I kinda had to do the List of Helpful Hints, didn’t I? Because, after all of this, what did I learn about gaining and losing weight?
The hardest thing is divorcing the emotional from the factual. You are not fat because you are a bad, greedy, awful, stupid person. You did not get fat because you can’t handle things. Being fat is not a big sign that you are wretched and worthless and useless and old and bad. You are not a massive failure because you had ice cream or ate a cookie or put butter and sour cream on your baked potato. You gained weight because you have unhealthy eating habits, like most of the other people around you, and this is how your body metabolized it. And you can change those eating habits.
Get therapy to deal with the emotional stuff, because if you don’t, simply putting down the bag of chips isn’t going to help.
You have to lose weight for you. Only you. And you have to understand what it means to “do it for you.” If you are genuinely healthy and happy at your weight, then that’s it. You can’t succeed at a diet because your nasty stepmother is always calling you fat, or your partner complains that you aren’t hot any more, or you have a big wedding coming up and your skinny cousin or ex is going to be there, or you want to look like Naomi Watts, or any of that other bullshit. It’ll only fuck up your emotional well-being if you try. But if you can strip away all the other influences and look at your quality of life and your self as objectively as possible and realize that you want to lose weight FOR YOURSELF, that’s something else.
It’s going to take effort. It’s going to take hard work. You are going to have to make changes and commitments. Again, surgery, should you go that route, does not take all the work out of it. It is not a quick fix, easy out, free for all. So, yes, you’re busy, but you will have to make time to count calories, menu-plan, cook, get exercise, and all that stuff. You will have to change your schedules and routines. You will have to deal with critical people or people who don’t understand what you’re going through. But it’s still worth it, you know.
It’s easier than you think. It wasn’t that hard to develop the bad habits, was it? And while it may be hard to break the bad habits, it’s also easy to develop the good ones. It’s just as easy to stop at the grocery store for some sliced turkey and a package of edamame for lunch as it is to stop at the hamburger drive-thru. It’s just as easy to grab your hand weights and do some arm curls while you’re watching TV at night as it is to sit on the couch doing nothing. It’s just as easy to invite the group of friends over to your house for a healthier meal instead of going out to the Deep Fried Stuff restaurant. It’s just as easy to fill that big to-go cup with water with lots of sliced citrus or hot tea or a protein breakfast shake as it is to fill it with coffee or soda or a mocha-latte-macchiato. Dude, there are people who have to drastically change their eating habits because they’ve been diagnosed with leukemia or had their face crushed in a car accident. There are people who can’t have a brownie because they are in a tank in the middle of Iraq or living with their poverty-stricken family in rural Indonesia. Compared to some of that shit, you can handle having broiled chicken and steamed squash medley for dinner, no problem.
Everything in moderation. No shit. Not just in what you eat, but in what you do and the changes you make. You cannot go from your usual eating and exercise (or lack of exercise) habits to something markedly different overnight, although that’s what most of us try to do. “Okay, I’m going to start my new health-and-fitness routine tomorrow, and I’ll get up at 5 to jog a mile, then have an egg-white omelet for breakfast, then ride my bike to work, then have a giant salad with no oil or dressing for lunch, then ride my bike to the gym and take a Pilates class, then have 3 oz. of grilled salmon and steamed broccoli for dinner, then....” But within a couple days, or even a couple hours, you’ve already “messed up,” “blown it,” and are totally discouraged. So why not just get a candy bar from the vending machine and have a big plate of fettuccini for dinner, then, huh, since you already screwed up so bad?
But why not try a more moderate approach to everything, not just the amount of food on your plate? You don’t need to miraculously become a super-human fitness machine overnight. Try a few small changes at first. Like, say, for instance, don’t worry about counting calories just yet, but go to the gym three times this week. And next week. And then cut out certain foods. Or just start by giving up one big, unhealthy habit; for instance, my current weight loss started not with one of my big overhauls or programs or even surgery, but with deciding to give up caffeine. And then all carbonated drinks. Which led to giving up fast food. And the more crap I gave up and the healthier I started eating, the better I felt, and the more fun it was to add new healthy options. You can do that easily. Just give up fast food this week, or give up your morning stop for a high-calorie coffee drink or your afternoon snack of M&Ms and Doritos in favor of a healthy option. Start slow and build up. For this one meal, you are going to eat healthy, and that’s no big deal at all. (You can go to Taco Bell for dinner if you still really really really want to, after all. But for this meal, you are going to make healthy choices. And the more healthy choices you make, the less you’ll want the unhealthy ones.) As Gramma says, “little by little, we go far.”
