Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why You Press the Bar

Back when I was in college, I took a course in experimental psychology. As a part of the class, we had to do classic experiments with white rats, Skinner boxes, and mazes. For those who are blissfully ignorant in the jargon of psychology, "Skinner boxes" are little cages which have a bar that a rat can press to dispense a food pellet.

Many people know the basic details of these types of experiment, but they don't know what happens to the rats in order to encourage learning. Rats, like people, are lazy and will not feel motivated to learn or change without a compelling reason. In order to get the rats to care enough about the food pellet to go to the effort of searching the cage for food and stumbling on the fact that the bar relates to getting food, you have to make them pretty hungry. Without deprivation, the rat is indifferent to getting the food pellet and will just sit around in the box being happy and contemplating rat philosophy.

The rats that are trained in psychology classes are doomed to a short existence. After they have been trained, they are rendered useless and are usually destroyed. I was told, perhaps seriously, perhaps in jest, that the way this was done was to break their necks with a flick of the wrist. Since state colleges don't have a lot of funds or veterinary expertise, it is unlikely that they are chemically euthanized. When I was told this about my rat, who has taught me so much about life that I think she deserves a better name and memory than the one I tend to give her (I named her "Rat Rat"), I chose to adopt her as a pet rather than to have her head twisted around until she expired.

My rat, who I was actually not really fond of as a pet but merely saved out of humanistic impulse, was not a normal rat after the conditioning she went through. Because she was sometimes deprived of food in order to compel her to learn, she would eat as much as she could all of the time. Since I was no expert on rat health, I just fed her whenever it seemed she was hungry. Soon, she grew very fat. I tried to feed her less, but she seemed to become anxious and paced the cage nervously looking for food when her food was reduced.

Within about a year, my rat died. She wasn't very old even by rat standards, probably no more than one and a half years old. I sometimes pondered if I fed her to death or if she simply was not healthy because she was the result of too much white rat inbreeding. My professor told us that, to save money, he had to keep breeding the same pool of experimental rats until he felt it was no longer an option because fresh rats were terribly expensive. I'm guessing she may have suffered from both too much food and her bad genetic pedigree.

My rat's situation teaches some valuable lessons about behavior that can be applied to humans. As I mentioned in the linked post a few paragraphs back, she showed the power of habit, routine, and superstition. In the case I'm currently talking about, she shows the strong effect of deprivation. Had she not been made terribly hungry in order to motivate her to learn in the Skinner box, she probably would not have become so fat later. She also likely would not have grown so anxious at any food reduction. If this is starting to sound familiar, it is because it is a classic situation that human dieters go through.

Dieting requires food deprivation over an often prolonged period of time. The more severe the deprivation, the more likely one will be to develop psychological issues with food and a disordered relationship with it. That is not to say that people can't practice caloric reduction without resulting food issues, but there is little anecdotal evidence to support the idea that they don't and ample to say that they do. Just like with my rat, food deprivation fuels anxiety about eating and not eating. It encourages overeating, and creates irrational feelings about food such as attaching moral implications to the choice to eat certain things.

Because of my understanding of these issues, I decided early on not to decide that food or eating were "good" or "bad" and not to put any food out of bounds for me. While I certainly have "guideposts" that I would like to remain in, I don't get worked up if I step beyond the boundaries. I just try every day to roughly stay within them. I view choices broadly as moving in a direction I'd like them to or in one I would prefer they not go in. I realize that making a particular choice slows my progress while making another keeps it up. It's not the end of the world if I doddle a bit on the road by eating a few hundred more calories than I view as optimal.

It is perhaps a very difficult thing for people to accept that the greatest restriction they can possibly endure is not the best path to weight loss. You can explain again and again that there are complex psychological reactions at play and they will be rejected out of hand as "excuses". It generally takes multiple failures before people even begin to consider that they may not be able to tread a severe path without consequence. My poor rat didn't choose to not eat for a few days before training nor to only be able to eat what she was smart enough to earn, but we humans have the capacity and the power to do better by ourselves. Whether or not we choose to do so is an entirely different issue.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I'm sure that every person who tries to lose weight reaches this point, and I have been fortunate up to this point not to have experienced one, but I'm currently in an extended weight loss plateau. My weight has been hovering in the low to high 180's for quite some time now, though I honestly have seen bodily changes which would indicate that fat loss continues but overall weight is not changing.

While this would be a point of despair for most people, and I am less than thrilled with being "stuck" (for reasons I will get to), I'm not surprised nor incredibly upset. For one thing, I know that this is natural and normal. I have no plans to do anything other than "stay the course" and wait for my body to do whatever it's going to do. Since my approach all along was to pretty much live the rest of my life this way, it's not like I'm waiting to jump back into eating more or moving less. At the end of the line, there won't be much more eating and there isn't that much moving now. I walk and do some very modest stretching and weight lifting, but the latter two are done for strength and fitness, not weight loss.

The main reason I'm not happy about the stuck scale is that I know that in about 7 months I'll have to buy health insurance in the United States and all they will care about is the number on the scale when assessing my rates. While I may not care about this number or how long it is "stuck", they certainly will. That being said, I know I can't do anything about it so there's no point in getting overly worked up about it. I know how much I eat. I know how much I exercise. I know that I am living reasonably and far more healthily than most people.

There is an interesting side note to all of this and that is that at one point I used the Dukan Diet (which I do not follow) "true weight calculator". When I did it, it said that I am at my true weight and that it was 84 kg. (about 186 lbs.), which is where it has been stuck for awhile. It said something like, 'you do not need to lose more weight and are at your true weight.' Unfortunately, the people who will be charging me a fortune for insurance are unlikely to concur.

So, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing and try not to fall into the pit so many people on plateaus experience. I don't feel close to the edge of such a feeling. I'm not exactly doing cartwheels at being stuck here, but it's okay. It'll all work out eventually and I'm not struggling to live life within the liberal limits I set for myself anyway.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What a dollar a day bought me

A lot of women who plan to lose weight relish the idea of taking "before" and "after" pictures. They also preserve one pair of their pants from their largest size in order to do the cliched picture of themselves at a smaller size standing in one large leg of their trousers. Personally, I find that approach to weight loss disturbing.

The reason that this troubles me is that it trivializes the entire process and skips over the hard parts. It focuses on the beginning and end, and skips over the painful and difficult middle. The pictures of the skinny person in the fat pants that is often used is a mimicry of advertising for diet aids that used to be quite common in the 60's and 70's. There's nothing that belittles the process like aping something designed to exploit your pain and insecurity. The sad part is that people don't even know what they're copying.

Because this wasn't some game to me, nor an exercise in superficial change which I would hold out to the world with a triumphant expression on my face, I never took a "before" picture in June 2009 when I made the decision to lose weight. I did have my husband take one picture of me in October of 2009 as an experiment for tracking my visual progress by using photos (as I was not using the scale). At that point in time, I had already lost between 30-40 lbs. That is the only photo I have at a high weight as I avoided pictures like the plague. I didn't continue with progress pictures because I couldn't look at them and my husband couldn't tell any difference looking at pictures taken a few months apart. This frustrated me so I gave up on tracking by photo.

I'm putting a comparison of what I looked like then and what I look like now on my blog not as some testimonial to my success nor as an inspiration. I'm doing it because I think there are some people who read blogs in which fatties talk about trying to lose weight and believe it's for vanity, societal approval, or some other vapid reason. I want people to see what I was and realize more clearly what it meant to be that person.

Being the size I used to be meant crippling back pain every time I walked or stood for more than a minute. It meant being mocked and tormented by strangers every time I went into public. It meant being unable to shop for clothing that wasn't the largest size and stretchy (and only shopping by mail order). It meant difficulty having sex and diminished pleasure for both my husband and I. It meant never going out to restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters, or other public areas knowing I wouldn't fit into the seating and even if I fit, I was at risk of breaking the furniture. It meant difficulty moving, heart palpitations, and having my hands go numb and my back ache when I slept because of the compression of my weight. It meant not being able to fully hug my husband or have him fully hug me. It meant digestive issues, IBS, and fatigue. It meant I was afraid to get on a plane, train or bus and would not travel far.

Losing weight for me hasn't been some "hobby" that I indulged in in order to look hot or something I used to fill an empty life with talk of diets and exercise. It's something which had to happen in order to obtain the same minimal quality of life that others take for granted. In order to understand how diminished I was, it's important to know what I was before. That is why I'm putting up a picture. My "before" body, the one 30-40 lbs. lighter than my true starting weight in the photo above, was extremely hard to live in. No amount of effort to love and accept myself was going to change that reality.

