Saturday, June 19, 2010

Obsession

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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope you will become a counselor for people like me. Your blog has already been very helpful.

BTW, I decided to put away the scale for a few months. It was just too aggravating, even once a week. I feel better already.

-Rebecca

Sarah said...

Thank you.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Rebecca, and I hope I can manage to secure the qualifications to do it as well. I really think there is a need for people who are compassionate in that area, and that counseling is really the way to understand yourself and either accept your body as it is, or to help you change it as you like.

And I'm glad you put the scale away. Trust me when I say that you have to have faith in yourself and your body - if you do what needs to be done, use restraint and moderation in food and even in exercise, the results will come. They may not come fast enough, but they will come. Be gentle, but firm with your body's needs, and it'll eventually cooperate. :-)

Sarah: Thank you for your post! And take care!

Lori said...

I think there are a lot of different levels of 'obsession' with weight loss. Some people hang on to the forums because they are afraid of the actual maintenance and the 'free fall' feeling there is once you reach goal. There really are very few maintenance forums or blogs out there. The majority seem to be about weight loss.

I think that you do need to have some sort of vigilance to maintain a weight loss, particularly if it has been a very large loss, because there are physiological reasons for the weight problem and not just a matter of 'mind over food.'

Also, I know that I have made good friends with people on forums and blogs, and that is how I communicate to them (being long distance and all).

I do have concerns about the need for justification when people post about eating something 'bad'. I think giving tough love would be better than just saying it's okay.

Well... I think I babbled enough here LOL! Thanks for stopping by my blog - I look forward to reading more of yours :D

screaming fatgirl said...

I agree with you, Lori, that some people need support through maintenance, and that it certainly is not "mind over food". As I have said on perhaps too many occasions, dealing with food and weight is very complex.

That being said, I think there is support and there is too great an investment. If you are in maintenance and you spend time every day reading weight loss forums and posting several times to multiple threads, you're probably still too wrapped up in the process and haven't diversified your life to incorporate new interests.

There certainly are different levels of "obsession", and some really are necessary. However, people who are considered "normal" do not spend time ruminating constantly on food and diet. Even lifelong diabetics monitor their blood glucose, take medication, eat their meals and live their days thinking about things other than their health, weight or blood sugar.

There is necessary attention and then there is too much focus. The thought that I have been pondering as of late is that failure to keep weight off may involve a factor of emotional and mental fatigue at being so preoccupied with food and weight. No one can keep that up forever. I think that there has to be a transitional period with caution applied and proper tracking techniques employed.

I expect that I will have to track calories forever. I will have to log what I eat into a piece of software, and be mindful forever, but this will not be my main focus in life. It will be the same as a diabetic does to maintain blood sugar health. I'll do it, but then I will move on. I think that is a reasonable goal that both accomplishes weight loss (and later maintenance) and allows me to move beyond preoccupation with food and weight.

That being said, I certainly don't have all of the answers because I'm not in maintenance mode. My thoughts might be quite different when I land there. I'm attempting to emotionally prepare myself for various eventualities by compacting the processes and not integrating them into my character. I'm also assiduously avoiding receiving gratification from objective measures (calorie totals, scale numbers, eating "healthy" meals). In layman's terms, I don't pat myself on the back for goals because I want these experiences not to carry excessive value beyond the health gains that come with inevitable weight loss.

Thanks so much for your comment. It made me consider things I may not have.

misirenity said...

First of all, thank you for the insightful post.

I think most people simply don't realize how incredibly complex food, weight loss/gain, and body issues actually are, even those that have been successful with weight loss. Everyone falls under different circumstances for whatever point they're at in their lives. A handful of members that have lost weight at 3FC are not only admired, but almost idolized for the obsessive and know-it-all qualities they pride themselves in, and sometimes seem to be considered experts over the mental side of it as well since they've appeared to have won the fight with their own inner demons. And I get a little worried about some of what I see . . .

Like a woman making it painfully obvious that the only thing she puts forth any of her time and energy into is her weight loss regimen. Another particular woman merely making a post and several others immediately chiming in (nearly every time!) with agreement over concepts that don't always sound very healthy (at least not to me, mental-wise). Yet another woman specifically questioning my own personal theory of using my weight as a social sheild in the past since in her case, it was nothing but a love of eating that she triumphantly had to overcome, no excuses.

