Sunday, January 8, 2012

Those Mechanistic Processes

I don't talk much about the mechanics of what I'm doing anymore, because I have made a strong effort through time not to focus on them. Early on, because my habits were so destructive and distorted by a sense of food relationship "normality" that was beyond what my body required, I had to educate myself and attend to what I was doing with greater vigilance. Once I got healthier habits and more understanding in place, I slowly started to kick the training wheels off and operate less artificially and somewhat more naturally.

It's important to say that, when I say "healthier", I don't mean embracing food puritanism as I eat everything (candy, cookies, cake, chocolate, salted snacks... all of the "evils" in the dieting world). I always ate healthy food like fruit, vegetables, and whole grain and continue to do so. That was never my problem. My problem was too many calories and that likely is the problem most people have when they overeat. Most people aren't fat because they're scarfing down donuts and fast food. They're fat because they eat too much of everything, including healthy food.

I've written about this before, but far too many people attach moral judgment to food choices and body size rather than address the issue rationally. If you eat cake, you will remain fat and are weak-willed. If you eat whole wheat pasta with olive oil and vegetables, you will be thin and health and have will power. This thinking contributes to obesity problems because so many people eat well and are still fat. They believe that their food purity should insulate them from fatness, and believe it is inevitable that they be fat because their pious consumption results in obesity.

You can convince yourself that you are eating well and a healthy and reasonable amount of food if you don't dig too deeply into the facts. I know I absolutely did this. Once I dug into the facts (a process that I hated doing with a burning passion), I knew that I was habitually overeating. What was worse was that I discovered just how little extra food it took to send my daily caloric intake into the stratosphere. After taking a good hard look at what I was eating, I slowly adjusted downward. After two and a half years of doing this, I have a much better idea of how much is "enough" to maintain a smaller weight without as much diligence and scrutiny. I have, in essence, created a new "normal" for my life.

To that end, I find that I count calories in a very half-assed way now. I often track breakfast and lunch and make a good guess at dinner. While many people would see this as "slipping", I see this as progress. I don't want to be clinging to calorie counting for the rest of my life to reassure myself that I'm doing "okay". I want to live "normally" on all fronts, and, if at all possible, that will include not applying artificial measurements to my food intake. At the moment, I'm not quite ready to stop entirely, but there are days when I just don't bother at all.

All of that being said, I can't emphasize  enough the value of knowing food information early on when trying to deal with your relationship with food and I think that calorie counting as an educational tool has value. "Dieting" culture is so pervasive and extreme that it is easy to view all practices related to it as distasteful, obsessive and destructive, but it is not the tools that are the problem. It is the way in which they are misused, overused, and relied upon exclusively that are the issue. They are not a way of life, but a helpful way to forge a path to a new way of life.

It is this confusion that makes people obsessed with weight loss and body composition so obnoxious. They never move on to normality (life without "dieting") and cling forever to the tools of diet culture because they don't believe they can get by without those training wheels. What is more, they become angry at any suggestion that anyone can be successful without them. In essence, they are people who believe they can never walk without this crutch and grow hostile at the suggestion that anyone can as it makes them feel bad about themselves as they're convinced they can't.

Though such people give calorie counting and the tools of dieting a bad name, for people who are greatly obese as I once was, your body chemistry is so imbalanced that it is difficult (in my experience) to rely on intuitive eating. Sometimes, the only way to really understand what you're doing is to pick up some of those tools and learn. It takes a very long time for the hormones and neurological responses to realign themselves to other patterns and your body will fight you all of the way, so you can't just eat what feels right. "What feels right" is often going to be too much because that's the message a big, fat body is going to send as it will endeavor to maintain the status quo. That is what bodies do.

In fact, some short-term research indicates that bodies never adjust hormonally or neurologically once one has been fat, but frankly, I believe the studies are poorly constructed. They are based on following people for little more than a year and having put small numbers of people on severe calorie restriction (600-800 calories). In my personal experience, it takes just under a year for the first sense of realigning to occur and more years for it to continue the process. I don't have people measuring my leptin and ghrelin numbers, but I do know how my sense of hunger and satiety have changed as time has gone by. Of course, I've eaten relatively close to the edge (1500-2000 calories) and engaged in modest exercise all along. Perhaps my body was not shocked the same way study participants bodies were. Perhaps I'm simply a freak of nature.

All I can say is that, in my case, something in me at a basic level changed and changed again. It is a lot easier now than it was in June 2009. This is not mind over matter nor "willpower" (a word I detest). It's not about my superior character strength or psychological integrity. It's about the changes I've been making slowly coercing my body's chemistry into a new normal in which I am accustomed to different energy consumption patterns. I've written about this before, but patterns are not merely psychological, but biological and the mind can be slowly changed and the body will, eventually, go along with it.

So, now that my body is responding with less intensity to eating a healthier (i.e., smaller) quantity and at less frequent intervals, I've been able to strip away some of the mechanistic support structures such as careful tracking of food. I feel good about this because, ultimately, I want to be able to just go about my life knowing how to eat without having to give calories a second thought. I feel like I'm on the right road to this particular destination. I'm in no hurry to get there and that makes it all the easier to keep going, but I am pleased at the progress I'm making away from anything resembling "dieting" structure in my life.

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