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).
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.