Turn Off the Food Faucet!: Weight Loss & Five Simple Steps

We hear expressions like this one almost daily: “Stuck in a hole? Then stop digging!” You would think it’s common sense, but sometimes we get so caught up in what’s going on in front of our faces that we miss what’s really behind the problem. Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) has an analogy I really like: you’re in a boat with a hole in the bottom so you start bailing out water as fast as you can, but bailing doesn’t fix the problem. You have to fix that hole to fix your problem!

Of course a hole in the bottom of your rowboat is pretty noticeable but when it comes to weight loss, figuring out why you are not losing weight, or gaining- even worse- can be more of a problem! There are millions of books, infomercials, websites, podcasts, pdfs and blogs about how to lose weight because finding the problem is so damned hard. Solving the weight loss problem a billion dollar industry and everyone wants a piece of that pie! (yeah, it’s a pun!)

It took me nearly 45 years to figure out a few simple truths that started my weight loss and have kept me from gaining it back. Whether they are the legitimate Answer to the Weight Loss Problem or not, they work and they aren’t rocket science (good thing ’cause I suck at math & physics!)  You don’t need to follow them in any order but when you do all five, in my experience, you lose weight and you don’t gain it back!

First Step: Eat whole foods.

This is pretty basic: whole foods tend to have more fiber and nutrients than processed foods, which are usually carb-rich and nutrient-poor. In short, whole foods, like eggs, raw fruits and veggies, cheeses and meats, fill you up faster and keep you filled up longer than processed foods. This is because they take longer to digest than processed foods. Also, foods like eggs and meat are mostly healthy fats and proteins. Your body has receptors which signal when you’ve eaten enough of these, so you get the “I’m full” feeling. With carbs, there are no receptors so we eat and eat and eat until stomach discomforts signals we’re full! That’s how we get full on a small steak but can binge a whole bag of potato chips!

 

Second Step: Only eat when you are hungry.

This should also be pretty basic, except we’ve been trained to eat according to a schedule! How many times have you seen kids who aren’t hungry out at a restaurant being told they “have to eat”? We also encourage our kids to eat everything on their plate too! Then the kids grow up and turn into us: eating according to a clock and eating everything (usually) on the plate! For some of us, we can’t really tell if we are actually hungry or if our stomach is expecting to be fed at a certain time each day! Believe it or not, if you think you are hungry and you wait about twenty minutes or so, you might be surprised to find that you really aren’t hungry anymore! Skipping a couple of meals or at least holding off on them will give you a pretty good sense of what real hunger feels like instead of ‘meal memory’!

The second part of this is to stop eating when before you feel full! By that time, you have likely eaten too much, so eat slowly and when you realize you are no longer hungry, stop eating.  Again, this is connected to the “clean your plate” mentality we learned as kids!

Third Step: No snacking.

Snacking is something most of us grew up with.  When I was a kid, we were always told that snacks ruin our dinner or if we had a snack, we wouldn’t be hungry at meal time. Then sometime in the 1970’s, some food manufacturer came up with the idea of “snack foods,” which has turned into an entire industry! We can buy “snack-sized” foods and “snack packs” at the store so we don’t have worry about fainting from hunger in the middle of the day.  In my opinion, snacking is why so many of us are overweight. We’ve been told that snacks are good for our metabolism and we should eat every two hours.  Both Dr. Nowzaradan (My 600 lb Life, TLC) and Dr. Jason Fung (The Obesity Code; The Diabetes Code) emphatically state that there is no such thing as a healthy snack! Why? Hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin) is why we gain weight: it’s a storage hormone. It’s what takes glucose out of the blood into the cells where it gets turned into FAT! All foods, not just carbs, trigger insulin, so that healthy snack of cheese or an apple or carrot sticks still triggers insulin. We burn fat when there is no insulin in our blood but if we are eating every two hours, when does that happen? Ummm… never? Bingo! Listen to grandma: no snacking!

Fourth Step: Pause before eating.

This step and the next seem like they don’t have much to do with weight loss, but these two steps really do help.  Remember the last time you had a craving or when you got really anxious about something going on and felt that urge to grab anything to eat? This is when that pause gets between you and the bag of Oreos! It is kind of an offshoot of Step Two: checking to see if you are really hungry.  Odds are that you aren’t really hungry: you either saw/ smelled/ or heard of something you really wanted or you are trying to distract yourself from your problem by eating something. I know whenever I get anxious, it’s my first reaction! Pausing before you reach for the chocolate or starting prowling through the fridge lets you redirect that urge. It gives you time to realize that you really don’t want the chips, you just want to feel better or that the only reason you want to eat is that you can smell the garlic bread someone had for lunch! It gives you time to take control away from the craving and the emotional eating. Take a walk; meditate; turn on some music: they can all help and they don’t involve eating!

