Sunday, July 4, 2010

(Formerly Grim) Realities

Following the a trail of links to a book written by a formerly fat woman about her transition from obesity to size 2, I found a review on Amazon about said book. The woman who wrote the book essentially said that she ate less and exercised more. As an aside, let me say that it amazes me that variations on this theme continue to be published as it's really nothing new under the sun. At any rate, one of the women who reviewed it negatively essentially said that she didn't need to read a book to be told that exercising over an hour a day five days a week and eating half a sandwich for lunch would get her thin. As a related aside, let me say that it amazes me that people who purchase diet books continue to hope for a magic pill or formula that doesn't include eating less or exercising more to help them lose weight.

I'm on record as saying that I dislike the "eat less, exercise more" mantra, because it imparts no real useful information. It isn't about these acts. It's about teaching one how to go about being capable of these actions. If you can't explain how to get, and more importantly, stay there, then you really have nothing of value to offer anyone. Part of the reason I blog is that I record how I'm getting there. I'm only now coming to terms with conceptualizing how to stay there.

If a year or so ago when I first rolled up my sleeves and started to attempt to lose weight, someone had told me that I'd have to do the things I'm doing now, I'd have felt it was not only impossible in the short term, but definitely out of the question in the long term. The transition between what I did then and what I do now is quite large. For people who are very overweight (250 lbs. or heavier), I strongly believe that the slow road is the better path. I feel this because a super strict, fast route is not one which can be trodden successfully for the duration, and anyone who is very overweight likely needs to relearn how to eat and deal with their psychological issues in order to make sure they can maintain. The fast road is too dramatic and you are so mired in concentrating on the process that you don't pause to catch the scenery, which includes all of the mental crap that you're going to be chucking in the closet and ignoring until one day it is going to come out and yell "boo" at you and scare you back into your old eating habits.

Since I feel that I've got a fair amount of the mental part untangled, and the processes down fairly well, I've reached a few conclusions about the realities of living at a lower weight for the rest of my life. A year ago, these realities would be very grim for me because I think they would be things I couldn't conceptualize as being physically or emotionally possible for me. For people who are at the start of their efforts, especially those at a very high weight, offering up these realities only makes them feel more helpless and overwhelmed. I know I would have felt so had I been told that this would be the way I'd have to live the rest of my life.

I have felt for quite some time that I would have to monitor my calories for the rest of my life because my food compass is broken. What crystallized for me today was that there are certain patterns to eating that are pretty much going to be a forever thing now. These patterns are not ones that bother me in the least at this stage of the game, but conceptualizing them in this manner helps me understand why many overweight people feel they can never lose weight or, if they lose it, they can't keep it off.

If I don't want to regain weight, I realize that in terms of eating that:*

  • I will always have to eat what would be considered child-size portions of things like sandwiches and carbohydrates.
  • I will always eat about 2/3 to half the portions of proteins that many Americans consider appropriate depending on whether it is lean or fatty.
  • I will always have to regard full-calorie treats and desserts in terms of having two or three bites or have them very infrequently.
  • I will never be able to eat more than a half dozen nuts at once, and even then infrequently.
  • I can never eat more than a palm full of salted snacks, and probably be limited to two or three pieces.
  • All full fat dairy (cream, butter, sour cream, etc.) will have to be consumed by the tablespoon at most.
  • I will never be able to eat more than a small quantity of cheese - likely no more than the size of one slice of pre-packaged cheese (which I don't eat, but I use that as a portion reference).
  • The only food I will be able to eat in relative abundance will be plain vegetables.
  • I will never be able to eat fruit as freely as I want.
  • I will never be able to freely or regularly drink anything with calories including things like milk (even low-fat), lattes or juice.
  • I will never be able to eat more than two small or one medium piece of pizza. I will never be able to eat something like a full slice of Costco pizza unless I skip a meal to accommodate it.
  • I will never be able to eat a full large-size pastry and will only occasionally be able to eat a portion of one.
  • I will never be able to eat until "stuffed" or "very full". At best, I'll be "full". "Pigging out" will never be a possibility.
  • I will always pay a price for any "indulgence" that is used as a meal (like having a donut for breakfast) by having to deal with greater hunger for having spent the calories on something empty and not having consumed a large quantity of such foods.

I'm okay with all of these things... now. However, I would have seen these as so restrictive as to be impossible to live with before I went through this transition. Not only would I have chafed at the bit of getting so little pleasure from food, but I couldn't fathom feeling okay on so few calories everyday. I would only think about the gnawing hunger I'd believe I'd feel day-in and day-out for the rest of my life and decide that I'd rather stay fat than suffer for the duration of my existence.

One thing that I realize at this point in time is that a person who is substantially overweight and has been eating too much all of their lives (or for much of it) can't begin to understand that they can be comfortable with far, far less forever. This is not a failing on their part. It's simply impossible to relate to that possibility unless you've made substantial mental and physical changes over a long period of time. I couldn't understand that initially. I didn't know my body and mind would change enough to drop down to a different comfort level with portions and calories. I didn't know I wouldn't suffer terribly at this level of consumption. I didn't even necessarily internalize the idea fully until relatively recently.