Your body is trainable. Did you know how flexible the stomach is? You can stretch it out, or shrink it, depending on how much or little food you put in it. With regular healthy eating habits, your stomach can almost halve its capacity! It’s hard and takes time (and, in my case, surgery). But just because one time I could eat a meal out that would include a big portion of shared appetizers, a salad, a steak and baked potato, and follow it with dessert, then be ready to polish off any leftovers an hour later, that all doesn’t mean that my stomach and body weren’t re-trainable. You weren’t born with the ability to put away three helpings of dinner or an entire box of Pop-Tarts, were you? It’ll take time and effort, but sometime in the near future, I promise, you can be full and satisfied with a bowl of soup and half an apple for lunch instead of two burgers and fries. You won’t need three cans of Coke before work, or a half a pizza at dinner, in order to feel content and satisfied.
Also, did you know that you can change your taste buds? Sure, you may think you need to put all that salt on your food or sugar in your iced tea, but you can wean yourself off it. Cut the amount by quarters until you’re no longer using it, and within a couple months, you’ll be surprised that you don’t even miss it. And you’ll be surprised at how good the things themselves taste without being over-seasoned.
You can acquire tastes for most things. (I mean, chances are, you didn’t love most alcoholic beverages when you first tried them, right? But you kept drinking them for whatever reason, right? So why not do the same thing with food, and keep at it until you develop a taste for healthy things?) The rule of thumb is, try something three times. Just try. Even if it’s not your very favorite, if it’s a healthy option, keep trying it a couple times. You’d be surprised how quickly you can acquire a liking for butternut squash, fresh spinach, skim milk, a lower-calorie version of your favorite dish. If it’s the texture of something that grosses you out, find another way to try it, like mushrooms chopped fine in a tomato sauce, or a low-fat oatmeal scone. As I said, I hated most veggies for the better part of my life. So I had to teach myself to like them. I couldn’t just jump straight into a plate of steamed naked veggies and be content with it. Instead, I’d add lots more finely chopped veggies to tomato sauce or soup or a casserole. And I love mashed potatoes, and found that taking equal portions of potatoes and veggies and eating them together helped me learn to tolerate – and eventually really, genuinely like – fresh steamed cauliflower and carrots, oven-roasted squash, haricot verts with a bit of lemon and garlic, zucchini and eggplant sliced on flatbread with some pesto.... I used to hate honey, and the idea of it as anything but part of a tonic in hot tea when one has the flu was an anathema. But I had chicken once that had a honey-rosemary glaze, and that was good. Then I had it in baklava. And... hm, maybe I’ll try a bit of some fancy kind with a goat cheese made from a flock of snow-white goats grazing on an unblemished Spanish plain or something, and wow, that’s pretty damned tasty!
And as I developed a liking for these foods, I developed a corresponding aversion for some of my less-healthy choices. I can’t stand the taste or texture of canned vegetables of any kind any more. In fact, most of the pre-prepared stuff or boxed or canned stuff now tastes all chemically and sodium-laden to me. Fast food, even just the smell, makes me want to barf. I’ll take a big glass of cold ice water over soda any day, and even a little Coke sipped on an airplane to combat motion sickness will make me urpy and headachy. I still love a bite of steak now and then, but one bite is more than enough; anything more, and my stomach rebels and I end up with screaming diarr-. You get the picture.
Of course there are certain things I will always love... chocolate, ice cream, cheese, peanut butter, and more chocolate. And there are things I just can’t develop a taste for, like curry or most super-spicy foods, peppers, salmon, saffron, and most shellfish. But for the most part, I’ve expanded my food possibilities ten billion times beyond the “raw carrots, or canned peas and green beans and that’s it” limitations of my youth.
Have fun. Believe it or not, you don’t have to suffer every inch – or pound – of the way. Play music you like, or wear an obnoxious t-shirt in a color or with a slogan that you’d never wear in public when you exercise. Make silly workout mixes on your iPod and lip sync when you’re on the treadmill. Go hiking or walking someplace beautiful, like the park or the beach or the local zoo. Volunteer to walk the dogs three times a week at your local animal shelter. Explore your city by walking around it ten blocks at a time. Eat your meals off your fine china or bright kiddie plates from Target. Try that vegan restaurant or go to the Farmer’s Market for your day’s supply of fresh produce.
