Friday, January 10, 2014

The Value of Hunger

I'm hungry right now. I had a reasonably sized and even (for me) healthy breakfast. (It included a banana!) I have a filling and balanced lunch planned in an hour or so. Yet at 10 a.m., I want to devour my entire kitchen. Not just eat a little snack, actually eat the entire contents of my fridge. And possibly the fridge itself. Maybe with some chocolate sauce. My body is yelling at me that it's starving. It's yelling -- really loudly! -- that it needs food now.

I always used to listen to my body when it yelled at me for food. It's uncomfortable and scary to feel hungry. Being hungry felt like I was hurting myself. It felt dangerous. A risk to life and health. Being full (even overly so) did not. So, when I was hungry, I ate. I ate until I was sure I was very full and not in any danger of being hungry again soon.

I ate until I was obese. I ate to run away from my hunger. I ate to run away from my fear.

When I made the decision to face my overeating, I had to face my hunger. There was no way for me to eat healthy portion sizes without ever feeling hungry, so I learned to incorporate hunger into my life. And I learned that it's ok for me to sit with my hunger and not act on it.

I am blessed to live in a time and in a nation where food is abundant. I am blessed to be able to afford to feed myself more than adequately. I am blessed with a fridge, freezer, and pantry overflowing with nutritious food to eat. I am blessed with good health care. I am in no danger of starvation or malnutrition. Like most Americans, I am in much greater danger of gorging myself to death on that abundant food. For me, hunger signals don't represent any real danger. If I don't immediately and completely satisfy my hunger, the only consequence is temporary discomfort. If I wait, like so many other cravings, my hunger often passes. (I haven't eaten lunch yet, but I'm less hungry now than when I started writing.)

Yet I found I hadn't wanted to live with that discomfort. I ate because I wanted to live a life that was perpetually happy. All ups. No downs. Having cravings meant satisfying them. More food would make me happy. New relationships would make me happy. More possessions would make me happy. Nicer possessions would make me happy. And they always do, briefly. But the cravings always come back, and then I'd have to buy or do or eat the next thing that's supposed to make me happy.

So, hunger becomes a meditation. Being hungry shows me the value in being right where I am. It shows me there's value in enjoying and feeling gratitude for this house I live in rather than spending more than we have to buy something bigger. And there's value in working through a disagreement with my husband rather than looking for someone else with whom I'll agree. And there's value in appreciating the reliable car I have rather than always looking for a shiny new one. There's value to finding my own center and being at peace myself, regardless of external circumstances. There's value to learning to live with the discomfort, grief, and pain that life will inevitably throw at me. All of that is the value of hunger.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Numbers on a Scale

I have mixed feelings about those numbers on the scale. We put so much worth on weight: a set of numbers that really tell us nothing more than the pull of gravity on us on this particular planet of ours.

In the weak pull of the moon's gravity, I'd weigh just over 20 pounds, while on the surface of the sun (assuming my poor body could withstand the heat), I'd weigh closer to two tons, as much some elephants. I remember learning that in school and hearing some of the girls joke that they wished they lived on Mercury or Mars, where we'd all weigh far less than we do here in the pull of our native Earth. As if we wouldn't all still feel fat at 60 Mars pounds.

I've spent a lot of my life -- too much of my life -- convinced that those numbers said something important about me as a person. When they were small, they said I was a good and attractive person, brimming with desirable qualities like self-control, discipline, energy, and sexiness. When they were high, they said I was a bad person: out of control, undisciplined, lazy, and unattractive.

Yet, in my journey to better health, those numbers have become a valuable tool for me. Granted, they aren't a valuable tool for everyone. New research shows that certain genetic mutations can cause weight gain and obesity in mice, even when those mice are eating exactly the same type and amount of food as other, "normal weight" mice. Research also shows that how much you weigh is less important to health than how fit you are; it seems we're better off being fat and fit than thin and unfit. These types of findings help drive the wonderful fat acceptance movement. They also contribute to my mixed feelings about using my scale as a tool for health and make me feel like a bit of a turncoat for losing 60 pounds and the fat street cred that went with it.

But the truth is, I wasn't a fit fat person, I was an unfit fat person. And a binge eater. I didn't eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise moderately, and gain weight anyway. I never engaged in any kind of aerobic exercise at all; I'd get winded just racing my son to the mailbox or walking up the stairs. And I didn't just eat junk, I overate it. For me to improve my health, I needed to do three things: 1) exercise more, 2) eat more healthy foods and less junk, and 3) (closely related to 2) stop binge eating. I know from experience that trying to take on all three at once would destine me to failure, probably in the form of more bingeing on junk. So, I made small changes with a narrow focus. And my primary focus has been to get my bingeing under control.

