How, exactly, do you lose weight while maintaining progressive ideals about body image?
In the last year and a half, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve done a fair amount of writing about it, here on AlterNet and on my own blog: about the politics and cultural issues of weight loss, the psychological and sexual and weird emotional stuff connected with it, my changing and conflicted thoughts about the fat- acceptance movement and its ideals of accepting our bodies the way they are.
But I know that when it comes to weight loss, all that political and cultural crap is, for most people, only of moderate interest. When you’ve lost weight, what most people want to know is, "How did you do it?"
So here, for anyone who’s interested in losing weight or maintaining weight loss, are the nuts-and-bolts details: the specific "how-to" of my so-far successful effort to lose weight and maintain weight loss in an evidence- based manner, while retaining my feminist ideals and my resistance to body fascism. (And for anyone who’s not interested in losing weight — that’s totally cool. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss for everyone. The cost/ benefit analysis of weight loss is different for everyone, and I completely support fat people who are genuinely happy with their bodies and aren’t interested in losing weight. I just also happen to support fat people who do want to lose weight, and who want to do it in a healthy and sustainable way. Our bodies, our right to decide.)
I’ll tell you right now: This isn’t a diet in any traditional sense. I’m not going to tell you that I eat twelve meals a day every two hours, or that I limit myself to six servings of pork a week, or that I only eat plankton and spelt and a vodka martini on the full moon. What I’m going to talk about is practical strategies that have helped me lose weight… and emotional/ psychological strategies that have helped me stay on track with the practical strategies.
I should spell out very clearly before I begin: I’m not an expert. I’m not a physiologist or a nutritionist or a researcher on weight loss. I’m a lay person who’s staying on top of the research as best I can, and who’s found some things that are working for me. Some of it may work for you. Take what you need; leave the rest; pay attention to the current research; talk with other people about what works for them.
I’m basing my weight management program on some relatively recent research done in the last few years. As anyone knows who follows the science on weight loss, losing weight and keeping it off is difficult and rare. Regardless of the specific weight loss plan — high-protein, low-protein, high-carb, low-carb, the Fruit, Bourbon, and Astroglide Diet, whatever — only about ten percent of people who try to lose weight succeed in doing so and in keeping it off for more than a year.
So some researchers decided to reverse engineer the process. Instead of asking, "Why don’t these weight loss plans work for most of the people to use them?", the creators of the National Weight Control Registry asked, "What, if anything, do those ten percent of people have in common? Is there anything the success stories are all doing — regardless of which particular plan they’re following?"
The answer was "Yes." And the things the success stories had in common turned out to be almost embarrassingly straightforward. They are:
Keeping a food diary.
Eating a low-fat diet.
Not skipping meals — in particular, not skipping breakfast.
Losing the weight slowly — no more than two pounds a week.
Weighing yourself regularly.
Getting support from family and friends.
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change — not just pursuing weight loss as a one-time thing and then going back to old eating and exercise patterns, but continuing to do all these things even when the weight is lost.
It sounds so straightforward. The devil, if I believed in one, is in the details.
So let’s talk about the details — both the finer points of these basics, and some of the psychological and emotional tricks for keeping the basics on track.
Counting calories. This does not mean "counting calories" as an idiom for "trying to eat less." This means literally counting calories — keeping track of the calories of everything you eat, and keeping those calories within a daily budget.
"Calories in, calories out" is something of an oversimplification of the mechanics of weight loss. For one thing, if it were true, crash diets would work — and they really, really don’t. But there’s a big chunk of truth to it. To lose weight, the main thing you have to do is take in fewer calories than you expend; to maintain weight, the main thing you have to do is take in the same amount of calories that you expend.
And every study I’ve seen or heard of shows that people — pretty much all people — are terrible at estimating how much they eat… both how large their portions are, and how calorically rich the foods they eat are. (When I started counting calories, I had some serious sticker shock about some of the foods I ate on a regular basis. Nuts? Bagels? Snickers Bars? Cornbread? Oh, my God! I had no idea! But the flip side of that is also true: donuts and chocolate chip cookies aren’t nearly as calorically rich as I’d have thought, and I incorporate them into my food budget on a fairly regular basis.) What’s more, studies show that fat people — and that includes me, even though I’m not fat anymore — are worse at estimating their food intake than other people. Counting calories — not trying to reduce my calories, not trying to eat a low-calorie diet, but literally counting the damn things as they go into my mouth — is essential.
