Monday, September 1, 2014


When you think about it, food culture is not so different from culture in general. In the culture of the United States, the individual is where it's at, and that one little idea permeates everything we do, say, and, of course, eat. The dominant American story is that all success and failure rides on what an individual does or doesn't do. If you are wealthy and happy (or thin), it's due to hard work and personal accountability. And so it follows that if you are poor and miserable, (or fat), then the opposite must be true, you must be a lazy, irresponsible loser. The rise out of such a deplorable state can only be accomplished by getting responsibility religion and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps (or in my case, sneakerstraps). If you need external support, you run the risk of being labelled a moocher, a slacker, a taker (as opposed to a maker), in the parlance of our last presidential election.

This idea persists, I believe, because it is so clearcut and simple. Some people are industrious and some are not. Work always rewards the person who toils. Anyone can make it if they are willing to put in the long hours and hard labor necessary to overcome the obstacles. No messy real life situations need apply, just right and wrong, black and white, responsible and irresponsible. Easy peasy, as they say.

Now, I am all for working towards a goal. Anyone who's ever struggled to achieve anything knows how much sweeter an accomplishment is when you've worked your butt off for it. I have no beef with personal grit leading to riches and applaud anyone who's made it after a long, hard climb in which there was much shedding of blood, sweat, and tears. Of course, the climb is higher for some and there is a glass ceiling at the top for others, two realities often given short shrift in the usual telling of the "American Dream." But to complain about the inequality of opportunity is to be a whiner. The only thing worse than being a whiner is being a whiner who expects the rest of us to help them.

Why is that? Why is asking for help incompatible with taking personal responsibility? After all, who in the 21st century truly "makes it" completely and entirely on their own? In my estimation, the last truly "self-made" American lived in the western United States in the mid-1800s -- perhaps the last time that an American had to literally make everything he or she needed from the forest or the plain or the desert. If you "made it" in a time when you could buy food in a store, mail a letter through a post office, or call the fire department when you smell smoke, then you've had some help from the rest of us. And that fact it doesn't diminish your triumphs in any way.

The same could be said of food. Yes, you, the individual, has the ultimate say on what you put in your mouth. The fact that everyone around you is enjoying gooey, crispy, sugar-coated delights does not mean you have to fall in line. And just because you choose not to eat something doesn't mean everyone else has to stop eating it. Because the perennial partner of personal responsibility is personal freedom, another sacred American idea. So, while I may choose to not eat a cookie, I'm not the boss of you.

But let's look at a telling statistic. Of people who lose a lot of weight, only about 3% keep it off long term. Why is that? Are we all slackers? Degenerate and irresponsible food junkies always on the verge of slipping back into addiction, hands shaking as we desperately try to score one more potato chip or scoop of Chunky Monkey? Could there be even a remote possibility that the food environment discourages, even actively opposes, long-term weight loss? Could I be so crazy as to state that personal responsibility and asking for support from others are not mutually exclusive ideas and could actually coexist? Peacefully?

Just wondering. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Things I Believed

The things I believed before I lost a lot of weight:

You can only lose weight and keep it off through a "sensible lifestyle change." 

This is what I was told, that diets don't work and the way to keep weight in check is to find a sensible lifestyle that you can stick with for the long run. This sounds very logical, except for one tiny problem: the human body. The human body is often likened to a vehicle and food the fuel for its engine. But the human metabolism differs from internal combustion in one very important way. The human metabolism has an ulterior motive that transcends mere digestion -- it is designed to keep you alive. A car engine will happily self-destruct if it does not have the right fuel or lubrication. Your metabolism, if it senses possible danger ahead, will ADJUST. So you, the hapless pudgy person who wishes to drop a little tonnage, you give up dessert and then do the calorie math, figuring you should lose about a pound each week. Hah! Your metabolism says, "Gee, fewer calories available this week, don't want to use up the reserves quite yet, just in case you know, guess we'll s-l-o-w things down." Translation: you don't lose an ounce for all of your effort. The only way to get your metabolism's attention and convince it to give up a fat cell or two is to cut way back and make it believe starvation is imminent. In other words, you must go on a diet, and a strict one at that.

