Monday, April 30, 2012

Mindful Eating, when to and when not to

A well-respected and thoughtful fat acceptance blogger recently wrote about mindful eating. As part of what she said, she mentioned mindful eating, and how it is unrealistic for people to engage with every bite they put in their mouths. All eating is not for pleasure. Sometimes, it is purely utilitarian. In essence, sometimes, you just need to cram it in and fill your belly and move on. I like reading this woman's blog, even if I don't agree with 100% of the things she says. Of course, I could say that of many blogs and people. I'm sure no one agrees with all of what anyone else says. One of the reasons I like reading her blog is that she gives me food for thought through her perspective and this was one of those occasions.

I agree that not all eating can be mindful for everyone, nor should it necessarily be. That being said, I think that it's important to distinguish between the types of people who need to attend to the experience of eating and the types of people who do not. It's also important to think about the type of food being eaten and whether or not it, arguably, should be the type of thing to be eaten mindfully.

First, I'd like to address the latter of those two statements in the previous paragraph. There is food that is eaten for nutritional purposes and food that is eaten purely for pleasure. If you're gobbling down your lunch in an attempt to get something in your stomach before heading back to the grindstone, then you really don't have the time to enjoy it. That means that the chips, candy bar, cookie, etc. should be left in the lunch bag. What's the point of gobbling such things down when you can't take the time to enjoy them? They are, after all, empty calories.

Before I get any further, let me assert most definitively that I'm a big fan of empty calories. In fact, I've been criticized rather vociferously and personally attacked because I eat chocolate everyday and this is an indication of my eminent demise from heart disease, diabetes, and the moral decay that accompanies the consumption of food that exists purely for sensory pleasure. In no way am I saying, "don't eat empty calories." What I'm saying is, "don't eat empty calories unless you're going to enjoy eating them." If your eating is utilitarian and just meant to fill a hole, then fill it with nutritious food that you find palatable, not junk which is for the senses only. To me, eating chocolate in a hurry is like renting a DVD and "watching" it by scanning through the chapters and watching mere seconds of each one. You're getting almost nothing out of it for the investment.

Getting to my other point about the types of people who should and should not try hard to eat mindfully, there is a difference between people like me who have suffered from compulsive eating to the point of weighing nearly 400 lbs. and people who don't. I had (and possibly still have) a particular type of disorder in which I abuse food in order to fulfill psychological needs. I needed to learn how to stop doing that and I have to keep being mindful in order to not slip back into that way of living again. For me, mindful eating is a way to avoid compulsiveness. It's way of making sure that I eat for the right reasons because I'm at particular risk of eating for the wrong ones.

The question of how to distinguish is a tricky one because I can't speak for anyone but me. Well, I could, but then I'd be displaying a pretty hefty ego. That being said, I do believe that one of the hallmarks of compulsive eating is conceptualizing how much food you want to eat before you put it in your mouth and taste it and deciding you won't be satisfied unless you can have that amount. Compulsive eaters often want the whole bag or half a pizza or they aren't going to be satisfied. You're not looking at the sensory experience. You're certainly not thinking about satiety. In fact, you're likely to eat to the point of illness. The point of compulsive eating is to comfort, placate, or numb through volume and the very experience of consuming food. You're not tasting your food or filling your belly, but satisfying a deeper need for a particular type of experience based on desire and expectation. It has nothing to do with putting energy in your body or lighting up pleasure centers in your brain with sugary or salty delights.

Mindful eating is like a remedial experience for those who abuse food the way I did. Allowing ourselves to simply say, "it's okay to just keep cramming food in because food is utilitarian sometimes," opens the door to rationalizing a broad range of compulsive eating as utilitarian eating. And, make no mistake, compulsive eating isn't about nutrition or calories. You can eat heads of lettuce, bowls of fruit, or vats of beans and rice compulsively. Most people don't, but it's possible to get your comfort from anything. Lots of people successfully alter their lifestyle to a healthy one, but still keep the compulsive eating. They just lose weight by transferring the target to one which doesn't have an impact on their fat cells. That doesn't make it a mentally healthy thing to do. It just avoids the obvious consequences. It's what I did when I was in college and lost a tremendous amount of weight. And this way of transferring rarely works in the long run as the core psychological problems are left untreated.

