plan, particularly in the first 9 months of what I've been doing. In fact, as recent as last month, there were times when I felt a bit hot and cold on my eating habits. I'd have a day closer to 2000 calories than 1500, then go about 1600, then another day around 1800, then back down to 1500. Every time this happened, I'd feel insecure and tell myself that I would absolutely prove to myself that I could do what I wanted to do the next day, and I would do better. It was imperative to come closer the next day each time, because then I'd know I could do it again.

What I've learned is that those "failures" actually have helped a lot in building my confidence for the future. If I had nothing but strings of weeks, months, or days in which I'd been on target, any failure might seem to be an indication of a serious stumble. Since I was tripping and stumbling a little bit here and there, now and then nearly every week (sometimes twice), I have grown accustomed to the idea that any lapse can be recovered from.

All of those "failures" allowed me to gain a sense that I can succeed in the long run because they demonstrated my resilience in the face of random difficulties. I truly believe that multiple "failures" actually have greater value over the long haul than near constant success. We're all going to encounter bumps in the road when food options are poor or limited and we may eat in a way which doesn't fit our plans, or we may have bad days and simply react to the stress by overeating, and it's good to have the confidence that you can get back in the saddle again after falling off the nutritional horse. You can't get that kind of confidence by being perfect. You can only get it by failing sometimes.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Early Fruit

This is an exciting time for me in my weight loss progress on several fronts. In fact, it's the first time that I've actually felt anything approaching "excitement", and that's probably because a lot of the past year has been equivalent to planting psychological and life habit change "seeds" and hoping they'll grow into what I want them to be. I think that I'm finally seeing the saplings grow the first buds of actual fruit. And I'm not just talking about the usual list of NSV (non-scale victories) like fitting into a chair or not being in pain when I walk. There is much more going on at this point in time. It's deeper and more meaningful for my future lifestyle.

I realize that at this weight (likely just under 260), I will finally be within a (relative) stone's throw of a change in appearance that approaches "normality" in such a way that people will stop gawking excessively and openly speaking poorly of me. I'll still be fat by the end of this year, but not in a way which gets me treated like a complete freak. This has been something that has been so far in my future throughout most of this that I couldn't even come close to seeing that particular light near the end of the tunnel.

What is more exciting to me at this stage is that the death grip over my life that food has held is loosening noticeably. All of the psychological and behavioral work I've been doing is paying off. In the past month, I have found it easier to not eat when I have the impulse to do so for whatever reason that I do not want to eat. Food "calls" to me much more softly and it's easier to ignore its siren song.

I also do not think constantly about food or weight loss. I spend my time absorbed in other activities. Food concerns probably still occupy more of my thought processes than the average person who is not on a weight loss plan or who doesn't have a weight problem, but it has definitely diminished by at least 70% compared to a year ago. I rarely spent an hour without ruminating on food when I started (unless I was completely preoccupied, and even then sometimes I'd drift away to what I wanted to eat, would eat, or had to cook). Now, I can go several hours without thinking about food or food planning between meals or activities which are essential to meal-related tasks.

Beyond that, I have noticed that it has stopped being the case that I approach my calorie goals as something I purposefully buck up against. In the past, if I was allowed 1500 calories for a given day, I would eat up to the limit because I wanted to cram in something enjoyable or because I was so hungry I wanted to eat every bit I could and still meet my goals. As of late, I don't eat up to the limit if I'm not truly hungry.

In essence, I've moved from always eating as much as I can because I can to eating what I want only when I want most of the time, and I don't resent it or feel deprived when I choose not to eat as many calories as I could. There's no psychological residue associated with these acts. It's simply me acting more in accord with physical rather than psychological need.

Early on in my "mindful eating" efforts when I was eating treats, I would have to fight the compulsion to have another if I could afford the calories. I succeeded about 75% of the time back then, but now I find that I simply do not have the desire for "seconds" at all, let alone have to fight any urges to have more because "I can afford the calories." At least at this point in time, I seem to be enjoying the results of full internalization of the practices of mindful eating.

I also find that I trust myself around food almost completely. That is, if I'm around tasty food, I don't worry that I'll weaken and eat it or overeat it. I feel very much in control over food at this stage, though certainly not in an obsessive or fanatical way. If I want a taste of cheese, I'll have a small slice which is between a quarter and half ounce. I have no worries that I'll want to start slicing off more and more to gobble more down.

I think that the psychological work I'm doing has really helped bring me to this point, but I also think that my physiology may have finally made a certain shift as well. I think the year-long process of smaller portions has finally "trained" my body's organs and cells to a state where they no longer anticipate and demand being overfed. It could also be that, at a weight which is 2/3 of my starting weight, my energy demands have scaled back such that the desire for food is less insistent biologically. I can't say for sure, but I think I'm currently enjoying the culmination of all of my efforts in a very concrete way.

This is absolutely the first time in my life that I have felt like this. I have no food guilt. I can eat any food I want, and I never feel deprived. The best part is that horrible "pull" to eat and that feeling of a lack of control seems to have greatly faded away. I'm not quite prepared to say it's all better now or that everything has been resolved because I don't want to get ahead of myself, but, for the moment, I feel quite liberated. And, yes, I'm excited.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Next Serving

Back when he was struggling to overcome bulimia, Elton John once said that he used to eat an enormous serving of curry thinking only about eating the next one. He said something to the effect that his mind was on the upcoming second serving before the first one was in the toilet. The point of what he was saying was that he wasn't even enjoying the first one, but rather focusing on getting more.

I mention this because I have also had many times where my focus was on the quantity of what I could eat, not on what I was actually eating. I could enjoy a candy bar more if I knew there was more waiting for me. The sheer notion that another round was available made eating the first one more gratifying. It's as if I couldn't enjoy anything as well or as much unless I knew there was a "buffer" zone of more on hand. Rather than deriving value from the actual sensory delight of the food I had in hand, I focused on the entire quantity.

One of my psychology professors so long ago once tried to make this point in a different way. He said that 'fat people think about food all of the time, except when it's right in front of them.' I found what he said insulting and judgmental, and I immediately rejected it as yet another thing that people without weight problems said about those with them because they didn't really understand us. The fact of the matter is, he was right, but how he said it and who it was coming from ensured that I would reject the message.

This notion of extracting pleasure only from copious amounts of food or feeling dissatisfied with a small portion is something that pervades a lot of Western cultural thinking. You often hear people complain about recommended serving sizes on food packages and say that the companies conceptualize a serving size as far too small to satisfy as a means of skewing nutritional information so that it appears more favorable. Perhaps the fault lies not with our food manufacturers, but in ourselves.

"Enough" is a highly subjective term based on body frame size, activity levels, and gender, but the truth is that most of us have formed our ideas of how much food is enough to satisfy (regardless of food type) based on cultural norms and life experience. If you are served huge portions in restaurants, you come to think of that as "enough". If your family eats heaping amounts of food, that is what you tend to think of a "enough". The bigger the cultural serving size norms are, the more people will require to satisfy their conceptualization of what portions they should eat. In many cultures, the norm for portion sizes is far smaller than that in the U.S., and that is why so many American tourists complain about them.

Of course, people like old Elton and I have disordered eating. If we are focusing on the next serving while we're supposed to be enjoying the first one, we're dealing with an issue that is beyond portions. It has to be addressed before portion control can be considered. Frankly, I've thought about this and I have not come up with a definitive explanation as to what causes this sort of thinking. Perhaps it's about growing up poor and trying to get your share. Perhaps it's about needing a feeling of being over-full or extracting gratification from the oral sensation of eating more so than the enjoyment of the food itself. Perhaps I starved to death in a past life and that part of my soul won't be gratified until it has eaten enough for both lives.*

I don't know what caused this tendency to attend to the food I don't have rather than what I do have. However, for me, the cure was mindful eating and a fair amount of self-induced therapy where I kept telling myself that "more is not going to be better." And the truth is that more really isn't better. Paying attention to the food is better. I'm doing this more and more with every bit of food I eat and it really does help. I don't know if the root cause may yet come back to bite me in the ass and I may find my ability to focus on what I am currently eating unraveling. For now, I just want to be aware that it was once the case, and could be again unless I continue to cultivate a different perspective every time I approach food.

*For the humor impaired, that is a joke.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

We, the "Vincents", of the world

There was a movie made in 1997 called "Gattaca". For those who haven't seen it, it's a movie about a near future world in which genetic engineering allows parents to make sure that their children are the best they can be. It isn't that they become "super people" so much as all possible weaknesses are eliminated and strengths ensured. The children are still limited by the genetic material of their parents. If you want to see the movie and don't want to be spoiled, I advise you to skip the remainder of this post.

