Friday, April 9, 2010

So What Does Make Them Different?

Here I was, all set to write my first substantial blog post in quite awhile and Diane at Fit to the Finish went and asked a question that started me writing and writing until I realized that I wanted to deal with the question in my own blog. So, voilĂ's the question and here are my thoughts on it!

Diane's blog post today is entitled "What Makes Them Different?". "They" are those weird people who just don't overeat. To quote Diane:

Perhaps you’ve known people like this, who in an eating situation can just say:

“I’m going to pass on dessert because I’m full,” or may say, “No thanks, I’m done.” When I was obese I’d stare at them like they had lost their minds.

I think that Diane said something really insightful when she then went on to say, "They seemed to possess an internal full signal on their food tank that I thought was missing in my body. I was rarely full enough to say no to food." This, I believe, is at the heart of what makes naturally slim or reasonably weighted (now that's a weird way of putting it!) people different from those who struggle with their weight.

Naturally slim people ARE different from us. They do NOT have any more control or willpower than people who have trouble staying at a healthy weight. They have a completely different attitude towards food. For them, saying "no" is not an act of willpower or superhuman control. Here's an analogy to explain what I mean: When we look before crossing the road and see a car coming, our brain tells us "no" because we know that stepping out will get us hit by that car. There is no effort required. Any sane person would respect the "no" coming from their brain. For someone who has never had issues with food intake or weight control, it's the same thing. The normal "full" signal simply tells them to stop, not to cross over into the zone where they're eating more than they actually need. There's no special mental effort required, just as there's no special mental effort required in keeping your feet on the sidewalk when a car's coming.

Naturally slim or average weight people view food as food. It's not something wonderful and magical that must be seized and devoured at all costs. Yep, if the stuff tastes good and they're hungry, they'll eat it. But the minute their stomach presses the "full" signal, they have absolutely no more interest in it--no matter how tasty or beautiful the food is. Once the empty space has been filled, it is natural and normal for them to say no. What it is NOT is an act of will or willpower.

Babies know exactly when to say no to food. Any parent can clearly see in their mind's eye how an infant strongly and knowingly turns his or her head away from the breast or bottle the minute the full signal goes off. It's nigh impossible to poke or prod an infant into eating any more than what that baby "knows" in an absolutely primal way is enough.

Unfortunately, many of us lose this instinctive, basic knowledge as we grow up. And there are probably any number of reasons for this sad phenomenon.

Many weight loss bloggers come to the realization that they learned at an early age to use food to stuff down their emotions. Eating helps them to deal with difficult issues. However, that is not the case for all of us.

The fact that our Western world is full of easily available, cheap junk food might also play a certain role. Again, though, I don't think it explains everything.

The fact that as a society we move much less than before certainly plays a role. Most of us do work that is more sedentary than it ever would have been in the past. While many of our grandmothers washed laundry in a big pail, wrung it out and then hung it up to dry, we have washing machines and dryers that do everything but fold and put the clothes in the proper drawers. We have electric mixers instead of the old hand mixers, we have cars that take us door to door from home to work. We even send e-mails to our colleagues in the next cubicle rather than taking those 15 steps to go over and talk to them. We have to schedule time on the treadmill because we walk so little.

But above and beyond all these other factors, our collective loss of the ability to hear and respect the "full" signal is, to my mind, the most tragic because it puts all the responsibility for not overeating on the weakest link in the human psyche: saying "no" consciously.

Let me bring you back to my car analogy. The "no" that stops us from crossing the street springs from the primitive brain. Parents instinctively know to stop their children from running out into traffic. If the human race (or any other species) didn't possess that instinct, we wouldn't still be roaming (and destroying, in many cases) the earth. We instill that "no" into our children with a passion because we want them to survive.

However, there are many things that we can say "yes" to without perishing on the spot. Overeating is one of them. It's curious how we're born with a better instinct for not overeating (pulling away from the bottle or breast) than we are for self-preservation (running out into the traffic as a child) and that as we age, many of us lose the former and the vast majority of us gain the latter.

The pure "no" method of weight loss or weight maintenance is, for the most part, doomed to failure. In the short run, many people can say no. In the long run, most cannot say no constantly, consistently and unfailingly for the rest of their lives. If you ask someone who has never struggled with their weight how hard it is to say no to food, they will probably look at you as if you had just sprung another head. Their "no" is instinctive, ours is forced. Their "no" comes from the natural full signal that they feel so keenly. Our "no" comes from a rule book filled with points or calories or a list of "bad" foods.

Let me make one thing clear: If you count points or calories or have a strict list of banned foods and this works for you, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU. Congratulations! You are amongst a very small and elite group. I'm not the one telling you this. We know statistically that the vast, vast majority of people who lose weight do not keep it off. MORE POWER TO YOU IF YOU ARE SUCCEEDING. If it works for you, DON'T CHANGE A THING!

