If You’re Happy & You Know It, Why Are You Eating Cupcakes?: Weight Loss & Attitude Adjustment

I’ve been hearing a lot in the media about being happy.  Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) is always reminding listeners that outside things aren’t going to fix your emotional issues and just yesterday I heard that idea repeated on a morning radio show that has nothing to do with weight loss. I hate to sound Zen about it, but happiness comes from inside.  Those cupcakes, that new gadget or a pair of shoes aren’t going to make you happy.  The same goes for people: our happiness and sense of self-worth cannot be dependent on someone else validating us. Unfortunately, that’s what most of us do!

We all know what it means to eat our emotions. At the risk of sounding like an escapee from a Star Trek convention, when we let our emotions run our lives, chaos ensues! This doesn’t mean we have to crush our emotions down inside us and never let them out— that is just as bad as allowing them to run loose! The truth is that a lot of us are overweight because we never learn how to deal with our emotions.  We are taught that we should always be happy and that feeling sad, worried, unhappy or any other ‘negative’ emotion is a bad thing which needs to be avoided at all times.  It is okay to be sad or unhappy or anxious.  Those are all perfectly normal emotions and our problem is we need to accept those emotions when we feel them.

This is where I remind you that I am not a therapist or any kind of health care professional.  However, I am person who has dealt with some pretty cruddy emotions throughout life. When I get stressed, anxious, bored or angry, my usual way of dealing with it was to find something to eat- anything would do!- and eat until I forgot about it or the emotion faded. It took a long time (as in, most of my adult life!) before I finally learned that emotional eating is just making everything worse, including my health.  We all know how we feel after we’ve done it: ashamed, guilty, upset at ourselves, which triggers the urge to eat again!

It’s okay when we don’t feel happy.  It’s okay to be sad and to admit that “I’m just feeling a little sad today!” The media and other people lump emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, and others like them as ‘negative’ emotions.  Given the situation, they might be completely appropriate!  Last week is good example for me:  July 26th is my grandfather’s birthday.  He died seven years ago.  I was very close with both of my grandparents and I miss them very much.  When I think about them (like now), I usually start tearing up.  Feeling sad, crying, and missing them are not negative emotions.  Yes, I am sad because they are not here anymore, but these emotions come from the strong bond we had when they were here.  In short, I miss them because I still love them and that is not a negative thing!

Feeling angry, being anxious or upset can be perfectly appropriate emotions.  If I’m worried about a friend of mine who’s not been well, if I am upset because I can’t find something important I am looking for or if I am anxious about an upcoming interview, then these are all normal.  Even if I am recalling a bad situation and I feel that anger or anxiety again, it is still normal.  What is not normal is allowing those emotions to dominate our lives or to refuse to deal with them. When we obsess over people who have hurt us or wronged us or cut us off in traffic, or when we refuse to feel these emotions because they aren’t ‘happy feelings,’ then we are hurting ourselves.  We need to find a way to feel these not-happy emotions without obsessing over them or pushing them away or running from them with food.  When we accept that they are normal emotions and it’s normal to feel them, we are one step closer to letting go of the emotional eating chaos and we are one step closer to being happier overall.

Obviously, if you have serious emotional issues or if you have problems learning to deal with your emotions, you should find a qualified professional to help you with this. FYI: if you need a professional, you are still normal! Most of us, especially men in my generation, are not taught how to deal with not-happy emotions, which is where a lot of our problems come from.  We are taught that if we are not happy all the time, we are somehow broken or defective, but being happy 24/7 is impossible! Things happen in life which are not always fun to deal with and so we find ways to cope, and some of those coping methods hurt us.

One of the ways I learned to cope with some of these not-happy feelings is just by venting. Most of us do it, but again society and the media sometimes looks down on this practice. I will post about something online, write about it in a blog or call my friend and just rant about it. Frankly, I will have a little tantrum about whatever it is that has made me angry, and then once it’s over, the feeling is gone. Having a tantrum is usually seen as being juvenile, but if I’m angry I am allowed to feel angry and if no one is hurt or insulted by my tantrum and the anger is expended, what’s the problem? Bear in mind, I have my tantrum at home (where only my pets can hear me and they are used to hearing me swear a lot) and no one else is affected by it. The same is true for sadness: we’ve all heard about ‘women going on a crying jag’ after a break-up or a fight, and there is usually a negative connotation for that as well, but if I feel like crying, especially over losing a loved one, then it’s normal. Venting or expending the emotion lets you feel it and deal with it and then it’s out.

