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The Freedom Feast: Winning the Battle of the Bulge

Sunni Maravillosa

What does losing weight have to do with freedom? Plenty. If a person weighs more than he or she would like to, he or she might limit his or her choices because of the weight--I can't take a nice vacation; I can't sit in a car very long at this weight, for example. An overweight person may spend a lot of money on diet programs, special foods or nutrient supplements, or other self-help programs that don't work; that's money not helping him and that's diverted from other investments. Extra weight often goes along with being in poor physical condition, a potentially dangerous state for a freedom fighter to be in. Most importantly, a really overweight individual can have health problems that restrict activities, or even endanger her health--both obviously freedom-limiting situations.

I believe it is possible to successfully lose weight, and keep the weight off, without spending a lot of money or going through a lot of deprivation. I'm not a doctor or nutritionist, but as a psychologist I understand human motivation pretty well. I also know a little about this topic from personal experience. It's human nature to fall into patterns, and some of these patterns can be extremely difficult to change. Sometimes when we become motivated to change, we get so worked up about changing that we sabotage our own efforts. My focus will be on the unhealthy patterns we create for ourselves, and ways to break those so that they'll stay broken, and healthier, more freedom-enhancing patterns will take their places.

Realizations about your body

Before generating a realistic weight loss goal, it's important to take stock of your current physical and mental states. Without that, setting meaningful, realistic goals is very difficult. It's also important to realize a few things about your body going in to this process.

First, and most important, you may not be able to get your dream body. This could be the case if you've always wanted a body with well-defined muscles, but your genetics aren't consistent with that look. Similarly, washboard abs aren't a matter of losing the beer belly and doing a gazillion crunches; getting those ripples is partly determined by your genetic endowment and if you don't have the genes, you just aren't going to look that way no matter how much you exercise. Rather than focus on a specific look, focus instead on a specific outcome, such as being able to run a mile in under 6 minutes, or doing a mildly strenuous exercise routine without needing to stop, or fitting into medium-size clothes. If you have a particular "trouble area" that you want to tone, set a goal that focuses on it.

Bodies also change over the course of a lifetime. You may have been a well-toned teen, but years of bachelor living and flying a corporate desk may have softened and rounded you out. Now that middle age is here, it might be impossible to get that teen body back--gravity and age having their effects on your physique. You might be able to become thin and well-toned again, but if you have your heart set on an impossibility, that might not be enough for you. If you're a woman, bearing children leaves its marks. That doesn't mean that a curvy waist is out of reach, but you may need to work for it. A tummy without stretch marks may not be possible, though (genes play a role here). If you can accept that having an "ideal" body, or the body you had years ago, isn't very likely to happen, you'll be much more likely to view your progress as success, and to like the new shape you create. So, set realistic, challenging goals for yourself, and admire the progress you make.

It's fashionable in some circles nowadays to call overeating "food addiction", but if you stop and think about it, that's silly. Every living thing needs nutrition; it's ridiculous to call something that's a necessity of life an addiction. Doing so takes the responsibility for your choices out of your hands--you're a victim--and it makes it harder to change the unhealthy pattern, because you've given control to the addiction. Being overweight can result from hormonal and other medical conditions, and if you suspect something like this is in play with your weight control challenges, it's important to get a thorough evaluation from a qualified individual. That can mean seeing a specialist--an endocrinologist, for example, if you suspect a hormonal imbalance. In some cases, obesity can be genetic--your body may be set up to constantly demand food, to store a lot of what you eat as fat, or both. If this is the case, diets, increased exercise, and other such programs might not work well for you; I recommend you see if gastric bypass surgery might help you.

Otherwise, the plain truth is that you overeat--you take in more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight and typical activity level. That excess gets stored on your body as fat, to be used at some future time of need. Trouble is, in Western countries famine is an unlikely prospect, so the fat stays there--and gets added to, if you continue to overeat. It won't go away unless you do two things: reduce the amount of food you eat on a regular basis; and increase your level of physical activity so that the excess fat gets burned off.

That's a simplified look at what can be a complicated issue for some people. Identifying that you overeat may be a no-brainer; what may be more challenging is identifying why you do so.

Oh, those things you do

If you haven't paid attention to what you eat and why you choose to eat throughout a day, you might be very surprised at what you find. For one day, keep a pad of paper and pen with you; use it to jot down what you eat, when you eat, and why you're eating--the feelings that prompted you to eat. If you're typical, you may become self-conscious of how often or how much you're eating while doing this, and will be tempted to hold back. Don't. You need an accurate picture of your starting point to accurately gauge your progress. Here are some common feelings that prompt eating, and some more general reasons why some people overeat.

