Science Experiments in the Kitchen: Better Living with Chemicals?

I’m usually in two minds about cooking.  I did most of the cooking when I was growing up.  My parents divorced when I was about 8 and once I was tall enough to reach the stove-top, cooking was my job!  I didn’t exactly hate it, mainly because I didn’t know anything else, but once I was an adult and living on my own, I cooked as little as possible! (I stopped dating one guy because he made it clear he expected me to be the ‘traditional housewife’- been there-DONE with that!)

The whole Not-Cooking mindset meant I ate mostly fast food and prepared/ processed foods, and in those days, there were not a lot of healthy options.  Fast food was burgers, fries, burritos, tacos, etc. and prepared processed foods meant a lot of quick carbs, and whenever possible, I ate as much bread as I could get down my throat.  ‘Eating healthy’ usually meant eating something low fat and low sodium with as many of those ‘healthy whole grains’ as I could get.  In short, it was a recipe for disaster.

Going back to cooking was probably one of the hardest things for me.  To be honest, I still don’t like it much and I really don’t have the patience for measuring out this and mixing up that and then letting it simmer for however many minutes. Sometimes when I happen to watch a cooking show, and they have something that needs to be heated or marinated or brined for hours, that is far too many steps for me. The same goes for something with a long list of ingredients: too much freaking trouble!

For me, food is simple.  I like something exotic or complex as much as the next person; I just don’t like it enough to make it myself! One of the podcasts I listen to is 2 Keto Dudes, and both hosts are true keto gourmands. Their recipes are pretty complex, but what I find more than a little off-putting for me is that they sometimes use ingredients that sound like part of a science experiment to me.  I really don’t want to add sodium citrate to my grated cheese so I can make a ‘melty creamy cheese sauce’ for a Philly type cheesesteak sandwich on some ‘keto friendly’ bread made with something else that sounds like it belongs in a lab.  While I do try keeping my carbs low (about 50 g daily), my goal isn’t to be keto or ‘zero carb.’  My goal is to eat healthy real food.  Recently, I heard an interview with Mark Sisson on the Primal Potential podcast, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said (paraphrasing here) “most Americans want to eat as much as they can for the fewest calories they can.”  Basically, the attitude is ‘how much can I eat without gaining weight?’

I think this is what’s happened with a lot of the ‘keto craze’: how can I give the food I used to eat a keto makeover so I can still have donuts, waffles and bread? When you listen to the hosts of 2 Keto Dudes, their attitude toward bread, donuts, waffles, etc is that they are horrible foods that can make you sick if you eat them every day.  Whether that’s true or not isn’t the point here.  Their attitude towards the keto version of these foods is that they’re wonderful and not ‘carbage’ (their word) and they taste delicious.  Again, the truth of this statement isn’t the point, especially since I’ve never tasted them so I can’t voice an opinion.  The point I am trying to make is that much of our current health problems with processed foods came from scientists and food manufacturers trying to find ways of making food taste better, be ready faster, and more convenient and presentable to the public.  Reading the reviews for several Paleo friendly versions of foods, I find there are a lot of complaints about ‘texture’ and a ‘strange after taste’ and other ‘aesthetics.’  The Paleo cookie doesn’t taste like a ‘real’ cookie so “save your money!” This is why we have frozen pizza with ‘rising crust’ and deep dish in ‘its own pan’ and it ‘tastes as good as delivery!’  We keep trying to find cheaper, easier shortcuts to get fast flavorful food that tastes as good as the ‘old fashioned’ foods we want.  Why spend most of the day making lasagna at home when we can buy it in a box and have it done in an hour?  So what if it’s full of chemicals and preservatives? It tastes home-made!

For a lot of Paleo, keto and other ‘specialty diet’ followers, including vegetarians and vegans (not all but a lot), their attitude is simply ‘processed food is killing us’ and for the most part, I agree.  One of the reasons I chose Paleo is because it’s real food and it’s real simple.  That is pretty much my criteria when it comes to food and most things I use: the fewer chemicals in it, the better.  This is why I think it’s strange that some keto eaters, Paleo people, vegans and vegetarians will opt for some kind of chemical additive to make non-meat look or taste like meat, make non-wheat/ grain bread look or taste like ‘normal’ bread or make their cheese sauce creamy without adding flour as a binder.  They would rather add something like sodium citrate, guar gum or xanthan gum to make a cheese sauce that tastes like a ‘normal’ cheese sauce.  Reminder here: that cheese sauce wasn’t good for you to start with, so why do you want to eat something like it? These are usually the same people who will tell you that fake sugar sweeteners are as bad for you or worse than plain old sugar and honey, but they don’t see the difference when it comes to switching out flour for ground psyllium husks in bread or tortillas or other low carb swaps to make their favorite non-keto/ Paleo foods.

For me, a big part of eating healthier is eating real food with as few chemicals as possible.  I’m all for a swap when it doesn’t stretch my boundaries too far, so like all things, it’s about limits.  Breading chicken with crushed pork rinds instead of crackers is okay and I’ll even go as far as having a Paleo cookie made with almond flour.  In fact, I recently bought some ‘Paleo cookies’ and the deciding factor wasn’t the reviews about texture but rather the ingredient list: Almond Flour, Raw Unfiltered Honey, Maple Syrup, Pecans, Coconut Oil, Sea Salt, Cinnamon, Vanilla Extract. For me, the flour started as whole almonds that I can toss in a mixer and grind myself.  The same with the pork rind crumbs: I can throw them in a baggie and mash them up myself.  But xanthan gum? Psyllium husks? That’s up there with some of the long unpronounceable additives I find on the Doritos bag and those are big red stop signs to me.  If I have to start shopping in the science department for my dinner, I think I’ll go without.







Now Trending: The Keto Diet and Vegan Documentaries!

Recently there has been a lot of noise in the fitness and nutrition world about some things: 1) the Keto diet; and 2) the What the Health documentary currently available on Netflix.  I’ll be honest and tell you that I’m usually pretty leery of the latest craze.  Whenever something is “super popular!” is usually reason enough for me to stay away from it.  Part of it is just because I’m rebel enough not to follow the crowd, and the other reason is people tend to do stupid things just to be like everyone else.  That doesn’t mean that every new or popular idea is bad or stupid, but it means until I’ve taken a good look at it, I’m not going to go along just to be one of the crowd.

One of the hot new trends is the ketogenic diet: “everyone is going keto!”  “Keto is so healthy!” “Keto is so much better because of blah blah blah!” I tried keto before after being Paleo for several months.  It wasn’t as hugely popular as it is now, but the reason I tried it is that it is very good for insulin resistance (one of my issues). Adjusting to a ketogenic diet is not the easiest transition: there are a whole lot of down-sides to it, and for some people, staying on a ketogenic diet is just as hard.  Ketosis, simply put, is a metabolic state in which your body gets its energy from fat, either dietary fat or body fat, instead of from glucose (carbs).  In order for that to happen, you have to eat no more than 20 grams of carbs a day.  In food that means, one slice of bread (whole wheat or white) plus one tall Starbucks latte will put you over the 20 grams.  The half cup of cashews I had with lunch today alone were 14 grams of carbs! So, that means you have to keep your carbs extremely low (most people eating Paleo eat about 100 grams of carbs and most people eating the Standard American Diet eat about 200.) Most people make the mistake of replacing all those carbs with protein, but too much protein will keep your body from converting the fat to the ketones it needs for fuel because your body can make glucose from excess protein (gluconeogenesis).  The trick is to keep the carbs low and keep your protein at a moderate level and fill the rest of your calories with healthy fats (key word is healthy).  And once you start eating keto, there is the transition phase, usually called ‘keto flu,’ or ‘carb withdrawal.’  This is usually a few weeks of feeling irritable, tired, and just pretty ugh due to headaches and brain fog.  I heard one person say this is how you know you are doing it right! Yay?? But the prize is that once you get over that transition period, you have much more energy than before and your body is much more efficient at burning body fat, i.e. you lose a lot of weight and tend not to gain it back.

So obviously, you can see why keto is so popular: everyone is looking at the results and not so much as the path to get there, which is not always so easy.  If you are seriously considering a keto diet, which really is good for a lot of health and digestive issues, I would suggest you read Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore or The Keto Reset Diet by Mark Sisson (coming out in October).  Both of these authors have done their research and earned the respect of their peers. Both will let you know the limits of keto and any problems you may face; they don’t fudge the facts, even if they are unpleasant.