Which leads me to the next two parts:
Keeping a food diary. This serves the obvious function of being the way I count calories. But it serves some other functions as well. Mainly, it helps keep me conscious of what I’m eating. Writing down everything I eat makes me think carefully about whether I really want to eat it. It also gives me an objective picture of my eating habits, so my rationalizations and other cognitive errors don’t take over. And it helps me figure out my food budget. If I know I’m going to be having a rich dinner that night, I can do more than just make a hopeful attempt to eat a somewhat lighter breakfast and lunch — I can actually make it happen, by writing it all down.
(Important note on that lighter breakfast and lunch bit: I don’t starve myself. That’s a terrible idea. Making yourself go hungry is one of the worst things you can do, for overall health generally and for weight management specifically. I’m just talking about dialing things back a skosh. One piece of toast at breakfast instead of two; two pieces of snacking fruit instead of three; skipping my usual afternoon cookie and saving the calories for dinner.)
And in a weird irony, keeping a food diary is a way of keeping myself from obsessing over food. In the past, when I was trying to do "natural" eating and just follow my "natural" hunger cues, I’d get seriously hung up on whether what I was eating was right for me or not, or whether I even was hungry for it. I have finally accepted that my "natural" appetites and hunger cues are broken at best, bonkers at worst. My appetites and hunger cues evolved in the African savannah 100,000 years ago, just like everyone else’s, and what’s "natural" is for me to think that I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and that if I don’t eat this entire gazelle right now I might starve to death. There’s no way for me to eat "naturally" in a food environment where the caloric equivalent of a hundred gazelles is available at every street corner. Trying to eat "naturally" just makes me nuts. The food diary keeps me much more sane. With the food diary, I plan what I’m going to eat; I write it down; I fit what I’m eating into my budget; I don’t eat what doesn’t fit. And then I forget about it, and go do something else.
I do my food diary on an iPhone app called LoseIt, which I passionately love, since it does the math for me. But you can just write it down in a notebook (or get an electronic calorie counter). And the Internet makes this a lot easier, since you can look up the calorie count of virtually every food anyone has ever eaten in the history of the world.
Measuring food. Like I said above: Studies consistently show that people are terrible at estimating how big their portion sizes are. Ask someone to tell you how many cups of cereal are in their bowl, how many teaspoons of butter are on their bread, and they — we — will give you answers ranging from too low to absurdly low. And again, fat people — including me — are worse at this than non-fat people.
So when I eat at home — and when I prepare my lunch to eat at work — I measure. Everything. My cereal, the milk on my cereal; my yogurt, the honey on my yogurt; my pasta, the sauce on my pasta, the Parmesan cheese on the sauce on my pasta.
It sounds like a hassle. But I got used to it very quickly. And now that I’ve been doing it for almost two years, I’ve gotten better at estimating food quantities when I can’t measure (at a restaurant or someone else’s house). In fact, when I was beginning this process, I made a deliberate effort to prepare most of my meals at home, so I could get accustomed to measuring and be more of a control freak about what exactly I ate. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m more comfortable eating out more often: both because I’m better at guesstimating my calories even when I can’t rigorously count them, and because I now know how to manage it if I gain a couple of pounds.
Eating a low-fat diet. I’m not going to talk about this much, since I personally haven’t been paying much attention to it. The LoseIt iPhone app tracks nutrients like fat and fiber, as well as calories… and I’m finding that if I stay within my calorie budget and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, my fat intake stays pretty low just of its own accord. But the National Weight Loss Registry research shows that a low- fat diet is a common factor of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off. So it’d be irresponsible for me to not at least mention it.
Not skipping meals. We have to eat. Really. Our bodies demand it. Skipping meals is a terrible, terrible way to lose weight. It’s a great way to screw up how our bodies process food, and how our brains process hunger. It’s a great way to make ourselves really hungry… and when we’re really hungry, we tend to make unhealthy food choices, like bingeing on rich or starchy food. It’s a great way to make ourselves miserable as well. And it’s not sustainable in the long run. (Skipping breakfast seems to be an especially bad idea — and it seems to be especially common.)
So I eat already. Regularly, throughout the day. Including breakfast. (See "Eating multiple small meals" below.)