The picture is very painful for me to see. It's not because I'm so huge and I disgust myself. It is because I'm afraid I could go back if I'm not careful to continue doing what I've been doing and I remember all too vividly how hard life was to live at that weight. When I talked in a previous post about dealing with food metaphorically as if I were living on a dollar a day instead of ten dollars, I was saying that that change has bought a better life for me. It didn't buy me beauty, approval, or bragging rights. It didn't give me the upper hand in some coffee klatch discussion about weight with the girls. It bought me a normal existence in which I could walk, go outside and not be afraid or tormented, and have physical contact with my husband without my body being a barrier. It also didn't buy me instant happiness or solve all of my problems, but it did bring me a lot closer to feeling "whole" again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Dollar a Day

Perspective and context are extremely powerful factors in our perception of life. If you grow up poor, a middle class life seems "rich". If you grow up rich, a middle class life seems poor. On an intellectual level and in gross generalizations, such as the absurd situations that play out in movies or television, we understand this clearly. On a personal level, we fail to internalize or even comprehend it.

If you grew up receiving an allowance from your parents of $10 a day, your perspective about money would be different than if you got a dollar a day. A child with $10 per day to spend would be able to buy pretty much any toy, candy, or experience he or she might want either immediately or by saving for a short time. A child who got a dollar a day would view things rather differently. All things would come more slowly to such a child and the value of rewards, when they came, would be viewed as far greater compared to the child with the more lavish allowance.

Scarcity builds a different context for rewards and perspective affects how fortunate or blessed we feel. This applies to everything, but people tend to objectify such things much better when money is the topic at hand. Since most people understand money in concrete terms, "wealth" is something we can all identify with as a factor which can distort perspective. We think people with too much of it are spoiled and don't understand what it's like to live like "normal folks". Trying to help people see food from this same perspective is an order or two of magnitude harder. The reason for this is that "food wealth" is so common and harder to objectify.

One thing that I realized when I started modifying my behavior was that I was indulging in food like a super rich person indulges in jewelry. I felt it was normal and natural to eat what I ate because it was what I always had access to and could eat. Part of this was the patterns my parents foisted on me, but a lot of it was also cultural. Americans don't open a packet of Oreos and eat one or two cookies. They eat half or all of a sleeve. Americans don't order a small pizza and eat one or two pieces. They order a giant one and eat 4 or 5 of them. If they have one slice, it's an enormous one about the size of an entire small pizza.

Changing the context within which we view food is a challenge because of personal psychology, upbringing and culture. It's naive to believe that cultural forces do not come to bear on those who attempt to modify the scale of their eating. When I tried to change my eating when I was in high school, my father mocked and made fun of me for trying to more slowly nibble a potato chip so that I experienced it more. Many people who go out to lunch or dinner with coworkers are pressured to consume more and if they eat small portions, others remark on what they are doing. Such comments may range from accusing you of having some sort of eating disorder to saying that the person making the remark couldn't get by eating "so little". Though it is not the intention, the message is clear, 'you are acting outside of the norm, and it makes me uncomfortable.'

As difficult as the cultural pressures can be, personal ones are far harder. Our own idea of what is "enough" is very difficult to battle, and it's one that I've fought with for the last two years and have only finally wrestled to the mat in the past several months. I'm talking about the part of you that eats a cookie and it tastes so good that you want another and then another. That part has been diminishing in me for quite some time, but it hadn't fully been laid to rest until recently. Now, I rarely have interest in "another" after I've had one of a treat. My problem now, when the inclination to eat a lot hits (which fortunately isn't too often) has stretched out to a desire to sample small amounts of many things from nibbles of cheese, to chips, to cookies, to chocolate, to bits of meat, to olives. A cornucopia of bites generally doesn't add up to much, fortunately, so I can "get away with it", and I consider it a better "binge" than wanting to eat an entire bag of something, but it's still not where I want to be.

One thing I realized is that going from the food equivalent of $10 a day to $1 a day makes one feel impoverished on the food front. If you are accustomed to eating all of the cookies you want, then limit yourself to one, it feels like deprivation. If you grew up without an allowance and one day started getting a dollar a day, it'd feel like wealth. Back in the past, when food wasn't as plentiful and convenient, people who got a cookie once a week were delighted because they weren't used to having them anytime and everywhere.

The issue for most people isn't conceptualizing that they'd be better off with the food equivalent of a dollar a day. The problem is putting themselves on that budget. And note that I use a cookie as a convenient thumbnail for any food. The problem could be eating too much fruit, cheese, or whole wheat bread. You can overeat on any food. It doesn't have to be unhealthy or "fun" food. The point remains the same.

My point is that we see food as something like a bank of infinite funds. We don't budget because we don't have to. We're the kids with the big allowance having fun because there's no reason not to... at least not until something happens and we find out that we can't touch that money anymore. In the case of many fat people, that is health or mobility issues. It's like being super rich with a penchant for bling and finding out that you suddenly are allergic to all precious metals and gems and now you can't shop for jewelry anymore.

For me, one of the turning points was internalizing the fact that food wasn't something which I could indulge in in an unlimited fashion. The limit used to be what my stomach would hold (and even then I'd eat until I felt uncomfortable a lot of the time), but I had to understand that the limit was somewhat less than what my body could burn in a given day. People know this rationally, but they act irrationally. They tell themselves they need that metaphorical $10 a day and can't possibly live on any less despite ample evidence that plenty of people live fine on a (again, metaphorical) $1 without keeling over from malnutrition. We convince ourselves we "need" more food than we really do, and what is worse, we believe that we can't possibly be "overspending" if all we are overeating is "healthy" food. You can be fat on anything, including fruit, oatmeal and yogurt. You only need so much of anything to be healthy, but we're convinced otherwise.

I think the reason people have such a hard time losing weight is that they try to go from one extreme to another. If you think about this with money, again, it is easier to understand. Going from $10 to $1 is very hard. Going from $10 to $9 a day sounds doable. This is what I recommend people do in regards to food (hence my initial advice to eat two tablespoons less and drink slightly smaller amounts of caloric liquids at first), but the results aren't fast enough for most people so they move too far too fast without making the proper mental adjustments or allowing their body to acclimate. They then proclaim that all has failed and go back to their more expensive lifestyle (or more).

The thing is that we can get by with less food than we think just as those who live in wealth can get by with less money. It's all about slowly developing a different context and perspective rather than rigidly sticking to the current one and claiming that change is impossible. You have to let go of your old views if you want to change your life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Keeping it Private

Last week, a person who I have been doing business with approximately twice a month for the last two years said, "you lost weight". Since I have been dealing with her during the transition from 380 lbs. to around 180 lbs., it seemed like an odd thing to suddenly mention. I've said before that I live in a cultural environment which is more discrete about such things and doesn't comment as freely on people's personal lives. I wondered why she "finally" said something about a matter which I assumed was rather obvious given my transformation.

I do not mention my weight loss to anyone except my husband. In fact, I think it's very important not to discuss it with people because once you involve them in the process of your own volition, they become a part of the equation. Since I don't want their input, I don't talk about it. In fact, I've already decided when I go home that I will refuse to engage in casual discussions of my eating habits or weight. I will talk about it with people who have a problem and need or want help, but I won't discuss it from any viewpoint other than a psychological one when it comes to me. I've read far too many accounts of people having their food habits picked over and bantered about by people who are simply bored and have nothing better to focus on. This is not a trivial matter to be discussed in a coffee klatch.

Getting back to my associate who mentioned my weight, since I have never talked about it with anyone, the timing was odd. She said that she really noticed that my face had gotten thinner in the last month. Usually, she sees me every fortnight, but this time there was a longer separation. I mentioned in a previous post that, though my weight had not changed from one month to the next, I was sure I'd lost body fat because I'd see changes in my overall shape and size. Her comment bore this out as she saw new cheekbone definition in my face (that I also had believed was there) and remarked on it. She said, "your face is returning to what it was when you were young," as she'd seen pictures of me at my all-time lowest weight in 1988.

I told her that she was only the third person to mention it even though I've been losing for two years. She looked a bit blank and said, "really?" I pulled up some pictures of my face on FaceBook which coincided with when we first met to show her. She was surprised. She genuinely had not noticed that I'd gradually lost about 200 lbs. because she was in my life at regular intervals during that time.

The interesting thing is that one of the other three people who mentioned my weight loss also did so after an absence from my life of approximately 6 weeks. She said, "you lost weight", and I thought she was finally recognizing the elephant in the room. She even asked if I'd lost it because of stress. I realize now that she noticed the short-term loss, not the long-term one. At the time, I also thought this sudden utterance was odd, but now I'm beginning to understand that she really hadn't noticed the gradual changes all along.

The only one of these three people to really notice was someone who hadn't seen me for five years. She prefaced it with, "don't take this the wrong way..." at which point I said, "I've lost a lot of weight." She then said, "so much healthier" and we dropped the topic. There was no need for me to go into details about how or why I lost it.

