Food Is Only Half the Battle: Weight Loss & Why We Overeat

This is another one of those No Brainers that tends to get overlooked: when we try to lose weight, we focus on changing our behavior but not the reasons behind our behavior.  In other words, we are trying to fix the outcome without fixing the cause!

Simple example: every day you come home and find your dog left an ‘accident’ on your rug, so every day you punish your dog for making a mess in the house. It seems simple enough but why did the dog have the accident in the house? Does he have a dog door? Is there someone to let him out during the day? Does he have a potty pad where he should go instead? If the answer to all those questions is “no,” then punishing your dog isn’t going to change anything! Every day you will come home to find the same mess because you aren’t changing the cause of the behavior, i.e. the dog has nowhere else to go!

For the dog, it’s an easy fix: dog door, potty pad, dog sitter, etc., but when it comes to overeating or snacking or anything food related, it’s much murkier. We are dealing with psychology, emotions and inner conflicts. As we all know, these kinds of causes are just plain messier and way more painful than installing a doggie door! Messy, painful and confusing emotions are the real reason this important part of the weight loss gets overlooked.  Bariatric surgery is becoming more common as the obesity epidemic keeps growing, but for years, physicians and surgeons kept focusing on changing the behavior without looking for the root causes of obesity.  This is like telling an alcoholic “stop drinking!” and walking away.  We all know that doesn’t work!

This is where I remind everyone that I am not a health care professional and I am just offering my opinion here. For most of us, being overweight isn’t life-threatening: it’s more of an inconvenience and embarrassment. For those who are morbidly obese with the attendant health issues like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, it really can be a matter of life and death. Bariatric surgery such as the lap band, gastric bypass or gastric sleeve are only short-term fixes. The patient will lose weight but without fixing the cause of the overeating through counseling, eventually the weight comes back when the patient goes back to the same bad behaviors. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Nowzaradan of My 600 lb Life is seeing more patients who have regained the weight after prior surgeries because they did not get the counseling needed to resolve the issues causing them to overeat.

Even if we aren’t morbidly obese, we still need to fix the causes of our overeating. Many of us will admit that we are emotional eaters, but we use that phrase as a reason or rationalization for our overeating. It’s become an acceptable band-aid for many of us: I get stressed and I eat! End of story! Let’s substitute the eating with another behavior: I get stressed and I do drugs! End of story? Of course not, but for many drug addicts, this is how the addiction started and it’s still their response to stress. What is the difference between stress eating and stress drug usage? Other than possibly going to jail for illicit drugs, not very much! (There are many drug users who simply refill their Xanax or Vicodin prescriptions.) The responsive behavior (drugs, eating, smoking, drinking, gambling, etc) are triggered by something else and until we find out what that cause is and fix that, any kind of fix will be short term.

Obviously, we don’t have to go running off to the therapist because we want to lose weight, but there is some value in taking the time to pay attention to what triggers the impulse to eat. Likely, there will be multiple triggers, such as stress or boredom.  Sometimes it is fairly easy, as in the stress, but other times it will be more complex. For some of us, there was a scarcity of food growing up, so we learned to eat as much as we could whenever we got the chance.  Sometimes, it is a way of asserting control over our lives or an act of defiance, especially if you grew up criticized for your weight.  In other cases, our weight was a way of getting attention from others in the family, especially if there are rules like “no donuts in the house” or “don’t eat those in front of mom/ dad.” It makes you the center of attention.

Of course, dredging up these kinds of feelings usually creates unease and feelings of stress (cue the potato chips!) Our immediate response is normally an angry “I’m not like that at all!” But sometimes we are. We just don’t realize it because as soon as we start feeling those unpleasant feelings and thinking those unwelcome thoughts, we go right to our escape hatch! In my case, stress and anxiety were clear triggers for eating, as well as boredom. Later, I realized that eating was also my ‘cure’ for loneliness and feelings of rejection. It was also both an act of control and defiance: my weight was an issue growing up and my mom was always criticizing whatever I ate! When I was eating alone in my room, there was no one to tell me not to eat and I felt free to do whatever I wanted to do! And that was some of the reasons I was about 300 lbs when I graduated high school….

Fixing these causes first begins with acknowledging that they exist. Once we can admit to ourselves that we have feelings of inadequacy or rejection or loneliness, we can begin to move past them. It might seem like these things have nothing to do with weight loss, but they do, just like they are triggers for any other addictions out there.  We are all familiar with the classic alcoholic’s excuse of ‘drinking to forget.’ How different is it that we binge on Oreos to distract ourselves from a bad day or a fight with our spouse? We feel stressed over money, we eat to distract ourselves. We feel lonely, we eat to console ourselves. We were told we aren’t attractive, we eat to forget the hurt feelings. We are constantly told not to eat, so we eat to assert our independence. We feel ignored, so we make our eating an issue for everyone: now everyone has to pay attention to me! Eating is our way of not admitting or dealing with how we feel.

Once we admit that we have these feelings, the next important step is reminding yourself that these are not negative feelings and you are not a bad person for having them! This sense of “I want attention so I must be bad/ selfish/ needy/ whatever” is why we distract or medicate ourselves with food. It’s a normal human reaction, just as any emotion is! We all feel stressed, hurt, needy or lonely at times. Admitting that you feel that way, it’s a normal feeling and it is okay to feel it is when we begin to move past the need to medicate ourselves with food. Unfortunately, it takes a little practice to learn that it’s okay if we aren’t always happy, perky and well-adjusted.  Those so-called ‘negative emotions’ are normally discouraged by most families.