Losing weight slowly. I’m not 100% sure about the physiology of this. Some researchers think that losing weight too fast shocks our bodies into thinking that they’re starving… and as a result, our bodies start to store fat more efficiently. Losing weight too fast may also screw up our hunger triggers, making us more hungry. But whatever the reason, losing weight too fast is an excellent recipe for gaining it back again… and maybe gaining even more. With the exception of the morbidly obese, one to two pounds a week is as fast as weight loss should go.
I found this very demoralizing when I first started losing weight. "One to two pounds a week? That’s going to take forever!" But I was startled at how fast this really is. Two pounds a week means ten pounds in a little more than a month. And a weight loss of ten pounds is where most people start noticing a difference in how they look… and more importantly, how they feel.
Exercising regularly. This is the other side of "calories in, calories out." The less you eat, the more weight you’ll lose (again, as long as you’re doing it slowly and aren’t starving yourself). But the more you exercise, the more weight you’ll also lose. And the more you exercise, the more you can eat.
An acquaintance of mine put this in a way that I love: "I like to eat — so I exercise a lot." That’s me in a nutshell. I love to eat: I’m a sensualist, and food is one of the great sensual pleasures life has to offer. I’m willing to eat my rich treats less often and in smaller portions… but I’m not willing to eat nothing but brown rice and vegetables for the rest of my life. So I exercise. A lot.
Now. Since I’m trying to be all skeptical and evidence- based here, I feel compelled to say this: Recent research is strongly suggesting that, while exercise is important for weight management, it’s not nearly as important as limiting your intake of calories. For one thing, most Americans (and people eating an American diet) are consuming way, way more calories than they can burn off by walking to work or going to the gym twice a week. To burn off the excess calories from an average American diet, you’d have to have the training regimen of an Olympic athlete. In short: It’s a whole lot easier to not consume the calories in the first place than it is to burn them off.
But while exercise isn’t as important as reducing your caloric intake, it’s not trivial, either. Regular exercise is very high on the National Weight Control Registry’s list of stuff that successful weight losers have in common). And exercise is important for about eleventy hundred other reasons as well. Cardiac health, respiratory health, mobility, digestion, depression, insomnia, mental acuity, libido… there is pretty much no system of your body that won’t be improved by regular vigorous exercise. And it does seem to be a factor in weight management. Just not the most important factor.
I don’t give a damn what kind of exercise you do. Some weight loss experts insist that you have to exercise for at least half an hour at a time to get any benefit, or that you have to do a combination of cardio and weight training, or that you have to exercise in the morning. Fuck that noise. The best exercise is the one that you’ll do. Baseball or ballroom dancing or bocce; walking or weightlifting or water polo. Find a physical activity you like to do, and do it.
That being said, there is something to be said for making exercise a daily or near-daily habit. There are probably physiological reasons for this — but for me, the main reason is psychological. When I was working out twice a week, it was much easier to convince myself that it was okay to blow it off. Now that I exercise every day (or almost every day — five or six days a week most weeks), it feels more like brushing my teeth: a part of my daily routine, one that I don’t blow off unless there’s a really, really good reason. And exercising every day is very self-reinforcing: a daily reminder of how much better I feel when I exercise. (When I don’t feel like doing it, I always try to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Well, except for two or three times when I was seriously sleep-deprived. No matter how crummy I felt when I headed to the gym, I have always felt better afterwards.)
Weighing myself regularly. This is one of the basics that the research has shown to be essential. And in my experience, it makes perfect sense. If I just go by how I feel or how I look, I’m not necessarily going to notice if my weight starts creeping back up. It’s too easy to rationalize and fool myself. I need an external metric — one that doesn’t lie.
So how often? Well, when I was losing weight, once a week worked really well for me. If I weighed myself every day, I’d get obsessed and freaked out over every minor meaningless fluctuation. Once a week kept me aware of where my weight was and what its broad trends were, without freaking out over minor changes (see below). If I gained weight for more than a couple weeks in a row, or if my weight loss plateaued for more than a couple/ few weeks, that told me that I needed to change something: I needed to dial down my calorie budget, or step up my exercise, or be more rigorous about keeping my food diary. (Or do some fucking cardio already instead of just doing my beloved weights all the time.)
But now that I’m on maintenance instead of weight loss, I do weigh myself every day. Especially since I’m very much in the early days of maintenance. I’m still fine-tuning things like what exactly my daily calorie budget should be, and how often I can go over. So I need to keep a close eye on the results of that fine-tuning… and whether the things I’m doing are giving me the results I want.
