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DIET: that dirty four-lettered word that is so ingrained in our national vocabulary that it’s mention is akin to discussing the weather.

“What’s the forecast for tomorrow?” you ask.

“A high of 1200 calories with a slight chance of deprivation.” How gloomy.

Dieting has become as American as baseball and apple pie, that is, as long as you make it a slice of sugar free, fat free pie.

Yet despite how often we talk about dieting, very few actually succeed in losing weight and keeping it off. So why do we persist? Are we all insane, as a popular quote would suggest?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Or maybe we’ve been bamboozled by an industry that profits off of our failures, an industry that designs a faulty product and then places the blame on the buyer? Today I challenge you all to embark on a different kind of diet: the anti-diet.  Let go of all your complicated food rules and beliefs about “good” and “bad” foods and begin to trust your body to tell you what it wants and needs.

To provide you with some motivation, I’m counting down the top ten reasons to ditch dieting for good.

10. Dieting wrecks havoc on your metabolism.

Dieting slows the metabolism down tremendously, as the body enters what it assumes to be a period of famine. And while fat people who lose large amounts of weight may look similar to a naturally thin person, their bodies are actually behaving more like that of a starving person. In other words, a fat person who loses weight will not acquire the health characteristics of a naturally thin person. On average, the metabolism slows so that a formerly fat person burns about 24% fewer calories per square meter of their body’s surface area than a naturally thin person. By avoiding diets, you can ensure your metabolism is functioning at its optimal level.

9. Your body produces hormones that fight against weight change.

Your body has a natural set point for weight, largely determined by genetics, at which it feels most comfortable. Deviating much beyond this point triggers a cascade of hormones designed to resist further weight fluctuations. These hormones can stimulate or suppress appetite, decrease or increase metabolism, and encourage or discourage activity. Dieting interferes with the mechanisms that regulate set point and makes it difficult to respond to hormonal cues. Much like a broken gas gauge on a car, dieting makes it difficult to tell when the tank is full or running on empty.

8. Dieting can lead to many psychiatric problems.

Here’s a novel idea: your body, as adept as it is at carefully regulating all your bodily systems, cannot tell the difference between a diet and unintentional starvation. And starvation has been shown to cause a lot of psychological problems. In the classic Minnesota Starvation Study, healthy men were put on 1,600 calorie diets with the intention of losing 25% of their body weight. Over the course of the experiment, the men experienced what head researcher Dr. Ancel Keys came to call “semistarvation neurosis.” They became nervous, anxious, withdrawn and overly critical of their appearance and weight. Many exhibited signs of depression, losing their ambitions, interests, sense of humor, and desire for social interaction. They became obsessed with food and many developed odd food rituals. And to think this all happened on 1,600 calories per day. Many popular diets today prescribe much less!

7. Dieting wastes a lot of time and energy.

As noted by a participant in the Minnesota Starvation Study the act of restricting food “made food the most important thing in one’s life.” Whether your counting calories, weighing out just right portions, or dreaming about all the food you wish you could be eating, dieting can quickly become an all-consuming undertaking, often at the expense of other areas of your life. When we deny ourselves food we enjoy in favor of “healthy” foods we dislike, a lot of time gets spent fantasizing about that forbidden food.

6. Dieting robs a lot of the pleasure from eating and can make for more complicated social situations.

Despite what many popular diets lead you to believe, getting pleasure from food does not make you a hedonistic, weak-willed person. Eating can and should be a pleasurable experience. Think about digging into a big stack of fluffy pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning, eating a slice of cake on your Birthday, or clinking champagne glasses with friends and family on New Years Eve. Food is a part of many of social situations, and when your web of complex food rules keeps you sidelined from digging in with everyone else it can be an isolating experience.

5. 95% of dieters regain the weight and then develop a higher weight set point.

Because of the numerous regulatory checks that your body employs, in the end, dieting is more synonymous with weight gain than weight loss. It slows metabolism, increases the body’s efficiency at getting calories from food, increases appetite, decreases activity levels, lowers your body temperature, breaks down muscle tissue, and increases fat storing enzymes. All these checks ensure you are on the fast track to gaining back any lost weight. And because our bodies are programmed to protect us from weight loss but aren’t too concerned with weight gain, they settle at a slightly higher set point than they were previously at. In other words, the same amount of calories you were once eating to maintain weight X are now how many you need to eat to maintain X+10lbs.

