Yes, I am perfectly aware of the irony of cucumber slices placed on a Ronald McDonald plate.
About seven years ago I began seeing a therapist (Here you get another personal admission, the one thing people have thanked me the most for.) to address my obesity. My thought was by going to her we would address whatever psychological issue was sparking my compulsion about food, fix it, and then I would lose weight without thinking about it anymore.
It was not a bad idea at all, and was fed by a few visits I made a few years before to a different therapist. During that series of visits I had a moment in which I viewed myself surrounded by tables and tables of every kind of food. I could have whatever I wanted and it would be immediately replenished. Normally when I am hungry and I go get something, what I want is pizza, or a cheeseburger, or chocolate. I know many of you can relate.
When I conjured up this vision, though, I picked cucumbers. It was a kind of revelation to me, one that led me to believe that if I let go of the scarcity belief — “I’m ordering this Red Robin Pub Burger, even though the Apple Harvest Chicken Salad sounds better and will make me feel better, because I fear this is the last visit we will ever make to Red Robin.” — I could lower my weight without really thinking about it. I thought if I got that figured out, then I could do Weight Watchers without panicking.
The problem was, this therapist wasn’t about that. She told me to forget about Weight Watchers, or calorie counting or anything of the sort. She was about behavioral changes. Get regular sleep, and get enough of it. Stop the random channel surfing at night. Plan your food out. Eat enough to not be hungry and eat often so you’re not eating when you’re starving, because if you’re starving you’ll be stress eating, which normally means you’re going to choose the worst of several options. I tried it and it made sense. In fact, to some degree it worked, but I didn’t completely buy in. I still wanted a program that would have the weight falling off several pounds at a time.
We moved and I went to another therapist who tried all the visualizations from my childhood, having me talk to my younger self and all that. I think his methods would work for many people, but I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.
I’ve not let go of the idea that changing my brain and my emotional relationship with food is the key to all of this. That was, I have to come believe in retrospect, the point of involving all of you. Having your support, I believed, would help keep me motivated. That’s a brain thing, and it has helped me when I wanted to quit. I will continue to blog weekly updates here.
The program, though, is changing, and I am going back to what I believed in the first place the first time I went to a therapist to address my weight issues.
Only this time, I’m willing to forget the diets for long-term weight loss. If I’m generally content and not dominated by stress, I will eat less and I will eat better.
This, I know, is difficult for some of you to grasp. I know this, because Diana and I had one of our most challenging conversations about this. She found it difficult to agree with me. She argued that if the bottom line is you have to expend more calories than you take in, then you have to know how many calories you are taking in. That’s the premise behind Lose It, an app you can download that does a great job of telling you how many calories you should have in a day to lose 2 pounds a week. You enter every calorie you consume and exercise you do (You get to add calories if you exercise.) and the whole day you’re trying to stay under a certain amount. Some of you can employ a tool like that and not feel the stress I do. I envy you. But that’s not how I roll. In fact, it’s not how a lot of people roll.
A 2010 story in the online version of Science magazine provides evidence that confirms my thinking:
Bale (Tracy Bale, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania) and her co-authors hypothesized that dieting leaves people more susceptible to the chronic stresses of everyday life, making even the strongest dieter yearn for a pint of ice cream or a hot, cheesy pizza. Although one hot fudge sundae won’t cause significant weight gain, persistent stress could lead to a pattern of binge or comfort eating that undoes previous weight loss.
They tested their hypothesis and found it to be correct. Dieting makes some of us more susceptible to stress, and stress makes a thing like a DQ Blizzard much more attractive.
Adding more detail to bolster my argument was Dr. Daniel Amen in a HuffPost piece.
As we looked at the brains of our overweight patients, we discovered that again there was NOT ONE brain pattern associated with being overweight, there were at least five. We saw patterns associated with brains that tended to be compulsive … some were impulsive … others were sad … and still others anxious … in various combinations. This is exactly the reason why most diets don’t work. They take a one-size-fits-all approach, which from our brain imaging work makes absolutely no sense at all.
Aman found five brain patterns. Mine, I believe, is the fifth, the anxious overeater:
These are people who tend to be filled with anxiety and tension — they eat as a way to medicate their anxiety. Brain scans show that high activity in the basal ganglia, likely due to low levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, is the common finding in this type. Boosting GABA with relaxation exercises and a combination of vitamin B6, magnesium, and GABA can reduce feelings of anxiety.
My argument was, after hitting a plateau on Weight Watchers and a miserable three days using the Lose It app, that if I’m emotionally and psychologically balanced, I don’t need a number to know whether I’m eating healthy. That balance will influence me to make better choices. After being on this program for nearly half a year, seeing great progress at the beginning, then getting stuck for several weeks, I was ready to completely abandon all formal weight-loss regimes and accept the best method possible. Some of you can stick to a structured program like Weight Watchers, Lose It, Jenny Craig or any of a number of structured diets without it affecting your well being. I’m not wired that way. I had a hard time convincing Diana that shedding the calorie counter was going to work. I still haven’t convinced her.
Then someone posted that graphic that I shared on Facebook, the note that says, “There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can’t. What you’ve got to do is turn around and say, ‘Watch me.’”
To any of you who are doubters, watch me.
The last few days of this week I stopped counting calories or points. I’ve focused on moment-to-moment decisions that make the difference. I made choices that will help me lose weight and choices that won’t. I refrained from counterproductive food at times and at others I overindulged.
Overall, I don’t feel near the stress that I did.
I can’t say I’ve lost weight. I don’t know. I’m not going to weigh myself again maybe until the beginning of April. What is true is that I’m happier now than I’ve been since I started this thing. That’s great news, because a couple of weeks ago I was more discouraged about my efforts and my life generally than I had been in a long time.
There are other factors that have me content. I did give up soda and I know that has made me feel better physically. I did that on March 10 and only recently had a slight craving for it again. I also made significant progress on a book project, have worked on being a better dad and husband, some pain I had been experiencing is subsiding and I have been getting better sleep. The sleep thing could be related to the soda.
The bottom line for me is to manage my stress levels. I work on daily deadlines and can get pretty amped up. It’s not at all uncommon for me to finish a story, and then within an hour I get kind of sleepy. Before I finish a story, though, I want to eat all the time. This week, ridding myself of any diet program helped diminish some of that. The pizza, burger and chocolate consumption is way down.
It’s only a few days into this, so it’s way too early to declare victory. I am going to look into Aman’s conclusions about boosting GABA, which is an amino acid that reduces stress and regulates muscle tone. I might not be getting enough of it.
In the end, the two goals I had at the beginning of this journey remain. I will run a marathon and I will weigh 199 pounds and less. The marathon apparently continues to be the metaphor for this entire process.
One final sign, a good one. As I wrote this (Sunday evening) I became hungry. I went upstairs to grab a nibble. I was open to anything. Earlier in the day Diana had cut up a cucumber into slices. There was my snack. One moment of success! I’m planning to have lots of those.