I will say this, though: The research does suggest that weighing yourself every day is correlated with successful weight loss and maintenance. But what this research most strongly suggests is that, however often you weigh yourself during weight loss, the important part is to keep doing it that often once you’re on maintenance. Consistency seems to be key. That’s actually one of the main reasons I now weigh myself every day: it makes it into a habit, just part of my daily routine, which makes it a lot more likely that I’ll keep it up over the years. But if it keeps you from getting obsessive, once a week is probably okay — as long as you stick with it.
Getting support from family and friends. I cannot emphasize this enough. Doing this with my wife has been what has made this possible. If you asked me which part of all this process I’d be willing to drop if I had to, the part where I talk about it with Ingrid would be at the absolute bottom of that list. I would sooner quit working out than quit talking about this with Ingrid. Having someone to strategize with, to process the emotional ups and downs with, to celebrate with when it’s working, to vent with when it sucks…it’s huge. I don’t know how I could do it without her.
It doesn’t have to be a spouse or a lover; it can be a friend or a family member or a support group. (Although some sort of support from people you live with is obviously a big, big help.) But getting support from other people who are also working on weight management seems to be one of the most central factors in doing it successfully. And it also helps to get support from the other people in your life who aren’t necessarily losing weight but are supporting you in your efforts. (If for no other reason, it helps to not have well-intentioned people pressing rich food on you because they don’t know that you’re trying not to eat it.)
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change. My experience with this is still limited. I only hit my weight loss goal in October of 2010, so maintenance is still relatively new to me, and I can only speak about it from fairly limited personal experience.
But according to all the research I’ve seen, the single most important key to successfully maintaining weight loss over the long term is to keep up all of these patterns once the weight’s been lost.
Too many people make the mistake of seeing weight loss as a one-time thing. They see it as something you get over with, so you can get back to your old eating habits. That absolutely does not work. I’m going to have to keep counting calories, keep measuring my food, keep up the food diary, keep exercising, keep weighing myself… for the rest of my life. And when I was deciding exactly how much weight I should lose, I had to make sure that my target weight range was one that I could happily maintain, with a calorie budget I could be happy with… again, not just for a few weeks, not just for a few months, but for the rest of my life.
Like I said, I can’t speak that much about maintenance from my own experience yet. But so far, now that I’ve reached my target weight range, very little has changed about how I manage my food and exercise and whatnot. Some of my emotions and psychological strategies are somewhat different. But as far as the daily nuts- and- bolts go? My calorie budget has gone up somewhat. That’s the only practical difference.
So those are the fundamentals.
How do I make it work?
Talking to a health care provider first. If I’d tried to figure out for myself what a reasonable calorie budget was, I’d have had no idea where to even begin. But I have Kaiser, and Kaiser has an online weight management program that can give you, not only pointers on how to lose weight, but a reasonable, medical, evidence-based assessment of what a sane weight-loss goal is… and what a sane calorie budget is to reach that goal, based on your current weight and activity level. (BTW, that budget is going to change as you lose weight; more on that in a bit.) If you don’t have Kaiser, talk to your doctor or other evidence-based medical provider. (And if anyone tells you that your calorie budget should be less than 1,200 calories a day, head for the hills. Nobody should be eating less than 1,200 calories a day. When I started on weight loss, my daily calorie budget was 1,800.)
Eating multiple small meals. If I let myself get too hungry, I get hungry for richer food: fatty proteins, big carbs. But if I eat every couple of hours, an apple or some veggies and hummus will be enough to make me happy. So on a typical day, I have three decent-sized but not huge meals, and a whole bunch of little healthy snacks (fruit, raw veggies, whole wheat crackers, etc.) every couple of hours in between. (And usually one small not-so-healthy snack. But I’m getting to that.)
Small plates. There’s actual science behind this. (That is, if Food Detectives was telling the truth.) Apparently we feel fuller and more satisfied with the same amount of food if it’s served on a smaller plate. And the converse is true: whatever size plate we have, we tend to fill up. Ingrid and I almost never use dinner plates anymore; we almost always eat dinner on the little lunch plates. If it’s not enough and we’re still hungry in an hour, we can always get some more.
