Taking the full measure of life

Review of the Year

December 17th, 2007 · 10 Comments

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Well, the bad news is that I’m still sick. This was Day of Near Silence #2 while I tried to rest my throat. Thank God for writing.

But the weekend was certainly not a total wash.

The good news is that I have hit a thirty pound loss this year. Early this weekend, I first weighed in at 173.4 pounds. What a journey this year has been! With how my weight loss started at the beginning of the year, I wasn’t sure if my plan would really work. Then I thought I was going to fly through every pound I wanted to lose. Then I got a bit anxious, for a little while, that my losing wasn’t going to pick up again. Then I settled in to a healthy, sustainable loss of about .5 pounds a week. You can see the trajectory of my weight loss this year in the nifty graph that ExtraPounds.com creates for me. (I don’t use any of the pay features, but I love the free weight loss tracker.)


I started out the year–it actually was not a new year’s resolution, though with the timing it sounds like it was; it was just that’s when I had a break from work to think–telling myself that I wouldn’t follow any specific diet plan like Weight Watchers or South Beach. If they work for you, that’s great–but for me, having an externally designated diet is just asking for me to rebel against that diet. I realized that if I really wanted a life-long approach to health, I had to learn to take care of myself in the long-term. I realized that I had to develop a solid, appreciative relationship to healthy foods–to vegetables not drowned in fat and dairy; to lean, preferably vegetarian sources of protein; to fruits not smothered in carbs; to healthy varieties and servings of carbohydrates. I didn’t need to count anything in particular; I needed to listen to my body about how much it was really hungry for, feed it mostly healthy foods, and stop once I started feeling satisfied. (Oh, and I wasn’t going to serve different foods to my husband, either, not that he would ask me to: this wife/mom-draining-herself-making-multiple-meals-while-she-tries-to-get- healthier thing doesn’t fly with me. Everyone can use tasty, healthier eating–kids, spouses, guests, etc. All of those people are at risk of being unhealthy; all of them are at risk of developing diseases from not taking care of themselves. If I had a spouse who wouldn’t go along with a healthier lifestyle, we’d have a serious talk where I’d lay the smack down. And then if he didn’t back down, I’d say, “Great, you get to make your own dinner if you don’t want to eat mine.” Many women spend too much time bending over backwards to others’ desires. But back to the primary point . . .)

I also realized that I had to take care of myself emotionally–to avoid that catch-all ’emotional eating,’ but not by just telling myself “don’t eat when there’s an emotional root”–it takes more than that. I realized I had to offer my body empathy instead of anger when it’s confused. That’s a very counterintuitive one to do, because we are often taught that when we find ourselves having cravings, it means that we are lacking in willpower. Lacking in willpower=your shortcoming, your flaw, which for many of us =way you aren’t good enough: that’s a painful chain of thinking.

We aren’t lacking in willpower; we’re often lacking in an understanding of what it is our bodies are doing. For me, with false cravings, it’s been a two-fold thing. First, I do get cravings when my body is merely confusing one need for another. If I fight the craving and berate myself for having it, I only want the item more. If I go give in to the craving, I may find myself eating, say, a whole bag of chips or a whole candy bar when that’s really not what I want. So I offer myself empathy instead. “Hey, body, you know how you want that candy bar all of a sudden? Well, it’s not really a time of day you need food, and I know you’re very confused right now, so let’s try to figure out what it might be you want instead.” Calmly, lovingly thinking this way made me feel nutty at first, a bit like Stuart Smalley. But it actually worked, and eventually, my mind started kicking in and doing a bit of the work for me in advance; now, I can usually pinpoint what it is I actually want pretty quickly. Then I go do it, right away. Bored and need a break from work? Leave for the bookstore for a few minutes. Tired? Take a nap. Emotionally needy? Go curl up in my husband’s lap and hug him. Angry? Call a friend to vent. If I eat something when I have one of these other needs, I still have the need, and I regret eating something I didn’t really want and that really served no purpose but extra calories. (These days, if I slip up and eat something instead of fulfilling the real emotional need, I just accept it and move on. But it took me breaking the emotional cycle to be able to have my slip-up be the exception and not the norm!)

