Thursday, October 8, 2009

Morgie's Ten Weight Loss Truths

I have been a normal weight for most of my life thus far. At various times, I might have been ten to fifteen pounds above or below my set point, but I was never in the overweight category or even near it. If I wanted to slim down a bit, it was easy to do. I just went to Weight Watchers for a couple of months and once I was paying attention and working out, the weight dropped.

When I hit my late thirties/early forties, things changed.  Without getting into the personal details, I lost three people who were very significant in my life in the space of about four years, became depressed, recovered, had two kids.  By the beginning of the 21st century, I found myself up about 50 pounds and unable to lose the weight.  Until now.

I felt I’d tried everything, but in truth, I hadn’t. It took some experimentation to find a formula that worked for me, but it appears that at last I have. By combining elements of three different programs and 50-90 minutes of exercise a day, I appear to have hit a sweet spot.  Since July I have been losing weight at the rate of about one to two pounds per week. 

Though I've still got work to do, I feel confident for the first time that I can get there.  Confident enough to offer ten basic truths about my experience. If they sound harsh, it’s because they are. I believe it's because I have accepted them as truths and am working with them instead of fighting against them that I have the right mind set to succeed.

Before I start, let me say my only association with the programs and products mentioned is that I tried them at one time or another.  Indeed, I have no credentials as an expert in this field, and no connection to the weight loss, nutrition or fitness industry, other than as a participant.  So why should you listen to me?  No reason at all, other than that I've been there.  And perhaps that those who are credentialed have a vested interest in making everything seem easy, quick and painless.  I am here to tell you that weight loss is none of those things.  The one thing it is, though, is worth the difficulty, time and pain.

Here are my ten truths.

It is hard.

Just look at the numbers on the obese nation the United States has become. If it was easy, everyone would be thin and healthy. Realize that anything that suggests otherwise is either snake oil or ignorance. Don’t spend money on anything that promises easy weight loss. It’s throwing your cash away. (If you are just dying to throw your cash away, I have a PayPal account that will gladly accept it.)

It takes a long time.

There is no quick fix. It is much harder to lose than to gain. I can gain ten pounds in a day or two, but it takes me a good six weeks of hard work and sacrifice to lose that much. At the risk of stating the obvious, how long it takes depends on how much you have to lose. In my case, I found that after I lost the first 20 pounds, the weight loss sped up a bit. I have no idea why. Perhaps I just became better at the process, perhaps my metabolism got revved up a bit, perhaps a combination, perhaps none of the above. But it is still a long process, unless you can leave your job, your family, and your life to go focus on only weight loss for months and months. Even then, it will take months and months.  Maybe even years and years.  That money you were going to spend on something that promises quick weight loss?  PayPal.

It hurts.

You will be hungry, even to the point of nausea. You will have headaches. You will have sore muscles and painful joints. You will feel psychologically beaten up, deprived, and angry. In my experience, any diet or “lifestyle change” that assures you none of these things will happen isn’t going to work. What does work is acknowledging the pain and pushing through it.

One day, I decided not to eat when I was hungry to the point of nausea, just to see what would happen. It wasn’t time for me to eat, and if I did I’d be in trouble with my Weight Watchers points for the rest of the day. Guess what? It got worse and I felt crappy. But I didn’t throw up, and after about half an hour the feeling passed and I just felt "normal" hunger again. (It took me two years to get the guts even to try this because I have a phobia about vomiting.) After about two weeks of pushing through the nausea-inducing hunger, I stopped getting extremely hungry except when I’m really late for a meal or snack. Or premenstrual.  And then, it is "normal" hunger.

Another example. About a month ago, I went out to eat with my family and another family. The mom, who is one of my closest friends in California, is tall and thin, and though I don't know for sure, I gather she has never been overweight. She ordered deep fried onion rings among other things I would have loved to eat. She does this a lot. Chocolate Belgian waffle at brunch, mud pie type dessert at dinner.  (Of course, I only noticed this when I stopped doing it myself.)  I ordered a salad with chicken breast (and immediately cut the block of feta that came with it in half and discarded half to avoid overeating). She then proceeded to say she thought that a lot of people on The Biggest Loser intentionally gained weight to go on the show, and how she thought she could gain and lose 100 pounds pretty easily, though gaining would be hard.

Despite the fact that she’s one of my closest friends and I know she didn’t mean to push my buttons, I got pissed and snapped something ridiculous like "do you have proof of that?" at her, though it didn't seem ridiculous at the time.  There she was eating her deep fried food and talking about how hard it would be to gain weight and how easy to lose it, while I was being virtuous and suffering. Plus, if she’d ever been obese, she would know that the last thing someone who is obese wants to do is gain.  If you can't take off the weight you already have, it's not going to seem a good idea to try to take off even more. Particularly with $250K at stake. I mean, maybe it does happen.  I have no idea.  But my guess is not so much, unless the entire show is reality in name only and hires actor-poseurs to play the contestants.

