The Weight of Self-Worth

A friend of mine on MFP (My Fitness Pal) recently posted about “Plus Size Day.” Apparently it’s a day to celebrate being “plus-sized.”  In his post, he mentioned a parade full of larger people and how the news snippets were full of larger women making nasty comments about skinny people.  He concluded his post about how this day is to promote being the best You you can be, whatever your size, and he voiced his own concerns that maybe the best You doesn’t carry an extra 100 lbs.

While I realize he was just putting his opinion out there, this is the attitude I have lived with all my life. I’ve been overweight all my life and I’ve heard all the comments, from sad & pitying, to nasty & snide, to the passive aggressive- all of them.  Most of them now I just ignore: ignorant people will continue to be ignorant no matter what I tell them, but occasionally, they still make me mad. I understand why some of those larger women are angry: like me, they’ve spent their entire lives being told there is something wrong with them; they are somehow broken/ substandard/ a failure; or they are just flat out ugly. They don’t meet some arbitrary social standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘acceptable.’

People might think that thin has always been pretty but there was a time when plump and curvy was the standard for pretty.  Having curves, wide hips and an ample bosom meant you were prime for bearing children and survival.  Thin meant poverty, possible miscarriage and malnutrition.  When the most important thing a woman could bring to a marriage was her ability to produce offspring, choosing thin meant betting long odds, whereas plump was almost a sure thing. (For men, plump meant being a successful  provider.)

Obviously those days are long past, but the idea of beauty being relative hasn’t changed.  Every February, the media is full of biologists’ reports about the ‘biological recipe for attraction,’ and how some physical attributes or gestures cue us on a biological or subconscious level that someone is a potential mate or is attracted to us.  Whatever science and biology may dictate, attractiveness is still defined by the individual.  We still bring our own personal values to the table, and these include our values about ourselves.

In one respect those old platitudes are correct: if we don’t value and respect ourselves, no one else will either.  When we look at ourselves and see someone who is disgusting, unworthy, ugly, stupid or hopeless, it shows.  We communicate those ideas and attitudes to others, and worse yet, they are reflected back to us by them and over time, those beliefs become firmly entrenched in our psyche.  We are unworthy and unlovable and we have nothing of value to offer anyone else.  Whether those ideas start in ourselves and come back to us or come from outside and become part of us is irrelevant.  If we believe it, it becomes our truth. 

This is what I and almost every overweight person has been told for as long as they have been overweight.  Most of you reading this have been on the receiving end of a lot of free advice about how to lose weight; unsolicited attempts at ‘motivating’ you to lose weight; plenty of incentives to be thinner; and more than a few nasty comments about being a glutton, including the not-so-subtle implications that gluttony is a mortal sin and my being fat is sending me to Hell (thank you, Catholic school!) As a kid, I got them all the free and supposedly helpful advice about how to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with me; what I didn’t get was the idea that I’m fine just the way I am. When I was a kid, I probably carried an extra 20 lbs through middle school but the more people tried to ‘fix’ me, the more weight I gained, so by the time I hit high school, I was probably close to 200 lbs if not there already, and I kept slowly gaining weight. By the time I hit college, I was definitely over 250 and heading towards 300.

And the bigger I got, the more I heard about how flawed and unacceptable I was. My mom (the chief proponent of this attitude) pretty much gave up on me at that point.  Whatever was wrong with me, she wasn’t going to waste her time trying to fix me.  But I still got lots of criticism from the rest of society, because by then, I wasn’t just ‘plump and curvy’; I was certifiably FAT! I was the definition of ugly; of lazy; of gluttony. I had no redeeming values at all, because I was defined by my weight.  Whatever my mind or spirit might have to offer is completely negated by my fat body.

This idea that who I am is defined by how much weight I carry and what I look like eventually completely p*ssed me off.  Someone else was determining my value based entirely on what he or she saw, rather than who I actually was.  I was repeatedly being told by my professors and administrators and -yes, the same society that was condemning me- that it is flat out wrong to judge someone by their ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or physical capabilities, but it’s totally okay to call me a loser because of my weight! How stupid is that? Everyone is to be judged on the content of their character, except for that fat chick over there- she’s worthless because she weighs 300 lbs.

This is why I stopped listening to other people’s opinions of me and my weight.  It’s why when my mom decided to try and ‘fix’ me again (after my sister stopped talking to her), I pretty much ignored her attempts.  I would come home and find diet books left on my doorstep followed by a voicemail asking if I got the book she left: I just stacked them in a corner, and over the years, the stack got taller and taller, and dustier and dustier.  While I realize that part of her motivation was my slowly declining health, her attempts at ‘fixing’ me were accompanied by more of the same dangling incentives: I’d have all the guys I wanted; she’d buy me a brand new wardrobe; I’d be ‘gorgeous.’  Because obviously, I wasn’t attractive to anyone at my weight! (FYI: I didn’t tell her about my boyfriends because they sure didn’t share her attitude!)

I can’t lie and say I didn’t want to lose weight despite ignoring my mom’s and everyone else’s criticisms.  My desire to lose weight came not from thinking of myself as worthless, but instead came from my growing inability to do the things I wanted to do.  It’s hard to walk around and be active when you’re carrying 400 lbs.  The pain in my knees had more to do with my desire to be thinner than anything my mom had to tell me. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or end up diabetic or have to sleep with an oxygen mask because my independence was far more important to me than the opinions of strangers. While I wasn’t happy being 400 lbs, I did my best not to allow it to dictate my life any more than I allowed other’s opinions of me to do so either.  I lived my life the way I wanted to live my life.  I became the best Me I could be, whatever my size.  For the most part, I am still that same person: I do what I want, say what I want and think what I want. The only difference is that now I weigh 185 lbs less. I am the best Me I can be, despite carrying that “extra 100 lbs” my friend mentioned in his post.  Although I am still losing weight, it’s not so that I can hit my “ideal weight” or some arbitrary “goal weight” set by some doctor or BMI chart; it’s because I value my independence.  I like being able to do all the things I want to do, and I like trying new things.  Being thinner and healthier has added more valuable activities and abilities to my life, but at the same time, I also know that I am still obese. That “extra 100 lbs” is still there and strangers still judge me by my weight.  And you know what? I still don’t care. Who I am is not what I weigh, nor am I defined by what other people think of me.

Making Problems: White-Knuckling, Deadlines & Ultimatums with Weight Loss

For many years, I worked at a bankruptcy law firm aka The Job From Hell.  The job was great, but the boss was ‘Insert Expletives Here.’  One of the things I learned at that job was that most of our clients’ problems were problems they had made themselves.  I used to quip “our clients make their own problems, and they are good at what they do!”  It helped me realize that, yep! I’m also good at making my own troubles!

When it comes to fitness and weight loss- especially- we need to face this reality: most of our problems are problems we made.  Part of it really is our own manufacturing and I think part of it is problem-solving mentality.  We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and I’d like to change that to “if you’re focusing on the problem, you’re not looking for the solution.”  I was talking to another legal assistant recently whose boss was on his way back from a cross-country flight.  Part of their practice requires that they publish legal notices and, short version, they need to pick up the court filing in one city (not where their office is) and submit it in yet another city, none of which are close to their home office, so the assistant was saying: “that will be an entire day on the road right after he’s back from his trip and he has a court appearance that morning.”  I asked him about sending a messenger. (Court runners/ messengers are an entire industry for just that very reason.)  “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea!”  The assistant was so focused on the problem that he was missing a very obvious solution (anyone not so involved would have suggested a runner.)

