Friday, September 10, 2010

The worst (and best) times to start a "diet"

Some people say that they feel they could succeed if only everything in their lives were nearly perfect. They think that having a personal chef, access to a room full of an assortment of Lean Cuisine meals, not having to work, a full assortment of exercise gear and a personal trainer, and having no stress in their lives would lead to weight loss nirvana.

The truth is that having everything you want will not lead to you successfully controlling your weight. Oprah Winfrey is proof of that. She has all of the money and control/power that a person could conceivably need or want, and she still has weight problems. The answers lie inside of us, not outside. That's not me being folksy or spiritual. It's a cold, hard fact as reflected in the lives of countless wealthy and powerful people who have struggled with weight issues. Besides Oprah, there was also Christina Onassis, one of the richest women in the world. She was constantly miserable with her weight. Among current celebrities are Wynnona Judd, Kirstie Alley, and Rosie O'Donnell (among others). Wealth, power, access to every possible resource, and a strong motivation to lose for career reasons and to diminish public ridicule doesn't help these women lose weight or maintain it when they do lose. It really is in your head, not in your wallet.

That being said, your environment definitely has a profound impact on the potential for success. While "perfect" life conditions do not guarantee success, very imperfect ones and bad timing will greatly increase the chances of failure. It would certainly seem that failure is easier to influence or increase the chances of than success. I suspect that this also points to the internal battle, which is all the harder to win under adverse circumstances.

I'm on record in some ancient posts saying that I think sometimes failure is worse than not even trying when it comes to weight loss. The reason I think this is that undertaking any endeavor and repeatedly failing at it undermines your confidence in your ability to ever accomplish the goal. If you wanted to paint well, and painted dozens and dozens of pictures with little improvement, you'd likely give up and believe you would never be an artist. The same goes for weight loss. If you try again and again an fail, you're eventually going to believe you're incapable either biologically or psychologically.

I've been following a lot of blogs and have more than a little personal experience behind me, and I've reached some conclusions about circumstances and factors which will greatly decrease your chances of long-term success. That is not to say no one can succeed, but rather that you're bucking the odds if you do. I've come up with the following, and keep in mind I'm not saying "everyone will fail" under these conditions (and please, please do not make a comment as if that is what I'm saying - one of my pet peeves is people setting up a straw man to knock down based on not reading what I'm actually saying but some grossly inaccurate inference), but rather that it will be much harder to succeed with these circumstances or motivations.

The worst times or reasons to diet (in my opinion) are:

1. after a period of free and excessive eating or bingeing

The classic example of this is holiday binges followed by New Year's resolutions to lose weight. Statistics show that all hope is abandoned by the vast majority of people by May of the year in which they express their resolve.

The problem with making an effort to lose weight on the heels of a full stomach and a sated psyche when it comes to the food you love to taste is that it's easy to proclaim you'll do better when you have no real need for food-based pleasure or satisfaction and are full of the sense of having been indulged and gratified. It's like how you are so happy to be home after a vacation as compared by how sick of being in the house you are day-in and day-out. Strong contrasts bring about easy proclamations of change and short-term behavioral alterations that are harder to sustain as the memory of the satisfaction and related guilt become distant memories.

Though resolutions to do better after binges are almost inevitably undermined after a period of prolonged deprivation, if this sort of situation tends to motivate you, there is a way to use it. Essentially, see a day of excess once in awhile (like once every three or four weeks) as a pressure valve. Be in control and let loose on occasion until you find a better balance. If you have a cycle of feast followed by a proclamation that you will now experience famine, then perhaps you need to plan some feasting from time to time to keep up your momentum.

2. because of fear

Fear is a horrible motivator. It wrecks biological havoc on your body and is unsustainable mentally. Holding fear in your mind is no small trick, and it is really not a good thing to do to yourself.

Keep in mind that the chemical reason for fear is to help you survive. It feeds into multiple neurochemical and biochemical processes that tell you to "escape" one way or another (either eliminate what you fear by vanquishing it or run from it). Holding onto fear as a motivator, such as experiencing the death of a family member due to weight related illness, will place your body in a state of biochemical readiness which will not only create stress in the long term, but will fatigue you. Both of those factors make you want to eat more and more, not stop eating.

Additionally, fear over a particular event or experience is something which you will become increasingly psychologically desensitized to through time. Humans are not meant to face the same fear over a long period of time. They are meant to escape it, or stop fearing it. This makes sense because your body cannot tolerate the chemical upheaval fear puts it through for an extended time.

Since fear creates circumstances which make you want to eat, and is an unsustainable motivator, it's a bad reason to change your lifestyle to lose weight. It's one of the reasons why people who have health scares related to weight may not lose weight. It's not that they don't care, but rather that even fear of your own mortality won't spare you the biological and psychological truth about fear as a motivation. Eventually, most people go into denial and place the fear out of their conscious thinking. They don't do this because they want to. They do it because their bodies can't live in the rigors of fear everyday.

Fear can be used, however, as a kicking off point for a more reasoned approach to your life. It shouldn't be your core motivation, but it can help you find other motives. Fear can be a catalyst, but it should never be central to your thinking or reasons for losing.