I've been very fortunate that my weight loss hasn't been a topic of public discussion for the most part. I believe the biggest reason for this, as I mentioned before, is that the only person I discuss it with is my husband. Another is that the people who see me frequently either aren't noticing (yes, it is possible that they mind their own business or the losses were so gradual that they didn't see it) or have enough respect for my privacy not to mention it. Now that it has come up a few times, I've found that the best way to continue to keep it private is to address it minimally and move on in a polite, but perfunctory fashion.

A lot of people complain about people noticing or not noticing their weight loss. If they don't notice or say anything, they get upset that the changes aren't significant enough. I'm here to say that the changes can be huge (I've lost half my body weight now) and people won't notice if you are losing slowly. I'm also going to say that I believe that if you draw attention to it overtly, then you're going to get more interference and its best never to talk about what you're doing (including how you eat). The people who deal with me do not see what or how much I eat. When they remark on my weight, I confirm that I've lost it and they say, "congratulations" (which I feel strange about hearing) and then we move on to another subject.

Of course, some people believe that weight is a topic that should be discussed openly and frankly. I don't have a problem with this as long as the discussion is objective and impersonal. I have a problem when it turns into people kibbitzing in my business, which more often than not any discussion of weight (loss or gain) turns into. Once you open the door to people being involved in what you're doing, they feel they have been invited to comment on your behaviors and that introduces a whole new wrinkle into the process of trying to change your relationship with your body and food. And, like most wrinkles in life, it's almost always unwelcome.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Not About How Badly You "Want" It (part 3)

part 1 is here
part 2 is here

Last night, I was talking to my husband about how I was feeling regarding my sister's circumstances, which are inextricably linked to her weight. Because of a slip of the tongue, he said that she couldn't change because she didn't "want" it badly enough. As is so often the case, we sometimes over-simplify what we mean to say with words that distort what we really mean. Even though it wasn't what he meant, it did get me thinking about how we often talk about how people have to "want" something badly enough to start taking action toward change.

A lot of people talk about "wanting" it enough to change when it comes to weight loss. I'm here to say that every fat person in the world "wants" to change. Most very desperately would like to lose weight, but "wanting" something is not the same as being able to acquire it. This is a critical mistake that people make when they either fail or decide not to even make the attempt or when they see others doing so. The reason that this is so important to distinguish from "want" is that not knowing the real cause leaves people feeling as though their motivation is what is missing rather than what is really the issue.

I discussed my sister's situation in the other parts of this sequence and I know that she would like to lose weight and speculated that she probably has secretly tried on occasion and failed. I know that I tried and failed on a small level so many times that I ultimately decided that it was inevitable that I would always weigh well over 300 lbs. Here is how it works:

You are at the bottom of a deep dark well and would like to get out. You search around for places where you can grasp the wall and start climbing out. Occasionally, you see a depression or a jutting rock and you grab at it and try to haul yourself out. Sometimes, it isn't deep enough and you can't get enough of a hold to pull your body up. At others, the rock crumbles in your hand. Sometimes, you can get a good grip and start lifting yourself out and make a little progress then you slip and fall back down again. After each effort, you find yourself back at the bottom in a sense of deep frustration and anguish. Sometimes when you fall back down, the ground gives way and you're in even deeper.

After some time has passed, you've got years of attempts under your belt. You're now an expert at recognizing what will not work. You've tried to use that stone over there or that depression here dozens of times in conjunction with other strategies and every time you have been unable to get out of the well. You are expert at what isn't going to work because you've tried and failed so many times. After awhile, you simply see no point in trying. You still want out of the well very, very badly, but can see no way to escape. Attempts to try just increase your sense of hopelessness. It's easier to simply stop thinking about escape and make the best of where you are. This includes no longer trying to get out because the failure only reminds you of how trapped and helpless you are.

This is the story of a fat person. What you "want" has  nothing to do with it. Fat people want to be thinner. They simply cannot find a way out and many eventually stop looking. This analogy fails to impress thin people or successful losers of weight because they were never stuck in that well or the one they were in was one they personally could climb out of. Each "well" is mental and unique. The sides are steeper, smoother, etc. based on the life experiences and personality of each person. Judging others by their inability to escape simply because you could get out is an act of rampant narcissism and a need to elevate oneself above others. It's just not that simple. It's very complicated.

For me, I spent nearly two decades not only sliding down to the bottom of that well, but watching the ground open up under me and swallow me a little deeper each year. From 1989 to 2009, I not only could not find a way to lose weight, but steadily gained despite wanting to lose. In 2009, the thing that changed was my strategy. Being expert at what had never worked (rigidity, exercising a lot, "dieting"), I decided that this time it had to be very, very different if I wanted to escape. This time, I had to try tactics that were atypical because "typical" tactics didn't work for me.

This time, I ate chocolate. This time, I put no food out of bounds. This time, I focused on portions over food types. This time, I didn't castigate myself for eating certain foods or for eating "too much". This time, I wouldn't worry about how fast I lost as long as I was moving in a behavioral and cognitive direction which I felt was "right" for my future. This time, I was going to work hard on my psychological issues with food rather than view it all as simplistic "choices" divorced from my psyche. This time, I wasn't going to assign value judgments to how and what I ate and I was going to focus on eating "normal" rather than "healthy" or "perfect". This time, I wasn't going to hate myself thin.  This time, I was going to tunnel sideways using a spoon rather than try and just climb straight up. And, this time, it worked... for me.

The problem is that what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for others. That being said, I think that we can see that the "tried and true" methods do not work for many people in the long run. It is unsustainable to live the path of righteous eating and rigid control for most folks. I can't say that I'm thin (yet, and may never be), but I can say that I've done this for two years and two months now and it isn't an obsession and I don't feel trapped. I absolutely do not feel like what I'm doing is a burden anymore and can happily say I'm good to live this way forever. It's amazing how not denying yourself anything makes it easier. Of course, reframing food mentally in the fashion I have done is far from "easy". I had to learn to be satisfied with one cookie, a few bites of chocolate, or a small handful of pretzels, but the mind can be tuned to be satisfied with less once the psychological issues that compel us to "need" more are dealt with.

In my sister's case, the well she's in is deeper, darker and more intimidating than the one I was in. I like to believe that, if I were there with her, I could help her the same way I have helped myself. Deep down though, I think that's ego speaking. I think the only thing I could do for her is share my cooking and role model my eating patterns to her and she could then attempt to emulate them or not. I think the psychology of her relationship with food is too deep and hidden for anyone to access, including her, and I don't know that that aspect is something she has the capacity to address emotionally. And I understand that completely. It's painful, scary, and harder than most people can possibly imagine. And, what is more, except for the part of me that wants her to have a higher quality of life, less fear, and better health, I don't care. I love my sister no matter what and know that she's an intelligent, kind, caring, and worthwhile person. I just wish that she could have the type of life she deserves and weren't so much a prisoner of the body she's in that she will be denied the type of life a truly good person deserves.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Body Prisoner (part 2)

Part 1 of this post is here.

My sister has always been heavier than me. In pictures of us as children, she was always just a little chubby whereas I spent at least a few years as a skinny child. It wasn't until around 4th grade that I started to put on weight and start my lifelong "career" as "the fat girl". Of course, in my rural town, with a class of around 30 students, there were far fewer of us fat kids than there are these days.

As she got older, my sister gained weight as well. She was "the fat girl" in the class two years ahead of me. To that end, she was tortured and tormented in the same fashion as me, though her responses were somewhat different. I acted out emotionally and tried to excel in various ways in order to prove my value. Getting straight A's, proving how smart I was, exercising my creativity in art class and being unafraid to be friends and make friends with people despite my "handicap" socially was part of my process. For my sister, the path she chose was complete withdrawal.

My sister is intelligent, but she has spent more years being crushed by her weight issues than me. It isn't only that she was fatter earlier, but that she grew larger faster. She also has never spent any time in "remission" by losing weight. I'm not sure if she has ever made a concerted effort to lose, but I'd be surprised if she didn't privately make some attempts. I know for a fact that she has never made any organized effort to exercise though, or to substantially approach food differently. That's okay. I don't judge her for anything. It's just something I note because I think that my having lost a lot of weight twice in my life fundamentally alters how I view the experience of being very overweight compared to how she may look at it.

In addition to not having had success at weight loss, my sister has also never had a boyfriend and is not married. It's pretty safe to say that she is still a virgin. She has expressed on multiple occasions that she has no interest in relationships. I don't know if that means she is asexual (I doubt it), but rather that watching so many bad relationships around her has made her quite jaded at the prospect of being in a good one. There is also the almost certain factor of her weight making her believe she would never get a decent man. I believed that was also to be my future, but things turned out quite differently for me.

