On my first day at nutrition school our lecturer was a petite woman resembling Natalie Portman: a teeny, tiny brunette with a regal air about her. As she expounded on macrobiotic diets and food combining and fat metabolism, I couldn’t help but think, “All these nutritionists here who are, like, a size two and never had a weight problem in their lives—how am I ever going to feel like I belong to that club?” 

Well, subsequently, I discovered that this sylph-like woman had actually lost 50 pounds during her first year as a student at that same school, a result of following the very eating plan she now advocated (and the one I’m pursuing, the NAG diet).  Oops.  My bad, as they say.  Still, that didn’t change my mind about the majority of professional dieticians and their unsuitability to dispense advice to those of us who are willpower-challenged.   

Consequently, what I decided to do in today’s post is have some fun (almost as much fun as Holidailies!) and assess a few of the numerous websites purporting to deliver the last word on avoiding weight gain during the holiday season, when most of us pack on an extra 7-12 pounds.   

Please note: this is a purely personal opinion.  These sites were chosen at random, and I have no idea how well the ideas they present actually work in reality.  I’m only responding to whether or not they’d work for me.  

First up is this article at Suite 101. The five tips for preventing weight gain over the holidays include: 

  1. Curb alcohol consumption.
  2. Stop eating when full.
  3. Deal with hunger.
  4. Use a smaller plate.
  5. Curb emotional eating.

I wondered, Has this writer ever actually known an overweight person?  We’re not fat for nothing.  Uh, hello, news flash:  if I could just “stop eating when full,” I wouldn’t be fat. (I used to have a friend who said that, during the holidays at her house, you hadn’t eaten enough if you left the table without feeling nauseated. That’s a family that understands overeating.) Ditto if I had already mastered emotional eating—there’d be no problem if I could simply “curb” it.   

I did like the writer’s suggestion to “use a smaller plate,” however.  In his 2006 best-seller Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink explains this phenomenon of people eating more when they use larger plates. (His study also implies that it would behoove all us fatties to eat only monochromatic meals for best diet results, but that’s taking it a bit too far).   

Unfortunately, when the article writer then went on to explain, “This works with smaller bowls for soups, and plates for dinners, appetizers and even deserts,” well, he lost me.  I just can’t imagine how much water I’d need to wash it down after consuming even a small desert (all that sand and everything).  

Rating: 42,000 extra calories (12 lb.) consumed with this advice.  

Another expert-supported site was the Cleveland Clinic’s “Eight Steps to Surviving Holiday Weight Gain.”  In this case, the advice seemed a little more realistic (since it is, after all, backed by their successful diet clinic). A couple of the suggestions did, however, sound patently preposterous.

For instance, they recommend that you “make a pact with co-workers that goodies will be kept solely in the break room, not at the front desk or in various offices.  And while you’re at it, may as well ask them to stop stealing your ideas and taking credit for them, gossiping during coffee breaks, or arriving late to meetings, too. 

The single piece of advice that riles the most, however, is the one that seems to surface in every “how not to gain weight over the holidays” article. Here it is: “Never Go To A Party Hungry.”  

How many dieticians, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and other professionals have said something like this to you: “Oh, be sure to eat something before you go. That way, you’ll already be satisfied, so you won’t be hungry and overeat once you get there.”  I don’t know about you, but whether or not I’ve just eaten before arriving at a party is totally irrelevant when I get there.  If I see food I adore, I want to eat it. Period. Even if I already ate something before I got there. Even if it was a three course meal.  Even if I’m already full.   

So I eat before I go to the party, and then arrive to the tantalizing display of punch bowls brimming with nutmeg-dusted eggnog, trays overflowing with cute little star-shaped orange-pistachio shortbread and frosted chocolate-cherry cookies, triple-layer cakes adorned with crushed candy canes, dainty trays of Kalhua truffles, individual pots of chocolate mousse, (God help me) platters of mincemeat tarts—that’s it, game over, I’m doomed long before I even get started on the real “food” (never mind the champagne).   

I know that the theory behind this last one is, “a person can consume only so many calories before feeling full, so if that person arrives at the party already having consumed sufficient calories, overindulging will not ensue.”  Again, this writer has probably never really known, and certainly never was, a fat person. 