3. self-hate or disgust

A lot of people start off losing weight because they hate themselves, and a lot talk about hating themselves even when they are losing successfully. I certainly have. Note that there is a difference between hating yourself and losing weight, and using self-hate as the fuel that continues to feed your weight loss mojo. You can lose weight and be self-hating, but it is unlikely to sustain you throughout the duration of the process.

As a central motivation, self-hate is ultimately self-defeating. If you feel you are weak, worthless, lazy, ugly, pathetic or lacking in character traits that will help you control food intake, you are in essence telling yourself that you aren't capable of succeeding on a deep, personal level. What is worse, you're conveying the unconscious idea that you're not worthy of effort and expense (in all sense of the word, not just money) that success will cost you.

Self-hate is one aspect of losing weight that I think people really need to work with as they go about losing weight. They need to change their self-image to a positive one, but not because of their improving body image. They need to love their fat self's psyche much as their thinner body so that they feel capable, worthwhile, and valuable aside from their bodies. A sustained sense of self-disgust to motivate you will only make you give up eventually (if not sooner) because you won't think you're worthy or capable of the effort.

4. to please somebody else

If you lose weight in the hopes that that guy you've had your eye on will start to see you romantically, think again. Losing weight for other people is fraught with complications, not the least of which is that you probably think they will value your thinness (or you) more as a result of your changed body far more than they will actually value you.

Many people aren't as shallow as we think they are and they don't discount others wholesale on body alone. It's one of the reasons that men who are friends with women who are fat and lose weight don't suddenly fall in love with them when they lose it. We like to believe this because it fulfills the "fat worldview" where all sorts of bad things happen to us only because we are fat. This is not exactly a complete fantasy, as it is true that fat people are mistreated, treated worse than others, and have trouble finding significant others based on their bodies, but it's not all that there is to the picture.

What happens when you lose weight so that men will take an interest in you and then they end up not being interested in you? Your motivation is gone. It's just a bad idea to place validation for your actions outside of yourself, particularly when you are uncertain of the reaction of the person you're hoping to please. Even if all of the men start flocking to your new thin self, the situation becomes immensely complicated when rejection or difficulty for other reasons come into play. Do you start eating again after the dream relationship ends in acrimony because your significant other cheated on you? Affirmation of the rightness of your choices needs to solely or at least greatly lie within yourself.


As far as "good" times and reasons to "diet" or change your lifestyle, there are actually probably more of them than there are bad ones. The main difference is that people don't tend to act on the "good" ones because acute negative motivation tends to be a more powerful taskmaster than long-term positive motivation.

1. long-term health improvement (often without an acute issue)

Mainly, I think that people who have chronic conditions which are not immediately life-threatening have a better chance of succeeding than those who operate out of fear of imminent death or dire consequences. They don't operate out of a sense of desperation or fear, but with long-term quality of life improvements. A solid motivation with the potential for actual life improvement (as opposed to a lack of further degradation or death) works more effectively, though it really does depend on how much pain you can tolerate and how bad the pain is.

2. the beginning of summer

When I talk about summer and weight loss, I don't mean losing to look good in a bathing suit. The start of summer is a good time to begin a diet because the heat will naturally suppress your appetite and make one turn to lighter food (especially watery fruit). You can start to pick up good habits during this time which you are more likely to carry on through time.

Also, moving in the heat will burn more energy than moving in the cold and summer is often the time when people pursue movement-oriented activities as part of their vacations. It's also a time which you can thoughtfully approach your eating as it normally is rather than make a change on the heels of a powerful holiday overeating jag. Changing your habits after weeks of your average eating will make you more thoughtful about changes than trying to do so after bingeing on Christmas goodies and New Year's party food.

Finally, if you start at the beginning of summer (around May or June), you'll have losses behind you by November that you will want to continue your progress. Having been rewarded with lost weight for your actions, you may not so easily decide to go on an all-out binge during the holidays for fear that your gains will be mitigated. Essentially, you are being rewarded long before the most profound temptation comes along, and may feel less deprived when passing on the goodies since you already have something you may feel is of greater value than immediate gratification with food.

3. for a long-term, concrete, meaningful goal

I've lost weight successfully and over a long period of time twice (including this time around) and that was because I knew I'd have to seek a job at both times. I knew the change was coming years before and I started acting to make the changes such that I'd be able to reach the goal by the deadline. Of course, I regained the first time, but I'm hoping this time to avoid that pitfall because of the psychological and behavioral changes I've made this time (last time, much of my success was based on unsustainable practices like 90 minutes of exercise 5 days a week).

Some of the other successful people who I have followed have had meaningful long-term goals. The type who don't tend to do so well have vague desires for improvements for the sake of looking better or feeling better in a generalized fashion. Others act out of a sense of urgency or immediacy and often choose rapid loss programs that cannot be sustained.

If you want to lose it and have an increased chance of keeping it off, it really is better to look at it as the dreaded "lifestyle change" and to take it slow. This allows your body to adjust as well as your mind. Focusing on expediency rarely results in lasting change in anything in life, let alone something which requires your biology to come around to a new way of living.

And, as before, I'm not saying everyone is guaranteed success under these conditions, but just that the odds are likely improved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So refreshing to read an informative, grounded and motivational article about weight loss. Very helpful advice- working on psychological patterns and behaviours(which are very familiar to me and most others im sure;)) rather than just focusing on calorie counting and scales! A very positive and realistic approach to life-long health and vitality! thanks!:)