I recently heard a shocking statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 39.8 percent of the adult population in the US is now obese. Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of multiple health problems including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers and sleep disorders. We are in the midst of a national crisis.
Why are overweight and obesity rates increasing at such an alarming rate? The reasons are complicated and involve a tangled web of cultural, economic, emotional and spiritual factors (it would require an entire column and more to discuss). There was a time when I was obese and weighed 80 pounds more than I weigh now. Thinking back to this time when I was a teenager, it was far less common to be overweight. However, by today’s standards, eighty pounds of excess weight doesn’t even seem that severe. But for me, it felt very debilitating. Participating in sports or recreational activities felt arduous. Climbing stairs left me breathless and I experienced constant heartburn. Worse than this, I felt sidelined in the game of life. What made it even harder was the fact that I invested so much energy trying to lose weight. Every day I would start a new restrictive diet and end the day bingeing as a result of extreme hunger. There were times when I managed to endure a starvation diet for a few weeks, but eventually panic and hunger would throw me into an overeating frenzy. Oh, what suffering I endured! Ultimately, it was my chronic unhappiness that motivated me to find a way out of this painful existence.
When I started college, I began to immerse myself in a new wave of literature that addressed emotional eating. I had entered a new arena of learning that forever changed my relationship with food. It started to become clear to me that if I ever wanted to find my way out of the self-destructive cycle of eating, I had to address the emotional issues that caused me to overeat. This was a powerful turning point for me. I stopped dieting and started to listen to my body’s signals. By trusting myself to make decisions about what I needed to nourish myself physically, emotionally and spiritually, I began to understand that my need for nourishment extended way beyond food. I wasn’t hungry for food, what I really hungered for was fulfillment in other areas of my life: social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. My “epiphany” felt empowering as I finally understood that my fate was in my own hands, not in a diet or “magic” plan. As I learned from my newfound inner trust to make my best choices, I gained knowledge and understanding of what I needed to do to take care of myself. I finally started to lose weight and gradually reached a healthy weight that I sustained without struggling. After I gave birth to my son, I lost an additional twenty pounds and I have maintained a healthy weight for the past two and a half decades. I am not alone. Thousands of people have lost weight and kept it off according to the National Weight Control Registry, a prospective study of people who have lost a minimum of thirty pounds and maintained it a year or more.
As a writer, mentor and coach, I have listened to the stories of hundreds of people who struggle with weight and health issues. Initially, most people present with feelings of hopelessness and a sense of having failed at something they have tried so hard to overcome. Like me, they came to this dark place after years of vacillating between extreme dieting and overindulgence. They often give up for a while, only to return to another “new” method and repeat the whole cycle again. I find it baffling that people will seek the same solution again and again despite the same disappointing results. These unsuccessful attempts only reinforce feelings of failure and hopelessness.
It is not hopeless. Everyone has the capacity to lose weight, increase their level of fitness and improve their feelings of well-being. Achieving this is not unlike other life challenges. Obtaining an academic degree, competing for a job or becoming a good chess player all require acquiring knowledge and learning new skills. Also necessary is commitment to the task, a reasonable level of self-efficacy and effort. But effort is not to be confused with torture. When you initially enter a new domain of study, it feels unfamiliar, even arduous. But over time, as you grasp the information and learn the skills, it gets easier. You don’t start at the top; you evolve gradually by incorporating changes incrementally and creating your own personal strategies. It is not magic; it is an education. By building on your success instead of your failures you will find your way. It starts with trusting yourself.
The following are my key strategies:
- I gave myself permission to eat. Yes, all the things I love such as ice cream and cookies, but in small amounts that now satisfy me. I do not go on diets. I did not learn anything from these plans. Instead, I choose what I want to eat and no longer rely on other people to tell me what I should and should not eat. I have learned to eat intuitively by listening to signals of hunger and fullness and trusting myself to make food choices that are good for me. We all possess a hunger on/off switch that signals us when we need food and when we have had enough. I had spent so many years starving and overeating that my switch had become disabled. By paying attention to my body’s natural signals and responding appropriately, my on/off switch started working again to inform me when I needed nourishment.
- I sought professional help to understand why I was eating for emotional reasons. I had used food to numb my fear and feelings of sadness. By facing these feelings, I was able to resolve many of the concerns that plagued me.
- I weigh myself every morning. In the past, I feared the scale so much that I would avoid it at all costs. I was living in a constant state of denial about my weight problem. Then I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and feel devastated by what I saw. By viewing the scale realistically, as an inanimate object, I started to use it as a tool. Weighing daily provides information and keeps me in a state of reality. If my weight goes up, I no longer see it as a tragedy since I know that I am in control. Knowing what I weigh eliminates my fear of the unknown.
- Gradually, I came to love a healthier way of eating. Since I no longer deprived myself of the foods I liked, I stopped craving many of them. I learned to prepare high quality meals with lots of vegetables, fish, lean meats and poultry. I have lost interest in calorie dense fast food, store bought baked goods and eating as a contact sport. I don’t like General Tso’s chicken.
- I take time for my meals and try to share them with other people when possible. During my travels abroad, I observed how Europeans take time for leisurely meals and enjoy small portions of thoughtfully prepared fare served in courses. I make time for shopping at farmers markets and cook most meals myself. I limit takeaway and I avoid eating in restaurants too frequently.
- I discovered the joy of movement. I started running in my twenties and have since then embraced hiking, Pilate’s, strength training, yoga and most of all walking. Walking daily has helped me achieve optimum fitness physically, emotionally and spiritually. I exercise most days of the week and I really miss it when I skip it. I no longer view exercise as a chore: My movement calls me.
- I have identified personal sources of stress and have worked to mitigate them. I try not to multi-task or take on more than I know I can handle. Whenever possible, I avoid interacting with people I find toxic.
A few final thoughts:
- Accept that change is a process that gets easier over time.
- Ask for help. It is not easy to make lifestyle changes without support. Seek professional help through a mentor, counselor or coach.
- Stop beating yourself about the current state of your weight or health. This will only stand in your way. Loving yourself and accepting where you are now will open the door to moving forward.
- Trust yourself to find your way.