News Flash: Life Ain’t Fair! (So Grow Up and Deal with It!)

“It doesn’t feel fair!” I hear this so often it really p*sses me off.  There’s a new season of My 600 lb Life on TLC right now and (as usual) I feel compelled to respond to these patients, mainly because even though it’s one patient on the show, there are hundreds of people who are in similar situations, whether they weigh 600 lbs or not.  This is the excuse that all kinds of people use to shift responsibility to someone or something else about their living circumstances: “XYZ happened to me, and it’s not fair!”;  “If it weren’t for ‘insert life event here,’ I’d be thin/ rich/ employed/ not an addict!”

I have to tell you, life can really suck! I’m sure this is a shock to all of you out there and that you didn’t know that life can really sucker-punch you and put you down for the count.  You’re clicking right along, and then whammo! life smacks you upside the head with something bad. All of a sudden, there you are on the floor wondering how the hell this happened and dammit, it’s not fair! Now you have to start all over again or at the very least deal with whatever happened to you! Not fair-  you had plans!

About 25 years ago, I planned a trip to New Zealand.  Whenever anyone asks me where my dream vacation is, it’s always New Zealand; exotic islands at the bottom of the world full of exciting things to see and do.  I’ve wanted to go there since I started college and I began saving up to go, and about 25 years ago, the fund was big enough that I started getting guide books and planning out my trip: how long, what islands, how I was going to travel, all of the fun stuff that goes with setting up the trip of a lifetime.  And then….. I got laid off.  For a couple of years! Even working part-time, the money was short and eventually, my vacation fund dried up.  So much for that trip! It really hurt, especially since I still want to go and I’ve not been able to get that close again.  As bad life experiences go, that one is pretty minor.  I’ve had far worse before and since, and there are days when I listen to friends and others talk about the fabulous trips they’ve taken to far off places and feel a little bit envious: I could have gone to New Zealand. So, I remind myself that I may get there yet!

If I were like those who whine about life being unfair, I could cry and pout and say that life robbed me of a life’s dream vacation, or that I gained weight because of some of the horrible experiences I had as a child, and I’ve never married or had kids because of those same horrible experiences.  (I know throughout my 30’s & 40’s, my mom made sure to let me know what a disappointment I was for not giving her grandkids and I just bit my tongue.) We all know that whining, crying, pouting, blaming life, God or fate for the bad things that happen isn’t very productive, but let’s leave productivity out of this discussion and get to the real question: does it make you feel any better?  Does it make the situation any better?  In my experience, no.

I think what irritates me the most about listening to people complain about how unfairly life has treated them is the idea that life/ fate/ God owes them. I’m going to be a real b*tch here: life/ fate/ God doesn’t owe them, me or anyone ANYTHING! Seriously, you are alive and that is a tremendous chance to do amazing things (how much can you do once you’re dead?)  Whether you are born into wealth or poverty, neither is a guarantee of fame or failure. Plenty of those who started poor ended up doing wonders and some who had all the money and status anyone could want ended up failures.  We get to make our own decisions and our own lives. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison (another self-made individual): “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Too many people think and act as if the things we want, either health, wealth or happiness, are guaranteed by life and that if XYZ hadn’t happened, they would have had those things already. Even the authors of the US Constitution recognized that we are born with the rights only to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, meaning that we have the right to chase it down; whether we catch it or not is another matter entirely.

Happiness, too, is a matter of perspective. Some people who seem to have everything are horribly unhappy (it’s the whole point of Citizen Kane) and those who seem to have nothing live happy and fulfilled lives. For better or worse, we are all self-made individuals. Yes, there are good things and bad things that happen to us as we go through life, but how we deal with them is up to us. Some of us become embittered and some of us accept these things as lessons and learn from them. That doesn’t mean that we have to be glad when something bad happens to us, but we don’t have to let it define us either.

So many of the patients on My 600 lb Life were victims of abuse (emotional, physical and/ or sexual) and for the most part, they dealt with the trauma by eating.  That abuse has defined them and everything about them through their eating and the subsequent problems that arise from their obesity. Their triumph is when they choose to reject that definition and re-define themselves.  This is something else that most of us forget because we are too busy dealing with every day life and whatever stones it’s thrown at us: we can change our direction and re-invent ourselves.  Just because you start down one road doesn’t mean your path is now set in stone and you can’t deviate from it.  This isn’t the Middle Ages where those born into serfdom are stuck as peasants until the day they die and the second son of the lord of the manor is destined to go into the clergy. You are who you decide to be. 

I repeat this one to myself a few times a week, because it’s so easy to forget.  We get buried with every day tasks and we let life (and everyone else) push us into a little box of who they think we should be, and when we realize we are unhappy, we blame life and everyone/ everything else. What we don’t see, probably because we are too close to our situations, is that we choose to get pushed into that little box.  Life and everything pushes us and we don’t push back!  In 1990 or so, my sister came home from college to visit for the weekend, and she brought the book that was making the rounds at her dorm: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (great book, so-so movie).  She told me it was great and she was almost done with it but she had to bring it back with her or she’d let me borrow it.  She finished it Saturday afternoon and was driving back to the Bay on Sunday, so she said I could read it until she left.  I stayed up and read the whole thing that Saturday night.  Boiled down, it’s about two women, Evelyn and Idgie (Imogene), who get pushed around by life, but the difference is that Idgie pushes back and doesn’t let life tell her who she is supposed to be: she is the person she wants to be, even if it’s not easy. Evelyn is overweight and unhappy because she hasn’t learned to push back. If Evelyn sounds a little familiar, it’s because most of us are in this situation. We ‘go along to get along’ because it’s less hassle than standing there and saying no, but when we realize we are unhappy, rather than saying “yeah, it’s my fault for going along,” we blame life: it’s not fair!

I’m not telling you everything that’s happened to you is your fault, but there are instances where we can choose, even if it’s just choosing how to react to something bad that happened. We can focus on the hurt, the disappointment or the injury, or we can focus on what we’ve learned from it or how to make the best of it. It has to do with attitude and, I think, resilience. Life can knock you down: whether you decide to get up again is up to you.

Yes, sometimes life can really suck, but sometimes it can be really awesome too. You can focus on all the bad things that can and have happened to you, or you can focus on all the great things that have come your way.  I can tell you from personal experience that when you get back up, you not only have a much better view of the world, you can see a whole lot farther.

Keeping Your Resolutions Part 2: How to Make It Easy By Getting Over the Hump

“Easy is earned” is one of Elizabeth Benton’s favorite expressions and she is not wrong.  The more you do something, the easier it is.  Example: when I was in high school, computers were still pretty sci-fi and typewriters were the spawn of Satan.  All of us dreaded the ‘research papers’ that had to be typed, because it took us forever to do it.  We all had to take a typing class with- wait for it- manual typewriters!  (For all you millenials out there, google it and you’ll see what I mean). For every test, the typing instructor covered our keyboards so we had to touch-type.  To put this in perspective for the millienials, I want them to imagine using a rotary phone, providing they can still find one.  It’s that confusing and awkward.  Learning to touch-type was a pain in the butt, and I liked using a typewriter. I got a portable manual typewriter when I was in 8th grade for my birthday and it had been a much requested gift.  I pounded the heck out of that little thing and it was immensely useful as moved into high school and even college.

It was sometime in college when I was working on my word processor (millenials: google it) when I realized that I was looking at the screen and not the keyboard anymore, and I was typing at a pretty good clip too.  It wasn’t that I had intentionally practiced touch-typing or learning the keys: it was simply that I had done it so many times, that when I hit the wrong key, my hands already knew I’d hit the wrong key and were correcting it by the time it registered with my brain.  I didn’t have to look at my hands because my hands had done the same movements over and over again.  You probably learned the same way: doing it over and over again, you had practiced so many times that now you don’t even think of it anymore.  It’s easy now but once upon a time, it had been really hard.

It’s the same when you practice building healthy habits: starting the new habit is hard, but each time you do it successfully, the next time it’s a bit easier until one day, you don’t even realize that you’re going through the grocery store, not looking longingly at the potato chips or the pastries or the soda.  You have ignored them so many times, you don’t notice them anymore. Even when the bakery is pulling the fresh sourdough out of the oven, it’s no big deal, just like typing out a memo used to take you an hour to do a couple paragraphs and now it takes you only a few minutes.

This is what most people don’t realize when they start a new habit.  I know this isn’t exactly news to you, but I’m going to tell you anyway: it’s flippin’ hard starting a new habit!! If any of you are hikers, you know that following a trail that is well-traveled is a whole lot easier than breaking through the brush for the first time. It’s the same when you make a new habit: doing it the first time is a whole lot harder because you’re dealing with situations that aren’t familiar and solving a problem that crops up can be a bit of hassle. Everything takes longer and tasks that you initially thought would not be difficult turn out to be hard.  It’s annoying and stressful and in the middle of this huge hassle, you start thinking “this is more trouble than it’s worth!” or “this is just making things worse- not better!”  That’s because you’re stuck in that high school classroom trying to touch-type with a piece of binder paper over the keyboard. Your fingers are searching the keyboard, making sure you’re in the ‘home position’ so you can find the keys easily.

