Friday, June 4, 2010

"Diets Don't Work"

Quite some time ago, I decided that there were certain aspects to my basic character that I did not like. I didn’t dislike them because other people disapproved of them or felt they were objectionable. Though that would certainly be true, I disliked them because these traits and tendencies tended to decrease my quality of life in very palpable ways.

In particular, I had (and still have to some extent) problems with temper and anxiety. I would become very angry at my husband and harass him for an extended period of time over some small thing that he did or did not do. I would become incensed and ruminate on some social injustice or rude behavior directed my way. My feelings in such cases were a raging forest fire that had to burn itself out through time and, sometimes, explosive catharsis.

In terms of anxiety, I would often fixate on a fear (sometimes a quite reasonable one) and keep myself awake at night obsessing on the worst possible outcome of a situation. I would take the tiniest grain of worry and spin it into a big web of difficulty and stress. Reality rarely matched my tapestry of suffering and difficulty, but I would repeatedly lose sleep and tie myself in knots worrying about something I couldn’t control.

At some point in time, perhaps 15 years ago, perhaps less, I decided that this was not the way I wanted to live my life both in terms of how I felt and how I made my husband feel. As most people are well aware, basic character traits and responses are very, very difficult to change, but I not only wanted to change, but I needed to do so. My misery at my behavior and mental patterns was profound and I initially had no idea where to start to change without suppressing something that seemed uncontrollably fierce and in need of expression.

As I had outbursts and spun worry webs that brought me so close to the brink of insanity that I thought I’d rather be dead than continue to suffer the way I had been, I started to tell myself that I simply had to stop the thought and temper train before it crashed at the end of the line. Each time, I found myself in a state of misery and frustration, I tried to pull myself out of it before I wore myself out. Mainly, this involved a mental process where I told myself that I simply had to “stop”. When I ruminated endlessly on some potentially horrible outcome, I would remind myself of similar situations and the fact that the worst outcome didn’t occur. Indeed, I reminded myself that I rarely experienced any negative result at all. At the early stages of this process, I would tell myself to “stop” (literally) and then my mind would invariably drift back into the fretting groove and I’d have to say “stop” again and again to pull it back out of that groove. Sometimes, I'd be ruminating on the same topic within moments of instructing myself to "stop". The more I did this, the faster the process became. The more I pulled myself out of that process, the less often I fell into that well-worn temper and worry groove.

I think our lifestyle and mental processes are dictated by the equivalent of a well-worn mental (as in neuro-chemcial) pathway, and we only reluctantly pull ourselves away from that path. In many ways, it is the choice to walk down the hill and into the same rut than to walk up the hill where there is a better path. We will always be drawn down into the easy, familiar manner and it’s very hard to make our way out. This applies to all areas of life, including food and lifestyle.

I was reading a blog post recently about the fantasy of being thin, which trots out the idea (again) that “diets don’t work.” The truth is that diets work just fine. The thing that doesn’t work is people making permanent lifestyle changes that allow them to maintain or continue the losses they have experienced during the period when they are "on a diet". Many change too much too quickly, eat in too Spartan a fashion (which is unsustainable and makes them resent their sacrifices), focus on the mechanics over the results (being a “good girl”), or take an “all or nothing approach” which is self-defeating. This is not something that people can really be blamed for (and they really shouldn't be), as I think we naturally gravitate back to the lifestyle that we have always led because that is the familiar groove, and we are often served biologically or psychologically by our choices. We may be able to force ourselves out of that familiar lifestyle rut for a short while, but invariably we drift back to where our mental processes are most comfortable.

The main problem with diet changes is that they are too focused upon the mechanical rather than on the mental or the “big picture” of life. People need to understand their tendencies and how to alter them slowly and through time. Since I had already succeeded in slowly (and with great difficulty) steering myself away from very strongly ingrained life-long destructive thought patterns and impulses, I already had experience with a process of altering my character and behavior on a fairly fundamental level and I have confidence that I will be able to maintain the lifestyle changes I’ve put into practice over the past year indefinitely. I've done this work before, just in a different area.