I really like the Cleveland Clinic’s final piece of advice, though:  “Focus on Socializing.”  After all, to paraphrase Woody Allen’s character at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s our closest relationships, with the people we care most about, that ultimately confer meaning to “the indifferent universe.” (Okay, along with chocolate.)  But focusing on the people in our lives provides not only a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being cared for, a feeling of satisfaction—it also acts as a great distraction, so that overeating may never enter our minds (or our mouths) in the first place. 

Rating:  24,5000 extra calories (7 lb.) consumed with this advice. 

Finally, getting back to Wansink, it was one of his ideas I most appreciated, published in the November issue of Consumer Health Reports. 

Even though Wansink is also clearly not someone saddled with weight issues (on his webpage, he describes himself as a person who “regularly enjoys both French food and french fries”), he does seem to know whereof he speaks. Maybe there’s actually something to all those thousands of hours of experiments, observing the actual eating habits of scores of people in a controlled study after all.  

Here’s what Wansink advises:                

“At a reception buffet, follow the ‘rule of two.’ You can have whatever you want, but you have to use the smallest plate and can put only two things on it at one time. Always have something to drink in your hand, because that’s one less hand to eat with.” 

I find his approach the most refreshing—and most pragmatic—of those I read today. The part that appeals to me most? No self denial, no measuring or weighing, no keeping track of what goes down the gullet, no guilt. If you want to refill that little plate 74 times, go ahead.  (But he’s betting you won’t). You can still eat everything you love, enjoy it, and, given the right set of china, avoid excess weight gain.  

Rating: 5250 extra calories consumed with this advice (1.5 lb–still better than the average, right?). 

(“Mum, you’re not planning to change the size of our bowls, are you? Because it already feels like we don’t get enough food.”)

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Well, I’ve got it bad.

It’s exam time at the college, and there are something like 204 papers to be marked by the end of the week.

Yet, as I sit here at my desk, wind vaulting stray flakes of snow across my window, what do I do? Do I even glance in the direction of those essays?  No. Do I take a few minutes to admire the vista of white that I haven’t seen in maybe 10 years? (Seems this new location is just above the no-snow line—two blocks, and suddenly, we’ve got real winter.) Uh-uh.  Do I stop and meditate for even 5 minutes, as I’ve solemnly vowed to do? Absolutely not.

No, what I do is go immediately to the Holidailies website and check out the recent posts. And read, and read, and have a laugh, and nod in agreement, and wipe a tear from my eye, and then go to my own blog and start writing.

It’s Day Four of Holidailies, and I’m totally hooked. Since I still can’t seem to figure out how to get that cute little icon pasted to my page, I’ve decided to honour the event in my own unique way: every day of Holidailies (well, except today, I guess, since the jig is already up), I’m going to attempt to channel Alfred Hitchcock (except for the weight part, that is), and surreptitiously add a link to the Holidailies site, somewhere in my post. Think of it as the “Where’s Waldo?” of blogging.

On a completely unrelated note. . . .

I’ve been thinking more about the notion of intuitive eating, as that seems to be the approach I’ve adopted, more or less, in my quest for normal eating. The idea, as I interpret it, is to learn to let your body eat what it really wants, and then stop as soon as it no longer wants it.

I’ve recently read several posts that touch on this idea, most recently at Angry Fat Girlz. Granted, for Erin, the writer of the post, the notion of intuitive eating was a short digression in her larger discussion of how we should each find what works best for us as individuals. But she seems to decry the concept of intuitive eating as basically self-destructive when she recalls trying out different diet plans, including Weight Watchers:

“I eventually ended up half-embracing Intuitive Eating, but I could never really buy into the idea of unconditional forgiveness if I decided to eat a 5 gallon drum of peanut butter because my body said it wanted it.”

To discount intuitive eating because it feels impossible (or downright wrong) to forgive yourself because you FEEL like eating, say, a kilo (oops, sorry American friends, that’s about 2 pounds) of Chunky Monkey is, I think, a misguided conclusion. Because in reality, a true “intuitive” eater would never WANT to eat a kilo of ice cream in the first place, so there’d be nothing to forgive. No healthy, intuitive body out there craves that much rich, highly caloric, sugar-laden food, unless it’s recently been lost in the Tundra for a week or so, or has been traipsing through the Sahara a little too long without provisions. In other words, true intuitive eating brings us to a life of balance and health, and is naturally inclined toward what is good for us. And unfortunately, my body is completely devoid of that sort of intuition.