Fifth Step: Rest and relaxation.

We’ve all been told that stress and lack of sleep don’t help with weight loss, and a lot of us just roll our eyes and flip the page.  Going back to the flooding rowboat analogy, imagine that hole in your boat is stuck somewhere you can’t see it. You know that water is coming in but you don’t know where it’s coming from so you can’t fix it. Stress and lack of sleep take their toll on your body. Your body releases cortisol (the stress hormone) which triggers your body to release glucose for quick energy, which means- you guessed it! Insulin! Because most of our stress (including the sleep deprivation) is chronic and not associated with physical activity anymore (like running away from a bear), that means our body is always triggering cortisol, glucose and insulin! Your stress is that hidden hole in your boat that keeps letting water flood in! Learning to relax such as meditating, taking a walk, listening to music, playing with kids or pets, reading or hey, here’s an idea- taking a NAP: all of these can help with stress and getting your body to calm down some. You will be surprised at how much better you’ll feel physically and mentally! Even better, you’ll lose some weight!

 

 

Whole Foods are Habit Forming!: Weight Loss & Giving Up the Junk

We’ve all heard that junk food- and especially sugar- are addictive. To some extent that is true, but it’s true because we made it true! We’ve gotten accustomed to eating sugary junk food so that’s what our palates and subconscious have come to expect.  We are all familiar with Pavlov’s dog, only in our case we are the dog and sugar is the bell!

Anyone who has tried to make a New Year’s Resolution or build a new habit knows that it all comes down to repetition. You do it over and over and over again until it becomes lodged in our brains and we can do it without effort or even thinking about it.  It happened to me yesterday: I was leaving the office and as I got in my car, I reminded myself I had to pick up my dry cleaning and it had to be picked up that day. I put the claim ticket on my console, pulled out of the parking lot and got in the wrong lane out of habit! The dry cleaning was on the north and home was on the south so of course, like I do 95% of the time, I got in the south bound lane, after telling myself not to do it! What can I say? Habit won!

This same kind of repetition is how we end up craving sugar and junk food: we eat it over and over again! We aren’t born addicted to Hostess cupcakes and Lays potato chips, but because they end up in our mouths so often, we start to expect and then crave them. We don’t even taste them anymore: it’s just the sugar and carbs we are expecting!  Compared to sugar-rich snacks, foods like broccoli and spinach seem to come up short, but the same principles apply: if you eat them enough, eventually your palate and your subconscious will start to expect them!

It seems silly but it’s true.  A couple of years ago, I was out with friends celebrating a birthday and the guest of honor had chosen a pizza place.  There were lots of appetizers on the table like fried cheese and beer battered shrimp.  I had chosen an antipasto salad for my entree and after politely declining all the appetizers, when my entree arrived, I actually said “yay, salad!” out loud and I meant it when I said it. It still surprises me, because while I don’t hate veggies or salad, I didn’t realize until I saw it how much I was looking forward to the salad! I’d taught myself that salad was delicious.

Something similar happened just last week at the grocery store: I wanted Brussels sprouts for dinner.  I had salad greens in the fridge but on the way home, I started wanting (dare I say “craving”?) Brussels sprouts and I was so disappointed that the store was out of the fresh ones that I like! When I was a kid, you’d have to pay me to eat them, and now I was craving the dang things!

It’s all about repetition: we want the foods we are used to eating.  Our brains and our palates expect them on a regular basis. Dinner for me is usually salad, veggies or both along with some kind of meat: chicken, beef, lamb or pork.  When I get hungry, this is what my palate and my brain start looking for! Without thinking about it, I end up in the produce section of the stores looking at the lettuces: “baby spinach mix? butter lettuce?” Some times I mix it up with other produce like tomatoes, mushrooms, etc., but dinner for me usually begins with a big pile of green leaves!

Compared to what I used to eat regularly, salad can seem pretty blah. This is one of the biggest complaints when it comes to eating whole natural foods: “they don’t taste great.” Actually, it’s not that baby spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts don’t taste good: it’s that you aren’t used to eating them! Once you get used to eating whole foods, you develop a taste for them the way you developed a taste for those boxes of cupcakes and bags of potato chips.