I also have experience with the inconsistency of this type of process. That is, sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed to control my temper and worrying. Sometimes, I fail miserably (though this is very, very rare these days - maybe once or twice a year I'll have a meltdown), but I keep at it and on the whole have succeeded. I am a much calmer and more at peace person than I once was, and it’s not because I simply gave up and accepted myself as a hothead who couldn’t help but worry all of the time. Many people simply play the "Popeye" card ("I y'am what I 'yam") and use it to justify (to themselves, they don't need to do so to anyone else) not changing even when their behavior hurts themselves or those around them.

In many ways, I wonder if many people in the fat acceptance movement have essentially thrown in the towel and given up on themselves. Of course, that is their option, but to tar anyone who hasn’t done so as somehow buying into a social agenda which is critical of all but ideal body weights or a thinness fantasy that punishes fatness is rather unfair. We are not all driven by the same forces when it comes to personal change, and just as a fat person doesn’t have to justify remaining fat, one who chooses to lose weight does not have to justify doing so. I am not losing weight because I think being thin (I actually don't think I'll be "thin", just a lot less fat) will magically transform my life. Frankly, other than my weight, my life is pretty good and doesn't need transformation.

I am losing weight for the same reason that I labored to alter my temper and fretfulness; this is an aspect of my life which is bringing me misery and I'm sick of suffering on multiple levels. And yes, one is social stigma. If fat acceptance advocates want to see that as a point of condemnation for me, they are free to do so. However, I have to live in the real world and get a different job in the future in a world which judges people by weight. Believing that your acceptance of your body at a large size will translate into societal acceptance is just as much "magical thinking" as thinking that being thin will solve all of your problems. No amount of wishing will change the reality that there is widespread prejudice against fat people and we can't change anyone's thinking but our own.

I think those who want to change their relationship with food have to deal with it as a process. Your mind and body want to maintain what was always so, and the only way to change that for good is to curb your impulses and deal with your desires and needs through time. It’s a battle that has to be fought and lost or won again and again. Too many people look at “diets” as a one-off deal. They eat differently, exercise more, and then they are thin and “normal” and can live a "normal" life. For most people who are fat, particularly those like me who have been fat all of their lives, it is never going to stop being a fight against your natural impulses. Eventually, the battles will become fewer and further between, and you will find them easier to win.

"Diets" work the same way medication for chronic conditions do. If you continue to take medication, you can control the symptoms or disease. If you stop, you will become ill and suffer symptoms. If you continue to eat like a person of a certain weight, you will continue to be a person of a certain weight. It isn't easy to alter your life to eat less food than you might prefer by default (just like I may have preferred by default to get angry or worry) every single day of your life, but it does work. Making the change is a mental process that you have to keep at until it becomes closer to second nature. Whether or not you choose to make that change and fight that fight is simply personal, and shouldn't be judged by anyone whether that decision is to remain fat or to lose weight.


Anonymous said...

I feel very limited sometimes in how much I can actually do to alter my body weight. I now exercise about an hour a day, half brisk walking and half stationary (recumbent) biking. I include some moderate strength training every other day. (I have severe osteoarthritis in my hands, which makes gripping weights problematic.) I try not to cut calories too drastically, but when weight stays about the same for four weeks while eating an average of 1500 calories/day, it is hard to not feel so discouraged that I think about cutting calories back even more. I did try increasing calories, to 1800 for 4 days but I didn't feel any less hungry and didn't feel any better physically.

I think if I weighed closer to a normal weight (by that I mean overweight, rather than morbidly obese) I wouldn't feel so discouraged. I wouldn't feel as if the benefits were tiny in comparison to the effort. If I could get hired at my current weight, I would probably be more satisfied.