We do the same thing: we focus on the problem to the point that we can’t see any solutions that present themselves. Some people will do it out of a need for drama.  They like being frantic or being the center of attention: look at me! I have so many problems! Just FYI: no one gets points for being a drama queen/ king! In order to find a solution, you have to step back from Drama Mode and start looking at ways around or through the problem. Sometimes it really is hard, because the problems can cause anxiety (the cause of the drama) and it’s hard to remain objective. This is where you might want to talk to someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the problem and get some objective opinions (like my fellow legal assistant did).  Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit your problem to someone else (“Every time I fight with my mom, I eat a pint of ice cream or all the cookies or anything that’s left in the house.”) No one likes sharing dirty laundry but if you really want a solution to the problem that you are too close to, then you need to get an objective opinion from someone who is: 1) not going to point fingers; 2) not emotionally invested; 3) can offer a reasonable solution.  If your spouse is tired of listening to you complain about fighting with your mom or your eating everything in sight or is just going to tell you to ‘deal with it,’ then do not ask your spouse.  This might be one of those problems that you post on My Fitness Pal or you ask a level-headed friend about.

Then there are the Problems We Make Ourselves.  (I’m not including mom in here because ’emotional eating due to mom’ is kind of a reaction that we can learn to get a handle on once we’re feeling more confident.)  The Problems We Make Ourselves are things like white-knuckling it or creating deadlines and ultimatums. These largely come from Dieting Mentality aka tunnel-vision.  Dieting Mentality is thinking along the lines of “I just need to get to X date or X goal, and then I’m done!”  I see this a lot on My 600 lb Life, but we’ve all done it: “I only have to hang on until I lose 20 lbs and then I’m good!”  In the case of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients on the show, prior to scheduling them for weight loss surgery, he always has his patients lose a certain amount of weight to prove they can control their eating habit.  Many times the patients fall right into Dieting Mentality: I only need to control myself long enough to get the surgery and then the surgery will solve everything!  NOT SO! and Dr. Nowzaradan is the first to tell them that the surgery will only limit the amount of food they can eat at one time; they can still eat all day and still gain weight after the surgery! Dieting Mentality is pretty much the default mentality for a lot of us when it comes to losing weight or changing our eating habits.  It’s natural, and not just for weight loss.  We do the same thing when it comes to money also: I can’t buy anything until after payday, and then I can go shopping!  But weight loss, fitness or money, it’s all the same thinking and it’s that thinking that gets us into trouble with eating, going to the gym and draining the bank account.

Dieting Mentality has a deadline attached to it: this current way of eating ‘ends’ either on this date or when you reach this weight, so we just need to white-knuckle it until we ‘get there.’  This tunnel-vision thinking keeps us from looking at our situation any other way, which keeps us in the same vicious cycle: “I need to lose 20 lbs for Special Occasion, so I’m going to white-knuckle it until I reach Deadline and then I’m done!  I have to make my Goal or I’ve failed!” With Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients, it’s much more drastic, since they need to lose hundreds of pounds because their health is at serious risk, and I think it contributes to much of their Dieting Mentality, but 20 lbs or 220 lbs, when we approach weight loss, working out and better nutrition, we all tend to have the same focus on an End Point, whether a Goal Weight or a Date. We go into the process thinking that I only have to ‘be good’ until the End Point, and then I can go back to eating the way I like to eat.

Our thoughts and our focus are creating these problems.  If we don’t approach weight loss, good nutrition and fitness with a Dieting Mentality, how much easier would it be? How does not having an End Point change our thinking about losing weight, eating better and being more active? For some of us, it is pure panic: “Aack!! I have to eat like this forever?!?”  Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m telling you, and that’s why I’m also telling you- as several much more educated health professionals will also tell you- that diets don’t work for this very reason!  If you only want to lose enough weight to fit into an outfit you’re going to wear once at the aforementioned Special Occasion, then follow the diet.  But, if you want to improve your health overall by losing weight, being more active and getting better nutrition, a diet may get you there temporarily.  Staying there means sticking to the diet forever.  The problem is that most diets- as we all know- are pretty extreme, which makes them impossible to stick with long term.  This is why Dieting Mentality is the curse that keeps us trapped in the vicious cycle of constant dieting: we lose the weight, gain it back off the diet, go back on the diet, lose the weight, gain it back, ad infinitum. 

Try looking at it this way: we didn’t gain that 60 lbs because we went to Disneyland and ate all the treats or we went on that cruise and at two desserts every night.  Those probably contributed a few pounds to the 60, but the real cause of those 60 lbs on our butt and thighs is eating a bag of Cheetos during The Walking Dead each week and half a bag of Oreos during Survivor, and grabbing a donut in the break room each Friday and scrolling through Facebook and Instagram all day on the weekends. Those 60 lbs are the product of a LIFESTYLE, not an event like a Queen of the South binge with pizza and beer.  Dieting Mentality is focused on the ‘events;’ real permanent change comes with a lifestyle. If we approach weight loss, fitness and nutrition like a new lifestyle (as in smaller healthy changes that are permanent), then we don’t have to worry about white-knuckling it, deadlines or any ultimatums, because there are none!  How many of us beat ourselves up when we get emotional (as in ‘fight with mom’) and eat all the Cheez-its? (Me, raising my hand here!) Same goes for the donuts in the break room on Friday or going to a friend’s for a Game of Thrones binge with burgers and beer. We don’t have to white-knuckle it and bring our veggie coconut wrap and lime-infused water so we can ‘be good.’ (I’m also not saying eat five double cheeseburgers and finish off a six-pack!)  But if we approach this as a lifestyle of choosing healthier foods and activities that is on-going rather than an extreme race with a finish line, then we can have a burger and a beer and maybe even some chips without beating ourselves up.  We can have half a donut or even a whole one and we can enjoy a scoop of ice cream as we’re watching zombies get blown away.  The biggest problem with weight loss and good nutrition isn’t what to eat or how much to eat; it’s the problems we make ourselves by putting a deadline on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective: Seeing the Elephant in the Room

One of the best things about being an eminently employable English major is that I come across a lot of different literature from many different cultures.  One of my favorites is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”  It’s an Indian parable about perspectives found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, so all we really know about its origins is that it is ancient.  The story goes that six blind men learn that an elephant was brought to their village and having not experienced one before, they go to “see” the animal with their hands.  Each man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different viewpoint than the others.  One feels the tusk and determines that an elephant is like a spear; another feels its tail and concludes it looks like a rope; another feels the ear and thinks it looks like a fan; another feels its leg and says it looks like a tree trunk; one feels its side and believes an elephant is like a wall; and the last touches its trunk and believes the elephant is like a snake.  From there, the story varies with the text but the point is that each is seeing only one part and one perspective of the elephant. In order to really determine what an elephant looks like, they need to see the whole creature or at least compare their findings, because each of them is correct about the part that they touched, but none of them is correct in what an elephant truly looks like.

Perspective is massively important when it comes to weight loss, health and fitness, and it’s where so many of us get in trouble.  It’s easy to lose weight if you don’t care about being healthy, and the same is true about fitness. Most of us think in terms of “losing weight” or “getting fit,” but neither of those are important if we don’t think in terms of Being Healthy (the whole elephant.)  When I was in college, I had a roommate who was also overweight.  We really commiserated over it because we both liked a lot of the same foods and we both tried being vegetarian and both of us ended up gaining weight.  I ran into her a few years after she moved out (both of us were in the pharmacy line, FYI) and I didn’t recognize her because she had lost so much weight.  Unfortunately, it was due to Type I diabetes.  Her pancreas had stopped functioning and now she was insulin dependent. She had to check her blood sugar several times a day and inject insulin before every meal to control her blood sugar. I remember her telling me she had always dreamed of losing weight, but this was not how she thought it would happen.  She was over a hundred pounds thinner than she had been when she lived with me but she certainly was not healthy.  Even worse, she was pregnant with her second child which put both her life and her baby’s at risk!