Find what works for you. Not everyone likes running. I hate it. And my shin splints make it a very painful and not particularly helpful exercise anyway. So, after a lot of trial and error with exercise, I found I can handle blasting cheesy pop music and getting on an elliptical for 45 minutes. I hate going to a typical aerobics class, but I’ll take more casual dance classes where no one cares how bad you move and the music is usually better. So just because your sister loves to train for marathons doesn’t mean that that’s what’ll work for you. Maybe you find that the morning Tai Chi group at the local park is what you really love. Try a variety of activities: dance classes, walking tours of places, the group that meets every other morning at the beach to walk three miles up and down the shore, a stationary bike with a good book, a dodge-ball team. Some people like working out first thing in the morning, others prefer a late-afternoon trip to the gym or an evening dance class. Some people like to read magazines or watch TV on the treadmill, some like to run and listen to books on tape, some like to kickbox, some like to work out with friends, some like to work out alone.... There are tons of options for you to try.
That applies to food as well. Just because you read in People that everyone in Hollywood is losing weight by eating only grapes/doing The Purge diet/eating only steamed baby carrots and daikon radishes and slivered whitefish doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. In fact, you have to change up your routines now and then, because your body gets used to the routine and then plateaus. So don’t worry if you hate salad; you can find lots of other ways to eat well, and God knows, there are certainly enough websites with low-cal recipe options to try out. Sure, your coworker is going on and on about how much he lost on such-and-such WeightSystemPlus program, but if you tried it and didn’t care for it, you aren’t a big, sucky failure. Try something else. Just because I can eat tomato soup for six lunches in a row doesn’t mean you’ll want to. If your husband thinks it’s weird that you have light yogurt every morning for breakfast, who cares, as long as it’s working for you and you’re satisfied with it? You may have to plan out menus for the week and cook up a bunch of food ahead of time. You may find that you can stick to a very specific few foods/meals and do just fine. Just give yourself permission to experiment and find out what you like and what works with your personality and your body.
Do whatever it takes mentally to get yourself in the right frame of mind, even if it’s silly. It’s all about your perspective. If you go into a diet or exercise program thinking “I HAVE to do this!” and “God, I hate this shit!” it’s gonna feel like a chore. So try different ways to think about your food choices and fitness activities.
Think of it as self-respect, if that helps. “Oh, I respect my body too much to put poison like that unhealthy food into it.” Who cares if your hyper-critical friend or parent would make fun of you if they knew you were thinking it; you don’t need to SAY it, just think it to yourself! Don’t sit and scowl at what seems like a meager snack and grouse “Apple slices! What kind of a snack is that?!” or “I don’t want just some skimpy salad and mess of carrot sticks for lunch!” Skimpy? Meager? No, no! Why, it’s an elegant, European luncheon, especially when you serve the salad in a colorful bowl, with dashes of cracked pepper fresh from the grinder, a dab of imported olive oil and a sprinkling of four-year aged parmesan from the Italian market! You are the epitome of French chic with such a dainty, light repast! Instead of bemoaning the loss of your morning McDonald’s run, develop a new ritual, with a beautiful china pot and cup for your herbal tea, and a dish of fresh summer fruit. Why, a person of your grace and culture wouldn’t be satisfied with a mere Egg McMuffin. Would someone offer Queen Victoria an Egg McMuffin, after all?! You are far, far too cosmopolitan to eat anything that came wrapped in greaseproof paper- no, wait, you are far too ecologically minded to eat anything that came wrapped in greaseproof paper, so you will have this beautiful, organic, all-natural raw-food dinner instead, al fresco on your patio, to make it even more nature-oriented! Yes! That’s it! In fact, you don’t want to contribute to the over-consumerism-corporation-corporateness of the western world, so you will eschew chain restaurants, all of whom are out to brainwash everyone with their table-sized plates of food and non-stop barrage of soda pop! Put on some koto music and have a Japanese-style meal of tiny, beautifully-prepared and -served bits and pieces... not those fatty sushi rolls from the place by the mall, but an authentic meal of colorful veggies and strips of seasoned fish and beef, eaten daintily with chopsticks. In fact, someone as peaceful and centered as you wouldn’t eat in the car, would you? Rather, your mealtimes are small rituals of their own, and you take the time to set the table and light candles and turn the TV off, and put one or two lovely flowers in a vase, and eat slowly, taking small bites and savoring the flavor of every ingredient in the chicken-pineapple stir fry you made. You are a busy, active, professional person- no, you are an international spy, and you are constantly on the go, and can’t be bothered with giant plates of messy food, but rather, only have time during the day for these carefully pre-prepared meal replacement drinks your doctor recommended, high in vitamins and protein, because you’ll need the energy while you dash from a high-powered meeting at the FBI to a mafia stake-out. Would James Bond sit around with a couple co-workers after work eating a Bloomin’ Onion?! WOULD HE?!