Think of your dog again: how many times has your dog approached you wanting to play, sit on your lap or just want your attention? He’s not a bad dog: he just wants to be held or play with you or be comforted if he’s scared. For most of us, we give him the attention he wants! Companionship is one reason we got a dog in the first place.  We don’t scold him for not being more independent or berate him for being needy. Why do we do those things to ourselves (or others in our lives)? Getting past the causes of our overeating is the only certain method of stopping that behavior. We don’t have to run off to therapy; it can be as simple as talking with a trusted friend, or even as simple as hugging your dog the next time you feel hurt or lonely. He may not be as sweet as the Oreos but I bet he will be a lot more satisfying than a sugar binge!

 

If You Ate It, OWN IT!: Weight Loss & Responsibility

Responsibility is a real issue when it comes to weight loss. We never like to admit that we were ‘bad’ and went off our diet or bailed on exercise just because we felt like it. We make ourselves feel better by dredging up an excuse or we rationalize why we ‘had to do’ what we did. In reality, whether we call it an excuse or a rationalization or a reason, the bottom line is our behavior is our responsibility.

Being responsible can be a real pain in the butt!  Remember when you were a kid and reached the “too old for a baby-sitter” age? It meant that you were old enough and trusted enough to stay home alone or old enough to watch your younger siblings. You were probably feeling a little proud but a little nervous too. It meant that you were responsible! It also meant that you were in charge, either of whomever you were watching or at the very least, in charge of your own behavior: YOU are in control!

As we can recall from being a kid, being in charge can be a little heady at times but to steal a phrase from the wise and immortal Stan Lee: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you are in charge, you are responsible for what happens, whether it’s a great outcome or something not-so-great.  It was enough to make Peter Parker wish he wasn’t Spiderman and it’s enough to make us wish that we weren’t in charge of our own eating habits!

Unfortunately, what we eat really is our responsibility. Unless someone has a gun to our heads and it forcing us to eat those Krispy Kremes, we made the decision to eat them! Even if we are starving because we’ve missed breakfast and lunch and now we’ve showed up at some appointment and they’ve offered us those donuts, it is entirely within our abilities to say “no thank you!”  Yes, I know– harsh! But will we fall over dead if we’ve missed breakfast and lunch? Probably not! Barring a hypoglycemic fainting spell, we will probably be okay (if starving) until we can get something healthier for us, but this is when we start rationalizing why we had to eat something not on our diet.

I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again: when we tell ourselves we are constantly at the mercy of others or circumstances, we cut off our own power to make positive changes! In plain simple language, if we have to eat what others make us eat, then how can we make positive changes to what we eat? Of course, others aren’t ‘making us eat anything,’ unless it’s those Krispy Kremes or that bag of Doritos or the family size box of Cheezits! Those we ‘had to eat’ because we really wanted them and came up with a justification for why they ‘made’ us eat them! In most cases, it’s what ‘they’ brought home for dinner or ‘they’ were eating them in front of us when ‘they’ knew we were trying to lose weight. For a lot of us, believing ‘they made us eat those’ absolves us of our responsibility for choosing to eat badly. But it also robs us of our power to make any positive changes too!

On a recent episode of My 600 Life, Dr. Nowzaradan’s patient Maja did something I had never seen before, and frankly, it shocked me. At 33, Maja weighed in at 689 lbs.  After her initial consultation, she went back to Oregon with her boyfriend Christian and over two months, she lost about 93 lbs, nearly the 100 the doctor wanted her to lose.  She was approved for bariatric surgery and proceeded to move to Houston as Dr. Nowzaradan had instructed.  The move to Texas unfortunately exacerbated the deteriorating relationship between Maja and her boyfriend. They fought all the way from Oregon to Houston and when Maja checked in with the doctor, he wanted her to come in to get weighed: she had lost only 9 lbs. The doctor cancelled her surgery with instructions to get back on track and lose another 50 lbs. Crying, Maja lashed out at Christian: “This is all your fault! You’re costing me my weight loss surgery! This is nobody’s fault but yours, Christian!” Really?

This melt-down in the doctor’s office wasn’t an anomaly: throughout her initial trip to Houston for the consultation, everything that was hard or didn’t go the way she wanted it to go was met with tears and blame. While packing for the trip, Christian wasn’t ‘taking it seriously’ and wasn’t being helpful enough for her.  Walking through the airport was ‘hard’ and she blamed the customer service woman she had talked to: she had ‘lied to [Maja] about how far it was.’ When she reached the car rental agency, they had reserved the wrong car for her and when Maja tried to squeeze in behind the wheel, her leg got stuck and she nearly fell out of the car. Christian had to help her out by laying her down on the ground so she could pull her leg out. Maja again started crying: she didn’t know how to get up and didn’t know what to do. Christian suggested she use the car to pull herself up and then she walked back to the car rental agency, cried again and demanded the car she had initially reserved.

Blame and tears appear to be Maja’s way of handling difficult situations. Because she is at the mercy of others (her parents, the car rental people, the ‘lying’ customer service woman, Christian, etc), she can’t control her reactions, so nothing is her responsibility.   What she eats, what she doesn’t eat: none of it is under her control. Really?