I wish I could say that things get easier pretty quick, but I’d be lying and you already know that.  Things get easier on an incremental basis.  It takes patience and a whole lot of really annoying practice before things get easy enough to type without looking at the keys.  This is why so many people give up: it’s not fun and it’s not getting ‘fun’ at any kind of rate you can measure, but this is why Elizabeth Benton says that easy is earned.  You have to do the work to get the prize, and there are no shortcuts.  There’s no one you can pay to learn it for you and there’s no hack that will get you there quicker: it’s showing up every day and doing the job that earns you the Easy.

Some of you have heard me mention the Boss From Hell.  She was an old school attorney who never learned to type.  Seriously.  When she was in law school, older women attorneys who’d come up in the 1970’s told her not to learn to type or she’d get stuck in the secretarial pool, even with the law degree, so the Boss From Hell did the two-finger hunt and peck every time she had to type: for emails, for letters, for pleadings-  anything on the keyboard.  Peck. Peck. Peck. Peck. Peck.  Rather than learn to type, she tried all kinds of shortcuts: dictation with micro cassette tapes, digital recorders, and speech recognition software but her favorite was real live people.  She would hire someone to sit at her keyboard and type as she talked.  Seriously.  Rather than learn to do it herself, my penny-pinching Boss From Hell paid someone to sit there and type for her. The problem with that was no one liked working for her: there’s a reason she’s called the Boss From Hell.  Some of these typists lasted only a morning and at most a few weeks, so when she was looking for a new victim, she was forced to do her typing, and again it was peck peck peck peck peck coming from her office because she didn’t want to learn to do it herself.

I recently started bringing a protein smoothie to work with me and the first week I got up fifteen minutes earlier because I had to measure the almondmilk, measure the protein mix, blend it up, and pour it into my travel mug, and even though it’s only 8 oz of almondmilk, because it’s aerated by the blender, it doesn’t all fit in my 12 oz travel mug, so I’d have to drink or throw away what didn’t fit (saving it was not an option!) So it was a bit of a hassle, but the more times I did it, the more shortcuts I was able to devise and the easier it got.  Now I measure out the almondmilk the night before and I actually use a little less (so it all fits now); I adjusted the amount of protein mix and now I get it done while the coffee is brewing.  It’s easy now and takes no more time than making the coffee: pour, stevia, cream and screw the lid on the travel mug.  It takes me more time to brush my hair! But that first week, I was wondering if this habit was going to be a keeper!

I know a lot of you (me included) made New Year’s Resolutions and this is the time of year when most of us are thinking “well, that was a bad idea!”  Odds are, it was actually a pretty good idea to get healthier and lose some weight, but now it’s looking like it’s a lot more difficult than you thought it would be.  That’s only because the habit is still new.  There are a lot of studies that tell you it takes X amount of days/ repetitions to create a new habit. I don’t want you to listen to those posts or websites, because everyone is different.  I know it’s an overused expression, but people are not robots nor does every day happen just like it’s supposed to.  People learn at different paces. When everyone sees online that “it takes 21 days to make a new habit,” and on day 22, 25 or 30, when it’s still hard, people start thinking maybe they’re doing something wrong or maybe this new habit just isn’t right for them.

Well, they are doing something wrong: they are trying to make themselves fit into the little “21 Day Habit” box.  I don’t know anyone who fits in that box!  I confess: I am a routine-a-holic.  (That’s a nice way of saying “stick in the mud.”) I function best when I do the same things the same time on the same days over and over again.  I like to be on auto-pilot and you can pretty much set your clock by me: at 5:00 p.m. Sundays, I’m at the grocery store; on Mondays & Wednesdays at the same time, I am at the gym getting ready for water aerobics; at 7:00 p.m. Tuesdays, I’m in front of the tv watching NCIS.  I even tend to eat a lot of the same foods over and over, not because I don’t have any options eating Paleo- it’s because I like them and they are easy to do.  I am very happy in my rut. So, as you can imagine, doing something different is really really hard for me.  I hate change and I complain the entire time that I’m trying to do something different (like the smoothie above), but at the same time, I know that once I’ve gotten used to making the change, it’ll be a lot easier for me. Once I’ve merged it into my rut, I can go back to auto-pilot with a healthy new habit added.  Yes, I complain a lot, but that’s just my way of blowing off the frustration with the different routine.

The benefits of incorporating the new habit into the routine are pretty substantial, and not just for me.  Most of us are creatures of habit and it’s time we put that tendency to work for us. Our brains and our bodies get used to doing the same things and they look for them, even when the situation is different.  There are a lot of days I really don’t feel like going to water aerobics, especially if it’s cold, wet and windy like it has been here.  I really don’t want to get out of the warm pool, get dressed and then go out into the cold and even once I’m home, I still feel cold most of the evening, no matter what how many layers I have on. Ugh.  Yuck. I don’t wanna do it! and yet, there I am turning into the parking lot at the gym.  The nights when I can’t make it because of work or traffic, I miss it.  My body and brain are saying WTH??? and it feels like I missed out, because I did.  Not only is it exercise, which helps me be stronger and more flexible, I miss seeing my friends at the pool.

It took me a long time to get used to going to water aerobics.  I’d forget to pack my gym bag; I’d forget my gym bag at home; I misplaced the lock for my locker; I had to get some new equipment (swimsuits, pool shoes, new bag, new lock, new towels, etc) and it was a big hassle, with me grumbling the whole time of course.  It will be a year in April, and it wasn’t until around August or so that it really started to get easier.  I remember thinking that now that I’m finally getting into the habit, it’s going to get cold and how much fun will that be? Well, it wasn’t fun, but I didn’t want it to derail the progress I had worked so hard to obtain.  That is the other good thing about investing in a new habit, because it is an investment in you.  You are putting your time and energy, and probably some money as well, into improving your health.  As tempting as it might be to throw it all away 8 weeks into the project, throwing it away means you’ve lost everything you’ve invested to date and you’ve got nothing to show for it.  No healthy habit, no improved fitness, no weight loss, no goals reached, but there is probably some leftover protein powder or vitamins, some weights or other fitness equipment that’s gathering dust before it gets donated or thrown out, along with a gym membership waiting to expire unused.  Time lost, money lost, frustration increased, disappointment increased.  This is the same routine millions of people go through about this time every year. I can see it at my own gym: the parking has gotten a lot easier because there are fewer people now than there were in the middle of January. I had to park on the other side of the lot in January and now, at the third week in February, I’m back where I was in the middle of December.  People have already given up, and as much as like parking in my old spot, I feel bad for all those people who threw it all away.

They’ve not only given up on their goals of better health and fitness, they have given up on themselves.  They decided they weren’t worth the work.  You might be thinking, “no, I decided this habit wasn’t worth it.” Take a good look at the habit you are working on and what was your goal?  Was it losing weight?  Was it building muscle?  Was it eating cleaner/ healthier? All of those are great habits that lead to increased health benefits, so what wasn’t worth it?  You are not just another project that can languish in the garage like the half-finished birdhouse or the cabinet that still needs to be sanded and varnished.  You are worth the work, the investment and, yes, worth the frustration! It takes a long time and heck of lot of work to build a healthy worthwhile habit, but think of the return on that investment: your body will feel better almost all the time; you can go running, walking, hiking without feeling like you’re about to collapse; you can play with your kids/ grandkids/ pets like they want you to; you will look a lot better and you can do a lot more than you ever thought you could.  It’s not just a better habit you are building: it’s a better life!  Isn’t that worth all the hassle you’ve been complaining about? FYI: you might even feel good enough to finish sanding that cabinet in the garage.

Keeping Your Resolutions Part 1: Change Your Mind- Change Your Behavior!

The most basic truth about permanent weight loss is that you must change your behavior.  We hear that over and over from all kinds of experts: “diets don’t work because they are temporary behavior changes! Losing the weight and keeping it off needs lasting lifestyle changes!” That means we have to make a new habit and we all know how much fun that can be (ugh).

The actual practice of making a new habit is one thing, but here’s a little trick that will help you with that: you need to change your thinking.  All our behavior starts in our head, whether we consciously think about it or not.  It’s been programmed in, usually through years of reacting the same way to the same triggers.  I realized this a few days ago when I was at work and my boss sneezed.  The first thought that popped in my head was “you can’t get sick!” This is a joke leftover from the Job From Hell: whenever anyone sneezed or coughed at that office, my boss would automatically respond with that exact phrase. The meaning behind it was obviously we all had to work until we literally dropped in our tracks and it became a joke among my co-workers since our boss’s concern wasn’t our health but her inconvenience if the office was short-handed.

I have not worked in that office since 2014, but still, whenever someone sneezes or coughs, the same thought still pops in my head. It’s a response programmed over seven years of the same triggers and it’ll probably take a while longer before it disappears entirely.