Second, I read a very interesting study that said that our bodies are wired, from humans’ long history over time, to think we are in a time of famine rather than a time of feast. For most of us living in the middle class in industrialized nations, that’s not true; we are in a time of abundance of food (especially high-calorie food). Nonetheless, our bodies see/hear/smell/envision some tasty, high-calorie treat, and suddenly, we want that treat. The desire for that treat is actually a form of self-preservation–or so our bodies think. “Take it! Eat it now! You might not get another one any time soon!” The study stated that our bodies will actually create hunger pangs–even in formerly full people–as a way of convincing the person to go consume and store the extra calories in case a famine arrived. (Those of us who grew up in large families, like I did, can also probably recognize that reaction to a treat, too, because as children, if we didn’t take it and eat it now, one of our siblings probably would!) The truth is, though, we are adults now, and there is a bounty of food around us. Following the study’s information, I started doing something counterintuitive. When I had a craving, I would think of every kind of treat around me; for example, if I was suddenly craving chocolate, I would think of every chocolate treat in my house, every chocolate treat in my neighborhood, every chocolate treat in Atlanta. Envisioning this land of plenty around me, surprisingly, actually worked to dull my craving so that I could go about my day. (I have to tell you, too, that getting rid of television and shopping primarily with my CSA and at natural foods stores have both been instrumental in getting rid of cravings. TV ads are set up to make us desire what they showcase, and a lot of that stuff is unhealthy food; and typical grocery stores set up each aisle to draw us toward high-profit, low-health foods. More on that later.)

Usually, one of those two methods have helped shut down cravings. Once, maybe last February or March, I got a craving for a really good cupcake after reading an article about the best cupcakes in Atlanta. I tried my two tricks. Neither worked; since I had started my taking-care-of-myself experiment, it was the first time a craving for an unhealthy food had just not gone away at all.  I just sat on the craving until the weekend. I still wanted a cupcake when the weekend came, so I went out to one of those restaurants and had a really fabulous cupcake. It was so fulfilling to eat it after I had been thinking about it off and on for a week. It was a real treat–which is, after all, what sugary, high-fat foods are supposed to be. That taught me something about how positive delayed gratification can be.

It’s funny for me to look back to the beginning of the year, because I honestly didn’t know if my no-counting, trusting-myself, no-extensive-plan, dealing-with-emotions, having-an-occasional-treat lifestyle would work to have me lose weight.  I didn’t know if I could take care of myself without external controls–which is a bit sad, when you think about it. I told myself at the beginning of the year that for the sake of myself, something had to give. I couldn’t keep weighing such a high weight. Then I promised myself that if I could lose weight the thoughtful but painless way–that is, by just taking care of myself–that I would not go on a counting plan of any sort. I told myself that if my weight climbed again, I would have go on a specific plan–something that is anathema to me now. Of course, now I know that my plan worked. And, gosh, seriously? It’s been so much easier than any other diet plan I’ve ever done. It’s entirely different. I don’t talk a lot about it with my friends, or with the people who see me now after a year or more and go, “Whoa! You must not be able to eat anything anymore to have lost that much weight so quickly”–they think it’s all b/c of my food restrictions), because I can’t exactly define what flipped in my head and my heart. When people ask me if I’m dieting, I say, “No, I’m just making a real effort to take care of myself.”  But the confidence I have developed about being in control of the future of my health has been awesome. Am I losing the weight really quickly? Hell, no. If I stay on the current path, it will be another . . . 46 weeks before I reach my goal. 46 weeks for 23 pounds! However, I know I can keep losing for now, and I know I can maintain the loss without exerting a lot of extra effort. I certainly have never, never been able to say that before. And I have not been my current weight since my freshman year of college.