This is the problem with the What The Health documentary currently making waves in the nutrition world.  I’ve not seen the film and judging from all the critiques I’ve heard, I am not likely to waste my time.  The documentary is about the benefits of being vegan.  One of the critiques I’ve heard is that the producers and other experts behind the film are all vegans.  That is less important to me than the allegation that the information provided in the documentary is “cherry-picked” to bolster their viewpoint rather than giving us the whole story.  One of the ‘factoids’ put forth in the film is that people can get all the protein they need from about 2000 calories of rice.  It sounds good, but it’s not true. My family is Mexican, which means as a kid, I ate a whole lot of beans and rice! I can’t stand it now because I ate enough for a lifetime! I also learned- long before I was 12- why we eat them together: beans are an incomplete protein and so is rice, but when you eat them together, they complement each other and make a complete protein.  Eating rice will give you a whole lot of carbs and energy, but it won’t give you a complete protein! That factoid alone is enough to make me question the rest of their ‘facts.’  As I said, there are a lot of critiques being bandied about the fitness and nutrition arena, and none of the ones I heard were complimentary. Most of them were also from meat-eaters, except for the review by Laura Thomas I heard on the Food for Fitness podcast.  Laura Thomas is a London dietician/ nutritionist who is vegan.  She has been vegetarian since she was ten years old and went vegan in college, about ten years ago, so she has had some experience with the lifestyle, and she described this documentary as a “complete sh*tshow.”  She took issues with their “cherry-picked” research and incomplete explanations and overall felt this kind of “bad science” promotes fear-mongering rather than any of the true benefits of veganism.  I thought it was particularly interesting that the host of the Food for Fitness podcast, Scott Baptie, chose Dr. Thomas because of her qualifications and reputation and did not know she was vegan until they recorded the  actual podcast. Her less-than-stellar evaluation echoed the criticisms of the other reviewers, but because she was viewing the documentary as a vegan herself, it gave me all the information I needed to know: this really was “bad science.”

I have nothing against vegans or vegetarians.  Personally, I avoid looking at chickens and cows in the trucks I see on the road, because I know where they are going.  As much as I love animals, it bothers me to think that the food on my plate was probably something I’d have found adorable. I am sure the producers of What The Health were hoping to provoke more thought about animal rights and the benefits of a plant based diet, but bad science only hurts their cause. If they really want to promote animal ethics and their values, they need to show the world the truth, even the parts that don’t look good for vegans.

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.









Down and Dirty: How Clean Living Can Make You Sick

I recently finished Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be at the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it by Josh Axe. (Yeah, that’s a long title!) While audio books aren’t my preferred format, I think this book is worth the effort. Dr. Axe makes a few interesting correlations between the relatively sudden rise in autoimmune diseases and other disorders, our sanitized society and our microbiome.  While he defines the terms ‘leaky gut,’ ‘microbiome’ and ‘microbiota’ in his book, I will give you the short version: our digestive tract is full of bacteria, both good and bad.  This symbiotic relationship is necessary to our own individual survival: we need this bacteria in our digestive tract to break down the food we eat.  Once it has been broken down by the bacteria, our body is able to absorb the nutrients through the lining in our intestines.  The integrity of our intestinal lining is dependent on the health of these bacteria (microbiota).  The microbiome is the environment these bacteria inhabit: essentially our digestive tract.  Leaky gut (Increased Intestinal Permeability) is what happens to our digestive tract when we don’t take good care of our microbiome: the integrity of the intestinal lining becomes compromised, allowing not only foods we’ve eaten to enter our bloodstream and body but also some of the toxins that should have been expelled.  Sometimes it’s not that the food particles which enter are bad for us: they are not as broken down as they should be, and that causes problems.  When foods we’ve eaten before without problems begin giving us problems, it’s usually because our microbiome has been compromised.

This is the reason that so many people have problems like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Celiac Disease, among others.  The helpful bacteria in the gut has been compromised either by highly processed foods, toxins we’ve ingested (sometimes in the form of medication) and our squeaky clean sanitized society.  Not only are we failing to feed and care for our microbiota the way we should, we are actively attacking it with antibiotics, toxic foods, preservatives, chemicals and hand sanitizers.  While being clean is a good thing and no one is saying don’t wash your hands, there is such a thing as being toxically clean. Not everything needs to be disinfected and that disinfectant you just used to kill the benign bacteria on your counter or desk could be making you sick instead of keeping you healthy. Most of the bacteria in our environment is not harmful and some of it is actually beneficial and necessary to our survival. Being ‘clean and sanitary’ the way we think of it now is killing us through digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, malnutrition and possibly cancer.

The cure for this? Eat dirt. Really. If you were to swab your skin and look at it under a microscope, you would see thousands of bacteria.  Dr. Axe reports that we are probably more bacteria than human since we have them inside us and on us all the time.  We are walking bacteria colonies! The naturally occurring bacteria in our environment helps us to break down the foods that come from that environment.  When humans foraged for food, the bacterias on the foods like roots and berries became part of our microbiome.  Since most of them lived on the foods and broke them down to metabolize them, they continued to do the same thing in our intestines.  Therefore, when that farmer plucked an apple in his orchard and ate it after wiping it on his shirt, the bacteria on the apple skin became part of his microbiome and helped him digest the apple he just ate.  The bacteria take up residence and multiply in our intestines, so it becomes easier to digest the local foods.  When we kill those bacteria before they can get to our intestines, we are killing our ability to digest some of these foods.  This is why we sometimes get a little sick when we eat something we’ve never eaten before: the bacteria needed to digest it isn’t in our microbiome.

Humans- and other animals- have developed this way and it’s not a optional condition.  Without these bacteria, we will die, probably a horrible painful death.  We would be ravaged by disease and illness and be unable to derive any nutrients from anything we ate.  Our microbiome not only feeds us, it protects us from illness: our gut is our immune system’s first line of defense.  If our gut is sick, odds are we are sick too!

Some of you know that I work in the same building as my sister, who’s known the attorneys I now work with for many years. In fact, I heard about many of these people for years before I ever met them, and one of the secretaries was forced to retire because of her Crohn’s disease.  When I first met this poor woman at a social gathering a few years ago, I could not believe how thin and frail she looked.  When I came to work here, a little over a year ago, one of the things that really shocked me was how much hand sanitizer they had in the office.  Seriously, they have Costco size bottles every fifty feet and in every room in the building- NOT KIDDING! After reading Dr. Axe’s book, I think I may have an idea about what contributed to this poor woman’s Crohn’s disease. While I have hand sanitizer in my purse and on my desk (little 99 cent bottles), I don’t often use it.  I also have disinfectant wipes that I rarely use.  If I think I need them, I do (mainly to clean off sticky stuff), but there are a lot of people in this building who consistently smell like hand sanitizer.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an unsanitary dirty slob (I come from a family of farmers so a little dirt is a way of life), and years ago, I listened to a report about ‘Super Viruses’ and how we were making them ourselves by overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial everything.  Every time we take an antibiotic or use an antibacterial, we do not kill all the bugs: some are resistant, survive and then when they reproduce, all the new bugs have their parents’ resistance to antibiotics/ antibacterials.  This is how we end up with killer bacteria like MRSA (methilicillin-resistant staph aureus)  and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staph aureus) just to name a couple.  These killer bacteria are resistant to most of the drugs used to treat the ‘normal’ staph infections, and if not treated correctly, they will kill you.  (No kidding: I’ve the MRSA and it’s not fun.) The doctor quoted in the report advised not taking an antibiotic every time we think we get a cold or flu, and when we wash our hands, regular soap and warm/ hot water is enough. This advice stuck with me and my sister and so while I do keep the antibacterial stuff around for times when I think it’s needed, most of the time I just use the soap and water.  I’ve never been a fan of gulping medications of any kind (the only reason I went to the doctor for the MRSA was because it was MRSA.) I get a cold, I’m miserable for about a week and I get over it.  Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I figure if we consistently hide from dirt and germs, when we do run across them, we have no resistance to them.  As a kid, I played in the sandbox, ran around barefoot and, according to my mom, was a big fan of making mud pies when I was a baby.  I’ve also had pets all my life and they sit on my lap, lick my face and hands, and sleep right next me. (If what Dr. Axe says is true, my pets and I have a lot of the same microbiota!)

Dr. Axe’s philosophy regarding bacteria and germs is fairly similar to my own: micro-exposure.  Basically, my philosophy has been to treat my immune system like a car and keep the battery charged and fuel lines in good shape by using it.  If your car just sits idle in the garage, your battery loses its charge and if it sits too long, the oil and gas start to lacquer.  The tires and fuel lines start to crack and lose flexibility.  In other words, your car falls apart and your immune system isn’t much different.  If your immune system gets triggered periodically by a cut, a cold or some mildly unpleasant stomach bug, it swings into action, takes care of it and then goes back to ‘stand-by.’  If your immune system doesn’t get triggered regularly, then it can overreact and start attacking everything, including your own body.  Or, if it’s constantly triggered because you eat foods you are sensitive to, then it can also start ignoring the triggers, the way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock when you’re half asleep.  Later, when you wake up after oversleeping, you’re in real trouble! Getting small exposures to bacteria on a regular basis keeps everything functioning normally.  Your immune system knows what’s a real threat and what isn’t and you can pick up additional healthy bugs!

By contrast, not being exposed to different bacteria does not keep you any healthier, and in fact, can make you sick.  Dr. Axe mentions a comparison study done of Amish children and ‘mainstream’ children regarding allergies, food sensitivities and asthma. The Amish children, most living in rural areas surrounded by animals, pollen and dirt, were much healthier with fewer allergies, sensitivities and breathing problems, while the ‘mainstream’ children had higher rates of all these problems.  Dr. Axe’s theory is that being constantly exposed to a myriad of different bacteria kept the Amish children immune to these problems. Again, microexposures to bacteria were keeping their immune system and digestive tracts in good working order.