This is what makes changing behavior so difficult, because in order to change the physical actions, we first need to change how our brain reacts to various triggers.  This is how I ended up staring into the fridge after a stressful phone call from my mom.  I had just eaten dinner and I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but the trigger went off (stress!!) and the brain went into reaction mode (eat something!!) and the next thing I know, I’m in the fridge wondering “what the heck…..??” It’s a lot harder to stop your thoughts and send them in a different direction because they are so fast and so automatic.  If I were to order you “stop thinking!” your brain would still be going forward, probably along the lines of “great! how do I stop thinking about not thinking?” Even when meditation gurus mellifuously tell you to “empty your mind,” how empty does your mind really get? Your brain is a lot like a modern day computer: even when it’s off, it’s on.  The screen may be blank and it may not look like it’s doing much, but the battery is still holding a charge and the clock is still running, the memory is still there and if it’s connected to wifi, it’s probably downloading or updating something.

If you want to change your responses to triggers or even just build a new habit, you need to start in your head.  I’m not going to give you the “you need to see a hypnotist/ shrink / behavior modification therapist,” but you do need to be a little more aware of how you react to things and how you can begin making changes.  It’s not just about triggers (certain situations that cause certain reactions): it’s about changing how your world view and maybe even how you think about yourself.

Way way back when I was in college, I took a women’s health course that required us to do some outside learning, and so I took a self-defense seminar.  One of the things the instructor told us was that, as women, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as victims.  When we walk out into a dark parking lot, if our attitude is “I’m a scared little rabbit trying to get across this big empty field before a mean vicious coyote eats me,” then that’s what others are going to see.  He said we need to walk out into that parking lot with our heads up, aware of our surroundings and if there is a potential threat, we need to make sure we look them in the eye and are not afraid. Many of us, men and women, think of ourselves as victims when it comes to food and eating.  We go to the grocery store and keep our heads down as we pass the racks and racks of potato chips.  We do the same thing in the candy aisle and the bakery and wherever else we see food we used to eat with such pleasure and abandon. We are the scared little rabbit trying not to see the vicious Doritos coyote and slip past without getting caught, but if we look those Doritos right in the label and tell them, “I’m not afraid of you and you can’t make me eat you,”- yeah, I know it sounds silly- but it’s the beginning of changing our thinking and ultimately changing our behavior. There are some things that are obviously beyond our control, but there are many things in our lives that we can control, and we let them take control over us.  Food is one of those things. We hate it when we show up at a potluck and someone has cheesecake on the buffet or if someone brings cookies to the office: OMG! they’re just going to call my name all day! This kind of thinking has already programmed you for several things: 1) it is preparing you to fail at ignoring/ not eating the food; 2) it is telling you that the food controls you; 3) it is telling you that you are helpless to change.  None of those statements are true! We just need to remind ourselves of that.

I know it’s hard to look at or smell something you really enjoy.  When I came to work at this office, almost every morning my cubicle neighbor made crunchy sourdough toast in the office.  I’d smell it and hear him crunching it almost all morning and truly, bread was my hardest craving to break (sometimes it still is!)  But now when he makes it, it’s not as big a distraction as it used to be.  In fact, I made it into a game: we’d swap cooking stories or discuss the various jams we both like. Yes, the warm bread smell triggers a biological reaction in my digestive tract because that’s what food does, but when I don’t focus on it or eat anything in response to it, it eventually goes away.  The food does not control me because I have changed how I think about it.  It takes a long time, because thoughts are hard to change and on top of that, we are working on building a new habit, but it’s work worth doing.

Elizabeth Benton likes to remind her listeners that between the stimulus and the reaction, there is a pause, even if it’s just a microsecond, and in that pause is the power to change our reactions.  I admit, that it’s hard to stop our automatic reaction and decide to do something different (hence, my staring into the fridge), but once we know what our triggers are and we learn to use that pause, we are the stronger for it and it’s the beginning of changing what we used to think of as “helpless” reflexes. Knowledge really can be power, if when we feel the urge to do something we know it’s good for us, to make a thoughtful effort to use that pause to stop ourselves and do something more constructive.

Easier said than done, right?  It always is! This is what makes it so hard for people to change their habits.  We need to learn what our triggers are and plan a response that is different from what we normally do. For example, instead of eating something when I get stressed, I make a conscious effort to do something other than eating that relieves my stress. This can be posting a rant online, playing with my dog,  calling a friend or cleaning something.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it distracts me from my stressed out situation and it doesn’t involve eating something.

The triggers also don’t have be stress-related.  Sometimes they are in response to a celebration or just plain opportunity, as in the cookies at the office or the cheesecake at the buffet.  Those can be a bit harder to counteract, since it may involve more than just distraction, but we know ourselves better than anyone else. The key to success in these cases can be something as simple as reminding ourselves that we are not helpless when it comes to food, that it does not control you and that you are more than capable of making changes.  If you choose to eat a cookie or piece of cheesecake, it does not mean you are weak: it means you made a considered choice.  Choosing to eat something is very different than helplessly giving in because “I know I’m going to eat it anyway!” I have noticed that when I was struggling with things like cheesecake and cookies, it helped if I had one or two bites and then threw the rest away.  It reminded me that I chose to have only those two bites and decided not to eat the rest. When it comes to cookies, I get mine from a store that sells individual cookies, so I buy two and only two. I don’t want more than that and I’m not stuck with ten more cookies growing stale in the cupboard. This way, I get used to eating only two (actually one and a half, since I split one with the dog) and I only get the cookies I think are really great, because why waste the calories on a treat that’s only so-so?  And if the bakery is out of the great cookies that day, oh well, no cookies for me!

As I said, it takes a little work and a lot of repetition before we finally manage to change our programmed response.  It took me a long time before I was able to look at the cookies, cupcakes and breads and make a considered choice rather than slink by without getting caught by the bakery coyote. My automatic response was to start choosing what I wanted most and how many calories is it and what can I swap out to make it fit? Or worse yet, start rationalizing why I needed or deserved it: “it’s one piece of cake/ cookie/ bread!” Very true and even if I ate it, it’s not the end of the world or a catastrophe.  It just means that I need more practice.  For a long time, I didn’t eat any of those things and even today I still don’t eat them very often. The difference is that now, when I eat them, it’s not because I gave in or that I couldn’t control myself, it’s because I chose to eat it and enjoy it as the treat it was meant to be.  These are treats for me now, not major portions of my diet like they used to be. But slinking by them in the store didn’t really help me change my response to them.  It took a lot of looking at them, agonizing over why I was choosing not to have them, and walking away without them before I was able to walk by the bakery without even noticing.  Now when I look at them, most of the time I walk away without them without the agonizing, because I really don’t want them, no matter how stressed I am, no matter how much I want to ‘celebrate’ or whether I ‘deserve’ them or not.  They don’t taste as good as they used to, mainly because, for me, the whole ‘stress relief’ aspect is no longer there.  They no longer have the same ‘rush’ they used to have because I am no longer eating them in response to a trigger.  They are regular food to me now, and not the sweet taste of stress relief.  This is actually a good thing for me, because when I do choose to eat them, they don’t have the same pull and as a result, now it’s easier to ignore them in the stores.

Changing your thinking can take a long time, but it’s definitely worth the effort.  In changing our thinking, we change how we view ourselves and our reactions to food (among other things) and this is the first step in developing healthy new responses to old painful triggers. Be patient, be consistent and the changes will come.  Too often, people give up in the middle because they think they aren’t doing it right or that it’ll never come, but we learned these responses over years and it may take nearly as long to undo those learned responses.  Seriously, it’s taken me almost two years before I could not look at carrot cake and really really want it.  Was it worth all that agonizing in the grocery store? YES!! Now when I have it, it’s because I want it- not because it was a bad day and I need it or “it somehow ended up in my cart.” I know the urge is to make changes as fast as we can so that we can lose as much weight as we can in the shortest amount of time, but in order to make the results last, we need to make the changes permanent. We need to make the healthy new responses as automatic as the unhealthy old responses were. We are worth the effort and the agonizing.  After all, it’s a really just a piece of cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuning Out the Noise: Dealing with Unhelpful People

I had actually started drafting this post a couple of weeks ago, but the episode of My 600 lb Life on Feb. 8, 2017 (Erica’s Story) pushed it to the forefront. Calling her family ‘unhelpful’ is like saying Josef Stalin was ‘kind of a mean guy.’ Most of us have met unhelpful people in one form or another.  They are the ones who know everything, especially about what’s best for us, even if they are unwilling to help us. They are the ones who are always telling us what we are doing wrong.  Some times- most times- they are doing it out of a sincere wish to help us.  (This is my mom.)  Some times, they are people who are just mean and love to see us fail so they can say “I told you so.” (This is Erica’s family.) Occasionally, I see posts from my fitness friends who are upset, angry or just plain frustrated with someone in their lives who should be supportive but isn’t, or who thinks they are being supportive but is actually getting in the way.  It’s a difficult and awkward situation, especially if it’s someone who means well, but sooner or later, whether it’s fitness/ health or something different, we all have to deal with this pseudo-supportive people and unfortunately, the obnoxious ones too!

Generally, they break down into the two groups mentioned above: those who mean well, and those who really want to see you fail, as well as a third group: those who are indifferent or unaware. In most instances, there isn’t a lot of difference in how you deal with these groups; it basically comes down to whether or not you mind offending them or not.  The people who mean well and genuinely want to help you are the ones you want to take care not to offend, obviously, since they are most likely friends and family members.  The others who want to watch you fail and the ones who are indifferent are another matter entirely.  Depending on who they are, you can choose either to be as offensive as you like or as polite as you please.  Sadly, some of the obnoxious people may be family members.  (If they are ‘friends,’ they certainly aren’t people you need as friends!)

