It’s Day 2 of 2019 and I am thrilled to say I’m not on a diet. As a lifelong poundage yo-yo attached to a weighing scale, I am very happy to find myself in a place where the leftover Xmas cookies (Really. Leftover!) aren’t enticing me, the Baumkuchen I baked for my daughter’s birthday is begging for someone to love it, and the box of brandy-filled chocolates are about to be flushed. The last treat is a no-brainer because I don’t drink alcohol. The Baumkuchen was my attempt to replicate the Season 3 semi-final Technical Challenge from The Great American Baking Show. The cookies… well… Starbucks’ sugar cookies are vile and I only buy them for the icing anyway so I tested out my favourite sugar cookie recipe sans icing (the verdict is “Nope.”)
All of which to say, I love food. And food loves me. However, we have had a rocky road relationship about when and what to feed each other. A bit of history: when we immigrated to Montreal from Rangoon (Burma), the gentleman who sponsored us was upset that I was so thin. He promised me my own portable tv set if I gained 20 lbs. Of course, being in a new country with access to such things as Oreo cookies, left unsupervised after school, and just plain anxious about the whole cultural adaptation thing, I had no trouble hitting the target in a few months. Unfortunately, he died before I got the TV. And my journey as an over-weight, emotional eater began.
There has never been a diet I’ve tried that wasn’t successful (Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach, Diet Fix & its Ottawa-based program). If weight loss was the point, I lost weight. If getting fit was the goal, I got fit – and lost weight. If fitting into a size 10 was the point, well… that never worked… but I lost weight and felt fit. When it comes to being disciplined, hyper-focused, and diligent, I’ve got the mentality for it. Yet over time, the sliding from “just right” to “too tight” became a familiar dance and eventually very frustrating.
I knew the pattern: eat well, watch the portions and quality of food, enjoy food as a social event, walk, jog, hit the gym. Rest, sleep well, lower stress, hydrate. But something always happens. Work involved travel to places where good food meant getting fat-fried fat or schedules didn’t allow for 6 small meals because there was only time to grab something from the local up-scale-ish fast food joint. Hotel gyms were packed with sniggering muscle-bound buffoons or rabid road racers breaking the 3-min mile on the treadmills. The stress of running a business, balancing health issues (fibromyalgia and back pain) and the sleepless nights that went with all that added to messing up the metabolism. Still, I packed my meals when I travelled, walked my kilometers, did my yoga & mindfulness, and ate carefully when I could.
But it seemed, in my mind, that if I took my eye off the diet plan, food scale, or workout for even a second, poof! The weight went on in what seemed a week or two. Of course, that’s not how weight gain or loss works; it just felt that way. There are a number of excellent books that explain why we gain weight when we diet and how social, psychological, and biological factors can be our major challenges in maintaining a healthy body and mind. Sandra Aamodt’s Why Diets Make Us Fat: The unintended consequences of our obsession with weight loss — and what to do instead is my go-to reference when I need reminding that it’s not just about what I eat or don’t eat. Stress, shame, and stigma (one of the chapters) sum up the challenges; calories don’t count in the way you think; biology is not destiny but sure can exert a strong gravitational pull; early history, including trauma and deprivation, leave an imprint.
For me, the realization that, after years of dieting, food had become a source of anxiety and stress was the wake-up call I needed. If stress exacerbates all the other factors that can shift my weight up (or down), I had built-in a no-win mechanism that destined any diet to failure – as long as it was food-focused.
As a clinical psychologist, I’d counselled many women who struggled with the psychological effects of being obese. The stigma, shame, and blame they experience are painful and profound. Often, I referred them to weight loss programs and every one of them had a success story that made me envious. Until the program ended. Then the weight returned, often with a vengeance. Feeling somewhat hopeless about weight management programs yet very ashamed that I wasn’t admitting to my own obesity and frustrated with myself, I attended one of the programs in Ottawa. Yoni Freedoff (The Diet Fix: Why diets fail and how to make yours work) is an acclaimed medical doctor “widely considered to be Canada’s most outspoken obesity expert.” If you check out his Twitter feed, there’s no mistaking his passion and willingness to lay a smack-down on anyone who doesn’t get issues of obesity correct.
I researched his program and liked what it seemed to promote: a well-rounded approach composed of fitness, psychological support, dietary advice, and medical attention. Over a ten month period, I lost weight, got fit, felt healthy. I walked away with his message that “obesity is a chronic illness; you have to maintain the treatment over your lifetime.” Daunting but true. The program starts with a calorie-restricted meal plan (i.e, 1400 calorie/day diet for me). I could live with that for the term of the program but the complexities of having to weigh everything and log it became over-whelming as a lifestyle – especially because I’m a free-form cook so every recipe and its variations had to be hand-entered into an app for the calorie counts. While I appreciated the program’s view that numeric measures of weight loss were not indicative of good health (yet I was weighed at each visit) not being allowed to mention (in my excitement) any weight loss or pant size reductions, or anything that actually motivated me to keep that scale handy on the chopping table was mood-dampening. Obviously, it’s important to have other metrics of good health, but building those metrics seemed a guessing game. I persevered until the hierarchical framework of the program and work demands interfered with the twice-weekly workouts and weighing food and guesstimates of restaurant meals.
I emphasize that the program works for many people; I’d call my experience a partial success. Looking back, I can see that my greatest success in Freedoff’s program came through the social aspect of the fitness sessions. (The recipe for sofrito he had was a bonus and converts to a vegetarian version easily!) They filled me with joy and a sense of healthy accomplishments. It really didn’t matter what I ate (within caloric reason) because there was something to look forward to twice a week; I even drove an hour at some godless hour of the morning to get there! The people were fun and dedicated to having fun. I do miss that most.
If you want to eat all you want and lose weight, it will cost your delusions of what’s possible. The research is pretty clear: it may not be avoidable as a start-up but calorie restriction doesn’t work by itself. Weight management requires diligence, dedication, and large dollops of forgiveness. Having a healthy attitude towards health is necessary and that requires building healthy physical, nutrition, and psychological habits. Aamodt makes a point of this. Here are some takeaways from her book and my experience:
- All you want may not be all of what you need
- Be a collaborator in your own care:
- Advocate for your health
- Listen to your gut – if it doesn’t feel right, it likely isn’t
- Don’t let your (other) gut delude you
- Reduce stress with mindfulness:
- Use mindfulness practices to hear and understand the way your body communicates with you.
- Know when you’re hungry and how that’s different from sad, mad, and glad.
- Build habits that help:
- Sandra Aamodt writes that “good habits beat good intentions”
- I encourage setting intentions to engage in health-focused activities. It gives a point of reference when we drift off course
- Get fit
- Join a walking group
- Strength train with cans of soup or crushed tomatoes
- Set boundaries with your inner critic:
- Find joy in the little, medium and big things
- Learn how to bake and cook well