Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Weight-Loss State of Mind

I recently lost 50 pounds in five months.  To achieve optimal health, I need to do it again immediately.  So, this is an interim report in the form of a blog post, focusing on Lessons Learned.  Item #2 includes two rules, and the rest of the items are guidelines, or musings, or hypoglycemic blather.

1. Eating less than you want to in an attempt to lose weight can really mess with your head.

The instant I form the thought, "Starting immediately, I'm going to eat less than I want to in an attempt to lose weight," a less-reasonable part of me responds, "No!!  We'll starve!  And if we manage not to starve, we'll always be hungry!  We'll never be full!  We can't possibly be that attentive, day in and day out!  If we're not allowed to spontaneously and un-self-consciously eat French fries from a loved one's plate, there's no reason to live!"

Occasionally--infrequently--I recognize this less-reasonable part of me as wrong.  I created her, of course, and I did so by depriving myself of food in my late teens and twenties, by telling myself that half of a small baked potato sans toppings constitutes a meal.  The more-reasonable part of me can quiet her (gently, affectionately) by pointing out that my plan is to eat slightly less, but still plenty, and all the good things.

It's easy, though (if one has known only over-eating and under-eating) to suffer Leonard Cohen's "panic of loss" when faced with an alien and perhaps-tedious middle ground, and to anticipate facing it forever.  Equanimity, patience, and assertiveness are key, as are self-awareness, self-care, and expectation management.  And it's a good idea to limit blaming, complaining, and excuse-making (especially if you spend any time at all hanging out with me).

2. A plan-of-eating needs to be less like a balance beam and more like an airport runway.

In the beginning, eating less than I want to can be difficult, and after a month or two I begin to look for a way out.  The easiest way out is to fall off the wagon, eat everything in sight, and then climb back on the wagon a year (or five) later.  Desiring a long-term solution to my recurring obesity, I designed a plan-of-eating with only two rules:

Daily, count the calories of everything I eat, and log that number.

Weekly, log my weight.

The first rule prevents mindless eating.  At restaurants, I make one careful estimation of the caloric content of a meal, and then I stop thinking about it.  At home, I'm more careful; I weigh and measure the ingredients of most meals.  During the last five months, I've eaten as few as 950 calories and as many as 3600 calories (my average is about 1650, and I always round to the nearest 50 calories).  Physical, emotional, and social states affect my eating choices, and I'm comfortable with that.  Sustainability is everything.

The second rule ensures that I'm actually on a weight-loss path.  After the first two weeks, I've averaged a 2-pound loss a week, losing a minimum of 0.6 pounds and a maximum of 3.8 pounds.  This rule dictates that I must hop on the scale at least once a week, but I can do it more frequently if I like.

I cut myself a little slack with this rule, allowing myself to record any weekly weight as my official weekly weight.  My weight-logging day is Monday, but, if my lowest weight happens to be on another day, I  can log that weight.  I find that this results in fewer bleak Sundays (Sundays are bleak enough without limiting dinner to a bowl of watermelon, 'cause it's a diuretic).

3. A plan-of-eating needs to include plenty of protein, fat, and fiber.

There was a time when about 90 percent of my calories came from carbohydrates, and I was willing to feel ravenous day after day because I knew the feeling would culminate in skinniness.  No more.  For the last five months, I've been aiming for 20 to 30 percent of calories from fat, with the rest of the calories evenly divided between protein and carbohydrates (with lots of fiber and very little sugar).  I'm no longer ravenous.

4. A plan-of-eating needs to include all the foods you enjoy.  In fact, those are the only foods that a plan-of-eating should include.

I know this is obnoxiously first-world, but if your meal is disappointing, stop eating as quickly as possible.  Put your fork down, take a deep breath, and imagine what you want to be eating.  Then, if possible, eat that.  It's a mistake to gaze at a menu, or gaze into a pantry or refrigerator, and ask, "What choice will make me thin?"  Keeping in mind that sustainability is everything, a better question is, "What's yummy?"  Or, "What would I choose if this were my last meal?"  Or, "What would I choose for someone else, perhaps someone I was attracted to sexually?" 