I defintely agree about many sticking around after their loss because their entire identity is wrapped around it, and I do get a sense of bullying from certain members that enjoy the continued praise they receive over their accomplishments and "advice." It does make me wonder if they have anything else to do in their spare time.

And for the record, I actually expected to hear a few replies on how others feel they have to be obsessed in order to be successful in losing weight (which I can unfortunately relate to at times). That kinda scares me because that was my whole point, I don't want to be like that. What I've been hoping for is to find that balance, and by making such posts perhaps others can share how they found it themselves and spark insightful conversations. But sometimes I see little more than a social hierarchy based on the amounts members have lost and a cult-like atmosphere of ladies cheering each other on for all the wrong reasons.

screaming fatgirl said...

miserinity: Thanks for commenting in such a thoughtful manner. You have said quite eloquently exactly what I have thought about 3FC for quite some time. Everything you say about it having a bit of a cult-like atmosphere and elevating people based on weight loss numbers rings completely true.

I see that you also take issue with the "advice" that is given from some of the more successful members. I think they actually require that level of zealotry to stay together because it is what they hold onto. It strikes me that they haven't really conquered their issues so much as compartmentalized them in a fashion that allows them to be thinner and obsessed rather than fatter and obsessed with food.

Part of the problem, and I know you know this already, is that being thin isn't the answer to everything in ones life. It shouldn't be held up as an ideal or seen as something which entitles a person to respect and regard. In a warped way, all of the former fatties who fawn over people who manage to be thin are buying into the shallow and degrading notion that thinness is a noble achievement to be prized above all else. The fact that some of the more abrasive and judgmental posters on 3FC are treated with reverence shows that they are more interested in weight loss than character. I can't abide by this, and I think those are people who I wouldn't want to be like even if it meant being 400 lbs. for the rest of my life.

I wish you the greatest luck on conquering your issues while becoming a well-rounded person, and I hope you keep posting on the forums and in your blog. I think that certain types of voices are necessary to counterbalance the obsessives and one-dimensional ones.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog from a link to another blog I like. Thanks for the interesting post. At age 47, I have now been in maintenance for more than a year now (after losting about 45 lbs after a lifetime of yo-yoing up and down in ranges of around 30-60 lbs). This is the first time I lost weight with the chief focus on maintenance. I think this is a lifetime process, and I do have to say that, at least for me, it requires a fair amount of focus. While I certainly do not consider myself "obsessed," I am pretty sure that, if I outlined what it is that I do (tracking weight daily, tracking food/exercise, almost completely cutting out sugar and processed food, regular exercise) many people might consider it extreme. Certainly, many people (including my family) consider my food views extreme. But I think the data speaks for itself -- there is an extremely high percentage of persons who regain weight after losing it. I have come to the conclusion after many years of dealing with this that focus is important to maintenance. My prior periods of weight regain seem to have resulted from my "checking out," using food almost to self-medicate, not doing anything when the scale started to move up . . . While I definitely agree that weighing more than once daily is not good, I also think that the scale is an extremely important tool. Maybe one day I will put it away, but not now. Good luck in your journey.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hello, Anonymous.

I stand by my definition of "obsession" as simply being "your thinking about diet and exercise or carrying out activities related to such things serves no useful purpose". I think that's pretty straightforward and reasonable.

For each person, what is "useful" is different. I'm not one to judge. That being said, none of the things I listed serve a useful purpose unless you are a scientific researcher or test subject. Note that I never said weighing yourself daily indicated an obsession, nor that regular exercise or food monitoring were obsessive behavior.

I don't agree that "the results speak for themselves". I'd rather be fat and be a person who had interests and a personality outside of thoughts about food and my body than be thin and fixated on nothing but my body, food, and weight. This isn't a contest where the thinnest one wins.

I won't sacrifice my personality on the altar of weight control, and what is more, I don't think I have to. I'm actually much, much happier now and more in control now that I am not spending so much time thinking about such things. If you're not ruminating on food all of the time, you're not tempted. I've never been less tempted than I am now.

I've already stated that I feel my ability to judge how much I've eaten is "broken" and I'll have to monitor my calories forever, but recording the food I eat isn't something I'm fixated on. It's something I have to do just like daily dish washing or dealing with bills. I do it and it's done and I don't think about it beyond that. There are other things in my life to spend time on. Yes, it takes time and effort, and I do have to plan and prepare food, but it's just a chore like any other and nothing more.