Take my Human Honey, for instance. (He loves it when I tell this story, even if it is drawn and tired by now, but it’s true.) He has never had a weight problem, and has always been a “normal” eater. In his childhood home, dessert was just another course, take it or leave it; and there was never a need to “hide” food because Daddy Will Get Mad if He Sees That We’ve Eaten Four Donuts in One Day. So when my HH eats, he eats what he feels like having, he thoroughly enjoys every mouthful, and he stops when he’s full. Period. He might be eating something he highly enjoys—loves, even—but when he’s full, that’s it; the switch has been pulled, and there will be no more food going into that mouth just then, no matter what is still on the plate.

“But it’s just ONE PEA,” I implore, “Just eat the damned thing!”

“No,” he calmly replies, “I am full, I don’t want to eat any more.” And he pushes the plate away.

Now, that’s intuitive eating. And the only way to achieve it, I think, is to allow your body to learn how to do it, even if it means making mistakes along the way. Even if it means eating a kilo of ice cream once in a while.

I’ve come to believe that for overeaters, their appetites are somehow out of whack, just like an overactive immune system when it reacts to an allergen. The IgE antibodies detect something otherwise harmless and freak out: “Attack! Attack!” just as my appetite alarm detects something yummy and bellows, “Eat! Eat!” Even if, in both cases, the extreme reaction is totally unwarranted.

That’s why I don’t believe in guilt when I overeat (don’t get me wrong here: just because I don’t believe in it, doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t experience it; but I’m working on that one). Why would you want to punish yourself twice—first, when you eat the “wrong” thing, and then again when you flagellate yourself for it?

I’ve read that, for those of us who are overweight, part of the reason may be an enhanced sense of taste. Those who taste foods more “fully” may crave them more, because they appreciate the flavors on a deeper level (which makes you feel kind of sad for those taste-deprived skinny people, doesn’t it?). And since flavor is dissolved and distributed more in the fat content of foods, we well-padded individuals tend to crave fatty foods. Sugar is just plain addictive, so combine the two (chocolate, anyone?), and you’ve got a recipe (sorry, couldn’t resist) for disaster. For me, I’m sure this is the case. I’ve been indulging in sweets since I was a child, and it makes sense to me that I must have developed this kind of hyperactive taste sensitivity.

On the other hand, I have noticed one very positive by-product of eating only NAG-friendly sweets. To begin with, all the flours are whole grain, and on top of that, my baking uses a lot of fruits and nuts as ingredients (you kind of have to when you eliminate eggs, dairy, refined sugars, and wheat). So I end up with many products that are high in fibre, and relatively low in fat (though that’s not the goal of the NAG diet, anyway—it’s just aiming for healthy fats, within a reasonable limit).

Because these goodies are brimming with whole, natural ingredients, they are also much more nutrient-dense than other sweets, so they tend to fill you up more. I really, honestly, cannot eat the entire pan of my alternative Chocolate Walnut Brownies (made with spelt flour, flax seeds, dates, cocoa, organic walnuts, etc.) because I simply get too full too fast. But a whole pan of Sara Lee brownies? Or Entenmanns’s? No problem.

So I’m hoping that, over time, eating a whole foods, healthy diet will result in my body learning, even if it takes a while, how to say “no” when it’s had enough. Without guilt, and without self-recrimination. After all, how long would it take to learn any other new skill at my age? I wouldn’t expect to be able to successfully build a doghouse, or play the stock market, or conduct a symphony, either, without a few years of experience at it, or a few mistakes along the way. And anyway, eating brownies is so much more fun, n’est-ce pas?

Hey, Weight Up!

December 2, 2007

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It’s my obstreperous streak, probably.  Today, barely the second day of Holidailies–during which I’ve pledged to write in this blog with unwavering regularity–and already I’ve decided I don’t want to adhere to my self-imposed schedule of writing topics. 

Well, that’s not entirely true.  It’s not the topic, so much, that I don’t like, as the results of focusing on the topic.  For today is the Day I Must Record My Weight for all of the Blogosphere to See.  All right, perhaps I’m being a bit histrionic. Let me correct that:  For today is the Day I Must Record My Weight for all of the Four People Who Read My Blog to See. 