The best diet is...

...the Mediterranean diet. Or the Paleo diet. Or the Ornish diet. Or the Grapefruit diet. Low-carb. High protein. Gluten-free. Vegan. There are a gazillion diets out there and each one has its devoted adherents. In actuality, though, there is no one best diet that works for everyone. The best diet is the one that works best for you. One thing I rarely hear discussed, however, it that the best diet for you to lose weight may not be the best diet for you to maintain that weight loss. How to find the best maintenance diet? No one can tell you. It is all trial and error in my experience. What makes it even more maddening is that what works best for you may change over time. I am currently dealing with a post-menopausal metabolism deceleration and I haven't found what works best for me now, only that what I was doing before no longer works. Plus, sadly, my margin of error, my ability to treat myself once in a while without weight gain, has also decreased.

You have to treat yourself occasionally, otherwise you will feel deprived, and as sure as Jerry follows Ben, feelings of deprivation will lead to massive food fails. 

First, let's define a few terms. "Treat" does not mean roasted Brussels sprouts or sautéed kale. "Treat" means something full of fat and sugar and salt. Chocolate. Ice cream. Cheese doodles. "Occasionally" does not mean at Christmas and on your birthday, it means on a somewhat regular basis, at least once a week. Except, I have found that occasionally eating, say, creamsicle soft serve, does not satisfy my desire for creamsicle soft serve. It only makes me want MORE. And that is because foods full of fat, sugar and salt are addictive substances, designed to hook you with every bite. Eating these foods "occasionally" makes me feel more deprived than never eating them. I have found that the best way to deal with cravings for creamsicle soft serve is to avoid being anywhere near it. Sometimes I imagine that maybe I can cheat at cheating, try the sugar-free frozen yogurt instead, because it's healthier.

You can treat yourself with "healthier" versions of your favorite foods.

This is a really insidious concept because it sounds so sensible on the surface, but in reality it chains you to your old way of eating. Yes, lasagna made with vegetables is healthier for you than the gooey richness of the original meat-laden version, but it is still lasagna and still packs a calorie punch. And it reinforces the idea that "good food" is a creamy, cheesy, sloppy mess. Better to eat something completely different, like a medley of roasted vegetables. The fact is that you have to make a radical change to your eating habits to keep off the weight you lost and the more completely you embrace that new reality, the greater your chances of success. A warning though. Do not make a big splash about embracing your new food reality at a major holiday or family celebration. If you are foolish enough to attempt this, you will quickly learn that nobody wants fruits and vegetables at Thanksgiving. They want mounds of stuffing and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, green beans and crispy onions in cream of mushroom soup, and pie, lots of pie, a la mode, please. Is it any wonder that weight comes back?

The weight always comes back.

This is a tough one, because for most people the weight DOES come back. Case in point, I am working on losing a 30 pound regain right now. But, here's the thing. Saying that the weight always comes back seems to presuppose that it is inevitable, that complex and not fully understood biological or psychological factors doom us to perpetual plumpdom. But what about the social and cultural support, or lack thereof, that the intrepid weight-maintaining person receives? In my experience, trying to navigate the food environment has been the hardest part of maintaining my weight loss. Harder than cravings, harder than changing habits, harder than resisting creamsicle soft serve. You see, no matter how much weight you've lost, there is always someone who's made "something special just for you," and is insistent that you eat it because, after all, one little bite can't hurt. Or someone who wants to go out and "treat yourself to something special," because, after all, you deserve it. Of course, "something special" is never poached salmon and steamed broccoli. By definition, "something special" is " something that will make you gain weight." Like creamsicle soft serve. Or lasagna. Or pie.