Obviously, we need to use a little common sense when it comes to bacteria.  Trying to kill off every bacterium and germ we come across is a bad idea, as well as being pretty unfeasible! But we still need to be sensible about things: if you’re in a public restroom, maybe using the hand sanitizer after washing isn’t a bad idea, and if you have a cut on your hand, you might want to use gloves when you’re out in the yard cleaning up the doggie doo.  Using the hand sanitizer after finishing lunch at your own house or your own desk might be a bit overkill, literally. Washing up is a good idea, but warm water instead of soap with triclosan or another antibacterial agent probably isn’t necessary every time.

Besides not killing our microbiota, Dr. Axe gives some advice on the ‘care and feeding of our microbiome.’  They are living organisms and they need an hospitable environment to live and reproduce (our intestines) as well as plenty of food (our food is their food).  Most of those unhealthy bugs also like the junk food we like, and when we eat more of it than we do the healthy foods, the bad bugs crowd out the good bugs. This is a problem for us, because the bad bacteria (ideally about 15% of our microbiome) can cause many of the digestive disorders mentioned above. When the bad bacteria take over our intestines, we lose the ability to digest certain foods, and these are usually the foods with higher nutrients, so even though we are eating the healthy vegetables, fruits and proteins, our intestines and our bodies never get the nutrients because the bugs in our guts that break those down for us aren’t there to break them down.  It’s like having a flashlight with dead batteries: no good batteries, no light and the flashlight is useless to you.  If you have no good bugs in your digestive tract, all that healthy food is useless to you.  Even just feeding the bad bugs more often than feeding the good bugs can cause a population shift favoring the bacteria that cause us problems.

So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Don’t be afraid to hug your dog or cat, even if they’re a little grungy from the yard.  Eat more local organic veggies.  One of the sayings in my family is “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt.”  I really believe a little dirt isn’t a bad thing any more than getting a little sweaty is a bad thing: they both keep us healthy!




Being Uniquely You vs. Joining the Pack

New Year’s resolutions are running rampant right now as people are doing everything they can to hang on and not give up on the attempts to make positive changes.  I admit that I have never been a big fan of making resolutions based on a time of year.  Yes, it’s convenient to have an unforgettable date but the new year already has so many changes associated with it: new laws and government forms are in effect; you have to change the dates on a lot of items, not to mention every time you date a form “don’t forget 2017!” (we even had court calendaring clerk assign a trial date based on the wrong year: “um, that’s a Saturday, Your Honor!”) In my opinion, the new year already has enough baggage for you to deal without bringing your resolutions with it.

However, now that you’ve made them, there’s no reason not to try and keep them.  It’s not the resolutions that I have problems with- it’s just the timing. Establishing healthy habits is always a good thing! Let me add one little caveat to that statement: provided the habit is healthy for you! In all the hustle to sell their new workout videos and diet programs, the health and fitness industry is not really very concerned about what’s best for you! I’m not going to sit here and say they’re just out to make a buck, but- yeah, that’s what I’m going to do! They are trying to sell you something and if it doesn’t work out for you, then you’re probably going to buy something else they are selling to see if that works for you, so the more things that don’t work for you, the more they are going to make from you.

I’m not selling you anything.  I don’t even advertise for other companies on my blog (although WordPress might- I don’t have any control over that.) My concern is that you learn healthy habits that work for you, so you can be as healthy and happy and get the most out of your life. The key phrase is here “work for you” and I am emphasizing that ‘you’ because I don’t care what works for everyone else.

This issue actually began for me as a rant against a podcaster (whom I actually like very much) and another book I was reading about learning to sleep smarter.  Both of them were talking about “prime sleep hours” and the “best wake-sleep rhythms” and so on.  It was really annoying because they are trying to cram everyone into one little box and if you don’t fit, you’re just not trying hard enough and you’re hurting yourself. (Huge eye roll here!) It’s like when the FDA tries to tell everyone that they need to drink 8 ounces of milk each day or eat 11 servings of whole grains daily.  HELLO! I think we all know by now that all those grains led to a huge epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity, and that some people are sensitive to lactose (especially if your ethnicity is not Northern European!)

This is where I get really annoying again and tell you that if you aren’t tracking your foods, energy, moods, and sleep, you really should, because that tells you what works for you and what doesn’t.

Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while may recall that I have a really jacked up sleep-wake cycle (‘circadian rhythm’ is the technical term).  When I was in college on semester/ summer break, my sister and I would both turn into vampires.  We would sleep most of the morning, wake up about noon or later and be up until around two in the morning and then go to sleep. It wasn’t because we had night jobs or night classes or had some kind of weird disease: this was normal for us.  In fact, we did most of our grocery shopping around midnight at a 24 hour store.  Even after we moved to separate locations to go to graduate school, we kept the same hours: we’d text each other around midnight or one a.m. and it wasn’t unusual to get back a response in a couple minutes, because, yep- we’re up!  One of the reasons I got a kindle in fact is because I do most of my reading and book-browsing between 11:00 p.m. and two a.m. (Amazon will back me up!)

When I keep my normal hours, I am alert, rested and a little high energy in fact: I sleep when I get tired, wake up without the alarm and feel good during my ‘day.’  That’s how you are supposed to feel and it’s how you know you are getting enough rest.  On the other hand, if I tried to force anyone else to keep my schedule, most people would feel really tired during my waking hours and would try to wake up probably about 6 or 7 a.m. (when I am normally getting my best sleep!) They would get very burnt out in a few days and probably be really irritable and groggy and drained.  It’s because this is not their circadian rhythm; it’s mine.

That is how I feel most of the time when I try to match the rest of the world’s sleep-wake cycle.  I have to wake up at a time when I am normally getting my ‘best’ sleep: between 4-6 a.m., be awake and alert when I am normally sleeping and then I’m supposed to go to sleep when I’m normally awake!  I know that humans are not nocturnal creatures, but my sister and I are about as close to being nocturnal as humans can get! If any of you have ever had a night job, you know how uncomfortable and disorienting it can be to be awake when you’re normally sleeping and sleeping when you’re normally up and alert.  It’s physically painful for me at times to wake up to an obnoxious alarm clock (they are all obnoxious!) and get ready for work.  It’s a long and difficult transition for me to adjust to a ‘normal’ wake-sleep cycle and when I am off for an extended period of time, I revert right back to what’s normal for me.

The point of all this griping and grousing is that so many of us try to do something similar with diet, exercise, sleep and everything else in order to fit the rest of the world’s “healthy habits.” We try to eat 6-8 ounces of meat daily and drink 8 ounces of milk daily and get all those healthy whole grains and we feel horrible.  Our digestive tract rebels and causes all kinds of pain and discomfort but we keep on trying.  We hit the gym and walk the five miles or so three times a week and our knees, back and hips revolt until we can hardly stand up, let alone walk, and we keep trying.”What’s wrong with us?” Probably nothing! We’re that round peg not fitting into that cookie cutter square hole. The point of being an individual is that we are not like others.  Some of us don’t digest meat very well and some of us are lactose intolerant and some of us are sensitive to grains.  Just because we’re humans doesn’t mean we are all alike! It’s like the old syllogism logic teachers love: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.  Yes, they are all dogs, but yes, they are all different  and the same truths apply to us. While we are all fundamentally the same, we are all actually very different.  While this may seem like a real “duhhh” statement, how many times have you or someone you know tried the “one size fits all” approach? and how did that work out for you or them? There were a lot of times I tried the latest diet fad and most of the time, if it didn’t outright make me sick, I generally felt pretty horrible.  I know when I tried Nutrisystem, yes, I lost weight and yes, I was hungry the entire time.  I didn’t have a lot of energy either, but I kept with it because I was losing weight.  Weight loss: yes; Energy level: low; Hunger: high; Learning new healthy habits: oh hell no!  But because of that one yes, I stuck with it until I couldn’t stand their food anymore (besides being REALLY expensive!)

The same thing happened with me when I tried exercising.  How can you hurt yourself walking on a treadmill?  It was the bottom line recommendation from my gym and just about every website and blog I read: if you haven’t been exercising, start using the treadmill. So I did.  My feet hurt, my legs hurt, and my knees were killing me.  I pushed through, because I know there’s a difference between discomfort and pain and when you start a new activity, there is usually a little discomfort involved.  When it didn’t go away and started to get worse, I went to my doctor and the treadmill was actually the worst thing I could do.  I have arthritis in my knees (this is how I found out!) and even the low impact from the treadmill aggravated the condition (even now it still does, since I tried it again recently and even just 15 minutes was enough for me to feel it).  My doctor told me to use a pool since I can exercise without aggravating my knees and the water has some good resistance to it as well.  I can easily do an hour’s workout in the water and still not have painful knees.