The movie operates from the point of a view of the main character named "Vincent". Vincent is what is called a "God child" by people in this society. That means that he was simply conceived naturally without any sort of manipulation on the part of his parents. He has a congenital heart weakness, and is seen as being of limited potential and inferior to children who have been engineered to be a distillate of the best genetic material their parents had to offer.

Vincent has a younger brother named Anton who has been manipulated genetically. While Vincent's parents love him, they expect little from him compared to his brother, and his mother worries about his heart weakness. Despite his brother's genetic superiority, Vincent always manages to out-swim him when they compete to swim the furthest in the ocean, and Anton cannot understand why his inferior brother always beats him (and in fact often saves him from drowning).

Vincent has a dream to travel to space, but only the best of the best are allowed, and "God children" aren't even given a chance and Vincent is stuck doing janitorial and maintenance work. Children who have not been bred to be excellent are stuck with menial tasks because before one can even apply for a lofty position, one has to submit genetic samples to prove ones potential. In order to gain entry to the space program, Vincent uses genetic material from a crippled former runner who has some of the best genetic material in the world. This man, despite his advantages, is a drunk and a wreck who never realized his potential and walked in front of a car to commit suicide when he failed to take first place in a race which he should have one according to his genetic pedigree.

In the end, Vincent rises above all of the other applicants and realizes his wish to go into space. Despite the fact that he has a multitude of genetic disadvantages and weaknesses, his strong effort to do whatever it takes pay off in the end. Those with genetic advantages don't try as hard as he does, and get their rewards more easily, but he ends up succeeding beyond their capacity through his strong effort.

Sometimes I write about all of the obstacles and disadvantages of being fat, and how hard it is to overcome. From the fact that stress eating is normal to delayed leptin responses that keep us from feeling full to the fact that the number of fat cells in our body make it harder to lose and easier to gain, we have a steep mountain to climb relative to people who are thin when it comes to dealing with food. That being said, it is possible to overcome your genetic and psychological obstacles and to come out all that much stronger a person on the whole on the other side.

Those that have it easy never have to grow to do what we have to do. They can take it for granted, but you can bet that whatever you learn from the process will serve you in every area of your life. You may have to work far harder at it than those who are naturally inclined to being thin, but you can be the equivalent or healthier than a person with a natural disposition to be thin. This notion is not just in a science fiction movie about a near future dystopia. I have never felt more certain of that than I do now. The first step, however, is accepting without fear, resentment or anger that we will have to try harder and that nothing is inevitable, no matter what your genes indicate or the people around you believe you are capable of.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Inherent Hypocrisy

Most people consider their bodies a container that they inhabit. Even if you don't believe in souls or have a spiritual concept that you hold to be true, many people believe that personality defines them, not their physicality. Our parents reinforce this idea by telling you that people should love you for who you are, not what you look like. In fact, many of us are insulted or feel that others are shallow if they form judgments or consider us desirable only based on our bodies.

There are good reasons for these feelings, and many of them are based on the inevitability of bodily change. If someone loves you for your beauty, it will inevitably fade. Also, humans experience fatigue in regards to the appearance of everything in their lives. The thing which was so incredibly beautiful or attractive the first 100 times you looked at it soon becomes mundane. We cannot continuously maintain the same level of appreciation for something which we found physically appealing. Eventually, the value of something based on appearance alone diminishes to zero. Even objects which we loved the look of, like a favorite stuffed toy that we find cute, tend to be infused with value based on the emotional attachment we feel rather than maintain their initial appeal based on appearance alone.

Because of this natural tendency, we value people based on character because such attributes are more complex and we are less likely to find that they lose value through time. That being said, even positive personality traits tend to be taken for granted through time, and we have to work a bit to keep their value in mind. Fortunately, absence and contrast (comparing one person's character to another) tend to help continually reinforce the value of things like a person's patience, kindness, and intelligence.

It's natural that we see ourselves as being represented mainly by who we are, and not by the container that we present ourselves in. Certainly, we all realize that society and strangers are going to reach conclusions about our general appearance, but we tend to believe that the factors which represent our character and habits such as professionalism in dress choice, cleanliness, grooming, etc. are what "should" be valued rather than our inherent beauty or lack thereof.

It would take a conscious act on the part of most mature (or overweight) people to change their values in order to place appearance above character, particularly if you are older since younger people tend to be more appearance focused. For those of us who have deeply embraced the notion that character is far more valuable and worth developing than the body, there may be an inherent sense that one is being hypocritical in expending so much energy on weight loss. If beauty is only skin deep and character is what we should be valued for, aren't we acting against our values if we place so much emphasis on our bodies?

This is something that I have not wrestled with much because my motivation so far has been the reduction of my physical pain and to achieve mobility such that I can live a relatively "normal" life. At around 260 lbs. at present, I am likely within 3-6 months of reaching a state whereby pain and mobility will no longer be as strong a goal for weight loss. After I reach the general range of 200 lbs. and lower, it's almost certain that appearance will be a bigger factor, though there may also be health issues as well. Of course, improved appearance addresses my third motivation, avoiding weight-based discrimination.

At any rate, I can't help but at least acknowledge that as someone who values character and is quite indifferent to the outer shell of a person, my focus on my body is perhaps hypocritical, though frankly, it is also understandable. I have to live in this world with all of the disadvantages that are applied to me for being fat. I may not care about the look of bodies, but as long as nearly everyone else around me concerns themselves with mine, I really have little choice but to concern myself with appearance.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Too Much At Once

For much of her adult life, my mother has suffered from what I could call an "over-stimulation/under-stimulation" conflict. In layman's terms, that would mean that she is easily overwhelmed by too many things going on, but also easily bored. This conflict has pretty much ruled her life and her moods for as long as I have been self-aware enough and mature enough to understand her behavior.

Because of this personality tendency, my mother is rarely satisfied with what she is doing or where she is. It has manifested itself in a desire to never remain at home, but really have no goal outside of the house other than to seek novelty. She wants to go to movies, local theater productions or concerts, eat out at restaurants, and, especially, shop. When her nervous system becomes overwhelmed with too much stimulation, she lashes out at others and blames them for things which are not their fault. A metaphor for this might be that she is a glass that fills rapidly and overflows (causing a negative emotional outburst) and then empties and immediately seeks to be refilled again.

This is a cycle that I am aware of in myself and have been for some time. One might conclude that this is a biological inevitability, but I don't accept that. For one thing, I have noticed that my actions can either exacerbate or slow down this tendency. It's as if feeding it makes it worse and starving it makes it better. If I don't strike out in 10 directions to act on my need for stimulation, the next time I might need only to strike out in 1 direction. The more I act on my boredom in a destructive manner, the more I build the tendency to be stuck in this cycle.

One of the things about this sort of predisposition is that food tends to factor into it rather heavily. Eating as a form of stimulation is something which is easy and gratifying if you need to be constantly occupied. I've also come to realize as of late that the tendency to multi-task or to attend to disparate tasks simultaneously rather than focusing on one thing at a time is a part of this character tendency. Eating is often a way of stimulating yourself positively on top of other types of things like watching television, reading, or even talking to other people. Many of us aren't happy unless almost all of our senses are engaged at once - seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling. Eating while taking part in entertaining activities gratifies this need.

As I have mentioned before, I think the potential to succeed in the long term with my weight loss is heavily dependent on understanding the underlying behavior which causes me to overeat. In terms of the psychological puzzle, I think this tendency to be in an over-stimulation/under-stimulation conflict is a component. I've also mentioned that stress causes all animals to eat and there is little more stressful than this situation when you are feeling overwhelmed.

In order to reduce my overall desire to over-stimulate myself and to focus on calming my mind and "training" it to be more satisfied with quiet and peace, I'm going to reduce multi-tasking in my life in a purposeful manner. That is not to say I will eliminate it all. For instance, I never watch television with my full attention and I don't think it is engaging enough to keep me fully occupied. However, I am going to be mindful of those situations where I'm scattering my focus when I may be better served by emptying my thoughts.

For starters, I'm going to begin by lifting weights for the limited duration that I do so with my eyes closed and with my mind at rest rather than watching T.V. or reading while I do it. The idea is not to be so interested in the activity itself, but rather to take part in a purposeful exercise where I'm fully engaged with the activity. I'm not a person who empties my thoughts easily, and it's one of the reasons that meditation has always been hard for me. I have found though that visualizing the ideas that pop into my head as leaves falling from a tree (as they do in autumn) often helps clear my mind (essentially, allowing the thoughts to drift down and away when they cloud my mind), as does focusing on some aspect of nature like a waterfall or a tree.