4. Dieting and weight cycling causes a lot of the problems that excess weight is blamed for like heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and liver damage.

It’s a classic case of what came first, the chicken or the egg? Many people see a correlation between excess weight and disease and assume weight is the cause, when in reality the relationship isn’t so straightforward. What often underlies conditions like heart disease is the damage done to the body by losing and regaining the same weight over and over again, the same cycling that leads to higher set point weights.

3. You don’t need to diet to maintain your body’s healthy weight.

Too many people are under the impression that without constant vigilance the pounds will keep piling on, when in fact, this is far from the truth. A scientist at the University of Vermont, Ethan Sims, conducted an experiment that was the mirror image of the Minnesota Starvation Study. Instead of looking at the effects of calorie restriction, Sims put men on a calorie dense diet. In order increase their weight by 20% above their natural set point the men had to eat as much as 10,000 calories for up to six months time. Sims discovered that the amount of weight the men should have gained based on a simple calories in versus calories out equation was much more than they actually gained. Their bodies fought hard to maintain their natural set point, and at the conclusion of the study they returned to these weight without effort. Your body knows the weight it is healthiest at and will fight you to maintain that weight. Ironically, you have to diet to NOT maintain your healthy weight. Watch a documentary that puts participants through a similar weight gain experiment here.

2. Being thin does not necessarily make you healthier. Moderate activity and healthy, moderate food choices make you healthier.

Fit, active people are much healthier than sedentary individuals, regardless of weight. In fact, fit obese people are healthier than thin sedentary individuals and just as healthy and thin active individuals. When fat people exercise, they reap all the benefits even without an accompanying weight loss. In other words, losing weight will not make one healthy but exercising will. Several studies also indicate that fostering an active lifestyle increases self-confidence and acceptance while dieting often has the opposite effect. Read more.

1. Dieting is NOT about loving and respecting your body.

How many times have your heard someone say (or said yourself) “I’m trying to lose weight because I want to take care of myself?” While the intention is good, dieting is a misguided attempt at promoting health and well-being. Choosing a healthy, varied diet, staying active, and accepting your body in its present state sends a lot more powerful message if you ask me. You wouldn’t tell your partner or your best friend, “I’d love you more if only you were….(fill in the blanks).” So why do we repeatedly tell ourselves this message by trying to lose weight? Love and respect come from an understanding that I am a complete, whole person as I am.

For a great resource on the research behind these reasons check out Big Liberty’s blog. Or pick up a copy of the book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos or Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata.

Sticking to a meal plan, whether recovering from an eating disorder or not, is challenging. Just like any other diet*, it can easily be thrown off course by unanticipated or emotionally triggering events. In fact, studies have shown that 95% of all dieters are back at their starting weight within 5 years of beginning a program. While this statistic commonly refers to those on a weight loss regimen, I believe there is a lot of crossover between the problems weight-loss-dieters and weight-gain-dieters encounter.

When I was just out of inpatient and diligently following my meal plan, I was surprised to find that what tripped me up the most wasn’t always the food or the impending weight gain. It was family and friends that didn’t quite understand what I was doing and why. I can’t count the times a well-intended friend pushed a batch of fresh baked brownies my way saying, “I thought you could eat this now.” Well, I would think to myself, I can eat brownies, just not those brownies. I need a brownie made with portion-controlled ingredients measured out with military precision that has been weighed on a digital scale to the exact gram. But since that was quite a mouthful and begged a dozen questions I wasn’t prepared to field, I tended to revert to the polite, “no thank you.”

While adhering to a meal plan often temporarily introduces a whole new slew of food rules, it affords the peace of mind that you are eating within allowable parameters. In a sense, the meal plan gives you a “ticket to eat,” or as my therapist referred to it, “a food prescription.” Initially, it is important to strictly follow the plan as you restore weight, normalize eating, and work through emotional baggage. Going off plan too early can be a slippery slope leading to relapse. Unfortunately, friends and family have the potential to confuse the new recovery-focused food rules for eating disorder behavior. If you combine that with the misunderstanding that recovery from an eating disorder is an overnight occurrence it’s easy to see why the unintentional sabotage occurs.

To help you stick to your meal plan when up against uninformed or unsupportive friends and family members I’ve assembled a list of tips that really helped me.