I don’t want you to get the idea that everything needs to be personalized for you by some trainer or nutritionist or professional.  If you can afford those, then yes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but even though most of us can’t afford that level of personal attention, it doesn’t mean that we are out of luck!  When you start a new way of eating or new workout program, monitor how well it works for you.  Yes, this will mean writing down when you eat, what you ate and how you felt afterwards.  The same with the exercise and anything else you start doing differently.  I like to use a paper journal but there are a lot of apps (like My Fitness Pal and Fitbit) which will allow you to track this and those two apps will talk to each other, so you can use them both to combine your info.  Both of those will also sync with the My Health app on iPhones so you can have all your data in one place. The idea is that if there are some things about your new habits that work out for you, then you want to keep those but if there are things that don’t, then you can modify them.  For example, I eat a low carb diet, but I know that if I consistently eat lower than 50 carbs a day, my energy level drops dramatically.  I’m tired and irritable and usually have a bit of a headache.  I try to keep my carbs between 50-100 (a big carb day for me is about 135).  I generally feel pretty good in that range, and actually 135 was my old number (which is in the moderate range).  I knew from experience that eating really low carb (less than 20 carbs daily) really made me feel awful (some people call it ‘keto flu’ or ‘carb withdrawal’) so as I ate less, I found a range that worked for me: I didn’t feel tired or irritable, was getting enough fiber and glucose to exercise without getting exhausted or voraciously hungry, and my mood and hunger/ satiety were still positive.  By tracking all these things, I figured out what range is good for me.

This may sound like complex science experiment but it really isn’t.  If you use an app like MFP or Fitbit, when you enter your meals, the app does all the work for you. You don’t even have to write it all down if you don’t want to.  There’s a Notes section on MFP so at the end of the day (or during the day if you want) you can make notes like “really tired after lunch” or “lots of energy after breakfast” or whatever else you want to say about your mood, energy, digestion- whatever! The Nutrition portion of the app will tell you want your carbs, protein, fats and nutrients were for the day.  I like to write it all down but that’s just me!  It takes a couple minutes each day and at the end of a week, you have a lot of data collected.  If you don’t notice any problems or changes, then boom! you’re all done! But if, like me, you do notice days when you feel really tired or really fat or really hungry, you can take a look at what you did that day, and the next time it happens and the next, until you can see that each of those days you did or ate XYZ- maybe that’s the problem? Make a change! Then note the results: I ate more than 50 carbs and felt better.  I did a bigger cardio workout and I’m probably going to be really hungry tomorrow morning.  Tracking lets you know what you need to change and what you need to keep, so over time, your eating plan and workout program, and even your sleep schedule if you want, is customized to give you the best results for you. You know yourself better than anyone, even before you start tracking.  Tracking just clues you into the signals your body is sending you anyway- the difference is now you’re paying attention.  It’s like taking that “one size fits all” dress or slacks and altering it to fit you perfectly! Tracking also helps you keep making progress because we all know that what works for us now will eventually stop working as our bodies and metabolisms change.  This is why calorie counting methods keep dropping your calories the more weight you lose.  Eventually, your body will get used to your exercise and your metabolism will get used to a certain number of macros.  This is where many people get confused and frustrated and sometimes they will abandon their program and go in search of something different.  They may not need ‘something different’- they just need to make an adjustment to what they are doing now! It’s like altering those slacks again! It keeps your plan personalized for you! You have changed, so shouldn’t your plan change also?

One more heads-up: peer pressure can be enormous, especially if people are telling you you’re doing it ‘wrong,’ or that their plan is much better.  Maybe it is better- for them! Maybe the way you’re doing it works for you! The push to join the pack is extremely hard to resist.  We see everyone else having great success or lots of enthusiasm with their programs and we not only feel the need to be like others, we also want to have the same success.  It’s normal, but before we join the pack, we need to take stock of our current situation.  Is our plan working for us, i.e. we are hitting our goals and we are happy with it? If not, then maybe it’s time to make a change to our plan before abandoning it altogether.  If we do decide to try a new plan, we need to monitor ourselves to see if it works for us.  If not, again, we can try personalizing it to fit us or we can try something new again.  The point is that if we are not being patient and making the changes we need to our eating plans and workout programs, we are just going to keep bouncing from one to another.  That’s not a good way to find success.  One more personal example: when I started college, I took the required Study Skills class that said we should all study in a quiet isolated room with no distractions.  The guidance counselor thought I was crazy when I told her I studied in the living room with the tv on or the cafeteria full of students with the campus radio going full blast.  I knew from experience that the silence of the library was too distracting to me.  A sneeze in a silent room is the same as bomb going off while a sneeze in a room full of noise is just a sneeze.  My brain filters out a room full of noise as junk but one sound in silence is an alarm bell. I still study and read with the tv on.  We are all all our own unique individuals and we should be proud of our differences!  That’s what makes us strong! We need to focus on ourselves and less on what everyone else is doing and what everyone else says is “the best way to go.”  What works for “everyone else” would be fine, if we were “everyone else.”  Frankly, the world would be pretty boring if we were all everyone else and all dogs were poodles.










The Carrot or The Stick: Positive v Negative Reinforcement

The simple approach to reinforcement is either the carrot or the stick. You can lure the donkey forward with a carrot or you can try forcing it to move by hitting it with a stick. Maybe these approaches work on donkeys (doubt it!) but the fact is: you are not a donkey!

I am very familiar with positive reinforcement.  When I was freshman in college, my Intro to Pysch teacher covered it and what I thought interesting is the idea that even though negative reinforcement gets all the attention, studies show positive reinforcement is much more effective.  As a result, I went home and started using it on my dog (education in action!)  Over the years, pretty much all my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement.  My basic approach: every time my dog (or cat) does something I want them to repeat, I give them praise and affection.  He asks to go out to pee, he’s a good boy.  He sits calmly on my lap, he’s a good boy.  The cat uses her scratch post instead of the sofa, good kitty!  When I was out of town last year, my mom babysat my dog and when she told me he was playing chase with her dog, I told her to tell him he’s a good boy.  She called back and said after she told him “good boy,” he was more enthusiastic about playing with her dog.  I told her that’s the point: once he knows he’s doing something that pleases me (and is also fun), he has more incentive to keep doing it!  That’s what positive reinforcement is supposed to do: the action becomes pleasurable because you are rewarded for it so you have much more incentive to keep doing it. 

Negative reinforcement is the opposite, of course: the pup wets on the rug and you scold and spank him. As far as pups go, it’s not really effective because the pup usually doesn’t make the connection between wetting on the rug at 10:30 a.m., you coming home at 6 and seeing it and scolding him.  As far as he’s concerned, he was happy to see you come home and you’re mad at him for being happy to see you.  This is why the positive reinforcement works better for potty-training: he goes out, pees on the lawn, and he’s a good boy.  He has incentive to wet all over the lawn because as long as he does, he’s a good boy.

But, again, you aren’t a puppy.  How does positive reinforcement work on people, and why isn’t negative reinforcement effective?  You would think associating donuts with bad feelings would make you avoid donuts much more than associating happy feelings with broccoli or exercise.  The difference is that while negative reinforcement is better at getting you to change behavior, it’s the positive reinforcement that keeps you exercising and eating the broccoli.

One of the best ways to get started changing and keeping a new habit is to use a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement.  With my dog, when he does something I want him to repeat, he’s the greatest puppy in the world (which he loves to hear) and when he does something I don’t want him to repeat, I tell him no firmly but without a lot of fuss and leave it alone.  He’s trained by now to look for the praise and he’s focused on doing things that earn him praise and, since the wrong behavior didn’t earn it, he’s moved on to something else.  For example, let’s look at workouts.  If you schedule an appointment with a trainer and if you get charged for missing that workout, that’s incentive to keep the workout (negative reinforcement), but if you are constantly praised and encouraged for your progress while at your workout, that’s also incentive to keep the appointment (positive reinforcement).  So that combination works pretty well: you don’t want to pay for a service you aren’t getting, but at the same time, each time you go, you see that you’re lifting more weight, doing more lunges and your trainer is praising your progress by telling you know how far you’ve come.  You have more incentive to keep going because you can see the benefit; if you didn’t see any benefit or the trainer wasn’t enthusiastic about your progress, eventually you would stop booking appointments to avoid the cancellation fees.  This is what happens when people make nasty comments to you about eating fast food: you don’t stop eating fast food, you just stop eating it with those people.  You avoid the negativity by changing your behavior but not necessarily changing the bad behavior.  Your goal becomes avoiding the negative result, not avoiding the negative behavior.

Most of us are frustrated because we are trying very hard to make positive changes in our behavior to improve our health but the problem is that most of us do it with negative reinforcement.  We can be our own worst enemies.  We eat a candy bar and we berate ourselves like we threw a kitten under a bus! We skip our workout and we’re the laziest, most unworthy person in the world.  We use the stick to beat ourselves over the head about how we aren’t eating healthy, we aren’t working out, we keep eating all the cookies, cupcakes and potato chips and we believe that if we keep beating ourselves, we’ll eventually change.  If our bodies showed the emotional abuse we heap on ourselves, we’d look like we were hit by a semi.  We look at ourselves in the mirror and abuse ourselves: “I’m so ugly it’s a wonder my spouse hasn’t left me.  I look like a monster.  I can’t believe how fat I am!  I’m too far gone to save.”  Any of this sound familiar?  It breaks my heart when friends post things like this online: “I got on the scale, saw I went up two pounds and couldn’t stop crying.”

This is not productive.  This is not healthy, or helpful, and your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person. Stop beating yourself with the stick! You aren’t a donkey and it doesn’t work! If you want to change your behavior, you need to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement with a BIG emphasis on the positive!

It’s always best to make this process as simple as possible: 1) Write out your objective simply and specifically; 2) Associate a ‘negative’ with avoiding the behavior; and 3) Associate a ‘positive’ with completing the task.

