After following many, many conventional paths to weight loss—and failing at them—I’ve forged my own path and found success. Here are a few bits of my unconventional methodology:
1. I cut out tv. That’s right–we don’t have cable or network tv at all. In fact, we no longer even own a tv, though we’ll occasionally watch a dvd on one of our laptops. To be clear, I didn’t give up tv thinking it would help me lose weight; we cut out cable when we were paying off debt and needed our cable bill money going towards that. But not having tv has been great for my weight loss and self-image.
It’s not uncommon for someone to say to me, “It’s amazing how much you get done.” While I don’t really think it’s amazing when I compare myself to any of the parents I know (my time is largely my own!), I can tell you that cutting out tv has given me a huge amount of free time to pursue other interests/needs: exercising, grocery planning, cooking, reading, writing, holding discussions with my husband.
On top of that bounty of free time, not having tv keeps me from being a pawn in advertisers’ games. Occasionally a new food craze will hit blogs via commercials, and weight-loss bloggers will write about the temptation of buying that highly advertised food. Meanwhile, I’m in a state of absolutely ignorant bliss about that temptation. Let’s be clear: marketers know how to tempt you, and they are evermore tweaking their pitches to make them even more tempting. They generally do not have your best interest at heart; they just want you to buy their products. And teach your children to buy.
Other than the temptation of ooey, gooey, or crispity, crunchety, high-fat foods, advertising also often teaches us we should be feeling bad about ourselves. When I caught daytime tv for the first time in a long time a few weeks ago while getting my car fixed, I was shocked and appalled at the brute force that the advertising uses now to make watchers think their teeth are too yellow, they’re too fat, they need the latest thing to be cool, etc. Emotionally, who needs that? Getting away from the flickering visual/audio draw of advertising has been a boon.
On top of all those television issues, I’ve gradually realized how highly sensitive I am not just to other people’s emotions, but also to the emotional inducements of media, as well. If I watch the 6 p.m. news, I’ll feel the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and there’s nothing I can do about the events except sink into a depression about it. If I watch a very tense crime drama, I become tense and anxious. If I watch a show about the latest fashion trends, I begin to think how fuddy-duddy everything in my closet looks. If I watch a hip comedy, I begin to feel my life isn’t exciting enough. (And, you know, it’s actually hard to make it more exciting if my methodology is to watch other people’s fictional lives on tv in lieu of taking action in my own life.) That’s not to say no tv is worthwhile, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasional, pure, glorious escapism, but much of what is on tv sets me up for artificial environmental states that aren’t healthy for me, and for that reason, I’m better off without having tv in my house.
2. I keep plenty of luscious foods in the house. When I started this self-care process at the beginning of 2007, I read about the biology of human beings and how the most basic part of our brains includes a focus on feast or famine. We are wired to think we should eat a lot when we can, because to our ancient brain, there could always be a famine around the corner where we’ll need to have stored those extra calories to survive. Certainly, there are still plenty of parts of our world where people experience that situation; but for those of us fortunate to live in a land of plenty, we generally don’t need to store up or we’ll be in a continual, unhealthy storage process of weight gain. Following this thinking, many people on diets don’t keep tempting foods in their houses. I understand the validity of what they’re thinking by keeping only healthy foods around them, and I used to think the same way. However, the flip side of the feast/famine issue is that when our bodies think we’re in a famine time, they’ll push us even harder to eat eat eat and forage for more. I’ve found that if I have a craving for a particular food, if I tell myself to ignore the craving and avoid that food, my mind becomes very focused (sometimes to the point of obsessed) with that food. But if I stop and remind myself of all the various places in my house and in the city of Atlanta I can get that type of food any time I want, my mind tends to calm down and drop the subject. The ancient part of my brain, which had been thinking, “Famine! Eat! Go find that food now!” accepts that there is no famine after all, and that I can feast any time I want. For that reason, I’m able (and willing) to keep unhealthy foods in my house; I know that not only will those foods not generally tempt me to overeat, but they may actually help me avoid overeating! Strange but true.
3. I added elements of my approach gradually. I used to think this weight loss thing was all or nothing. You’re in, or you’re out. You’re losing that extra fat, or you’re (sucker!) maintaining or gaining. As I’ve written previously, that’s how I tend to approach a lot of life, really: I either tend to be entirely devoted to something or disinterested in it. But when I started approaching my health from a self-care perspective, I realized that pounding myself into a weight-losing, exercising machine from day 1 probably wasn’t the most loving approach I could take. (Plus, um, I’d tried it about a hundred times before, and every time, it fell apart.) This time around, I started making some key switches in my diet—gradually. While I initially took control of my diet with some great steps–upping my veggie intake, decreasing my fat intake, decreasing my sugar load, switching to salad plates for meals, etc.—I started taking a daily walk, but that was it for exercise. Any more than that, and I would have overloaded myself, failed, and given up. Once my eating was on track, I aimed to take small steps like parking far from the grocery store, carrying my groceries in my arms or in a basket, taking stairs instead of elevators, etc. A couple of months after that, I added learning to run (through Couch to 5k) three days a week. Then I had to learn to deal with my food allergies and intolerances after those diagnoses, which took a chunk of energy. Once I had begun coping with that situation reasonably well, I focused on adding life activities that aren’t necessarily linked to food or exercise but give me pleasure and satisfaction, like the photography class I took. Then I increased my exercise to include weeks with four to six days of work-outs (though I still have weeks I do three days, which is fine by me). Taking this gradual process has certainly made for slower weight loss than I would have experienced if I could have stuck to an all-or-nothing, hard-core plan. But I could actually cope with the changes by taking them gradually, which meant I could stick with them. If you’d told me two years ago slow and easy would win this race, I would’ve scoffed, but today I’m my own living proof.