So, I think that there are certainly people out there who don't need to work on mindful eating and that it's not something everyone "should" do. However, it's something I have to do and have to keep doing. I have a problem and if I find a way to rationalize compulsiveness, I will. Concentrating on what I'm eating and attending to the smell, taste, and texture is an exercise in mental health for me, but it's not an exercise everyone needs to do. However, I think it's irresponsible to offer up the notion that mindful eating is not always important without a deeper understanding and recognition of the fact that it is very, very important for some of us, especially those who are very fat and are the likely audience for a fat acceptance blog and are more likely to be compulsive eaters.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Finding "you"

In the past 6 months, I have been through a lot. 
  • I learned that I had a tumor in my neck and had surgery to have it removed, but not before waiting an agonizing two weeks for test results to learn if I had cancer. Even without cancer, having my neck cut open and part of my body removed was no picnic.
  • I found out that my sister had a uterine tumor which actually is cervical and uterine cancer. 
  • My husband's mother died and he seemed to be interested in talking to everyone but me about it. He also took part in a grueling volunteer schedule in which he acted as a trainer and had even less time for me than ever before (when I needed him more than before). 
  • I quit my job, a job I enjoyed, and left financial stability behind. 
  • I got rid of all of my possessions save 4 large suitcases and left the home I'd rented for 23 years. 
  • I lost access to my friends and acquaintances as well as the source of a well-spring of experience from which I do a lot of writing on other blogs. 
  • I moved from an Asian country in which I'd spent about half of my life and almost all of my adult life back to America, which now feels more "foreign" than that foreign place.
  • I have had to start dealing with family directly after not having to deal with in-laws for a very long time. 
One might see how the idea of resilience might be on my mind. I'm not a flexible person and have an innate desire for stability, order, and security. When I think back over the changes I've experienced in the span of such a short time, I'm amazed that I haven't completely fallen apart. In fact, I'm astonished that I managed at all, let alone not fully embraced my food comforting ways to the nth degree.

Of course, I've had ups and downs, not so much in terms of binging or deciding to comfort eat to ease my stresses as to not make the more stressful choice of staying hungry over eating. I've also had my share of sadness, depression, frustration, and, of course, tears. A lot of sacrifices have been made, not the least of which is another chunk of the identity I've been struggling so hard to build as I've lost weight. 

One thing I've realized as a result of all of these changes is that really knowing the deep psychological consequences of what was to come has helped me. By knowing that I was going to forfeit a piece of my identity, I could plan for the change far more effectively. I knew for three years that I was going to lose my status as "outsider" and change into an "insider" culturally. Knowing this aspect meant that I began the mental process of finding another "me" before losing the old version completely. I started to divest myself of the identity of "outsider" and focus more on who I really was when my husband and I decided we were going to leave the Asian country we were in in 2009. Though it has been a shock coming home, it's not nearly as hard as it would have been had I not attended to this actively long before the change occurred. 

I've written so many times about identity and I continue to feel that it is incredibly important to understand how potent a factor it is in resisting change and failure. I'm absolutely sure that I'd be falling to pieces everyday had I not worked hard to define myself internally in positive ways before I made this transition. By not defining myself by my work or environment, I could bring at least some semblance of a "whole" self with me. This blog was integral in this process for several reasons.

The primary reason is that it allowed me to see how potent identity is in how we live our daily lives. When I lost my "super fat" identity, I felt hollow and as if great chunks of my self was lost. I hadn't realized before how little of how I saw myself was separate from my weight and how I was perceived and treated based on my body. I had very little left as I lost weight and had to slowly fill in those gaps as I became smaller. 