Let’s say the most important change you want to make this year is to eat more healthy foods.  Write out a simple specific objective, such as “I want to eat at least two servings of vegetables each day.”  That’s specific and it’s a change in the right direction.  So let’s say that each time you finish a day without two servings of vegetables, you put $5 in the Veggie Jar and at the end of the month or week, you give the money to your kids, you donate the money to a charity, or you use it to buy veggies- whatever- as long as the money is not going to you!  You are charging yourself for not changing the behavior!  As a positive reinforcement, let’s say that for each day you finish with two or more servings of vegetables, you get to take $5 out of the Veggie Jar, or you, your kids/ spouse put $5 in your Healthy Habit Jar and that money goes to you for a non-food treat, like a movie, a manicure, or something else you were wanting.  Don’t overlook the power of praise and encouragement either!  Remember when you were in grade school and every time you got an A on a math quiz, the teacher put a gold star on the wall chart next to your name?  You really wanted to get the A, not so you would be good at math but so that you would have as many stars as possible (and maybe beat out some of the kids you didn’t like) You can still do the same thing.  On a calendar, give yourself a gold star for each day that you hit your goals ( 2 + servings of veggies; a workout; 8 glasses of water, whatever your goal is for that month!) Looking at a calendar filling up with stars is really very encouraging.  It’s a sign of your continuing improvement there on the wall for everyone to see. Just looking at it makes you feel good about yourself and your progress. (Looking in the mirror and seeing your body getting fitter or smaller is also very encouraging.)  The calendar also has a little bit of the negative impetus as well: a calendar with only a few stars on it shows that you are not focusing on your objectives and frankly, it stings a little.  It also has the “instant gratification” effect:  the more you hit your objectives, the sooner the calendar starts filling up with stars.  “I hit my goal- another star for me! That’s three this week already! Yay, me!”

Does it seem a little  silly?  You roll your eyes, and tell yourself that you aren’t twelve years old and a chart full of stars is childish.  It worked when you were twelve because frankly it made you feel good. It reinforced your positive attitude towards hitting your objectives, whether it’s making healthy lifestyle changes or getting an A in math.  You can choose whatever positive visual reinforcement works for you but making things too complicated tends to defeat the purpose.  Seeing the days of accomplishment stack up, whether it’s stars on a calendar or money in a jar, the goal is to encourage yourself to make positive changes. Just the acknowledgement of your achievements can be emotionally uplifting and associating the positive feelings with completing the task should not be underestimated. Back to my dog, there are times when I’m very busy and he’s sitting off to the side watching me. I’m not angry, just busy, but as soon as I look up at him and say his name, he ‘smiles’ and wags his tail.  Just acknowledging him makes him happy.  Yes, you are not a dog, but you are not too far from that proud twelve year old who just got another star on the Arithmetic Aces Chart either. Don’t be ashamed to flaunt your successes- you earned those stars!


A Letter from the Dark Side: Weighing Nearly 450 lbs.

Many of you know I’m a rabid fan of My 600lb Life on TLC but you may not know why. Yes, it’s a great ongoing reinforcement for me, but in order to be on the show, patients have to weigh a minimum of 500 lbs. In June 2014, I weighed in at 438. I think that’s the highest I ever weighed, but since I never weighed at home and avoided doctors as much as possible, I’m making an educated guess. I never looked at the scale when I got weighed at the doctor; I had to look up that number in my records. But judging by the way I felt physically, I’m pretty sure that was my highest weight.

When you watch the show, you listen to the patients talking about the pain of standing, walking, moving around; how difficult even the easiest everyday activities are; how hopeless and overwhelming everything feels. My mom (a retired RN) watches the show also and I usually get a text from her during the show saying something to the effect of “just wire her mouth shut!!” usually while the patient is talking about her physical difficulties. My mom has no empathy for these patients and I don’t think she understands why I’ll repeatedly watch the reruns. It’s because they were me and I was them. I was the chubby kid, the pudgy teen, the obese adult. My weight was a slow steady relentless gain throughout my life. I spent most of my twenties in the two hundreds, most of my thirties in the three hundreds and by my forties I was fighting to stay out of the four hundreds: a fight I lost in my late forties. When I was 48, I was the highest weight I had ever been. Most of my adult life I was between 370-385. (If any of you have seen My Big Fat Fabulous Life with Whitney Way Thore, I was her size.) I didn’t like being that big, but it had become “comfortable” and by that I mean, there weren’t a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do but I had gotten pretty good at judging my limits. I could get around pretty good, but I knew when to stop and how to take shortcuts to “maximize my mobility.” I took several trips to Disneyland (one of my favorite places) and my strategy was to hit the rides I could fit on (that was my reality) and when my friends went on rides I couldn’t get on, I’d wait someplace with all our stuff while they rode the rides. I was a convenient meeting place. They didn’t push me to do more because crossing the park was hard on my knees, back and feet. It was a big effort for me to walk any extended distance: I was carrying 375 lbs.

When Dr. Now’s patients talk about the pain of standing and walking, I know that pain. My weight ruined my knees: I have moderate to severe arthritis in both of them (my right is worse than my left). My large lower abdomen (my panniculus) put quite a strain on my back so just standing hurt my knees, my back and my feet. Maneuvering around the house or office or anywhere was usually a challenge since I was twice the size of a normal sized person. Fitting in chairs with arms or cars was always hit or miss since they’re not made for someone the size of two people. I was often afraid of breaking chairs (toilet seats included) and there were a lot of times I wasn’t able to wear the seatbelt in a friend’s car (they were nice enough to not comment).  In college, I was too big for some desks and I had to use the “disabled” desk made for students in wheelchairs.  In auditorium classrooms, I had to sit next to an empty seat, since the little foldover desktop would not lay flat enough across my stomach for me to write on it: I had to use the one next to me.  Getting up from any chair or seated position was always a strain on my knees, back, and hips, (lifting the equivalent of at least two adults) but staying seated for a long period of time was another source of pain on my low back.  My weight even affected my sleep: I had apnea because my weight was essentially beginning to smother me.

Clothing and shoes were another challenge.  It’s extremely dispiriting to realize that the blouse that fits you is big enough to double as a king size pillow case or that when your slacks are folded in half, they are the same size at those for normal sized people.  It’s even more embarrassing when you’re shopping and people think your slacks (folded on the store hanger) are a skirt. When you lay out your clothes for the day and your shirt is the size of a small throw, it’s pretty demoralizing. I know my nightgowns/ nightshirts were that size. I’m guessing a skirt would be that size but I never wore skirts or dresses because getting the slips, nylons and camisoles were next to impossible in my size. Let’s not even discuss lingerie! Shoes are a lot of fun because while there are some stores that normally carry double-wide shoes, when you need triple E, you almost always have to order them.  Getting shoes a size larger doesn’t help much because your foot just gets wider, not longer.

My mom doesn’t mean to be callous when she makes comments about wiring the patient’s jaws shut (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here), because she doesn’t understand how insidious the weight gain is. It’s like quicksand: you know you need to get out, but you don’t know how to extricate yourself. Fighting it just seems to make it worse and cause you to sink faster but doing nothing doesn’t get you out either; you just keep slowly sinking. You try making small improvements, but while they may seem to help, it feels like you’re bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon: it’s working but the improvements are infinitesimal compared to the sheer magnitude of the problem.

I tried diets but dieting seemed to make the problem worse since it was the “fighting the quicksand” scenario: limiting my calories slowed my metabolism so when I gave up the diet (infinitesimal progress), I gained back more weight pretty rapidly. (In all honesty, I didn’t try a lot of diets because I knew they didn’t work, but at the same time, I was desperate to try something! Unfortunately with most of the diets, the more I limited the food, the slower my metabolism became, so I’d have to limit my food even more, á la The Biggest Loser ‘winners.’  I did try some of the “food subscription diets” where you buy the pre-packaged diet foods and eat according to their plans.  Generally those plans & foods worked for me, but even while I was losing weight on them, I kept asking myself “so what happens when I stop eating their food?” That was an easy call: I gained weight again because their “meal plans” hadn’t taught me anything.  The idea behind most of them seemed to be to eat their food until I reached my goal weight and then they’re going to teach me how to stay there.  I never got there because- again- it limited my calories and slowed my metabolism.  I simply had too much weight to lose.

One of the first questions Dr. Now asks his patients is “how did you get to this weight?”  For most of my adult life, the answer is simple: I ate as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.  Sometimes I will tease others (and my pets) with the phrase “I want! I want! I want!”  I know how that feels: gimme what I want NOW!! It’s easy to ignore the consequences, and frankly that’s what I did for most of those years when I weighed 370+.  But it wasn’t like I woke up one morning and “wow! how did I get so big?! yesterday I was only 150!” It’s that insidious weight gain I mentioned earlier.  Part of it I can blame on the explosion of cheap processed foods: they are easily metabolized, full of calories and actually designed to make you keep eating more.  The fact that most of my generation and those that followed have problems with obesity and type 2 diabetes backs this up.  But most of us who grew up eating these cheap processed foods do not get to weigh 400+ lbs, though sadly there are a lot more of us than before. A lot of the blame has to be placed at my door.  I didn’t want to be active (I was never good at running or sports) and I spent a lot of my time with sedentary pursuits (reading, writing, watching tv, etc).  It was an amazingly awful combination: the more I ate, the bigger I got, the less I wanted to move so the more I sat and hey, how about another bag of cheese puffs? I tend to give myself credit for not hitting the 400s until I was over forty years old, but I was definitely on track to hit the 500s in my fifties (I noticed the numbers were paralleling each other and it was a frightening realization!) It’s along the same lines as giving yourself credit for breaking the chair but not falling through the floor: “well, the disaster could have been a whole lot worse!” Either way there is nothing good about weighing what I weighed.