1) Get comfortable saying NO

You’re armed with the meal plan and you know what you need to eat. If someone offers you food that doesn’t fit in with your recovery plan, just say no. With food and emotions so closely intertwined perhaps saying no to grandma’s home-cooked lasagna or fresh-baked cookies will hurt her feelings, but right now that can’t be your top priority. Thank her for the offer, say no, offer an explanation if your feel comfortable, and then move on.

2) Educate others

Tell those closest to you about your meal plan. If they know what you are doing they will be able to offer support and encouragement instead of criticism or misplaced advice. This also makes you accountable to eat the food on your plan.

3) It’s all in the preparation

Don’t get thrown off because you had to work late, came home tired, and now your family is beckoning you to come eat the pizza they ordered. If you are at a point where you can do some quick mental math and substitute pizza for your planned meal, great! If not, make sure you have some quick back-ups in place, think supplemental drinks, frozen foods, or prepackaged snacks (or, thanks to your newfound raging metabolism, all three).

4) Offer to cook

Do you have a hard time getting your family to understand why you measure everything? Would you like to eat the same meal as everyone else but can’t get the cook to accommodate your needs? Cook a meal for everyone. When you are in the kitchen you can measure the ingredients in your meal to get an accurate count and, unless someone is watching you, they probably won’t be any wiser to what you are doing.

5) Ask for modifications

You never know how accommodating your family will be unless you ask. To this day when I am having a rough day with food I ask my husband to whip out the kitchen scale to make sure my meal is xxx calories. He understands the important role meal planning plays in recovery, and is always willing to oblige. But getting up the courage to ask him is the first step.

6) Get a wingman (or wingwoman)

A wingman comes in handy when your reserves are running low and you can’t bear the thought of explaining one more time why you brought your own food to (insert any family holiday or social gathering). A good wingman can deflect questions, support your decision, encourage you in the face of disapproval, and be your personal advocate in recovery.

7) Be resolute in your recovery

Following a meal plan 100% of the time is hard. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, then it becomes 100x harder. Work on getting to the root reasons for why you want recovery (making a list is helpful-as well as countless hours in therapy) and then work on understanding the important connection between meal planning and recovery.

So gather your measuring cups and spoons, the kitchen scale, and nutritional guides and commit yourself to meal planning. Because in the end, whether or not your family members and friends are on board, you are only accountable to yourself.

* I am referring to a way of eating, not calorie restriction.

I broke my foot exactly 1 month ago, and with it, all my dreams of losing too much weight, overdoing it at the gym, and once again reclaiming my eating disorder glory. Let me explain.

About 2 months ago, I stumbled upon the website sparkpeople.com. Much like diet and exercise trackers I’ve used in the past, it allows you to set a goal weight and a day at which you would like to achieve said goal weight and POOF…. it pumps out a daily calorie allowance and suggested exercise program.

The fact that I searched out this website to begin with says something about my general mental well-being. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with grieving the end, or death if you want to sound more poetic, of my anorexia. I’ve been struggling to fill the void it’s absence has created. At one point in my life eating disordered behaviors could be the answer to almost any question or problem. Feeling bored? Turn to ED. Feeling stressed? Turn to ED. Feeling overwhelmed? Turn to ED. Feeling angry? Turn to ED. You get the idea. Lately, I’ve had to admit to myself that anorexia is no longer my coping method of choice. I’ve had to admit that even if I wished to develop anorexia again, I don’t think I could. Just as much as I didn’t control its onset the first time around, I can’t magically will it into being now. And all that makes me sad.

I liked having an “easy” answer to all life’s problems. I don’t like having to deal with issues in a mature, adult way. I don’t like having to look for alternative coping mechanisms, or what most often happens, not cope at all. Over the past year I have fallen into quite a depressed state, and without my fixation on weight loss, or the sense of accomplishment I get from sticking to a diet, I’ve been hanging out at the bottom of this dark hole for quite some time.

Enter sparkpeople.com. I became hooked on its community based approach to weight loss and point system very quickly. I loved entering my food for the day and seeing the ticker land right between my designated calorie allowance. I loved watching the calories burned bar far surpass the calories consumed bar. I especially loved watching the slope of the line graph indicating weight steadily become steeper and steeper.

