Sunday, March 17, 2013

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

This post continues my series on all the surprising things I’ve learned in my quest to maintain a 100-pound weight loss. Today I want to take on something I have struggled with my entire life and that is my relationship with food. If you are overweight, you know what I mean. I’m talking about all those nutty things that go on in your head, making you feel powerless around the foods that keep you fat. And, like I did, you might harbor the conviction that once you straighten out your relationship with food, you will suddenly and magically find all of the excess weight melting away. Your new food sanity will bring you to a rarified state where maintaining a healthy weight will be easy, effortless even. What I’ve learned in the last five years about this belief is this:

Unexpected Nugget #4: My relationship with food is not the problem.

How can I possibly say this? Wasn’t I the master of the midnight pasta binge? An ice cream extremist? The girl who could never eat just one cookie when the whole box beckoned? Isn’t that proof positive that my relationship with food was all screwed up? That I was all screwed up? After all, those things cannot possibly be called normal behavior.

Well, that’s one way to look at it. Here’s another. Maybe my brain was perfectly sane. Except that I was addicted. To sugar. What if I did not have a dark, twisted relationship with food at all, but instead had a physical addiction to sugar – and its kissing cousin, high-fructose corn syrup – that drove me to crave sweets? Or other foods, like pasta, that turn into sugar when you digest them?

The idea that it’s all in our plump little heads, that our relationship with food is profoundly messed up, keeps the blame for obesity on the overweight person and off of a food industry that makes fat profits by designing products full of sugar that we are unable to resist because we have become addicted to them. When someone points out this fact and takes aim at the problem, like Michael Bloomberg and his ban on oversized servings of sweetened soft drinks, that person is mocked and condemned as an agent of the ever-growing Nanny State, trying to take away our Big Gulp freedom. The irony of all of this is beyond comprehension, because once sugar gets its crystalline claws into you, you are anything but free.

So, here’s the deal. My relationship with food is and has always been just fine, thank you. What messed me up was my love affair with sugar, which is why sugar and I are no longer a couple. As any ex-addict will tell you, once you get liberated from your drug, it’s best to keep it as far away as possible, though that’s easier done with things like nicotine or cocaine, since you don’t need those substances to survive and it’s unlikely anyone will insist you have just one little Christmas Cigarette or Holiday Hit.

My estrangement from sugar is a bit trickier. Sometimes he tries to woo me back, as abusive boyfriends are wont to do. It’s not a perfect situation, and sometimes I slip up. But I’m not crazy either. And neither are you.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cake Walk

In recognition of my five-year weight-maintenance anniversary last month, this week’s post continues my series on all the things I’ve learned (and didn’t expect to learn) in my quest to maintain a 100-pound weight loss. This week’s surprising revelation has to do with a cherished concept in the culture of dieting and weight loss, namely, low-calorie versions of your favorite guilty pleasures. In other words…

Unexpected Nugget #3: “Lite” food is not the answer.

Is that booing that I hear in the background? Of course it is. We love and depend on “lite” food. There is an entire industry devoted to telling us that we can have chocolate cake, not only have it but eat it, and stay lithe and slender at the same time. That’s possible because the chocolate cake is not the bad old version of our childhood, full of sugar and butter, eggs (yolks included!) and full-fat chocolate. No, it is “lite” chocolate cake, made with calorie-free sweeteners and other ingredients with hard-to-pronounce names, simulating the chocolate cake we crave at a mere 100 calories per serving!

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it’s comforting to know there’s an alternative that doesn’t break the calorie bank for those times when all resolve fails and nothing but chocolate will do. On the other hand, I can never seem to eat just one 100-calorie serving of anything. I also have to wonder about the healthiness of all those ingredients with names right out of chemistry class, methyl-ethyl-this-will-give-you-cancer-or-at-least-gas. My main concern, however, is a philosophical one:

Does eating “lite” versions of the foods that made me fat keep me stuck in a mind rut that makes it harder for me to keep from getting fat again?