One final bite: 

I always thought that weight gain and loss was about what I put in my mouth. Maybe it's time to pay more attention to the beliefs we put in our heads.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Here We Go Again

Debby really nailed it today at Debby Weighs InShe captured the essence of the weight maintenance experience -- the never-ending grind of making the right food choices and resisting the wrong food choices, again and again and again and again. And every morning you wake up to the same struggle as the day before, as though you were the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day, only it's the sequel, Groundhog Day: Punxsutawney Phil Goes on a Diet.

Well done Debby!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Swiss Chard Fantasies

I just returned from a three-day work conference. I like conferences. It's a chance to get away from the normal grind and learn a few new things. Usually I have my own room and I enjoy that too, mostly because I can sleep in a quiet place, away from rambunctious cats who act like four AM is the best time to run relay races. This conference was no different. The hotel was nice, the goings-on were well organized, and the presenters seemed to know their stuff.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the food sucked?

Why do I use this highly technical term, "sucked"? Perhaps because there was a conspicuous lack of an entire food group? Can you guess which? Yes, of course. Vegetables. 

The other food groups were well represented, especially the grains group. Bread abounded. Pasta was prolific. Danishes danced across the breakfast buffet. Meat and potatoes and dairy were also plentiful. The rare appearance of something vegetable in nature coincided with the copious use of mayonnaise, butter, and bacon as flavor enhancers, because everyone knows that veggies are not tasty enough on their own. In other words, it was normal eating.

What to do? I've written about this phenomenon before, I know. In the past, I often got mad, silently fuming; sometimes I got mad, non-silently protesting; other times I got mad but decided to grin and bear it. This time, I didn't get mad, silently or otherwise. This time, I just ate. To be fair, I ate less than normal to account for the extra calories (and carbs!), and I skipped the ice cream bar on the last night. In short, I made the best of a bad food situation and tried not to get all verklempt about it.

Did I feel sorry for myself, plunged into food dystopia through no fault of my own? Not really. I'm not sure how to explain my mellow response to this situation. I think some of it has to do with my recent weight gain, which has made it abundantly clear that there are two paths I can take. One is to eat "normally" and gain weight. The other is to eat "abnormally" and keep my weight where I want it. It's not a sadistic punishment visited upon me by the weight gods, it's simple biology and physiology. And -- shockingly -- the world seems disinclined to make much accommodation for my fat-prone metabolism, so I just have deal with it on my own, period.

You should know that it wasn't a complete disaster. I did speak to the conference organizer and provided constructive feedback about the meal choices, with suggestions for improvement for future conferences. And when I got home, I weighed myself and found I had gained only a half pound. Not too shabby.

Don't mistake any of this for blissful acceptance of my plight. It would be more accurate to say that I'm resigned. And I still get frustrated by the fact that there is such a laser beam focus on the failings of the overweight person and very little on the deficient nature of the food environment. Oh why oh why can't fat people eat in a sensible, healthy way, the eating experts moan, while paying no mind to the dietary minefields we weight-challenged folk traverse each day. Like a conference without vegetables.

Now that I'm home and master of my menu once more, I see lots and lots of Swiss chard in my future.

Yup. Yum.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Truth About Truth

I've been wondering about stuff lately.

This is what happens when you've been successful in dealing with a problem for a while -- I've lost a lot of weight and kept it off for years! Go me! -- and then that problem turns around and bites you in the ass.

I'm starting to get back into the "eating-this-way-will-keep-my-weight-down" saddle again. Perhaps you noticed that I didn't use the phrase "healthy eating" or its cousin "eating a sensible diet." It's not that I don't believe in healthy eating or sensible diets, it's just that I don't know what either of those things mean for me.

The way of eating that keeps my weight down, in my experience, is low carb eating. I know that's trendy now and has many devoted followers (and detractors), but it works for me. By low carb, I mean a about three servings a day, maybe some oatmeal with breakfast, a slice of bread with dinner, the occasional ear of corn in the summer or baked potato in the winter. Now, complex carbohydrates are supposed to be "healthy," part of a "sensible diet," but if I eat more of these foods than what I've  just described, I gain weight. Nonsense, you say! Well, whatever, that's what happens.