5. A temptation-free environment is a fantasy.

I know it's widely recommended that we purge our environments of foods on which we might binge.  And it's true that I don't want to see a 2-pound box of See's chocolates or a family-size bag of BBQ chips every time I open the pantry.  But if one is adequately motivated to overeat, one will, whatever the environment.  I once made a decent batch of bar cookies using nothing but oatmeal, peanut butter, and concentrated apple juice.  And if you melt enough part-skim mozzarella over any whole grain, and add a few drops of Sriracha, you've got a tasty snack.  Additionally, there are five fast-food restaurants within a half-mile of my house, and they all take credit cards.  Or, if I'm already in PJs, I can have pizza and/or Chinese food delivered to the front door, and--because of efficiency and proximity--the orange chicken and crab rangoon will arrive within five minutes.

It's a friendly neighborhood, so just as I purge my home of temptation, a neighbor might drop by with fudge, a Girl Scout might drop by with cookies, or my sister might drop by with lasagna.  All are welcome.  Because temptation is everywhere, it's much more realistic to learn to resist temptation (or to succumb to a degree with which you can live) than it is to cocoon yourself in a temptation-free zone.  Who wants to live there?  When my nephew suggests a late-night trip to the Chevron ExtraMart for snacks, I don't want to respond with, "But know Aunt Polly's on a diet!"

6. Exercise is a great idea, and I admire anyone who occasionally gets off his or her ass.

For the last five months, I burned calories by running errands, by traipsing around a split-level home, by standing up while waiting for a booth at my favorite Mexican restaurant.  I did a modicum of housework, a soup├žon of yard work.  At least fortnightly, I took the dog for a 20-minute walk.  Now that I'm in Phase II (the next fifty pounds), I take the dog for a 30-minute walk every morning.  Eventually, I'll do a bicep curl with a soup can, or attempt a half-dozen jumping jacks, or power-walk a 5K.  Just not yet.

7. Weight loss doesn't need to be physically painful if you're making the right choices, but be prepared for emotional pain.

I numb myself to painful emotions by eating and--especially--by bingeing.  Grief, guilt, fear, anger, envy, and uncertainty all melt away during the process of becoming painfully overfull.  While adhering to a plan-of-eating that results in weight loss, I'm frequently visited by these unwelcome feelings, and I have no tools, no strategies, no defense mechanisms to make them go away.  I am bereft.  These feelings wash over me like ocean waves, and I let them.  I sit quietly, and I let them.

That said, there's no harm in trying to maintain a serene (if not cheerful) mood.  When crap happens, I pause and ask myself, "Is this important crap?"  It usually is not, and, while I don't banish the feelings of agitation or upset, I do nothing to encourage the feelings to linger.  

There's also no harm in trying to have a good time.  Right now, I'm working on a list of Activities That I Always (or Almost Always) Anticipate With Pleasure.  I'm up to seven.  And I try to schedule one for today, one for this week, one for this month, and one for the next six months.

8. Beware the crutch, especially if you don't have absolute control of the crutch.

A crutch is a useful--and temporary--tool for navigating a difficult situation.  Maybe, when I'm eating less than I want to eat, I shop a bit more, or nap a bit more, or watch "Ally McBeal" on Netflix a bit more.  I pay close attention to what affects my mood, and I protect my mood, as much as possible.  If that borders on narcissism (or laziness) (or both), so be it.

But it's essential to avoid crutches that can be unceremoniously kicked out from under you.  Years ago, I relied on a malfunctioning gallbladder to keep me from overeating.  As a crutch, it worked well for months, but eventually I had surgery, and two days later I was making up for lost time at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  I've also used the attention of men (in person and in cyberspace) to distract me from eating.  That particular strategy makes relying on a diseased body part seem like a brilliant idea.