It’s this simple: eating a sweet and juicy orange, or a crisp and crunchy carrot, will never be satisfying as long as the ghost of chocolate cake haunts me. Though “lite” chocolate cake may be an improvement, calorie-wise at least, over authentic chocolate cake, it keeps the idea firmly planted in my mind that the way I am eating now is inferior to the way I used to eat. It is a poor second, a grim and unfortunate accommodation that I’ve had to make out of biological necessity. Since I can no longer eat “real” chocolate cake, I find myself stuck with “lite” (read “fake”) chocolate cake. This frame of mind leaves me vulnerable to feelings of self-pity. It is a psychological state in which I can wallow in the unfairness of my genetics. It’s the place where it’s easy to say: F*ck it. Where’s that cake?

Here’s what I say. Desensitize your taste buds to all of your guilty pleasures. Do it until chocolate cake, real or fake, is such a distant memory that the sweetness of an orange makes you woozy and a carrot seems the cat’s meow. This might seem like a harsh prescription, but once you’ve exorcised your food demons, it’s much easier than you think. You think it’s hard because the Food Powers That Be have brainwashed you into believing that a life without cake is so onerous that even “lite” cake is better than no cake at all.

The truth of the matter is that life without cake can be pretty darned delicious.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Indulge Me, Indulge Me Not

In my last post, I talked about confidence, specifically the common belief that achieving a large weight loss will lead to confidence that you’ve got this weight thing handled. Those of you who have actually been there/done that know how ridiculous this idea is, yet it persists.

This is not the only false concept out there about weight loss and weight maintenance. In recognition of my five-year weight-maintenance anniversary, I’ve decided to share all the things I learned (and didn’t expect to learn) in my quest to maintain a 100-pound weight loss. This week’s unexpected nugget is…

Unexpected Nugget #2: The occasional indulgence hurts more than it helps.

You’ve probably been told that one of the secrets to maintaining a healthy diet is to allow yourself an occasional indulgence. It goes like this: If you completely cut out of your diet that special food that you absolutely love, what will happen? You will feel deprived of course, that’s what. These feelings of deprivation will build day in and day out until you finally explode, blowing your carefully constructed healthy eating plan to smithereens. The only way to avoid this horrific fate is to include an occasional small indulgence in your eating plan. This could mean that you allow yourself a cookie or two once a week. Or pancakes on Sunday morning. Perhaps a square of dark chocolate after dinner. These little extravagances will satisfy your cravings and keep you on the straight and narrow.

So, why does the occasional treat have the exact opposite effect on me? For me, one cookie leads to two cookies and then three and then I stop counting. Who eats one cookie anyway? If I go for a few weeks without eating cookies, here’s what happens:

The first week is torture – all I can think about are cookies.

The second week is a state of meh – something is missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

The third week is neutral – not happy but not sad either.

The fourth week is serene – what was the problem we were talking about?

To put it bluntly, the occasional indulgence only reawakens the craving beast. You would not tell an ex-smoker to have an occasional cigarette or a recovering alcoholic to have an occasional drink. It is not all that different for us recovering foodies. Our addiction is to sugar. Or salt. Or creamy, greasy stuff. Or all of the above.

You may recall a previous post about my “no-sweet” experiment. I eliminated most sweetness from my diet, eating sweet foods only if they were naturally sweet, such as fresh fruit. The result of that experiment was that my cravings decreased significantly and I felt more at peace with a low-fat, low-sugar way of eating. Recently, I’ve begun allowing a few sweet foods back in my diet and guess what? My cravings are increasing, along with a growing sense of struggle with food.

You may be thinking that if being thin means giving up cookies or pancakes or chocolate, forever, well to heck with it, you’ll just hold onto those extra pounds. Sometimes I think that too. And sometimes I don’t. It’s all part of the journey.