I earned 3 undergrad degrees and one Master's while raising 2 children successfully to adulthood, have learned to cope with many life challenges with the help of counseling, education, persistence and love (such as ADD, PTSD and chronic insomnia), but trying to lose weight (and increase muscle mass) is the hardest thing I have ever attempted.

I don't think most people understand how monumental the challenge can be. I have to trust that my body will eventually relent, and I will lose a few more pounds and/or increase muscle in proportion to fat.

I wish there was better research to help direct my efforts. Weight loss advice seems to be everywhere, yet most of it is so worthless. I feel like a thirsty person surrounded by sea water.

Thank you for listening. I do sense that you understand.


Hope's Journey to Healthy said...

So, I know that this doesn't have anything to do with the above post, but I couldn't find a email address for you, so here I go.

I wanted to tell you thanks for the comment on Merry's blog the other day about being sensitive because of all the pressures we put on ourselves/how we give people who don't even know us great power over our emotions/thoughts. It really rang true to me, probably like nothing ever has before. It was seriously profound to me, (even if you think it wasn't) and again, thanks. I also posted it to my blog, linking back to your blog, as well as Merry's. I hope your having a fab weekend. :)


screaming fatgirl said...

Rebecca: I understand completely how you're feeling. Just last night, I was thinking about how when I lost weight in college (and started out around 300 lbs, as opposed to now when I started close to 400), I used to think that it would be so much easier if I started around 200 and didn't have so far to go. I wished so hard that the path to some sort of positive result had been shorter so that I could feel like I was getting somewhere meaningful faster.

I'm no expert on weight loss, but I am an expert on what it is to be very fat. If I were in your shoes, and I may indeed be in your shoes some day and plateau for a long time, I would examine the source of my hardship closely. That is, is it frustration with the lack of results for the sacrifice you're making or is it frustration with the lack of results period? Is it boredom or impatience with the process?

Mainly, I'd focus on what I thought I was giving up for no progress. In your case, it seems like you're giving up at present is about 500 calories per day. The exercise you get is more than I get, but not by too terribly much. I usually walk 30-60 minutes a day, 6 days a week. I get in about 2 longer walks and most tend to be shorter (around 30-40 min.). This level is good for heart health and doesn't really relate to weight loss. I feel better doing it because I actually enjoy getting out now (and ignore the horrible people who gawk or talk about me) and like to move more now that I'm not in terrible pain all of the time.

I think that you're feeling a sense of futility and frustration not with the process, but with the lack of progress. Like me, you need that change very badly and being denied it is really hard. There's probably a sense of wanting to rebel against the process itself as a way of gaining some sense of control or power over what your body is doing. But rebelling against the process (by eating more or giving up) will only give you the illusion of control or having made a choice which will give you a greater sense of power. If you're comfortable right now with what you do everyday and how you spend your time, then I'd say just try to think about how you can make your life better in other ways rather than think about losing weight. Plateaus can be long and frustrating (up to 6 months), but they do end and you can feel better everyday knowing your lifestyle is one that is sustainable and will help you long-term to manage a healthy weight.

Obviously, you know my feeling about weighing oneself, and given your frustration, you may want to stop weighing yourself more than once a month (or altogether). I focus on building the me I want myself to be one action at a time. I want to be the person who eats well and not too much. I focus on each meal or snack and balancing the food both calorically and nutritionally. I try to find satisfaction in a tasty, well-prepared meal that is good for me and my husband. I experiment with recipes to add variety without calories and that have a better insulin response. In fact, I'd recommend the "Eating Well, Living Thin" recipe site that is listed on my links.

Most of all though, I think you might want to consider that you're a good, intelligent, kind person who is not defined by her weight. I think a lot of the despair we feel is externally imposed. People make us feel worthless so we feel worthless, and we want to feel worthwhile and losing weight tells us we are gaining worth as we shed pounds. That is simply not true. You are worthwhile regardless of your weight or appearance. I know people say that all of the time, and living in the real world negates it, but it is nonetheless true. What we do to lose weight is above and beyond the difficulty that many people do to maintain weight, but we are therefore stronger in character and capability when we succeed, even when we succeed just a little.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hope: Hi, and thanks so much for your kind comment. I'm very glad to hear that my comment helped you as well as Merry. I really did want her to not be so hard on herself, and I'm glad if it helps others as well.