In January, I started walking, just to get myself moving (really, so that I could eat more calories and still lose!), and in March, I started Couch to 5k.  I took a break in the summer, and in the fall, I started up running again.  Now I–the person who could never run .25 miles at all–run 1-mi fast runs on my ‘off’ days and 3-mi or a bit more on my long days. (And I love those short runs–I love being able to run like a kid on a playground again. A year ago, I would never have guessed I’d be in that type of shape now.)

I may be making it sound like this process has been easier than it has. This year, as I stated, it really has been fairly easy. Because I allow myself occasional treats, because I’ve focused on taking care of me, because I’ve spent a chunk of energy figuring out how to make healthy foods taste delicious, this year my life has been set up for success. But to be really forthright with you about the whole process (the process by which I am down over 55 pounds total), I suppose I should back up a bit and say these things:

1. I had estrogen-linked ovarian cancer when I was 22-23. My doctors told me food had nothing to do with it, but it turns out that most doctors get little to no training about nutrition in medical school. My cancer doctors were both very compassionate men and skilled surgeons, but they were dead wrong when it comes to nutrition. It does play a role. I started researching it, and as I healed, I started changing the way I eat. Having a major disease–will I live through next year? will I have a surgery every year of my life?–will scare you like little else, and I was motivated. I was also fascinated. Reading up on food and cancer led me down a rabbit hole to being much more environmentally conscious in general. If I eat ‘conventional’ corn, even if I wash it off well, where does all that estrogen-mimicking pesticide go? (Oh, in the drinking water?) If I throw away all this junk I own, where does it end up? What happens to the chemicals from the landfills? What happens when we breathe the chemicals from the power plants? What about eating the cows that eat the heavy chemicals that fall out of the air from the power plants? What about breathing car exhaust? I started eating organic food. Then I started eating locally produced, chemical-free food even if it’s not certified organic. (I can ask the farmers when I shop from them directly.) Then I started recycling a lot. Then I started reducing what I buy. Then I started buying more from local merchants. Etc. As far as food goes, in the process, I learned these things:

a) locally produced, chemical/pesticide-free food is wayyyy tastier than stuff that’s been shipped from California, or Chile, or New Zealand (local, fresh salad leaves are amazing, especially butter lettuce);
b) the closer I eat to the stuff that’s come out of the ground, the healthier the food is, and the healthier I am;
c) the bovine growth hormone that I consumed in large quantities in my ‘conventional’ milk (I was a 3-glasses-per-day girl) almost certainly contributed to my tumor growth, and there are better ways to have strong bones than drinking milk (all those people in Africa and Asia–who don’t get osteoporosis like Americans? They don’t drink lots of milk). In fact, I have the bones of an older woman, unfortunately, so I’m direct proof that milk alone does not make for strong bones (do take calcium supplements now); and
d) even fairly moderate meat consumption is a great way to encourage the growth of various cancers, and to develop heart disease, arteriosclerosis, and high blood pressure.

There are a lot of people who have studied cancer and diet way, way more extensively than I have.  If you want a clinical resource, visit the American Institute for Cancer Research.  And if you want to get into the deeper stuff, you could start with Meg Wolff’s blog.

But in a nutshell, I increased my vegetable intake, aiming for most of my meals to be 2/3 vegetables. (I only succeed part of the time.) I cut out meat, becoming vegetarian at home–though that had to end for my sanity’s sake when I could no longer eat eggs, cow dairy, soy, and some nuts due to allergies.  Now I eat vegetarian at home about 70 percent of the time.   I switched to organic for all dairy products except for the occasional special cheese.  I started buying only pesticide-free, growth-hormone-free meats.  I also, as a side note, started buying from local sources where I knew that the animals were raised to live the lives they were intended.  Some animal rights activists say that it doesn’t matter how you raise an animal if you just kill it to consume it in the end.  I disagree; I think my quality of life certainly matters even though I’ll die some day, and I believe the same holds true for animals.  In the typical sense, I do not claim to be an animal rights activist; but as a decent human being, I want to know, if I consume an animal, that the nourishment it is offering me has been honored by allowing it to live a decent life before it died. Unfortunately, even the ‘organic’ label doesn’t mean that.  Buying from local sources that pasture animals and follow healthier growing practices can mean that. For deep coverage of this interesting issue, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation.