Group 1: Honestly Supportive People:  Quick and dirty fact here: even though they mean well and think they are helping you, these people may just be getting in your way.  My mom tried so hard to help me lose weight and eat healthier, but everything she gave me and all of the advice she kept sending were just not helpful to me! If anything, it just made me upset, made me angry and made me more frustrated and unhappy.  Most of what she sent over were things like the latest diet books and the latest ‘magic powders/ pills.’  I am sure they were effective for some people, but for me, they weren’t strategies I knew I would keep up with over the long term and then I would just be back where I was to start with, unless of course I gained back more than the weight I’d lost on the diet, and most people do.  I had done A LOT of diets and even though I hadn’t tried what she gave me, I knew that a diet is a diet is a diet and I DIDN’T want to do it again.

What I learned to do with my mom was take a look at what she gave me (usually the latest ‘how to lose weight forever’ diet book) and tell her thanks, I’m looking at it and then I’d add it to the stack on the bookshelf.  This is what I call ‘tuning out the noise.’ These people really want to help, and it’s frustrating for them too, because they don’t know how to help, so they are doing the best they can.  Keep that thought forefront in your mind when you deal with them, and then I suggest doing a variation of what I did with my mom: thank them for their help, tell them you are going to consider it, or if you already have a plan you are following, tell them your current plan/ program is working for you, but if you need to make changes, you’ll keep their advice in mind.  It doesn’t hurt to ask them to keep being supportive by doing XYZ that you do need help with.  Many times if you tell them how to help you, they are more than willing to get behind you, and this is what’s happened with my mom: now that she knows how to offer support, she is extremely supportive.

Group 2: Obnoxious People:  Who these people are can surprise you. As I mentioned above, Erica’s family had essentially abandoned her.  She lived alone and, at 661 lbs, had difficulty taking care of herself and probably would not have been able to live alone if her niece had not been the one family member who did help her. Her younger brother and sister offered no assistance whatsoever other than telling her she needed to lose weight if she ‘wanted to be part of the family’ and that she obviously needed some kind of help, but beyond that, there was no help at all without emotional and verbal abuse, recrimination and blame.  She was expected to meekly take all the abuse if she wanted any of their help. Their focus was on how little they could do for her while inconveniencing themselves as little as possible.  In at least once instance, her sister’s insistence on not being inconvenienced by a long drive from California led to Erica’s flying to Houston, which quite literally put her life at risk as Dr. Nowzaradan explains in the episode.

Erica’s family are far from unique.  Most of these people will insist that your weight problem is your problem and you are the one who made your weight a problem. They are quick to point out what you are doing wrong and usually offer no advice other than “you need to lose weight” and “you need to get with the program.” (Really, how much trouble is to offer some emotional support over the phone?) For example, Erica’s sister was quick to be the Food Police and inspect Erica’s kitchen to make sure she was ‘complying with the diet,’ but was unwilling to offer any other help or support, emotional or otherwise. Being the Food Police is not being helpful: it’s being judgmental, and sadly, the world is full of people who are eager to pass judgment on others.  I wish I could say that you will not encounter rude and obnoxious people, but few of us are that lucky.  When you meet them, you need to decide if offending them matters to you.  My basic philosophy is they don’t care if they offend me, so I’m not going to care if I offend them.

Group 3: Indifferent/ Unaware People: These tend to be people who aren’t intentionally rude or unhelpful; they just don’t know better. These are the people who invite a vegetarian to a barbecue and only serve meat and potato salad. Hope you like potato salad! These are also the people who serve you cheesecake when you are on a diet, either because they don’t know you’re on a diet or they’re a little insensitive or indifferent. Group #1 people would do everything to dissuade from even thinking about desserts and the obnoxious Group #2 people would eat the cheesecake in front of you while reminding you that “if you weren’t so fat, you could have some too!”  Most of the time, these people are not your friends or family; they are part of the periphery: they are the people at the office who bring cookies or chocolate and pass it around, or they are the ones whose kids are selling treats for a fundraiser. Since they aren’t really a part of your circle, you don’t owe them any kind of explanation.  If they are people you deal with on a semi-regular basis, a polite “no thanks” should suffice. If they get really pushy, feel free to say what you feel comfortable saying: they’ve gone beyond the bounds of politeness.

Tuning Them Out:  A lot of how we deal with these people is going to depend on our own personalities and probably some family dynamics as well, if only for the family members involved.  I have been blessed (for better or worse) with a fairly headstrong personality (thank you, Grandma!) and so, beyond being sensitive to those I care about, I pretty much ignore those who try to bait me or those who are insensitive. Not everyone is so fortunate.  Ignoring those who are rude, insensitive or just downright cruel can be hard, even for me at times, but for someone who is sensitive, shy or not as assertive themselves, it can be a very difficult and hurtful experience.  When someone is cruel/ rude/ obnoxious to you, remind yourself that they are doing it for those very reasons: they want to hurt you! And I believe you are perfectly within your rights to be rude and obnoxious in return: it’s called self-defense. For those who are insensitive out of ignorance or indifference, remind yourself that they’re just clueless, either about your food choices or about general social niceties.  You can either educate them about both or either or choose to ignore the remark/ gesture (I usually tend to ignore it).  The bottom line is that you may need to develop a bit of thick skin to get through this, whether it’s about weight loss, fitness or some other aspect of life.  A lot of this has to do with how comfortable you feel in your own skin and with your own choices: if you aren’t comfortable, it’s going to show and sometimes it triggers the obnoxious people to attack. For example, if you keep looking longingly at the desserts/ cookies/ chocolates, they will probably tempt you with them, but if you ignore them, there is less ammo for the rude people to use against you.  If you aren’t comfortable with your choices, it’s also a sign that something obviously isn’t sitting right with you, and finding out what it is is can help not only your confidence but also with reaching your goals.

Ultimately, it’s you and your goals that are important.  As I mentioned above, I see a lot of posts from friends expressing their frustration, anger or just confusion.  This supposedly helpful person has upset them either by trying to help or just being obnoxious. The danger is that most of us (whether we know it or not) tend be emotional eaters and this stressful scenario has not set off a trigger. Instead of reacting with their head and sticking to their healthy habits, they are now reacting with emotion.  This is when we are most likely to eat something we know is not going to help us reach our goals or we are tempted to blow off a workout or maybe just be off track enough to feel like we are failing again.  The trigger can cause a ripple effect: we eat a cookie or a piece of candy and now we are having sugar cravings again, or we ate the cookie, so what’s the harm in another cookie (or two or three)? We’re too upset to work out or we’re so upset we forget we had it planned, and now we’re feeling inadequate and as if we aren’t doing it right.  The stressful scenario can cause us to doubt our process, and if we are still in the early stages of learning new habits, it can be disastrous.  Things are hardest when they are new and this can push people to give up and go back to the old dieting procedures which likely failed before.  This is when we need to be strongest and stand up for ourselves.  You need to have faith in yourself and your strength, because you truly are stronger than you know.  You just have to stay strong and don’t allow these unhelpful people- sincere or otherwise- to push you off the rails.

Whatever comes, never be afraid to stand up for yourself and don’t apologize for doing so!  If it were someone you loved who was being hurt,  pushed around, or criticized, you would stand up for them, and you are just as deserving of the same respect you give to everyone else!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basics: Don’t Make it Harder than Necessary!

Occasionally, I see posts about people ‘starting again’ or I hear people talking about how they want to get started eating healthier and being more active and sometimes they seem a little bit lost or a little vague about how they want to or how they can do this.  Sometimes they start by ordering some exercise DVDs or they’ve joined the gym and went to the XYZ class which really kicked their butt! Apparently, their idea of being healthier and fitter involves getting their butt kicked regularly.

Really, there are only a few things you need to do in order to be healthier.  These work whether you want to lose weight, be more fit or just be healthier in general, and you don’t need to buy boxes of supplements, exercise DVDs or expensive shipments of diet food.  All you need to do is 1) eat better foods; 2) be more active; 3) get good sleep; 4) stay well hydrated; and 5) manage your stress.  If they sound simple, it’s because they are.  That is, the concepts themselves are simple; it’s the putting them into practice that gets a bit complicated!

Eat Better Foods: This is number one because nothing matters more than what you put in your body. I usually compare this to putting cheap gas in your car and expecting peak mileage.  We all know that ain’t happening!  Cheap gas = bad mileage! It’s the same with your own body: cheap processed foods yield poor health.  Yeah, you can eat the boxes of pasta mix and the potato chips and the frozen dinners, and just like your car, your body will still function, probably with a few knocks and pings just like your car.  You won’t have the same acceleration and after a few miles/ hours, you will need to refuel because that mileage just ain’t there.  Face it: there’s no substitution for the good stuff!  I hear some of my fitness friends commenting on how they stopped eating ‘insert processed food here’ and started eating ‘insert healthy whole food here’ and wow! they feel so much better! they have much more energy! they aren’t hungry after a couple hours! That’s because they put in the premium fuel, whether it’s cage free eggs, grass fed beef or organic sweet potatoes.  When you stop eating food that is full of chemicals, preservatives and already broken down, your body gets more nutrition from it and it runs better for longer.