My sister also continues to live with my parents, who are elderly and rely on her. Their relationship with her has always been corrosive and destructive. She has spent years in a state of depression and even now is probably in one. Her economic circumstances went from difficult to dire last year when her work was cut from full-time to part-time due to the ongoing economic issues in the United States. She is now essentially at the mercy of my childish and emotionally abusive mother and socially terrified and emotionally stunted father. They consistently demand that she exhaust herself meeting their needs, and they have her in a bind because she can't afford to move out.

I don't know what my sister currently weighs, but I'd be shocked if her weight was under 400 lbs. Chances are she's in the 430ish range, possibly a bit more. She suffers from persistent anemia, low blood pressure, and fatigue. She also has serious skin infections at the drop of a hat and is sensitive to nearly every type of soap and lotion on the market. When she still had health insurance, she was tested repeatedly to determine the cause of her problems with no results. She takes a lot of supplements and has even been hospitalized for her anemia, but nothing seems to help.

With the loss of her health insurance, which got jettisoned when the full-time job was taken away, my sister now has no means to deal with any health issues that may crop up. She can barely pay her bills and only survives because of living under my parents' roof. Today, she was telling me about the hardship of dealing with my mother when she insists my sister take her shopping. These trips involve hauling my mother all over creation (often 4 stores), pushing her in a wheelchair because she had knee replacement surgery and refuses to do therapy properly or wait to heal, and lugging around her groceries in the heat. My mother is blind and quite overweight. I believe she also suffers from Pickwickian syndrome (OHS), though it has not been diagnosed as such. She merely has difficulties with blood oxygen and has to haul around an oxygen tank to breath.

Because of my mother's special needs, these trips leave my sister physically overwhelmed and exhausted. This is certainly due to the stress in dealing with my demanding and emotionally volatile mother, but it could also be exacerbated by her weight, anemia, and the summer heat. If she refuses to help, both my mother and father scream and verbally abuse her until she capitulates.

My response to this was sympathy, and also to say I wish she'd find a job outside of the tiny rural neighborhood she lives in so that she could escape my parents. In the past, when she still had full-time work, my sister had told me she couldn't leave because my parents couldn't survive without her. Now, she can't survive without them unless she gets a better job. I told her that if something happened to her tomorrow, my parents would learn a way to cope. They could get by, but they wouldn't try unless they had to. I believe this for a fact. If my father had to pay his own bills, buy his own groceries, and make his own bank transactions, he would. If my mother had to remember when to take her own medications because me sister wasn't around to dole them out, she would. She already has some assistance to go shopping, though she demands more than is provided by social services because she is easily bored and wishes to run around outside the home as much as possible.

In the past, I have suggested for her own psychological health that she needed to look outside the immediate area for work and she said that she'd have to go at least on an hour-long commute to find work and couldn't pay for the gas. This time, when I said she may need to go where the jobs are, she said she'd have to go very far afield indeed and she couldn't afford to move. I told her that if she found such a job, I'd give her the money to move. My sister has immense knowledge about computers and networks and has been a system administrator for decades. To this, she responded by saying she couldn't get any decent job because she had no concrete certifications.

As we spoke, my sister became increasingly agitated and angry. Though I was trying to be supportive of her by saying she might want to seek an escape route and that I would help her do so and that she had good skills that would be of value, she responded as if I were personally pressuring her to do something she couldn't possibly do. I felt very bad after the conversation because my aim was to make her feel less trapped, and her responses indicated that she felt more so.

In retrospect, I realize that, though she does have skills and could seek a job elsewhere, she can't. The reason she can't isn't that she has no value as a worker, but rather that she is a prisoner of her body. She fears putting herself out there for work in an alien environment because she'd likely be rejected because of her body size. All evidence that I've read about obesity, women, and hiring (as well as wages) would suggest that her fears would be valid. For her, it's better not to try than to try and fail. She is stuck waiting for something better to fall into her lap, because she literally cannot choose to do anything else. She lacks the psychological strength to escape, no matter how hard she may want to.

A lot of people might feel that my sister has choices, but simply refuses to make the hard ones. She could do what I have done and lose weight, but that's not a choice she is capable of making. I know because it's one that I could not make for a very long time. Of course, she wants a better life, better health and a better body, but mentally, she is trapped. Her circumstances are very much worse than mine in that she has no loving, supportive environment to back her up and she has no history of success either in regard to altering her body or achieving her goals. My sister went to junior college and university and was one class short of completing her degree at either of those institutions. I have my university degree and have a body of work on various blogs (including this one) with which to recommend myself. She lacks these things and it undermines her capacity to put herself out there. I know where she is coming from mentally. I've lived there for most of my life, too. It's not that simple to change.

After my conversation with my sister, I had a profound sense of concern and a little frustration. I don't want her to be trapped and I don't want her to suffer ill health. I want her to be able to start taking baby steps to improving her life and have even recommended that taking just a little walk for 10 minutes might help her feel better. At present, she sits in the upstairs part of my parents' home, which she occupies alone almost like an apartment and avoids contact with my parents as much as possible. She essentially hides there and feels depressed and that life is stagnant.

Suggesting she get out for a walk was not meant to encourage exercise, though I'm sure that'd help her, but rather to change the circumstances a little. She said she can't because cars drive fast up and down the dirt road they  live on and it's too dangerous. I suggested she try to get back into cooking to eat more healthily (which she claims she wants to do), but she says she can't because my parents will not eat what she prepares and will nag her if she goes to the downstairs area with the kitchen. She refuses to make the smallest change, or perhaps I should say, she cannot make those choices at this point in time. Her current psychology limits the number of options she personally is capable of pursuing. This is not her will, nor her "fault". It simply "is".

For the first time, I understood from the other side what it must have felt like for my husband, who loves me so dearly, to sit by and watch me destroy my body and sink into greater physical pain, depression, and negative thinking. I knew very clearly what it's like to love someone and not be able to do a thing to help them and that sometimes the best you can do is be patient, kind, loving, and supportive, and yes, possibly even contribute to their destruction by giving them things which introduce a little happiness into their misery. I went form knowing intellectually to deeply understanding emotionally what he must have felt for all of those years. That feeling is impotence and deep concern, but coming to terms with the fact that any effort to intervene will likely be more destructive than constructive.

I can't help my sister. She has to help herself when she is ready. The truth is though, that I don't think she will ever be able to change because whatever it is that it takes to turn the corner is not in her. She's suffered far too long and too deeply and I think she's given up. Life has defeated her and all she knows how to do now is to sit by and wait to see what fate's dice roll for her. I know she has the ability to make those changes, but she doesn't, and that's what really matters.

There is one more part in this sequence here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

It's Love, Not Sabotage (part 1)

More than one woman who is struggling to lose weight has complained that her husband, who knows that she's trying to avoid certain foods that she "can't resist" will go out and buy exactly what she "can't" eat. Invariably, the women rave about how their significant others are trying to "sabotage" their efforts. They are angry and frustrated, but the truth is that this is an act of love, not an attempt to short-circuit their success.

For many years, my husband watched me go from around the 160 lbs. I weighed when he met me to nearly 400 lbs. During that time, he worried about my health. Sometimes, the fear that I would die and we would be denied many years of time together because of my weight bubbled to the surface and I could see it in his eyes when he looked at me. It was a look of sadness, not of disgust or disappointment. It was because he loved me so much and didn't want to be denied years of life with me because of my issues with food.

Despite his fear, my husband still did what these other men did. That is, he would buy me food that made me happy and kept me fat. He didn't do it because he wanted me to stay the way I was. It's safe to say that he, more than anyone including me, wanted me to lose weight for the sake of my health and improvement in the quality of my life. He knew that the food made me happy and comforted me in my misery. He also knew that not buying things for me that I enjoyed eating wasn't going to change things because the changes that needed to be made had to come from me, not from him.

When there is someone in your life who is obese or super obese, it is easy to imagine that you are an integral part of the dynamic and that you are "enabling" them if you give them food that "keeps" them fat. This is simply not so. Anyone who makes the decision to eat a particular food in a particular quantity is doing it for reasons you have no sway over. They can't lose weight for you and you can't help them do it for themselves. That is not to say that they don't need support, but they don't need diet police. They need love, care, and attention.

One of the hardest transitions for me when I started living my life differently was not so much the loss of eating every type of food in unrestricted quantities (though that was hard) but the loss of an easy dynamic by which my husband could make me happy by surprising me with some food I'd enjoy. It was a two part process in which he demonstrated the way he thought of me and what would make me happy by giving me a gift, and then I would enjoy that gift. I lost that when I changed my relationship with food.