Which reminds me:
Waiting. This was hard to learn — but it’s huge, and it got a lot easier with time. If I’ve had one of my planned and budgeted meals, and I still feel hungry… I wait.
The part of our brains that tells us "That’s enough food" has a delay — about 20 minutes, the last time I read the research. (And while I don’t know this for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this is slower for fat people.) Because our appetites evolved in an environment of scarcity, we want to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available.
So if I’ve eaten what I’ve budgeted for, and I’m still hungry in 20 minutes, I wait. If I’m still hungry after that, I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. If I’m still hungry after that… then I eat already. That’s not fake hunger, that’s real hunger, and I have a piece of fruit or something. But ninety percent of the time, waiting and water does the trick.
Avoiding hunger cues. Again, our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. We evolved, among other things, to get hungry whenever we see food. Which, in America, can easily be a hundred times a day. (More if you count ads. See below.)
So when I’m at a party, I try not to sit within eyeshot and arm’s reach of the food table. When I’m at a buffet, I try to sit with my back to it. When I’m in any sort of place with an essentially unlimited supply of food, I browse first, looking over the options to see what I really want; I put the things I want on a small plate; and I go hang out somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.
Oh, and speaking of which:
Eat food that’s, you know, food. This is the Michael Pollan diet, and while it doesn’t work for weight loss — I still need to count calories — it does give me a good guideline as to what to fill that calorie budget with. Fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, rice, beans, meat, cheese, bread, tofu… you get the gist. None (or almost none) of what Pollan refers to as "edible food-like substances." This is the food our bodies evolved to eat… and it’s the food that nourishes us and makes us feel satisfied.
If you’re a big lefty pinko freak like me, it may help to think of this as a political issue. Fat positivism may feel like a big "Fuck You" to body fascism… but eating healthy can feel like a big "Fuck You" to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick. Big Food is trying to sell you as much food as they can, and they’re trying to sell you sugary, starchy, fatty food that’s cheap to process and easy to market, and they don’t give a damn whether they make you sick doing it. Don’t let them do it. Take your body back. Fight the power, and so on.
Not freaking out over minor fluctuations. I wish I’d realized this earlier in my weight loss program. A couple of weeks into it, I had a major upset when I gained a pound. I was like, "This is already so hard, and now I have to make it even harder to make it work?" No. Not necessarily. Minor weight fluctuations are going to happen. Even if you magically ate the exact same amount of calories and expended the exact same amount of calories in exercise every single day of your life, your weight would still probably fluctuate a bit: depending on what time of day it is, how much water you’ve been drinking, how recently you went to the bathroom, your menstrual cycle if you have one.
I did an experiment a few months ago. When I was at the gym, I weighed myself at the beginning of my workout, and again at the end of it. And I found, very much to my surprise, that I’d gained half a pound. (I think it was the massive amount of water I drink when I work out.) If I can gain half a pound in an hour and a half workout, it makes no sense to get all worked up if I gain half a pound in a week.
If I keep gaining half a pound week after week — or if I don’t lose anything week after week when I’m trying to lose — that’s something to pay attention to. I might need to step up my workouts or dial back my calorie budget. But if it just happens one week, I simply need to keep doing what I’m doing… and see what happens.
Avoiding moral language about food. I make a conscious point of not saying that I’m "bad" when I eat high-calorie food, or talking about "wicked," "sinful," or "forbidden" food. (Or for that matter, "virtuous" food.) Human brains are weird: as soon as we’re told we can’t have something, that becomes the thing we want more than anything. Even if it’s us doing the telling. And since I do include treats in my eating program (see below), I don’t want to feel bad about them. I want to thoroughly enjoy them.
Instead, the metaphors Ingrid and I have been using are about money. We have food budgets. We call high-calorie foods expensive; low-calorie foods are cheap. I can spend or save my daily budget as I like: I can spend my calories on a donut for breakfast if I’m willing to have a light lunch, or I can save a few of my lunch calories if I know I’m going to have a rich dinner. (Within reason. See "Not skipping meals" and "Eating multiple small meals" above, as well as the general themes of "Not starving yourself," "Not making yourself crazy," and "Eating already.")
I don’t think of high-calorie foods as a forbidden sin that I’m a bad person for wanting. I think of them as expensive luxuries that I can treat myself to if I budget right.