4. I become the Watcher. I love Martha Beck, who writes a montly guide column in O Magazine. Martha almost always makes me laugh in recognition of myself in what she writes. In January or February of ’07, Martha’s column in O was about giving ourselves empathy by doing a crazy-feeling little exercise where you toss the self-loathing comments you usually hurl at yourself in the weight loss process, and you instead offer yourself the same type of empathy you would offer someone you love who was in that situation. (Hey, love the Internets! You can read the column here). The first time I performed the exercise, I felt nutty talking to myself in dual (and dualing) voices at the same time. But I saw its potential in my body’s reaction, and I continued to do it. These days, the more empathetic voice is generally the first one to respond to difficult emotions or experiences that I encounter; and on the occasions that the abusive voice pipes in first, I can usually think to stop myself and offer myself the loving-kindness I (and all humans) deserve instead. My perspective flips; the right actions become easier, and I feel much better. This is one of the skills I’ve acquired that I most look forward to passing down to any children Dan and I may eventually have, because it’s been so important to me.
5. I don’t count anything or forbid anything (well, except my allergens and intolerances, and I could eat them, too, if I wanted to be sick). In previous diets, I counted . . . let’s see: calories, Weight Watchers points, carbs, and fat grams. (And ones I’m forgetting?) I restricted myself to particular types of carbs. I eliminated sugar. (I ate a whole lot of fake sugar; I made myself sick with fake sugar.) By the beginning of 2007, when I knew I had to do a better job of taking care of myself, I was absolutely sick and tired of obsessively counting things or restricting things and not gaining any long-term success from doing so. Eventually, when I was counting, I’d get really hungry and I’d eat more than the allowance; then I’d give up. Or I’d go from avoiding potatoes to loading up on potatoes, and I’d give up. By the beginning of 2007, I had read at least 30 books on weight loss and tried a variety of techniques, and while I certainly gained nutritional knowledge from a good number of them (not all), none of the techniques worked for me long-term.
To be clear, the National Weight Loss Registry (which tracks people who have lost significant weight and kept it off for a year or more) says that over 80% of people who lose weight and maintain the loss do so by using careful tracking. I’m not knocking counting, if counting is what works for a person. But by the beginning of 2007, I was so bored with counting that I made a pact with myself: I would take care of myself by eating right, developing exercise habits, and paying attention to my emotional needs, and if I managed to lose weight that way, I would never make myself do counts for weight loss again. On the other hand, if I tried picking healthy foods with no counting but did not begin to lose weight, or if my weight loss stagnated on my path long-term, I would require myself to take up counting again at that point. Somehow, that deal with myself was a huge motivation for me, and when it started working, I was ecstatic. When it continued to work, I realized that as long as I kept self-care as a core value, and as long as I kept learning about nutrition over the course of my life, I could achieve and maintain a healthy weight with no more tracking.
It was a watershed for me, really, and it’s continued to be. It’s been so freeing and so fulfilling to realize that I can trust myself to learn to take care of myself while—to be clear—getting great input from others, but while not having anyone tell me exactly what to do or not do. I am fully capable of taking care of myself: that’s been a pivotal lesson and one that I think is generally lacking in our society.
6. I buy groceries only at the farmer’s market and natural foods stores. Want to know how to avoid that tempting Halloween chocolate (or, in my husband’s case, candy corns)? In addition to not watching the tv shows where the candy’s advertised so heavily, I don’t shop in the stores that sell it. My husband and I went into Walmart today for the first time in about three years, and I was shocked by the aisles and aisles of fattening, mostly low quality (but still appealing!) chocolate and HFCS and artificial colors up for grabs for Halloween. I don’t see that stuff when I’m grocery shopping where I shop, and I generally don’t think about it. Where I shop, if chocolate is available, it tends to be organic, fair-trade, and pricey. One bar of really high-quality chocolate costs me what a fun bag of Hershey’s minatures might cost. Every bite of the high-quality chocolate is incredible and satisfying, and I get more bang for my caloric buck that way. Shopping in Walmart today, my mind (as yours is probably trained to do) went, “Ooooooh! CANDY!” I just kept walking and avoided the sugar siren song, but I would have been more tempted if I weren’t allergic to a lot of that stuff. It’s easier to not see it at all than to see it and be tempted by it.
These haven’t been the only elements of my self-care or even just weight-loss process, but they are things that fall outside the American mainstream, and they’ve been core to my development as a confident, capable, healthier person.