Friday, March 25, 2011

TV and the Internet vs. the Real World

After frequenting the weight blogosphere for over two years now, I have finally identified the overwhelming characteristics of those who inhabit this world. Virtually all the serious weight loss bloggers that I have encountered are or were extremely overweight. They have lost or seek to lose 50% or more of their starting body weight. That's a lot. They see morbid obesity and serious health problems around every corner. They live in a world mainly populated by potential "Biggest Loser" contestants or the stars of "Heavy". They live in a catastrophized world where everyone risks dropping dead of a heart attack or going blind through uncontrollable, weight-induced diabetes within the next day or so.

And it just gets worse.

From what I've read, virtually all those who have revealed themselves and their lives on-line are survivors of trauma. If I only read blogs from the weight loss universe, I would believe that all the overweight among us have been abused at some point in their lives, be it physically or emotionally or both. They attribute their extreme weight problems to psychological issues and therefore see their weight as purely a personal question that can be resolved through "taking themselves in hand" and cracking the weight loss whip.

I am not making light of such trauma. Rather, I am troubled by what I see.

Strangely enough, when I look at my own life and the lives of those around me, I see none of this horror. Am I the one living in a protected bubble or does the Internet have a particular attraction for people who need to express the horror of their lives? I feel for everyone of these people. I'm just not convinced they represent the majority of fat people out there.

I'm also deeply offended when the only message that the Internet and TV give me is that there's a landslide of fat around me and that the danger of dying prematurely is stalking us all. Perhaps it's because catastrophes sell advertising spots.

I guess we've had our fill of rapists and the people who lurk outside our bedroom windows waiting to kidnap our children. We've even stopped constantly thinking about terrorism...Now we've got the great obesity crisis of the 2000s to help feed our need for fear and fill the coffers of the TV networks and the advertisers.

As usual, I feel the need to make a plea for rationality. Diets don't work (OK, they don't work only 95% of the time). If you want to make changes to your life (and only if you want to), there are so many small things you can do: walk a bit more, ask yourself "why" before you devour whatever it is you devour. If the answer is simply "because I like it", that's fine. If the answer is "I feel stifled by my partner or my life is in disarray or I can't get over the death of my father or my boss is a tyrant", then work on that, not on starving yourself. And in so doing, you may perhaps get healthier, even if your weight doesn't go down. Because, and I just have to say it again, we've got to decouple the number on the scale from the state of our health.

Now, off for a walk along the beach and then a light lunch. I feel drawn to both, rather than being terrified into doing either one.

Jet Lagged in Honolulu


No, you don't need to cry for me. Yes, I'm in Honolulu and at this point in time I have been up for 21 hours and counting. I really can't afford to go to sleep now since I'm actually working tomorrow at a conference here.

I have an ocean view out my window and a cool, pleasant breeze is blowing. My husband says it's particularly cold back home.

The trip was very long, but amazingly, both flights left right on time. Aside from feeling exhausted, I seem to be fine (thanks for your support, R--you know who you are!).

Probably you won't be hearing much from me this week. But don't cry for me. There are worse places to be than Honolulu.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking to Our Children

Main Coon (source: www,ted-payne.com)

A few days ago, Lynn at Lynn's Weigh wrote a post about the history of her weight. The post really got me thinking. Read it here.

I was with Lynn all the way until she said,"Clearly I was not obese in 7th grade, but my weight was rightly a concern to my doctor."

The picture of her in the 6th grade showed a beautifully formed young woman on the cusp of womanhood. Even the high school picture she posted was far from the picture of a fat person. Yet the doctor saw her as perched on the edge of a fat precipice. And therein begins the tragedy.

I see the doctor's comment as yet another trigger for the weight journey (nightmare?) Lynn was about to embark upon. There was nothing useful about this comment, even though it was not meant to cause problems. However, the reality of the matter is that comments such as these pave the way for terrible things to come.