The other way in which this blog has helped is that it has allowed me to isolate and understand the factors which are an external vs. and internal definition of self. I am not my actions, hobbies, or associations. I am something more, but only so long as I shore up those parts of my identity and embrace them. I am a person who thinks a lot and enjoys dissecting human interactions, is lacking in a judgmental nature, and is more interested in validating new perspectives than invalidating them. I'm a person who is intelligent, but does not value intelligence above kindness, patience, and tolerance. I'm more verbal than visual, though I do enjoy art and what a person tries to say through various creative craft. I'm a patient listener, but also an avid speaker. I'm also sensitive, passionate in ways which perhaps are not always the best, and sometimes inclined to be brittle and dismissive with people who rub me the wrong way. My immediate responses are often negative, but I try not to act upon them. I'm a pessimist, but training to be an optimist with each passing day. 

All of the things about myself are independent of external environment or associations with others. None of them are based on my physicality. This is, by no stretch of the imagination, a complete list of the attributes which constitute my identity or personal psychology. They are, however, enduring parts of who I am that I can carry with me at all times. 

When people try to lose weight, I think they look at it as an entirely physical endeavor. Eat this, not that. Do this, not that. Do, do not try. Your life and you can quickly become nothing more than your body and your actions to build a better one. You are minimized and diminished at a time when you need to have your core self expanded to fill the losses in identity that you are about to experience. This is why therapy is often helpful when one is losing weight. It doesn't have to be about your problems and finding out how to solve them. It can be about yourself and finding who you are apart from physical aspects, both in terms of your body and your actions. If you can't find "you" independent of external definition, then you are likely to return to the you that defined you before. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Contacting me by e-mail

One of my readers recently mentioned confidentially speaking with me rather than in comments. It's okay if anyone wants to e-mail me, though any abusive mail (there are always some people out there who are so unhappy that they only feel better by attacking others) will be relegated to the spam can and your e-mail will never see the light of day again.

Those who want to contact me outside of comments can do so at screamingfatgirl (at) gmail (dot) com. I welcome such contact, though I don't check my e-mail everyday on this account and there may be a delay in seeing it!

Thanks for reading. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

True "Choice"

I've been back in the United States for about 3 weeks now and have been continuing to adjust to life here. On a superficial and public level, I can feel progress being made in terms of acclimating to life here. I feel less uncomfortable interacting with people and being understood. I'm starting to get a feel for the boundaries of public discourse with my husband and getting accustomed to the occasional "intrusion" of my psychological space by random people who feels it's within appropriate cultural boundaries to comment on something I'm saying or doing.

When I was younger and much heavier, I should note that the way in which strangers interacted with me was quite different. Their behavior was punitive, judgmental, and often overtly rude. Many people didn't look me in the eye when interacting with me, as if I was too dull or unimportant to deserve the common courtesy of being recognized as a fellow human. Strangers tittered, looked my way and whispered about me, and young people would laugh and mock me openly. I don't know if this no longer happens because my weight is much lower now or if it is because society has gotten so much fatter that people generally view obese individuals as less note-worthy. It could also be that being young and fat is different than being upper-middle-aged and fat. When you're young, you are being evaluated for your potential "hotness" and found wanting. When you are older, you're pretty much invisible anyway so weight may matter less.

Emotionally, it continues to be a bit of a roller coaster for me here. One thing which I continually remind myself about because I think it is very important to internalize is that rationally understanding something is not the same as recovering emotionally. I may know the reasons for and circumstances related to my discomfort. I may be able to write down every little thing which is an adjustment based on transitioning from my former life in Asia to life back "home". Knowing these things and that they are causing me stress does not stop the end result and that is feeling depressed, tired, and generally as if I'm flailing madly in my attempts to cope in an unfamiliar environment. One mistake people make is thinking that knowing why will translate into stopping the unpleasant feelings. "Why" is helpful in recovering, but you still have to go through the emotions. I still cried every night for the first week and still cry intermittently now. Knowing why I cry doesn't stop me from needing to do so. It just helps me fully integrate what is causing my feelings when I have them.

