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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Food and Everything

If you pay attention to what our culture says about weight loss – articles in women’s magazines, ads for weight loss programs, or television shows like The Biggest Loser – you will hear one constant theme and it is:

What You Will Gain When You Lose.

Because everyone knows that losing weight is nothing if not a winning proposition. You will gain greater health. Increased confidence. Delight in being able to do whatever it was you couldn’t do because of your weight. Other people will admire you. And find inspiration in your accomplishment. It will be a happy-happy-joy-joy experience.

This is untrue but the idea persists, I believe, because most of us don’t spend too much time in weight maintenance. Most of us lose a lot of weight and, after a few glorious months as a thinner version of ourselves, gain it all back. And then we must start the cycle all over. This would be an accurate description of my life with weight for close to fifty years.

Somehow, in 2007, I found a way to break that cycle – I lost a lot of weight and have kept it off for over five years. Not that my weight has been completely static during that time. The actual situation is that I gain a few pounds, then I lose it, then I gain it back, then I lose it again. The key is “a few” pounds. Not one-hundred pounds.

Another way to describe my life in maintenance is that I’ve slowly been coming to grips with what I lost, in addition to the weight, that is. It took a few years for this to really sink in, which is probably why I never got here previously – I’ve never spent this much time in the maintenance phase before. When the novelty of being thinner wore off, I started noticing some things. Like the fact that many of my relationships involved going out to eat. That my ability to deal with stress was directly proportional to my ice cream consumption. That chocolate could fill any void. Without the balm of food, it’s just me and my problems, all alone in an often exasperating and disappointing world.

So this is my challenge now, to live a satisfying life, one in which food nourishes my body and soul, but is not everything. The idea that food is not everything would have been inconceivable to me for my first fifty years. Now, five years into this maintenance thing, it’s a belief that has got to go. And that’s a loss as big and as real as anything I’ve ever contemplated losing before.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Vegetables Are Where It's At!

It’s hot!

For most of my life, hot meant summer and summer meant ice cream. This summer, I’m trying something different. This year, I’m going hog-wild for fresh fruits and vegetables!

On Tuesday, I made my favorite green bean salad in herb Dijon vinaigrette. Plus, I’ve got Brussels sprouts and carrots in the fridge, waiting for roasting – and I will roast them, heat wave or no! I’m also thinking that I need to buy cauliflower (to be roasted with garlic and paprika) and kale (for a luscious kale and mango salad). We had corn on the cob on Tuesday too, and even though corn is really best considered a carb, fresh, local corn is a summer luxury for those of us who live in the Northeast. I decided I was worth it!

On the fruit front, I made an apple salad this week. When I came across this recipe, it was billed as an “autumn salad,” but it’s pretty good in the summer too. The recipe goes like this:

2 Granny Smith apples, washed but not peeled, cut into bite-size pieces
2 large celery stalks, finely chopped
2 large scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
3 tbsp walnut oil
1-1/2 tbsp sherry vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients, toss until everything is coated, and marinate for at least a few hours. This salad tastes better the second day and even better the third day.


With all of this fruit and veggie goodness, who has time to obsess about creamsicles?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Creamsicle Dreams

It’s been pretty hot here and I’ve found myself fighting off cravings for soft ice cream. Not just any flavor, but one specific flavor. Creamsicle twist.

You may recall my run-in with creamsicle fudge at the holidays last December. I don’t know what it is that makes this taste combination so tempting for me. Maybe it’s the nostalgia, the memories of sticky, muggy summer days when I was a kid, running under the sprinkler and licking those cool and creamy orange and white bars.

The other day, I was dreaming of creamsicle again and a question hit me. Why am I still struggling with these cravings? WHY? I’m over five years into weight maintenance and this stupid stuff is still a problem for me. Shouldn’t I have it all handled by now?

Ah, yes.

You can see it in the ads for the popular weight loss programs, and it doesn’t matter which program we’re talking about. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem. What they all have in common are the jubilant pictures of their success stories, the people who have lost a bazillion pounds and have their weight “handled.” Folks who proudly proclaim that they will never be fat again.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, back to creamsicles. I think I might be going through the five stages of creamsicle grief:

  • Denial: I have evolved beyond such non-food as creamsicles.
  • Anger: Damn you Evil Food Industry, why do you even make this addictive crap?
  • Bargaining: If I run a couple extra miles this week, can I have a creamsicle cone as a reward?
  • Depression: I. Can. Never. Have. Creamsicles. Again.
  • Acceptance: Let’s see, acceptance means… um… uh… hmmm.

It seems I haven’t completed my mourning for creamsicles yet.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Twinkies Are Back! (And so am I!)

Hey, I’m back. I was afraid for a while that I didn’t have anything else to say on the topic of weight, but it turns out I was just really tired. A combination of work stress and being too darned busy in general left me kind of burned out this spring. I’ve been working on carving out more time for rest and reflection recently and it seems that my thoughts are starting to flow again.