But now that I've strayed really, really far, let me get back to Diane's question: what makes them different is that they have stayed babies. We have not. Sadly, getting back to that blessed baby state is perhaps just as hard as saying "no" forever. Personally, I think the babies have it right. However, it doesn't mean that I have found the holy grail. That's what we're all looking for.

What's your take on things?

P.S. Here is a picture of a "milk drunk" baby. Pure happiness.


  1. Wendy - another great and thoughtful post!
    I have never had a "cut off" for sugar - there simply was no upper limit!

  2. Very thought-provoking post. I was just thinking about the baby's inborn satiety signal the other day when I heard of a nurse telling a new mom that her one week old baby was eating too much! What? He wasn't gaining too fast, so how could he have been eating too much?

    I am one who did NOT eat too much as a child, did not become overweight till adulthood. How I wish I could go back to those glorious days of not thinking about what I was eating, yet being at a normal weight. And I didn't go around thinking about food all day either.

    For years and years, I had the hunger-shut-off signal. What the heck happened to it?

  3. I can say no for extended periods. Then I let in one yes and it is all yes, yes, yes until I regain the strength to say no. The periods between getting back to no are getting shorter and shorter though, so I still have hope.

  4. I disagree. I know many naturally very slim people who over eat and I a normal weight person who has always struggled with maintaining a healthy weight who also over eats. My sister for instance can eat and eat and eat and never gain a pound. She can make poor food choices and over indulge and it never effects her weight. I'm the complete opposite, a piece of chocolate cake will stick right on my thighs for weeks. I know I have to monitor what I eat and often time I have to tell myself "NO!" to overindulging. It's not an intuitive light bulb going off for me, it's a slap on the hand or physically throwing the food in the trash. Yes my stomach sends out the ache that it's bursting at the seams, but I will still go for every last bite in front of me unless I verbally and physically tell myself no.

  5. Rebecca,

    I too step out of my "comfort zone" by one cookie or three extra bites of lasagna and kaboom, it shows on the scale. But I really have watched how naturally thin people eat and they have no desire to stuff themselves or eat even a little bit more, just because it tastes so good.

    Put a piece of chocolate cake in the room with me and half of my attention will be on it throughout the whole time I spend in that room no matter how many interesting things are going on around me. I know that there are lots of people in that room who instantly forget about the cake's existence if they're not hungry.

    So maybe it's a combination of it "going straight from our lips to our hips" PLUS our inability to get it off our minds, no matter how full we are...

  6. Hi Wendy. A wonderful post as usual!

    Eating is such a complex issue. There are some people for whom food is not an issue. But most thin people I know (who are older than early 20s) actively work at being thin. It is a conscious decision to keep their weight down at a certain level. But it's also true to say they are not walking the tightrope that I have walked sometimes every minute of every day when I have been thin. It's as though the volume on this issue is turned right up for some of us.

    Thanks for all your support as ever. I really appreciate it.

    Bearfriend xx

  7. I just found your blog. What an amazing post!!! A great to explain the difference between "us" and "them."

  8. I think that you did a great job with this topic. I didn't lose all my 158 pounds by counting anything - I think that has been part of my long-term maintenance success - the fact that I did learn to change my relationship to foods, both those I had a hard time resisting and those that were easy to resist.

  9. Another great post...I'm w/Beth, I was purely a "recreational dieter" until I lost my thyroid; not only was I overeating in celebration of survival, my metabolism has focused itself w/laser-like intensity on the lowest common denominator!

  10. This is a great post and you're absolutely right that for whatever reason, almost everyone learns to ignore their body's signal to either stop eating, or in the case of my slim hubby, start. Babies are fantastic for this; I noticed it when I was breast-feeding my son. When he was full there was NOTHING I could do to get him to eat more, and when he was hungry there was NOTHING I could do to put him off eating.

  11. I'm quite sure my mind would be on that chocolate cake too, but what's changed between before and now is that I can eat a tiny slice, and then be done, not want anymore, not think of it anymore. Really, two bites is just right. I don't think this is a bad thing (I'm quite active), but it is evidence of a food issue. I have been thinking a lot about this lately, interesting stuff.

    BTW, my mom is a neurotic eater, naturally thin. She's all around a bad example, but I've seen her eat chocolate cake for breakfast, yet she's never been overweight. Me? I got her neurotic eating habits (since abandoned), but my dad's highly efficient metabolism, fat genes.

  12. I'm late in finding this post.... but am so glad I did ! What a great and interesting piece of writing about our difficulty in knowing when to say No. The pictures of the baby were a great reminder. Thank you !