When we approach weight loss or fitness, we can’t just focus on the one aspect that we want to prioritize, otherwise we lose sight of the whole elephant. “Being thin” or “being muscular” is of no importance if you aren’t healthy also.  Some of you know that I lost an aunt in 2003 due to complications from anorexia.  She’d had a gastric bypass, which in my opinion she did not need as she barely weighed 200 lbs, but the end result was that she stopped eating, which is not an uncommon side effect of the bypass.  Ultimately, she ended up collapsing, catching an infection and dying. She was the same age as I am now, and while I’m not exactly young anymore, I have a lot to look forward to and so did she. But she had also always dreamed of being thin, and for months prior to her death, family members had been begging her to see a doctor, because it was so painfully obvious that she was not healthy or happy.  Unfortunately, no one could help her.

Some of us do the same thing with exercise: we lose sight of our overall health, which is what really matters.  We’ve all heard the stories of people who over-exercise, or eat and then work out super hard to burn off all the calories they ate.  Some of us try to “out exercise” a bad diet, but most nutritionists and doctors will tell you that 90% of weight loss comes through your food choices and the remaining 10% is your activity. Basically, you can exercise until your arms fall off but if you’re eating donuts and drinking Pepsi every morning for breakfast, you’re not going to be accomplishing much!

Most of us are in a hurry to reach our goals- I know I am! But over-training and starving ourselves isn’t the way to “get cut” and/ or “get thin.”  Drastically cutting calories and working out really really hard are stressors on the body, so our body goes into conservation mode if we stick with these practices for a long time.  We will probably lose some weight and maybe build some muscle at first, but the longer we stick with it, the more the body begins to conserve its fat stores.  This looks like it might be a famine or some kind of catastrophe: basically a lot of hard work and not a lot of calories coming in.  The body’s first priority is survival: nothing else matters if it (i.e. YOU) don’t survive another day, so it takes steps to make sure you last as long as possible.  This is why Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up gaining weight eating 1000 calories a day: their bodies have slowed their metabolisms so much after a prolonged period of starvation and hard exercise (i.e. the tv show), that now any calories coming in over the subsistence level gets stored! The body is trying to protect itself against another catastrophe where it (the ‘winner’) drastically lost weight.

Obviously, that is not a healthy situation to be in.  I really want to lose a lot of weight and I’d really like to have more muscles, especially as I’m getting older.  I don’t want to be the helpless old lady (with the zillion cats!) but I also know that it’s going to take some time to lose weight and gain muscle in a healthy way.  That means growing long term healthy habits like eating for nutrition without starving myself and being more active without over-training or injuring myself.  Both of those mean that it’s going to take some time, since my body and metabolism are going to make slow healthy adaptations to my new lifestyle.  I need to keep my eye on the ultimate goal of Being Healthy rather than my chosen perspective of Being Thin.  As I’ve learned the hard way, being thin doesn’t count for much if you’re too sick to enjoy it.

Connected: Being Part of a Pack- er- Tribe?

I recently heard a podcast about ‘Longevity village’ in China.  This is an isolated village (or at least it used to be!) where the residents routinely live 100 years or pretty close to it.  Once researchers found out about it, they naturally had to figure out why these people were living so long and were so healthy. From what I heard, most of it was the obvious: hard physical work that keeps them mobile most of the day; getting up and going to bed with the sun; clean fresh food and water; natural optimism when it comes to stress; and strong social connections.  The strong social connections is what catches a lot of people by surprise.  What does it matter if you have a positive social network?  Being a devoted pet parent, it’s easier for me to understand than for someone who doesn’t spend 90% of their time around four legged individuals.

Some of you know I am a hard core TLC addict, and I’ve been seeing ads for a new show called The Putmans, which has yet to premiere.  It’s about an extended family all living in one home, which is about 25 people.  I grew up in an atypical family and although we didn’t all live in the same household, we regularly interacted.  If any of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, my family was really similar.  There’s the scene where Tula gets busted because her cousin sees her with her boyfriend who tells her aunt who gets in her face about him.  That was pretty much how I grew up: lots of relatives who all live in the same town so we run into each other all over.  We also had a tradition of getting together on Sunday afternoon/ evenings.  We would eat dinner and spend time talking, playing games or passing around parts of the newspaper.  Usually the television would be off and any devices would be put away.  This was time we spent being together and holidays were simply to ‘all day version’ of Sunday afternoons.  These weekly get-togethers ended when my grandparents passed away (we met at their house) and they are one of the things that I miss most.  Although I still connect with my family, it’s mainly over the phone or through social media.  While the host of the podcast feels this is still a viable connection, for me, it lacks the real connection of being in the same room with them.

SinceI grew up having my family around me, it was normal to stop at a bakery or business where a relative worked.  Seeing them in stores or around town was and still is normal.  Even as a child I was very aware that this was not how it was with most of my classmates and colleagues (my grandparents lived into their 90’s, so this tradition lasted well into my 40’s).  I also came to realize that for friends and colleagues who grew up in other countries that this was very normal for them.  For them, running into a relative while shopping or having coffee with friends was just part of every day life and most of my foreign-born friends soon came to realize that most American families have a different idea of ‘family.’

I’m not criticizing anyone’s idea of ‘family,’ but having grown up with one version and now living a more ‘standardized’ version, I know which version I prefer.  I miss the connections and interactions with family, and while many of them are happy connecting through social media, I’m pretty lame when it comes to apps like Facebook or Instagram. The important aspect is the Connection.  Humans are social creatures and we don’t do well in isolation. This is what makes positive social interaction important to our health.

There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment, not only in prisons but also as children.  Remember all those times we misbehaved and got sent to our room?  It’s solitary confinement: if you can’t work well or play well others, then you’re going to be alone.  Across the world, cultures have traditionally used a form of isolation or ostracism to punish those who disrupt the society at large, and it tends to be successful.  Loneliness is a huge problem, even in our cyber-connected society, and it leads to a host of health problems.  As the author of The Longevity Plan pointed out, people who have strong and positive social connections live about seven years longer than those without them.

Having grown up with pets all my life, I have seen the interaction among them.  Dogs are as social as humans are and while we travel in ‘tribes’ and dogs travel in ‘packs,’ it’s all the same thing: this is my social unit.  We eat together, we sleep together, we play together and we work together.  This is how we survive. (Cats are less social, but they also strengthen their societal bonds in the same ways.) If any of you are familiar with Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps, our closest primate cousins also travel in tribes and follow the same kinds of bonding behaviors: grooming; sleeping; eating; playing; working.  We are more successful, productive and safer in our groups. A chimp, dog, cat or human is far safer in their group than on their own.

I have a very clear memory of when I began living alone, or at least being the only human in my house. It was the day my sister moved away to college: I said good bye and watched her drive away and as I walked back into the house, I realized that I was alone.  More specifically, I realized that changing the lightbulb in the garage had new implications for me: if I fell off the ladder, it could be days before anyone realized something had happened to me. This is one of the reasons ’emergency pendants’ are such big business now: more of us live alone and face the same dangers.