Considering the way in which I have used food to help satisfy my need to have my senses saturated, I'm hoping that focusing on single tasking and this sort of full concentration on some tasks will begin a process in which I seek less simultaneous stimulation. I want to train my mind to be gratified with less and to remain in the moment. It is my hope that this will draw me to food less and less as a form of simple sensory stimulation.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Coping with bad days

Everyone has bad days. They are those times when you're so overwhelmed by something that doing all of the stuff it takes to stay on your plan to improve your health and reduce your weight seems like an immense burden. This isn't an illusion or an attempt to make an excuse to abandon your plan in favor of reverting back to what you “really” want to do, eat junk and be inert, as many people often conclude. It's neither your weakness nor a manifestation of barely suppressed desires to indulge when this happens.

When we have “bad days”, we (usually) lose motivation because we are overwhelmed and doing anything that requires the least bit of effort is like contemplating adding that last straw that will break our (figurative) backs. Your nervous system feels stimulation when physical or emotional discomfort are being endured. It's one of the reasons people who are in pain have less patience than people who are not. At these times, making any effort is hard.

Most people define “effort” as movement or activity, but even thinking about something when you're having a bad day is going to require energy. Your brain, after all, requires an immense amount of energy relative to other organs. Incidentally, this is why college students tend to gain weight. It's not the stress so much as the studying. The brain makes them want quick energy, and they often turn to quick and dense delivery systems like candy.

For women, myself included, menstrual cycles and pre-menstrual cycles tend to be the times when it becomes very difficult to stay on plan. It's not only that your bodily systems are disrupted and its energies diverted to monthly regulatory processes, but also that we tend to develop cravings and want to eat more. Again, this is not weakness, but a function of biology. Fighting back against such strong impulses when you're feeling poorly is an order of magnitude harder than on those days when you're doing well.

Today, I'm having a “bad day” because of my period. I feel foggy, impatient, have a headache, and I want to eat rather than resist when I'm hungry or having a craving. I feel like the least little bit of effort including having to think in any way about what or how much I'm eating is too much and I'd like to just put my head down on the desk and withdraw from everything. All of my understanding of the underlying factors doesn't change the fact that I feel like crap and that resisting any urge right now feels like it's going to take a Herculean effort which I cannot muster.

So, how do I cope? I start with acknowledging that this is going to be a hard day, and that I may end up eating a few more calories, and it's going to be okay if I eat up to 2000 instead of sticking to 1500. It's also okay if I decide not to exercise because I feel bad. And I'm not lying to myself. One of the things which I think people on “diets” tend to do is never let themselves off the hook, push themselves every single day and berate themselves when they “fail”, even when they feel like crap. I think that we have to be reasonable with ourselves and our lives. By giving yourself permission to eat a little more and do less when you feel bad, you take the pressure off of yourself for the day. You immediately improve your chances of coping effectively during the short period of time when you are doing poorly. While there is a chance that you will suffer from a “lack of progress” during the days you do this, you at least will know that you will not suffer a serious setback or suffer needlessly for incremental gains.

The result of consciously cutting myself slack early on when I feel terrible is that the sense of being overwhelmed immediately is reduced. Instead of feeling the crushing weight of my physical difficulties coupled with my mental fog and having to deal with my eating and exercise goals, I only feel the first two. I take away some of the stress that I can control so that I can more effectively deal with the ones that I can't. I actually feel relieved just by giving myself this permission. And if I need to act on that latitude, I will, and I will absolutely not feel bad about it. It's important to remember that one day a month, one day a week or whatever is not going to sabotage your progress, especially if you're not pigging out on far more calories than you could burn in two days. This isn't permission to go crazy, but rather to be more flexible. And that is generally “enough” if you're not in the very earliest stages of your plan (when it's harder to stick with it).

When you're trying to lose weight and doing poorly, you tend to focus excessively on the part of your life which is the hardest to stick to, the diet and exercise. It's the first thing you want to jettison and start over again tomorrow, but there is much more to life and making it easier to cope when you're not doing well. Rather than focus on the part which is hardest to follow, focus on the other parts which may tax you on a bad day but are effortless on other days and determine how you can improve your circumstances throughout the entire day by letting any non-essential activity go. Plan to procrastinate and indulge wherever you reasonably can.

For each person, streamlining your day is different, but I'll give some examples:
  • If it is a hot day, give in and use the air conditioner. If it's cold, turn up the heat. Choose the luxury setting just for this day and go back to enduring things for the good of the environment tomorrow when you feel better.
  • If you had plans for cleaning or cooking that are not absolutely essential, abandon them. Laundry can wait.
  • If you have errands to run which can wait, do not do them. This includes things which may seem innocuous like going to the hair salon or shopping.
  • Turn off your cell phone if you can. Turn on your answering machine. Don't risk having to deal with people who may add stress to your day.
  • Don't check your e-mail or social networking sites.
I would also recommend adding in tasks that you enjoy which do not necessarily add qualitatively to your life. Examples of these types of things would include:
  • Laying around in your pajamas all day (if you're not working, obviously).
  • Playing mindless games.
  • Watching stupid television or movies that make you happy.
  • Drink diet soda or tea or coffee with sweetener when you want them as often as you want them. 
  • Don't force yourself to eat things you aren't really interested in eating for health purposes. I know this may be a controversial thing, but if you don't feel like eating a damn vegetable today, don't. It's not the end of the world if you go a day here and there which isn't nutritionally stellar.
My main point is that, when you have a bad day, you want to look at the day and do whatever you can to take pressure of any sort off of you and add in things which relax you and make you feel good. Think outside the box which is labeled "food" and look at your whole life. While this includes cutting yourself some slack on the diet and exercise front (but not to a destructive extent, hopefully), it also includes doing so with your entire day. The very act of doing this will in turn make it easier to follow your food plan. It will also help you start to frame your life in a manner which is "whole" rather than food and body obsessed. You will notice how much of your life does not involve food and how quality of life can be improved without adding in fattening food. Sometimes the stress that makes us go off our plans during days when we feel bad has less to do with the food and exercise, and more to do with the rest of the day.

Monday, June 21, 2010

When It Matters

I make most of my own food, except for some salted snacks and sweets. When I say “most”, I mean that I make my own bread, soup, etc. On my current plan, I have little choice but to do these things because I don't live in a place where certain types of foods are readily available. I also rarely eat out at restaurants, though on occasion, I will find myself in a situation where I want to have something or have little choice but to partake of a fast food offering. This is never a big deal for me. I can work with nearly anything, though I wouldn't want to have to consume such food on a regular basis.

One of the good things about preparing my own food is that I can structure the preparation and presentation in ways that boost the nutritional profile and reduce calories. I've been adjusting my meals to break old habits and to modify foods to get the best result for the lowest caloric impact and the maximum pleasure. I think that it is hard for everyone to do what I do in terms of cooking nearly everything yourself. In fact, I wouldn't really recommend it because it can be overwhelming. I would, however, advise most folks to grow accustomed to making as many of their meals as possible themselves. It's worth the time investment because you can get more pleasure and save money as well as gain control of what you eat. You may find that your food is much better than what you can buy.

One of the things I have realized is that we often add calories to food and actually diminish taste based on nothing more than habit. One of the first things that I tossed out the window when I modified my eating was sandwiches with two slices of bread in favor of open-faced sandwiches (except in the case of grilled cheese). Using two slices of bread is a convenience which forces you to put more filling into the sandwich to get enough flavor. Making them open-faced when possible improves flavor and nutritional profiles (better taste from the filling, fewer carbohydrates and calories). Note that Norwegians often have open-faced sandwiches for breakfast. It is only our cultural habits which have us making them the way we do.

If you are working and carrying your lunch, you might think that you have no choice but to use two bread slices, but you can always put the filling in a separate container, take a slice of bread and assemble the open-faced sandwich at lunchtime. I mention this not as specific advice, but as a way of illustrating that thinking outside the box about how you're dealing with your food can have very real benefits.

I've found that when I plan my meals, it's helpful to also consider when a preparation benefits from a fattening addition and when it does not. If I'm having soup, and I want bread with it, I'm better off eating a small piece of crusty French bread than forcing myself to have a piece of whole wheat bread. The French bread is more fattening and less nutritious, but it is what is best with soup because I'm eating the bread alone or as a main component. When I have wheat toast alone for breakfast, I never use reduced calorie margarine, but use real butter and jam. I use reduced calorie margarine when I have toast with eggs because the egg is the main component.

Portion sizes are paramount in these cases. I have found that a tablespoon of jam is plenty and a half tablespoon of butter is enough if I don't try to “spread” it but rather use a cheese planer to slice off a thin layer of cold butter and lay that over the bread (note: I do eat small slices of bread). That allows for even distribution of a small portion. It's also better not to melt all of the butter into the toast, but rather to put the cold jam on top of it before it all melts in. You taste a small amount of butter more than way.