I think the absolute worst thing we can do is talk to our children about their weight. Not a single word should be spoken. Not one, ESPECIALLY NOT TO OUR DAUGHTERS (shouting caps intentional). They are already surrounded, nay drowning, in negative messages. Even the slimmest of the slim know that they should consider themselves fat. It's practically a badge of honour to say, "Oh, I feel so faaat today."

Does this mean we should blithely stand by while our children eat themselves into oblivion? Of course not. However, believing that we must DO something to stop their inevitable slide into obesity means that we think that without our guidance, all our children will turn into pre-adolescent roly-poly blimps. That's ridiculous.

But first, we must admit (and this one is a hard one) that some people (of both the child and the adult variety) will never be thin. They are probably not fated to be grossly, morbidly obese, but not everyone is naturally slim just as not every cat is a Maine Coon or a Siamese.

Siamese cat (source: palbes.com)

I am a mom myself and I struggle with these issues. I sometimes feel lucky to have two boys since I know that their lives, at least in terms of their physical self-image, will be much, much easier than if they had been girls.

But I can still have some influence over what and the way they eat, so I too must be careful.

Yes, we do have a role as teachers for our children. But the best way to teach is to walk the talk, by modelling healthy eating, not berating them. I believe in less processed or unprocessed foods; fresh produce; meat that is not shot through with hormones, food that is (inasmuch as possible) locally sourced. This is the food my husband and I prepare and serve to our children. We talk to them about the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of what we eat. We encourage them to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. It's amazing to see that principle at work. One of my sons has much more of a sweet tooth than the other, but when he's not hungry he just walks away from the treat, no matter how enticing it may be.

I also believe that no food should be off limits, but that many foods should not hold pride of place in a home. There are numerous reasons not to feed yourself or your children on a constant diet of fast food: empty calories is just one of these reasons. I'm sure you can name many more. (BTW, I fully recognize that people who have to work two or more jobs just to make ends meet usually don't have the luxury of making nutritious, home-cooked meals for their families.) I'm also not a fan of stocking your pantry with a generous variety of cookies, cakes, candies and other treats. However, having been deprived of most treats as a child because "they weren't good for me", I can attest to just how thrilled I was to gorge on them, whenever the opportunity arose (usually at a friend's house). Our pantry often holds one bag of cookies and there is often some ice cream in the freezer. Both these treats last quite awhile. There is almost always a very large bar of dark chocolate on the counter. We have about 10 bars in the basement pantry since we don't often get to the store that sells this chocolate. My husband and I have two small squares a day, never more. Once in awhile we don't have our "medicinal dose" of chocolate at all. The boys eat somewhat more, but again, not every day.

I firmly believe that trash talk with children or adolescents, i.e. classifying food strictly along caloric lines, is the best way to create and foster disordered eating. You all know my mantra: eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full. If this is the consistent message a child hears, he or she is much less likely to gorge or starve.

We can also encourage our children to walk more, or take their bikes or use public transit. Driving your grown child everywhere takes away a valuable opportunity to get to know one's neighbourhood, to learn to be autonomous and to do something good for the planet by not burning unneeded gas. (I'm not going to open up the city/suburb debate here. Sorry.)

Our schools should make phys ed compulsory right up to graduation. But these classes should be pass/fail, and simply based on attendance and participation. Those dumpy, uncoordinated kids need to feel accepted, otherwise their desire to participate and move their bodies will be squashed like a bug. Believe me, I know. At 54, I still remember being always chosen last (or next to last) for team sports. Yeah, let's get our kids moving, but the athletic model is a killer unless you were born with the "right" body. Phys ed, as it's taught now, is the best way to discourage most kids from wanting to move their bodies.

The worst thing we can do for our kids is make them fear food and hate exercise. What with society's dieting obsession, the message that the only right way to exercise for a fat person is to exercise until you throw up (see: Heavy or Village on a Diet), our worship of winning athletes (go for the gold or don't go at all) and our black/white way of seeing things (the only truth is the BMI), it's pretty darn hard to not raise fat obsessed children. The problem is, being obsessed with fat never kept anyone at a "healthy"* weight.