9. Don't be influenced by the weight-loss efforts of those around you.

A weight-loss buddy, or even a group effort, can be--but probably isn't--helpful.  Perhaps you've been inspired by others, so smile gamely when someone is inspired by you, and wants to hop on the weight-loss bandwagon.  Keep in mind, though, that it's not really one big bandwagon, but many individual bandwagons.

As stated earlier, the best weight-loss state of mind is one of equanimity and patience.  Competitive feelings of envy and/or superiority are not useful in this endeavor.  I sincerely wish everyone the best, because if people are successful in achieving and maintaining healthy weights, it's good for the individuals, the nation, and the species.  However, my path is the only path that I can see clearly, and it behooves me to train my focus there.

10. If you feel pressure from anyone to eat more or to eat less, ignore it.

I once said to a friend, "Don't you hate it when people exert subtle--or not so subtle--pressure on you to eat more or to eat less than you want to eat?"

"No," he said.  "I ignore it."

Freak show.  Could that possibly work?  Could I change my responses to people, rather than trying to change...people?  When my stepmother jokes that my helping of veggie fajitas could feed a small village...when my sad friend suggests that the only way out of her bad mood is to share a family-sized sundae...could I remain unaffected by the comment, and eat exactly what I want to eat?  Of course I can!  I am always in charge of what I eat.

11. The rules and guidelines don't change simply because there's a well-loved child in the room.

Eating with children has always been a challenge for me.  I'm already feeling a little stress (because I'm temporarily responsible for another human life), and suddenly we're at Wendy's, and someone wants nuggets, fries, and a Frosty.  Or at least a couple of nibbles of nuggets, fries, and a Frosty.  I don't want to throw the leftovers away, and I don't want to take them home, and all that grease and salt and sugar is calling my name, and I cave.  Later, there are additional snacks during a movie or a tea party, and I find myself eating gumdrops and animal crackers, and sipping some turquoise version of juice.

Recently, I quit that behavior cold turkey.  I was actually beginning to resent the children, which was ridiculous.  Now I ask myself, "Would I eat this if I weren't with this child?" and I only proceed if the answer is yes.

12. As much as possible, detach from outcomes.

Granted, it's almost impossible to do.  When you weigh yourself, you're going to care about the number.  I like to imagine measuring other things: chopped walnuts for cookies, fabric for a skirt, a room for new carpet.  I can do those things without an emotional investment.  Weight-taking is merely an element of charting; it's not an indictment of my body or my character.  It's useful information, and that's all.

I follow my two rules, and I manage expectations.  Sometimes, after a couple of days of Big Macs and TV, I lose 3 pounds.  Sometimes, after a couple of days of veggie chili over brown rice, with dog walks at both sunrise and sunset, I gain 3 pounds.  I don't know why.  And it's not in my best interest to get all spun up about it.

In all of my endeavors, it doesn't make sense for my mood to be dependent on something I cannot control.  I can control how well I stick to my rules and guidelines, and it makes sense for my mood to be somewhat dependent on that.  I'm a firm believer in the science of weight loss (and I roll my eyes at the suggestion that losing weight after menopause is tantamount to raising quadruplets or winning an Oscar), but there will be fluctuations in weight that I am unable to predict or control.  The only option is to detach.  Obsession and extreme behaviors will lead to agitation, when what you need is serenity.

13. The bad news: Weight loss doesn't make everything okay.

It will almost certainly improve your health, but--even as you wiggle into those size-eight jeans--loved ones are still dead, dreams are still dashed, cruelty and tragedy and inequity and despair still reign.  You're only thin.  That's all.  Don't expect more.

14. The good news: Jettisoning the impediment of obesity is worth the angst, and worth any sacrifice of food or drink.

Obesity is unhealthy, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and expensive.  It's limiting.  It can make bold people shy, and active people sedentary.  It can create people who are experts at avoidance, rationalization, and deception.  But once you figure out a way to walk away from it, it quickly loses its grip, and the freedom is exquisite.