There are other things I eat that are not too healthy or sensible I would guess. Such as, I'm a diet Dr. Pepper addict. Drinking diet Dr. Pepper, however, definitely helps me keep my weight down. So my question is this: what is better for my health, to eat in a way proclaimed "healthy" and gain weight? Or to eat in a way that includes some not-so-desirable aspects and be at a weight proclaimed "healthy"? And is that my only choice?

You don't expect me to answer that last question, do you?

By now, I should be some kind of expert in this weight maintenance thing, but it seems the more I know, the less I know. I'm always amused when I see an ad for a "miracle" weight loss product. Knowing how hard it is for any one person (um... me) to figure out the perfect balance between health and weight, it amazes me that anyone would think they have the answer for everyone. People buy into it though, not because they don't know better, but because I think they do. The last seven years of my life have been spent in an unending quest to discover what works for me, only to come to the depressing realization that what works for me is not a constant, unassailable truth for all time. Crap. This is one god-awful battle. Who wouldn't prefer a "miracle"?

You might ask, if it's so bad, why do it? Why not accept a higher weight and get on with your life? Don't think I haven't asked myself that same question. So for that reason alone I'm grateful for my recent weight gain -- I have been reminded in the rudest possible way why I do this. Not for some vague notion of health. Not for some vain notion of being healthy. I just feel better when I'm thinner. Period.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Eating-this-way-will-keep my-weight -down. And just what way it that?

I'll let you know.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Last Year

Hey. It's been a long time hasn't it? I've been busy these last ten or so months due to family issues that I'll talk about some day. For now, let's just say it's been a tough year. 

One thing I noticed over the last year is how easy it is to slip into old habits when you're under stress. By old habits, I mean pasta-gulping, ice-cream slurping, bread-noshing habits. I read somewhere that when the body digests carbohydrates, it creates serotonin, otherwise known as the "feel-good" hormone. Well, I needed a lot of help feeling good these past few months.

Of course, that's an excuse. A good one for sure, but an excuse nonetheless.

So as I sit here writing, I also sit dealing with weight regain, thirty pounds to be exact. There are two ways to look at this I think. The first is to see myself as a complete and total failure, an utter sham. Why, don't I know that no one can keep the weight off forever? The second is to see myself as a person who lost 100 pounds and kept off 70. You see, in the past, when I regained weight, I gained it ALL back, And then some. To have gotten ahold of myself at a 30-pound regain and stopped it right there, now that is something different.

I'm spending most of my time these days in Way To Look At It #1.

It's interesting to note how I've been dealing with the practical ramifications of this weight regain, the most significant of which is that none of my clothes fit. I did keep a few "fat clothes" as insurance, but only a few, and even those don't fit well. I've been very creative at mixing and matching a limited number of ill-fitting items to cobble together five outfits for the workweek -- and who says you can't wear the same thing twice in a week? What I was determined to avoid was buying new, that is, larger, clothes. Because that felt like even more failure. Not only did I regain a large amount of weight, but I gave up and bought a new wardrobe. 

I will not not give up! I will lose this regained weight! Dammit!


It's about health, right? Well, yes. And no. It's also about who I am as a person. It's about how I relate to my family and friends. It's about seeing myself as someone who is worth something, thin or fat. It's a metaphor for my life.

A few weekends ago, I got fed up (no pun intended) with the situation, so I decided to buy a few pieces of clothing to alleviate my discomfort. Not a new wardrobe, but a few items. I went to Salvation Army and spent $17 on four shirts and one pair of shorts. Woohoo! Way to treat yourself girl!

I'm not sure what the next few months hold, but what I would like to do is get back to my old new eating habits and see what happens. Maybe I'll be able to lose some of the weight I regained. Maybe not. Certainly I'll feel better if I eat better. Perhaps along the way I'll discover why I equate feeling good (and to be completely truthful, BEING good) so exclusively with food.