It’s a hard situation to confront when you are that large and steadily gaining weight.  The solution seems simple: just go on a diet! But when those diets are based on calories in vs calories out, they don’t work.  All it does is wreck your metabolism and leave you constantly hungry, so you are not only miserably famished all the time, eventually your metabolism settles at your current calorie intake and you stop losing weight.  So while you may have lost some weight, you are right on track to gain it all right back, unless you drop your calories further.  I read in an article last September that one of The Biggest Loser ‘winners’ has to keep his calories under 800 per day in order not to gain the weight back.  To translate that into food, 800 calories is approximately 24 ounces of plain grilled chicken breast or 1.77 Starbucks Grande Mochas with 2% milk and whipped cream.  Sounds filling, doesn’t it?  So when you weigh over 350 lbs, are still gaining weight no matter what you seem to try, it feels pretty hopeless. Somehow, you walked right into this quicksand and now you can’t get out. You try making healthy changes: eating less and exercising more (again calories in vs calories out) and for a while it works, and then when it seems to stop, you try something else, but again, bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. It’s easy to see why people like me, Whitney and Dr. Now’s patients just accept that “I’m the fat one in the family!” Defeat with dignity seems better than the constant failing and disappointment. A phrase from The Simpsons would often pop into my head: “Can’t win- don’t try!” I was just destined to be fat so I might as well accept it.

Except it was killing me in so many painful ways. There was the physical pain that comes with lugging around two full sized adults on a body built for one.  There was the constant ‘helpful’ comments from family and the stares and ridicule of strangers always wearing on your spirit.  You feel embarrassed, helpless, inadequate and stupid almost every day, always asking yourself “how the hell did this happen to me?!” You are angry at yourself, at everyone in your family who tries to ‘help’ (because although they mean well, all they are really doing is reminding you of what a screw up you are), and you’re angry at all the jerks in the world who make rude comments about ‘fat chicks’ and other overweight people. It’s physically and emotionally draining to fight the weight and it’s physically and emotionally draining just living with it and all the limitations that it carries. I know in my case, the only way I found to fight it is to keep living my life as best I could.  It seemed as close to defeat with dignity as I could get. I had resolved to do as much as I could as long as I could, much the way I believe Whitney Thore has come to terms with her weight: try not to let it get in the way.

It’s a hard life, and I wish I could give everyone the keys to the secret passage out of it, but there are no easy solutions. For some, bariatric surgery is the best solution.  My mom used to try bribing me to get it done but I have never had any interest in getting my insides remodeled, although if I had reached 500, I think I would have seriously reconsidered. For others, radically changing their eating habits works, or weight loss medications or other devices (they have a permanent stomach pump now). Most- if not all- of these solutions sound a little desperate, but when you weigh in that neighborhood, desperate is exactly what you are! For me, the solution was radically changing my eating habits: I went from a diet that was 80% simple carbs to a diet that is 35% protein, 35% fat and 30% complex carbs. I now eat as few simple carbs as possible (fruit is as simple as it gets most days). It’s not as drastic a change as getting your gastrointestinal tract rearranged, but it sure wasn’t an easy transition to make.  I’m just happy and relieved that it worked and that it allows to me to live a lifestyle that is still normal and satisfying, both mentally, physically and spiritually. I have finally found my way to a happy place after a very long and desperate sojourn on the dark side.


You Need to Come First!

One of the views I’ve heard a lot over the years is that “I need to make my family/ my job/ whatever my first priority!” Essentially, it’s the idea that everyone else’s needs and wants should come before yours.  That’s very noble and self-effacing, and also a little stupid, in my opinion.  It’s touted as the ideal and it’s generally accepted that if you put yourself before others, you are greedy and selfish. Really? Let’s take a look at that!

I used to put others before me all the time with my job, with my family, with pretty much everything in my life.  If I’m tired, I’ll just push through and get this project done at the office and so I’ll get home at 8:30 instead of 7:30. I’ll just handle it.  I’ll run my mom’s errands because she asked me and so what if I have to make a special trip to whatever store and then drive over to her place (also out of my way) so she doesn’t have to come pick up what I got for her.  I’ll just take care of it. I was taking care of everything and everyone but me.  That was a spectacularly bad idea! Not just bad– spectacularly bad!  Why? Because if you are in really sorry shape, how can you take care of anything or anyone else?  If you are too sick, too tired, too burnt out and not functioning well, you are not going to do anything well at all!  My former boss from hell frankly expected me to put my job and her needs before myself and if I didn’t, I was just a bad employee and a bad person in general (and she made sure I knew how disappointed she was with me!) So I was always exhausted and fuzzy-brained and eating badly (and feeling awful as a result) so I could take care of whatever she wanted done. I was so burnt out, stressed out and poorly nourished I was literally killing myself.  What did it get me?  Nothing good! A lot of sleepless nights and poor self-esteem. What did it get her and my job and everyone else in my life?  Nothing good there either! A lot of nasty recriminations. (FYI: she was so concerned about my health because ‘what am I going to do if you die?’ Not kidding here! That should have been a huge clue!)

If you want to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself first! You can’t help them if you need help too. I remember coming home from that job from hell usually close to 8:00 p.m., exhausted and burnt out. I’d eat whatever I’d gotten at the drive-thru and just collapse in my bed. I was so much fun to be around. I was too tired to play with my pets or do any housework. My weekends were split between sleeping and catching up on everything at home I didn’t get done during the week. So my friends and family didn’t see a lot of me either. My life was such a joyless existence and it was because I was putting everyone else’s needs before mine. I was so busy taking care of everyone else, I didn’t have any time or energy to take care of me.  My boss would nag me that I needed a hair cut or I never took any time to do my nails (she was very much into vanity) and I would think “when do I have time to get any of that done?”  I’d joke with my dog’s groomer that my dog gets to the “salon” more than I do.  Taking care of my pet was one thing I didn’t skimp on because he was a long haired dog- ’nuff said! Even then, it was one more ‘person’ I was putting before me.

You are not selfish or greedy for putting yourself first.  Think of it like this: if you see someone drowning and you know you can’t swim, are you just going to jump in with him? All you are going to do is drown alongside him! You are no help at all and now, you’ve gotten yourself in trouble too!  Let’s say someone at the office asks for help with a big project and you have five projects waiting on your desk- you are already swamped. “Sure, Bill, I’ll help with your project” because you want to be a good co-worker.  So now, you still have your five projects and part of Bill’s that you have clamoring for your time.  How much time and energy do you have to devote to Bill’s project?  How great a job will you be able to do? So if you miss the deadline on his project, he’s going to look bad and be pretty angry at you, and if you do manage to get it done, and-shocker here- you didn’t do a fabulous job, he’s still going to look bad and be unhappy with you.  Even if you do a fabulous job, he and his project look great, but what about your projects? Did you miss your deadlines and blow your projects to help out Bill?  If so, you may not be his co-worker much longer!

Managing your own time and energy isn’t being greedy; it’s being responsible.  If you are a parent, you know sometimes being responsible can make you unpopular but it’s a fact of life! As a parent, even if your child really wants to do all the activities and clubs, you know she may not have enough time for them, for schoolwork and for family and rest.  Are you just going to say yes because it’s what she wants and then let her get burned out? Of course not! As her parent, it’s your job to do what’s best for her!  Sometimes doing what’s best for others means that you have to take care of yourself too.  If you are supposed to take the kids and their friends out on a playdate on Saturday and you start feeling a little sick or worn out on Wednesday, maybe you have to tell the kids or family that you need to get to bed early that night.  Your spouse might have to fix dinner: sorry, hon, but I’m not up to it tonight!  If you really are still sick on Saturday, Jeff’s mom might have to sub for you or you might have to cancel the playdate.  I’m okay, you tell yourself; the kids are really looking forward to this trip.  Do you want a sick/ medicated parent driving your kid someplace or giving your kid the flu (or something worse)? I know I don’t!  It’s not good for you and it’s not good for them.  How much fun are you going to be on the trip anyway? And what happens if you get worse?  You might have to cut the trip short, or worse, you might have to have someone come pick up you and the kids to drive you all home.  No inconvenience there!  Wouldn’t it just be easier to handle this before it turns into a disaster? How popular are you going to be with the kids and their parents? And this includes your own kid, who is probably going to be embarrassed that you made him ‘look bad’ in front of his friends.

It’s wonderful knowing that people depend on you and view you as reliable and good at what you do, whether it’s taking care of business or taking care of your family.  It’s means you’re a responsible and conscientious person, but sometimes saying no is the responsible thing to do. Take your coworker Bill: he asks for help and you say ‘sorry, no.  I’ve got too much on my plate right now.’  He moves on to Sarah, who says yes and three weeks later, he and Sarah did a great job on his project, you had more time to work on your own and you all look good.  Suppose you are too sick to take the kids on their trip and you call Jeff’s mom, who is able to take them; you stay home getting over your flu and the kids have a great time- no disasters and no sick kids later on.  It’s not the end of the world when you say no.  Even if they are begging because “no one else can do it,” if you are already stretched to the limit (or more than you feel comfortable handling), then do the responsible thing and say ‘no.’