Not being a perfectionist. If I’d tried a weight-loss program where I never got to eat chocolate or butter or donuts (mmmm, donuts), I wouldn’t last a month. Even if I did last a month, I’d be so miserable that it wouldn’t be worth it. I’d be so obsessed with the things I couldn’t eat, I’d be thinking about them more than I if I actually ate them. For me, it’s just not sustainable in the long run.
So instead of saying, "I can never have butter or chocolate or donuts again," I say, "I can have butter and chocolate and donuts if I can fit them into my food budget." I can have butter if I have small portions; I can have chocolate if I had a fairly light dinner and have room in my food budget at the end of the day; I can have a donut if I’m willing to skip my end- of- the- day chocolate.
And once a month, I give myself a day where I don’t count calories at all, and just eat whatever I want. Again: If I never let myself relax and just eat already, I’d go nuts. Every time I counted calories, I’d be wishing that I didn’t have to, and longing for the old days when I wasn’t. But I know that I can forget the calories once a month… so it’s not that big a deal. (Twice a month in December. Even when I was on weight loss, I let December be a maintenance month: as long as I didn’t gain weight, I wasn’t going to stress out if I didn’t lose any.)
Now, I will say that this is a tricky technique. More than anything else I’m doing to manage my weight, this one falls squarely into the This Works For Me But Doesn’t Work For Everybody category. Different people have very different psychologies/ hunger triggers/ etc. about food. Some people are more like me: they can enjoy rich, high-calorie foods as an occasional part of an overall balanced and healthy diet. For other people, this is too hard to manage: a small amount of high-calorie food will trigger out- of- control hunger and bingeing. These folks need to treat high-calorie food more the way recovering alcoholics treat booze. For them, the way I do it would be too hard. And the stuff I’d find impossible — refusing to eat even a small amount of rich food, ever — they find much easier.
But if you’re like me, and the thought of a life without chocolate scarcely seems worth living, this is at least worth trying.
Bites and sips and tastes. Social eating can be hard on weight management. When everyone else is having birthday cake or hors d’ oeuvres or champagne, it can make me feel deprived and isolated if I don’t have any. Like I’m being left out of the party.
So I have a bite, or a sip. Or I split a small piece with Ingrid. If what I want is the festive social experience rather than the actual food, one taste is really all I need. (Again, see above: if you have the kind of psychology where one taste of rich food will set you off on a binge, you may have to forgo this. But if you don’t, it’s worth a try.)
Savoring my food. Before I started losing weight, I tended to eat fairly unconsciously. I’d eat a piece of chocolate… and because I’d been spacing out and not paying attention, it wouldn’t feel satisfying, and I’d have to eat another to actually experience the pleasure. (And if I spaced out on that one — which I often did — I’d have to have yet another.)
Now that I only eat small amounts of rich, high- calorie treats… I pay attention. I savor it. Or, if you want to be all high-minded and New Agey: I’m mindful about it. I focus on the feel of the chocolate melting on my tongue, the complexities of flavors, the balance of sweetness and bitterness and creamy richness. When I eat a piece of chocolate, it stays eaten.
And when I do that, I don’t feel a great need to have another piece. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to get anything out of a second or third piece that I didn’t already get from the first one. No matter how much chocolate I eat, I eventually have to stop eating, and I’m only going to have the memory of the experience. I can have that memory just as well from one piece as I can from three, or six, or ten. More so, in many ways.
And you know what? I don’t just do this with rich, high- calorie treats. I do it with most of my food. Roasted asparagus, broiled salmon, warm fruit with Greek yogurt and honey, a perfectly ripe nectarine… fully experiencing delicious healthy foods is as important to my weight management as fully experiencing the delicious rich treats. And it’s just as important to my mental health and general well- being and overall philosophy of life.
Not making it more complicated than it needs to be. Carbs, fat grams, glycemic indices, antioxidants, micronutrients… who cares? I don’t pay attention to any of that. I count my calories; I make sure that most of what I eat is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat whole- food proteins — and I call it a day. Weight management is enough work as it is. I don’t see any reason to make it any harder.
Now, if I were getting my 1700 calories a day from Snickers bars and Big Macs, I might have reason to worry about my nutritional balance and overall good health. But I’ve found that it’s pretty much impossible to stay within my caloric budget on a diet of burgers and candy and processed junk food. Rich processed food just doesn’t make me feel full enough for long enough: to feel satisfied and not be hungry on 1700 calories a day, I have to eat a fair amount of stuff like peppers and carrots, apples and raspberries, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. Contrary to the advertising campaign, Snickers does not satisfy.