From my experience, when we suppress emotions, they will eventually come out and usually in inappropriate ways or times.  I heard one therapist refer to is as “gunnysacking.” You get mad because your significant other leaves their clothes lying around but instead of dealing with it, you shove it down inside and you keep shoving things like not taking out the trash, not paying the bills, popping their gum, etc., into that same emotional gunnysack until she comes home late without telling you she’s running late and then you explode at her. The same thing happens when we keep pushing down anxiety or sadness or anger: our emotional gunnysack keeps getting packed tighter and tighter until it finally rips open and when we come up for air, we’re surrounded by pizza boxes and cheesecake tins. Done that a few times!

Happiness isn’t just a state of mind: it’s a process. In order to be happy, we have to let ourselves feel not-happy.  You know that emotional void everyone tries to fill with food? It’s there because we are suppressing our emotions! When we let ourselves feel all of our emotions, there is no void– so there’s nothing to stuff full of cupcakes! That means when she leaves her shoes in the hallway for everyone to trip on, you have to tell her it upsets you.  When you feel like crying because you had a really crappy day, let yourself cry.  When he forgot your birthday, tell him it hurt your feelings, and it’s okay to feel hurt that he did! It literally clears the emotional air and when your riot of emotions isn’t simmering just below the surface, something amazing happens: happiness bubbles to the top.  You find you are too busy being happy to eat the cupcakes in the office. Instead, you find you want to eat something that makes you feel proud or productive or just healthy. You don’t want to stop feeling good by eating something that makes you feel blah.  What’s more, you become more aware of what foods or practices make you feel good and which make you feel blah!  When you’re happy and you know it, you don’t need the cupcakes– because you can’t clap your hands when they’re full of food!

 

Doing For Yourself: Weight Loss & Decision Fatigue

There is a lot to be said for doing things yourself.  The list of things I prefer others to do for me is pretty short and mainly consists of driving places I don’t like to go.  Obviously the more others do for you, the less you do for yourself, but what we forget is how much of the decision-making is out of your control.  When I let someone else do the driving, we leave on their schedule, follow the route they want to take, stop when they want to stop and return when they want to return.  A friend of mine was visiting some long time friends who had moved some distance away and she went along as a passenger with some mutual friends. It was going to take a couple of hours to drive there and since her car is a compact, they all decided to take the bigger car and she would not be driving.  The trip was going great….. until the driver and family decided they wanted to stay much longer than they initially planned on.  As a result, my friend ended up getting home well past midnight (instead of around seven or eight).  She was very tired and fairly concerned about her dog, who had been left inside in the dark, since she’d planned on getting home when it was still daylight (summer time).  She came home to a dark house and a frantic dog who could hardly hold it much longer.  Next time, she vowed she was taking her car and they could meet her there!

This is an example of unintended and unforeseen abdication of control.  My friend was perfectly happy contributing to the gas and letting someone else work the GPS but what she hadn’t intended to give up was the freedom to decide when to leave.  They had agreed to leave at a certain time, but the driver made an ‘executive decision’ and as a passenger, she had no choice in the matter. She was literally along for the ride.

This happens to us whenever we let others do things for us.  We lose our control of the situation and depending on what it is they are doing for us, we might not learn how to do it for ourselves. Being ignorant keeps us under their control too!  Dr. Nowzaradan on My 600 lb Life looks for this controlling mentality in his patients’ enablers.  Some of them are content to keep the patient dependent on them since this dependence gives them control over the patient.  Obviously if you can’t go to the grocery store, you are dependent on someone else to do it for you and you are at their mercy when it comes to what they buy!