When you’re at the gym, stop thinking about how your ass looks in those sweatpants or that the skinny person next to you is grossed out by your boobs wobbling or that you’re going to pass out and everyone will laugh at you. No, you aren’t merely on a treadmill at the gym... you are a superhero, a mighty machine, pushing yourself to the limit to run across a... a... hm, a desert plain? No, a... a city torn apart by an earthquake! And if you can just keep going a little longer, you can make it to the... the collapsing bridge and save the whole city! Yes! You are an Olympian, a speed skater or a decathlon champion, pacing yourself on a long-distance run, the sound of cheers faint in the background, victory only a few laps away! You are a wild and rebellious rave kid, and it’s 1992, and you are in some abandoned warehouse surrounded by other frantic dancers, and the music isn’t on your iPod, but rather, is being pumped out of a sound system so powerful that it’s probably illegal, and you are just going to move to the beat until you are sweaty and weak and in another state of consciousness! This isn’t a stupid aerobics routine that you’re trying to follow along to at home. Nuh uh! You are the newest pop sensation, working out the choreography for your upcoming tour, and you’ve got six hot backup dancers with you, and there’re a couple reporters from Rolling Stone who can’t believe your incredible moves! Yeah! Those aren’t bike pedals under your feet or a well-padded kick-boxing bag in front of you; instead, it’s every person who ever called you “fat” or it’s that neighbor kid who shot your cat when you were eight, or every super-skinny heroine of every book you read in Middle School, or the coworker who propositioned you and then got you fired, or-
But don’t focus only on one person or thing. You aren’t going to lose weight just to show up at your high school reunion and have the guy you were crushing on back then go “Oh my God! You look great!” You can’t spend every single workout obsessed with how, someday soon, you will look better than that bitchy coworker/relative/ex-friend, so HA! You are so much more – and thus, your weight loss is so much more – than one focused obsession or old hurt. So put on your sneakers and get outside, because you are going to reenact Run, Lola, Run and you have 100,000 deutschemarks to deliver-
Educate yourself. Don’t just blindly buy the frozen dinners or meal replacement bars that have “Healthy” or “Lean” in the name and think that having them for lunch every day for six months will cause you to drop twenty pounds. They aren’t necessarily all that great (just look at the sodium content). Read labels a lot. Talk to your doctors. Find out how many calories you need a day, and write down what you’re eating for a few weeks and figure out how many calories you’re consuming in an average meal. Learn what constitutes a full serving of something. Know what your blood pressure and cholesterol levels should be. Research those TrimMeSlim supplements and know what is in them. And did I mention, read labels! Know how many calories and fat grams and sodium and vitamins are in what you’re eating, be it an orange or a HappyJack BigCombo Meal.
Set goals. A bunch of them. Have small goals as well as big ones, both realistic and unrealistic. Don’t just tell yourself that when you lose 175 pounds someday in the ephemeral and misty future, you’ll get a whole new wardrobe. That’s too big, too hard, too discouraging, too out-of-reach. Sure, have the big goals: run a marathon, lower cholesterol, fit into such-and-such designer’s clothes. But have a bunch of little touchstone-goals, too: lose five pounds this month, go to two new classes at the gym, drink eight glasses of water today. Give yourself lots of motivation: after you’ve lost your first twenty pounds, you’ll get that haircut you’ve been thinking about for a year (instead of waiting until that “someday” when you’re “thin”)... if you go hiking every other weekend for six months, you’ll plan a trip to hike in the Rockies... when you get under 200 lbs, you’ll celebrate with a day at a spa. Make a list of your possible goals, no matter how silly or insignificant someone else would think they are. “Get blood pressure under 140/90,” “Be able to get through an entire aerobic class without having to take a break,” “Take vitamins every day this week,” “Go grocery shopping for one full month without buying anything unhealthy (even if you claim the cookies are for your kids or the bag of chips are for your mom).” Nothing is too insignificant or silly if it gets you to make healthy and positive choices.