I do try to eat some protein with every meal, since that helps keep me from getting too hungry. I keep an eye on my fiber, mostly since that tells me if I’m getting enough of my calories from fruits and vegetables. And I keep an occasional eye on fat, since I’m trying to be a good evidence-based skeptic here, and the research shows that a low-fat diet is one of the things successful weight maintainers have in common. But again, I find that if I stay within my calorie budget and make a moderate effort to eat a decent amount of fruits and vegetables, the fiber and fat mostly takes care of itself. (LoseIt makes that stuff easy to track; if it didn’t, I probably wouldn’t bother.) And again, if you look at the research from the National Weight Control Registry on what successful weight maintainers have in common, glycemic index and whatnot aren’t on the list. Fewer calories, less fat, more exercise, losing weight slowly… that’s what’s on the list. Everything else — keeping the food journal, regular weigh-ins, measuring food, not skipping meals, getting support from family and friends, yada yada yada — is just in service of those goals.
Breaking my goals up into chunks. When I first started losing weight, my health care provider told me that, for maximum good health, I should lose 60 pounds. That seemed completely impossible to me. So I broke that up. I said I’d lose 20 pounds… and see how it went, and re-evaluate.
It went great. It went faster and easier than I’d ever expected. So I kept going. But if I’d started out thinking that my goal was to lose 60 pounds, I think I would have gotten daunted and discouraged, and might have even given up. 20 pounds seemed achievable. (And in fact, when I lost the first 20 and decided to keep going, I again said "I’m going to lose another 20… and then re-assess.")
Being extremely rigorous at first, and more relaxed as the process continued. When I first started counting calories, I was scrupulous about getting it exactly right. If it went in my mouth, it went in my food diary. If I couldn’t find the exact food I was eating in my calorie-counting app, I’d look it up on the Internet. If I went to a party, I’d calorie-count every single hors d’oeuvre I ate. And I mostly ate at home, or prepared my food at home, so I could know exactly what I was putting in my mouth, as much as I possibly could.
And I think that was the right thing to do. I needed to completely change my habits — not just the ways I ate, but the ways I thought about food and eating. I needed to think about food as something I always keep track of. And my instincts and guesses about how large a serving was, or how much food was in a cup or an ounce or a tablespoon, were way, way off. Not to mention my instincts and guesses about how calorically expensive certain foods were.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m somewhat more relaxed about it. I have a better sense of what things cost, and I know which foods I really need to keep rigorous track of and which ones I can guesstimate. (I keep much more careful measurements of cheese than I do of, say, spinach.) I’m more likely to do rough equivalents: if I can’t find sweet potato pie in my calorie counting app, I don’t bother to look it up on the Internet — I just call it pumpkin pie, and call it a day. I’m more likely to collapse all my hors’ d’oeuvres into one or two that are pretty similar. And I’m less likely to bother writing it down if I have just one bite of something.
Which is where weighing myself regularly comes in. See above. My weight management is very results- driven: as long as my weight is within my target range, then by definition, I’m doing it right. If I start gaining weight again, I’ll know that I’m slacking too much, and need to get more rigorous.
Framing weight loss as a stress management technique. According to everything I’ve read and heard, one of the hardest things about weight loss and weight management is maintaining it under stress. Stress can be an appetite trigger, making you physically hungry. Stress can make you want to eat comfort food, which tends to he high-calorie. And stress can make you put things like exercise and calorie counting on the back burner, as a low priority.
I know all that’s so. But the last couple of years have included some of the most stressful and horrible stretches in my memory. I won’t bore you with the details: suffice to say that in the time that I’ve been doing weight management, my life has, on occasion, sucked beyond the telling of it. And I was still able to lose weight.
I was able to do it, I think, because forewarned is forearmed. I knew that stress could be a hunger trigger — so I learned to tell the difference between stress hunger and real hunger. And I was able to do it by reframing. Instead of saying, "I’m having a bad week/ month/ year, I deserve those six donuts," I said, "I’m having a bad week/ month/ year — and weight loss is one of the few things in my life that’s working. It’s one of the few things that I’m being successful at. It’s one of the few things that’s making me feel better. It’s one of the few things that I have some degree of control over." And, of course, being in good health and eating a good diet and getting regular exercise are all excellent stress-management techniques. So I framed weight loss, not as something that was adding to my stress, but as something that was alleviating it.