Example: remember the first time you tasted beer? I am pretty sure you made a face! That first sip of beer is universally awful but as an adult, you certainly don’t think it tastes horrible.  You probably have your favorite brands and brews, but that first time? Ugh! So how did you get used to the taste of beer? By drinking it over and over, of course! (In high school, one of my sister’s friends got busted by her dad when he let her taste his beer and the fact that she didn’t make that face told him this wasn’t her first beer!)

The same thing happens in reverse: when you stop eating the junk food and sugar, it stops tasting good. You lose your taste for them. I used to eat a lot of fast food on a regular basis. I was seriously on a first name basis with the Jack in the Box drive-thru guy (his name was Dennis.) Once I stopped eating it for a few months, I decided to ‘treat’ myself to the same dinner I’d had several times a week for months. Same meal; same drive-thru, but what a difference! It certainly didn’t taste delicious and in truth it just tasted really weird to me! It wasn’t the food that changed: it was me!

It wasn’t just my palate that changed either. Not only did the fast food not taste good to me: it made me feel bad. It’s cliche to say ‘you are what you eat,’ but we all know how true that is. Changing what I ate not only changed my taste buds: it changed how I felt and how I looked. Not only did I lose 40 lbs by just giving up junk food, my skin looked better and I felt a whole lot better, emotionally and physically. It was a combination of not eating junk and eating more nutritious whole foods instead. Why eat the weird fast food that makes me feel like a blob when I can eat the fresh vegetables that make me feel good?

It is a lot like Pavlov’s dog: a learned response to stimulus. The sound of the bell is the sound of a treat! If we rang the bell and gave the dog something that tastes bad each time, he’s not going care how often you ring that bell! What you’ve got, he doesn’t want! Does all that junk food really taste good? Or are we just used to eating it?

Speed Up Your Health By Slowing Down: Weight Loss & Slow Food

Some of you might have heard about the “Slow Food Movement” in the restaurant industry (Slow Food).  Essentially, it’s about creating healthy nutritious food in a green sustainable community, which isn’t a bad idea.  There are a lot of reasons why slow food isn’t just good for the environment and local community but also good for you.

At the risk of sounding like your grandma, I am old enough to remember (barely!) when fast food was still something of a novelty. When I was a kid, the main street in my hometown had more drug stores, gift stores or Five-and Dimes than it did fast food chains and the fast food places it did have were local independents.  When the first McDonald’s opened in our town, it was kind of a big deal. Because fast food was still new, it wasn’t something we had every day or even on a regular basis.  Food made at home, from scratch, was more the norm.

It’s not just restaurants that have ‘fast food’ either. Processed foods were also something new back then and most of us thought of it as something good. We can make mashed potatoes in ten minutes instead of an hour. Macaroni and cheese takes fifteen minutes instead of all day.  Oatmeal and rice take no time at all now that we have microwaves! So now that fast food and processed food have been around ‘forever,’ how are those working out for us?  Ummmmmm…. let’s think about that!

For most of us, the best thing about processed food is that it saves us time. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. For holidays and family gatherings, I would spend most of the day in the kitchen with my grandma and my aunts.  That is where I learned to make all kinds of foods that I could probably get at a restaurant or in a grocery store now, but none of it would taste like what I made in that kitchen with my family. Not everything that came out of my grandma’s kitchen was completely homemade, but most of it started as a whole food.  Grandpa’s chile started with fresh jalapenos he cut up, garlic he peeled and mashed and pork steak he cut up himself.  The only can he opened was the tomato sauce.  All of those ingredients were sauteed and simmered for a couple of hours or so.  My grandma’s adobo recipe began with pork steak and chicken cut and boiled in vinegar and water with her blend of spices added.  After a couple of hours or so, it was served over rice that had been steaming on the stove next to it!

As a kid, most of the food we ate started out as whole potatoes, whole dried beans, whole chickens from the butcher and rice from bins at the grocery store.  Our salads were lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers that we washed and sliced or shredded ourselves. Making dinner wasn’t ten or fifteen minutes of opening a plastic bag while something heats up in the microwave.  Preparing food took longer because it started out as close to whole as possible!