I remember one of his patients shopping at a grocery store for the first time.  Although he had a personal care assistant with him, he was essentially on his own in the store, making his own decisions.  As they passed the produce section, he pointed to a fruit and asked his assistant what it was: “That’s a mango?!” It was fairly obvious that there was more than the just the mango that was unfamiliar to him, but he had always had others do things for him and he was reluctant to have to do them for himself. It’s hard learning to do things for yourself.

One of the excuses Dr. Nowzaradan hears a lot is “I have to eat what they bring me.”  While a lot of his patients are either bed-bound or cannot stand long enough to cook for themselves, most of us are not in that situation.  We let someone else make the decision about meals or food and we just accept it, even if pasta or chicken nuggets really aren’t on our meal plan. “Oh, well. It’s what he/she/ they made for dinner!” We are letting them do the planning, preparing and cooking because we don’t want to be bothered with it. When we’re out with friends, they decide on the restaurant because we let them.

There is actually a syndrome called Decision Fatigue.  According to studies, the more decisions we make in a limited amount of time, the more our mental resources are depleted and the worse our decisions become.  The studies theorize this is why we opt for pizza at the end of a long day: our willpower and mental resources are zero so rather than try to get water from a dry well, we choose something ‘easy’ which isn’t the best choice for us!

But we can’t get decision fatigue if we don’t make any decisions! If we let others make all or most of our decisions for us, not only are we at their mercy, we are at the mercy of their decision fatigue! They’ve likely been making decisions all day and they come home to find us waiting for dinner: “I’d like to order a large pizza…..”

If our ability to make decisions is like a muscle, then we need to make sure it doesn’t get flabby.  We also know muscles atrophy when they aren’t used so we need to keep it toned.  That means when our friend asks if we have any preferences about where to go for lunch, we can say “anything but fast food!” That’s a decision, albeit a simple one.  I get that question every time I go out to meet friends: they want to know if I have any thoughts about getting food.  Usually, I don’t so my own decision is along those lines: “anything but sandwiches!” or “I’m open to ABC or XYZ.”  We don’t have to reply with “I wanted a grilled chicken breast with roast red peppers and garlic zucchini noodles.”  You can always ask “what are my options?” or “what did you want?” and go from there!

The other problem that comes with letting others do for you is that you don’t learn how to do it yourself.  As a legal secretary, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to an attorney at another firm whose told me “my assistant is out sick today and I don’t know how to fax something over to you.” You can also substitute “scan” for “fax.”  The idea is the same: as the attorney, they are used to giving the documents to the assistant slash secretary and having them get it filed or transmitted or somehow taken care of and when the assistant is out, the attorney is hobbled. One of mine keeps trying to ‘fax’ on our scanner and doesn’t know how to access the voicemail on our new phone system- I have to keep showing him! While it is beyond annoying to have to stop to show him or fix the scanner, he really gets points for trying to do these on his own.  He doesn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else when it comes to getting things done.

One of the commercials I see a lot is one encouraging parents to teach their children to cook, a very necessary skill! I know there are a lot of parents who don’t do it because they don’t want their kids getting hurt in the kitchen when no one else is home.  It’s a valid fear, but they are also dooming their child to take out and microwave food when they get older. My 27 year old cousin had no idea how to cook anything other than condensed soup and microwave bacon when he moved out.  Seriously, no joke.  Why? Because MOM always cooked for him!

Think about how many decisions we make when it comes to weight loss. We decide what we are going to eat, how much we are going to eat, how often we are going to eat, and in each of those decisions are many little decisions. If we are going to have eggs for breakfast: fried, scrambled, boiled, poached? Quiche or frittata?  with veggies? with crust? with meat or cheese? Do we want anything with the eggs? How many eggs? What about skipping breakfast? What about lunch? With just those two meals alone, it’s easy to see how we can get decision fatigue! But like any muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets, and with a little planning, we can learn to skirt decision fatigue. For my part, when I come home, I make sure I have healthy options because I made healthy choices when I wasn’t fatigued.  I don’t have everything planned out for dinner, but I have some salad greens and some healthy protein choices that don’t take a lot of work.