When I make egg or tuna salad, mixing 50% strained yogurt with mayonnaise has little impact on the flavor profile because the spices you add to such mixtures and the strong flavors make the yogurt flavor relatively undetectable, and you still get the moisture and texture elements that are necessary for such salad-based preparations. I make similar decisions about when to cook in butter or to use scant amounts of oil. Eggs always are fried (though I actually prefer poached eggs because of their texture) in butter because they tend to stick otherwise (and taste better with butter). Chicken is cooked skin-side down in scant amounts of Canola oil as it doesn't not require enhancement beyond ground spices.

Again, I offer these as examples, not specific recommendations. I think that arranging and preparing meals such that we use the fat or calorie dense options when they really matter to the outcome and not just using them as a matter of course, or, more importantly, abandoning them altogether in some effort to purge all that is “bad” from our diets, is a sensible and helpful option in managing your eating. The goal should never be to rob yourself of the pleasure of food, but rather to get the most out of it. I would encourage anyone who is trying to lose weight to give thought to what components of their meals are important and which are not and make similar adjustments.

Settling for Less

One of these is enough, and I don't have seconds. 32 calories of pleasure

In this day and age, I don't know how many people have seen or want to see the movie, “My Dinner with Andre”, but there is a scene in it that everyone with food issues can learn something from. Andre is talking about a great Scottish mathematician named Roc, and how he lived his life. He said:

“But Roc used to practice certain exercises, like for instance, if he were right-handed, all today he would do everything with his left hand, all day, eating, writing, everything: opening doors, in order to break the habits of living. Because the great danger he felt for him was to fall into a trance, out of habit. He had a whole series of very simple exercises that he had invented, just to keep seeing, feeling, remembering. Because you have to learn now. It didn't use to be necessary, but today you have to learn something like: are you really hungry or are you just stuffing your face because because that's what you do, out of habit. I mean, you can afford to do it, so you do it, whether you're hungry or not. You know, if you go to the Buddhist meditation center, they make you taste each bite of your food, so it takes two hours--it's horrible--to eat your lunch! But you're conscious of the taste of your food! If you're just eating out of habit, then you don't taste the food and you're not conscious of the reality of what's happening to you. You enter the dream world again.”

It is my feeling that one of the things that leads to overeating is that we don't taste every bite and often lapse into a state where we are not even aware of the food that we supposedly derive pleasure from. This was a lesson I learned about a year ago, and while I don't take two hours to eat my lunch, I am very careful to follow a certain procedure with any food which I am consuming specifically for pleasure. This procedure is what has allowed me to learn to incorporate treats into my daily life without overdoing it. If you really experience your food when you eat a treat, be it a savory or sweet one, you will find that you will be satisfied with less. I have written of this before, but I'm going to spell it out here in steps because I think it is valuable to practice.
  1. Serve yourself a very small portion of a food you adore but believe you can't eat because it is high in calories. My yardstick is no more than three bites. For chocolates, one piece, one mini or a bite size bar is generally about right.
  2. Hold the food close to your nose and inhale the fragrance of it at least twice. Really consider how good it smells. Think about how the aroma is a huge part of the pleasure of this food (this works very well with chocolate, baked goods, cookies).
  3. Sit the food down and pause for at least 10 seconds. Look at it and think about how much you're going to enjoy it. Do not cloud your thoughts with any negative thoughts about eating this food! Only think about the pleasure
  4. Bring the food to your mouth and take one small bite. Hold it in your mouth and focus on getting it to remain on your tongue for as long as you can enjoy the flavor. Think about the texture while you chew. When you must, swallow.
  5. Put the food back down again. Take a drink of water, tea, or whatever drink you enjoy with this particular food. Wait at least a minute before having the next bite. This gives your taste buds a chance to become a little sensitized to the taste again. If you take a bite too soon, they will be desensitized and you will not enjoy it fully.
  6. Bring the food to your mouth again and take another small bite and repeat the process of holding it on your tongue and enjoying the flavor as in step 4.
In Step 5, take care to notice whether or not the waiting period causes you anxiety. If it does, you probably are being compulsive about eating this food and need to place it in a healthier context. These exercises should help you eventually do that.

The point of this is to experience the food's pleasure. You may find that you have a compulsive desire to have more. I had this problem initially, but I would say to myself:
  1. More will not enhance the experience. In fact, more will diminish it because I won't taste it as strongly.
  2. Do I really want the experience of tasting more, or am I compulsively desiring more because I associate the experience of eating this food with fulfillment of an irrational “need” or desire to consume great quantities? Am I trying to prove I can do whatever I want and have the power to eat as much as I like?
  3. I will be able to enjoy it again tomorrow if I really want to experience it again. There is always the chance to enjoy any food again on another day and there is no need to gobble it all down at once.
  4. I will likely feel sick if I eat too much at once.
  5. I will feel guilty or like I failed if I eat more than planned and that will undermine any enjoyment I feel and create anxiety or stress which in turn cause me to want to overeat more.
  6. It is perfectly natural to want to eat as much of a really tasty food as I can find. It is part of my biological nature. However, I can suppress this nature in the interest of maintaining my desired weight as I suppress many other aspects of my nature. I am capable of this just as I am capable of not having sex with the first man who walks by when I'm aroused.
If you don't "trust" yourself, you can do these exercises by buying only a small amount of something at once or you can get someone in your family to ration one small serving and "hide" the rest from you. I never had to do this, but I can very much understand why others may need to have someone else help them initially.

This process is an exercise in sensitization, control and normalization. It sensitizes you to the taste and actual enjoyment of your food. It teaches you portion control, and it normalizes your relationship to types of food which you have an abnormal relationship with. In fact, I would encourage anyone who wants to do this to eat a small amount of a treat every single day (provided that you have no special dietary concerns or health issues that would preclude such a thing). Make the experience routine. You can look forward to it without guilt. You can make the most of it each time.

If you think you "can't" manage this, then you can see just how you have empowered food and how you have bought into the idea that some foods are "bad". This is not a helpful mindset nor something which will help you maintain weight in the future. The nice thing about this is that once you develop control at this level, it starts to generalize to other types of eating and food. I do this sort of purposeful tasting with my coffee, tea, and any sort of carbohydrates which I might consume mainly for enjoyment (potatoes, French bread). I enjoy mundane foods like eggs, wheat toast, and chicken more because of these purposeful eating techniques. It helps reduce portions of all foods which are not strictly instrumental.

I have found this sort of exercise immensely valuable in helping me maintain my eating plan, and I hope that it is of use to others as well. If it's not your kind of experience, then by all means do not attempt it, but I do feel that this is going to make it that much easier to maintain my weight in any circumstance in the future.

Note: Some people refer to "intuitive eating" as "mindful eating". To them, these are the same thing. To me, intuitive eating is relying on your body's satiety cues to tell you when to stop eating rather than using external methods like food counting and weighing. Most of the time, practitioners of intuitive eating also eat mindfully. I just wanted it to be clear that I don't use the terms as equivalents of one another, but other people do.

To me, "mindful eating" applies to extracting the maximum sensory pleasure from food and "intuitive eating" applies to both enjoying your food and attending to it as you eat as well as relying on your body to tell you when to start and stop eating. Intuitive eating encompasses a much broader lifestyle than "mindful eating" as I personally use it the term.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Maybe You Can't

What would happen if you went to a doctor and told him you wanted to lose weight; he ran a few tests, and told you that, for a variety of reasons, that you simply cannot lose weight. It could be that doing so would endanger your health in some bizarre fashion or you simply don't have the right physiological disposition. If that happened, aside from wanting to walk around all day with a sandwich board saying, “I am fat for medical reasons” on one side and a giant blow-up of the doctor's diagnosis signed and certified on the other (so people wouldn't “blame” you for being fat), what would you do? How would you feel?

Sometimes I wonder if people would be relieved. How many people are fat and full of self-loathing because they think they should change, but fail when they try? How many hate themselves because they are told that they are disgusting and out of control? Would a medical “license to be fat” like a plump “007” relieve them of their low estimation of themselves?

This morning while I was washing dishes (another of those mentally empty tasks which sets my mind wandering into deeper thought territory), it occurred to me that it might be easier if someone had a crystal ball which they could look into which told them definitively that they could or could not lose weight. It wouldn't matter if it was psychological or physiological; the important thing is that you would know for certain that your efforts would be futile if you tried. Would that breed absolute despair or total relief?