Boredom. There's nothing on TV, or an obnoxious commercial has come on, so you wander into the kitchen. Or you're by yourself and there's nothing to do. A lot of people fill time by filling their tummies. Lots of people almost continually munch while they're online, in a chat session or browsing, never realizing how the calories are adding up.
Stress. Had a fight with your Sweetie? Uptight about the new boss at work? The kids driving you nuts? Anything that leads to stress can lead to overeating in some people.
Depression. For some people, being down triggers over-indulging in food or treats as a way of combating the depressed feelings.
Avoidance. Don't want to wash the car? Wanting to delay talking with your partner about sexual or other relationship issues? Hiding in the kitchen is a common way of avoiding unpleasantries; unfortunately, most of us don't seem able to hide there without finding something to eat.
Unhappiness. "Comfort food" isn't just a term describing dishes you love from your childhood; lots of people stick their head in a carton of ice cream, for example, when they're unhappy.
Good girl/good boy syndrome. By this I mean you eat because you: a) don't want to waste food; b) were taught to always clean your plate; or c) don't want your children to leave leftovers. Not wanting to waste food is perfectly reasonable--but eating past satiety isn't.
It-doesn't-matter-anyway syndrome. Do you tell yourself as you approach a snack, "It doesn't matter anyway, I'm so fat one more bag of chips isn't going to make a difference"? If so, you've set yourself up in a negative cycle that can be challenging to break.
It's mealtime syndrome. If you eat when the clock says "mealtime", irrespective of whether you feel hungry, you have this pattern.
Hunger. How many times do you actually feel hungry before you eat? Many people work very hard to avoid that experience--and it shows.

Identifying your triggers for overeating will help you develop a plan to change your unhealthy eating patterns. Let's consider some mental and physical things you can do, without saying that 4-letter word, to start shedding pounds.

Never say diet

One of the biggest impediments to losing weight is using the D-word. A diet brings to mind monitoring every mouthful, perpetually counting calories and fat grams, eyeing a juicy steak or piece of cake wistfully while munching lettuce... definitely not fun. Going on a diet usually means an abrupt change in your eating habits, which makes it difficult to stay on the diet. The bigger the change a person makes to a current habit, the harder it generally is to stay with the new pattern. Diets are synonymous with deprivation and longing--and if you start out with that mindset, it's much more likely you'll fail.

What do you do instead? Tell yourself that you want to lose 10 pounds in two months, or some other very reachable goal. Tell yourself you're going to eat more healthfully. Then begin to do so. Modify your behavior in small steps, and once one change has become a pattern, work on another until you've established the healthy patterns you want.

For example, rather than throwing away all the potato chips, cookies, and other "bad" foods you may have, keep them on hand. Instead of eating an entire bag of chips, get out a handful or two, put away the bag, then eat and enjoy their salty crunchiness. You won't feel deprived, and by focusing on the pleasure you get from the snack, it'll take less of it to satisfy you. Use potato chip crumbs to top casseroles, or sprinkle them on vegetables, like green beans or cauliflower, for another hit of taste with fewer calories.

Don't try to eliminate certain foods, particularly ones you really like. Instead, substitute more healthful choices, and develop self-discipline about overeating. If you really like the taste of whole milk, don't expect to be satisfied with skim--it just won't happen. I buy 2% milk for drinking, and use skim milk in cooking and for breakfast cereal. I get the taste and rich feel I like, but when the milk is part of something else, using skim cuts my fat intake. Instead of eating french fries, try fried potatoes cooked in a bit of butter, and with a healthy dollop of some spice (garlic, oregano, thyme, chili powder, or Tabasco sauce are all good choices) to increase the flavor. Baked veggie chips would be even better.

If you like desserts--and sweets can be a tough treat to resist--don't think that substituting fat-free choices will automatically be healthier. Fat-free foods can still be high in calories, primarily from their sugar content. Also, because they don't have the "mouth appeal" of their regular counterparts, they can leave you feeling dissatisfied, so that you end up eating more. Reduce the portion of the sweets you eat--smaller slices of pies and cakes (which also means more servings of them), fewer cookies, less pudding--so that you satisfy your craving without overloading. Choose healthier choices, too: oatmeal cookies with raisins and nuts are more filling, and have higher nutritional value than Oreos; fruit-based desserts are better than those that are pure sugar. If you like ice cream, try sorbets; they can be every bit as luscious, without the fat. (Lots of recipes can be found online. Here are some of my favorites: chocolate sorbet, cantaloupe sorbet, and sorbet caribe .) When you eat sweet treats, pay attention to every mouthful to fully enjoy the treat. (On the subject of fat in the diet, it's by no means clear that a low-fat diet is really best for us. Here's a very interesting, very readable article on the subject.)