A few years ago I was watching one of those chef competition shows with Gordon Ramsay, something I normally don’t watch, but I was glad I saw this episode. There were about five or so contestants who all touted their cooking skills as ‘chef quality’ and this show was to weed out the pretenders. The first chore? Take this whole chicken and cut it into eight equal pieces.  I was unimpressed with the task until most of these wannabe chefs looked at the chicken and their eyes glazed over: they had no idea what to do! REALLY?!?!  I’ve been cutting my own chickens since I was about twelve and I am certainly no chef! Even at twelve, I could have done a better job than some of them did.

Another incident I recall had to do with potato salad.  At a luncheon, I was talking to the woman next to me about potato salad (it came out of a box!) and I mentioned that when I made it, I sometimes added tuna to make it more of a main dish. When she asked me about making it, she commented “isn’t it hard to take the skin off all those little pieces of potato?” I waited to see if she was joking (she wasn’t) so I told her gently “You peel the potatoes before you cut them up and boil them.”

As I mentioned above, I am definitely not a chef and until incidents like those above, I never really considered how far away we have grown from whole natural unprocessed foods. Yes, they can take longer to prepare but they also have more nutrition and less chemical additives and stabilizers. Most of us know this but what we might not realize is that processed foods are quicker because they are in a lot of ways “pre-cooked” and “pre-digested.” That box of potato flakes are potatoes which have been so highly processed they have virtually no fiber or vitamins or minerals. They have virtually no protein and no fiber, although they do have a little potassium (150 mg) and iron and even less vitamin C.  What else is in those ‘potato flakes?’ Sometimes it’s stuff we can’t pronounce, let alone spell! (Ingredients in Instant Potatoes)  I am sure that comes as no surprise to a lot of us: there are chemicals in our processed foods! Yes, let’s all roll our eyes at that one!

Think about it for a minute: we are eating food with less nutrition but with more chemicals. How much of what we are eating is actually food? And what do those chemicals do to our bodies? While listening to a couple of my favorite books for the second time (The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung and Brainmaker by Dr. David Perlmutter), I was reminded of a few things. Margarine is only one molecule away from becoming plastic; transfats cannot be expelled from our bodies, and artificial sweeteners not only raise our insulin levels, they kill our gut bacteria. Humans invented most of these chemicals in the last century so they are absolutely foreign to our bodies. Our bodies have no idea how to process them or expel them, so some of them end up in our liver or fat permanently because these compounds are recognized as “food” (because they aren’t). There are a lot of chemicals in processed foods that were never intended to be “food,” such as the sawdust in your processed grated cheese.  The manufacturers put it in there to keep the cheese from clumping together but our digestive bacteria and our intestines don’t know what to do with it, so…. what happens to it? (Woody Cheese?)  FYI: it’s not just in Parmesan, either!

It’s not just about nutrition: processed food can get in the way of your weight loss. Remember I called it “pre-digested”? That’s because the manufacturers have already begun the digestion for you! That is why it takes less time to cook! Consider those mashed potatoes: when they are made from potato flakes, the potatoes have been cooked, dried out and then processed with chemicals so they won’t spoil on the shelves.  When you eat them, it takes no time at all to digest them because 90% of what your body would do to them has already been done to them! Mashed potatoes from whole potatoes have more vitamins and fiber because those parts haven’t been removed or broken down yet. A simpler example is broccoli: raw broccoli is a whole lot crunchier because the fiber isn’t broken down by the cooking process. It’s the same reason canned green beans are mushier than fresh or even thawed frozen green beans. The canning process requires cooking while freezing doesn’t.  This is why your nutritionist will tell you if you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen is the next best thing.  On the can, the label usually reads “green beans, water, salt” while your bag of frozen beans reads “green beans.” The biggest difference is the fiber and nutrition which aren’t lost in the cooking.

Faster processed food means it’s digested faster, hits our blood stream faster and so we get hungry again faster.  Add to that there is less nutrition in what we are eating but more stuff that is making us fatter, such as the carbs, transfats and sugars. As someone who eats a Paleo diet, rice is one of those things I like to stay away from, but it’s not the natural rice that makes people fat.  Many cultures using rice as a traditional staple in their diets weren’t obese until their diet became more Westernized.  It’s not the steamed rice that makes them fat: it’s the processed Western diet that did that! Real whole food takes longer to prepare, has more nutrition and is something your body knows how to digest. It also takes longer to be absorbed so we tend to stay full longer. It just makes more sense! One of my friends jokingly calls the processed cheese food she buys “plastic cheese” because of the individual plastic wrapper on each slice. She doesn’t know how right she is!