This is where the scale comes in. I weigh myself once every week or two. If I have been eating to self-medicate stress, if I have been eating far more than what I need to sustain my life and health, those numbers tell me. I can be dishonest with myself. I can fool myself into thinking that the ice cream sundae I ate was so very small (and full of healthy fruit!) that it's perfectly ok to eat a package of cookies, and of course, I should "listen to my body" when I'm still "hungry" after the sundae and the cookies, so it's ok to have a bag of chips and...

But the numbers on the scale, if I strip them of their emotional importance, have no agenda. They are not there to tell me I'm a good or bad person, and neither can they be complicit in my lies. Those numbers can't tell me if I'm lazy or hardworking, if I'm disciplined or sloppy, if I'm attractive or unattractive, if I'm trustworthy or not. Those numbers can only tell me one simple fact: the pull of the Earth's gravity on my body at this particular moment in time.

The number varies over the course of a day or a month, but I've been tracking long enough to know its usual range and to know that if that number goes up dramatically, it is visible proof of my bingeing. But what I do with that information is up to me. I can tell myself those numbers means I'm a bad, lazy, undisciplined liar. Or I can tell myself that, oops, I slipped up and fell into some old habits I don't want in my life anymore, and I'm going to start over and pay attention to how much I'm eating. The judgement doesn't lie in the scale, it lies in me.

Over the course of the past six months, that number has remained perfectly steady. I still eat junk, but I know I haven't been overeating junk. Maybe there will come a time when I am so honest with myself, so in tune with my body, and so untempted by the need to binge sweets that I don't need to rely on the scale's unbiased feedback. But I'm not there yet. And in the meantime, the scale and I will remain in our uneasy camaraderie, not in the Battle of the Bulge, but in the Battle of the Binge.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why Cookies for Breakfast?

It's common knowledge: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Even my kids tell me so. So, who in their right mind would ever start a campaign to get healthier by eating junk first thing in the morning?

It all comes down to staving off feelings of deprivation. In the past, when I've tried to eat better, I've done what so many of us do. No sweets! No junk! From now on, I'm a changed person! (Or from now until I fit into that dress for my reunion, then all bets are off...) But it never led to lasting change. I felt deprived. I couldn't wait until I reached that goal (whatever it was) so that I can go back to my beloved cookies.

So, this time around, I decided to try a program of no deprivation, which meant finding a way to include some sweets every, single day.

I chose to eat cookies first thing in the morning, because I'm not a big morning person, and I'm just not very hungry for the first few hours after I get up. I've never been a big breakfast eater. So, a cookie or two for breakfast will satisfy. But because it's a "meal" not only does it not feel like deprivation, it feels decadent. Chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? That's so bad! It's so indulgent! Only the worst kind of hedonist would eat an entire meal consisting only of cookies! It's my little way of tricking myself into thinking I'm not missing out on anything.

You're welcome to try it yourself. Of course, it won't work for everyone. I have a mean sweet tooth and a soft spot for baked goods, but you might find that what you need to feel decadent rather than deprived isn't cookies, but a serving of potato chips, fried chicken, cheese, chocolate, steak or a good glass of wine. And it might feel more decadent (and filling) to eat those things in the middle of the day or late at night or with a meal. We all have our own rhythm.

The key for me was to try not to deprive myself of an entire category of food, but to moderate my portion size: a small serving of cookies for breakfast rather than half a package as an afternoon snack. Of course, for some people, this won't work at all; some folks (who aren't me) really do find it easier to cut foods out entirely than to try to moderate their intake. Play around, get to know your needs and rhythms, be honest with yourself and find what works for you. May you eat without deprivation!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Great Fitness Secret

It seems like everyone has a fitness secret. Boost your metabolism, suppress your appetite and lose 20 pounds in a week using acai berries! saffron extract! green coffee! grapefruit! (I'm pretty sure someone out there is thinking about giving those a try right now. "OMG! Coffee? I like coffee! Maybe that will work!")

But we all know what the horrible truth is: we need to eat less and exercise more. And who wants to do that? Eating lots of unhealthy, fattening junk is fun. Exercising is not. (If you like leafy greens and exercise, I may still love you, but I think you're crazy. And wrong. And also just not a food addict.)