Stop and think for a moment what happens when food is processed.  The food is made to last longer than it normally would, so chemical preservatives have been added, and it is made to be easily prepared and eaten, so in some cases, it is essentially “pre-digested.”  It takes your body less time and energy to break it down to extract whatever nutrients might be left in it, since processing removes a lot of the nutrition naturally in the food itself.  This is why much of our processed food has been fortified.  In many commercial breads, for example, the wheat used to make the flour has been broken down into a literal powder.  All of the fiber and germ and most of the vitamins have been stripped away, leaving essentially only the starches.  After the flour has been mixed with the other ingredients to make the dough, the manufacturers add vitamins, minerals and fiber to make it more ‘nutritious.’

This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your snack cakes or whole wheat toast and snack solely on crudité! As Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) often reminds us, it’s a spectrum: all you have to do is begin to make improvements. This can start as simply as giving up the breakfast bagel and eating a banana for breakfast (this is what I did). Yes, the banana still had a lot more sugar and carbs than I needed in the morning, but it was a whole food and it was better than the bagel. I stopped eating takeout for lunch and started bringing a lunch with leftover meat and veggies from dinner the night before.  You don’t have to make changes according to anyone’s schedule except your own.  When you are ready to take the next step, take it and if if that’s a week or a couple of months or longer, no problem!  You are still moving forward eating better foods!

Be More Active: This concept generally gets misinterpreted as “exercise your butt off!”  It’s part of the Calories In Calories Out (CICO) mentality: “if you burn off more than you take in, you are going to lose weight.”  The disclaimer is “until your body and metabolism adjust to the extra activity and lower fuel intake.”  Your body is designed with one primary goal: to survive as long as possible.  To do that when you are working your butt off four nights a week in the gym and eating only chicken, broccoli and protein shakes, it will lower your metabolic rate so you burn less calories to make those few you are taking in go farther; it will make you as hungry as a bear emerging from hibernation; and it will leave you absolutely exhausted. This is why the CICO method usually doesn’t work long term for most people. After losing some weight, you start to plateau and unless you make some changes, that’s where you stop.  Unfortunately, the lowered metabolic rate is usually permanent.  This is how Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up having to limit their calories to ridiculously low amounts to keep from regaining all the weight lost.

So how do you do this without causing metabolic damage? You make slow changes.  Yes, to lose weight you do need a calorie deficit: you do need to burn more than you take in, but it doesn’t have to be a crazy high amount of exercise or crazy low intake of food.  Generally eating the same amount of calories (or a normal amount) is still okay and then you just put in some healthy exercise two or three times a week, or maybe just increase your daily amount by a small margin.  For example, if you normally get fewer than 5000 steps a day, try upping your steps to 10,000.  Even if you don’t make it that high (it can be tough if you have a sedentary job), your increased activity will burn more calories and your body won’t freak out since you are still eating a good amount of food. Lifting weights (strength training) is also a good way to be more active.  While it doesn’t have the intense calorie burn that cardio has, it has the added advantage of building muscle (you won’t blow up like Arnold- I promise!) and as we’ve all been told a thousand times, muscle burns more energy than fat, so while the act of lifting will only burn a few calories, you will put on more muscle which will raise your metabolic rate.  This means that just sitting around at your desk, your new muscles will burn more calories than your love handles do! The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn and smaller your love handles become!

One caveat here: if you don’t do a lot of exercise now, it’s extremely important that you don’t jump into an intense workout regimen all at once. That’s how people get discouraged, and more importantly, it’s how people get hurt! Going from a couch potato lifestyle to a spartan-type exercise program at best can leave you thinking you’ve bitten off too much (because you have!) to actually causing a serious injury to a muscle, joint, or worse, a heart attack! You need to take some time to learn the proper techniques, especially if you are going to be lifting.  There are ways to do exercise correctly, not only so that you get the maximum benefit but also so that you don’t injure yourself.  If you can’t afford a personal trainer or a gym membership where classes are taught by trainers, there are a lot of training videos available free on YouTube or you can invest in a DVD that is reputable and within your abilities.  Finding someone reputable is key!  Generally, if I have questions about training, I go to MetabolicRadio.com.  The hosts (Shane & Taylor) have been in fitness nearly all their lives, and if they can’t answer your questions, they will point you in the right direction!

Get Good Sleep: Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record, but this is something that really gets overlooked and it is personally one of my own bête noires.  As most of you know, I am a night person and keeping ‘normal’ hours isn’t normal for me. If I could do my job at night, I would, but there is no denying that when I get enough sleep time and it’s quality sleep (meaning I’m not waking up every couple hours or lying in bed playing mah jongg on the tablet), I have more energy, I am more alert and I feel better overall.  I also lose weight more consistently. Sleep in an important restorative component of health for your brain and your body.  When you are sleep deprived, your body is not producing the hormones necessary to repair your body and keep everything functioning at its best.  Using another car analogy, if you don’t get the oil changed on a fairly regular basis, you end up broken down on the freeway with some big expenses for towing and repairs!  Seriously, sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by some of the most ruthless regimes in history. Why do you want to do that to yourself?

There are a lot of books, blogs and podcasts that will give you some good tips on how to get quality sleep, but since I know I am atypical and that I am not alone in being atypical, here’s my advice to you: track your sleep patterns.  If you have a Fitbit, most of those will track for you as far as hours asleep, waking, and restlessness, but you will need to make your own notes about how you feel the next day. Most experts will tell you that you should sleep in a cool, dark, silent room and avoid electronics, eating and drinking for about an hour or two before you go to bed. Personally, that would be torture for me: I prefer a warmer room, with some kind of noise (even if it’s just a sleep sounds app) and I usually have some kind of nightlight showing (pets who like to sleep on the floor). I have tried the typical scenarios which usually leave me wanting more blankets on the bed, waking at every small sound I hear and staring wide awake at the dark (FYI: the pets don’t think much of it either!) Whatever works best for you, do it, even if all the ‘experts’ say it’s wrong: I have been known to sleep comfortably and well while my pets literally have a wrestling match on the bed. You will feel better when you get good sleep, your exercise will be easier and you will lose more weight (it’s a hormone thing)!

Stay Hydrated: This is my bête noire le deux! I generally don’t drink enough water, and by water, I don’t mean soda (diet or otherwise), coffee, tea or any other beverage.  I mean plain old H2O. Getting enough fluids overall is important, so even if you drink several bottles of diet soda, you are doing yourself more good than not drinking anything at all, so if it’s a choice between nothing and tea, soda or any kind of beverage, take the beverage, but if it’s a choice between ‘beverage’ and water, choose water.  It has no calories, no preservatives and it’s good for the body!  It keeps joints, muscles, the digestive tract and the brain happily humming along. We are mostly water, don’t forget, and we expel more water than we think on a daily basis.  I don’t just mean through the urinary tract and sweating: every breath we exhale has water vapor in it.  Try exhaling on a mirror: that fogginess on the glass is water vapor. We all know that dehydration will kill you, but just being chronically mildly dehydrated puts a strain on the brain, heart, kidneys, and digestive tract.  The body shows the lack of water in your hair, skin, eyes and mouth. (This is another torture technique.)

There are just as many sites that will tell you how much you should drink a day and the various formulas and minimum requirements. If I followed the last formula I found, I’d be drinking nearly 22 glasses of water a day (171 oz)! Most people follow the 8 glasses a day rule or 64 oz.  The rationale is that if you drink other beverages in addition to the eight 8 ounce glasses, you’ll be well hydrated.  Other people go for the urine test: if it’s clear or light yellow (barring any B vitamins you just took), you’re okay.  The darker the urine, the more dehydrated you are.

Personally, I have noticed that poor sleep and poor hydration go hand in hand for me: when one of them is bad, the other usually is also, and my weight loss stalls, my energy lags and my mood is pretty cruddy.  Conversely, when I get enough water, my sleep is better, my energy level and my mood improve and I lose more weight.

Manage Your Stress:  This is another stealthy saboteur. Personally I think it gets away with sabotaging us because we let it.  We hear all the advice and it’s “yeah yeah yeah, I know!” and then we don’t do anything about it. Stress is another one of ‘those hormone things’ that ends up robbing our sleep and keeping our cortisol elevated and we stop losing weight and we keep feeling really lousy.  Cortisol and adrenal fatigue aside, stress robs us of our happiness in life. We are always on edge, always worried about whatever is stressing us out and it leads us on a vicious circle- a seriously vicious circle! When we are always worried and stressed, all our bodies feel is the cortisol surge.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the suspected mugger in the parking lot or the boss buzzing us every day about that report she needs on her desk.  It’s like the goofy robot from that old tv show flailing its arms around: “Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger, Will Robinson!” It may not be life and death, but it could be, so your system is on high alert. The problem with always being on high alert is that it doesn’t get any rest.  Think about it: if you were told that at any time, a killer could jump out of the shadows, so you had to be on the lookout for this killer ALL THE TIME, how would you feel after a couple of hours?  Would you just want this situation to be over already?  I know I would. This is why people get so stressed in hospital waiting rooms: they are waiting for news on their loved ones which could come AT ANY MINUTE! They are on heightened alert and it wears on the body, even though they are literally just sitting there!