Listen to your body.Feeling all-over soreness when you start working out is one thing. That’s normal. It’s even kind of invigorating, in a weird sort of validating way. But if you feel incredible pain in one leg after a run, or you back is spasming, don’t think you need to “push through the pain” or anything; stretch it out, baby it a little, and make sure you haven’t pulled or injured a muscle. If you are suddenly feeling really dragged out even after more than a couple days of dieting, you may have ended up cutting some vital nutrient. Talk to a doctor. Talk to more than one. Check things out.
But also, if you are craving something madly, pay attention. You may be lacking in a specific vitamin, which is why you suddenly have been craving avocados or leafy greens or orange juice. Or, if you have been really, really, really craving Cheez-Its, give your body a couple of days to crave and make sure it isn’t just a passing yen. (Most cravings are. Most cravings go away in a matter of fifteen minutes to an hour, actually.) If, after two days, you still really, really, really want Cheez-Its, go ahead and buy one of those mini-packs and have ‘em. If you’re already making overall healthy choices and getting regular exercise, a few Cheez-Its are deal-able.
Treat yourself with things other than food. This was one of my biggest problems. “Oh, I’ll just have a scoop of ice cream as a little treat for finishing that paper.” “If I get all of my errands out of the way first thing this morning, I’ll go to Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles for lunch as a special treat.” “Oh, tonight is a fun night out with a group of friends, so this big meal at Il Bucco followed by a trip to Al Gelato is just a treat.” “This shop has those brownies THTM loves, so I’ll get a few as a little treat for us.” But my day was filled with “little treats” of bad food and unhealthy choices. I had “little treats” at every meal, with a bunch of “little treats” in between. It helped to find other things, healthy things, non-edible things to treat myself with (and to not treat others to edible things as an excuse to treat myself to them as well). Instead of a nice lunch or a couple cookies, I’ll treat myself to other things I really like and that are better for me (and are within budget): an afternoon trip to those funky used bookstores in Burbank that I haven’t explored in a while, a ballet class, a manicure and pedicure or a massage, a long bath. Instead of baking cookies, I’ll make a big arrangement of flowers or spend an hour in the window seat with some comfort reading.
Don’t make a big production of it. Everyone in the world doesn’t need to know you’re on a diet. You aren’t going to stay on track if you make a big deal to all of your family that you’re now going to the gym and have thrown out all of your unhealthy food. You don’t have to do the big dramatic eschewing of the break-room doughnuts, or keep reminding everyone that you are losing weight. You don’t need to hold forth on how bad junk food is or how you only eat organic now. It’s only going to make you sound self-centered and insecure (and some people may enjoy finding ways to undermine you). It’s also just the flip side of “Why is everyone looking at what I’m wearing/eating/my body!” anyway, so break that cycle. Don’t lecture other people about diet and exercise, even if you mean well. Don’t nag your spouse to join you every time you go to the gym. Don’t tell your aunt that she needs to diet like you and she’d feel so much better. After all, you hated it when others did that crap to you. This is your business, your body, your life.
On the other hand....
Fuck everyone else. Okay, so your friend might whine that you no longer want to go hang out at the pub, eating buffalo wings. Your spouse and kids might whine that you no longer are fixing their favorite foods or serving dessert. Your mom might make pointed comments about “Is that all you’re eating? Really? Don’t you want a little bite of this? Are you sure?” Everyone who struggles with weight will have to struggle with someone or something that it feels like is out to sabotage your hard efforts. Don’t let that become your excuse to give up. No. Stop it. Don’t let them. Fuck them. Learn to smile and say “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “What an interesting way of looking at things” or “That’s quite a remarkable assumption” or “That’s nice.” Don’t get mad. Don’t stomp away. Don’t go “Fine! I guess you’d rather I be fat!” and start chowing a king-size Snickers bar, ‘cos then they’ll be sorry, dammit! Just blandly say “Okay,” and keep on with your goals. Fuck them if they can’t understand or be supportive or just allow you to try to be the healthy person you want to be.
You rock. You’re doing something emotional and hard. You’re facing your demons. You’re making positive changes. It isn’t important if you’re trying to lose ten pounds or two hundred; you’re working to reach a goal.
Being fat (or thin) is not how you have to define yourself. Being fat is simply part of your physical makeup, not your personal character or self. And you can change that. Because really, you are awesome.