Despite snow drifts as high as my knees, I ventured to the workout club, as usual, this morning.  Had a fairly good go at the machines and free weights among the early-AM regulars (Good morning, Septuagenarian Italian Couple with the Matching T-Shirts!  How ya doin’, Elderly Gentleman Who Always Wears Black Knee Socks!  Top o’ the Mornin’ to ya, Burly Guy Who Stares at Women’s Breasts Between Sets!).  Still, I knew that last night’s dinner with my friend Deb (plus those two glasses of our latest favorite–and highly economical!–red wine) would waylay my otherwise descending weight. 

It’s a burden to always be right, I tell you.  Got on the scale with great trepidation to find my worst fears realized, with a weight gain of .5 pounds . So, rather than allow that disappointment to alter my mood and blow a black cloud over my otherwise cheery countenance, I started to reassess this idea of regular weigh-ins.  Yes, after only five weeks of them.

A couple of months ago, in her regular column in a prominent women’s magazine, Geneen Roth talked about this issue.  Why weigh yourself at all, she asked, even if you are trying to lose weight?  It’s a lose-lose situation (except for the number on the scale, that is). 

If the number goes up, you may have previously been feeling pretty self-satisfied, you may have been wearing your new Lululemon sweats like a banner-covered swimsuit at the Miss Universe Pageant, you may have been holding your head high feeling slim and taut and flat in all the right places–only to have that delusional euphoria instantly deflated, your mood for the day permanently altered by the fact that you’d gained 3/4 pound.  Even if you’d had no idea before stepping on that scale.

If the number goes down, it will probably only reinforce what you already knew, anyway:  you’ve been feeling better, lighter, lithe-r; your clothes are starting to loosen; and you’ve been walking just a little bit taller down those supermarket aisles.  Do you really need a scale to tell you all this?

The upshot is this: if you gain weight, do you really want to know?  And if you lose weight, don’t you already know? If the true goal is to focus on healthy eating and ultimate optimum body weight above all, can’t that be accomplished without the aid of a small, square, possibly incorrectly-calibrated mechanical object?

About three years ago, my older sister (let’s call her The Nurse) had a wicked crush on a coworker who didn’t happen to be her husband. And though nothing but a benign friendship ever came of it, she was consumed by guilt on a daily basis.  I mean that literally: she basically stopped eating food most of the day, and her guilt apparently ate up up excess body weight, somewhere in the vicinity of 60 pounds over 5 months. 

Did she use a scale to track this progress?  No, of course not; she wasn’t even aware of trying to lose weight initially.  Did she notice that the pounds had melted away?  Of course she did; her clothes hung like tarpaulins on her newly slimmer frame, she was forced to go out and purchase new clothing, even down to her operating room scrubs; and everyone she’d ever met in the world commented on how great she looked (ironic, huh, since she felt like crap about the illicit crush thing going on).

In any case, here’s my point: if my quest is to become a “normal” eater, I need to behave like one.  And all the normal eaters I know don’t weigh themselves compulsively on a weekly/daily/hourly basis, if at all.   And as soon as I even write down that thought, I can feel the fear in the depth of my (all-too-expansive) stomach, conveying the message, “But if you don’t weigh yourself regularly, how will you put the kibosh on that rising number?  Won’t you just spiral out of control and suddenly start bingeing recklessly and gaining more and more without end?”  Uh, I hate to break it to you, stomach, but that’s what I seem to be doing, anyway, even with the weekly weigh-ins.

In the end, I’ve decided to keep up with the weekly Progress Tracker, mostly because I’ve set up the blog this way and have sworn to do so.  And knowing that the four of you are reading on a semi-regular basis does help me, to some extent, feel accountable.  (Though I’ve had friends on Weight Watchers tell me that the weekly weigh-in, in front of others, acts as motivation to keep them on track during the week, that’s never really seemed to work for me. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need to tap into motivation from within myself, rather than from an exterior source, to stay on any kind of healthy eating plan). 

So, I guess it’s back to an earlier principle, picking oneself right back up and starting all over again as if nothing has happened.  And I do believe I’m going to tag that as my second “What Actually Works” strategy

Mum, we don’t care if your weight goes up.  We will still love you anyway. And if you decide to finally stop eating those Banana Oat bars, we’ll help get rid of the leftovers, no problem!”