In any case, my point is that even silly discussions with your closest friends can hit a sore spot when you're vulnerable from the weeks of hard work, soreness, and deprivation.  I had to acknowledge that it was sheer envy over those damn onion rings and that she doesn't have a weight problem that got a hold of me there for a minute in my weakened state.  I pushed through it, and come out the other side with the realization that it was my problem, not hers -- and feeling pretty ashamed about the whole thing.

It is not a panacea.

The man who doesn’t love you won’t start loving you just because you lost weight (and if he does, he’s a dick). If your nose was too big to start with, losing weight won’t make it small. It might even look bigger now that your face is thinner. You will still have stresses and obstacles in your life, and you’ll still have to deal with them. And if you don’t have some basic self esteem already, losing weight won’t give it to you.

Don’t get me wrong. Losing weight improves health and well-being, enables you to wear nicer clothes and look better in them, and avoids institutional discrimination and interpersonal nastiness based on weight. It removes one reason to be unhappy, and the better health, well-being and appearance that result can all help build self-confidence. There are a lot of great reasons to do it. But it won’t solve all your problems, and, by itself, losing weight will not make you happy. So don’t think it will.

It requires more exercise than you’ve been led to believe.

Seems like every time I turn around there’s a new headline about how little exercise you can get away with and still get health benefits.  I believed the ones that said you only needed about 30 minutes a day to lose weight.  But my body doesn’t see results on that amount of exercise. My body needs to exercise for at least 50 minutes a day to see results. If I don’t see results, I am not motivated to continue. In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.   I now feel vindicated, because apparently that moderate exercise recommendation has been re-thunk.  It turns out you need to exercise more than you've been led to believe.

Also, you will need to sweat. Your exercise will have to be intense, not comfortable. Comfortable doesn’t make visible changes in your body, and after a point, it doesn’t increase your fitness level either. You must pant, you must push, you must groan. No pain, no gain. Truly.

Finally, if like me you’re not an exercise addict, you will need to find a motivator. I like weight loss television and Internet sites for this lately, but magazines and books can be great as well. And you will need to get to know yourself pretty well. I know that if I don’t exercise for more than one day, it is exponentially harder for me to get out there on day three. So I have been trying to avoid more than a day without getting to the gym or out for a run. On those days, I try to walk 10,000 steps, even if it takes doing donuts around the house to top off the pedometer at the end of the day. Then I can tell myself I exercised, and I keep my motivation up.

It requires more willpower than you've been led to believe.

I’ve tried a lot of different diets, and what drives me nuts about a lot of them, even the sensible ones like Weight Watchers, is the propaganda that goes something like this: you can eat your favorite foods! You can eat our delicious low calorie [fill in the brand name here] ice cream treats! You can eat as much as you want of X, Y or Z! You’ll feel full and satisfied and willpower will be taken out of the equation!

Bollocks. No, I can’t eat my favorite foods. If I do indulge in the miniscule portion that is permitted, even if I eat it so slowly that it ends up being over a period of three hours, I will not be satisfied. It will merely whet my appetite and I’ll want to eat until it's gone, and then eat some more. And why in the world would I want to waste my calories on diet sweets that don’t taste nearly as good as they look? What’s the point? Eating as much as you want of anything is just a bad idea. It perpetuates the main problem most of us have, which is an inability to control portion sizes.

If you’re going to indulge, you will need to be able to stop and it will take a strong will to do so. There is no magic formula of other things you’re supposed to eat, drinking water, exercising first, that will make this easy.  If you have that sort of willpower, more (will)power to you. If you are like me, it takes about all the willpower you can muster just not to start down that path in the first place.

I anticipate that when I reach my goal, I will splurge from time to time. But for me, it is a derailment waiting to happen if I try to do this while I’m losing.

Yes, I’m going to be hungry, not full and satisfied a fair amount of the time. See truth three above.  I have to believe, though, that it is worth it.

It takes experimenting and willingness to try something different if what you’re doing is not working.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of plans, supplements, drugs and other things I’ve tried: Body for Life, The South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, The Road Back, Hoodia, Phentermine, Buns of Steel, Leptin Diet, Serotonin Power Diet. I even went to a couple of hospital-run programs designed to help with weight loss.  I learned some things in the process.

For me, low carb, high protein diets only work to a point. I can drop about fifteen pounds, but then I stall, mainly because I can't continue to lose eating the portions I'm eating, but I can't eat less because eating is the only thing that gives me energy.  I feel fatigued, and it makes working out unappealing.

Hoodia did nothing for me.  Phentermine enabled me to lose about twelve pounds without much effort, but it made me feel agitated, made my heart race, gave me insomnia, and sapped my energy. While I was taking it, there were times when I honestly thought I was going to die.  After a while, my body became immune to it and the weight loss stopped.  When I went off of it after about six months, I felt I’d been given a new lease on life.