Fortunately, here's the real secret that no one ever tells us: "less" and "more" are relative. I only have to eat one bite of kale to eat more than I've eaten all week. I only need to do one sit-up to do more than I've done in months. I only need to eat 5 cookies today to eat fewer than I did yesterday. (If you don't count the brownie and ice cream. Which I don't.)

I don't know about you, but trying to do just a little better is hard for me. I'm a perfectionist living in a society that values winning and broadcasts the ruthless mockery of flaws everywhere from supermarket tabloids to late night TV to every last popular spot on Internet. Nearly every message we get from the diet industry, the media and health professionals tells us that better isn't good enough. If we aren't willing to exercise twenty minutes a day, cut out all junk and sweets and lose lots of weight, then there's no value in trying. If we can't be perfect, we shouldn't bother. And we shouldn't wait for perfect to emerge slowly; we should have it now!

But over the years, I've found that when I try to make those monumental changes, I'm bound to fail, and then feel worse and more hopeless and less likely to change. So, this time around, I aimed for slow change instead. I ate "less." I focused only on eating smaller portions, not on what was in those portions. Chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? You bet! Just not a whole plate of them. And I exercised "more." For months, the only exercise I got was a short (1/4 mile) walk a few days a week and pushups three times a week. But I wasn't on the couch.

And the thing is, it works!

I was looking at a picture of myself this week. I bought some new exercise pants, and I had my daughter take a picture, so I could see how I looked. And the first thing I saw when I looked at that picture were my slouchy shoulders and bad posture. The ways in which I wasn't perfect. The negatives! Go figure. Sure, I knew I'd lost some weight and the pants looked good and I thought that maybe if I squinted, I could see some definition in my arms, but overall: slouchy!

So, I decided to compare it to a picture from a year ago. And wow! Suddenly I could see the progress. Forget the slouchy posture. Hell, yes, I could see definition in my arms! I could see layers of unhealthy fat gone. I could see a much stronger, fitter body.

My friends saw it and said, "What's your secret? How did you do it?" Eating less and exercising more!

I ate cookies every day, but fewer of them. I used MyFitnessPal to track my calories and got a kitchen scale to make sure I wasn't overdoing my portions, but I didn't worry too much about changing what went into those portions. Having a budget for calories helped me cut lots of empty calories naturally. (Do you know how much spinach you can eat for the amount of calories in a single ounce of chips? Enough to burst.)

And I exercised more than not at all. I don't have a gym membership or a personal trainer or even a workout plan. I danced to the Wii. I took the stairs. I walked. I used the program. And I didn't exercise every day. Sometimes I did nothing for months. But it was still more than I used to.

And slowly, gradually it worked, until I could look back over the year and see that those tiny changes have added up over time into something new and grand.

Any change takes effort, so I won't say that this secret, incremental as it may be, is a completely pain and effort free way to transform yourself. There have been times I've been hungry and struggled with cravings and have denied myself that one more serving anyway. There have been times I've made myself use the stairs when I wanted to take the escalator or take a walk when I didn't want to go outside or do a few pushups when I was tired.

And there have also been times when I've given in and sucked down a day's worth of calories in five minutes, or months when I kept my butt firmly planted on the couch. But those weren't really failures. They were my baseline. I was going to do all that anyway. Instead, the times I didn't (even the smallest efforts) were my successes. I was doing better than I had before. And I kept trying. And over time, enough days of better made a difference.

Eat less. Exercise more. In whatever way works for you (which will not be quite the same as what worked for me.) But don't be perfect or buy in to the myth that you must do some set minimum to see a benefit. Something is better than nothing. Do something. Imperfectly. And in a year, you will look back at yourself amazed at how far you've come in tiny steps.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Willingness to Change

Change is an act of desperation. Knowing we have a problem may be a necessary prerequisite for change (the mental equivalent of getting our bags packed for a trip), but being willing to do something is where the journey begins. It starts in that moment when the joy of relaxing comfortably within old habits is finally outweighed by the discomfort those old habits bring. So, before I started to get healthier, I got willing.

Coming to this willingness happens differently for everyone. For some, it's a gradual process where no single moment stands out, in much the same way I can't pinpoint the actual first word either of my kids said, because their babbling slid so imperceptibly, day by day, into speech. For me, it was a single moment of clarity, like the moment I knew I wanted to marry my husband. But only one of those happened naked, and it actually wasn't the one with my husband.