For me, it would create despair because my main motivations in order of importance have been the cessation of physical pain, improved mobility, and stopping the emotional abuse and prejudicial behavior from fat haters. Losing weight will fix all of those problems. Being told that I could not lose weight would mean living in constant pain and essentially being disabled by that pain when attempting any but the briefest walk. For those who are not (at least, yet) in my shoes, I wonder if they would just be happy not to be “responsible” for their weight problem and would be freed from the constant mental battle of trying to change their habits, failing, feeling demoralized, and trying again. I know that I went through a similar cycle of failure for many years until this time when I seem to be succeeding. You know the feeling, you fail so many times that you stop trying because you can't face the prospect of failing once more. Note that I am reluctant to declare the “war” won when I've been winning battles for only a year. This is, after all, a lifelong issue, and I hope to be fighting the good fight for at least another 25 years.

This morning, I spent some time pruning my RSS feeds of dead and defunct blogs. Many of the blogs I unsubscribed from were from people who started out very gung-ho and determined to deal with their weight problems effectively “this time”. Their blog comment boxes were filled with encouraging messages saying, “you can do it!” A good many of them have abandoned their blogs because they couldn't do it. I wonder if they really “can't” do it because they don't have the right environment, physiology, or aren't in an emotional place to address their problems. Maybe they never will be, and I think that's something we have to accept and treat with compassion. Nobody wants to be unable to “put down the fork” (a phrase I detest). If they really could, they would, because for the vast majority of people, living life as a fat person means a life of difficulty and despair.

One of the signatures on someone's post or blog somewhere once said something like, “the only thing standing between you and success is you.” I think that that's true, but “you” is a formidable obstacle that is very hard to clambor over. We can't keep simply telling everyone that they can lose weight because we think they should be able to or because we have been able to. There are multitudes of personal changes that have to take place in order to succeed at losing weight and keeping it off, and some people cannot do it. They really cannot. Accepting this fact is not “giving up” on anyone or encouraging them to give up on themselves. It is actually the first step in ending judgment and fat prejudice and allowing people to stop torturing themselves about a part of their lives that they can't change for either physical or psychological reasons.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


On several occasions, I have spoken rather negatively about a popular weight loss “support” forum. Given my low regard for them, one might wonder why I continue to read them. I'll be honest and say that my primary reason is research. It is my hope in the future to work in weight loss counseling because I feel that my education in psychology and my perspective as someone who has had a life-long problem with weight make me ideal for that sort of work. There's also the fact that I have compassion for those who struggle and fail to overcome their problems.

Ultimately, the best way to understand the way that people other than myself feel about the processes of weight loss and their feelings about their bodies is to read such forums. It is the reason that I also read fat acceptance and HAES (Heath At Every Size) blogs even though I don't agree with some of the things they say or promote, such as dieting can kill or that anyone who tries to lose weight is mindlessly conforming to a societally imposed notion of beauty. These are all places where I can gain a richer understanding of how others feel.

Following weight loss forums provides food for thought about various ideas. When those ideas spend several days occasionally rolling around in my head (usually when I'm walking around or in the shower and not otherwise occupied), I tend to find myself in need of a post on this blog to clarify and organize all of the notions.

Recently, a young woman posted something about her boyfriend saying she was “obsessed” with weight loss. Most of the thread that followed was occupied by people attempting in various ways to justify their obsession. Very little of what was there involved any sort of self-reflection or deeper consideration of the notion beyond the post made by the woman who started the thread. I'm not sure that anyone really helped her with their replies, but I can't be in her shoes. Some people said that they can't succeed unless they are obsessed. One likened the tools used to monitor weight loss processes to those which are for used for budgeting while saving for a house. A few said they were concerned about their preoccupation with weight loss. One said weight loss was like her “hobby".

The thing that most surprised me was that those who feel they “need to be obsessed” to succeed failed to see the inherent risk involved with that type of thinking. If you have to be preoccupied to succeed, then the moment you can no longer spend an inordinate amount of your mental energy thinking about food and weight loss, you will fail. I wonder if this is yet another factor that contributes to the high number of "regainers" after initial weight loss.

My personal experience has been that one does need to be very preoccupied initially with weight loss and the processes that contribute to success. You need to have more focus at the beginning in order to overcome the inertia of your body's preferred state, your current habits, and your emotional attachments to food. Without some “obsession” at the start, it's hard to get started and remain on track. Through time, however, I have found that you acquire the habits and the knowledge of how to live each day in a state which contributes to losing weight.

The same level of preoccupation should not be required in order to maintain your status quo as time goes by, if you are effectively learning and conditioning yourself to exercise new habits on a regular basis. If you require constant obsession, then you likely are in a lifestyle pattern which is too restrictive and you must focus at all times to walk the tightrope you've strung before you.

Personally, I see weight loss habits as being a bit like studying a subject for the first time. Imagine that you are a child with no knowledge of the human body, but you are planning one day to be a doctor. Starting from nothing, you learn little by little and build upon that knowledge. You do not have to run back to the books and re-study the names of the bones, nerves, etc. every day in order to maintain and use that knowledge. Though you may initially have to study very hard and cram for tests, you eventually work from the stored skill set and knowledge that you have. The process of learning is hard, but the practice becomes easier once you have the fundamentals down. Weight loss processes should be the same. You may need to learn about portion sizes, calories, etc. initially, but once you know these things, there should be no need to obsess about them in order to keep to your plan.

The line between necessary focus and obsession is not a difficult one to draw, but people seem to willfully avoid doing so. My guess is that this is mainly related to a need to validate and justify ones choices and behaviors. Perhaps people have so little confidence in their ability to stay within the guidelines of their lifestyle change that they feel it's like driving a car. If they take their eyes off the road for a moment, they will lose control and crash.

The very basic line between obsession and necessary application of weight loss techniques can be drawn at the point at which your thinking about diet and exercise or carrying out activities related to such things serves no useful purpose. When such behaviors become an end to themselves rather than a means to an end, you are obsessing. Examples would be:
  • Weighing yourself multiple times a day.
  • Thinking about food or food planning when you are engaged in other activities (like work) and are not actually hungry and being cued by your body to think about food. Obviously food planning is important, but it should not preoccupy you during times when your mental energy should be engaged otherwise.
  • Worrying about whether or not you have exercised “enough” on a regular basis when your exercise routines are average or above average.
  • Fretting over incidental amounts of calories or whether or not the number of calories reported for a given food are 100% accurate.
  • Weighing food multiple times or fretting over fractional differences in portion sizes.
  • Tweaking or entering caloric data into tracking programs multiple times or frequently checking multiple web sites for caloric values.
  • Talking about little else but weight loss with those around you.
  • Adding up calories eaten and calories burned in some sort of effort to find a “perfect” balance on a frequent basis.
  • Frequently comparing your size to the size of others around you in casual situations. This behavior shows that you are more concerned with weight than with socialization and that you objectify others as a means of thinking more about weight and weight loss.
  • Posting to weight loss forums and asking for sanction for lapses in habits that are of very little or no consequence. The classic example that I have mentioned before was a woman who was saying she was "bad" for eating a pickle (which has zero or nearly zero calories).
I'd also like to add “hanging around on support forums after you have already lost all of the weight you desire and should be in maintenance”, but there are certainly some people for whom maintenance is not a trivial experience who may actually need to remain there to support them as they attempt to remain in control. For many though, it does appear that they stay in such forums because their entire identity is wrapped up in weight loss and they really have nowhere else to go or that they'd rather be. To use the analogy used by one person about using budgeting software to help you save for a down payment on a house, these are people who long ago bought the house and were so wrapped up in the process of saving that they can't focus on other things long past the point of having reached their goal. Most of them spend their time on the forums bullying others in what is called “tough love”, but is really a continuous effort to justify their continued presence on such boards as well as to obtain validation for their food and exercise habits. They are, in essence, trying to continue to get the same sort of pats on the back that they got during the weight loss process. They have not managed to transition to some other focus in life which takes the place of the validation they received for weight loss.

The risk that comes along with obsession is that you become one-dimensional. Someone who is inordinately preoccupied with food, exercise and weight is not a whole person. They are not interesting to be around nor to live with. They are essentially disordered, whether they are fat or thin. There is more to being "normal" than just not being fat.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Psychology isn't all about emotions or psychoses. There are aspects of it that have nothing to do with sadness, gladness, or distorted versions of reality. The current model of dealing with psychological problems is largely pharmacological, so it focuses excessively on seeing problems as something that can be solved with the right pill that can balance the chemicals in your body. Those chemical changes, in theory, should push your body's biological balance such that you are more likely to do, feel, and think the way that society (and you) think would be best.