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking the Code: Weight Loss & The Secret Formula

On the surface, this looks like another No Brainer: how do you lose weight? Eat less, move more! Duhhhh….. except anyone who’s tried that knows it doesn’t work for long. Besides not working, it’s hard and it’s miserable!

If you were to ask ten random people of random weight on the street “why do people gain weight?”, you would likely get a variety of answers such as eating too much, eating too much sugar, eating too much junk food, eating too much fat, eating too many carbs,  not enough cardio, not enough weight lifting, not enough vegetables, etc.  There are as many answers as there are people on the street to ask! Are all of them wrong? Some of them have to be right, …right?

Well, yes and no.  I’m not being a smart-ass here. Because there isn’t just one reason we gain weight! Think back to some of the excuses we’ve given about why we’ve put on “a few extra pounds,” such as too many Girl Scout cookies; it was the holidays; missed a few workouts; been out more with friends than normal; a lot of stress; bad sleeping/ late nights, etc.  While most of us know they are excuses, we usually feel there’s a germ of truth to them and we are right: those are all possible reasons why we’ve gained a few pounds, but they are all just as likely not to be the sole reason we’ve gained weight!

In reality, it tends to be a formula: we mix a few sleepless nights, with some extra work related stress, throw in some missed workouts, a few (boxes of) Girl Scout cookies and other sugary carbs and then mix in some extra snacks and ta-daa! We’ve gained some weight! Congratulations on winning the Chubby Award! Now: how do we get rid of it?

We get rid of it pretty much the same way we got it: we have to undo that formula! The problem is that we didn’t take notes when we were gaining weight because we weren’t really paying attention. (If we’d been paying more attention, we probably wouldn’t have gained the weight we did!) Essentially, we need to follow a basic formula for weight loss and tweak it to fit our individual metabolism, and that formula is most definitely NOT “Eat Less, Move More!”

Remember those excuses listed above: cookies, holidays, stress, sleepless nights, snacking? Those are all part of the reason we gained weight. We all know that sugar and refined carbs such as bread, pasta and cereals are all broken down into sugar by our digestive tract. As quick carbs, they boost our blood sugar and insulin and then they get stored as fat in the body.  We also know that stress boosts our cortisol levels which means there is more glucose in our blood stream and glucose means insulin again, so again being chronically stressed translates to “stored as fat” by our bodies. The busy holidays and sleepless or late nights translate to “stress” so again: “stored as fat!” Constant snacking? “Stored as fat!” In order to convince our bodies that it is okay to burn fat and lose weight, we need to do a few things consistently! 

The simple formula to lose weight? 1) Reduce stress; 2) Avoid processed foods; 3) Stop snacking; 4) Fast more often.  A couple bonus tips: 1) Add a little vinegar to your diet; and 2) Add more fiber. Before you start rolling your eyes about fasting, this is not my weight loss formula. This is from The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung. Dr. Fung makes a few simple suggestions such as adding in more natural fats, more fiber, moderate protein consumption, managing stress and above all, avoid processed foods and constant snacking.

Geez, that almost sounds too simplistic! And a little nutty too! But before you cross off Dr. Fung as another kooky diet doctor, he’s arrived at this simple formula after years of working with diabetes patients.  Dr. Fung is a nephrologist, which means he’s a kidney doctor, and as anyone with diabetes can tell you, one of the biggest problems diabetics have is kidney failure. What’s the best way to stop kidney damage? Don’t get diabetes! What’s one way of not getting diabetes? Don’t get obese! After treating thousands of obese diabetics, he’s learned a few things about what makes people fat. His simple answer is insulin resistance (insulinemia). In short, chronically high insulin leads to insulin resistance which leads to weight gain. If you want to lose weight, you need to reduce your insulin resistance. Most of us jump right to cutting out refined carbs and sugars (which is a great idea) but we usually don’t think of the other two major culprits with insulin. It’s not just about keeping your blood sugar low: it’s about keeping your insulin levels low too.  We mistakenly believe that if our blood sugar is low, our insulin is too, and it’s not the case.