That loss was also multi-part. First, I couldn't eat just anything any time. I still eat treats and sweets, but the portions are very small such that it takes a long time to eat up whatever I buy. Also, since I eat so little, it's something I am careful to choose based on mood and quantity. My husband really can't be making such choices casually for me anymore. My body is not a garbage disposal that I toss great amounts of food into to get rid of it. The other loss is simply that my psychological changes mean that food is no longer the emotional comforter that I wrap around myself. I enjoy it as a sensory pleasure, but it's not a panacea for my pains anymore.

This loss has required profound adjustments in other areas of my life. My husband has had to restructure how he deals with me because he can no longer buy me food to make me happy. He's got to do more of other things, and it takes time and effort for both of us to figure out what more is required. Our relationship is important to both of us and we've worked hard on finding a new balance. I've also had to find peace and comfort through much more difficult and developed methods than simply eating. This is a profoundly difficult thing and has made me prone to depression, though that has gotten better through working more (which in and of itself has introduced other issues).

I knew for a long time that my husband suffered watching me destroy my health and mobility through my eating, but I knew on a "I know this feeling exists" level. I didn't know on the deeply empathetic level that one has when one stands in another person's shoes. Today, I got a taste of true understanding and deeper empathy when I talked to my sister. I'll go into that though in a follow-up post.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ordered Disorder

What qualifies someone to give you weight loss advice? Is it the amount of total weight they have lost? Is it the length of time they have lost weight and kept it off? Is it some certification as a dietician, doctor or mental health professional? When looking for answers, which voices do you deem worthy and why?

This is a question I ponder because I notice that the answers tend to boil down to one factor - the thinness of the person giving the advice. If that person is currently not overweight, then it is assumed he or she has a worthwhile answer. Thinness seems to be all of the evidence people require to decide that the party offering up tidbits of wisdom must know what they're talking about. Until that magical number is reached on the scale, any advice that is offered is to be regarded with skepticism or to be utterly dismissed.

I'm known this on a barely conscious level for quite some time. In fact, earlier in my blogging, some readers encouraged me to write a book since my approach is different than most. As they said such things, all I could conclude was that, "no one will listen to me until I'm "done". I know that my voice carries little weight as long as my body carries an excess of it. No matter how unique, intriguing or effective my words, I have to be able to stand out as the proof of technique. If I'm not there yet, despite over two years and two hundred pounds lost and a better relationship with food than any former or current fatty I've ever run across, my theories and ideas have no value.

I don't make that last assertion in order to say that duration and total poundage shed should entitle me to have more ears. I say it because none of that matters until I'm at a magic number and I know it. No matter how certain I am of what I think and feel, no one will take me seriously until I've rung the bell on a state of "healthy weight", thinness, or "looking good."

The problem, as I see it from my computer desk, is that there are a lot of thin people out there who are still incredibly disordered in their feelings and relationship with food. They have simply managed to re-order their disordered thinking to funnel it into maintaining a weight. They still obsess about food. They still have to avoid foods. They still have binges and are "triggered". They can't navigate life in a "normal" fashion because they have to exercise vigilance and caution to keep on that tightrope lest they fall off and regain. They have no idea how to widen the rope, let alone stop needing to walk on one. What is more, they are convinced this is the only option for them.

When I say it's not the only option, I'm not believed because I'm not thin yet. They must be right. I must be wrong. The truth is though that I think the reason most people who lose weight regain is that so very few of them would know a healthy and "normal" relationship with food if you spelled it out for them. They have no idea what it is like not to be obsessed with food and weight. They don't know what it is like to be able to navigate the world of food without viewing it as a field of land mines. The idea that they could ever just "live" and "be" with food is utterly alien to them, and to the vast majority of Northern Americans.

The problem with weight loss, and I faced it, too, is that the more you focus on it, the more disordered you become. At the outset, this is actually necessary. You can't drag yourself from not thinking about what you eat or abusing food to thinking about it and using it more constructively without becoming immersed in it for awhile. This is, however, a stage. You don't have to say in it forever, but most people do... until they don't and snap back to their former state of disorder and overeat.

For most, the stages are:

1. Overeat (defined as consuming more calories than your particular biology requires to maintain a healthy weight, not a set number of calories) and consume freely (without particular attention to food). In this state, you are not particularly obsessed with food.
2. Attempt to consistently under-eat to lose weight and become very obsessed with food.
3. Experience success and determine that this is "easy", "natural", and something you could do forever even though it requires very rigid eating, preparation and deprivation. Plan, plan, plan. This is the honeymoon when you're applying yourself to the goals and having success.
4. Experience fatigue with the obsession, effort, and consistent planning. Start to become tired of the consistent deprivation and inability to freely enjoy food.

This is then followed by one of two branches:

5. Return to step 1 and start the process over again.


5. Reach desired weight and continue to live in stage 4. Fear of regain keeps you there.

For the vast majority of people, it's one or the other of step 5 because step 3 is often executed in a manner which is deeply flawed and disordered. People rarely see any other goal other than a particular weight. It's all about the number. That's why thin people's advice weighs more than mine.

Here's the progression I made:

1. Overeat and freely enjoy food with occasional self-loathing for my lack of control. Believe I was born to be fat since I've been very fat most of my entire life.
2. Under-eat and control my eating. Become obsessed with food.
3. Experience fatigue with the obsession despite my success and decide to work not on the mechanical processes but the things that drive my issues with food.
4. Work out what a "normal" relationship with food would be like. Do self-analysis and conditioning to alter my disordered thoughts. Apply mental and physical conditioning to alter those thoughts.
5. Stop obsessing about food and enter into a more natural and less controlled relationship with it. Learn to exercise prudence rather than strict control when it comes to food. Learn flexibility and eat at restaurants and in situations where I don't know what is to come. Eat everything, but attend to issues of true hunger and satiety.

and the ultimate step will be 6:

6. Learn to trust my eating such that I no longer have to monitor it but handle it intuitively.

With 4 and 5 under my belt, I'm confident that 6 will be possible with further mental work and once I'm at a normal weight and my body's energy demands are for that weight. If I eat intuitively at a greater than healthy weight, I will do so to maintain that weight. I'm still losing so I must continue to exercise some control over calories. However, that control is not obsessive. It's simply more mechanistic and less organic at this stage than I plan for it ultimately to be.

I have lived abroad for a long time and I know what a normal relationship with food looks like. I've seen it in a culture not yet fully contaminated by Western obsessions. I learned from their example and can see that food is just food to some people. They eat everything. They eat when hungry, but they also don't overstuff themselves. They aren't disinterested in food, but they aren't obsessed with it. I can see what normal looks like and it looks like this:

1. Food is just another part of life. It is not the thing your life revolves around.
2. Your body is not the primary focus of your thoughts and energy.
3. Food is not a source of anxiety or stress. You can take or leave something based on curiosity, satiety, and pleasure. It isn't an enemy and it doesn't control you.
4. Health and eating are related, but health is not the only reason to eat. However, entertainment or psychological need are also not the primary reason to partake of enjoyable food. Enjoyable food which is relatively empty calories is eaten with restraint, attentiveness and moderation. It's about the experience, not the volume.
5. Treats, salty snacks, and desserts have a place in a diet. They are not evil and one does not eat a whole bag of chips, a whole pie or cake, or a pint of ice cream because one cannot control oneself.

The worst thing about 99% of the voices out there is that they make you believe that "normal" is simply not possible because they don't even realize they are disordered. They believe that "thin" requires a sacrifice. Obsession is the price you pay and food sanity is the slaughtered lamb on the altar. Beyond those voices are the ones telling you fat is "normal" and inevitable. These two extremes bring nothing but misery to people and frankly it frustrates the hell out of me that there are no voices out there saying you can do better. You can be free. You can work it out, but it will take time and effort. And I don't mean "willpower" or exercise. I mean maturation and thought altering.

One day, you can eat anything without guilt or obsession and still not be overweight because you won't need food to occupy that mental space in your life. Because everyone is so screwed up and they have no clue what "normal" even looks like anymore, this sounds like some hollow statement which is used to sell a hack trick rather than a potential reality. That's the state of our relationship with food in the Western world, and I don't see it changing any time soon.

My ultimate goal is to become a counselor and help people with eating disorders, but I'm nearly at the point where I see it as futile. In the face of a culture-wide sickness, I don't think my voice is capable of "curing" anyone or anybody. People want simple answers and they don't want to deal with the real issues. They just want a list of things that "work" or to throw up their hands and conclude nothing will. What's the point in my even trying? Stay sick and disordered about food, if you like. It's your body, your mind and your life and who am I to try to help? I'm still fat so I clearly have nothing of value to say.