One of the things which is increasingly being left behind in the rush to see the body as a biological machine is that psychology isn't shaped entirely by chemicals, and not every problem can be solved with a medical procedure or prescription. Of course, we like to believe that is so because it is a lot easier to go under the knife, get an injection, or take a pill then to do other types of behavioral change. I'm no stranger to wanting an easy answer. Frankly, there have been many occasions on which I wish science would simply invent a pill that'd kill my appetite or make me understand a foreign language without having to study it.

That being said, I think that one of the reasons we are so bad at food management in our lives is that we aren't pursuing the right potential solutions for our particular problems. Yes, people eat for emotional reasons. Yes, people are driven by biological forces to have difficulty losing weight. However, understanding and dealing with these issues is only a part of the process. I can understand that I eat when stressed, when bored, or because it is my habit and I feel anxiety when I have to change my habits, but that doesn't necessary fix the problem.

I have come to believe that the next stage after understanding, is conditioning behavior. In old-fashioned terms, this would be learning discipline or moderation. I have talked before about learning moderation, and I think it's something that Americans in particular are poor at it. We live in a culture which encourages indulgence and glorifies those who live lives of ostentatious excess. We mock those who practice sensible habits and sound lifestyles as being boring or joyless. One of the reasons many dieters go to extremes is that being "perfect" and being a person of pure virtue is an extreme.

I think that "the other side" of psychology is fading into the background, because people who are adults in particular are poor at conditioning their own behavior. They aren't necessarily all that great at doing so with their children either, as is evidenced by the British T.V. show "Supernanny". Real behavioral change, whether it applies to yourself or to those in your charge, requires constancy. If you've ever seen "Supernanny", you'll see how the titular star's actions start to turn things around and then the parents' inability to consistently apply the same techniques cause things to fall apart.

Conditioning adult behavior, and in particular conditioning your own behavior is quite an order of magnitude harder. Part of the problem is that being your own therapist (like being your own doctor or lawyer) is not very effective. None of us can see ourselves as we really are, nor can those around us. There are too many vested interests to get an accurate picture of ones own problems and needs. Generally speaking, the only effective way to understand your problems deeply is to get outside opinions, and unfortunately most therapists these days are more than likely to give you a bottle of pills then a prescription for behavioral changes.

That doesn't mean there is no hope. I think that successful long-term weight management can be acquired through a mixture of disciplines and considerations. First, you have to understand yourself mentally and your body. Then, you have to deal with any medical issues. Finally, you have to deal with conditioning your behavior.

The most critical manner in which I can put this is that we have to learn discipline. In no way do I mean to imply that fat people lack discipline. That being said, I think that we're fooling ourselves if we believe we are capable of exercising sufficient discipline to manage a healthy weight for our particular bodies. Someone else may be able to exercise far less discipline and not gain weight, but that is actually irrelevant to our choices. It may not be fair, but some of us have to work harder than others and apply greater discipline than they do to gain the same effect. This isn't uncommon in many areas of life but it is trickier when it comes to food.

Sometimes I wonder if one of the many reasons that we have more overweight people in the world today is that we emphasize discipline less now than at any other time in our cultural history. In a highly individualized culture in particular, discipline is often scoffed at and actively rebelled against. We cram for tests instead of studying gradually as we go. We join health clubs as part of New Year's resolutions and then stop attending by the end of May. We know we should regularly clean the toilet but let it go until it gets bad enough to notice. We don't prepare for dinner and end up eating whatever is fastest and easiest rather than what is healthy and nutritious.

I'm not holding myself up as a paragon of discipline. I'm not. However, I do feel that part of the key to maintaining my losses and (likely) future healthy weight will be rooted in discipline and conditioning. Once I get through all of the psychological crap that got me fat and helped keep me there, it's the discipline that will move me from a state of understanding why I overate to actually stopping me from overeating. I think that we're fooling ourselves if we think understanding the psychology or even the biology of our weight issues will magically make the desire to overeat disappear just as much as we'd be fooling ourselves to think that discipline alone without psychological understanding is enough to keep us at a healthy weight in the long run.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why the bag is bad

Last night, for reasons that are unimportant, dinner wasn't ready until extremely late in the evening (around 11:00 pm). Since I get up at 8:00 am, eating dinner 15 hours later is a bad idea. Because I really wanted to eat the dish I was cooking, I decided to snack on something to try and tide me over until the food was done. The “snacking” occurred around 9:00 pm, and, unsurprisingly, I was famished.

The choice I made to snack on was cheese and pita chips. I was tired (and hungry). The plan was to eat just a few chips (4 or 5, about a half serving) and about an ounce of cheese. Instead of serving myself the number of chips I expected to eat, I just dragged the bag into the living room with me. Big mistake. In the end, I ended up eating about 3 servings worth of chips and about an ounce and a half of cheese. I didn't end up overeating for the day, but I'd used all of my dinner calories on this snack. I ended up skipping dinner after that.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't the end of the world or anything. I'm not beating myself up about it, but I'm fully aware that this was completely imbalanced nutritionally and a very poor use of calories. I didn't feel satisfied after eating that stuff, just full. And I woke up burping garlic from the seasoning on the chips.

There are 2 lessons I should have learned by now which would have prevented this from happening and the frustrating thing is that I know these things very well already yet stupidly just set aside what I know to be true. Literally, I thought of these things and just ignored them.

The first lesson is that I should never wait until I'm famished to eat a meal. If dinner as planned won't be ready at a time in which I can reasonably eat, I should plan a meal that can be eaten and eat the dinner as leftovers the next day. Or, I should never plan a meal that I'm pretty sure won't be ready until very late.

The second lesson is that I should never, ever (EVER) eat food with multiple servings directly out of the bag. This is a rookie mistake for people who have problems with eating too much or eating mindlessly. One should always remove the amount desired and place it on a dish then put the remainder away. My guess is that, on some level, I wanted to eat more than planned because I was so hungry, and I did what I thought would allow me to eat more.

I'm writing this post mainly to help reinforce what I should already know, and in no way to punish myself for what I did. I'm not big into the self-flagellation routine when I make a mistake or a bad choice. Frankly, I think that's a counterproductive way of addressing a lapse and as much (if not more) about getting attention and creating drama. Beating yourself up for a mistake is no more effective than people tormenting you for being fat as a motivator. It actually makes it harder to make good choices, not easier, since it makes you focus on your failure instead of your potential to succeed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


When I was a kid, I remember watching a television movie about an overweight, unattractive woman who was transformed into a beautiful woman. Before she had a car accident and plastic surgery, she was treated badly by all of the people around her. After plastic surgeons made her wrecked body and face gorgeous, she took her revenge on all of the people who harmed her.

This movie was written by Joan Rivers when she was an up and coming comedian known for her biting humor, before she became a joke herself. It starred Stockard Channing, before she became a well-known and well-respected actress. It's called “The Girl Most Likely To...” and has far more comments on IMDB than I would have expected for a movie that aired in 1973.

Perhaps I remembered this movie well because in 1973 I was 9 years old and just at the beginning of my life of torment as the “fat kid”. In fact, I started gaining weight in 4th grade of elementary school at that age. The idea of becoming a future beauty and heaping some pain back on the people who made me miserable everyday must have seemed irresistibly appealing at that time.

At 45, my reasons for losing weight have nothing to do with revenge. In fact, as of late I've been pondering expectations of life post-fatness as well as some of the reasons others have stated they are losing weight. Frankly, sometimes I'm really shocked at the type of things fat women say when they speak on this topic. I don't think that they are going to serve themselves well in the long run in many cases.

I am reluctant to frame any person's reason for losing weight as “good” or “bad”, or any euphemism thereof. Back when I worked in a mental health-related non-profit agency, it was drilled into our heads that such words suggested that people were “right” or “wrong” or that there was some moral judgment at play. We were instructed to talk about “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior rather than using other words. I don't think the mentally ill people we dealt with on a daily basis missed the fact that we were simply avoiding using other words. When a client would talk about a case worker's personal life, appearance, etc., we would say they were being “inappropriate”, but I'm sure they heard “bad”.

Frankly, I have little interest in judging people. That being said, I can't help but believe that there are reasons to lose weight which are conducive to long-term success and mental health and those which are conducive to disappointment, bitterness, and weight regaining. In this post, I'm going to consider those reasons. I would like to assert most strongly that these are NOT euphemisms for “bad” or “good”. That being said, any action which is based on vindictiveness, spite, or gratification of the id is likely to be pretty bad. No one needs me to tell them that, unless they are amoral children or psychopaths.