 I don't expect this to be easy. After all, we are going into macaroni salad and ice cream season. (Damn you creamsicle soft serve!) But then again, we are also going to fresh-vegetables-at-the-farm-stand season.

There may be hope after all.

Monday, September 2, 2013

First There Is A Donut, Then There Is No Donut, Then There Is

There’s a billboard that I pass on my way to work each morning that touts a local medical practice specializing in bariatric surgery. The ad proudly proclaims that they are responsible for 5000 smiles since 2002. Right before and after this billboard are other billboards. These other billboards advertise fast food restaurants, places like Dunkin Donuts, replete with tantalizing images of delicacies, such as Bavarian Kremes and Maple Frosted Coffee Rolls.

All of which makes me wonder. Is the problem the donut or the person who eats it?

It seems to me that, in the quest to find the “cause” for obesity, most of the attention has been focused on the eater, not the eaten. Holy crap, you say! Are you living under a maple-frosted rock? How could you have missed the onslaught of ads for Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, South Beach, ad infinitum? Do the words low-carb, paleo, Mediterranean mean nothing to you? If anything, you say, we are obsessed to the point of insanity with the eaten.

Ahem. I am, of course, well aware of the Diet Industrial Complex, that endless blitz of diet programs and diet books and diet philosophies, which reap great profits for everyone but the desperate people who follow them. It seems to me that all this food noise is not about what is to be eaten, but rather, about seducing vulnerable people with how good they will look, how sexy they will feel, how righteous they will be if only they renounce fat/sugar/salt/wheat/meat/fill-in-the-blank and do exactly what this particular expert/author/blogger/health guru says. That our hapless eater is immersed in an ocean of donuts is of no consequence as long as they remain a true believer and change themselves.

Bariatric surgery is just the far end of the spectrum in this conviction that the answer to excess weight is to modify the person carrying it. And so, you must be a warrior against the donut, ever vigilant, forsaking conventional ways of eating in favor of that prescribed by your new food religion. The other end of this spectrum favors a more psychological approach, in which you change your psyche, making peace with “food demons” so you can practice moderation and, above all else, be sensible. Regardless of where you exist on this spectrum, when you are successful in transforming yourself, your weight will take care of itself and life will be wonderful, full of smiles even. If you can’t change yourself on your own, then you have no option but the knife. And I don’t mean the butter knife.

Let’s step back for a minute. It is a fact that the reason I lost 100 pounds is because I modified myself. Not through surgery, but in a radical way nonetheless. I changed my diet in the extreme. I changed my exercise habits in the extreme. Doesn’t this prove that the “cause” of obesity is to be found in the eater?

Before we jump on that anti-gravy train, let me relate a few more facts. First, I have not “won” my battle with obesity. I still struggle with it. Every day. And, second, it is entirely possible that I will someday regain all the weight I lost. I keep this nasty picture in the forefront of my mind, as a hedge against the abysmal odds. You see, a big part of the fight has to do with living in a world awash with donuts (and their fatty, sugary, salty co-conspirators), requiring near superhuman willpower to resist. When I fail to resist them, 100% of the blame is assigned to me. And only me. Because I made the “choice” to eat those foods, right? Don’t I know, to misquote The Matrix, that there is no donut?

Um, excuse me, but... There most certainly IS a donut.

It seems counterproductive to me that we focus on fixing, even “curing,” the currently/formerly fat while ignoring the food environment that surrounds us, though I understand why it happens. There’s a whole culture and a whole economy dedicated to donuts and their gastronomic kin. It’s ingrained in us to a point that we don’t question it. It’s just the way it is. So of course an orange costs more than a donut. And it follows naturally that given the choice of an orange or a donut, most people would choose the donut. To do otherwise would be a huge change in the status quo.

And, as any overweight person already knows, big change is hard. Really, really hard.