Fat Friends, Skinny Friends

Thanks to the magic of FaceBook, I've been a voyeur to the crash and burn of a long-term friendship between two quasi-friends/strong acquaintances. I know both of them pretty well, but not as well as people who I'd call "true friends". One of these people is sweet, gentle, quiet, and cooperative. The other is nice, but loud, opinionated, and assertive. Both of them love animals, 80's celebrities, taking cruises and late 70's rock music.

During the time I have been friends with them on FaceBook, I've seen dozens of pictures of the two of them smiling together as they attend concerts, conventions, and take vacations together. They write about how happy they were and what a good time they had together. I know they have been friends for well over two decades, possibly more. One of them used to be "best friends" with a third friend, but they bonded and the third wheel was shut out. She was left by the side of the road while they walked hand-in-hand through mutual interests.

One day, one of these two women, the quiet and compliant one, posted a message on FaceBook seeking opinions about a certain situation. In essence, she asked if two people had a falling out and had had a shared hotel room planned for an event, was it her responsibility to make it clear that the plans were off. She capped the request with the fact that the person of whom she was speaking had ended their argument with the statement that their friendship was "over forever."

Given the history these two women have, I guessed that this elementary-school-style speaking about someone who is not named but is clearly known to everyone was the buddy she'd gone on so many entertaining sojourns with. I checked her friends list and, sure enough, they were no longer joined on the social network. I then checked the other party's feed, the aggressive and outspoken one, to see her carp about how people can't expect others to read their minds and they have to make their wishes known. I left them to their grade-school sniping and pondered some deeper issues.

In this scenario, if you were asked to guess which one is fat and which one is a former beauty pageant contestant, which would you assign to each (admittedly vague) character set? There are stereotypes of fat women as brassy, loud, and overbearing, but, in my experience, they are not necessarily like that with friends. In fact, most of the fat women I know are bubbly, compliant, and overtly happy. In my experience, they are more so this when with skinny friends than other fat ones.

One thing I've read again and again from fat women who are wanting to lose weight is how they don't want to be "the fat friend". I ponder what it means to be "the fat friend" to such people. In many cases, it means that you are the one who someone else stands next to to make them look better.

I've also read, with some disgust, that some fat women don't want to have fat friends because they hate the way a posse of big girls "looks". They're afraid of drawing even more attention. They're also ashamed to be with fat friends. This makes me wonder if, in a friendship in which there is a fat girl and a thin girl, and especially when the smaller woman is considered "hot", that the fat girl may feel that she must defer to her friend. That is, she may feel, unconsciously, that she is being granted some special dispensation for being allowed to pal around with thin people.

In my own personal experience, I did not defer to my friend's wishes and tended to be more of an "alpha" female when I was with friends. That being said, I did always care about other people being happy. I was raised to always place myself last. Being fat made this very easy since I so often believed it made everyone "better" than me and their needs were more valuable than mine. Since I lacked value due to my fatness, this was logical.

In the case of my very good friends, it wasn't that my friends necessarily followed me, but rather that they tended not to have many ideas or assert themselves in general. It is likely that most of the women (all thin) who became my friends were also dealing with other self-esteem issues or social problems and that is part of why they were friends with me despite my weight. One of my good friends went to a church-affiliated school, could only wear skirts and dresses, and had to follow relatively strict rules. Another was two years younger than me and had an alcoholic father who beat her mother and threatened his children. My guess is that both of them felt "inferior" for their own reasons and my weight was either not a factor or an equalizing one.

In terms of people who were not my friends in particular, I didn't defer to their wishes, but for those who I wanted to be friends with because they generally seemed like nice people or were interesting, I tended to completely suppress my wishes and tried to anticipate their needs in order to convince them to like me. All of my yearbooks were filled with how "nice" I was. "Nice" was a euphemism for "boring" sometimes, but in my case, it was because I was always trying to get people to like me despite my fat body.

All of this leads me back to the meltdown that occurred between my two quasi-friends. It's my guess that the former failed model/beauty pageant contestant friend is accustomed to everyone wanting her time and attention regardless of what she says or does merely because she is perceived as being quite attractive. On more than one occasion, she has gone out of her way on FaceBook to say things which she knows are offensive to a certain segment of her friends. I know this because she says, "I know this is going to offend some of my friends, but..." Almost certainly unconsciously, she acts only on her own interests and doesn't worry where the chips fall because even if some people run away, others will fall in and replace them. Everyone wants to be buddies with the good-looking girl.

The other pseudo-friend, who probably weighs in the 300 lb. area, has probably been such a "good friend" mainly because she's also "nice". That is to say, she's focused on pleasing others rather than on pleasing herself. Based on their public squabbles, I'm guessing that she finally got tired  of suppressing her wishes and said something which pointed out how selfish she believed her compatriot is.

As a footnote to all of this, I noted with some interest that the third wheel who got kicked to the curb when her best friend (the fat girl) bonded with her new friend (the skinny girl) and has been sitting on the sidelines for the better part of 20 years is now back in the picture. The thin friend is now professing how much she loves the third wheel and they're talking about how good a time they had going to a tea shop together. The third wheel is also quite overweight (probably 230-260 lbs.). Perhaps the skinny friend really does need a "fat friend" to make her feel more attractive, or this is merely coincidence. It presents an interesting dynamic regardless of the reasons.

I can't say for certain that this is a "fat friend/skinny friend" dynamic going on here because regardless of weight, people have basic personalities. Many fat women have stellar esteem and will assert themselves freely. I do, now. I stopped people-pleasing the first time I lost weight and didn't go back to it after I regained because I got tired of having to "prove" something to others in order to gain acceptance. I just accepted that I'd be rejected and everyone be damned. Also, being married to a husband who is almost god-like in his perfection psychologically, I had acceptance from someone who no one could ever surpass. That being said, to this day, I still have to fight not to sublimate my needs to his. It's not because he expects it of me, but rather because I view him as superior to me and his interests as paramount. It's my issue, and I keep working on it.

Getting back to the point, I do believe based on my own feelings in my younger days as well as witnessing the characters of various other fat women, that we don't express ourselves in general because society teaches us that we are not equal. In fact, it instantly devalues us with a glance. To get any value back, we have to prove that we are somehow better than others in other ways. We do that by being super nice, cooperative, generous, fun, and kind, even when it causes us to sacrifice our own needs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Diet, not that meaning, the other one

Early on in this blog, I wrote down the mechanics of what I was doing more frequently mainly as a means of tracking my behavior for myself. I wanted to reflect on how I was living at various stages so that, heaven forbid, if I started to slip back into old habits and regain, I'd have a road map back. Of course, I'm hoping all of the psychological work I've been doing will leave me in a good place and that will not happen.

Since it's been awhile since I've talked about my diet, and I use the word "diet" here as a noun to mean "the food I happen to eat", not "restriction" (as in "on a diet"), I wanted to pause in my deeper musings to outline what I've been eating.

Here's today:

Breakfast (around 7:30 am):
pain au chocolat (mini chocolate croissant - about half the size of my palm)
coffee with 1/3 full fat milk
(roughly 160 calories)

Mid Morning Snack (around 10:00 am):
banana smoothie - medium frozen banana, 1/2 cup skim milk, 1 tbsp. Hershey's syrup, dash cinnamon
(roughly 200 calories)

steamed squash
chicken breast
(roughly 250 calories)

Afternoon snack:
6 animal crackers
1 Asian sweet
1 rice cracker
(roughly 130 calories)

whole wheat pasta salad with 3 slices lean ham, 1/3 roasted red pepper, diced onion, mayonnaise, garlic, black pepper
navel orange
(roughly 450 calories)

Evening snack:
peanut butter on whole wheat bread
(roughly 300 calories)

I also had about 4 cups of tea (with skim milk, calories never counted) and nibbled on the core of some fresh pineapple I was preparing for my husband's lunch. He doesn't like the cores, but I do. I'll also have a Diet Coke, possibly two, and likely drink about a liter of water. However, I don't force myself to drink boatloads of water. It just ends up like that.

The entire day will likely weigh in at around 1500-1600 calories, though if I'm very hungry in the evening after work, I may throw in a banana with the peanut butter on whole wheat. Note that all of the food was homemade except the pain au chocolat (from a bakery), and afternoon snack items (pre-packaged). Of course, the pasta was purchased dry and I prepared it, roasted the pepper and assembled my own salad. The whole wheat bread is homemade. As I've said before, this type of eating is a lot of work.

For a work day, in which I have to plan my eating carefully because of the schedule and the need to pack a lunch, this is pretty typical. You can see that there is a fairly good balance between eating for pleasure (Hershey's syrup in the smoothie, croissant, cookies, sweets, cracker) and nutrition. This is a little lighter on the vegetables than I sometimes go (usually, I have a vegetable-based soup as part of lunch) and slightly heavier on fruit, but in the summer it sometimes works out that way. I also take a multi-vitamin and Calcium supplements.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Moving Locus

About a week ago, my husband and I were invited to attend a dinner at a Turkish restaurant. The meal was the first breaking of the fast on the first day of Ramadan for a friend who happens to be a Muslim. This is a special time for those who observe this tradition and only good friends and family are asked to be a part of it.