Falling off the ladder aside, positive social connections promote a positive outlook.  When we’re happy, we have others to share our joy and when we’re upset or angry, we have others to commiserate and share our burden. We have others to help with a project, come up with plans or even help with the physical labor. Remember the expression ‘many hands make light work’? Being alone makes everything harder, even the every day tasks most of us don’t really think about.  Living alone, if I don’t do the dishes, they sit in the sink until I do them.  The same with throwing out the trash, making a meal, doing the laundry, and the shopping and the rest of the housework.  If I don’t do it, there is no one else in my house who will.  That means all of the work falls to me, which means I have less time to pursue things I enjoy or to socialize.

Even taking care of my pets falls to the sole human in the pack (2 cats, 1 dog, 1 human).  I notice a lot of the same bonding behavior among us even though we are different species: they will all groom each other, play with each other, sleep next to each other and eat together.  As the lone biped, I am not exempt: they include me as much as they can with playing, licking and sitting on me.  When we go to sleep at night, all four of us end up in the same room and usually on the same bed. I realize that most people think it’s pretty weird to consider animals as part of a family unit, but I really grew up treating them as people (they are a Who not an It.) I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter so much what we interact with so much as the fact that we do interact.  If we feel we are connected and feel the benefits of those connections, then it doesn’t matter if the connection is with a phone, a tablet or a dog or a cat.  We benefit from knowing that we are not alone.  Recently, in fact, I was at home without my dog since I had returned from a trip on a Sunday and could not pick him up until the following day.  When I went to bed that night, I was very aware that there was no dog in my house and I didn’t feel as safe as I do when he is there (he’s all of 12 lbs!) The cats were also aware that one of our pack was missing and were looking for him in the house, which felt oddly empty without his bouncing around. I know my furry little family unit looks a lot different than most and while they may not be human, they are most definitely my tribe.

Motivation: Why v How

Let’s start with the obvious: motivation is hard.  I don’t know anyone who jumps out of bed, saying “I can’t wait to get to the gym and bust my butt doing burpees and pull-ups!” (If that’s you, please introduce yourself: I’d like to know what planet you’re from!) The irony is that most of us usually feel pretty great after we’ve been to the gym or the pool or done whatever workout we prefer.  Even if we’re exhausted, our mood is usually up and we feel proud of ourselves and a lot of times, we feel really strong physically.  That’s pretty much our reward for getting our butts out of bed and working our bodies.  The problem is that before we get our butts up, we pretty much feel like slugs- at least I do anyway! I don’t want to get up; I don’t want to change into workout clothes or my swimsuit; I don’t want to get down to the gym.  Why can’t I just stay at home and do other stuff I want to do?  Whiny, I know!  Actually, the first thought that usually goes through my day when the alarm clock goes off is “I hate getting up!” It’s almost reflex: the clock goes off- “I hate getting up!” and yes, there is an emphasis on the word ‘hate.’

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that I really like my job and my boss, I like driving the commute everyone else thinks is horrible and that once I get to work or in the car, I really like my day. It’s the getting up and getting started that’s hard, and that’s because we have to find the motivation.

Purists point out that there is a difference between Motivation and Inspiration, but as far as the dictionary is concerned, they are synonyms.  Motivation/ Inspiration is the reason for doing something.  In the Weight Loss world, they like to talk about your Why, as in “why do you want to lose weight?”  People usually say things like “I have kids and I want to see them grow up and have kids of their own”; “I want to take a trip to Wherever and I want to enjoy it”; or “I don’t want to be old and helpless.” Experts always point out that ‘revisiting your Why’ is a good way to keep yourself motivated.

But seriously, the connection between your Why and getting your butt out of bed to go to the gym or not eat the pretzels or buying the healthier whole foods is a lot like the old nursery rhyme: you remember the one that goes “For want of a nail, a kingdom is lost”?  [“For want of a nail, a horeshoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a rider was lost; for want of a rider, a message was lost; for want of a message, a battle was lost; for want of a battle a kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a nail.”] It’s about drawing the connections between the Big Picture and the Little Picture, but this is usually where we lose our motivation. Most of us rationalize our decision to give in to what we want now: we’ve been under a lot of stress; we’ve been working really hard; it’s just one day/ donut; the store doesn’t have the brand of whatever; does this one thing really really matter in the Big Picture? This is where we need to connect the dots and remind ourselves of our Motivation: “I really want to enjoy walking all over Disneyland/ New Orleans/ Paris”; “I really want to have fun playing with my kids/ grandkids/ dogs.”

I’ll be honest: trying to connect to my Why doesn’t work much for me.  Yes, I’d love to be really fit and strong and be able to take the steps to the top of the Tower of London or wherever else, but telling myself that this oatmeal raisin cookie and caramel macchiato are going to stop me from doing that really doesn’t work.  In the Big Picture, it’s not that 11 oatmeal cookies and a dozen macchiatos are still okay but 12 cookies and 13 macchiatos are just too much and my body is going to give out when I’m halfway up the Tower because it’s just one too many of each of them! (Drama city, here I come!) For me, it’s about creating a habit. When I moan and groan about how I really don’t want to go to the pool or my workout and I really just want to go home and play with my dog and read my book, I don’t even try connecting to my Why- I tell myself that I don’t want to get into the habit of blowing it off.

I work out in the evenings, so for me, it’s stopping at the gym before I get home and there are a lot of days that I try talking myself out of my work out on the drive home: it’s too hot; I’m really tired; I’m not feeling really good/ have a headache; I have too much to do at home; blah blah excuse excuse.  But because I am such a creature of habit, I find myself driving to the gym even as I’m telling myself why I’m not going to my work out. My ‘Motivation’ is that I’ve done it so many times, I do it almost out of reflex.  For me, my true motivation for working out and eating healthy is simply staying in the habit. If I start blowing it off, blowing it off will become my new habit.  That’s what keeps me grabbing my gym bag and finding myself at the gym even when my brain is whining about being too tired.

What really works for me is telling myself that going back to eating cookies and super sweet coffees drinks is going the wrong direction; it creates bad habits that lead me away from what I want, just like blowing off a work out.  The distinction is small, yes, but it’s enough to connect the dots for me.  When other people look at a cookie or a donut and remind themselves of Why they want to be healthier/ thinner/ fitter, I look at the Forbidden Action and tell myself ‘this will lead me to a bad habit.’  Instead of focusing on my goal, I focus on my actions: one cookie now leads to another cookie and then more cookies and then I have to learn not to eat cookies again, and that was hard the first time, so I don’t want to go there!’

For a lot of us, our Why is important, but it’s only important if it keeps you motivated. Motivation is what gets us up and off to the gym.  It’s what stops us from eating the junk food and keeps us buying the healthy stuff.  We can have the greatest intentions and inspirations in the world, but until those inspirations become actions, they are really just pipe dreams.  Why we want to lose weight or be fit isn’t as important as How we get there, because it’s the Getting There that really matters!

A House of Cards: Building Tolerance

This is a tough topic for me.  I try very hard to cultivate patience and tolerance, mainly because letting circumstances stress you out is just so unhealthy in every way.  There are some situations that I tolerate that make other people absolutely nuts and they think I am some kind of Zen meditation guru because I don’t flip out. These are mainly things like traffic or the general public.  I commute two hours each way five days a week and flipping out whenever there’s an accident slowing everything to a crawl or complete stop isn’t going to speed things up one iota.  Dealing with the public takes a little more patience, but people are people. When I was in college once, I was reading in the cafeteria and a small group of students sat down right next to me (although there was plenty of space) and they started pawing through the parts of the newspaper I had finished and they were chatting loudly, and I just ignored them.  It wasn’t until one of them grabbed a napkin off my tray and sneezed that I started to leave.  That’s when I found out they were actually psych students and they were testing personal boundaries: how much do people tolerate others invading their personal space.  They asked me a lot of questions because I had put up with a lot, and basically when you are in public, you are in a shared area, so I put up with it.  Just like in traffic, I am one of many in a shared environment.  I do like a bit more manners than I used to (meaning use your blinker when you change lanes, dammit!!) but like the table in the cafeteria, it’s not all mine and I am not the boss.

