Sunday, September 24, 2017

Critical Lessons

I've been told that a person who quits smoking for good does so, on average, on his sixth attempt to quit. I've mulled over this fact for a while. There's a similar (but less well-attested) fact about losing weight for good: it's really rare for somebody to do it successfully and permanently the first time around. I've seen the number five, but I suspect that's low. Whatever it may be exactly, it suggests to me two things: a) that it's harder than most people expect it will be, and b) people who eventually succeed do so because they accumulate critical lessons from their failures.

Who knows how many times I've tried to lose weight? I was startled, when I read back through my blog entries under the Whupping the Food Thing label, to find a 2013 attempt, which apparently lasted three months, of which I have no memory whatsoever. None.

I was a plump child. I skinnied down for a couple years when I was a teenager, but by the time I was in college my weight was drifting upwards, and it basically drifted upwards whenever I wasn't focusing on losing it. My mother was quite obese and she would predict darkly that my eating habits would lead eventually to me being terribly fat and (of course) miserable. I responded with my usual obstinate cheerfulness. Maybe I would be fat, but I didn't intend to be miserable.

But I took it to heart. In my inmost heart I knew I was going to be fat, and I was going to die early of cardiac disease, just as my maternal grandfather -- whom I strongly resembled, everyone said so -- had. He died at 62. (I have three years left, now, before I hit that ominous number.)

Anyway. I had a complicated relationship with losing weight. It was what my mother was always trying and failing to do. I didn't want to be fat, but I also didn't want to diet: they were both things my mother did. I wanted to be my own person.

But diets did happen. The first I remember distinctly was the Scarsdale diet. This was in the heyday of the vilification of fats and the glorification of grapefruit. One lost three or four pounds per week, if one stuck to it. One did not. One became extraordinarily hungry, and one white-knuckled one's way through for a few days, and finally one broke. So that was my first critical lesson: I was not going to win through this by brute force. Whether my will was peculiarly defective, I didn't know, but it wasn't up to the task I was setting it.

A couple decades later, along came Atkins, the vilification of carbs, and the glorification of meat. I LIKED that. I adore meat, and I love fat with all my heart and soul. Eggs! Hamburger! For quite a while, eating that way worked just as Dr Atkins said it would. I didn't even want to eat too much. I didn't want to binge. I was eating the food that spoke to my soul. I became a big low-carb convert, and swore by Gary Taubes, and regarded sugar as the Devil's own poison. Life was good.

Well, except. As the weeks went on, I got kind of sick of all that fat. I began to dream of carbs. I would fixate on them. They wandered into my daydreams. I knew they were wicked, and I wanted them. But my will held, until the Night of the Pepperoni. 

I wanted something to snack on, and I'd bought some sliced pepperoni (having carefully examined the label to make sure there was no sugar added, of course -- you'd be surprised at all the stuff they inject with sugar, these days!) I love pepperoni, but of course if it had no carbs it would not make me hungrier, and I would not binge on it.

I binged. I ate and ate and ate, voraciously and unstoppably. And miserably realized that it wasn't true, and I had gradually been realizing it wasn't true. I *could* binge on meat, and I would, and my present diet in fact was making me feel real crappy. My skin was breaking out. I was fatigued all the time. The low-carb magic was gone.

That was the end of the low-carb thing, for me. And the end of the Magic Macronutrient thing. Later I read more, and learned that the whole insulin resistance story actually had big holes in it. I didn't believe in the villainy of fats any more, and that was a plus, but I didn't believe in the villainy of carbs either. Maybe the problem was exactly what someone in the 1950s would have identified as the problem: I was eating too much. There was nothing wrong with sugar and fat except that they were calorie-dense and I was too fond of them, particularly when they teamed up, and especially when they were abetted by food scientist flavor-artistes. I read Stephan Guyenet's blog: he was writing about high-reward foods and dopamine signalling and so forth. Maybe my love of certain foods was not addiction -- he sensibly refuses to participate in that particular slugfest -- but it activated a lot of the same pathways and used a lot of the machinery of addiction.

The last thing I tried was probably the smartest, and might actually have worked eventually, if I had had the patience to wait twenty years. Rather than try to fight the demons, I'd try to simply go around them. Learn to make food in my own kitchen, and displace the high-reward foods by crowding them out with plain good foods that weren't so dense in calories and didn't produce such a pleasure-storm. This was probably a necessary step too, because I learned stuff about maintaining a kitchen and preparing food and planning stuff out that I needed to learn. 

But I wasn't losing any weight: in fact that steady upward drift was, if anything, faster. I was getting uneasy about the state of my knees and hips, if I stayed heavy. If walking became really uncomfortable, and I stopped exercising, what would become of me? Well, I knew what would happen. I have plenty of clients who are caught in that predicament -- moving hurts too much, and the only comfort for it is eating, which makes moving even harder, and comfort even more necessary. What happens is that you get really fat, and moving gets really hard, and eventually type 2 diabetes comes along to keep you company.

I really didn't want that.

So I came up with the present program, which has been working for me for the largest weight loss, over the longest time, of any of these attempts. It's convenient. It's simple. It doesn't require fussing. I decided to go public with it, to add the threat of public humiliation to my motivations. And I banished one turn of phrase from my speech. I decided I was not going to say, ever again "I am trying to lose weight." That's what I used to say, if someone offered me something that I wasn't supposed to eat. "Oh," I'd say, apologetically, "I'm afraid I shouldn't, I'm trying to lose weight." 

But I'm not saying that any more. I'm saying, "I'm losing weight." That's all. And I'm not apologizing. I'm doing this thing.


Sabine said...


rbarenblat said...


Ariberries said...


Justme said...

Sir. I'm following your 'food' journey with great interest, having tried and failed to control my weight for 40 years. I think the vital component is the acceptance of how you feel about eating and to not heap guilt on one's self for the enjoyment of food. You seem to have found the magic formula that suits you. Enjoy.
Sally. England

Dale said...

Thanks Sally! As I'm sure you know, no one really speaks with any authority until they've actually lost the weight and kept it off for a few years. We'll know if I've found my magic formula by 2022 or so.

I'm grateful, in a way, to have had the experience of not being able to control myself. The illusion of being in control of oneself is useful sometimes, but it's catastrophic at others... being stout is a fairly cheap price to pay for the lesson.