I do believe that "focus" and "fixation" (or obsession) are two very different things. Obsession consumes. Focus aims your attention when and where it is necessary. If your entire life's energy is devoted to weight maintenance, that's your choice, but it sure wouldn't be mine.

misirenity said...

I've grown increasingly frustrated over what I've seen in the forums in the past year but have remained pretty quiet about it. I'm relieved to find out that I'm not the only person with this point of view and that it isn't some weird form of distorted envy on my part.

I was also a member about five years ago under a different name. Although I only stuck around for a few short months, the comradeship I felt back then was an enormous help in starting from what was such an overwhelming point to me: my highest weight. I'm not sure why the atmosphere felt so different to me at the time. Perhaps it was because I knew less about what I needed to do and who I was as a person, or that it was just a smaller, less formed community at the time. Or maybe because there weren't as many members that had reached goal? All I know is that I'm almost afraid to vent about not losing anything in the past six months, I'll get bombarded with not only unreasonabe accusations of why I'm stuck, but implications that I don't deserve to lose if I'm not doing everything possible to conform to their personal standards. It feels like the comradeship I once felt there has dissolved into The Cult of Don't Eat That Crumb, lead by the extremely harsh and judgmental. I think so many there let their entire self-worth and self-respect revolve around their planning, their control, their newly-emerging figure. Yes, it's something to be happy about and take pride in, but I already know I'm a worthwhile person outside of all of this. I don't need to make my dress size or the amount of perceived control I have over eating validate who I am as a person.

Because yes, as you said, being thin won't automatically make life wonderful and solve all your problems. It can help out with various aspects of life that being overweight makes difficult and challenging of course, but I don't believe it's the completely life-altering revelation that a few of the successful members constantly preach. I work at this in order to be healthier, feel better, and yes, even for vanity reasons, but I'll be damned if it becomes the only thing worth focusing on in my life.

I'm so thankful I've been able to take the time to stop and consider all of this, our recent conversation here has been quite uplifting. I'll keep plugging away, both with my plan and with posting my thoughts.

Thank you for the responses. :)

Sarah@Low Stress Weight Loss said...

Wow, this is a great post!

I am one of those reformed "obsessive" dieters. I've successfully lost in the past via the obessive route, and after a lot of attempts to lose again in a way other than obsessive I started to realize that there has to be another way.

I've been blogging about my journey to that other way for the past few years - and just recently left 3FC (where I blog but don't do much in the forums) to go out on my own, which I'm calling "low stress" weight loss. Because that's my goal. Of course, my real goal is "low stress weight maintenance" ...

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Sarah, and thank you for your kind comment and for reading. I'm adding your blog to my blog roll! I'll be very interested in following your approach as it sounds unique.

Me said...

This is a very good post because I've never seen a "proper" definition of obsessed in relation to weight loss before. I thought that I was obsessed, but reading your definition, it seems I'm just motivated.

However, I think that it's likely that you will be called obsessed when you're a successful loser, whether that's true or not. The word obsessed gets thrown about, people who say it don't really think through a definition before saying it.

Having read weight loss blogs for years, I can say that roughly, 85% of bloggers will never say "I'm at goal weight" and 2/3 of those will rebound at some stage. Take a group of weight loss bloggers, measure their average weight, and one year later, their average weight will be the same.

Assuming that I can do it, successful weight loss will be the hardest thing I've ever done. Maybe it's okay to be called obsessed once in a while.

screaming fatgirl said...

Me: I'm glad that you found this useful and that I now have a chance to read your blog. I really do hope that you succeed. In fact, one of the many reasons I do this blog is that I want to provide a perspective which is atypical and increase the chances that people will find their way through this painful and difficult process.

It is hard, and it takes concentration and effort. Those things don't make you "obsessed", even if others say you are so.

Bently and Bailey said...

I'm obsessed with weight loss I'll admit it. It's become a problem. A problem which I'm seeking professional help for. I have literally been cutting down my food ie starving myself in order to lose weight. I recently lost over 100 pounds, at one time I was 275. I weigh myself everyday, eat only one small meal, obsess over calories and hate my body. I have a roll of fat below my belly button and above it that I despise and I constantatly obsess over. And I worry all the time about gaining the weight back I am scared to death about being overweight again. It may seem vain but it scares me.