Believe me, I am not as patient or as tolerant as I seem. There are a lot of times where I am swearing under my breath or I am biting my lip to keep from saying something rude.  I just have no tolerance for a lot of things anymore.  I remember one day I was at the supermarket and a family with a lot of young children was basically letting them run wild through the store.  They were really running through the aisles, and one little girl in her pretty frilly Sunday dress was happily poking a rainbow trout in the meat department, calling out “Mami!  Mira! Mira!” (Mommy, look, look!”).  I have no patience for situations like that (it happened again just the other day).  It’s not that I don’t like kids: what I don’t like is when people don’t exercise a few manners.  I feel the same way about people who let their dogs run wild: you aren’t doing the kids or the dogs any favors by not teaching them manners or self-control.  It just makes things harder for them later on. When I go to someone’s house and their dog jumps on me, I doesn’t bother me. Odds are, I already have dog and cat hair all over me, their dog is smelling my pets and unless they have muddy feet, I’m okay with a big ‘doggie hug.’ But I have to take my cue from the dog owner: if they are telling him to get down or lie down, I have to back them up and tell him no because they are trying to teach their dog manners.  Not all guests are as dog friendly as I am. The same is true with kids: we’ve all been talking to a parent when the kid comes rushing in and interrupts. The kid doesn’t know any better and a responsible parent will gently instruct him. What tries my patience are the parents (of kids and pets) who don’t teach manners: it creates problems for the kids/ pets who don’t understand why people react negatively to them as well as creating problems for the rest of us who have to deal with out of control kids/ pets.

Usually, those kinds of situations just result in me swearing quietly and rolling my eyes.  It’s the ‘trigger’ situations where I really need to build tolerance.  Those are the situations where I usually have to deal with someone difficult.  I don’t mean someone in the general public, although it can be. It’s usually someone who is inconsiderate or self-absorbed or who is just plain rude and/ or ignorant. One of my little mantras used to “I have no tolerance for the intolerant.” Yeah, it’s pithy but it also doesn’t mean much! Rude intolerant people are the ones we should be most tolerant of, and they are the ones who cause me to lose it almost every time. Being rude back to them only reinforces their wrong behavior, while being more accommodating to them and ignoring their rudeness (ideally) should make them more aware of how wrong their actions are.  In other words, it makes them feel stupid. I find this is pretty much the only thing that makes them aware of how inconsiderate and foolish their behavior really is.  Basically, someone is being obnoxious and when you don’t rise to their bait, it only emphasizes how childish they are.  This is the person in the store who is obnoxious or condescending to the person behind the counter (and you are standing right there next to Ms. Loudmouth), or this is the person who has a tantrum because you won’t drop everything to handle their problem.

I would like to say that I handle these situations with grace and aplomb and I make them feel stupid and ignorant every time.  Oh hell no!! I usually do the exact opposite and have a fit at them. I feel my stress level starting to rise; my sighs grow deeper; I start grinding my teeth and then I usually snap at them.  I just lose my patience.  These are the times that I really need to work on building more tolerance.  It’s easy to be tolerant in difficult situations where everyone else is being calm and understanding. I’ve been the caller who’s trying to get information and the person on the other end trying to give me what I want is having a hard time finding it. It’s easy to listen to apologies and commiserate patiently with them. When someone is polite, even if you are not in a good frame of mind, it’s easier to be patient and understanding, but when they are rude or childish and you are not in a good mood, this is when it’s hardest to be tolerant of bad behavior.

So why does this matter? Because stress has such a negative effect on our health: it manifests in things like poor sleep, poor concentration/ focus, poor food choices (as in “I’m having a bad day so I need a treat!” or “I don’t have the patience to cook tonight!”) It also effects our blood pressure (no kidding!), our cortisol levels (which lead to fat storage and increased hunger) but also other things that we may not attribute to stress.  In my case, I have noticed that the more stressed I am, the more I am likely to grind my teeth (bruxism) when I sleep, which leads to jaw pain and toothaches, which in turn makes it hard to eat, especially things like healthy crunchy vegetables. Aside from having trouble eating anything that isn’t highly processed, walking around with a painful jaw isn’t a whole lot of fun either!

We can’t always avoid unpleasant situations, so the best action is to be more tolerant of obnoxious people.  When we allow them to trigger our stress and our own obnoxious behavior, we are the ones who suffer. Our quality of life is less because we allowed their bad behavior to influence ours. Their quality of life is most likely not good to start with: can you imagine how it must feel walking around all day every day believing that you are constantly under attack? (I think this is how most of them feel because in my experience this is how most of them act.) Unfortunately, we learn how to cope in bad situations by living through bad situations.  It’s how I learned to be more ‘Zen’ about traffic and it’s how I learned to be more tolerant of the public in general.  Maybe because I am around the ‘problem people’ in my life so much that I have lost patience with them.  Maybe I should try taking advantage of all the opportunities to practice and be more grateful for the practice, but so far, it just keeps getting harder…..

 

Baggage Claim: Love, Apathy & Forgiveness

One of the mantras we hear about a lot from therapists and other health care professionals is that “forgiveness is for you, not for the person who hurt you.” The bottom line is that as long as you are hanging onto the anger and hate, the person who hurt you has some kind of control or influence over you.  People often say that the opposite of love is hate and that’s not true: the opposite of love is apathy.  Basically, if you truly don’t care about the other person, you don’t care enough to think about them or allow them into your life at all.  Hating that person keeps him or her in your life; apathy removes all traces.

I was watching the TLC program 90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After? where one of the women had just gotten a divorce from her foreign-born husband and made a big deal of getting in his face to make sure he knew that “I’m over him!” The truth is, no matter what she’d telling herself, the fact that she is going so far out of her way to get in his face and make trouble for him with Immigration tells me that she is most definitely not over him.  While I think she has a valid point that her ex is a slug who used her to get a green card, the fact that she allows so much of her life to be influenced by him and what’s he’s doing shows that she’s not ready to cut ties with him. While she probably does not love him anymore, she still ‘cares’ enough to want to hurt him.

Apathy means letting go of the person who hurt you entirely.  It means you don’t care if he or she meets someone else, moves away, or drops off the face of the planet. It means you have gone on with your life and this person is just someone in your past who no longer has any effect or influence over you.  It’s a wonderful thought to contemplate, but much harder to accomplish than it sounds.

Therapists like to promote the idea of ‘Forgiveness,’ so you can have some kind of ‘Closure.’ The point is that this is all about you and not about them. I frankly prefer the “I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn” philosophy that comes with apathy.  Who they are and what they did is all over with and they can either go to hell or go to Texas because I don’t really care anymore. For me, the idea of Forgiveness means I have to care enough about what they did to me to warrant closure, and while I like to talk tough, sometimes letting go of the anger is much harder than I’d like it to be.