That's not to say that everyone should make the transition that I have, nor that the method I have followed is for anyone but me. The way I see it is that you have a choice to make. You can feed your body like an 18-wheeler that needs a ton of fuel or you can feed it like a compact car. You get to drive around the type of body that you fuel, and the choice is entirely up to the individual. As long as one is happy with the choices one makes and the consequences do not trouble them, more power to you while you drive around whatever body you're pumping energy into.


*I'm adding this comment because I don't want to be misunderstood about why I believe these things. These apply to me with my lifestyle choices. I realize that people who are willing to go to the gym and work their ass off or run miles per week to burn loads of calories can eat more, but I'm too old, weak, fragile, and busy to bust my ass exercising just so I can eat more. Also, frankly, I traveled down that road from ages 19-22 and it didn't serve me well in the long run. I believe that relying on food restriction for weight control is a more reliable approach in the long run as it does not require anything other than making certain choices. Exercising requires that you be well and uninjured, states which I cannot rely on.


-Maura said...

Relying on exercise to lose/maintain weight was definitely a mistake for me. I never became accustomed to eating the right amount of food for my true body frame. For two years I was able to exercise as much as necessary to maintain my weight. Life happened and the time I had to devote to exercise became restricted. I started gaining. And looking for the 'magic pill' you referenced. It finally took a good friend (who lost 80+ lbs and has maintained for YEARS) giving me some sage advice: get your food right. Forget about exercise for now. Concentrating on one thing has REALLY helped. And food is 80-90 % of the equation. Learning to consume an average of 1300 calories per day and be happy with it is my focus.

I do encourage you to look at your word choices in the boundaries you are setting for yourself around food. For me, when I phrase my boundaries in negative absolutes, I set myself up for a major set back. I've learned to use empowering language to describe my boundaries. I CHOOSE to not drink a cocktail every evening. I CHOOSE to enjoy a single piece of chocolate from time to time. I CHOOSE to keep unhealthy foods out of the house. Etc. Etc. When I make it my choice, it just feels better. And yes, it's semantics and in this journey, sometimes semantics are as important as the actions.

If you have not already done so, I highly recommend reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. It helps with the how to make eating less moving more sustainable.

I love your blog and your insights. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Maura, and thank you for your comment and kind words. The exercise issue is one that some people get a bit sticky about because I think they tend to ascribe not exercising greatly to lose weight to laziness. In particular, men believe that it's more important to burn the calories than to restrict them and many people prefer that model because it is easy to add behavior than to subtract it. I also found this to be so when I was younger, but, of course, it didn't solve my problem in the long run.

The food issue really is more important, but it is also considerably harder to change without significant hardship (both physically and emotionally). I wouldn't even feel comfortable saying that anyone can be at peace with it through time. It's just that hard.

I realized that using "never" might come across as too strident, but honestly, it doesn't really bother me to think in such terms. I just can't see myself going back to certain things. That being said, "never say never" is generally a good policy. ;-)

Keep in mind that I view everything as a choice, and not necessarily a choice between losing or gaining weight. Mainly, I view my choices as "pay now" or "pay later". All of my life, I didn't actually have that choice because I had no control. I was like having a job where I didn't make enough money - I couldn't "pay now" because I didn't have enough money.

Now that I have control, my choice (I hope) will always be to pay as I go rather than to choose to pay later. After so many years of difficulty, I really don't want to find myself in this much food-related "debt" again.

Anonymous said...

"It's about teaching one how to go about being capable of these actions. If you can't explain how to get, and more importantly, stay there, then you really have nothing of value to offer anyone." Very excellent, we all theoretically know what to do, but few of us can plod along and make these changes and settle in here for the long run. I agree with you, and I couldn't do the fast road either, not if I don't want to bounce right back. Even slow, it takes vigilance, but I adapted slowly enough that it was no shock to the system. I've mostly accepted that I can't eat the way I used to, not often as much as I would like, and not always what I would prefer. I'm one of those crazy exercisers, which means that I can eat pizza, even an ice cream cone occasionally in hte summer if it ever warms up, and stuff myself a few times a year.

I started work 2 weeks back at a place with a huge fancy latte/espresso/cappucino maker, I'd better see what kind of milk is in the lattes I'm starting to make myself. I'd better watch that scale....

screaming fatgirl said...

Thanks, justjuliebean, for your kind comment.

I think that the attitude change (as well as the lifestyle changes) and the shock that they can be is something which is dramatically underestimated. And it's also hard for people who scale down their eating to resist slowly scaling back up once they reach their desired weight, particularly if they never dealt with their issues.

I do miss things like lattes. Occasionally, I'll have one, but while I'm targeting 1500 calories, it's a bit lavish even to have a low fat one rather than actual food. Still, if I was in your shoes, it'd probably be fine to have a single shot with a cup of low fat milk on a regular basis. The exercising you do does buy you something!

RedPanda said...

I think that the attitude change (as well as the lifestyle changes) and the shock that they can be is something which is dramatically underestimated.

Hear, hear! It's not very often that people actually admit that, so it's refreshing to read.

I'm another who lost weight over a long period (can't remember if I posted that here before). I think that taking the time to make it a real lifestyle change - with the major changes to my attitude and food preferences that implies - is the major factor in why I have found it relatively easy to maintain my weight loss.

It also explains my irritation at being asked how long it took me to lose the weight - I feel like yelling, "That's not the point!!!"

I'm also another crazy exerciser, but that's a rant for another day!