As I've been monitoring reasons that other people have offered, I have broken them down into the following categories based on my feelings and considerations:

Reasons that are conducive to possible future success and contentment:
  • health
  • mobility
  • fitness (average)
  • pain reduction
Reasons that are potentially conducive to future success and contentment or failure:
  • beauty
  • fitness (above average)
  • relief from depression
  • clothing preferences (either sizes or designs)
  • cessation of discriminatory behavior against overweight people
Reasons that are likely to lead to failure and discontent:
  • revenge against those who rejected you based on weight
  • desire to incur envy in others
  • acceptance by those who reject you based on weight
  • compliments or positive attention for your accomplishment
  • happiness (generalized)
  • better romantic or relationship potential
  • fitness (greatly above average, unrealistic for your body's capability) 
  • competitiveness with others (in regards to weight loss or appearance)

Any reason to lose weight based on external validation or that involves other people is going to greatly increase your chances of failing in the long run in my opinion. One of the reasons for this is that you cannot rely on the reactions of others to meet your expectations. Even if you initially receive praise and are validated during the weight loss process, you will have an increased chance of gaining back the weight you lost in the future once the compliments end and you reach your target. In other words, once life returns to "normal" and you no longer get those pats on the back, your reasons for losing the weight in the first place vanish.

By nature, most people, especially those who have little respect or regard for you, aren't paying enough attention to your internal struggles or the external manifestation of you conquering those struggles to even care about your weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, the weight loss of one fat person is not of paramount interest to every person around you, even when your fatness seemed to preoccupy them. Most people don't care, and only notice in the most cursory fashion. They don't envy you, though they may be threatened by the fact that you have succeeded when they have some sort of egoistic interest in your remaining fat. Even in such a case, their responses are about them, not you. People are far too self-centered to concern themselves deeply or at length with your weight loss or appearance. Therefore, any sort of desire for envy, revenge, etc. is going to provide extremely short-lived satisfaction at the very most, and nothing at all in the least.

To me, beauty is a dual-edge sword as a weight loss motivation. Many people expect beauty to be the ultimate reward for weight loss, but as I have said before, thin doesn't mean beautiful. Most people are average-looking and some are actually ugly, fat or thin. You aren't going to be Angelina Jolie once you shed layers of fat. In fact, you're likely to find that you look "different" but not necessarily "good", especially with the sagging skin, possible wrinkles that were smoothed out by body fat (something I'm experiencing), stretch marks, and other battle scars of obesity. There may be a minority of people who lose weight and actually have the skin elasticity, youth, or genetic potential to become great beauties, but such cases are rare.

Most people are unremarkable. And I don't buy into the idea that "fat = ugly" or that "thin = pretty" anyway, nor do most people (including men). Beauty is largely governed by factors related to symmetry, body ratios, and the size of body parts unconnected to weight (eyes, nose, mouth, height). You can be fat and gorgeous, though the body part ratios (like hip to waist) are often thrown off by excess weight. That being said, most people do look a bit better at lower weights because of improved body ratios and more appealing bone structure being revealed (particularly cleaner jawlines and better cheekbone definition, which are part of the symmetrical aspects which we favor genetically). In particular, most people look better in their clothing at lower weights. Whether or not beauty helps or hampers long-term weight loss depends on how realistic one's expectations are and how invested in beauty one is.

In regards to motivations that promote potential long-term loss, I think health is often the most potent one simply because fear of mortality, disability, or pain are enduring. You may get old and care less about beauty. You may grow mature enough not to be spiteful and vindictive. You may stop preoccupying yourself with something as arbitrary as numbers on clothing tags or styles. You will always have to concern yourself with health, pain, and mobility and the loss of them is potent.

While there is a certain logic behind everything I have said, I actually believe that no motivation is very solid or predictable. I lived for years with enduring physical pain and a lack of mobility. It was only the prospect of having to enter a new and unpredictable environment that pushed me to act. I was comfortable as long as I could operate within my limits in my current situation. Essentially, my feet being put to the fire was my main motivation to start to lose. It is merely my hope that the appreciation I have at present for my state of increased mobility and reduced pain will help me maintain after I lose everything. I just know though, that none of the other fantasy outcomes like those that were in the old movie I mentioned at the beginning of this post will serve any lasting good.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Progress Report and Another Number

It was approximately a year ago today that I decided to lose weight. It was when I started scaling portions, not when I started counting calories. Around mid-June of last year is the anniversary of a decision and the start of a process (detailed on the right as "my plan") which ended up landing me where I am today both in terms of lifestyle habits and weight loss.

The plan evolved naturally. I never set out to do what I have done in terms of the details that I've written about. I just took it day by day and week by week and pushed the boundaries of what I could manage as time went by. I think it ended up being a good plan, though perhaps only a good one for me and me alone.

Because the anniversary of that decision was around a year ago, I weighed myself again for the 4th time total in one year. I didn't weigh myself at the beginning because I was afraid that the daunting nature of what I was to face would be reflected in that scarily high number. Besides, my scale only goes up to 330 lbs. and I knew it wasn't going to be able to give me a reading. I'm pretty sure I weighed between 360 and 380, almost certainly closer to the big number than the smaller one. Today I weighed almost exactly 260 lbs. That represents weight loss commensurate with my rough goals to lose about 2 lbs. a week. I'm pretty sure I've lost about 120 lbs in this first year.

I haven't had as easy a time tracking my progress via NSVs (non-scale victories) lately because the changes are less profound as time goes by regardless of actual weight loss numbers. When you start out unable to walk without excruciating pain for even 5 minutes, being able to walk for a half hour without pain is profound. Now, I can walk for an hour without back pain, but it doesn't feel much more significant than doing so for 45 minutes. I focus on NSVs over lbs. lost most of the time because I think these are meaningful measures of improved quality of life rather than arbitrary, objective measures which really have no bearing on the positive outcome of weight loss.

Here are the things I've noticed:
  • The venerable office chair with arms which I had to squeeze myself into a year ago and which I could not even use the armrests on because my arms were perched on top of my middle spare tire, now is a comfortable fit. I can use all of the armrests and I can fit one of my arms between me and the armrests. That means I not only don't have to squeeze in, but have room to spare.
  • A yellow nightgown that I used to squeeze in and stretch to wear at my highest weight now hangs loosely from me (especially around my chest) and is now long enough that my behind and belly aren't constantly threatening to peak out when I wear it. It is currently the only nightgown I have which comes close to fitting properly. My old ones are always falling off my shoulders like Greek or Roman gowns. 
  • My sandals became too big. I had to tighten the straps on them to the smallest size (two more holes tighter) because they were threatening to fly off my feet with every step.
  • Some T-shirts that my husband bought for me about a decade ago but were too tight to comfortably wear now fit or are loose. One of these shirts, the smallest of the bunch, is the only shirt I currently own which properly "fits" me.
  • I ruminate on food less than when I started this and I get hungry less often than before, though I still have days in which I may eat up to a maintenance number of calories when I'm stressed or have strong cravings. I haven't binged and overeaten in quite some time. I have some confidence that I can do this "forever" and still maintain a healthy weight even incorporating days when I eat more due to stress or other problems since I don't go over 2000 calories even with stress eating. My mental relationship with food is starting to "normalize" in that I don't fantasize about it, think about it or obsess over it as much while still being aware of portions and calories. It is far from "normal", but it is much better than it was in every respect.
  • I can nearly, but not quite, squeeze into a size 38C bra that I have. My breasts are way too big for the C cup, but the width of my chest is pretty close. If I were to guess my actual bra size right now, I'd say it's close to or at a 40D. Currently, I'm still making do with 44D bras, but they continue to loosen up. 
At this point in time, I'm mainly interested in the psychology of the process rather than the processes which actually lead to losing pounds. I feel I have a solid grasp of what I have to do and a slightly shakier grasp of carrying out those processes everyday, though likely no more or less shaky than the "average" person who sometimes eats more than they should or things they should not. At this point in time, a "binge" for me tends to mean one cookie or one piece of chocolate more than I can eat on my plan. It never means a whole bag of something or a huge volume of food.

My concerns right now are identity building. I'm focusing my days and my time on pursuing interests which are unrelated to weight or weight loss. Mainly, I'm actively thinking about who I am now and who I want to be and divorcing myself of the concept of being the disgusting fat person. This is a slow process which mainly includes active pursuit of my interests and work (sometimes pushing myself to preoccupy myself with them even when I don't feel like doing so as a means of stopping my mind from wandering back to consuming food as a fill in habit) as well as having the occasional "conversation" with myself about who I really am and what needs to be done to pave the road to being who I want to be.

I am careful at this stage not to define myself in any way related to food or exercise. I am not the person who eats healthily. I am not the person who can control her food intake. I am not the person who exercises regularly or lifts weights. I am a person who does those things, but they are not me and I do not ruminate on them or pay undue attention to them. They get as much attention as they require. They are like washing dishes or doing laundry, things I do because they need to be done, but they do not define me in any way. I am not my beauty or appearance. I am not my clothing size. I don't even know my clothing size, and I do not care.