What works for me has three parts to it.  First, I must eat a low fat diet with “good” carbs from grains, and a moderate amount of protein from sources other than dairy sources.  Second, I must control my portions.  Third, large quantities of fish oil tablets on a daily basis, CLA and vitamins seem to help, along with the aforementioned 50-90 minutes of exercise most days. I eat small amounts of fruit (one serving a day) and milk (about the same, unless you count what I put in my coffee or a tablespoon of parmesan cheese at dinner) and large amounts of vegetables. I do use real butter, but I only use a tablespoon a day at the most.

I track my food consumption religiously with the following exceptions: I don’t count the nonfat milk I put in my coffee, or the occasional bite of dessert or interesting looking snack one of the kids is having (more than a single bite and I’m past my willpower limit). I do still drink alcohol, but only wine (which is mostly what I drank before anyway) and no more than two glasses on the days I do drink, which is at most a couple of times a week these days if we go out to eat, and once in a blue moon if we don’t. I count the calories in the alcohol  toward my daily total. I do still drink Diet Coke; my consumption has even gone up. I'd probably be better off without it, but for now it doesn't seem to be impeding progress.

What works for me may not work for you. Again, it’s about finding that sweet spot. Just because the solution your best friend swears by makes you feel like crap does not mean you can’t find something that works. I'd stay away from things that promise results that seem too good to be true (if they do, they are), or involve primarily eating strange supplements, eating only a single type of food, eating in strange combinations or at strange times, drinking instead of eating, or avoiding a list of foods. All of these might as well be voodoo because they’re about as effective.

It must be a priority.

Weight loss this time around has been like a third job for me. I have the job that pays the bills, the job that raises children, and the job that loses weight.

It’s not just the time it takes to exercise. It’s the time it takes to go grocery shopping, which I hate. It’s the time it takes to cook, which I like sometimes, particularly if it is a social event.  But not if I feel it is required of me as a daily chore. It’s the time it takes to keep a food and exercise journal, and to pack up your gym bag to take to the office. It’s the time it takes to go to physical therapy when your knee starts to bother you from increasing your training. That doesn't leave a lot of time for hobbies, so I hope you aren't addicted to needlepoint.

It is scary.

I never had the classic weight loss worry, that I'd receive unwanted sexual attention.  It was never a problem when I was young and thin, unfortunately.  Now that I'm in my forties... well, let's just say "unwanted" doesn't really work in that sentence. I can't imagine anything more uplifting than feeling admired for the way I look.

My fears tend more toward the hypochondria spectrum.  They go like this:  "I’m losing weight. Me? But I couldn’t before. Something must be wrong.  That colleague of mine who died from pancreatic cancer lost weight.  A lot of weight.  Maybe I have cancer?"  Um, you’re dieting and exercising like a maniac, fool. Get over yourself.  Whatever your personal proclivities, it can be scary to lose weight.

There will be obstacles, frustrations and setbacks.  But in the end, it will be worth it.

My official weigh-in day for the week is Monday, and lately I've been noticing that I drop a pound or more about two days after I weigh in.  I briefly considered changing my weigh-in day, but then I had a vision of the drop showing up two days later anyway and myself endlessly chasing a better weigh-in around the calendar.  My point is that you may not lose every week, or as much as you want to every week.  I've had a couple of weeks where I stayed the same. Fortunately this time I haven't had any gains so far, but I know it can happen.

Something as normal as getting invited to a friend's for dinner, or having an all day meeting at work where they bring in food can seem like an obstacle to success.  Holidays, busy days, days where you just didn't plan it right and didn't get your workout in until it was late and you were too tired to do it -- these happen. 

My plan is to do the best I can without giving in entirely.  At a restaurant, I order the healthiest thing I can find, then cut the whole thing in half anyway.  I have the server pack up half for me to take home before I even start eating so I don't see it on or near my plate.  If I'm tired and the choice is between cooking in and eating out and I have food in the fridge, I pick cooking in then go to bed a little earlier than I would otherwise.  If I don't have time to do weights and aerobics back-to-back on my strength training days, I do the weights and come back to the aerobics later when I have more time.  If I'm at a function and I'm served something inconsistent with my diet, I try to eat just the parts that are consistent.  And if I eat at the high end of my calorie range one day, I try to eat at the low end the next.

The biggest obstacle I will have to face is maintenance.  By then the novelty of the diet and exercise will have worn off and I know I'll be wanting a cheeseburger and chocolate lava cake.  The positive reinforcement of the continued losses will be gone, and I'll have to figure out how to get jazzed by something as undramatic as not gaining. 

Then again, I'll have my old self back, and seeing her in the mirror again ought to be reinforcement enough.



mamawhelming said...

Nice post. I can use some motivation!

**Morgana** said...

Rah rah! Go! Just do it!