The main value of the "why" comes in several ways. First of all, you don't take those feelings out on random people or act on them inappropriately (and ineffectually) in various situations. I'm not getting overly pissed off at the cashier for not ringing up my purchase properly as a way of taking out my frustration at not being able to easily recognize American coins rapidly and make exact change effectively. I assign the feelings to the proper stimuli and I let them out when I'm alone knowing that the feelings will pass when I am more acclimated to the environment.

The second reason that the "why" is helpful is that it allows for useful catharsis. Thinking you're depressed because the future is vague and uncertain (as mine is) rather than because you've just entered a radically changed situation in which you feel naive, uncertain, and, yes, stupid, leaves you in a far worse place. I can't manage the uncertainty of my future, but I can cope with incidental confusion. One will pass soon. The other will have to wait to sort itself out.

Finally, knowing why allows me to connect feelings to something concrete rather than burst into tears without knowing the actual reason. Depression, free-floating anxiety, etc. are often biochemical for people who are biologically inclined to feel such things, but mine are situational. Situations pass. I am sad now for concrete reasons that will change with time. This understanding makes it easier to live with the temporary sadness.

The situation for me since before I left the Asian country that I was living in is that I've been going in waves of sadness and strength. One day, I'm down and I eat poorly and the next day I'm up and I eat well. The "up" days are conscious efforts and the down days are an indication of being overwhelmed and not having the energy to push into a more positive space. This pattern has continued up until the past several days and I've been aware of every bit of it everyday. In essence, I'm "allowing" the down times and recovering actively on the up times.

When I say I "eat poorly", I don't mean I'm pigging out every other day, but more that I'm not being so careful about nutrition and giving into impulses that I normally would push back against and resist. For example, every night, I tend to be a little hungry at bed-time, but if I just ignore that, I'm fine and sleep well. In "down" times, I find it harder to resist the urge to eat a snack that I actually do not "need". In fact, that snacking often leads to worse sleep and bad dreams. Since I haven't been sleeping well in general since the move started in earnest about two weeks before I left my former home, anything which makes me sleep more poorly is not really a good idea.

Right now, I'm working on decreasing the frequency and intensity of the "down" times. I'm attending to this both in terms of emotional considerations and physical ones. The fact that I'm ready to face this means that my emotional exhaustion from all of this change is starting to abate, but I'm nowhere near believing it is gone. Weight isn't really much of an issue in this as I'm not looking at weight. I'm looking at behaviors and outcomes aside from weight. I want to be a master of my actions and part of that, as I have said before, is the power to say both "yes" and "no". By taking control every other day and saying "no" to eating when I'm a little hungry at night, I prove that "no" is still an equal option. By giving in to that mild hunger every other day and saying that I'm going to eat because I don't want to tolerate more stress on this particular day, I prove that "yes" is still an equal option.

We often confuse "power" with the ability to fulfill our every whim or have everything the way we want it to be. We even more frequently confuse "choice" with making some sort of subjectively defined "right" choice. True power and true choice are not confined to one path. They are found in having the option to pursue multiple options. If only one road is "right" all of the time, then you're not really making a choice but rather railroading yourself into an option-less position regardless of the circumstances under which the "choice" is being made.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I don't want to fix you

My husband did a volunteer job related to psychology up until the end of last year. One of the things that he was trained to understand both in readings that he did and in the job itself was that it was not his role to "fix" people or to solve their problems. His part was to attempt to help people find their own solutions to their problems.

To a lot of people with problems who seek psychological help, this approach is very frustrating. They don't want to find their own answers. They want to be told exactly what to do to fix their problems. I can certainly understand this desire, and I believe it drives a lot of the self-help industry including weight loss culture. It's why there are so many diet books out there and people who try to tell you exactly what they did to succeed. Though I do not read them, there's a reason that there are blogs which detail every minute of exercise a person does and every morsel that goes in their mouths. Some people want the answers very specifically and directly. They want a road map with every detail outlined and a complete path highlighted for them to help them get from where they are to where they want to be.