While I am definitely not a therapist or any kind of health care professional, I know my own emotional landscape and its pitfalls pretty well.  For example, I know it takes a lot to make me angry, and I mean really angry.  Irritation comes up pretty quick and usually fades about as fast. (I admit I am easily irritated which is getting worse the older I get.) Real anger takes a long time to build up and it doesn’t go away anytime soon.  If you’ve gone to the trouble to make me that angry, I’m going to stay angry for awhile and if you try talking to me, you are flat out wasting your breath because 1) I am too angry to pay any attention to what you’re saying; and 2) I am not done being angry yet. You’ve gone to a damn lot of trouble to get me that worked up and it takes me a while to expend all that energy that you’ve stirred up.  Once I’m done being angry, I’m much more amenable to listening to what you might want to say, but until then, fat chance!

The point is that holding onto negative emotions like rage/ anger, hurt, hate and fear keep the person responsible in your life.  That means if you are trying to grow into a healthier person, you aren’t going to get very far dragging all that baggage with you. These kinds of negative emotions are what keep us eating all that supposed ‘comfort food’ and it’s what keeps us reliving traumas that drive us to eat.  Plain and simple, they keep us from moving forward with our lives: we never move beyond the point where they hurt us.  When we hang onto that anger, hurt or humiliation, we keep reliving the moment and ‘refreshing’ the negative emotions. Letting go of those emotions and the person involved with them, whether through Forgiveness & Closure or plain old apathy,  allows them to fade away at last.  We all know that negative emotions can make us eat more, can undermine our confidence, cause us to doubt our judgment, make us feel insignificant or stupid, but they also make us physically ill.  Those who hang onto negative emotions have more physical health problems and illnesses (including things like cancer) than those who learn to let go of them. Some health care professionals theorize that the negative emotions fester like an infection until they actually take a physical form.  In other words, our negative emotions can be strong enough to kill us if we aren’t careful.

As I said above, we all know what we should do, but actually doing it is a whole other thing.  There is one particular family member in my life who is a completely toxic person and being around her is completely unhealthy.  I have developed a thick skin when it comes to her rudeness and narcissism, but it’s a lot like eating something to which you have an allergy, i.e. “eating gluten gives me terrible cramps, but I’m going to eat it anyway.” If only avoiding this person were as easy as avoiding gluten! Reaching a point of forgiveness with this person is nearly impossible for me, because- simply put- I’m not done being angry yet.  However, I have found that with each of her thoughtless narcissistic transgressions, I am getting closer to apathy.  I don’t want to ‘forgive’ her because, to me, that means I require some kind of closure to be shut of her in my life: frankly, I’d just rather close the door on her and move on. Right now, because she is still connected to other people in my life whom I care about deeply, that is not possible, so I am stuck in an unenviable middle ground.  Until I learn either to ignore her narcissism or not allow her to make me angry, I’m going to be carrying around a lot more baggage than I care to.

 

Unexpected Poisons: Toxic People & Relationships

Most of us who are trying to be healthier work at eliminating toxins from our lives.  These are things like chemicals in our food and environment.  Most of us know not to use Teflon or plastics with BPA and we avoid crops grown with Round Up.  We consciously choose organic and non-GMO to stay as healthy as possible.

But when it comes to the toxic people in our lives, we have a lot more trouble spotting them, and even when we do recognize them as being toxic, cutting ties with them is much harder than switching the brand of detergent we use.  For most of us, the toxic people in our lives tend to be the ones who are hard to avoid, like bosses, coworkers, or family members.  Realistically, if you have a friend who is an emotional drain on you, they usually don’t stay your friend for very long.  I had a ‘friend’ who only called me when he needed something; the rest of the time, he couldn’t be bothered with me, so one day when he called and asked me for a favor, I just flat out told him: “I haven’t heard from you in more than 6 months and the first words out of your mouth are ‘can you do me a favor?’ Call me back when you can be a real friend.”  He did call and apologize and ‘make nice,’ because he really needed the favor, but it was the last time I spoke to him. No loss there.

The toxic people we have real trouble with are the ones who are fixtures in our lives.  How can you cut ties with your boss or coworker without changing jobs?  Is avoiding someone who is a real drain worth the hassle of finding a new job? And why should you be the one to leave when the other person is the problem? Chances are they are a problem for others also.  Then there are the family members: cutting ties with them can be cutting ties with a whole section of your family, and if you happen to live with them, almost impossible.  In these cases, we usually just put up with the ‘toxicity’ rather than causing major upheaval in our lives.  It’s an unconscious cost-benefit analysis: is cutting ties going to be worth all the drama and uncertainty that’s going to come with it?

Honestly, this is where most of us sigh and ‘man-up’ and just live with the ongoing stress and negativity that comes with having these people in our lives.  To use another business analogy, it’s ‘the cost of doing business.’ There’s the sense that we are overreacting or being childish if we refuse contact with someone in our family.  We think we may cause a major family rift if we cut ties with someone or it could mean that cutting ties with one person means we lose contact with someone we really want to stay close with.

It’s not an easy decision to make either for work or for family, but sometimes the poison that is making you sick in your life isn’t what you’re eating: it is an actual person in your life.  If you were gluten-sensitive, you wouldn’t think twice about avoiding bread and telling others that you are gluten-free.  The same if you have a peanut allergy or any other kind of sensitivity: it’s a fact of life- XYZ makes you sick!

I have mentioned The Boss From Hell before in this blog and I know there are a lot of people who make similar references to ‘bad bosses’ in their own lives.  This woman literally made me ill and nearly killed me, and not just me either!  The Associate at this job also suffered from similar panic attacks, anxiety and stress related problems.  He and I both had trouble sleeping, concentrating and I actually developed a slight tremor and heart palpitations while at that job. What was worse was that it didn’t stop when I left the office: this woman would call and text me while I was at home, on my commute and on weekends, and as far as she was concerned, it was part of my job!  And she did the same to the Associate.  The last straw was when I was driving home and she called to complain about what I hadn’t done that day (namely call FedEx to see why she wasn’t getting a discount on the mirrors she’d ordered for her home that FedEx had delivered broken) and why I hadn’t finished my other duties that day (mainly because I spent much of my day on the phone with FedEx and the mirror retailer).  I practically had to pull over on the freeway because I was so upset.  The next day, I went to work and quit. And she could not understand why I was quitting or why a few months later, the Associate quit too!

Of course there was a lot of stress and uncertainty with finding a new job, but by the time I made the decision to quit, it was pretty much black and white: I either take my chances with the Unknown or I die at this job, because it was no longer a matter of ‘if this job will kill me,’ but ‘when this job kills me.’ [ Just as a point of reference, there were a lot of people who kind of giggled and said I had the boss right out of The Devil Wears Prada.  I didn’t see the movie until my job had already begun making me ill, and I could not (and still haven’t) seen the whole movie because certain scenes cause stressful flashbacks but if you have seen it, my boss was a lot like Meryl Streep’s character, only not as nice. ]

Most of the toxic people in our lives are not as black and white as The Boss From Hell, but the point is that they are just as toxic.  Sadly, most of us are familiar with the domestic violence situation where we are on the outside shaking our heads: why do they keep going back to their abusers? Because behind all the abuse, the victim remembers times when their abuser was kind and sweet and a different person.  Once they get some distance on the most recent abuse, they start missing the ‘good times,’ even if we can’t see or identify them as being ‘good.’ I think this is why we put up with toxic family members: underneath all the poison, they are ‘family’ or ‘blood’ and so we put up with being treated like trash, being taken advantage of or being verbally or physically abused.  “It’s family and that’s what we do for family.”