If you can't find a good substitute for something you really like, modify the portion. Instead of a huge pile of mashed potatoes laden with butter and gravy, take one spoonful, and get extra corn to fill up the space on your plate. Enjoy steak--as part of a vegetable-rich stir fry, instead of a huge porterhouse. Pizza needn't be on the forbidden list, for example, when you make it yourself and choose healthful toppings. (Here's my recipe for a delicious and easy homemade pizza sauce.)

There are other things you can do to reduce your caloric intake each day. Use a smaller plate for meals (NEVER eat straight from the container or with your head in the fridge; it's too easy to be unaware of how much you're consuming), so that smaller servings fill the plate nicely. Make the food look attractive, so that you get lots of psychological appeal. Snack on fruits and vegetables rather than baked sweets; they're healthier and are better at filling your stomach. Don't eat until you feel hungry. Drink some water to fill your stomach and take the edge off the hunger before eating. In fact, drinking more water daily is a healthy habit; it has zero calories (compared to 160 for a typical 12 oz. soda) and is what your body needs when you're thirsty. If you can't abide water straight, drink juices instead of soda (carbonated if you absolutely must have the bubbly sensation), and gradually dilute them with water. Add a sprig of mint or a twist of lemon to your ice-water for extra flavor. Tea, if you limit the sugar or honey you put in it, is a good alternative, and some teas have healthful properties. Brush your teeth after each meal; having clean teeth helps many people resist the urge to snack.

Each of these small steps is easy to do; keep at them regularly, and add new ones as you're able. If you can do this, you won't feel deprived, you won't be starving, and you will be decreasing your caloric intake. That's the first step; the second is increasing your activity level.

Adding more activity

Cars, elevators, escalators, and other conveniences make it easy for people to be sedentary. Without physical activity, our bodies need less fuel--but many of us don't scale back our intake. Even if you are active, increasing your amount of activity just a little can make a difference in your efforts to lose weight and keep it off.

Starting a regular exercise routine (to become more flexible, increase cardiovascular fitness, or get muscle strength, for example) is a good idea. Be sure to work gradually into a routine, so that you don't become so sore and frustrated after the first day that you don't exercise again for a week. There are lots of exercise videos on the market. Rather than buying one, go to your local library--look over their selection, and select one or two that suit your goals. Give them a try and if you like them, buy them. If they don't work for you, go back to the library and give it another go. Choose ones that you can do in your home, without a lot of fancy equipment--the more disruptive it is to your routine the harder it will be to stay with it.

Think about ways to work more exercise into your daily routine. Park a little farther from your destination when you go to work or run errands, and walk the extra distance. Use the stairs (even if it's just one flight at first) instead of the elevator. Turn up your favorite music and dance a bit while cleaning. Dump your clean laundry on the floor and bend over to pick up and fold each item (good waist exercise!). Put a long cord on the telephone (cordless phones compromise your security, remember) and walk around while talking to friends. Go for an evening walk around the neighborhood, gradually increasing your pace and distance as your body gets used to the exercise. Swimming is an excellent, low-impact exercise that is a good cardiovascular workout, too.

If your work is sedentary, you can increase your activity level without interfering with your productivity. Instead of coffee or cigarette breaks, get a short walk in; it'll get your body burning calories and will perk you up. There are exercises you can do at your desk; work them in gradually and increase repetitions and/or add weights (handheld or ankle weights) as your endurance builds. As crazy as it sounds, fidgeting itself helps burn calories.

With your goal in mind, weigh yourself the day before you begin, and then weigh yourself no sooner than every week thereafter. Weight loss is a slow process, and if you weigh yourself daily expecting to see results, the disappointment can lead to reverting to unhealthy habits. When you do weigh yourself, try to keep the conditions as similar as possible; I recommend weighing yourself nude (or in your underwear), before you have breakfast. By combining one food-intake modification with one exercise increase, you should begin to see results in about two weeks (it depends on what changes you choose and how well you stick with them).

Once you've reached the end of the time you set to reach your goal, weigh yourself. If you made it, terrific! If you'd like to lose more, develop another goal and timeframe, and begin implementing other gradual changes to reach it. If you didn't reach your goal, candidly assess what happened. Were you able to reduce your intake but weren't diligent about exercising? Does your self-discipline muscle seem so flabby that you weren't able to stick with any of your pattern modifications? Honestly, objectively look at what you did, what you didn't do, and what you wanted to do, with an eye toward what you can change to make it work next time.

Changing the way you think

Humans are creatures of habit, and once engrained, habits can be very difficult to break. For my previous suggestions to work, you need to change some ways of thinking about yourself.