When it comes to problems, humans prefer simple answers. In fact, they so strongly desire a simple answer that they will choose simplicity over effectiveness. One of the reasons people often fail to change in all areas of their lives is that they choose one direct and unsophisticated yet ineffective solution after another. It's far more appealing to keep looking for new simple answers than dive into the pool of byzantine options that come along with complexity. This is what people want from a therapist. They want a concrete cause that created a certain effect and then a definite cure. You can find a counselor who might be willing to do such a thing for you, but there's a good chance you won't feel helped in the long run unless they so happen to recommend choices that coincidentally end up working for you.

The problem is that all of the cures for all of the woes in the world won't work if they are not an option for you. There was once an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a moon was falling out of its orbit causing environmental chaos on an alien planet. Q, a formerly omnipotent being who had been demoted to a life of morality, suggested that the problem could be fixed by changing the gravitational constant of the universe. This was something Q could once do, but the mere mortals on the Enterprise were incapable of accomplishing. When it comes to dealing with our issues, weight-related or otherwise, we are all mere mortals and being told that we should do something beyond our scope is the same as no answer at all.

One of the reasons that my husband's volunteer job stressed allowing people to find their own answers to their problems was that only the individual knows what he or she is capable of doing. The answer for me may not be an answer that you are capable of taking advantage of and vice verse. This is the main problem that I have with weight loss blogs in general. People tend to be very directive about what works and what doesn't work with little regard for the fact that not everyone can make the same choices. Lip service is offered to people who have physical disabilities. They are let off the hook when it comes to exercising their way to weight loss, but no empathy is offered for those with emotional impediments. "If I can do it, you can do it," is the strong message. If you can't do it, you aren't trying hard enough, are weak-willed, or lacking in sufficient motivation.

I'm not presenting myself as any sort of saint in this regard. I've been guilty of similar thoughts and sentiments. I certainly had my share of impairments when I started to try and lose weight in 2009 and I felt that, if I could manage with my inability to walk for more than a minute or two without being in agony and if I could manage with no special diet foods or support, then others should be able to manage as well. That was my self-centeredness and arrogance talking. You'd think that anyone who was as deeply rooted into the psychological aspects of change would know better. The truth is I did know better, but my ego overrode my better sensibilities.

We all tend to believe that we have hardships and limitations which exceed those of our brothers and sisters and, if we can triumph, they should be able to as well. Recently, I've had to continually remind myself that we are all constitutionally different and circumstances under which I would flourish are those under which others may yet fail. This is not because they are weaker, dumber, or in any way lesser than me, but rather because we all live in a skins with unique properties to the processes operating within them. I haven't had to remind myself of this in terms of weight loss as I tend to have good empathy for those who struggle with weight, but I have had to remind myself of this point when looking at people who suffer other problems who are living lives of greater ease and affluence than mine.

So, I don't want to fix people by asking them to follow my banner, but I do want to help them become capable of fixing themselves in the ways in which they personally feel broken. This remains one of the reasons that I talk so much about mental aspects over mechanistic processes. My goal remains to help people make the choices they can make rather than to encourage them to make the ones that I made.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Those who have been following this blog through several posts know that "home" means the United States. When I started losing weight, it was on a nearly 3-year countdown for this time. I knew that getting a job when I returned would be greatly more difficult if I didn't lose weight. There would also be other logistical problems (plane seat size, using sea belts in cars, etc.) and health issues that might make it hard for me when I returned. Now, I'm here. I'm "home".