In about 1 month’s time I had lost 7 pounds. The depression was starting to lift, and I was feeling on top of the world. I was feeling like a somebody instead of a nobody. And then in a seemingly innocuous fall while playing tennis I broke the base of my 5th metatarsal (aka: a Jones fracture for all you medically minded people). The moment I heard the doctor say it was broken I knew my weight loss plans were over. The tides had been turned and I was bearing straight toward a sea of home alone binges, uncontrollable crying sessions and irrational, nearly suicidal thoughts.

It’s always been that way with me. The moment my plans are disrupted I can no longer stay on course. In effect, I do a complete 180. It’s my all or nothing mentality at its finest. And sitting on that cold, paper-lined hospital table I knew it all too well. I started to cry, not because my foot was broken, but because I knew that meant I was heading into a period of compulsive overeating, purging, and depression. And despite having complete awareness over what was happening, I had no control.

It’s been one month since that accident, my foot is still cast bound, and my follow-up appointment isn’t until September 6. I’ve completely abandoned my sparkpeople account, except for the rare occasion when I wake up committed to track for the day and make it through lunch. Those half days only make me feel bad when I look back over them…reminders of my failure. I’ve tried telling myself that this broken foot was a relapse intervention; it was some higher power’s way of telling me to cut it out. Or it could have been the universe’s way of showing me just how ill equipped I am at overcoming obstacles, how little drive and perseverance I have.

Despite the cast, I still make it to the gym 3-4 times a week, my weight is “only” up about 2 pounds, and I’m managing to eat a more balanced diet than I normally would were I in a typical binge and purge period. I’m hoping once the cast comes off and I get the go ahead to apply weight I can flip the switch again and get back into tracking and out of this funk. I know I should hope for a future that isn’t centered around any extreme eating and exercise behavior, but frankly, I have a hard time imagining what that would look like.

Because it is the thing that makes me most miserable that I also need to find any joy at all.

October 2011 Update: I am completely managing all eating disorder behaviors and have taken this incident as an opportunity to deal with some of the latent emotions I have surrounding the “death” of my eating disorder.

Back when my eating disorder was the dominant force in my life, I was ready to punch the next person that told me “fat is not a feeling.” I used to get into this debate with my therapist all the time. It went something like this.

Dana: I hate the way I look; none of my clothes fit anymore. I feel so fat.

Therapist: Your weight gain is right on target; no need to worry. And remember Dana, fat is not a feeling. Why don’t you tell me what you really feel: sad, frustrated, scared?

Dana: I feel like I want to punch you (is what I should have said). I don’t know (is more likely what I did say).

Therapist: Fat is a physical state; and you either are or are not fat. You need to ignore your own perception and trust me when I tell you that you are not fat.

Dana: Yes but fat is also a relative term. I feel fat now compared to what I once weighed. Therefore, relatively I feel fat.

Flash forward 10 years, and I weigh in at about 50 pounds heavier than when I previously felt “fat.” The interesting note: I have lots of days when instead of feeling “fat” I feel “normal” or “healthy.” So what’s changed? Most notably it is my perception of what is considered healthy in addition to the fact that I no longer need to use my body nor my weight as a tool for self-expression. I now recognize anorexia for what it is: a disease that distorts perceptions. I recognize extreme thinness as a symptom of the disorder. In the past, I didn’t even recognize my physical condition as a problem that needed correcting. I was healthy I thought, my life was under control and my body reflected that. If I were to gain weight, to give up the disorder, all the calm feelings would leave and my life would be in chaos.

Today I see my body less as a statement of how I am feeling and more as a source of strength, a vehicle to get me to where I am going, and only a small fraction of who I am as a person. With so many more things defining my life, I don’t rely on my body to determine my self-esteem or self-worth or to serve as a temporary fix. Today when I feel “fat” I know it’s because something else in my life is grating on my patience and my body becomes an easy target for expressing my dissatisfaction.

As much as I hate to say it, my therapist was probably right. By calling myself fat and focusing on my appearance I avoided the real issue, which often felt out of my control or too large to tackle. Losing 5 pounds, that I could handle. Resolving the anger and sadness that were building in my head, not quite as easy. Luckily I realize all this now and can act as stand in therapist when the girl I see in the mirror starts to tell me I feel fat. I now look at her and repeat: “fat isn’t a feeling Dana, why not try telling me how you really feel.”

May 2017
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