I've been endeavoring to understand the deeper issues of being overweight over the year that I've been losing weight, because I think addressing them will improve the chances that I'll "beat the odds". It's something I stumble through at times, but I do believe that we all have a profound sense of being judged and it is absolutely oppressive. Eventually, it becomes integrated into our being because it happens so often and obviously and comes from people who have no right or foundation for their judgment.

I reached a conclusion some time ago that all that taking their condemnation to heart does is make it harder to do what we want to do (as it affirms our inner dialog about "weakness" or being irresponsible). People who judge us are trying to control us, and take power away from us for themselves, and I simply refuse to give them that anymore. If there is anything I can say or do which will help others do that as well, I will do it!

Karen said...

I agree with everything you said! Thanks for an eloquent post that expresses a lot of what I feel about dieting vs. the fat acceptance movement. I particularly enjoyed the images of "spinning worry webs" and "fretting groove."

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Karen and thanks for commenting.

I have a lot of ambivalent feelings about the FA movements. I agree with their goal of not judging people by appearances (particularly by weight), but I believe the anti-diet and weight-loss agendas are misplaced and founded on a need to defend people who accept themselves as they are. The article I linked to troubled me particularly because it discussed the situation where one accepts others fat bodies, but still diets. This is, essentially, the type of person I am - I accept others fat, but not my own.

The premise that this is based on some sort of fantasy of a life transformation didn't jive with me at all, and I think it does a disservice to people who want to change their lives for other reasons to imply that they are deluding themselves in some fashion. Self-improvement of all kinds is motivated differently in different people, and I think that asserting that every person who wants to lose weight is naive, duped, or has a belief in a fantasy life that comes along with thinness simply isn't fair.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind and thoughtful response, SFG. I am thinking a lot about your words. It is the pressure of time getting to me, I believe. I need to get a job in my field because work has been slower for my spouse. No pressure from him. Just me. I think I'm used to pressuring myself in other areas of my life and this is one area (weight loss) that doesn't respond well to pressure, only to gentle patience.

Thank you again.


Anonymous said...

Incredible! Yes, me too. The entire section at the beginning of the post up to "At some point". Have not found the ability to "stop".
Could not have imagined that anyone else experienced exactly what I have, down to the treatment of the husband, despite the fact that he is one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met and deserves none of what I do to him occasionally. wow, just wow!
I think you know who this anon is.

screaming fatgirl said...

It's not so much an "ability to stop" as a process of putting on the brakes through time. Stopping any unwanted behavior in my experience is far harder than starting a wanted behavior, and again, I think it's because it's the biological path our brain will send us down naturally and we have to hack out a new one (and it's very, very hard).

A big part of this is knowing that saying, "stop" and failing to manage it is going to happen. It's not about not doing the damage, but about slowly reducing it until it's inconsequential. For example, I may still get mad about stupid things and lash out (not often, but it does happen), but my goal is not to never do this. While it would be nice if I managed it, the more important thing is to mitigate the intensity of response, recognize the issue, and try to do better next time.

My eating analogy for this applies to the tendency to eat a whole bag of something. At first, I didn't make not eating it the priority, but eating less of it. I had to say, leave one cracker rather than eat the whole sleeve. I think most people can start there. Throw away the last cracker or repackage it and put it away. Next time, try to leave 2 crackers. As time goes by, the thinking that leads people to follow inertia rather than change starts to alter. Making what were formerly hard choices gets easier. Instead of stopping before the end, you start where you want to be.

It's not easy though. It takes time. It took me years, but I'm so much more at peace now with my eating and I don't restrict the types of food I eat at all.

Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!