"Home" doesn't feel like home anymore though. After over 20 years in a foreign culture, America feels like the "foreign" place, though I fit in a lot better here than I did where I was. In fact, part of the weirdness is that I'm not really "weird" here at all. People don't stare, point, or even notice me at all. They just treat me like any other person. This is because I don't look greatly different from others, and a part of that is that I'm not part of a tiny minority, and the other part is that I no longer weigh nearly 400 lbs. I'm sure that, in America or not, I'd be attracting unwanted attention at such a high weight.

It's strange being back for a plethora of reasons, many of which are not relevant to this particular blog. My husband remarked that, in our former home in Asia, we were "seen", but not "heard". In America, we are "heard", but not "seen". I see this as ironic as I used to be much more "seen", even in the United States. When I was younger, and much fatter, people were making rude comments, laughing at me, and generally treating me poorly based on my body size. It's odd to be unremarkable, even here.

The place where I am currently residing is not "typical" in many ways, so I'm not sure if I'll feel differently in a more mainstream area. I'm spending 6-8 weeks in an area in which the population is generally older and richer than average overall. This is a place that people come to during the warmer times and tend to stay away from during the colder times. It's safe to say that the population at present is at a low and skewed toward year-round residents who are less affluent.

I'm staying in the vacation home of my in-laws, who are significantly more affluent than me and absolutely more so than my family (who are still poor) on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What I've noticed so far may not apply to a more balanced population, but so far I've noticed that at least some people are taller and many somewhat to greatly heavier than me.

The main thing I've noticed, of course, is that the food here is quite different and, as is so often said of American food, the portions are larger. My husband and I bought some pastries at a bakery and they are so large that they need to be cut into thirds or quarters to suit our dietary wishes. That is, we don't want to eat too much, so we have to divide things. In our former place of residence, cutting things in half was about "right" for proper portion control. It's easy to see that larger sizes are "normalized" in all things. That doesn't mean we can't control portions, and honestly, we find it relatively easy to do so, but that I can see how people who never became acculturated to smaller sizes would not even think to cut things down to the extent that we do. Even half is a lot here, but perspective probably makes people believe half is "small".

 Another thing I've noticed is that the sections of the market which sell prepared, processed frozen food are vastly larger than what I experienced in my former residence in Asia. I can very clearly see how easy it is for people to just buy frozen food and pop it in the oven rather than prepare their own food. There are also many more mixes and canned foods. If I buy all of the ingredients to make my own soup, it's much more expensive than picking up a can of soup on sale. The place where I lived before not only had very little in the way of prepared soups, but it was more expensive to eat such convenience foods than to make it yourself.

So, the food culture and economics are reversed such that people are encouraged to eat more and to not cook. That doesn't change how I will eat, but it does go some way toward understanding the migration of the American diet to being over-sized and with a greater focus on processed food. I can't blame people for the choices they make when those choices are "natural" and economically encouraged, not that I blamed them before. Going from where I was to where I am now, it is shocking to see the difference as I didn't remember it being this way when I resided in the U.S. over two decades ago.

One thing which I can say is so, and this goes in line with all of the processed food that is available, is that it is much easier to eat reduced calorie "junk" in the U.S. There were very, very few sugar-free and reduced or no fat options in the Asian country in which I resided. The only way to have your cake was to actually eat real cake. If you wanted to lose weight and enjoy treats, portion control was the only way to do so. In America, these lower calorie options encourage bigger portions because you believe you can have more and "pay" less for it. This is another part of a culture which focuses on consuming more rather than on focusing on eating smaller amounts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying people should "eat clean" or toss out all processed food or food that is reduced in calories. I think there is a place for a lot of different foods in the average diet and that includes convenience foods and even chemically altered food to allow people with different focuses in their diet to eat in a manner which suits them. I'm mainly commenting on how the presence of such foods encourages larger portion consumption and a particular dietary path which does not include cooking from scratch. Though people are ultimately "responsible" for what they eat and the market responds to consumer demand for ease and certain tastes, I think it's important to see the dynamic that underlies the food culture in America, and I can see it far more clearly than ever before due to the contrast between it and my former country of residence.