The truth is that ‘family’ isn’t any more synonymous with abuse than is ‘friendship’ or ‘work environment.’  We should not have to put up with being victimized or abused or mistreated because someone is a ‘friend,’ ‘family member,’ ‘coworker,’ or ‘boss.’  If a stranger treated you the same way, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call the cops or walk away from them forever, but because there is this connection, we accept their bad behavior.  The result is that the situation causes you stress and quite possibly illness.  Oftentimes, once we get some distance on the most recent instance of bad behavior, like victims of domestic violence, we start remembering when times were better and that ‘they aren’t always like that.’  The truth is that when you go back to socializing or working with them, you are condoning their bad behavior of you. Many of them, like The Boss From Hell, do not even accept that their behavior was bad.  You need to decide if they are worth the abuse.  Looking back on my situation, I confess I stayed with her for much longer than I should have, because as is often the case, the relationship didn’t start out awful and I thought of her for a long time as a friend, even after people starting telling me- in earnest- that this job was going to kill me. Only you can decide if the toxic people in your life are worth the pain and stress, but frankly, the ones we love shouldn’t be the ones who hurt us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Started: Where Do I Begin?

A friend of mine recently decided to lose weight and eat healthier, and like most of us, she’s a little lost.  She knows what her goal is: being a healthier weight and healthier in general, but as to how to get there? It’s all a little vague. Most of us begin in the same situation.  The goal is usually pretty clear, but the path to take is like finding our way through a maze. Which route do we take and how do we know if we are making progress?

I think she has made a good start: she knows where she wants to go and she has an idea of how she wants to get there.  Although she wants to lose weight, her goal is to be healthier overall, so she began by making some realistic changes.  Instead of changing several habits all at once, she began by trying to eat more fruits and vegetables.  She said growing up, her family didn’t eat a lot of those, so she is making an effort to eat more of them.  She also joined My Fitness Pal and is logging her meals and exercise.  Although she’s just started changing her eating habits, she’s been exercising regularly for about a year now (I met her at the gym) so that habit is already firmly established!

As far as “choosing a diet plan,” she hasn’t really opted for a ‘packaged plan,’ which I think is a good thing.  Too often, I hear people trying to fit their lives and eating habits around the Rules for a diet. This is how people end up malnourished or becoming ill after following Rules carved in stone by someone they’ve never met.  (My all-time favorite is the college student who ‘went vegan’ and ended up almost dying in the emergency room because of B12 deficiency.) I don’t have anything against vegans (my cardio trainers are both vegan) but when we opt for following a way of eating, we need to make sure that it fits our nutritional needs and our own preferences.  I really love grapefruit and cabbage, but I’m sure not opting for the Grapefruit Diet or the Cabbage Soup Diet!

When people ask me if I have a diet, I usually tell them that I do a ‘version of Paleo/ Primal,’ because my ‘rules’ are going to be different from anyone else who also does Paleo/ Primal.  There are even disagreements over how to define Paleo and Primal, so following the rules is a little bit like choosing a religion!  This is why I’ve opted to make my own rules and follow my own version.  What I do may not work for my friend or for anyone else, so while it’s great to ask for advice, if it doesn’t work for you, then what’s the point?

As I mentioned above, my cardio trainers are both vegan and they are big fans of promoting veganism.  It really works for them: they are both healthy and fit 70 year olds (not a typo- they’re both in their 70s!)  Personally, I like eating animal products and I know I wouldn’t be very happy ‘eating vegan’ or even vegetarian!  At the same time, there are a few of my fitness and gym friends who eat keto, which is usually heavy on fat, mainly from animal products.  As much as I love things like butter, bacon, meat and dairy, the few times I’ve tried eating keto, it has not been very satisfying, even discounting carb withdrawal.  I hear repeatedly how healthy vegan/ vegetariansim/ keto are and I don’t doubt they work for a lot of people.  My sister was a happy vegetarian for several years before she opted to change her eating habit again.  None of those really made me feel good, so they’re off my list of eating plans!

My own version of Paleo means mainly whole natural foods as unprocessed as possible.  It also includes dairy (most hardcare Paleo followers insist that Paleo + dairy = Primal). It does not include starchy vegetables, grains/ grain products, cane sugar and some legumes.  Essentially, I started with a basic Paleo framework and adapted it to suit my metabolism and preferences. In fact, when I started, my diet did not include dairy for many months.  Eventually, I opted to include it again although I do think I need to limit it more than I do now.  The point is that the way I eat now makes me feel my best and I am getting the results that I want.

That is how we find the answers to those earlier questions: which route do we take to our goal and how do we know if we are making progress?  If you are feeling your best with your current eating plan and you are getting the results that you want, then that is the route to YOUR goal.  Most of us go into dieting with the general goal of ‘losing weight.’  Weight loss isn’t always healthy!  In fact, when I started losing weight, because I was so extremely obese, I lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time.  When I saw my doctor, her first reaction wasn’t “finally!”; it was “are you feeling alright? are you having health problems?” Rapid weight loss is an indicator of cancer, hormonal imbalance and intestinal/ digestive problems.  It also leads to malnutrition, i.e. the vegan college student with B12 deficiency.  What most of us really want is ‘fat loss,’ not just ‘weight loss,’ and while the distinction is lost on most people, it is an important distinction.  Losing weight can mean losing water weight (and becoming dehydrated) or it can mean losing lean body mass, i.e. losing muscle, among other things.  When the number goes down on the scale, most of us are really happy about it and keep doing what we are doing to keep the number going down.  But if we are doing something unhealthy, then we are only becoming thinner instead of healthier.  My friend made the observation that while most of her family was obese, all the people she knew who were diabetic were thin.  Just as being clinically obese doesn’t equal ‘unhealthy,’ being thin does not equal being ‘healthy.’

Getting the results you want, whether losing fat, building muscle or being fitter, is one way of knowing you are on the right path, but we must also not discount the ‘how am feeling’ part of the answer.  If you are getting the results that you want, like fat loss, but you hate the way you are feeling or eating, then that is NOT the right path for you!  If you hate the way you feel or you hate the way that you are eating, you are not going to sustain it for long. I tried both vegetarianism and keto a few times, and frankly, I hated both ways of eating.  I felt horrible, had terrible cravings and did not enjoy what I was eating. Although I’ve since learned that the cravings and the ‘keto flu will go away, I didn’t like what I was eating and overall, I didn’t like the way that felt. There are days when I eat more to a keto or veggie plan than other days, but those are the exception rather than the rule.  When I opted to include dairy again in my diet, one of the things I watched for was simply “how does it make me feel?”  If it made me feel awful or kept me from making my goals, then I would have kicked it back out again, but the truth is I like cream, butter and cheese and it doesn’t keep me from my goals.

We’ve all done diets where we strictly limit our foods, either the types or the amounts and yes, most of us have lost weight on those diets, but once we stop the limiting, we gain back fat and usually a bit more.  This is why it’s so important that we must enjoy the way that we are eating in order to be successful, otherwise any fat loss is going to be temporary!  Also, what is the point of looking great if we feel miserable?  Remember the last time you lost weight and showed up at a function like a holiday party where everyone commented on how great you look? That felt awesome…. until we reached the buffet table! There was all that food that either wasn’t on our diet or was simply too much! Instead of thinking, yum! what looks good to eat?, we were crying inside because it was all foods we were denying ourselves! I know from experience that situation is no fun at all! I know I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘looking great and feeling miserable!’  Even though there are a lot of foods that aren’t on my list, there are a lot of foods that are, and the last time I was at a buffet, there were still a lot of yummy foods that I could and did eat!  It was easy to choose those foods over the foods not on my list because I knew I felt better eating them and I knew I was going to keep making progress!