When you don’t manage your stress, the same thing happens to you.  You don’t have to start transcendental meditation or yoga in order to manage your stress: you just need to find some way to relax for a few hours every day. There are a lot of law enforcement and other high stress job professionals who make a practice of leaving work at the office.  Whatever they have going on at the office, when they come home, there is no “office talk” and they don’t bring work home with them.  I know not everyone can be that lucky, but if you don’t have to bring your work home with you, leave it at the office.  This was one of my problems when I worked the Job From Hell: when I left the office, my boss would call/ email/ text me at home, evenings and weekends, and telling her “no” was a hard thing to do. It’s on me, because I rarely told her no and just put up with all of this stress, until it began to kill me and I quit.  My boss now is much more sensible (he respects boundaries!) and when something pops in my head when I am out of the office, I just remind myself that I can take care of it tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do right now, so stop worrying about it!  I admit, it takes a little practice, but it’s worth it!

Sometimes, it’s not the office that is stressing you out and this is where an OFF switch comes in handy.  Find something in your life that is relaxing and enjoyable to you, and make a practice of doing it regularly.  For some people it’s going to the gym, reading a good book, walking the dog, or just some alone time.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s enjoyable to you!  I spend a lot of time playing with the pets, reading, doing my water aerobics, even just taking my time doing the weekly shopping.  When I am feeling particularly stressed after work, I take off the Bluetooth to my phone and turn up the music on my playlist. No one can reach me and I’m in my own little happy place at least for a little while.  In fact, one Friday night, I got stuck on the freeway behind a particularly messy car fire and it took me four hours to get home (instead of the usual hour & forty-five minutes).  There was nothing I could do about it, so I rolled down the windows and turned the music up really loud (I remember thinking “I hop they like The Lord of the Rings, because too bad!”)  Didn’t help move the traffic along, but it made me feel better! Letting go of the stress not only improves your health but it improves the overall quality of your life.  Being the most stressed out person in your family or office is not a badge of honor, it’s a slow and painful death.  It robs your life of joy and peace and makes spending time with you miserable for your loved ones.  It’s not worth it to lose what you love most in life.

So, getting started is as simple as going through the list above and making positive changes.  Take a look at the list: better foods, more activity, better sleep, staying hydrated, managing stress.  Find the areas where you can make improvements and start making them!  Don’t do a whole transformation at once: that will just add to your stress!  Try making one or two positive changes a week, and be patient.  The goal is not to change as fast as you can: the goal is to make permanent lifestyle changes that will improve your health and your life overall.  You will also find that the more healthy changes you make, the easier they become and you will be able to move faster once you get started.  It’s in trying too fast when starting out that most people stumble and give up.  Don’t try to run before you can walk and even if you stumble, don’t give up.  Just get up and keep going!

Food Addiction: The Real Addiction & Committing to Recovery

Recently I heard someone scoff at the idea of food addiction: all those people really need to do is stop shoving food in their mouths! All they need is discipline and self-control!  Of course the person making these remarks is of normal weight and has probably been in the normal range all of her life.  It was all I could do not to ‘educate’ her about the facts: if that were true, all drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics would need would be some “self-control and discipline,” and we all know that’s not true.  I know that there are chemical dependencies involved with nicotine, drugs, and alcohol, but there is also a dependency with food as well, even if it isn’t exactly the sugar, the chocolate or the carbs.  Those do have an effect on the body and brain, but on the most fundamental level, whenever someone is indulging their addiction, be it alcohol, food, meth, or nicotine, the pleasure center of the brain lights up and dopamine is released.  While we don’t exactly go into chocolate withdrawal, we do experience a kind of withdrawal.  Most of us eat in response to a trigger of some sort, usually anxiety, stress, anger or some other emotion.  These are a lot of the same triggers that cause alcoholics to drink and smokers to light up, and the pleasure center lights up in the brain as well.  We get our dopamine and whatever other chemical fix we’re indulging in, even if it’s chocolate or potato chips.  The emotional trigger is ameliorated and we can relax.  Kicking food addiction is just as hard as kicking cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, and some people say it is actually tougher: what other addictive substance do we need to survive?  You can avoid drugs, alcohol and cigarettes for the rest of your life; you will always need some kind of food to live unless you plan on being hooked up to an IV forever.

I calmly explained to this person that it’s not exactly the food that people are addicted to: it’s the behavior. For many people, eating is their coping mechanism.  Instead of choosing to drink or smoke, they’ve chosen to eat.  The situation is the same: trigger goes off and the addict follows the same behavior pattern, either pouring a drink, lighting a cigarette or opening a box of cookies.  This is how they deal with something they don’t want to handle.  It’s an avoidance behavior: I’m changing my focus to something I like when something bad happens.  (FYI: no one criticizes the exercise addict who does the same thing with running or working out because they are perceived as ‘healthy’ until the addiction starts to hurt them as well.)  The withdrawal they (we) feel is that if we don’t do this addictive behavior, we are stuck having to deal with emotions we neither want to deal with nor know how to handle: “Aack! What do I do?! What do I do?!” I am not trying to make light of this situation, because this is how it feels.  Emotionally, we are panicking because we can’t go to our coping mechanism. When people give up other addictions, they are taught other ways to cope.  This is why 12 Step meetings work so well for many addicts; it is their new stress release valve: something happened, I want to drink, I need to find a meeting!  It is a healthier alternative to cope with whatever triggers they have.

When people try to control their eating, it can be a lot harder, especially at first, because you still need to eat: you need to keep coming back to your ‘crutch’, and it’s a fine line between eating what you need to live and eating a little bit more because today was such a cruddy day.  What a lot of outsiders don’t realize is that it’s not just about having discipline and self-control: it’s about finding another coping mechanism to deal with those triggers. Like any “addiction,” some people have a harder time with it than others.  Sometimes a person needs therapy, especially if they are having a difficult time making the connection between the trigger and the addictive behavior.  It can also be that the patient needs help coming to terms with some of the root causes of their behavior, as many addicts are using their crutch to fill some kind of void in their life: “If I’m drinking/ smoking/ using, I can forget that I’m alone in life/ my mom abandoned me/ I feel like a failure.” Again, it’s avoidance behavior and eventually, we have to deal with whatever we are trying to avoid, but until we can do that, we need to change our coping mechanisms to something that is not destructive.

One of the other misconceptions about food addiction is that sometimes outsiders in an attempt to be helpful, will try to ‘save’ the addict from themselves by throwing away the ‘bad foods’ or refusing to buy it for the addicts.  The idea behind this is laudable, but in reality, all it does is trigger the addict to eat more by causing shame, anger, and stress.  This is the same thing as refusing to buy alcohol for the alcoholic or emptying out the liquor cabinet.  Until the addict commits to changing to their behavior, their addictive behavior will not change!  It does not matter if the food is in front of them, in the kitchen or down at the grocery store, they will find a way to get the food.  In fact, with phones, websites and vendors that deliver, the addict does not even have to leave home to get the foods they want.  Even a super morbidly obese bedridden food addict can get it delivered to them without ever leaving their bed. Denying the food to the addict is only postponing the inevitable: you can only delay their eating- you cannot stop it.  The food addict (like every addict) has to want to change and then commit themselves to the behavioral changes.  You or anyone else cannot force a food addict (or any addict) to change.  They have to come to that decision on their own and just wanting to change is not enough: there must be a commitment followed up by positive action.  Until they figure out why they want or need to change their behavior, the addictive behavior will continue.  Generally, once they figure out the Why, they will find a way to make it happen.

As for all addicts, there are various stages of addiction.  For some, admitting they have a problem is the hardest part; for others, it’s finding a reason to quit; and for almost all, making the commitment is an ongoing struggle, even once they have started down that path. There are days when not overeating is easy and there are days when it will be very difficult. As an ‘overeater,’ practice and routine make it easier for me. When I am in my comfortable routine, it is easy for me to walk into a convenience store, walk by the candy, chips and soda and get what I came in for without a struggle. Most days I can do the same thing in the grocery store: I can pass the bakery to get to the eggs and milk without wanting the cake, muffins or bagels.  And there are days when it’s harder to do.  But each time I pass by successfully, I am reinforcing the positive changes I have made and success feeds success.  The emotional triggers are more difficult to handle, since I have to make a conscious decision to change my behavior. It may take years for the urge to eat my negative emotions to fade away completely.  That is not surprising since it took years for that response to become firmly set in my psyche.  But the plain simple fact is that all the ‘bad foods’ in the world are not going away, and every day I have to choose not to eat them, the same way a recovering alcoholic chooses not to drink. It doesn’t even have to be my ‘drug of choice’ (breads): I can overeat broccoli and chicken breast the same as I can scarf ciabatta rolls!  I have to reinforce my commitment not to overeat every day, and as difficult as it sounds, it is as hard and as easy as I make it out to be.  I can get up every day groaning about how I have to go out and fight the urge to gobble all the chocolate and bear claws, or I can get up every day reminding myself of how great it feels to move and be active without being in pain (my Why).  I have to make the decision and no one can make it for me.