We all know the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat.  Most of us have been taught to avoid fat at all costs, and many of us also avoid carbs too, so that means we go whole hog on the protein! What we don’t realize is that too much protein gets converted to glucose. Our bodies can store fat and carbs but they can’t store protein, so it gets converted to glucose and then it’s converted to fat! (Yes! That healthy protein ends up on our butt!) Protein also raises our insulin levels, though not as much as carbs, and fat has nearly no effect on our insulin at all.

Most of us also know that whole food carbs such as fruit and veggies have less of blood sugar spike than processed carbs like bread and sugar. Whole foods have a lot of fiber so they are absorbed more slowly and there is less of a spike. Also, all that fiber makes us full faster and we stay full longer. Ever know anyone to eat a whole pound of Brussels sprouts at one meal? Compare that with someone eating a whole box of cookies or an entire pint of ice cream. Fiber = full!

So we moderate the protein, cut back on the processed foods, add in some healthy fats (avocados have healthy fat plus plenty of fiber too!), manage our stress and we still don’t lose weight? That’s because most of us are still doing the number one behaviors that keeps our insulin levels high: we snack. How many of us have been told that ‘constant grazing’ will keep us thin? As Dr. Fung states, “if we were meant to graze, we’d be cows!” To be blunt: any food raises our insulin, and when we keep snacking all day long, our insulin never gets the chance to drop! Because it never goes down, our bodies become resistant to it, and the vicious cycle continues.

Here’s a simple example of what happens with insulin resistance. I live between two churches which both have schools, behind a hospital with a helipad and within two blocks of a fire station.  When I am home, I hear school bells, church bells, helicopters and sirens all day long. I have heard them so often that I don’t pay attention to them anymore. In fact, a few years ago, I took a trip with some friends and our motel room was literally across the street from a fire station (we could see it from the room’s door).  The morning after our first night, everyone was complaining about the constant sirens during the night- except me! Because I heard them all the time, my brain stopped noticing them! When our insulin is high all the time, it becomes the sirens which we eventually stop hearing, so we have to make them louder to get noticed. That means we secrete more and more insulin to be effective. The only way to get insulin low and keep it there (so we notice it) is to stop eating! It means no snacking! It also means skipping a few meals now and then.

It doesn’t mean we have to starve ourselves in order to lose weight, but it does mean we need to be sensible about how often we eat. Most of us have been told that we need to eat three meals and three snacks during the day. In fact, my favorite food journal comes with Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner headings, along with Mid-Morning Snack, Mid-Day Snack and Evening Snack! Even if they are ‘healthy whole foods,’ I am sure Dr. Fung would agree with Dr. Nowzaradan’s emphatic proclamation “there is no such thing as a healthy snack!” (My 600 lb Life, TLC) Even a healthy snack keeps our insulin levels elevated, and the only way to lose weight is to lower our insulin and keep it low! Three meals a day are more than enough. It also won’t kill us to skip a meal or two, especially if we aren’t hungry! Dr. Fung makes a clear distinction between ‘starving’ our bodies with chronically reduced calorie intake vs. intermittent fasting, which is periods of low to no calories in-between periods of regular calorie intake.

This idea of not eating every two hours or so might seem kind of weird since a lot of us grew up being constantly fed. Skipping a couple meals or more probably seems crazier, but the simple truth is the more often we eat, the bigger we get. To drop those “few extra pounds,” we have to drop our insulin levels, and that means making some changes to what and when we eat. In his book, Dr. Fung offers some level-headed advice: “Listen to your grandma! ‘No snacking!'”

For a quick summary of Dr. Fung’s book, see Fast Life Hacks: The Obesity Code

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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!

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!

 

 

Getting Out of Our Own Way: Weight Loss & Personal Responsibility

Humans love blame. We like pointing at someone or something and saying “it’s their fault!” This is especially true with weight and eating: it takes away our responsibility. If we aren’t in control of our circumstances, then how can we be to blame for what we did– or didn’t– do?

This is one of the most popular excuses when it comes to weight loss: “I couldn’t do it because of XYZ.”  I couldn’t eat healthy because it’s too expensive, because I didn’t have time to cook or I was too tired.  It’s the same when it comes to working out: start the litany of excuses here–  too tired, too busy, too expensive, etc.! We look at these as reasons or explanations but however you want to paint them, underneath all that whitewash they are still just excuses. We know that even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves or anyone else.

How do I know they are excuses? Because we make the time and effort to do the things we want to do! How many of us have been “too busy” to get to the gym but we manage to make that sale at Pier 1? We are “too tired” to make a healthy dinner but we manage to stay up late enough to catch up on the Game of Thrones episodes we’ve missed?  We can’t afford the “healthy” groceries but we can still make it to TGI Fridays for beer and appetizers with our friends?