I’d like to say that this came naturally to me, but it didn’t.  It was one of those things I learned on my own, and I learned it because I chose to make my own decisions over and over again at the grocery store. It took some time to try out one choice and try another when that one didn’t work out as well as I wanted.  It was a lot of flexing that decision muscle on a long learning curve.  It took practice to get that planning muscle strong and toned but it was worth the effort! As with any exercise, the more you do it, the easier it gets!

The more we learn to do on our own with shopping, cooking and planning, the more choices we have available to us.  The more we can grow, experiment and find things that work for us and not only with weight loss. When we learn to do things for ourselves, we feel more secure when we let someone else make a decision for us.  If we feel secure with making choices at a fast food restaurant, it’s okay if our family wants fast food for dinner.  We can get them what they want and still get ourselves something that we feel good about too.   It takes practice and it means we have to make a decision for ourselves.  It’s not always easy but like riding a bike, we never forget how to do it, and we’re never just along for ride!

 

Weight Loss & The Best Intentions: Plans Are NOT Action

We all know what they say about the road to Hell. They might as well cross out that destination and replace it with Weight Loss.  We all intend to eat better; we all intend to exercise more and we all certainly intend to stop snacking on junk food.  Those intentions and a $1.08 will get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s! We can “intend” all we want but until we actually DO something, it’s all just talk!

I realized again how important it is to follow up our intentions with our actions while I was watching the most recent episode of My 600 lb Life: Where Are They Now?  This episode featured an update on Sean, the young man in his late twenties who lived with his enabler mom. Following his surgery, now in the third year of his weight loss journey, Sean has had a tremendously stressful and difficult few months.  He loses his mother to renal failure and then many of his belongings and his apartment to hurricane Harvey. During these difficult months, he begins to gain weight, eventually reaching 600 lbs again. While this kind of stress and tragedy are certainly triggers for emotional eating, Sean’s biggest stumbling block continues to be his lack of action.  Although he has a therapist, he stops treating with him and pressures Dr. Nowzaradan to get him admitted to a care facility rather than live on his own.  He is forced to move into a smaller apartment, but continues to view it as ‘temporary’ until he can move into a care facility.  His father comes from California to help him move, but Sean seems disappointed that his father is unable to take care of him himself.  Sean has to live on his own which means doing things on his own.

He gets back on his feet in a new apartment largely due to the generosity and assistance of others but once he has passed the ‘living situation’ crisis, he goes back to the emotional eating while continuing to justify his need to ‘take a break’ to ‘recover’ from everything he’s been through. That’s the first Red Flag!

I’ve fallen into that particular trap myself so I know how inviting it is! It’s the Weight Loss version of a Honey Trap: it looks warm and safe and comforting when it’s everything but! It lures us in and before we know it, we are right where Sean is: gaining weight without really paying attention! I am not going to point fingers at Sean since I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to suffer such devastating losses. Even Dr. Nowzaradan gave him a pass for the weight gain following his mother’s death; however, he also reminded him to keep treating with his therapist to find constructive ways of dealing with his emotions.  Having a resource as insightful as Dr Paradise is not to be thrown away so thoughtlessly; but that is exactly what Sean seems to do.

As Dr. Paradise had pointed out in an earlier session, Sean is intimidated by Dr. Nowzaradan as an authority figure and it is quite possible that Dr. Paradise has become a similar authority figure, which means he is also to be avoided as much as possible.  Why? Because both of them will hold him accountable for his overeating and poor eating choices. This is part of the danger involved with the Taking a Break scenario: once you have indulged until you feel safe, you have to deal with the consequences of your indulgences, which is usually weight gain! I am actually involved in the process of extricating myself from my own particular Honey Trap, so I know it’s not easy and it’s more than a little humiliating!