Maja is an extreme example of what most of us do every day: we blame our friends or family for ‘tempting us’ with unhealthy foods we like to eat. This past weekend, I was out with a friend for cheeseburgers and chocolate candy, and this is on top of the Girl Scout cookies I bought from another friend’s granddaughter! I don’t blame my friends for what I ate or didn’t eat on the weekend any more than I blame the Girl Scouts for making cookies.  I chose to eat what I ate (cheeseburger, sweet potato fries, jalapeno poppers, chocolate) and I own my choices. I chose to eat those foods just like I chose not to eat the cookies and other tempting junk food that was available.  Just because they are there or even offered to us does not mean that we have to eat them!

Owning our choices means we take responsibility, for the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff. Blaming others or circumstances has another deadly drawback: it teaches us to be helpless.  Not only do we have no responsibility, but having no power over our situation means we are helpless to help ourselves. That’s what it means to be at the mercy of others and circumstances.  The longer we rely on others for everything, the harder it is to learn how to do anything for ourselves, including helping ourselves and making our own decisions. 

Maja’s fall in the parking garage with the rental car struck a chord with me. In 2012, when I weighed about 440 lbs, I fell on my front lawn. My lawn is slightly slanted and while I was unloading my car, I stepped back into a hole near a sprinkler head. I knew the hole was there and normally managed to avoid it, but not this time.  It was dark; it was on the slant; I lost my balance and fell over on my butt and back onto the lawn.  As I was falling, my only thought was “miss the bricks! miss the bricks!” Luckily, I did miss my brick lamppost and because it had been raining a lot, my lawn was fairly soft and muddy.  Nevertheless, 440 lbs is a lot of weight to come down hard on my butt, my back and my head.  I went down like a proverbial tree in a forest! Once down, alone at night in the dark on my lawn, I lay there for a moment to see what hurt, and then, like Maja, I wondered how to get back up.  Like Maja, I rolled over onto my knees, crawled over to the brick lamppost and used it to help myself back up.  Then, I finished unloading my car, went inside and changed out of my muddy clothes.  Yes, I was a little a stiff the next day, but no hysterics, no tears, no blame.

The difference between my situation and Maja’s is learned behavior.  Maja went right off to the rental car agency and blamed them for her falling. I suppose I could have blamed my gardeners for making a big hole near the sprinkler head, but I knew the hole was there and unsuccessfully tried to avoid it. It’s a fact of life: things happen! Stress happens; unhappy relationships happen; emotional conflict happens! The more we learn to take back our power to make our own decisions, the stronger we are, whether it’s saying no to the box of Thin Mints or to dealing with a bad rental car experience. (Unfortunately, I also have experience with not fitting behind the wheel of rental cars!)

Being responsible starts with owning your choices and decisions.  It’s not always easy and it can be pretty embarrassing at times, but choosing to blame others not only takes away your responsibility: it takes away your power. The more you give away the blame, the more you give away your power. It’s time to take back what is rightfully yours: your power to choose what you eat and what you don’t eat! Whether you say yes to the donut or not, the choice is yours. Own it.

 

Do You Believe?: Weight Loss & Faith in Yourself

Because I commute, I listen to a lot of podcasts.  I heard one around Christmastime that brought a smile to my face, not only because of the legacy of the episode’s inspiration, but because of the whole-hearted belief necessary to bring it about.  The podcast is The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe, episode 120: “30 Minutes of Disappointing Television” (30 Minutes of Disappointing TV). Spoiler Alert: if you want to watch/ listen to the podcast, do it now because I’m going to talk all about it here!

There is probably no one out there reading this who hasn’t seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack has become a classic Christmas favorite (it’s also the ringtone on my phone), and the story Mike tells is about Charles Schulz’s determination to bring it to life.  In 1965, Peanuts was a powerhouse comic strip and CBS has signed with its creator Sparky (as his friends knew him) to make a serious of television specials, but he had retained creative control. Nothing was going on tv without his approval.  He’d cast children to do the voices, met with Guaraldi regarding the music and once it was ready, the executives at CBS sat down to screen the special prior to its airing.  The title of Mike’s episode clearly reflects their opinion of it, and if it had been up to them, it would have been thrown out.  But since the network had already made commitments and there wasn’t time to argue with good ol’ Sparky, they had to air the special as he created it.

The reason CBS still runs his special every year (along with the others) is that Sparky had faith in himself and his creation.  If it had been up to the CBS suits, no one would have ever seen it. There are some who would simply say that Schulz knew his audience well, believing that fans of the books and comic strip would tune it to watch it and those numbers alone would ensure its success.  That’s true enough but in order to get that far, he had to believe in himself and have the determination to see it through, despite everyone telling him that he’s wrong.

Most of us give up on weight loss because we lose faith in ourselves.  We just don’t believe that we can change our bad habits.  We give up when it gets hard because we either tell ourselves “it’s too hard” or that “we can’t change.”  It’s not that we don’t want to lose weight: it’s that, deep down inside, we don’t believe we are strong enough to do it.  We don’t believe we have the resources, the stamina, the will to change.  However you want to characterize it, we just don’t believe in ourselves. Some of us may feel that’s a harsh statement, but think about it: when we have faith in something, we follow through with it to the end, even when everyone else is telling us we are wrong.

A lot of times, these doubts come from being unfamiliar with a situation or knowing that it is not your forte. Remember the last time you tried to do something you had never done before? Remember reading the instructions, looking at the diagrams, feeling confused? Am I doing this right? Why isn’t it working? I must be doing something wrong! I have a lot of experience with that feeling!