*I do not accept the BMI as a proxy for healthy weight.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TGI...Spring

Source: wondercomments.com

I mull things over way too much. Especially when I go for a walk.

But today, I'm not going to mull, or fume or wonder why...why...why????

It's SPRING!! Yes, at least for today.

I went for my current favourite walk today. It takes about 50 minutes and puts about 5,700 steps on my pedometer. I take very little steps. Comes from being well below 5' tall.

Most of the snow has melted, and after many days of rain and grey skies, the sun was out...well, a little bit. I wore a ski jacket that my older son wore when he was about 14. I didn't take a hat and only wore light gloves. By the time I'd walked 4,000 steps, I took the jacket off for a minute or so. The gloves had long gone into my pockets.

Here's my important message of the day to myself (and to you, if you want it): Love life. Appreciate the fact that you can get out and about.

I'm so happy it's spring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Persona Non Fata

I finally understood today that most bloggers don't want any suggestions. They either want to hear others say that they've "been there too, I'm with you, yeah it's tough" or else "you go, girl", even it means go on and keep starving yourself.

I've got to remember not to respond to most blogs. I know that I've definitely made myself "persona non fata" for certain people.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Weight and Gender

A photo of Sophia Loren with husband Carlo Ponti. Source: guerraeterna.com

Recently, both Debra and Dr. Sharma have been using the word "obesities" rather than "obesity" to illustrate the fact that overweight can be attributed to a number of different factors (not to mention the fact that living with a weight that is "over" what is conventionally deemed to be normal is not necessarily a "bad" or "unhealthy" state, but that's another post for another day).

While I believe that this is a real step forward in understanding this vastly complicated issue, I believe that this complexity goes even further. As I read the blogs of people living with overweight (whether they are "fighting" it, accepting it or maintaining a thinner outer shell), I am constantly struck by the huge difference in how men and women experience and react to their weight.

On a physiological level, body fat is completely different ball game for men and women. While a more or less "average" man can live comfortably with 17% body fat, an elite woman athlete (someone who is far from "average") may have 20% body fat, and average woman can easily carry 25% body fat without being considered "fat". While an elite male athlete can have as little as 3-5% body fat, a woman with that level of fat would be seriously anorexic, if not already dead.

Putting aside the issue of polycysitic ovarian syndrome which causes an excess of fat and a drop in fertility, women need fat (and certainly a higher level of fat than men) to be fertile. I believe, therefore, that the female body is much more recalcitrant to losing fat than the male body and will "fight" (if you'll excuse the expression) much harder to regain it than a man's body will. Recently, my husband lost a small amount of weight. He did it by tweaking his eating habits in such a minor way that no one in the family noticed. He did not increase his exercise. I asked him recently if he'd lost any more weight and he told me that, no, his weight has remained stable. Now, ask any woman you know how she managed to lose even a few pounds (AND KEEP THEM OFF) and she will produce a list of rules that she follows to the letter, perhaps a food diary, an exercise regimen, a calorie counter (in book form or on the Internet), the latest book on weight loss that's changed her life, her WW membership card...And then she'll tell you that it's a constant battle that she wages literally minute by minute.

Now, ask a man why he has become overweight. Some may actually admit to psychological factors but most will merely shrug their shoulders and mutter something about a couple of extra beers and the fact that they stopped playing sports once they left school. Most don't feel particularly unattractive due to that extra weight (generally, extra poundage has much less of an effect on a man's love life than a woman's) and will probably take no action unless advised to do so by their doctor (and even then). Ask a woman about her weight and she will pour out her heart about her binge eating, addiction to sugar/junk food, inability to identify the "full" signal, need to drown her sorrows in a bag of chips or a pan of brownies, lack of "willpower"...