First, can you accept your current way of being--weight, unhealthy eating patterns and all--as the way you are? It may not be where you want to be, but if you can't accept where you are now, it'll be difficult to bring about positive change. If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, "This is how I've chosen to be", then you have taken responsibility for your weight and eating/exercise patterns. From there you can say, "I am now choosing to be different", and can choose healthier patterns with a higher likelihood of success. Notice I'm not saying you have to like the way you are--you just need to accept it. Doing these things for yourself also means a higher likelihood of success rate (it's harder to do something and keep at it if you're doing it for someone else, rather than yourself)--remember those old hair-color commercials: I'm worth it!

For many people, unwanted weight gain happens because negative choices become patterns, and the negativity spills over into unhappiness about the weight gained. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy--you think negatively about yourself, and the stress and unhappiness from that contributes to overeating. You hate that you've gained weight, which causes the cycle to continue. The messages you tell yourself have a powerful impact on the choices you make, so if this pattern of negativity describes you, work hard on breaking out of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy and creating a positive one instead.

While you're instituting your changes, be good to yourself. Tell yourself positive things about your way of being and the changes you're making. Find things about your current body that you like, so that when you become depressed, or have trouble maintaining a new habit, you can focus on those. Examples include clear skin, a pretty smile, nice hair, or good general muscle tone. If you find yourself needing motivation, think about how much nicer these features will be once you've reached your goals--and when you create other nice features to accompany them. If you have a slipup with your healthier patterns, don't allow the negative cycle to start. Admit that you goofed, then choose to start the healthy pattern again, and find something positive to focus on. Say you ate an entire bag of chips when you were upset one night. Instead of continuing to be upset over it, and chomping more snacks because of the stress you feel, let go of it. If you continue with your healthful habits, at your next weighing you might find you simply didn't lose any weight that week. That's a positive sign--you didn't gain weight from your lapse, and it's better than thinking "I haven't lost more weight because I screwed up".

Self-discipline is like a muscle; it takes practice and effort to develop it. That's one reason why big changes are harder to stay with--they take a lot of self-discipline. If you haven't developed it, it's easier to slip into the unhealthy patterns that are familiar. So, again, start slow with the changes you want to make, and work gradually to the healthy lifestyle you want to have (and can maintain). Exercise your self-discipline a little at a time, and as it increases (e.g., you've cut back on eating sweets for a month), give it more of a workout (start to cut back on the amount of fat in your diet). Once you're to your desired lifestyle, work to maintain it, with deviations being things you've consciously chosen, rather than lapses of self-discipline. For example, you can choose to splurge a little at the holidays, while compensating for that with increased exercise during that time. Then, after New Year's, choose to go back to your healthy diet--and keep that extra exercise time that's become a habit. By giving yourself permission to indulge now and again, you're less likely to slip up and fall back into the unhealthy habits you once had--and because it's a choice, you can feel good about doing it and controlling it.

Develop support systems

People who lose weight successfully choose to do it for themselves (rather than a spouse or to try to meet cultural expectations of acceptable body shapes). That doesn't mean it's a lonely battle; in fact, successful individuals typically have support systems to help with the challenges they face.

An exercise partner is a great idea; it's hard to be a couch potato if a friend walks with you. When his self-discipline is low, you can help him. Having a supportive friend to talk to is an excellent idea, too. Perhaps you know someone who's kept his weight loss off--see if he's willing to be your mentor. A friend who can be empathetic yet objective about your goals and progress is good to have around; she or he can let you know when you're being too hard or too easy on yourself. Friends who value you for the person you are are always great, and can be strong support for the positive feedback loops you're working to create. Enlisting the support of those you live with is crucial; they can be supportive, and can help make sure that healthful foods are bought and prepared. Professionals--nutritionists, personal trainers, etc.--can be a great source of focused support. You needn't broadcast your plans to the world, but the more support you have, of various kinds, the better.

Once you have your support system lined up, use it. Of course you're going to have challenging times; of course your self-discipline and motivation will ebb. Humans are like that. That's why you've organized these people; they can't help you if you won't let them. Rather than being a sign of weakness, relying on your support network shows strength and a real commitment to the changes you want. You may inspire others to change some of their unhealthy patterns!

The idea behind my approach is to develop lifetime cooking, eating, and exercise habits that are more healthful, rather than going on and off diets. It may take you some time to find a structure that works for you, but if you really want to lose weight and keep it off, you can do it. In fact, no one can keep you from it but yourself.

In summary, there are several components to changing your lifestyle patterns such that you lose weight and are healthier. I've gone into some depth on them; here's a list to help remind you. I wish you success and a healthy, happy life!