Several years ago, I had a very old television with a VCR (for you millenials who’ve no idea what that is, it’s what us old people used to record tv before DVRs!) I had just gotten a cable box because the tv was seriously ancient and in order to hook up the tv, VCR and cable box, I needed an adapter box.  It was basically a junction where all the cables came in and went back out to the various devices, and according to the instructions, it was easy to set up. Cable comes in from the wall, into the adapter, goes out to the VCR, back into the box, back out to the tv, etc.! No fuss, no muss….right? OH HELL NO! After setting it up according to the instructions, it didn’t work! tried hooking it up several different ways without success and I finally called my cable company who told me “try this, try that, try another way.” Finally, after three hours of constant reconfiguring, I realized something must be broken and it must be the adapter box, since everything had been working beforehand.  I returned the adapter box, came home with another one, and in under ten minutes, had it hooked up the way I had originally done it and everything worked just fine! In fact, I had done it right the first time, but because I didn’t trust that I had done it correctly, I spent most of the day and whole lot of frustrations.

Oddly enough, you would have thought I felt more confident afterwards since I figured it out (eventually) on my own and it hadn’t been my error that was the problem, but in fact, I was kind of embarrassed that it had taken me all day to figure it out! While there are a lot of things I am good at doing, electronics isn’t one of them, so when it comes to setting up or trouble-shooting hardware especially, I get that Deer in the Headlights feeling!

It’s easy to let doubts creep in.  For a lot of us, while we may be strong when it comes to our jobs or other endeavors in our lives, it’s not uncommon for us to let others influence us when it comes to our weight or our fitness. If we’ve been overweight all our lives (raising my hand here!), we’ve already got it in our heads that “I’m not good at controlling my eating” or “I’ve never been good at working out.” That often stems from the idea that “I’m not doing this right!,” whether that’s eating healthy, controlling emotional eating or working out. It’s not that we’re weak or easily influenced: it’s that we aren’t sure of ourselves!

Usually, situations that make us feel very stressed and a little panicky are when we begin to doubt our abilities. Weight loss is one of those situations that looks like it’s easy, and in some ways it is, but not if we don’t have faith in ourselves! It’s a lot like that Bible parable about building your house on sand vs. building it on a solid foundation. Obviously, if your self confidence is shaky, your ‘house’ isn’t going to last very long! I admit, I am not a big fan of positive affirmations, but reminding yourself “I can do this!” on a regular basis goes a long way to turning that sandy foundation into stone. This has a lot in common with that Strategic Pause I recently mentioned in a previous post: when we feel that Deer in the Headlights panicky feeling, take a deep calming breath and remind ourselves “I got this!” I know there are people who are going to roll their eyes or say “what happens when I screw it up?” Making a wrong choice isn’t the end of the world or your weight loss! (Another important reminder!) If we make a wrong choice, we will eventually figure it out but The Most Important Step is that we don’t give up on ourselves! It takes practice and it takes faith in our own abilities. The more we keep moving forward, the more we learn and the more faith we have in ourselves and our ability to succeed! There will always be that little voice that asks “what if I can’t do it?” and when it does, your answer needs to be “giving up guarantees that I can’t do this!” So enter our little reminder: Don’t give up! You can do this!

Hold On a Moment!: Weight Loss &The Strategic Pause

This pause is something I really wish I could have taught to my old boss.  Every time something happened that wasn’t planned, she would have a complete meltdown. She would panic and run around in chaos, shouting “I’m overwhelmed! I’m overwhelmed!” both her associate and I took a calmer approach: what happened and what are our options? But the truth of the matter was that she liked being panicky and ‘overwhelmed’ because she loved the drama.

When it comes to weight loss, it’s easy for us to get caught up in the drama also: we planned on having the healthy lunch we brought with us, but now it’s a coworker’s birthday and the boss surprised everyone with pizza and cake–now what do you do? You planned on having chicken and vegetables for dinner but you got stuck working late and now there’s no time to make the chicken– takeout? help! The omelet brunch you are going to with friends actually turns out to be bagels and cream cheese instead– OMG!!

Before you panic and dive head-first into the pizza and bagels, there is the opportunity for a pause.  I like to think of that Coca-Cola slogan: ‘the pause that refreshes,’ because in a lot of ways, that’s what happens when we take a moment before jumping right into a decision! You get a chance to take a deep breath and CALM DOWN!

First off, you very rarely have to make a decision about anything right then and there! Unless you are at a drive-thru speaker and they tell you they don’t have the chocolate chip cookies you want, you don’t have to choose anything right away. (FYI: if you are on a game show, I can’t help you!)  When you are faced with choices you didn’t think you had to make, or choices that mess with your carefully laid plans, our first impulse is OMG or something similar. Inside we start acting like my old boss running around panic-stricken.  This is where we need to remind ourselves to hold on a moment and take that deep breath: what are our options? It’s perfectly okay to take a moment and consider the choices in front of you. You can still have the healthy lunch you brought while celebrating your coworker’s birthday: it’s the thought that counts (cheesy but true!) and they aren’t going to be insulted by your not having cake and pizza with them and everyone else! You can eat your healthy lunch while they eat pizza! (Your eating habits aren’t their business.)

It’s a similar process with working late or with that bagels & cream cheese brunch! Take a deep breath and go over your options calmly. There’s always the option of hitting the grocery instead of takeout. Steamable veggies or bagged salad are good fallback options as well as a rotisserie chicken or another lean protein option you can quickly reheat if necessary.  There is always “breakfast for dinner,” too! Instead of having that chicken, you can always make an omelet full of veggies, meats or cheese for dinner.  It’s a nice change from regular dinner options! As for the bagel & cream cheese brunch, depending on how much notice you have of the change in menu or the items you were bringing to the brunch, you can always make a shift and have the cream cheese with veggies (I like red bell pepper with cream cheese) or you can bring something else that is healthier for you, such as tomatoes or beet chips (another favorite of mine).