So please, let's add gender to the mix and not close our eyes to its effect on weight management.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What We Do and (Usually) Don't Know

In two recent blog posts, Dr. Arya Sharma of the Canadian Obesity Network, uses the same quote from Health Canada:

“Healthy weight is influenced by a number of things, including your lifestyle, environment, metabolism (how quickly you transform food into energy), height, age, and family history/genetics.”

It cannot be said too often: weight loss/maintenance/management is an almost unimaginably complex issue. If you are a regular reader of Dr. Sharma, you'll know that he uses the term "nightmare on ELMM street" to underscore how facile and ultimately unhelpful the notion of "eat less, move more" is.

(Excuse me while I wipe the rotten egg off my face. I know that certain readers are already standing and screaming, red-faced, that "eat less, move more" is indeed the holy grail and if you follow this simple precept to the letter, you will be slim and happy for the rest of your days.)

Well, it just ain't so.

We actually know very little about why people lose or gain weight and the reasons why, all things being equal, Mr. X will maintain while Ms. Y will gain while Ms. A will lose.

People who go on diets know very little about what their bodies are doing. They know their starting weight and can calculate their BMI; and if they count calories, they have a relative idea of how many calories they consume. However, to really understand what is happening in their bodies, they need to know some numbers that are much more difficult to come by.

Do you know your resting basal metabolism (or resting metabolic rate)? In other words, do you know how many calories your body needs to just keep the brain operating and keep you breathing? This rate varies from one person to another...and it accounts for 75% of the calories you burn.

Do you know the percentage of body fat and lean muscle mass you carry? As a woman, you will normally carry considerably more fat than a man. A brief trip around the internet seems to point to an average body fat level of 23-25% for women and somewhere around 17% for men. The body, be it male or female, requires a minimum (essential) level of fat: at least 3-5% for men, 10-12% for women. This is not an "ideal" level, it's a minimum, below which the body will be in serious physiological danger. No, Virginia, anorexia is not good for you.

My scale gives me a body fat percentage in addition to my weight. As far as I'm concerned, the number is not accurate. Personally, I would have more faith in "near infrared interactance" or "dual energy X-ray absorptiometry" though I suspect most people don't have that kind of equipment lying beside their bathroom scale. And yet, knowing your lean muscle mass is such an important piece of knowledge since muscle is more metabolically active than fat. Although muscle may not actually burn a significantly larger number of calories than fat (there seems to be some controversy regarding this issue), it means you're stronger and thus (amongst other things) muscle helps to maintain proper joint function. On a much more superficial level, muscle significantly contributes to shaping and contouring the body.

There is actually one piece of equipment most people do have lying around the house that will give them a much better idea of their muscle development and fat loss: the tape measure. Whenever I hear or read about someone who is lamenting her paltry weight loss, I just want to ask if she's measured herself recently. Losing an inch off the waist is much more significant to one's health status than a several pound weight loss. Alas, many people would rather worship the scale and BMI numbers, neither of which provide them with much valuable information about their fat/muscle ratio.

In a nutshell, without going overboard, it's a good idea to build up more muscle in your body. The whole issue of the number on the scale should go completely out the window. I'll bet you a whole lot of money that those gonzo weight-loss bloggers shouting to the rooftops about how many pounds they've lost in so few weeks are not doing much about building muscle. Are they losing muscle as well as fat (a bad, bad thing to do)? Perhaps. In so doing, is the number on the scale going down faster? Probably. Are they really becoming significantly healthier losing muscle along with some fat (lower number on the scale) rather than re(building) muscle? Questionable. Are they setting themselves up for yo-yoing on the scale? For 95% of them: yes.

Do you know much about how much lean muscle you carry? Have you even thought about it or is the scale your only (and faulty) source of information?