Obviously, we aren’t bad people nor are we lazy either.  Our priorities have just gotten a little skewed and rather than admit “I’d rather watch tv than go to the gym,” we come up with an excuse, as much for ourselves as for others. Most of us believe that watching tv, skipping the gym or sharing potato skins and beer with our friends means that we aren’t taking our weight and health seriously, and not putting those things first means that we’re bad people. Rather than admit to being “bad,” we create excuses and blame circumstances or other people for these supposed character flaws.

While I don’t want to give tacit permission for everyone to blow off their workouts and gobble down junk food, there is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself!  Personal responsibility doesn’t mean that you have to be “good” 24/ 7 or you are a lazy bad junk food addict: it means that you own your decisions.  If you’d rather binge some mindless tv or have a few beers with friends, then own the decision.  You are taking some time for YOU!  The problem comes when we construct an excuse rather than take responsibility for making a decision.

As Elizabeth Benton points out in her book Chasing Cupcakes [Chasing Cupcakes Book], if you have to rationalize your decision, it’s probably an excuse. No one rationalizes having Brussels sprouts instead of pizza. No one rationalizes going to the gym or passing on the beer and nachos! But switch those around and we are more than eager to explain why we had to have the pizza, beer and nachos and bail on our workout.  Owning our decisions means that we take responsibility for what we choose to do or not to do.  This means it’s an actual decision and not an excuse. You made a choice; you are not a victim of circumstance!

While this may not seem like it really matters, when it comes to weight loss, personal responsibility is extremely important.  Remember what I said at the beginning about excuses absolving us of responsibility? If we are not responsible, it means we have no power and are helpless to change our situation. It also makes it easier to confuse an excuse with a legitimate reason.

Some of you know I commute two hours for my job.  Usually, I go straight from my job to the gym on workout days, but if I am stuck in traffic and arrive late or not at all, that’s not an excuse: it’s a reason.  Had it not been for the traffic congestion, I would have made it to the workout.  If I just don’t feel like going and then blame it on the ‘bad traffic,’ that’s an excuse! There’s difference between the traffic interfering with my workout and my saying “I don’t want to go.” Do l really need a ‘reason’ not to go to my workout? Of course not! My going or not going has always been a voluntary choice but when I start giving myself excuses and believing them, I am giving away my power to control my circumstances.

There are a lot of examples of these power-stealing excuses on My 600 lb Life.  The patient hasn’t lost weight and it’s her family’s fault because they don’t want to eat healthy.  They just moved and they don’t have any way to cook healthy food so he’s had to eat takeout.  The patients complaint they are at the mercy of their family who brings them the food they eat. As Dr. Nowzaradan points out, just because the family brings them pizza, burgers & fries or chocolate cake doesn’t mean they have to eat it! “No one is shoving that food in your mouth!” We’ve all heard the expression “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” They are eating the junk food because they want to and using their families as the excuse not to change their eating habits.

Most of us are probably thinking, “well, duh! They eat it because they want it!” Hello, no brainer here! But for these patients, thinking that they don’t have to eat it is something of a paradigm shift.  They believe the excuses are really reasons. They really do have a choice when it comes to what they eat, whether they are at the mercy of their family or not. If the family wants pizza, they don’t have to eat it. If the family brings home burgers, again they can say no to eating burgers.  When one patient said he ate it because “I gotta eat something,” Dr. Nowzaradan’s response was “you’ve got 800 lbs of food on you– you don’t have to eat something!”

When we make excuses for not going to the gym, for eating potato chips or for pounding a pint of ice cream, we give away our power to control our decisions and make positive changes in our lives.  When we own our decisions, we are keeping that power. That doesn’t mean every decision we make will be a good one. I know I make quite a few that I really regret! But when that happens, that is my opportunity to look at it and tell myself “That was a dumb one! How can I avoid doing that again?” But when we hide behind an excuse, we turn ourselves into victims of circumstance. Instead of taking responsibility, we are at the mercy of others, be our families or the cruddy commuter traffic: “I can’t help it!”  Most of the time, that’s not true: we just don’t like feeling like a failure because of our choices. If we aren’t in control of the situation, we can’t be to blame, but when we give away our control, we can improve either. It really is our choice.