On a recent episode of My 600 lb Life, we watched a patient devouring a dozen donuts for breakfast. She sat there with a box of a dozen mixed varieties, eating one after the other. I hate to admit it but I was so jealous- and I don’t even like donuts!
It wasn’t so much that I wanted donuts but rather I was jealous that she was eating with abandon. She was eating whatever she wanted as much as she wanted and whenever she felt like it! I was so jealous because it’s a wonderful and heady experience to stuff yourself until you are full of whatever yummy food you want to eat. It’s eating without caring about the consequences. The donuts don’t really matter: it’s the same jealous feeling when I watch them eat pizza (especially a thick crust pizza) or when they eat pasta or bread or pretty much anything. I remember how it felt to sit there with a huge amount of whatever I wanted and I could eat until I was absolutely stuffed full. For those few moments I was eating, it was a wonderful feeling. The food was so satisfying and tasted so good. I savored every bite and made it last as long as I could. If there happened to be leftovers, I could look forward to savoring them too!
But once the eating was over, the feelings were almost as horrible as the eating had been satisfying. The guilt was usually liberally sprinkled with excuses: this was all I ate today; it was a special occasion (as in Friday!) or I was ‘treating’ myself. Whatever the excuses were, they didn’t cancel out the guilt for eating so much. There is no excuse for eating an entire medium pan pizza when you weigh 300-plus lbs! I certainly wasn’t starving or undergoing some kind of ‘pizza deficiency’! So why did I eat so much? Because just the feeling of eating with abandon was enough! It felt like freedom!
Then reality smacks you hard in the face: your stomach hurts after eating so much; your knees and back hurt from being three times as big as you should be; you feel like crap because you shouldn’t be eating pizza at all, let alone the whole thing with wings and breadsticks! And forget about that pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer! (yeahhhhhh, riiiighhht!! Not happening!)
Obviously, I know how good it feels to eat without caring about the consequences and I know how bad the guilt is afterwards. I’ve heard Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients talk about their love affair with food and how comforting food is and how food doesn’t hurt you or betray your trust! But oh, how wrong they are! There is nothing comforting in eating until your stomach feels like bursting and there is certainly nothing comforting in your legs and hips aching because you’ve got three times the weight on them that they are supposed to carry. Food in those amounts definitely hurts your body with the voluminous calories and hurts your spirit with the shame and guilt. As for betraying you? The food that is supposed to nourish you and keep you healthy is killing you slowly, miserably and painfully. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is!
Our love affair with food is really an illicit love affair. When you are having an affair, you hide your relationship out of shame, meeting your lover in places where you can’t be seen. Once the passion is spent, you slink back to your spouse and try to forget how you are hurting him/ her with your betrayal. You hide your guilt and make secret promises never to do that again, and you mean it- at least until the passion overwhelms you and you sneak off to meet your lover again. The only difference between that illicit affair and the one with food is that the person you are hurting the most is yourself. You are betraying yourself when you gorge without care on whatever you want for that moment. Is it worth the guilt and the shame and the pain you feel afterwards? Hardly! But for those few moments of delicious freedom….? For those brief minutes, we convince ourselves it’s worth it, but then afterwards we are drowning in the regret and recriminations that always come, that we know always follow our eating.
Some people refer to this as bingeing, but it doesn’t have to be an all-out session of gorging ourselves to qualify for the regret. It can be something as simple as the breakfast that we really want but isn’t the best choice for us. For me that can be pancakes or the breakfast sandwich that I love, or something as simple as finishing off the bag of licorice after dinner. It’s not good for me and I’m certainly not hungry: I just really want it so I give in the momentary desire and then try convincing myself that “it wasn’t that much!” For some people, a binge is an entire cheesecake, a pint (or more) of ice cream and a bag of Cheetos; for others, an 8 oz bag of licorice is enough of a binge. The point is it is eating without control and without caring. In short, it’s eating with abandon.
It’s true: having an apple instead of an apple pie is certainly better for you, but the point is giving in to the desire to eat. I wasn’t hungry- I just wanted to eat! When I give in and eat the apple or the donut or the licorice, I’m giving in to that desire to eat without caring again. I do care, so instead of the donut, I choose an apple. It’s like I’m only cheating “a little bit.” If your spouse/ partner were cheating on you, would you make a distinction between a “little bit” and a “lot”? Is there really a distinction?
Ultimately, no one else can make us stop. They can threaten or cajole or bribe, but we are the ones who must make the decision. I have seen Dr. Nowzaradan take some fairly drastic steps to save patients from their own self-destructive actions after his dire warnings that one cold or flu is enough to kill them. Despite knowing that they are mere weeks from dying, they continue to eat and continue to gain (or regain) weight. In most cases, drastic steps means physically limiting their ability to eat either by performing a bypass, a sleeve or by inserting a gastric balloon (this is where the patient swallows a balloon which is inflated in the stomach to take up space and prevent them from eating so much). In most of these cases, the surgery or procedure is already risky, but without it, they will keep eating and the question isn’t “if they die in surgery,” but “when they die from obesity complications.” This statement isn’t as histrionic as it sounds: it happened to my cousin. He was over 600 lbs and was unable to control his eating. I have also seen other TLC programs where the 600+ patient died from their obesity. Like my cousin, their weight pushed their bodies over the limit until their bodies gave out.
For most of us, the situation isn’t as dire. There’s no life and death involved. Instead, it’s the quality of the life we want. Do we want to feel confident when we go out dancing? Do we want to be afraid of what’s on the menu at the new restaurant? Do we want to be able to go swimming without wondering what we look like in our swimsuit? Do we want to climb the tree or jungle gym with our kids? These aren’t life or death questions, but sometimes when we’re sitting on the sidelines watching others enjoy their lives, they sure feel like it. It’s a simple decision: would I rather live with joyful abandon or eat without caring about what comes next?