My friend is still in the early stages of her getting-healthier journey, but as I said, I think she is off to a great start. She is building good habits on a reasonable time line and she is asking herself the right questions. She mentioned it to me because even though she was enjoying her lunchtime salad with leafy greens and chicken, she was still getting hungry before dinner, so she was asking me about options for fixing that.  We discussed adding in some healthy fats (avocado, olives or more cheese) or more fibrous veggies (broccoli, cabbage or kale).  Obviously, what works for me won’t always work for her, but the important points are that you have to eat what you like eating and still get the results you want, because unless you do both, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much weight you lose.

Flavor Boosters Boost Your Waistline, Not Your Health!

One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot is people complaining about eating healthy because “the food doesn’t taste that good!”  If it’s someone I can respond to, I usually let them know there’s a reason whole foods taste different: it’s because processed foods have been processed full of ‘flavor enhancers,’ among other things.  This is when they ‘boost’ the flavor by filling it full of chemicals, designed to overpower your taste buds and make you want more of it.  This is the manufacturer making sure you crave their product and want to eat/ buy as much of it as possible!

A lot of these ‘flavor boosters’ show up on the ingredients as ‘natural flavors.’  That does not mean that these ‘flavors’ come from food: it just means they are not ‘man-made’ and come from “Nature” whether that can mean it’s something derived from wood by-products, coal tar manufacturing by-products or something else.  It does NOT mean it comes from FOOD!  Seriously, the artificial sweetener saccharin was originally a by-product of coal-tar manufacturing.  Incidentally, that is NOT the reason it’s banned in Canada: the Sugar Industry lobbied long and hard to ban saccharin because of the competition in both the US and Canada.  In the US, they managed to get it labeled as a carcinogen after feeding it to lab rats at mega-high dosages (like it’s all they fed the rats for weeks on end and wow! some of them developed cancer!) If humans ate that much saccharin, they would probably throw up long before they got cancer, the same way we would throw up after eating the same amounts of sugar, if we didn’t fall into a diabetic coma first!

In all honesty, the food manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping you buying their products, so they make the products as enjoyable and addictive as possible.  The more you buy them, the more you want them and the more money in their pockets.  By contrast, the more unhealthy you get!  Processed foods like chips, snack cakes, fast foods and other things that come with an ingredient list, have been tested to determine what flavors light up our brains’ pleasure centers the most.  Taste testers rate the different combinations and additives according to how much they want to keep eating it, the mouth feel, the smell, and everything else that makes food taste “so delicious!”

By comparison, whole unprocessed foods are going to taste different, because they don’t have all the chemicals processed into them.  They haven’t been processed (I think of it as ‘pre-digested’ personally!) so they are going to have a different mouth-feel.  This is the term food manufacturers use to describe literally the way food feels when you put it in your mouth, as in chips should be crunchy but not too crunchy; mashed potatoes should be soft but still have some texture; burgers should be a little chewy; hot dogs should have a little snap to them, etc.  Products are actually tested to see what ‘mouth-feel’ rates highest.  Most of us do this on our own when we make foods from scratch: I like my ground beef to have a little spring in it and not be completely charred; when I used to make mashed potatoes from scratch, I left a few lumps in them because I like to taste and feel the actual potato!  We know how we like our foods to feel as we chew on them!

Whole foods, by comparison, don’t have the chemical additives to boost the flavor and keep us eating more.  So when you’re eating the ground beef burger you made from grass fed beef (hopefully), it only has the flavors and spices you put on it, such as salt, pepper and maybe some onion or garlic powder.  The same goes for the broccoli you steamed yourself, the spinach you sauteed yourself or whatever else you’ve made from whole foods.  It’s not going to have the ‘natural flavors’ or the MSG (monosodium glutamate) unless you put it on the food.  If you’ve been eating mainly processed foods most of your life, like most of us have, whole foods will taste a little bland at first, but our taste buds change depending on what we eat. When we stop eating processed foods in favor of the whole natural foods, we get used to the way they taste, especially once we learn how to prepare them in a way we really enjoy (for me, this includes not walking away from the stove and turning the beef into a charcoal briquet as I usually do!) I like my stronger tasting meats like beef and lamb with a curry powder I mix myself, but milder meats like chicken I usually just roast.  I’ve learned to prepare my vegetables with olive oil dressings or just a little salt and ghee.  It might sound kind of boring compared to garlic mashed potatoes or Kansas City spare ribs from the freezer section or a restaurant, but I know what’s in the food I’m eating, and it’s not ‘flavor boosters’ and chemicals, and that is important to me!

Another way that processed foods boost your waistline is that the chemical ingredients can really mess with your intestinal bacteria (your microbiome).  We in the Western industrialized world eat mainly processed foods.  No surprise there!  But there is a direct correlation between the rise in consumption of processed foods and the rise in metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, depression, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.  There are people who say it’s because we’re living longer and we’re exposed to chemicals in our environment.  Both of those are true, but what is also true is that we are exposed to chemicals in our food, and these are chemical compounds that we as a species have never eaten before and were probably not meant to eat (such as a coal-tar by product like saccharin!)  These additives and preservatives are designed to boost taste and mouth feel, not our health.  They keep us fat and unhealthy rather than promoting good nutrition and healthy bodies.  When did the whole point of eating become satisfying our taste buds rather than fueling our bodies?

These chemicals were never part of the human diet before industrialization, the same way polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), what Dr. David Perlmutter calls “factory fats,” were never part of the human diet.  Because they are ‘derived’ from a plant product or ‘Nature’ they are allowed to be called ‘natural,’ but they are not naturally occurring in nature the way an olive, an egg, a fish or a cow are naturally occurring.  These are foods humans and other animals have eaten for millenia and are pretty much recognized in all societies as something to eat. Monosodium glutamate, cottonseed oil and disodium phosphate, not so much! (Incidentally, cottonseed oil has to be processed to make it edible.  That’s really something I don’t want to eat!)  Most of these PUFAs are also high in omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and unstable.  They are not fully metabolized by the body either and those unstable fats become a part of every cell in our bodies!

Besides the fact that most processed foods are full of pro-inflammatory “factory fats” that really mess with our absorption of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, they are also full of highly processed carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar.  This is why I usually refer to processed foods as ‘pre-digested.’  The foods have been broken down into the simplest compounds possible for fast easy digestion in our system, so the corn chips we ate 20 minutes ago are already metabolized while the cabbage we ate an hour ago is just getting there. Processed foods have almost no fiber, fewer vitamins (unless it’s been fortified and had them added back in) but are full of quick carbs, artificial flavors, preservatives and unstable factory fats.  When these products hit our microbiome in our small intestine, the beneficial bacteria that break down our food so we can absorb it usually take a hit in that the fiber that some of them eat isn’t there, while some of the chemical ingredients are toxic to them. Remember the last time you tried a new food and it sent you running to bathroom and/ or kept you there for the next couple of days?  That’s your microbiome telling you that food didn’t agree with them! More and more health professionals are realizing that an unhealthy microbiome leads to more than just digestion problems: they are making stronger connections to a lot of the diseases mentioned above like Alzheimers, ADHD, MS, arthritis, diabetes and others.  Many of what we used to think of as ‘brain-only hormones’ like serotonin, dopamine and tryptophan are linked to our microbiome: the same microbiome we are attacking daily with processed foods full of chemical flavor boosters!

Realistically, no one is going to eat something that tastes bad, but we forget that our tastes change over time. As a child, most of us made a face the first time we tasted beer or coffee or blue cheese, but as adults, we’ve learned to like those things.  We refer to them as ‘acquired tastes.’  Maybe it’s time we ditch the kiddie junk food in favor of a healthier subtle but sophisticated palate of whole foods?