It doesn’t really matter if it’s about food, your workout or anything else going on in your life: nine times of out ten, you don’t have to make an Instant Decision. Take a deep breath and think about the choices calmly.  I know there is the panicked impulse to retort: “I don’t have any choices!” but we all know that’s not true. Unless your choice is the Drama, like my old boss, there is always a minute or two for you to think about what you want to do rather than what you feel you are being forced into doing.  You can schedule your workout for another time when you don’t have to work late; you can stop by the store and pick up a healthy salad for lunch; you can skip breakfast instead of grabbing drive-thru and eat the healthy lunch you have packed. The options may not always be the best, but they are still options! Think about it this way: suppose your boss ordered Italian for your coworker’s birthday and you really don’t like it or pasta, would you eat it just to be polite? Suppose it was bagels and you can’t have gluten: would you eat them and suffer with the flare up to be polite? It’s okay to say “no thank you” and it’s okay to make choices that are more in line with your plans!

I’ve mentioned it before, and I know it’s cheesy, but your friends will understand if you make changes to your menu and if your coworkers object, it really isn’t their business! If it makes you feel better, you can always say you are allergic or gluten/ lactose/ whatever intolerant! The next time you start to feel pushed into a situation that isn’t planned or isn’t the best for you, tell yourself and everyone else to hold on a moment and then after that deep calming breath, tell them what you have decided!

Weight Loss: Inside & Out

When we think of weight loss, we tend to focus on our outward appearance. How much thinner do we look? How has our shape changed? How many clothing sizes have we dropped? Our outside appearance is where our focus goes and we believe our emotions will follow along. We assume we will be happier, less stressed, less self-conscious and more confident as our appearance improves.

In some ways that is true: when we feel better physically, we tend to feel better emotionally and mentally.  But that isn’t always the case and this divergence usually causes confusion, anxiety and frustration when we realize that even though we seem to be losing weight or getting fitter, we aren’t any happier, calmer or confident.

For some of us, this unhappiness and lingering lack of confidence comes from our bodies still not living up to our ideal.  We lost thirty pounds but we still have those “thunder thighs,” or now our upper arms look worse because our weight loss has drawn attention to our flabby “bat wings.” We look in the mirror and instead of seeing success, we see more ‘body issues’ due to the weight loss! Instead of being glad about our success and more confident in ourselves, we feel more self-conscious and less self-confident!

For others, we are mystified that, even though we’ve lost weight and gotten to the dress or pant size we’ve dreamed about, we are still unhappy and still feeling anxious.  “Isn’t this what I’ve always wanted? So why am I still so unhappy?” We still feel like we used to feel when we were overweight and we don’t know what’s wrong with us. We conclude that we must be broken somehow since we’ve reached our goal and “nothing has changed inside. I’m still broken!”

In a lot of ways, this frustration and confusion is because our image of ourselves is inside out.  We think that our outside appearance reflects who we are inside.  We’ve probably seen hundreds of examples of this in society and the media, from Shakespeare’s evil twisted hunchback in Richard III to the more modern movie Shallow Hal with actor Jack Black.  How many times have we seen movies where the villain looks slimy or deformed and every viewer knows instantly “he’s the bad guy!” There is a correlation between who we are inside and how we appear, but most of us believe that a beautiful outside will create a beautiful inside.  Instead, it’s the beautiful inside that radiates outward.

A lot of who we are mentally and emotionally shows up in our physical appearance.  This doesn’t mean all overweight people are insecure because there is something wrong emotionally inside but it does mean that fixing the outside isn’t always going to fix the inside. If you were an unhappy person before you lost weight, you will likely still be unhappy when once you’ve lost weight.  This doesn’t mean you are ‘unfixable’ but it does mean you can’t fix the outside without fixing the inside. It can also mean that fixing the inside first makes it easier to fix the outside!

Happy people tend to take better care of themselves, and again, people who feel better tend to feel better emotionally. Elizabeth Benton (Chasing Cupcakes) spends most of her book pointing out this correlation. If you fix what is making you unhappy, anxious and insecure, it can  make it easier to lose weight and ‘fix’ the outside. This is one of the reasons psychotherapy is a major component of Dr. Nowzaradan’s weight loss program on My 600 lb Life.  While he starts his patients with the diet and bariatric surgery in order to get them as healthy as possible as fast as possible, the second and most important step is therapy.  As he points out in nearly every episode, unless the patient deals with the emotional issues leading them to overeat, they will eventually go back to overeating despite the surgery. In fact, some of the patients who come to him have already had bariatric surgery, not dealt with the emotional inside issues and have again reached 500+ pounds. They thought that by fixing the outside (their weight), they would fix the inside (their emotions): in other words, “I’ll be happy once I’ve lost weight!”

This frustration and confusion is common in most of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients: “I thought having the surgery would take away my cravings!” We’ve gone through this ourselves when we’ve lost weight but still fight the urge to scarf down a box of donuts or bag of chips. It’s because for most of us the weight is the physical symptom of what’s really bothering us. Most of us would call ourselves emotional eaters but despite knowing our out-of-control emotions lead us to that bag of chips and box of donuts, we try to white-knuckle our way through life! While we may initially lose weight, eventually our emotions overwhelm us and we suddenly find ourselves halfway through the bag of Double-Stuf Oreos without realizing how that happened. The cycle of unhappiness and frustration begins again: “Why did I do this? Why can’t I control myself? What’s wrong with me?” followed by more emotional eating!