This friend was actually a mere acquaintance to me, but quite a bit better known to my husband. I'd met him once briefly at a cocktail party (my first and only so far) and knew him via FaceBook. I knew that my husband was keen to be a part of this social occasion and I saw no reason for us not to go and we went and had a great time. The part of me that blog readers will never know is that I have excellent social skills and am able to talk freely with people I have just met. This has been the case for quite some time and is unrelated to my having lost weight.

Just this evening, almost a week after the event, I was thinking about the situation in the shower and some thoughts occurred to me in retrospect. Those thoughts relate to what I didn't think about during the dinner rather than what I did. As we ate and socialized, I thought about the topics of conversation, how to equally involve all of the assembled people (3 out of 4 of whom I'd never met before), and the delicious food.

I thought about how this occasion would have been different had I taken part in it a little over two years ago at 380 lbs. Had that been the case, I would have had nothing but fear about the situation. I would have been afraid of crippling back pain making it hard to walk from the train station to the restaurant. I may have even asked my husband if he and I could map the route there on our own before going so I could scope out places to sit and rest when my back pain hit. I also would have wanted to do reconnaissance on the restaurant to ensure that the chairs did not have arms and I could comfortably sit in them. Inspecting the material the chairs were made of to see if I felt they'd support my weight would also certainly have been a part of this surveillance.

Had every aspect of this event passed muster, I would have spent the dinner thinking about more than just the conversation. My main preoccupation would have been with not eating in front of others. As a super fat person, I would never have eaten freely in front of others because I'd "know" that they'd be judging me by every morsel I put in my mouth. There's every chance I would not have enjoyed what food I did eat and would have eaten far too little to the extent that I'd need to come home and eat to be sated. In fact, there's every chance I'd come home and binge both because I'd be starving and because of the emotional stress of the event.

I almost certainly would have spent the entire evening scrutinizing the responses to my physicality and behavior by everyone there. Did they look me in the eye when I spoke? Did they address an equal number of questions to me? Did eyes linger on parts of my body? Was there any whispering to one another which may have been talk of me? Were they going to go home and fill their dead time on the train by talking about how shockingly enormous I was?

My thoughts and actions in such social occasions when I weighed 200 lbs. more than I do now would have been drastically different than they were this time. The shocking revelation that I had as I mulled the experience over in the shower was that I hadn't had any of those thoughts at all. Though I'm still fat, I've finally decided that I'm human enough to be perceived like all the other humans instead of as a freak that people judge and scrutinize.

Most people who have lost weight would now talk about how this was a good indication that all of my thoughts about how other people are attending to me based on my body size were all in my head. That is, of course, a load of crap. Extremely overweight people do not imagine that they are judged by what they eat or that they are being talked about and judged. These things happen all of the time. The mental change I made was not one in which I failed to worry about what other people thought, but rather a shift in self-perception and locus of control.

All along, I've had issues internalizing a change in self-image. As I've mentioned before, I often feel uncomfortable dressing in a feminine manner because I see myself as a sexless lump. I still saw myself as this objectified creature that was fooling people by walking around as if I were equivalent to actual people. What I realized after this dinner was that some part of me has accepted that I'm "human", at least on a social level. This is a psychological breakthrough and an indication of progress in my identity and image.

Beyond the change in identity, I realized that the locus of control for my eating has shifted and is now internal. In the past, I would never eat in front of other people for fear of committing the crime of being fat and having food. I mentioned some time ago that T.V.'s portrayal of fat people who stuffed their faces openly all of the time couldn't be more wrong. We hide our eating. We don't flaunt it. We place power over what and how much we eat to those who surround us and only allow ourselves a choice in secret.

At the dinner, I ate what I wanted to without a thought for how others perceived my eating. This wasn't because I'm thin, mind you. I was still the fattest person at the table, but rather that my relationship with food has changed. I have stopped punishing myself for enjoying it. I deserve to enjoy food and I did. In fact, I ate too much because it was so good. Note that I define "too much" as "beyond satiety", not "too many calories". Afterwards, I knew I'd eaten more than necessary, but I didn't have any negative thoughts about it or my behavior. Sometimes people eat more than necessary. I'm a person. I did it, too.

So, my second revelation is that I'm now the boss of me when it comes to food. This may sound obvious, but it's just not that simple for fat folks. Most of us are not thinking about food as a source of joy that we are as entitled to as thinner folks. We see it as our abusive lover who beats us up and then embraces us; it is who we want to leave but keep coming back for more and more because we so desperately need it. Of course, the reason it abuses us is that we abuse it. It's hard to have a sound relationship with anything in your life when you view it through dysfunction and distortion.

At this point, I feel very far from having resolved all of my issues, but this was a time at which I could measure some major steps forward in my psychological development and my relationship with food. At the time, it was pretty effortless and natural. Now, it is remarkable in the way in which so many neurotic feelings and fear were utterly absent. That's progress.

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's Hard

It's not even lunch time yet and today I have already done laundry (which must be hung out to dry because I have no dryer), washed dishes twice (by hand as I have no dishwasher), made whole wheat bread, made homemade soup (from scratch), made egg salad, and peeled cucumbers for lunch. I also walked my husband to the local subway station, bought a few groceries on the way back, and worked on repairing a broken hand mixer.

After lunch, I can look forward to working four hours in my home. During that work, clients come to my place so I have to tidy and clean a bit before they come as well as prepare tea to serve them and wash up after each visit. Of course, I also have to do the work itself.

This day would be considered a typical day, except that I won't be cooking two separate dinners this evening as it's a rare night when my husband will bring home food from a restaurant we both favor. On a typical day, you could add in preparing an after work drink and snack for him, cooking and cleaning up after my dinner and then cooking and cleaning up after his dinner.

None of these activities is atypical for me. Since changing things to lose weight, I've been essentially forced to choose between unhealthy, higher calorie prepared food and making my own. Most days, I spend considerable time and effort on food preparation in order to maintain the status quo. At least twice a week, I make homemade vegetable soups (carrot, broccoli, corn, tomato are the favorites) which require peeling and chopping of fresh vegetables along with a few canned ones (tomatoes and corn, because using fresh ones is too expensive). At least once a week, and often twice, I bake sugar-free whole wheat muffins or bars for breakfast and freeze them. At least once every 10 days, if not more often, I bake bread.

On top of all of this, there is preparing lunches and dinner as one might expect. Steaming vegetables, peeling and slicing fruit or vegetables and constructing healthy salads (pasta, chickpea, etc., not green ones) for lunches are a regular part of my routine. This does not make me a food saint. It makes me tired and well-nourished. It also doesn't mean I don't partake of the occasional bit of junk food (chocolate, pretzels, etc.) on a daily basis (as I've said many times before). It just means that the bulk of my eating is made up of more nutritionally dense food.

A lot of women who successfully lose weight (of which I am now one) talk about how "easy" it is to accomplish. This is absolutely not true. It's far easier to eat poorly than to eat well. The effort required for me to be satisfied and to eat in a way that helps me lose weight is substantial. There are many days when I literally spend hours in the kitchen on the weekends preparing for the week ahead and placing about a week or so worth of food in the freezer. When that runs out, I'm back to it again.

My circumstances are not typical. I live in a tiny apartment in a big city with a small freezer. I can't cook in bulk and I can't buy pre-packaged "diet" foods. However, even if I could, I don't think I'd like them as they tend to be expensive, low on quality vegetable and fruit options, and very salty. To be happy with how I eat, I have to enjoy the taste of the food I'm eating and I don't like canned soups, frozen entrees, or weird chemical tastes in my baked goods. Additionally, food police don't exactly sanction the consumption of convenience foods, even when they are of the "diet" variety.

I also realize that my circumstances are also atypical in that I am not poor and can afford all of the fresh food I might want to eat. Additionally, I don't live in a food desert in which access to certain foods is restricted or difficult. Beyond that, I also like to cook and know how to, though sometimes it exhausts me. One of the reasons a lot of poor people are fat is they don't have the time, money, or access to cook well for themselves. It's not "easy" to eat well, particularly in an environment in which women need to be employed full-time in many cases.