Remembering other behavior changes I’ve successfully done. One of the things that kept me from trying to lose weight for so long was the depressing research about how rare it is. Behavior changes in general are extremely difficult for human beings to maintain… and weight loss involves multiple major behavior changes. I kept thinking, "Sheesh, only 10% of people who try to lose weight succeed. You have a better chance of quitting smoking or drinking or drugs, and staying quit, than you do of losing weight and keeping it off."
But as Ingrid reminded me: I have quit smoking. I quit drinking caffeinated coffee. I quit eating pork (well, mostly). I started a writing regimen that I’ve stuck with. I learned to be a better housekeeper when Ingrid and I moved in together (and believe me, that was a major behavior change). Behavior change may be hard… but I seem to be someone who’s reasonably good at it. And in fact, many of the strategies I used to change those behaviors are ones I’ve applied to weight loss.
If you’ve made other behavior changes in your past, and have stuck with them… remember that. Use the memory to bolster your confidence. And think about what you did to make it work.
Making peace with the times that it’s hard. Even with all these strategies, there are times when this is hard. I have days when there’s rich, delicious food being offered to me that I hate to turn down. I have days when I don’t have much control over what I eat, and staying within my budget is extremely difficult. (Travelling especially can be a weight loss nightmare.) I have days when I realize that, no matter how much weight I lose, I’m still never going to look like the cultural ideal of female beauty, or even like my own personal ideal of it. I have days when my food budget just doesn’t make me feel full. (Rarely anymore, but I do occasionally have them.)
And in one of the cruelest ironies of weight loss: As you lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie budget. It takes fewer calories to maintain a lower body weight than it does to maintain a higher one. And every time I’ve had to dial down my budget, I’ve had a bad week or two, before my body and my hunger triggers adjusted to the new allotment. (That was especially true the very first time I had to dial down my budget — the first couple of weeks of the whole program.)
But the bad times pass. I can move on from the cake I’m not going to have… and enjoy the conversation I am having. I’ll have a day when I go over budget due to circumstances beyond my control… and then I’ll be back on my budget the next day. I’ll have a moment of regret over my body not being what I want it to be… and then I’ll get back into feeling how much pleasure I’m getting from it now. I’ll feel a little hungry for a week when I have to dial my calorie budget down… and then I’ll adjust, and be fine.
Thinking in terms of what I get to do — not what I have to do. I stole this idea directly from comic artist Carol Lay, and her excellent graphic novel/ memoir on weight management, The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude. Sometimes the hardest part of weight management is feeling like my life is hemmed in. All these rules and restrictions and limitations: it sometimes feels like a mean teacher is making me write a boring essay about state capitols, checking that I spell everything right and keep my lines neatly in the margins… while right outside the window, all the other kids are playing tag. Even though I know perfectly well that I made all these rules myself, it still can feel that way.
So when I’m feeling deprived and rebellious about weight management, I try to see it, not in terms of what I "have" to do, but in terms of what I get to do. See, I lost weight primarily because of my health, to keep a bad knee from getting worse… and I’m maintaining my weight primarily because of my health, because the weight loss has vastly improved not only my bad knee, but my bad feet and my asthma and my insomnia and my stamina and my libido and my overall energy and mood.
And so managing my weight doesn’t mean that I "have" to go to the gym, that I "have" to pass on dessert because I had a donut that day, that I "have" to count calories for the rest of my life. It means that I get to have healthy knees and feet, mood and sleep, lungs and libido. And that means that I get to dance for hours. Fuck for hours. Go to art galleries for hours. Walk for miles in this hilly city that I love so much. Walk to the bakery, the cafe, the produce stand, the alley with the amazing murals, the taqueria with the live band playing on the sidewalk on weekends… and walk back home with heavy bags full of bread and coffee and fruit, and a mind full of art and music. Sleep soundly. Wear four-inch heels. Lift heavy packages. Climb stairs. Get on all fours and perform unspeakable sex acts. Have a decent shot at a relatively healthy old age.
This isn’t about some arbitrary and intractable set of rules someone is making me follow. This is about my own priorities, the choices I’m making to shape my life into what I want. Following these rules doesn’t make me powerless. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s how I’m making myself powerful.
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