Not all of us need therapy in order to fix our inside self. For some of us, it’s as simple as getting away from a toxic person or situation. In my case, a lot of my emotional issues went away once I left a job I hated. While I knew it was a major source of stress in my life, it wasn’t until I got out of that job that I realized how utterly unhappy it had made me, how insecure my boss made me feel and how extremely stressed even when I wasn’t at work.  I would wake up with panic attacks in the middle of the night over that job and my boss would call me while I was driving to give me a list of ‘things to do’ once I got in the office.  It was expected that I would be at work on time (not unreasonable) and stay until my job was done, even if that meant staying until 8:00 p.m., despite her knowing it was a two hour commute for me to get home! When I did get home, no matter the time, I was usually emotionally drained and feeling like a failure. I was constantly asking myself ‘what’s wrong with me?’ about everything in my life! All I wanted to do was forget how unhappy I was and I used food to do that.

This is of course a simplified version of how I dealt with a major source of my emotional issues, but obviously not all of them.  I had been an overweight emotional eater before long before I went to work for The Boss From Hell, and I still feel the urge to distract myself with food when I get extremely stressed now that I work somewhere else. The biggest turning point was leaving the source of such unhappiness and anxiety (The Job From Hell) and the second biggest turning point was realizing that food was a distraction, not a solution. Now when I feel the urge to eat something because I am stressed or upset, I look for a solution instead. Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding a non-food distraction, since not every situation has a real solution, but knowing that eating isn’t going to help is still a step in the right direction.

Dealing with the source of my anxiety and emotional issues was a huge step in getting cravings and over-eating under control. Even if I had a craving or urge to eat, it was easier to find something else that was enjoyable to distract me or just make me feel better about myself overall.  The emotions were better controlled, the eating was better controlled, the weight loss was making progress and instead of that vicious cycle, I was in an ‘improvement cycle.’  The better I felt physically as the weight came off, the better I felt emotionally, which led to my taking better care of myself physically and the cycle continued!

Our stress and emotions will always be a part of our lives no matter and learning to deal with them is an ongoing struggle no matter how much we weigh. The key is learning to be happy in the skin that we are in now rather than pinning our hopes for happiness on some future goal or achievement. It’s not always easy to look in the mirror and love the person looking back despite the thunder thighs and flabby bat wings. None of us are broken or unfixable just as none of us are perfect. Just accepting that we are all works in progress can be enough of a starting point.

 

 

Accept No Substitutes!: Weight Loss & Doing Your Best

When I was a kid, we used to see commercials where the tag line was “accept no substitutes” for whatever product they were hawking. Listening to Elizabeth Benton’s Chasing Cupcakes, I was reminded of that phrase and how it applies to us. Obviously I don’t mean our buying cheap imitations, but how we try to fool ourselves with doing a cheap imitation of our best!

This applies to weight loss and working out (and everything else in our lives!) when we rationalize our bailing on the work out or how we didn’t have time to get something nutritious for lunch and were ‘forced’ to have that cheeseburger instead. Yeah, we’ve all heard and done that before! And we all know we had alternatives and options but rather than doing our best, we settled for the cheap imitation of our best effort.  We rationalize that we tried ‘as hard as we could’ but somehow came up short.

The truth is that most of the time, we know when we’re settling instead of doing our best. Those are those times when we’re running late and rather than ‘be rushed’ getting to the workout, we just bail on it.  We tell ourselves that we ‘forgot’ our healthy lunch as we were pulling out of the driveway so we’ll just have to settle for something else. How long would it have taken us to go back for our lunch? If it had been our phones or briefcase, there’d be no question, but it’s just that lunch we weren’t thrilled about to start with!

We know when we’re not giving it our best effort because there’s usually some kind of disappointment or frustration involved when we do fall short. It’s the same feeling when we’ve worked hard on a project only to be told the boss or the client doesn’t think much of our final draft.  We all know what it feels like to work hard and fall short of our goals, and while we don’t need to live our lives full of disappointment and frustration, when we do our best and fall short, there is still the feeling that we didn’t “phone it in” or that we know inside we can do better.  There are many instances on My 600 lb Life where a patient weighs in and finds they’ve fallen short of either their goal or Dr. Nowzaradan’s because they didn’t give it their best efforts and ‘cheated a few times.’  There’s a lot of wondering about how much more they could have lost if they’d just done their best!

Yes, it’s extremely frustrating to know you’ve tried as hard as you could but still failed.  In some cases, that’s why we don’t give it our best effort. As long as we can console ourselves with “well, I wasn’t really trying, so this doesn’t really count,” we can tell ourselves that we really aren’t failures.  Except that we really are failing! We are failing ourselves every time we ‘phone it in’ and do less than our best! Yes, it soothes our pride but it’s still falling short of our goals and short-changing ourselves to boot! What’s the point of telling ourselves that “if I’d really tried, I could have done it or done better” if we never really try?

By never giving it our best, we think we are protecting ourselves from failure without considering we might actually be doing the opposite and keeping ourselves from success.  If we never try our best, how do we know we couldn’t have hit our goal or at least come close to it? How can we accurately measure our progress if we never ‘really’ try?  Growing up, many of us are taught to avoid failure at all costs, so it’s not unusual that we try to protect ourselves from it by not giving it our best effort, but the truth is that failure is how we learn.  I don’t know anyone whose first attempt to ride a bike ended with their falling off.  I also don’t know anyone who’s tried to learn a foreign language who didn’t screw up on a phrase or someone whose first chemistry midterm came out 100% right.  Failure is how we learn; it’s how we judge how close to the mark we are and how we need to improve to hit that mark, but if we’re just chucking darts at the board, we’re lucky if we even hit the board, let alone the bull’s-eye!