We all know there are times when sometimes you have to bite the bullet and stretch yourself; so maybe you stay late a few nights to get all your projects done and help Bill out, or you cancel something else on your schedule so you can get the extra rest and take the kids out on Saturday.  You make some allowances.  The difference here is that if these are exceptions rather than the rule, so you have that little extra in your tank to get you over this overload.  This was what I was not doing! Instead of staying late a couple of nights a month to take care of my boss’s needs, I was doing it just about every night.  Getting home on time was the exception and staying late was the norm.  This is why you say no the rest of the time: so when you really do have to take on the extra duties, you have that energy to give! If you’ve got nothing left to give because you are always swamped and always running hither and yon and always doing for everyone else but you, then when it comes time to help someone else out who really needs the help and has no one else to lend a hand, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel!

Your energy, time and attention are much like a bank account: if it’s invested and managed wisely, it grows and when you need the extra cash, there’s something there to draw on, but if you are constantly overspending, when you need some extra cash, the account is empty and, unlike cash, you can’t really borrow time, attention and energy from someone else! All you can do is ask for help, or better yet- tell them no. You aren’t Superman or Wonder Woman and there’s a limit to your resources.  If you are a responsible adult, then do the responsible thing.  A friend of my mom has a daughter Sarah who is living away from home for the first time and managing her own finances for the first time, and she called my mom a couple of weeks ago to ask if she could borrow some money.  She was broke and she had no groceries; instead of buying groceries, she’d gone to a local Indian casino and gambled it away.  Sarah was not happy to get a lecture about managing her money better or moving back home until she was a little more mature: she insisted she was a responsible independent adult!  Gambling the grocery money isn’t responsible and asking for a handout because of it isn’t being responsible.  It’s easy to see how irresponsible that is in Sarah’s situation, but how many of us do the same thing with our time, energy and attention? We fritter them away on other people (or on our own versions of the ‘casinos’ called tv, Facebook and Twitter, etc.) and when we open the metaphorical fridge door, we find it bare because we’ve got nothing left to spend.

If we are going to be the responsible, reliable, conscientious co-worker, employee, friend and parent, it means we need to manage our resources in a responsible manner.  It means that sometimes we have to say no.  It means that we have to make sure we are in a position to help out when someone truly needs help by first taking care of ourselves.  The irony is that most of us have no problem telling ourselves no.  We are used to denying ourselves the extra hour of sleep, the piece of chocolate cake, the night out at the movies or whatever we want to buy at the stores.  Self-denial is something to which we are very accustomed, but denying someone else access to our time and energy is something we find a lot harder.  Odds are Bill won’t be offended if you tell him you’re already stretched too thin (he might even appreciate it since you won’t botch his project!) and the parents of your kid’s friends will probably appreciate your not sharing your flu with their kids! Saying no is a lot harder than most of us think, but like every other healthy habit we are working on, it takes practice and the more you do it, the easier it gets, especially when your reserves start to grow! You start to have more energy and things that used to drain you aren’t so difficult anymore. Eventually, when you’ve sufficiently replenished your account, when someone asks for help again, you’ll have the reserves available to give them the help they need.  It was a long time before I was able to help anyone after I left the job from hell, because I literally had nothing left to give anyone, even to myself. I thought I was being conscientious, reliable and helpful but in reality I wasn’t helping anyone, least of all myself.


Thank You for a Great 2016!

This time next week, it’ll be 2017. Everyone will be in the throes of winding up any loose ends from 2016, recovering from the holidays, and getting started building healthy new habits. It can be a little overwhelming at such a hectic time of year, so I appreciate your taking the time to read my postings.

Although I have been doing this “fitness thing” for a couple of years now, I am still fairly new to fitness, nutrition and blogging, but I’ve learned a lot on this journey, and the focus of this blog is to share that information, resources and support with others.  When I started doing my own research, looking for information and support, I was a little lost. (Try googling “nutrition” or even “paleo diet” and see the flood of info that pops up!) My goal initially when I set up this blog was just to record and share my progress, but the more I learned, the more detours I encountered searching for info, and meeting others who were still in the dark about a lot of the things I was finding, I realized that the best use of this blog would be to share what I was finding. Frankly, sharing is how I first got some of my best resources and info: hearing about it from my fitness friends on My Fitness Pal (MFP).

One of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that we need to be savvy health consumers.  That is, we need to keep an open mind when it comes to new information but not blindly follow anyone who offers help or advice.  This is one of the reasons I will occasionally add in the “I’m not a healthcare professional” disclaimer and I provide (as much as possible) the source of my info so you can not only check it out for yourself but so you have the opportunity to check out some of the other links available.  It’s important to be open to new ideas (I believe this is how we grow as a civilization and individuals) but at the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t blindly follow the lead lemming off the cliff.  When it comes to health, we need to remember that what works for one person may not work for us, and more importantly, what is safe for someone else may not be safe for us! So, while we’re looking for new ways of getting fit or losing weight, we need to focus on what we can do safely and not “how much can I lose/ lift in two weeks doing X?” That idea is how people make themselves sick or end up in the hospital. In high school, my sister used to run almost daily. Eight times around the track (2 miles) was a nice run for her. When I had to do it for my PE final one year, I nearly passed out! (Truthfully, they gave me the option not to run, but I was stubborn…..) I took it slow and was the last one on the track but it still hurt to do it. Even though we’re sisters and grew up in the same house, our health, bodies and habits are still different. It’s what makes us individuals.

Some of the information that is out there is just irresponsible.  Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can add their two cents to the weight loss/ fitness conversation and just because they have a website or a YouTube feed, it doesn’t mean they are professionals or even that know what they are talking about.  As the information consumer, it’s your job to do a little research.  Some of you may recall the old saying caveat emptor: ‘buyer beware’ and it’s true more than ever today. There are so many people online who are giving out information (including me), some for free but many for money, and they may not have your best interests at heart.  Many of them mean well, I’m sure, but since they are not professionals, they may not know the whole story. (FYI: even professionals can be wrong!)  A good example of this is all the supplement companies and advocates who push them.  Even if it’s just something like a sleep supplement with magnesium, ‘more’ is not better, especially when it comes to certain supplements aka vitamins and minerals. Some vitamins like B & C are water soluble, which means it’s nearly impossible to overdose on them since you pass them through your urine, but other supplements are actually minerals and metals, like calcium and iron, and they don’t pass through your body quickly.  You can overdose on certain vitamins, minerals and supplements, which can have serious or dangerous consequences.  This is why when you buy these items, you need to buy them from reputable companies, read the informational pamphlet that comes with them, and hopefully you have researched the products before you bought them and discussed them with your healthcare professional.  I’m not telling you that you need to spend a mountain of time and money before you buy a bottle of valerian root or melatonin, but some people spend more time going through the reviews on Amazon before buying sneakers than they do before buying a bottle of something they are going to ingest!  Just because it works for others does not mean that it will be good for you.  Melatonin is actually a good example of this: I bought some a few years ago and: #1) it did NOT help me sleep; and #2) it made me really irritable, so I threw it away.  It works for a lot of people but not for me!

I have found that the podcasts and websites I like the best not only offer good information on a variety of nutrition and fitness/ health topics but they always caution their clients that everyone is different and what works for others may not work for them.  They usually mention that if you have a health condition, make sure you are okay to do/ take whatever they are talking about, i.e. melatonin or a fitness regimen.  I try to follow their example: I’m sharing what I have learned and some of the resources that I have found reliable and trustworthy, but you know your body better than anyone else, so if you have questions, concerns, doubts or even if you just want more info, please do some more digging! I love answering questions and offering my opinions (who doesn’t love that!), but I am in no way the final authority on any topic and definitely not an authority on your health! Don’t be shy about telling anyone that something is not working for you.  This goes for your doctor too! Just because they have letters after their name, it does not make them the Final Word on anything.  Many years ago, I broke my leg: I cracked the tibial plateau (the top of your shin bone), so even though it was broken, it didn’t look broken. I had x-rays done at Urgent Care where the radiologist told me it was broken and sent me to the hospital ER to be admitted. The ER doc was in a rush (as usual), looked at my  leg & the x-ray for 5 seconds, proclaimed “it’s fine” and started out the door.  I told him the radiologist had said it was broken, so he stopped, looked again and in those two minutes, my leg went from “fine” to “broken” to “a bad break.”  Had I not stopped him, he would have sent me home with a broken leg which, according to my orthopedic surgeon, would have split like a piece of kindling the first time I stepped hard on it which would have required surgery with installation of plates and screws, not to mention incisions down both sides of my leg.  All because the ER doc didn’t pause to look at my films and I kept my mouth shut out of fear of contradicting him. You live in your body every day; you know how it feels and when something isn’t right.  Never be afraid to ask questions of any health professional (or someone just offering information) when it comes to your health and your body.  You are your own best advocate! I will never be offended if you don’t agree with me or if you have questions, or if you just want to know more info.  I try to cite my sources in my posts, but if I forget, I am always available through comments on this blog or at Have a Happy New Year, everyone and thank you for making 2016 one of my best years yet!