While I was on my mini-hiatus, the American Medical Association announced that they had decided to classify obesity as a disease. There was a lot of buzz about this, with some seeing it as a good step and others not so sure. My reaction was pretty ho-hum. I suppose anything that gets doctors and insurance companies to pay more attention to weight and health is a good thing, but it seemed a bit beside the point. This might sound like an odd thing for me to say, but it’s really not. To understand, let’s compare obesity to something else. Say, lung cancer.

Lung cancer is a disease. We all agree on that, right? Well, what if medical science developed a whole range of highly effective treatments for lung cancer, yet we ignored the issue of smoking. People would continue to get lung cancer, by hey, never fear, we can treat it! You don’t mind spending a few months (or years) as a prisoner of the medical system, do you?

This is what obesity-as-a-disease, without a serious attempt to address our hyper-saturated food culture, seems like to me. The drug companies will still make big bucks on each new “breakthrough” diet drug. Hospitals will still market (and profit from) new “breakthrough” bariatric surgeries. And many people, most likely an ever-increasing number of people, will still struggle with the painful consequences of excess weight. Unless, I believe, we start looking seriously at rational public policies, similar to the types of public policies we implemented regarding smoking, that address the harm created by treating food as a mere consumer choice, divorced from any moral responsibility for the long-term health of the people who eat it.

Oh dear, I’m not proposing to take away your freedom to drink a big soda, am I? Or to eat Twinkies to your heart’s content once they come back on the market? Of course not. Eat and drink whatever you like. What I am proposing is that you have all the facts on the substances you’re taking into your body and what they might do to you. And let’s go one step further. What if Hostess took a small percentage of the enormous profits they will reap from sale of Twinkies and used it to do something good, say fund programs for childhood nutrition education?

Now, that I could get excited about.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I Get Tired

I am sometimes accused of being too rigid in my weight maintenance habits. I never know quite how to respond to that. The fact is, I AM pretty regimented in the way I eat and exercise. As I’ve noted before, I tend to eat the same things every day and generally plan meals, even meals out, ahead of time. Same with exercise. I do best when I stick to a pre-determined schedule – certain days walking and other days running, following routes I’ve developed based on time or distance goals. If you’re wondering why I do this it’s because for most of my life I was quite laid back about my health habits; the result of that laissez-faire approach was that I weighed a whopping 250 pounds by my late forties!

Every now and then (as in the recent past) I let go of this rigidity. That’s not because I magically attain super-weight-maintainer powers, allowing me to relax around food and exercise with impunity – it’s because I get tired. Of all the non-stop explaining. Why I’m not eating the pasta (because it causes immediate weight gain). Why I’m not available on Saturday morning (because it interferes with my weekly long run). Why whatever it is that everyone else wants to do doesn’t work for me (because I’m too set in my ways). Eventually I get to the point where I say, OK, I give up, cut me a slice of the cake, and then a very predictable thing happens. I gain weight. I’m dealing with ten pounds of “I give up weight” right now.

When I wax poetic about the kind of environment needed to support me in maintaining my weight loss, this is what I mean. I’m not shunning personal responsibility for my diet and lifestyle, not merely kvetching about the daily assault of mega-calorie, high-fat, sugar-laden foods. I’m making a plea for more understanding, for the simple recognition that there are things I need to do to manage my weight and the odds I will do those things go up exponentially when I follow a regular, even rigid, routine. The odds also improve when I don’t have to constantly defend my choices.

What I’ve learned over the last several years is that if I’m to be successful in keeping off the weight I lost, I need to be as unyielding as the reality of obesity. Other people may have flexibility; I don’t. Other people might be able to enjoy a measure of spontaneity; I can’t. Unless I want to risk weighing 250 pounds again, which I don’t.

And that’s just the way it is.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Go Fish!

Picture a fish lying on the shore, its gills flaring, its mouth gasping, while well-intentioned onlookers shake their heads and wonder why the poor creature can’t seem to breathe. Someone recommends putting the animal in an oxygen tent. Others wonder what previous trauma prompted it to jump out of the lake. It is suggested that perhaps surgery to modify its gills is in order.

If you have any wits about you at all, you will ignore these morons and toss the fish back into the water.

It’s not so different for those of us who struggle with weight. We agonize over how to best motivate ourselves to eat less and exercise more. We scrutinize our screwed up psyches in the quest for a healthy weight through emotional healing. We dream of a magic pill or surgery that will provide the answer that has eluded us. And will continue to elude us because…

We are like fish out of water.

In other words, we live in a fat-and-sugar-drenched environment that is the antithesis of what would support us in maintaining a healthy weight. Yet rather than confront an eco-system so poisonous to the weight-challenged, we blame ourselves for our inability to adapt to it. Is it any wonder that so many of us fail in our battle with obesity?

The world tells us that the reason people become overweight is because they’re broken and need to be fixed. In that scenario, it’s our own fault we’re fat. But what if it’s the other way around? That people become overweight because the world is broken and needs to be fixed? That the problem is not that you ate the Baconater, but that the Baconater exists at all?

I know. Nothing but a big fish story.