It would be great if the recipe for weight loss were simple or easy but we all know it’s a series of trial and error experiments. Cut out the carbs and add in more fat. Cut out the fat and add in more non-starchy veggies.  Cut the protein and add in more fiber. Cut the dairy; etc. We need to keep trying and adjusting our methods until we finally hit those goals we’ve set for ourselves! We are accustomed to sacrificing the sweets and the starches when it comes to weight loss but sometimes we have to put our pride on the line too.  We have to be able to say “I gave it my best effort and still fell short, so now I need to make an adjustment and try again!” We have to remind ourselves that there is no shame in failure when we tried our best; the only shame is when we’ve settled for less than our best!

Working Through The Blues: Weight Loss & Your Attitude

In a recent post I mentioned how my own bad attitude and self-pity got in the way of my making positive changes with my health and eating. The other night at my water aerobics class, I saw another example of how a bad attitude can get in our way.  Two of my classmates were discussing the effect of exercise on our health and one of them confessed that she just didn’t feel motivated or like any of it was doing her any good at all.  Her friend tried hard to motivate her and give her some encouragement but nothing was getting through her negativity. As much as I wanted to encourage her, I didn’t feel quite right about butting into their conversation.  Though, if I could have, I’d have given her some of the benefits that I have seen in my own life.

One of the statements I heard them discussing was the benefits of raising our heart rate and how our water aerobics class didn’t always do that.  I also heard one of them poo-pooing walking as not good for our hearts, unless we are walking at a fast pace.  Raising our heart rate is good but it’s not the only benefit of being active. Most of our class is made up of people who are forties and older, some of them probably in their 80’s.  There are also quite a few who are there because they want to lose weight.  When I started going to the gym regularly, weight loss was a goal, but there were other reasons as well.  Mainly, I wanted to build strength and stamina in addition to burning calories.

I have gained a lot by working out regularly.  I am not sure how it has or has not affected my weight loss, but as far as stamina, strength and balance go, it’s all been positive! Moving is much easier; balance has greatly improved and my muscle tone overall is better. Aside from just having fun, I find I can do more activity with less pain, tiredness or muscle fatigue. We are all familiar with Newton’s First Law of Physics: a body in motion stays in motion. The more you move, the easier it is to keep moving!

Some of the other effects, which may not be so noticeable, are better sleep, more energy and better mood. When I come home from the gym, I am not exhausted, and while I may be hungry, I’m not ‘starving.’  I tend to spend some time taking care of other things around the house, run an errand or two, and spend some quality time with my pets. I just plain feel better, and not just physically!

When it comes to improving our mood, attitude, and mindset, exercise is usually not on the list of possible remedies. We look at things like meditating, journaling, gratitude, or prayer.  We focus on non-physical approaches to fix what are considered ‘non-physical’ issues.  We forget that our minds, attitudes and feelings are all contained within our completely physical bodies. Have you ever tried to be happy, perky or upbeat when you are in pain? Conversely, how much energy do you have when you are sad or depressed? Both our physical and emotional halves are hardwired to each other and what happens with one, for good or bad, affects the other.

We are not surprised that we find it hard to be happy when we’ve got a toothache, or that we feel totally drained when we are emotionally upset, but when it comes to exercise or activity affecting our mood or our attitude, we tend to believe it has little to no effect on how we feel or think. We use exercise to relieve stress but to boost our mindset or attitude? Athletes know the truth: movement, exercise and activity boost your mood through endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters which can improve your mood, your sleep and make you feel better overall (Endorphins & Mood). The effect of endorphins on our brains and bodies is sometimes referred to as the Runner’s High because of how good it can make you feel. In short, regular exercise is good for the body, the mind and the spirit.

However, in order to get the long term benefits of exercise on your mood, you have to take the long term approach. No one expects to lose weight if we only eat better for a week or two, but how many of us have worked out for a few days or weeks and given it up as “not working for me?” We try it for a while and when we don’t see our waistline getting smaller, our muscles getting bigger and especially if we have muscle soreness, we are quick to bail on the exercise regimen.  We know diet, nutrition and exercise are long term investments which means that we have to give them time to yield results, but we get impatient and we quit before we begin to see any positive changes.

This giving up before we see results just confirms our false belief that “exercise doesn’t work for me or my mood.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like my water aerobics classmate above, we think ‘we aren’t getting anything out of it,’ so why waste our time? We have to go back to the long term investment approach. Any financial guru will tell you that investments take time to grow and if you want a ‘quick & big’ return, you are a sucker looking for a con artist because any Get Rich Quick Scheme is really a Get Robbed Quick Scam! It happens with money; it happens with weight loss and it happens with exercise? Want real returns? You need to give them time to grow!

Obviously exercise isn’t a cure for a bad attitude any more than it is a cure for obesity, but it is an important component of health nonetheless. Like all investments, good nutrition, healthy eating and exercise build on each other.  The better you fuel your body, the better your eating practices (i.e. not overeating) and the more you move, the healthier your mind and body become. The more you move, the more you want  to move because all that movement stimulates your brain, your bones and your muscles. Our bodies were made to be used and when they languish, they begin to fall apart. Why should our attitudes be any different? People who take care of themselves tend to be happier people and happier people tend to take better care of themselves. It’s that mind-body connection again, but building the momentum to get the cycle started takes faith.If you really want to boost your mood, build some stamina and burn a few calories, then move it! (And don’t stop!)