A little over a year ago, I was in my bedroom getting ready for a shower when the phone rang, and everything changed. I dived across my bed naked to grab it. And in that moment of sliding across the bed toward the phone, something clicked. Whether it was the action of diving or the feeling of sheets against my skin or a combination of both, I was suddenly very aware of my body. And I was very aware that, while I had come to accept my body over the years, I didn't love it, and I hadn't been treating it with love.

I was treating this body... The one that housed me and transported me, that bore and nurtured my children, that hugged my friends and loved my husband, that communicated my thoughts and touched my world.. This useful, beautiful, completely unique and totally irreplaceable body... This great gift of life... I was treating it like so much cheap, disposable junk.

In fact, I fed it junk. I binged on sweets and chips and processed foods. I didn't exercise. I was weak and out of shape. And I had been ok with that.

Over the years, I had exhausted every option for not changing. Sure, it may have seemed like I was changing, because the numbers on the scale would go up and down. But all that meant was that I was on a roller coaster, riding in an endless loop. I would try exercising and dieting for a while. And when I'd lost enough weight to satisfy myself, I'd think, "Whew! Glad that's over! Now that I'm here, I'll never have to do that again." Which guaranteed that I would do it. Over and over again.

Eventually, I gave up. I decided to accept my body as it was. After all, being overweight is associated with a lower mortality rate than having a normal weight and being obese and fit is healthier than being thin and unfit. Which would have been fine if I had actually been fit. But I wasn't. Still, it was a way to stop the roller coaster, even if it only meant sitting still on the tracks.

But suddenly, I was sliding across my bed naked, reaching for the phone, and knowing I couldn't keep living the way I had, because the world looked so different now. I was willing to climb off the roller coaster entirely and try a new path, one that I had a chance to sustain every day for the rest of my life. And one that, for now, includes chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.


I believe we grow through shared stories. I've shared mine, please use the comments to share your own story of finding the willingness to change...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Get Fit Eating Cookies for Breakfast!

I eat chocolate chip cookies for breakfast. I really do. And not just chocolate chip cookies. Today, I ate some of those peanut butter sandwich Girl Scout cookies for breakfast. (Do-si-dos! Yum!) Of course, I wouldn't think of discriminating against other sweets, so I also eat cake, pie, doughnuts, brownies, Pop Tarts and chocolate pancakes topped with whipped cream for breakfast. But -- and this is very important! -- not all at the same time.

A year ago, I was clinically obese. I weighed as much as I did when I was pregnant and carrying around a whole extra human. I used to get winded walking up a single flight of stairs. I don't blame that on eating cookies for breakfast; I blame it on all the other times during the day I was eating cookies. That, and my steadfast refusal to exercise.

Yet today, I did 80 push-ups. (On my knees, taking breaks for a few minutes after every 10 or 20, but still... 80! That's a big number!) I've lost nearly 60 pounds and my weight is back within the "normal" range for my height.  I can run up the stairs without losing my breath. And, lest we forget, I ate delicious, delicious Girl Scout cookies for breakfast. And other than those push-ups, I mostly sat at a computer, unless you count doing dishes as exercise.

But, you may stammer, how is that possible? What is your secret? In order to achieve perfect bodies and perfect health, don't we have to overhaul our diets and stick to some crazy Paleo, South Beach, Atkins, Zone, vegan regime that involves eating only raw, organic, low carb, low fat, no sugar, unprocessed superfoods? Don't we have to exercise every day following a regimen that balances cardio, strength training and flexibility while keeping our heart rates in the ideal range for fitness? And the answer is yes. To achieve perfect bodies and perfect health, we probably do. But I gave up on that. I just want to achieve better health. And maybe, after a few too many dizzying turns on the diet and fitness merry-go-round, you do too.

Better health isn't a perfect (or perfect looking) body, but a slightly stronger, slightly more fit body. Better health isn't a destination. It isn't letting out a sigh when (at last!) you're there and you can quit all this work all the damn time. It's a permanent change and a lifelong journey. But fortunately, better health can happen slowly, imperfectly, in tiny increments, while eating cookies for breakfast.

If you're up for this journey, grab a cookie and come join me. But if you want to lose 20 pounds in a week and get a totally ripped body, this isn't the place; although I know there are people who'll happily sell you a plan. Just know that if that plan doesn't work for you, you can always come on back. I'll be waiting with a plate of chocolate chip cookies.