Oh, and–ick–that e.coli everyone is so worried about?  It’s wayyyy more common in beef in the U.S. than anything else we consume; that’s because slaughter practices that are permitted in the U.S. allow a certain amount of cow feces to get into the meat.  Lovely, right? If that won’t put you off beef for a while, I don’t know what will. (If you don’t believe me, read the aforementioned books. I was horrified, too.  It’s well-documented, though.)

2. Because of various issues–including, I think, my undiagnosed food allergies and atypical celiac disease–I had occasional bad colon pain  and had developed interstitial cystitis, a condition where the vulnerable interior of the bladder has become exposed to harsh elements.  You know how it feels when you get lemon juice on a papercut?  Imagine that in big splotches in your bladder.  Yeah, not fun.  So I had to cut out acidic foods, including those really acidic drinks–coffee, regular tea, and colas.  Know what’s worse, acid-wise, than a Coke? A Diet Coke.  Or any sweet thing that uses artificial sweeteners, actually. So I cut those out about two years ago–all artificial sweeteners.  And corn syrup, too, not because of the acid but because I realized it did crazy things to the way I felt.  And after two years of not having artificial sweeteners (which I used to drink in huge volumes), I think my body is finally righting itself so that it recognizes when I’m satisfied from sweet things. (Fortunately, I can have small amounts of acidic things now that I’ve healed some.  The food allergy/celiac diagnosis made a big difference, and I also credit Dr. Jenelle Foote in Atlanta for her excellent treatment.)
3. I don’t own a tv anymore.  Honestly, it was an organic process, though people find that hard to believe.  When I started dating my husband, I spent time talking to him rather than watching tv. (We both agreed, as it was, that it seemed dangerous to us to have one in the bedroom–too easy to avoid each other if we could just watch a screen instead of interacting.) I was trying to get rid of debt, so I cut off my cable entirely; besides the money I saved, I felt like watching tv was taking energy I could spend on making my own life exciting and fulfilling.  When my husband and I moved into our current apartment, we laid out the furniture as we wanted it, and neither of us thought to leave space for the tv.  So instead of finding a place for it, we gave it away.   In the process, I freed up more time for writing, exercising, making dinner, etc.  I rarely miss the tv shows, and I certainly do not miss the enticement of ads to spendSpendSPEND and eatEatEAT!  Please don’t misunderstand me, though; we’re one couple of very few people we know who’ve given up tv, so I know it’s not for everyone.  But I do want to include it in this post, because I do think giving it up has helped me be a more active, less marketing-vulnerable person. (Yes, it’s true–despite my husband getting a Ph.D. in computer science and loving electronic gadgets of all sorts, we’ll be that couple with the kids who are desperate to go watch MTV at their friends’ houses.  We’re okay with that.) Oh, and I do love some good movies, too–I saw Atonement (adored it!) and The Golden Compass (just okay) last weekend–so I don’t mean to imply I’m immune to a good, powerful show. I’m not.

All in all, these have been pretty dramatic changes in my life.  But I didn’t try to plunge into all of them all at once–not even close.  It has been, and continues to be, a gradual process where I learn more about myself and learn to live a life that is more true and more loving over time.  Some of this would work well for some other people, and some might not.  I am very fallible, and some days–my bad days–I feel like I have little of worth to share with the world or to blog about.  But altogether, I have to say I am thrilled to have learned that I can, in fact, trust myself to take care of my body.  Bad times for my body will come at some points–it’s inevitable, and I seem more inclined than many–but I know that I can and will do what I am able to be the more complete, capable person I am becoming.