Reflections of Change:Learning Not to Be Critical of Yourself

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I hate mirrors.  I’ve never been really fond of them (too many ghost stories involving mirrors when I was a kid) and as I got more and more obese, there was never any pleasure at looking at my reflection.  Occasionally, I would look at my face and think my eyes were kind of nice or my hair wasn’t bad, but that’s about as good as it got.  As for the rest of me, full body mirrors did not exist!

Even now when I look in the mirror every morning, I manage not to see the rest of me and focus only on the matter at hand, i.e. teeth, hair, makeup.  When I do look at the reflection, it’s usually a little critical: my chin is getting saggier; I’m getting wrinkles by my nose and mouth; my grey hair is more noticeable; etc.  It’s an objective observation as much as it can be; I’m not happy about the situation, but at the same time, I realize my options are fairly limited to remedy the situation.  I can probably get some kind of expensive plastic surgery to fix the chin, and maybe some collagen for the wrinkles, and the hair stylist can easily handle the grey.  But beyond maybe getting my hair colored, I’m really not interested in doing anything else.  My vanity is fairly limited by my impatience.  I don’t want to spend my time trying to look younger or thinner or ‘less wrinkled.’  It’s not a priority for me.  My boss from hell was horribly vain and I spent a great deal of my day making her ‘beauty appointments’ for waxing, botox, hair stylist, nails, etc.  I don’t have much interest in going down that road.

But at the same time, the changes that come with losing weight are beginning to register more and more.  Recently at the gym,  after changing into my swim suit, I passed by the full length mirror in the locker room.  It’s a tri-fold mirror, so you can see ALL of you.  Normally there’s some young little thing in front making sure her workout clothes aren’t rumpled and her hair/ makeup look good, but this time, there was no one, so I paused… and I looked.

Honestly…. I’m pretty wrinkly.  It looks like I’m wearing an outfit that is too big for me, because really, that’s what’s happening: I am shrinking inside my skin.  I knew it was coming.  You can’t weigh as much as I did and expect no consequences when you lose weight.  In fact, I used that as an excuse for a long time: “I don’t want loose skin and I don’t want surgery, so I’m not losing weight.”  After losing 170 lbs (the equivalent of an adult male), I’ve pretty much got loose skin everywhere.  My legs, belly and butt look the worst: droopier and wrinkly, with ‘pouches’ of wrinkled loose skin in some places.  My breasts have also gotten droopier as well as my arms and my chin. My bones are becoming more prominent: you can see my collarbone now; my hips, knees and elbows are bonier; even my head and feet have gotten smaller as my shoes and my hats seem bigger. (You know you’re fat when your head shrinks!)

Since this isn’t something I normally do, I took the time to look at my legs and my butt.  Yep, even more wrinkly and a lot droopier than before.  What’s the quip?: “that is not a good look for you!” That’s the truth! Like I said, I never thought of myself as being vain or overly concerned with my appearance (I had a guy tell me once that I didn’t know how to be a “girl” because I didn’t flirt or primp or whatever he thought “girls” are supposed to do! and yes, he was a first class jerk!) So, I spent a couple of minutes getting a good look at the state of my ongoing wrinkliness and made a mental note: yep, not a good look I’ve got going on here, and then went out to the pool.

On the one hand, it’s a little concerning because I’ve started dating again and I really don’t want to look unattractive, but I’m fairly realistic.  This is what I look like and any guy who is going to be more interested in what I look like than who I am isn’t a guy I am going to be dating very long, much like the first class jerk above.  The truth is I think the older I get, the b*tchier I get (I’m becoming Maxine from the Hallmark cards & calendars, complete with the little dog who knows better!) I no longer fuss over if I’m pretty enough or demure enough or “what happens if I never meet a guy?” but I also realize that I am in the minority when it comes to body image. It’s not because I’m super confident and secure in my appearance: it’s that I’ve already spent a big part of my life worrying about what others think of my appearance and it hasn’t gotten me very much except a lot of tears and sleepless nights (ergo I’ve turned into Maxine: get in my face and I’ll get right back in yours!) I remember being in grade school listening to a couple of boys sitting ahead of me discussing the good and not-so-good parts of my body. In fact, I remember most of my classmates throughout grade school telling me on many occasions what was wrong with my body and asking me (repeatedly) why I was so fat.  I also remember all the heartbreak that comes with the guy I like dating someone else because I’m just not attractive enough.  Then there’s the whole too-fat-for-sports issues and there’s always the family feedback.  They all meant well and were trying to help, but really, it just came across as “what’s wrong with you and why are you such a disappointment & embarrassment?”  That’s not what they said of course; they offered all kinds of ‘helpful advice’ to try and lose weight and be more active.  My all-time favorite is my mom chanting “chew! chew! chew!” at restaurants whenever I took a bite so I wouldn’t ‘bolt my food.’  Let me tell you, if there were EVER an incentive to bolt your food, THAT would be it! Is it any wonder that I’ve turned into a crabby old(ish) woman?

I see a lot of people on MFP and other sites who are very concerned about their body image.  They worry about how they look and whether their thighs are too thick or their upper arms are too flabby.  A lot of patients on My 600 lb Life and Skin Tight (TLC programs) are obsessed with ‘getting skin surgery’ so they can ‘look normal.’  I recall one woman practically in tears over the loose flabby skin because she desperately wanted to be beautiful.  One thing I’ve learned is that beauty comes from inside.  I know it’s a cliché, but that doesn’t meant it’s not true.  Everyone has a different idea of what is beautiful or handsome and even when scientists try to quantify what people are attracted to through biology, there are still exceptions: people who are considered beautiful/ handsome even though they don’t meet the ‘biological’ standards.  It comes down to confidence and personality: people who are attractive despite their physical appearance.

I realize that it’s not just a matter of vanity when it comes to your appearance; it’s a matter of self-esteem and self-care.  You want to reflect how you feel about yourself: this is me and I’m proud of me! I believe that’s a healthy self-image.  The problems come when we are not concerned with our self-care (i.e. we don’t take care of ourselves); when we are overly concerned about what others think of us; and when we are overly critical of ourselves.  None of those are healthy situations.  In the first case, not taking care of yourself is often an indication of depression/ altered mental status or sometimes an organic physical abnormality (like a brain tumor or chemical imbalance).  In the second case, being too concerned with other people’s opinions of you and your appearance is generally thought to be low self-esteem, but it can also be related to the third case, which is now usually diagnosed as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).  This is a disorder in which the patient obsesses over a perceived flaw in their body/ appearance.  This is an mental disorder that requires medical treatment.  It’s not thinking “I have ugly hair” or “my ears are too big.”  It is literally obsessing over it and having these negative persistent thoughts destroy your quality of life.

Most of us who have a weight problem or a loose skin problem fall somewhere in the middle of these: we are trying to take care of ourselves (losing weight/ getting healthier) but it gets very discouraging when no matter what we do, we cannot hide or minimize our size, our loose skin or some other aspect of our bodies that we are unhappy with.  Sometimes, we give up on trying to look our best.  Every comment on our appearance can become a perceived slight or criticism of us and we focus on our flaws.  We are always trying to live up to someone else’s standards.  It’s a very demoralizing, humiliating and unpleasant place to be.  It’s like trying to run in quicksand, because we feel like we never make any progress and keep sinking.  It’s because we are basing our self-worth on a temporary situation (our physical appearance) and we are depending on others for validation of that self-worth.  Let’s be honest: our looks are temporary.  One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets speaks to that: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come” (Sonnet 116). While you may not get ugly as you grow older, your appearance will change. That’s why it’s important to love and respect yourself and surround yourself with people who love and respect who you are, not what you look like. This is what most people have trouble with: loving and respecting themselves. It’s one of those cheesy clichéd platitudes that we hear over and over again, usually in a sappy ‘chick flick.’

As much as I hate to say it, it’s true: if you don’t love and respect yourself enough to stand up for yourself and/ or what you believe in, how can you expect anyone else to value you and your beliefs? It starts with you.  You are more than your appearance and more than your weight.  Those are temporary conditions that will change over time, whether you or anyone else likes it or not.  Until you look in the mirror and see yourself for the person you are inside and value that person, you will always find flaws in yourself.  What you look like is of minor importance. What you weigh matters only as far as your health. The true value is the whole person inside.  It’s okay to look at yourself and be a little critical, as in ‘I really need to get a hair cut’ or ‘I really need to cut back on the sweet desserts!’ But to look at yourself and see yourself as ‘ugly’ or ‘deformed’ is to demean and belittle your true value.  When I paused at the gym mirror and got a good look at myself, yeah, I was not happy with the saggy wrinkly skin.  I’ve always wished that I had delicate ankles and wrists, and I’d like to have nice legs too, but then I’ve always wanted blue eyes too!  Now that I can get contacts to color my eyes blue, did I go get them? Nope! They aren’t worth my effort, and everyone who knows me knows my eyes are brown.  So, I made note that I am definitely getting droopier everywhere I don’t want to be droopy, and then I went on my way.  It’s not a big deal to me, because I know what I look like isn’t who I am.  It’s taken me a long time to get here and I realize that I am lucky: not everyone reaches this place in life and  I hope you are here with me.