I’m Not Pregnant, Just Fat

November 27, 2007

For a long time when I was younger, my weight would fluctuate fairly regularly, sometimes quite a lot in a relatively short time. My basic pattern seemed to be this:  I’d feel some kind of impetus to stay on a diet, get charged up to lose weight, and would begin eating to accomplish that goal (ah, such fond memories of An Entire Box of Weight Watchers Chocolate Mousse For Dinner; or One Compressed Cube of Dried Ramen Noodles for dinner; or Three Boiled Artichokes for Dinner; or A Raisin-Bran Muffin and Peanut Butter For Dinner).  Eventually, after semi-starving myself for several months, taking up weights and power walks, I’d manage to get into shape and lose anywhere between 20 and 35 pounds.  I’d revert to a size I could be happy with (usually a 10), and regain some sort of confidence and the sense that I could actually be attractive to the opposite sex.

This shift in mental state would, inevitably, precipitate a change in the energy I projected, and–bingo!–like magic, I’d seem to meet men.  I’d find another boyfriend, get serious, start dating, and after four to eight months, gain back all my weight.  Believe it or not, it wasn’t the stereotypical reason (ie, being so comfortable that now I felt I could eat whatever I wanted) that caused me to gain; it was sheer stress from being in a relationship (I’m still trying to work on that one with my H.H.).

In any case, as a college teacher at the time, I was forced to get dressed every day and head onto campus to teach.  My increased weight and blooming midsection were on display for all to see. 

Now, I wonder, how many overweight, 30-something women in the prime of their childbearing years haven’t had this experience:

[passing you in the hallway] “Hi, Miss.  Wow, congratulations!”

[Blank stare.  Congratulations?  Did they just announce a promotion and I missed it?  Did I win the lottery and not realize it?]. “Congratulations?  On what?”

[Blank stare, followed by uncomfortable silence]. “Uh, congratulations on your, you know, upcoming addition.”

[Truly stumped]. “Addition? To what?”

[Longer silence. Visibly uncomfortable now]. “To your, your family.  You know, um, er, uh. . . because you’re expecting.”

[Blood draining from face.  Light-headed silence.  Following the thread to its inevitable conclusion]. “Expecting?  Expecting what?”

[Desperately glancing around for a loose floorboard, garbage chute, natural disaster, abducting alien, or any other exit strategy] “Um, a baby? I mean, aren’t you–?”. . . . .

It makes sense, really.  When students see a 30-something woman gaining weight at such an accelerated pace, and especially when said 30-something tends to carry most of her weight in her abdomen (I’m a pear-shaped person, and it all settles on that expanse between waist–such as it is–and upper thigh, though at least that means I’m less prone to sudden heart attacks), well, when they see that kind of weight gain, they most naturally assume that the 30-something is pregnant.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Oh, when are you due?”  To which I’d reply, in a voice shrinking with humiliation, “I’m not pregnant.”  After the 27th incident or thereabouts, I’d gotten over being mortified, and it basically just started to piss me off. 

Now, seriously, what kind of person asks someone else if she’s pregnant without already knowing the answer? I would never dare to pose such a question unless the last words the woman had uttered were something like, “Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant, I mean with child; you know, expecting a baby, in the family way, with a bun in the oven, and and I’m going to be giving birth to a human infant in a week or so.” 

After years of awkward conversations concerning my faux fecundity, I decided I had to combat this pattern somehow.  So I came up with a battle plan:

  • The next time someone asked if I was pregnant, I would smile sweetly and respond, “Why?  Do I look pregnant?”
  • If someone asked me when I was due, I planned to say, “In —-,” and name the previous month. In other words, if the inquiry came in January, I’d say I was due in December.  Let the questioner do the math and figure out I couldn’t possibly be pregnant yet. Either that, or I was the next miracle to be profiled on Unsolved Mysteries.
  • If anyone asked whether I was pregnant, I’d answer, “No, I was pregnant until a couple of days ago, though.”  Hah!  Now let’s see what kind of quip s/he could come up with! 
  • My favorite:  I intended to have a custom T-shirt made, to wear whenever I gained uncomely amounts of weight in a short span, emblazoned with the words, “I’m Not Pregnant, Just Fat.” That way, I could avoid the whole uncomfortable exchange entirely. 

This embarrassing question hasn’t been directed at me in recent years, thankfully, mostly because I’m now too old for people to think I’m pregnant any more.  Or maybe my weight has redistributed, and now I’m just fat all over instead of only in my belly.  Either way, I am grateful I haven’t had to deal with it.  Of course, just because I’m not asked that question any more doesn’t solve the real problem of my freqently erratic weight gain–but that’s another issue entirely.