One of the things we need to do is stop pretending that losing weight and eating well are simple choices with easy steps in which to accomplish ones goal. People who make such assertions only contribute to the sense of failure people feel when they attempt to turn around their relationship with food and fail. If it's so easy, why can't they do it? As a society, America needs to admit that it is hard to eat well, but worth the effort. It needs to educate people on how to cook with cheap, but nutritious ingredients and how to do so in the most expeditious fashion. It needs to help people manage without special equipment (which I actually am not sure I can do) and emphasize that it is hard, but possible, to eat better.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hunger (Revisited)

You can't talk about your relationship with food and weight without addressing hunger, and it's a topic I've broached on more than one occasion in the past. For those who have not seen those posts (or have forgotten them), it's my feeling that humans were meant to deal with a little hunger and that part of modern living is that we've made it so easy to eat anytime, anyplace, and anywhere that we've increasingly lost the ability to tolerate even mild hunger. I feel that there is a "sweet spot" on hunger at which we are uncomfortable but not in actual deep discomfort and that is the time at which we should eat.

I've done hunger conditioning to help extend my ability to endure hunger, and, as I've said before, my goal is to not starve myself until I want to gnaw off an appendage, but simply to put up with feeling hungry for a little while. Ultimately, the goal is to eat when I feel concretely hungry rather than vaguely and mildly so. At best, I can tolerate (grudgingly and with difficulty) a rumbling stomach for a few hours before eating. At worst, I never even get past the "I'm a bit peckish, what's to nosh?" stage. More often than not, I'm landing on the latter and only doing the former when forced by circumstances. I don't see this as a failing, but it is something to keep in mind. The way in which I trained myself to deal with hunger is like a muscle. I haven't flexed it as much recently as I did initially, and it has grown weaker. My hunger tolerance was once stronger than it is now.

One of the things which continues to be a challenge for me is choosing to deal with hunger prophylactically. That is, I don't eat because I'm hungry, but I eat because I anticipate that I will be hungry later during a time when I have no access to food or no ability to eat (such as when I'm working). This relates to fear of hunger as I've written about before and a desire to deal with all stress in the most expeditious manner.

The discomfort for me as a lifelong fat person is acute when I feel hungry. To some extent, that has changed, but I still don't bear it as well as someone like my husband who has been thin or only moderately overweight for most of his life. He can delay his responses because the pain he suffers is less because his biochemical processes aren't screaming as loudly at him to eat. Despite weighing in the 170's-180's now, I'm hardly having skinny person reactions to food. I still have a fat person's response though not as strongly as I once did. I don't get headaches anymore or feel as weak as I did initially when hungry. I also don't have the same energy crashes, but my stomach still sends potent "pain" signals.

The reason I'm revisiting this topic isn't that I have been allowing my hunger tolerance to atrophy (though I have, to a small extent, and I feel it sometimes at work between lunch and dinner). I'm talking about it again because of a study I read about which suggests that there may be health benefits in eating only when hungry. This study, at least to me, also suggests that modern lifestyles with ready access to food may be a large contributor to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. If waiting to eat until hungry improves blood glucose numbers, then perhaps a lifelong ability to eat before one has actually become hungry is a piece of the higher incidence of diabetes puzzle.

I want to restate, quite emphatically, because so often people misinterpret the words of others, that I'm in no way advocating waiting until one is famished to eat. I do believe that waiting until one is feeling the actual discomfort of hunger is not a bad idea. Frankly, I think that waiting until you are ravaged by hunger to eat is an invitation to binge eat. Even now, I struggle when I come home from work and am very, very hungry (due to unavoidable delays based on a schedule I have zero input into) not to eat and eat and eat. It seems to take longer to gain satiety when I'm super hungry than when I'm modestly so. However, I do think that a little hunger is good, and the aforementioned study might go a tiny distance toward supporting that on a scientific level. I'm going to go back to making efforts to "stretch" my hunger tolerance, not just because of this study, but simply because I know it can be done and that it'll make my situation at work easier in the long run.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I haven't been to a doctor in ages, because I know that all they will tell me is "lose weight". I also haven't had any health problems that I felt could benefit from treatment (my back pain was addressed, and not helped long ago) so I've avoided doctors both because they treat me rudely and poorly (as in, they don't do anything but look at me and conclude all problems stem from my weight) and won't do anything to actually help. Telling me "lose weight" wasn't helpful, since obviously I couldn't at that time.

Today, I went to a place which happened to have a public blood pressure cuff which you could put your arm in and test yourself without scrutiny or judgement. My blood pressure was 122/67 with a resting heart rate of 78 bps. I didn't even know what those numbers meant as I'm always worried being too medically knowledgeable will just send me into some sort of hypochondriacal stress fit, but my husband said they were quite reasonable. Looking them up online, I now have no concerns about blood pressure for now.

I'm still planning to go for a full check-up in September, but this was an encouraging start and a way of desensitizing myself to the tests I'll be receiving before I actually take them.

"Magical Thinking"

I've lost a substantial amount of weight twice now in my life. The first time was in my junior and senior years of college and the second time is this time. As I've mentioned in other posts, I lost in college by exercising for 90 minutes a day and adopting a Draconian attitude toward food (little fat, no sugar, no red meat), but absolutely no portion control. I ate a lot, and I ate things like cheese, chicken, whole grain bread and crackers, potatoes, turkey, fruit, and some vegetables. This got me down to about 160-170 lbs.

Because of that success, I eventually decided I was "normal" and could eat like "normal" people. I slowly started eating food that was verboten and I changed jobs and could no longer devote copious time to exercise. I regained weight and then some. I never dealt with my psychological issues and I never learned to moderate how much and how often I ate. Once one variable (my free time because of a work change) changed, my entire "system" for weight loss fell apart. 

This time, I decided that I couldn't rely on exercise to aid in weight loss because of my crippling back pain. Even though my back pain has been greatly ameliorated by weight loss and regular walking, it has been replaced by sometimes agonizing knee pain. This time, I approached things from the viewpoint of how I eat rather than only what I eat and set exercise aside as an aid to weight loss.

One of the things that happened to me last time as I got to a lower weight was that I decided I was "normal" and could live like "normal" people. They ate candy bars occasionally so I should be able to. They didn't exercise for a big chunk of their free time, so I shouldn't have to. This wasn't a mistake. The mistake I made was not understanding that volume was my problem, not exercise nor the types of food I was eating.

I learned something from this and was determined this time around not to repeat that particular mistake. That being said, lately, I've started to feel that I'm on the cusp of a different mental error. Lately, I've been eating close to the line. That is, I've been eating around 1800-2000 calories and some days close to 2500. If I were at my target weight, this wouldn't be an issue, but I still have between 30-40 lbs. to lose. The question is, why am I doing this? The easy answers are:

1. I'm tired of doing this and am growing slack.
2. I'm so close to the end that I'm losing motivation.
3. I'm getting lazy.
4. I've slipped back into the same thinking I had before in which I am thinking I am "normal" and can eat like other people.
5. My circumstances may be changing and compelling me to be more casual about my eating/habits. 

I say these are the "easy" answers because they're the ones most people come up with as they get closer to the end and start to be less vigilant. In my case, they also happen to be wrong. I'm not tired of doing this, lazy, etc. I'm not seeing myself as "normal" and my habits and circumstances have not changed. I also don't think I'm so close to the end that I don't have to try hard anymore.

I often encourage people not to land on the first explanation because it's often wrong, and in this case the common answers don't fit. Last night, after a wonderful dinner out with friends in which I ate more than necessary (beyond satiety, either emotional or physical), I realized what the issue was. I have had success for so long even with numerous "slips", "failures", and eating more than I planned, that I'm developing a sense of my own diet invincibility. I'm starting to think that I can continue to lose weight even if I eat more. Some part of me is thinking I'm "special" in some fashion and have built up a gifted metabolism through my choices. 

This is, of course, magical thinking. I don't know how good, bad or indifferent my metabolic rate is, but I'm pretty sure that it isn't such that I can eat close to a maintenance level and still lose weight at much more than a snail's pace. While success hasn't given me any sort of ego boost about my "stellar habits", it is making me think that I "can't fail" on some level. Indeed, it seems to be leading me to believe that I can't do anything but succeed since that has been the case all along. At the very least, I'm doing some "limit testing" on my body to see what I can get away with and still lose weight. 

Fortunately, realizing that I'm developing this sort of thinking is going to help me reign it in and snap back into reality. Last time I weighed myself, I had neither gained nor lost any weight. Though it would appear this is the result of my changes in habits, I actually don't believe that is so. I've seen body fat distribution changes (areas of my body have visibly gotten smaller) and I'm sure I've lost fat. I've been exercising more since fully recovering from my back pain earlier this year and that would easily account for stabilization in weight when I step on the scale. I think that the lack of a changes on the scale aren't related to my consumption, but rather other factors. 

So, I'm not concerned about how I'm eating based on this lack of change. However, I am concerned on the whole about falling back into a mental trap that may send me someplace emotionally or mentally that I don't want to be. Two years of success does not mean I'm a metabolic super woman.