P.S. We have to do a new, 173-pound portrait when I am feeling better, but I finally added some pics to my ‘photographic evidence’ section you can click on to the right, so now you can actually see my transition over time!

Tags: celebrations & holidays · fruits of my labor · non-scale victories · on the soapbox · running just as fast as we can · winter

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Meg Wolff // Dec 18, 2007 at 7:37 am

    Hi Sally,
    I love this post … what a GREAT article this would make for an even larger audience. You should submit it to Oprah Magazine. I thought of Oprah because I once heard her talk about her emotional eating and she said similar things.

    Vegetarian Times would be a good one too. You could help SO many people on a number of levels.

    I loved the part about television … I rarely watch it ( sorry Oprah, I only watch occasionally). But, last night I turned it on briefly and watched the many adds between small segments of program. It made me feel crazy. I thought boy I am a light-weight … I’ve really checked out from a lot of this toxic crap just by turning off the TV. But, like you a nice movie once in a while is very relaxing.

    Sounds like you have had a great year of learning from YourSelf! Fantastic story!!

  • 2 Fatinah // Dec 18, 2007 at 7:47 am

    interesting post.

  • 3 Roxie // Dec 18, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    Wonderful post – your story is very inspirational. It’s amazing how weight loss stories are not really about the scales, but growth.

  • 4 Ricki // Dec 18, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Wow. Totally inspiring. I came to my computer feeling down because my weight loss just hasn’t been happening as I’d envisioned it, and I’ve been craving “bad” foods. Read your post, and I’m re-charged and ready to get back at it! Thanks, Sally, and CONGRATULATIONS

  • 5 Ricki // Dec 18, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    (oops–pressed “submit” by mistake!).

    As I was saying–congratulations on an amazing achievement! And being a role model for the rest of us!

  • 6 Jenn // Dec 20, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Sally, this is another wonderful post. I’m going to print it out and add it to your “opportunity cost” post hanging from my bulletin board. 🙂 I have been on a path very similar to yours for the last several years, though of course it is all a work in progress for me, too. It’s so nice to read your blog and get re-energized about the things I really care about. You help keep me on the right track. I’m so lucky to have a person like you in my life!

  • 7 Grumpy Chair // Dec 20, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    Congratulations Sally on your 30 pound loss. Wishing you the same kind of success in 2008!

    Happy holidays to you and your spouse.

  • 8 Kate // Dec 24, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Congratulations on the weight loss, Sally!

    And may your health return quickly =)

    I really enjoyed reading this post – I like your style, girl!


  • 9 Lori W. // Dec 27, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Sally, I’m catching up on blogs but this was a fantastic and wonderful post. You’ve probably have motivated a lot of people to take a hard look at their habits as I know you’ve inspired me to work harder on my food choices. Your “diet” is a very sensible way to live and it’s a way I want.

    I hope you’re feeling better by now and had a great holiday and some time off. Thanks again and I agree with the first poster — you should submit this as an article.

  • 10 Betsy // Dec 30, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    I’m a long-time lurker and I love love your blog. Your level-headedness about, well, everything is really inspiring. I’ve recently made it a goal to eat healthier and more locally–a goal I’ve made and abandoned before. But this time, I plan to be easier on myself. Being the perfectionist I am, I usually give up if I don’t do something religiously–which I never do–but your discussion in this and past posts of not trying to be perfect, of not beating yourself up has really helped me realize the uselessness of berating myself. I don’t have to eat healthy or buy locally *all* of the time, but the more and more I make the effort to incorporate these things into my life, the better I’ll feel. Your attitude about life reminds me of something I once read somewhere: “You can’t win and you can’t lose. You don’t just say, ‘Well, since I am never able to do it, I’m not going to try.’ You are never able to do it and still you try. And, interestingly enough, that adds up to something.”

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking blog!

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