Sadly, I think the woman I was talking to about food addiction just wanted to hear that she was right and that obese people are just lazy and weak. This attitude isn’t helpful to any kind of addict. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all as perfect as others would like us to be? All of us have some kind of crutch to get us past the bad emotional moments, even if it is something as benign as writing a scathing entry in our private journal or posting a scathing comment on social media.  For some of us, those crutches end up hurting us more than they help us.  What I would have liked to tell this woman is that calling us names and criticizing us is YOUR crutch: it makes YOU feel superior to us.

I know I am as guilty at passing judgment as everyone else  is and at times like this I need to remind myself of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “with malice towards none, with charity for all.”  I am also reminded of another expression: “there but for the grace of God go I.” It’s easy to stand in a safe place and pass judgment on those whose faults are readily seen, especially when we are so good at hiding our own, even from ourselves.  I know I have quite a list of flaws, and I do my very best to keep them buried as deeply as possible! But they are still there, and they keep surfacing from time to time. I like to think they keep me humble and they keep in touch with other people’s points of view.  It is in seeing the world from another’s point of view that I find I learn the most.

What’s Your Why?

Another confession: this one is tough for me.  All of the experts and trainers (even Dr. Nowzaradan) always ask this question: “why do you want to get fit/ healthy/ lose weight now?”  Essentially: you’ve had your whole life to do this so what made you want to get real this time?  Why is this time going to be different?

Ummm, because I mean it this time?  Because I got my head together?  Because I know what to do now?  Because if I don’t make it this time, I’m probably going to die?  All of those pretty much ran through my head over and over again throughout the years, whenever I’d try to lose weight/ eat healthier and exercise, with pretty much the same result: at best, I’d lose some weight and then eventually gain it all back.  I’d work out a few times and then stop going to the gym: “stuff” would come up and then it’d be three months or more and no working out.  It wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of encouragement, but it was failure all the same.

Honestly, I don’t have an answer as to “why I want to lose weight/ get healthy” or “why this time is different.”  It’s kind of ironic, because usually I’m the person who wants to know why something happens or why I’m supposed to do things a certain way.  I like knowing the “why” behind things, but in this instance, for myself (when it should be patently obvious), I have no clue how to answer that question. On one hand, I would think it would be pretty simple: my health is lousy, I’m miserable and I’m slowly killing myself.  Since I really don’t want to die and I’d like to enjoy living, I’m making some positive changes.  Is that my why?  Because this time, I just kind of stumbled into weight loss and- for whatever reason- this time it actually worked!

My weight loss began as an unforeseen benefit to a very difficult decision to leave a truly hellish and abusive situation.  Those of you who have read previous posts have heard me refer to the “job from hell.”  It is no exaggeration: if you’ve ever seen the movie The Devil Wears Prada, that was my boss, only not so nice. In fact, I had never seen the movie until I had worked for my boss for a few years and other people would joke about it. The first time I tried to watch the movie, I started stressing out over my job (I was literally digging my fingers into the arms of the chair!)  I have never actually seen the entire film because of the stress it triggers. My boss called me on my way to work, on my way home, on the weekends and evenings.  Apparently, the point of my life was to serve her. I used to comment that she couldn’t fire me because ‘slaves have to be sold!’  My boss used to nag me about my health, because”what will I do if you died?”  My co-workers used to joke that I needed to leave that job before it killed me (at the end, they were no longer joking).  Eventually, I realized I was dying: I was staying with the job because of the employee benefits, but they weren’t going to do me any good if I were dead, so I left.

Even after leaving that horrible place, I was still very depressed but in retrospect, just getting off the vicious cycle of stress, lack of sleep, and poor eating habits was enough to have a positive effect on my health.  I began to recover and after two months of freedom, I began to realize I was losing weight, and as I got farther away mentally and emotionally from the job from hell, I began to see just how awful it was and how miserable it made me, emotionally and physically.  Why is this time different?  Why did I decide to lose weight and get healthy now? Because I spent two years being utterly miserable (I worked for her for nearly 7 but only the last 2 were hell). Because I figured as long as I had the time and opportunity to restructure my life in a positive way, I was going to do all I could.  Because I spent the last two years of my life being stepped on and abused and I decided that I not only wanted to live, but I wanted to f***ing enjoy my life!  I had time to start a new hobby so I made that hobby nutrition and fitness.

That explains how I made the healthy changes to my life, but the Why is still up in the air for me.  All the experts say you need to find your Why or sometimes it’s a Who.  Several of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients decide they need to make changes for the sake of their family: they either have children they want to see grow up or they have a spouse who is spending his/ her life taking care of them and they are afraid of being abandoned.

I don’t have a husband or children, and at this stage in my life, it’s not likely that I ever will (wow- doesn’t that sound depressing!) Truly, for me, it isn’t although I do know that there are people who are trying to get healthier for exactly those reasons.  I came to the realization several years ago that not everyone is cut out to have a spouse and kids and apparently, I am one of them!  I actually like living alone: in some respects it is fewer problems and in others, it is a little more difficult, but the same can be said for people with families. Since I am living alone, my ability to take care of myself is directly tied to my health.  If I cannot do that, then there is no one else in the house to do it for me.

I think in some ways it might be better for me not to focus on the Why.  I have heard trainers and coaches tell their clients that they need to stop paying attention to the end goal and focus on the process.  Don’t look at how far out you are from your goal or how long it will take you to get there: just focus on making the next step.  When I was in high school, my senior PE final was to run 8 laps around the track (2 miles). It nearly killed me, or at least it felt like it did. I know I wasn’t jogging that track thinking “2 laps down, only 6 more to go!” I was thinking “just keep running… just keep running.” I had to focus on what I was doing at that moment because if I had focused on 8 laps, 7 laps, 6 laps, I’d have never survived.  When I do stop to take stock of how much weight I’ve lost and how much more I have to go, it gets really depressing.  My highest weight was 438, and I’ve set a goal weight of 150.  The math is easy: 438 – 150= way too much weight to think of!  In reality, it’s 288 that I need to lose. (FYI: my ‘smart’ scale has told me that my ideal body weight is between 108 and 140, so I guess we can add at least another 10 lbs to that total number!)

Even though I don’t have my own specific, defined Why, I can understand its importance.  This is what keeps you going when you begin to lose your motivation.  This is what pushes you to succeed and not give up no matter how beaten you feel by the struggle.  For some people, it is the fear that they will never have a family or that their family will leave them.  For some, it is the fear of dying and leaving their spouse and children to fend for themselves. It can either be a fear that motivates you or a goal that keeps you moving forward, but the “what” is less important to you than the Why itself.  It just needs to be something important enough to you that it spurs you forward, whether it’s being there to see your kids get married or wearing skinny jeans to your high school reunion.

I think on a most basic level, my Why is because life is so much better when I am not in pain, miserable and exhausted all the time. I am acutely aware of how easy it is to pick up the 20 lbs of dog food or cat litter  compared to how it used to feel. I like being able to get up and go do something simple, like walk out to my car to get a sweater without having to think about how painful it is and how long a walk it is (it’s the freaking parking lot!) or play with my dog without having to limp around the yard. Going places and doing things now is actually fun instead of a painful chore, and that is something I think of pretty much every day.  If that counts as a Why, then it’s my Why.  There are times when I wonder if I am missing something important in not having a clearly defined Why and if I am, please feel free to clue me in!  I think my Why works for me because it is something I feel everyday.  Every time I get up to get something from the copy room at work, or walking back and forth between the kitchen and living room at home, or bringing in the laundry, I am vividly reminded that just plain simple walking used to hurt so much.  Carrying anything, let alone the dogfood/ cat litter, was an exercise in misery. Now my biggest hassle with shopping is how much time it takes or how much money it costs, not how much are my knees going to hurt and do I need to bring my cane.  Living without pain is enough to motivate me.  Maybe as I get farther away from the pain and misery, I will have to find another Why, but for now, I’m good!

 

Denial: A Little Word with a Huge Impact

The medical definition of denial:  “a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality” (Merriam Webster emphasis added). Personally, I think denial kills more people than almost anything else.  I have no stats on this and I don’t even know if anyone has ever studied it, but think about it: “I don’t have heart disease.”  “I’m not a diabetic.”  “I’m not addicted to XYZ.” Saying it isn’t true does not make it true, no matter how often you say it or how loudly you say it.  You may not want it to be true, but no matter what you want or what you believe, if it is true, sooner or later, you will have to deal with it. The only issue is going to be if you are dealing with it voluntarily or if you are forced to deal with it by being admitted to the hospital for a medical emergency. 

Most people who are obese have a variety of medical issues, especially when you get to be about my weight.  Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, joint pain & deterioration and fatty liver disease are just a few of them.  Frankly, a lot of them can be remedied or at least mitigated, by losing weight.  Of course, many of these patients only grudgingly admit that they even have a weight problem: “I’m big boned!” (A few extra pounds is “big-boned;” weighing 250 lbs is a “weight problem!”) Denial is insidious and it works against you constantly. You refuse to believe you have a weight problem so you don’t take any steps to make positive changes.  The weight problem compounds other health conditions but even if you deal with those (i.e. taking diabetes medication), by not dealing with the weight, you are hampering any help the medication is giving you.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.”   We have all kinds of similar sayings but the meaning is all the same: “I refuse to believe this.”  Legally the term is “willful blindness” and depending on the charges, you can get into some serious trouble over it, because you should have seen or known X was occurring. (In other words, it was obvious to everyone but you!)