However, Sean continues to avoid both of his doctors because he’s ‘taking a break to get back on his feet’ but actually he is spending a lot of time sitting down.  I don’t mean to be flippant, because one of his complaints is how difficult it is to move around.  For those of us who have seen the earlier episodes, this is the second Red Flag! The last time Sean complained about how hard it was to move around, he’d gained almost 100 lbs, reaching a mind-boggling 1003 lbs.  When his mother passed away, Sean was fairly mobile in the 500’s but when he went back to see Dr. Nowzaradan, he was essentially 600 lbs again.  Anyone who has been overweight knows we don’t need to gain 100 lbs or be 600 lbs to notice unpleasant changes in our bodies.  When our knees ache a little more, when our pants or tops are a bit too tight, when we feel a little winded walking across the big parking lot– that’s our body telling us we’re carrying too much weight! When ‘squeaking by’ the file cabinets really is ‘squeaking,’ we know we’ve put on a few pounds.  This is when we need to stop talking about losing weight and start doing something about it!

For Sean, the first clue is that it’s harder to get around.  This is where Dr. Nowzaradan essentially gives him the pass on his weight gain, but rather than take action during his housing crisis– an admittedly difficult situation– Sean continues eating badly and overeating.  By the time the situation is resolved (a couple months), Sean is having a very hard time moving around.  He is content to sit on his new chair with a sheet spread over his lap so he doesn’t have to get dressed with a bucket to function as his toilet ‘when it gets too hard to get to the bathroom.’  As he opens the door to get his pizza, ‘dressed’ only in the sheet, he admits it’s not on his diet, but he really needs to take a break right now.  He laments that the Personal Care Assistant doesn’t come every day like she’s supposed to and on the days she doesn’t come “my bucket doesn’t get emptied.” He called Dr. Nowzaradan primarily to get the Personal Care Assistant assigned but also about the rashes on his skin becoming worse due to his lack of poor hygiene (which Sean denies)  because bathing has also become much more difficult. How much clearer can it be that he needs to stop talking about “going to get back on the diet” and just do it already?!

By the time he goes back to the hospital, he has obviously gained more than a few pounds and appears to be back over 700 again. The rashes have now become open infected wounds and forced his hand. Doing nothing and ignoring the infection could kill him and will kill him faster than his overeating. He tells Dr. Nowzaradan that this is a wake-up for him and he’s ‘going’ to get back on his diet, but the doctor’s reply is frank and a little harsh: “I’ve heard that before from you.”

That statement, more than the painful open wounds, is the real wake-up here.  How many times have we said that to ourselves? “It’s time to get serious about the weight loss/ poor eating choices/ blowing off workouts?” I know I’ve said it to myself through much of the last two months:” Okay, no more banana bread!” “I need to stop eating candy!” “I’ve got to get back to my regular eating plan!” And…. we all know how that turns out….

While Sean is obviously an extreme example of The Best Intentions, ‘going to do something’ is NOT the same as doing something! ‘Planning to make healthy changes’ does NOT mean you are implementing those changes! I’ve been ‘planning’ on eating right for the last 8 weeks or more and it wasn’t until the past three days that those ‘plans’ actually became actions!  Of course, my metabolism didn’t give me credit for those 8 weeks’ worth of plans: it didn’t tell me “your plans were pretty good so I’m deducting 10 lbs off this weight gain due to those good plans!” Like Sean, I have to deal with the consequences of my poor eating choices and my ‘taking a break’ mentality.  That means I have to deal with cravings and weight gain and admit to the doctor that I screwed up! It’s not fun and it’s more than a little humiliating.  However, once we begin actively doing something, we begin to feel better almost immediately, mentally, emotionally and physically. I’m not stressing over my ‘plans to eat better’ because now I am actually doing it! I’m not feeling guilty about eating bread and popcorn because I’m not eating them anymore and physically, my joints don’t ache because of the grains and my knees pop a little less and if my clothes are a little snug right now, I know that I am already doing something to fix that!

We all make plans to eat better and eat less and be more active, and plans aren’t all bad unless they stay plans.  Planning fools us into believing we are doing something but planning is NOT doing! We all intend to be the best versions of ourselves and we make plans to implement those changes.  No one plans to end up alone eating pizza in an arm chair and peeing in a bucket. But if we don’t turn those plans into actions, sitting alone with peanut butter cups in a recliner is a very real possibility.