I am defined by my intellect, my ability and practice of writing, my job, my ability to be frugal and live a modest lifestyle, my emotional control, my love for my husband and those around me, and my compassion and insight. I am my humor and my rapport with my friends and coworkers. I am even a person who likes to cook and prepare interesting meals because that actually has nothing to do with weight. I am my conversational ability and my pursuit of psychology and science. I am a reader and a person who likes goofy old television shows and melodramatic old movies. And, I'm more than that.

I'm laying this all out here both to demonstrate what the process means and to remember what I'm endeavoring to do. I think that there was a person I was who got lost as I became more and more miserable because of my weight and the responses it elicited from others. I need to reconnect with what I lost and fill in the empty places with a positive identity. I think that is the important part to focus on at this time as I continue to make my way through this process. I want to come out whole on the other side, not defined by my body or ability to control my food and exercise.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Stress Loop

I don't think I have ever met a person who is at a weight which does not satisfy them who has not said, "I eat when I'm stressed." In fact, it's one of those things that people commonly say they have to conquer in order to succeed in their weight loss goals. Well, I have bad news for everyone who has felt that way; it is in your nature, your very biology, to eat when you feel stress.

All animals react to stress by consuming energy if they have access to it. Bees will gorge on honey when stressed. Coral gorges itself when subjected to the bleaching effects it experiences due to global warming. Humans may indulge in a pint of ice cream. Stress causes the body to dive down to glycogen storage in the liver and muscle to get more glucose and to get more glucose from substances in the body other than carbohydrates. The body wants to replenish the stores from these effects. It wants you to eat if you can because the expectation is that experiencing stress means you will soon have to act, and you will need energy to act.

In modern humans, we experience stress related to mental rather than physical threats. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that we experience worse stress than our ancestors as the years go by. Part of the reason for this is that civilization takes a toll on us. We can't act on our frustration or aggression by murdering a competitor or running away from our problems. We have to sit there and take it for days, months, or years. We have to endure the stress without reacting to it. Our ancestors could escape and return to a less stressful state of being. We cannot.

Since each person responds to stress with a different intensity of reaction (based on their nervous systems and resulting sensitivity), one person may blithely go about their day feeling no suffering. Another, in the same circumstances, may be consumed with anxiety. We cannot choose to be oblivious. We can only choose how we respond, but even then, our biology is directing us to eat.

So, why isn't everyone who experiences stress on a continual basis overweight? Well, more and more people are becoming overweight in developed nations everyday. In addition, the aforementioned differences in sensitivity to stress play a part in whether or not you have a stress response. In order to want to gorge as a result of stress, you have to perceive the stress and we aren't all equal in that regard. Additionally, some people are better at ignoring those cues to eat due to stress or consciously pursue other outlets (such as exercise, sex, or emotional outbursts).

The thing that occurred to me today as I took a long walk for exercise and was gawked at, laughed at, pointed at and treated disrespectfully by far more people than one might imagine was that those of us who are already overweight are stuck in a stress loop. Being fat means you are subjected to stress that thin people are not. You may want to control your eating, but your body is responding to the stresses you feel every time you step out of the house by cuing you to eat. You eat because of that stress and stay fat or get fatter which in turn makes certain that you continue to suffer stress (either externally imposed by judgmental strangers or internally so from your own self-rejection or physical suffering as a consequence of your weight) which again makes it harder not to eat.

I feel anxiety every single time I leave my home, and varying degrees of stress depending on how the winds of fate treat me when it comes to the amount of abuse I suffer and my particular sensitivity on a given day. My life has been a barrage of stress every moment I'm not safely cocooned in my home.

In knowing the biological response to stress, I believe we can gain power. The first point about this from which we can draw strength is in knowing that wanting to eat when you are stressed is not a character flaw. It is nature. The bees aren't beating themselves up for gobbling down honey until they are so bloated they cannot move. You are smarter than a bee, so you can plan a mental response, but you shouldn't berate yourself up for a physiological cue to eat when stressed, nor castigate yourself for resisting and failing anymore than you should be angry at yourself for responding to a grumbling stomach by eating something.

The second way in which this benefits us is that we can control our responses when we can predict them. If you know you are going to endure a stressful situation (like a visit to the doctor or a job interview) and will want to eat, you can plan to eat something after the experience. You can even plan to offer yourself "comfort food" and you can know that there is no need to punish yourself for wanting to comfort yourself with food. If you diet, you can plan a day of maintenance level eating or find some sort of lower calorie "treat" to give yourself what you need. Control does not mean you resist every impulse and bodily cue, but rather that you deal with them in a healthy manner.

For me, this is going to mean some mental work. I'm a very sensitive person. Again, this is not by choice. It is merely my biology. I cannot become less sensitive because I want to anymore than someone with their ear pressed next to a speaker turned up to level 10 can decide to not experience the volume of the sound by will. I've long thought that I should practice meditation to make my overall resting state more relaxed, and I believe this realization about eating and stress makes the need rather more imperative. Though I can't change my nervous system, I can mentally prepare myself to disconnect more effectively from the world around me or at the very least learn to return to a state of mental and physical peace more rapidly through making myself familiar with relaxation techniques. The stress will still be there, but I hope to train myself to "calm down" from it or react differently to it. It may or may not be effective, but it is worth exploring the options.

I think that the link between stress and eating is one that people already understand on a basic level, but they tend not to go beyond the level of blaming themselves for eating in response to stress. In my opinion, lasting weight control needs to adopt an effective plan for dealing with the reality of the biology of stress rather than focusing on simply stopping the fact that we feel compelled to eat under stressful conditions. I have no confidence in "sheer force of will" when it comes to denying the body's basic urges, but I do have faith in our ability to adopt an effective plan to handle them once we become aware of the full scope of the issue.

Friday, June 11, 2010

(Not) Giving Anything Up

Imagine that you are on a beach with several other people. Each person has different swimming capability. One person is an expert swimmer who has been trained not only as a lifeguard, but also has participated in swimming marathons. Another person is a strong swimmer, though has no formal training. Yet another is an average recreational swimmer who occasionally hits the pool in the summer. And then there is you. You can do the dog paddle if you have to, but you really can't swim at all. In fact, your swimming skills are sufficiently weak that you feel uncomfortable swimming without a life jacket or flotation device.

When you go out for a swim, you're fine as long as you have your life preserver with you to help you survive the deep with your limited swimming skills. The other people that are watching you are initially understanding of your need for a flotation device, then they are mildly bemused. As time goes by, they encourage you to abandon your life jacket and attempt to learn to swim better. However, you are concerned that the environment you are swimming in, the ocean with its depth, undertows and currents, is not a place that you can learn to swim in without risk of drowning. The swimmers who are with you become critical and start to make judgmental assertions about your refusal to abandon your life preserver, but you simply cannot do so; at least you cannot do it now in this place. Perhaps in the right place, at the right time, with proper support and guidance, you will manage to become a better swimmer.

Recently, I read a thread in the popular weight loss support forum where a woman was critical of people who have difficulty losing weight. She said that the thing which she took issue with was that such people seemed "refuse to give up ANYTHING" (her caps). She was essentially saying that people who can't lose weight don't want to sacrifice food, time, effort, etc. to be at a lower weight. She was saying that she felt they wanted to have their cake and (especially) eat it, too.

My feeling about people who cannot make the sacrifices to facilitate their weight loss goal is that they are like the weak swimmer I describe in the first two paragraphs of this post. It's not that they don't want to give things up; it is that they simply cannot. They are not in a situation where they can make those changes. In many cases, they are barely "treading water" in their lives as it is and currently do not have the psychological and/or physiological mettle to make those sacrifices. If they do, they will, metaphorically speaking "drown".

I don't think people should be judged for their seemingly contradictory desire to lose weight and inability to give up whatever is necessary to achieve their stated goal. I think we all do our best to survive, and when I speak of "survival", I mean as much or more from the mental viewpoint as the physical one. If people can't make the sacrifices (throw away the life preserver), it's because they lack the proper environment, experiences or skills that would allow them to do so at this time. They may want to very badly, but it's simply not possible right now.

When such pat judgments are made of people, it really makes me angry. Even though I have been successful for nearly a year now (and "sacrificed" a great deal by many people's standards) and lost a lot of weight, I have not forgotten that I was incapable for many reasons of making these changes before. None of those reasons are related to a lack of desire to make sacrifices or a childish "demand" for cookies or treats that could not go unsatisfied. They were all related to an inability to do so due to circumstances in my life that were largely beyond any sort of reasonable control.