It takes a lot strength to come face to face with your problems.  It often means admitting something painful, embarrassing, awkward. It feels like you’ve failed and let people down. It’s one of the hardest things many people ever do in their lives. It means dealing with the weaknesses in yourself and whatever mistakes you made.  It means that other people might learn about your flaws and errors.  In all honesty, there are mistakes and weaknesses that I have admitted to myself, but not to others, because frankly, it’s just way too embarrassing.  Yep, I SCREWED UP BIG TIME!! Thanks for listening- please leave me alone in my shame now! While I may not have shared my flaws, errors and shame with everyone, I did admit to myself that I had/ have a problem and I cannot handle it on my own.  I got help for my problem or I took steps to remedy it (most of them, anyway…)

Denial, i.e. not dealing with it, often just makes it worse. In the case of disease, it takes a greater toll on your health and in some cases, can cause irreparable harm.  In my case, not dealing with my type 2 diabetes has left with me some minor neuropathy in my right calf.  Part of this problem was plain old denial (I don’t have diabetes) and part of it was not knowing how to manage it.  By learning to manage it, my blood sugar and my weight, I no longer have this problem, but the neuropathy remains.

Other issues might mean that you are making things harder for yourself and could be sabotaging yourself.  Two of the issues I see a lot on MFP and also My 600 lb Life are emotional eating and toxic relationships.  Emotional eating comes up so often, it’s a wonder if there is anyone who isn’t an emotional eater!  Most of us know it and admit it: it’s just a fact of life! I get stressed, I eat; I get angry, I eat; I get sad/ depressed/ happy/ worried- whatever, I EAT! Once you realize and admit this fact, you can take steps to resolve this problem, but until you admit there is an actual problem, you cannot and will not be able to resolve it.

A recent example of this was on My 600 lb Life this season: one of the patients refuses to admit she is an emotional eater and when she met with the therapist, she denied she had any issues with emotional eating and walked out of therapy stating it was a waste of her time.  When I watched her episode, she described a childhood and adolescence full of feelings of loneliness, rejection, inadequacy, sadness and even a suicide attempt, after which she flatly stated that her weight gain spiraled out of control, but nope, she is NOT an emotional eater! Her episode ended with her struggling with cravings, afraid of going back to old habits and feeling that she would have to go on alone because no one else knew how to help her.  The truth of the matter (in my opinion anyway) is that her therapist and Dr. Nowzaradan were trying to help her, but until she admits that her emotions affect her eating, she is making this process much harder than it has to be.  I believe she is having cravings and struggling to control her eating because her sense of isolation and the stress of daily life are triggering her old coping mechanism: eating her emotions.  Until she learns to deal with her emotions with something other than food, she will continue to struggle.  It’s something I have had to face myself.  I had long realized that I ate out of boredom, and I took steps to make sure I always had something to do in the evenings when I usually ate in front of the tv (for months I had the most elegantly manicured nails!) When I had a fight with my mom one evening and found myself staring into the fridge, I realized “oh crap! I’m eating because I’m stressed!” It was a tough transition to find a way to deal with my emotions that didn’t involve food (it’s still a bit hairy at times) but I know that when I feel anger, stress, fear, anxiety, I am most likely to eat something just to calm myself down and I can cut that off before it happens.  I can choose to do something else, but this particular patient, by denying even the existence of the problem, cannot take those steps.  She is hamstringing herself with the only option left: toughing it out the hard way.

The other issue I see a lot is toxic relationships.  There is someone in your life whose sole function seems to be to denigrate you, sabotage you or just make life as difficult as possible for you. These can be people you work with or family members and sometimes even your spouse.  One of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients had a husband who preferred his wife be super morbidly obese.  One on hand, he was concerned her weight might lead to her death, leaving their young daughter without a mother, but on the other hand, he wanted a wife who was super obese.  He was inconsiderate, unsupportive and went out of his way to make things harder for her.  On one occasion, he was going out to pick up dinner for the family and she asked for a salad, to which he retorted :”I’m not getting you a salad.  If you want to eat grass, you can go out in the yard and graze!”  Predictably, they ended up getting a divorce, but first she had to come to terms with the fact that her husband was not only unwilling to change his own habits, but was going out of his way to sabotage her own efforts to improve her health.

It would be great if everyone in your life was really helpful and supportive, but that is extremely rare.  Most of us have people in our lives who run the gamut from helpful to not helpful and/ or indifferent.  The  ones we really need to watch for are the ones who are downright toxic.  If this person (and hopefully there is only one) is a coworker or someone not related, it’s easier to deal with.  If they are someone you work with, depending on just how toxic they are, you can complain to your supervisor about their obnoxious and inappropriate behavior.  When that person is someone in your family, it’s a lot harder to deal with.  It hurts to think of someone you love or loved or who is supposed to love you going out of their way to be hurtful. We deny there is a problem: he’s having a bad day; she doesn’t mean that; she’s just scared of change; he’s doesn’t want to be inconvenienced.  Sometimes those excuses are true, but when you find yourself making excuse after excuse for the hurtful, disparaging comments and behavior, it’s time for a reality check.  Denying that this person really is toxic can be hurting you.  You may have to decide if this is a person you want to keep in your life, and that can be a hard decision for some of us to make.  It may be that you have to sever your relationship with that person or at the very least accept that they do not have your best interests at heart.  Depending on who this person might be, whether a sibling, parent, child or spouse, this can cause major upheaval in your life and coming to terms with not only severing the relationship but also having to deal with the resulting fallout can be a factor in continuing to deny that there is a problem! If your brother, for example, is the toxic individual you want to avoid, severing the relationship can lead to fallout with your parents and other siblings.  Yes, it can be complicated and hurtful, but until you admit there is a problem, you are stuck in the hurtful situation.

Sometimes we are simply too close to the problem.  Our emotions get in our way and blind us to what’s really happening.  When I was in college I had some friends who used to tell me I should have been a therapist (oh hell no!) because they would complain about whatever or whoever was causing problems in their life and usually what I would do is ‘clarify the situation’ by restating what they had just told me, and sometimes offering my advice on how to resolve the issue.  Generally, what they found most helpful was that I restated their problem and since they could analyze my statement objectively, it helped them get clarity on their situation.  Once you can look at a situation objectively- stepping back from the emotions- it’s easier to see how to help yourself.  I wasn’t offering any kind of therapy to my friends: I was just their sounding board, and we can do something similar in keeping a journal.  I don’t mean a food journal; I mean the old fashioned “dear diary” kind of journal.  If you write down what you are thinking and feeling, it’s a lot easier to see what is really going on inside you. You have to think to write out your emotions; you have to put your feelings into words, and once you do that, in my experience anyway, you can get a better handle on what you are feeling and then you can begin to take steps to help yourself.  Sometimes, you need to vent your feelings, take a couple of days to get over the feelings and then go back and get a good look at your situation.  This isn’t just about emotional eating either; this is how we see destructive patterns in ourselves.  X happens and we react by doing Y which leads to more of Z.  The boss is a jerk to me, I eat an entire bag of chips or a pie or just way too much and then I feel physically ill, feel more shame and become more depressed, which leads to more emotional eating.  Substitute ‘alcohol’ or ‘pills’ or any other destructive behavior for ‘food,’ and yes, there is a real problem there!  This is how most of these destructive patterns start, and then they continue to escalate unless steps are taken to change the behavior.

Most of us are aware if we have a problem: “I keep running out of money at the end of the month but I don’t know where my money goes!” Obviously you are overspending somewhere or need a better budget.  “I keep gaining weight no matter what I do!” Are you eating too much or eating the wrong things? Journals and budgets can help, but sometimes we need another pair of eyes.  Sometimes, we are so deeply buried in our own problems that we can’t see something is going on with us.  If anything, we are only aware that we are hurting or that things never seem to go our way.  This is where you can either seek help from a professional or a trusted friend.  Ask them to speak frankly with you and when you promise that you won’t get offended or angry, you do have to mean that! There is a saying: real friends say the hard things to your face and good things behind your back. That’s what a real friend does: you are eating way too much and I’m worried about your health! When they do speak plainly and frankly to you, you have to listen with an open mind.  You have to be ready to change and that may involve asking your friends and family to help you do that.

Living in denial is not a good place to be.  It often keeps you in pain and keeps you from improving your life.  Obviously, there is a whole lot more to denial than just emotional eating and toxic relationships.  Denial is flat out dangerous in my opinion. It’s hard, it’s ugly, and it hurts.  It’s a lot like lancing an infected wound.  Although the infection  may be slowly killing us, we are afraid of causing more hurt to an already sensitive and painful area, but it’s the only way to let the infection out and once cleaned, the wound can heal quickly.  Once you come face to face with whatever your problems or issues are, just taking action to help yourself ease the hurt and pain.  It takes strength and courage to face your demons, but once you do, they lose their power over you.