 

 

 

 

Hard is Relative: Weight Loss & Facing The Difficult Realities

Some of you know that I am a legal secretary at a small personal injury firm.  I enjoy my job very much, although like all jobs, it can be stressful, irritating and sometimes downright crazy. What you might not know is that I got this job when the former secretary (Denise) had a stroke and was unable to return to work. According to other employees who worked with her, she was overweight with uncontrolled diabetes and was not proactive with her diet or exercise. Obviously she had significant health problems and while no one can blame her for those problems, there is a point in our health where our lifestyle plays a part, for good or ill. The few times I met her, I had thought she was in her late 60’s or early 70’s but I found out last week, she was only eight years older than me (I am 53).  I say “was” because, sadly, she passed away last week.

While I don’t know what might have prevented her from being proactive, I do know that judging her helps no one.  I also know from personal experience that my own health got progressively worse the longer I was grossly overweight, sedentary and eating all the foods I liked whether they were bad for my own diabetes or not. For a long time, I let my own bad attitude get in my way of doing anything about it. My health kept getting worse and it was my own fault! When I finally decided to do something about it, changing those few behaviors made huge improvements in my health.  Losing weight, being more active and watching what I ate have transformed my health and my life for the better.

This is another one of these No Brainer Moments: “of course, eating better and taking care of yourself improves your health! Hello!” Yeah, we all know that…..but we don’t do it, do we? Remember the last time someone offered you cookies or a glass of wine? Did you say yes? Or did you say no thank you? How about when you were out at the restaurant and there’s the bread basket or chips and guacamole? Did you pass on those or did you help yourself? This is where we usually respond with “it’s so hard to say no!” I hear you! I know it’s hard to say no to foods you love, especially if they are no longer part of your regular menu. Bread is my own personal bête noir It sneaks into my diet way more than I like to admit! But this is where we have to remind ourselves that ‘hard’ is relative: is saying no to the bread, cookies, chips, chocolate harder than huffing and puffing up the stairs because the elevator is out of order? Is making it to the gym regularly harder than limping around the grocery store because your knees and feet ache carrying all that extra weight? Which is harder: not eating a bagel with breakfast every day or constantly sticking your finger to check your blood sugar? How expensive are those test strips compared to munching on breadsticks at dinner?

Last night as walking into the store to pick up a few things, I remembered how much I used to dread going to the store for anything.  I hated having to park the car in the middle of the lot and then having to walk around the store.  I used to lean on the cart to take pressure off my back, knees and feet. I would be out of breath before I even reached the store and I dreaded having to go from one end of the store to the other to get what I came for.  After shifting from one leg to another standing in line, I would limp out to my car and practically fall in out of pain and exhaustion.  It freaking hurt doing “all that walking!” It was hard for me to do anything and I had a list of medications that was beginning to rival an elderly woman.  For the record, I took two medications for my diabetes and three for my blood pressure, plus an anti-inflammatory for my arthritis and one for pain. (I remember shocking my aunt when I let it slip that I had three medications for my blood pressure alone! I was in my mid-forties and about thirty years younger than her.) Now, I take only the anti-inflammatory regularly and the pain medication rarely.

When we think of the kind of life we want to live, we rarely think “I want to be healthy” or “I want to move without pain” until we aren’t healthy anymore and it hurts to move.  In those situations, we sometimes think “how did this happen to me?” For a lot of us, it was simply not paying attention to our health. It was eating too much of the things we like instead of foods that are good for us. It was too many days on the sofa and not enough walking and moving.  But for too many of us, our answer to “why did this happen?” is “arthritis/ heart disease/ hypertension/ diabetes run in my family.” Yes, all those things run in my family too, but I can take steps to minimize how they impact my life! That’s the whole point of giving your doctor your family history; hopefully, those conditions can be avoided with a little effort.

When I was 440 lbs, just living was hard. Standing for more than a few minutes was hard. Sitting was hard. Laying down on my back was difficult because it got hard to breathe at times. Everything was so much harder, from fitting in my car to leaning down to put on my socks! I would get depressed thinking about how hard everything was in my life because of my weight. However, if I was alone and something like bagels, bread or cheeseburgers came on my radar, I rarely if ever said no to them. In retrospect,  saying no to a burger and fries was a whole lot easier than bending over to pick up my pen. Passing on a venti caramel macchiato was a whole lot easier than stretching my seat belt across my big gut without cutting off my oxygen! Instead of making those ‘hard’ changes to improve my health, I bemoaned my terrible situation and felt sorry for myself!

On one level, we all know there are changes we can make to help our situation, whether it’s our health, our activity or anything else in our lives. We tell ourselves that these changes aren’t going to make a big impact or that the changes are simply too hard to make.  The reality is that we don’t want to make them, not because they are too hard or too small to help but because we don’t want to do the work.  Do I miss bagels, garlic bread and nachos? Yes I do.  Do I miss them enough to go back to limping across the parking lot and huffing and puffing up the stairs? Definitely not!

It’s still not super easy to say no to the foods I like, lying on the sofa in front of the tv or bailing on a workout because I don’t feel like it, but now I have a little perspective on what’s really hard and what only feels like it’s hard.  Being too tired, too heavy and in too much pain to enjoy my life is hard; saying no to a croissant only feels like it is!