And how much do we know about our metabolism? Again, I suspect not much. Unfortunately, it's the kind of thing a layperson cannot accurately measure. With all the controversy swirling around weight loss and the possibility of a significant drop in metabolism (which makes continuing weight loss much harder and maintenance a nightmare), why do we know so little about such an important factor? Is it because then we would have to question the ELMM mantra? Would the mantra have to change to EL&L&L&MM&M&M to just stop yourself from gaining back those hard lost pounds? Is it because maintenance means literally and figuratively running harder and harder and eating less and less just to stay in the same place?

And while we're on the topic of metabolism, do some people metabolize certain types of food differently from others? For instance, are some of us more sensitive to carbs than others? And if you are sensitive to carbs, what would the Twinkie diet do to you? After all, it worked for Dr. Haub...In my opinion, we need to know a lot more about how different bodies react to different food categories.

But no, like drones we repeat ELMM, ELMM and 95% of us regain the weight...and more.

Simplicity is a wonderful thing. It makes things seem so easy. Unfortunately, the things we don't know and/or the complicating factors we choose to ignore remain lurking in the background, ready to sabotage our seemingly well-laid plans.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Be Nice to Yourself

Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog post that made a lot of people angry. In this post, I described a number of different bloggers that I had come across in the weight loss community and in so doing, I ruffled a lot of feathers. A few bloggers wrote in to say how hurt they were by my description of the loathing and self-hate-talk they poured upon themselves.

My intention was definitely not to make these people feel worse. I was shocked and saddened by how bad they felt about themselves and how much they seemed to blame and hate themselves for a situation (being overweight) that they saw as being entirely of the own making.

Personally, I have never found that blaming and shaming makes any difference to our behaviour and in fact, adopting an attitude of self-hatred actually makes the whole situation (whatever it may be) actually worse.

Well, this article, which appeared in the New York Times appears to support my view. "Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges" talks about the idea of "self compassion"--treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would treat others. What's really shocking, according to this article is that

People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The problem is that people believe that it is only by berating themselves that they will stay in line and behave in ways they feel they need to to "improve" themselves. Our culture rewards meanness. Certainly, in the dieting world, nastiness, hectoring and badgering are the hallmark of weight loss shows, in particular "The Biggest Loser" in the US and "X-Weighted" and "Village on a Diet" here in Canada.

As the article points out, one of the reasons why many people hate themselves so much is because we tend to confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence and lower standards. In other words, if I don't constantly tell myself what a spineless, lazy idiot I am, that's precisely what I'll become.

The NYT article refers to a new book on self-compassion by Dr. Christine Neff, which will be coming out in April. I don't know Dr. Neff and I don't know whether I'll buy her book or not, but I did look over the self-compassion scale that her website links to and frankly, I was not surprised at how badly I score.

I am right up there with the best of the self-haters, it's just that my own particular version of self-hate does not focus on my weight. I have done too much reading on how complicated weight loss is to blame myself for not succeeding in something that is almost impossible to attain. I know that "eat less, exercise more" is one of the most facile pieces of pseudo-information you can give anyone and that overeating--if that is your problem--is first and foremost a problem tied to self-image and other psychological issues rather than a problem that is simply solved by putting down your fork.

The one weakness in the NYT article is how it insidiously comes back to weight loss: if you love yourself more, and beat yourself up less...you will lose weight! All roads must lead to weight loss it would seem. This is a shame. Once again, I find it necessary to stress that I believe in striving for physical health--through eating a variety of foods (including foods that just make you feel nice, like chocolate, yum) in reasonable portions, honouring both your fullness and your hunger and helping your body to feel happier and healthier through movement. And I believe in psychological health, through (amongst other things) self-compassion.

There are many factors beyond our control that are not only physical (like heredity and genetics) but also societal in nature. When you have to work two jobs to make ends meet, it's hard to find time to go for a nice walk. When you can't make a decent living, it's hard to serve yourself and your family good, nourishing food. I don't want to minimize these factors, by any means. However, I do think that self-hate (and conversely, a lack of self-compassion) is at the top of the list of psychologically (and ultimately physically) damaging things we do to ourselves.