Losing weight is HARD, and has been a lifelong struggle for me. When I look in the mirror, I do not see the same person that others see. While body image and ‘yo yo’ weight loss struggles have been stereotypically associated with women, the reality is that men also struggle with their weight and are often unhappy with their appearance. There were a few instances this past week where I was reminded of how quickly people make broad generalized assumptions about you based on your appearance. Specifically, if you are currently thin, there are many people who have no issue making insensitive and hurtful comments about overweight people without any knowledge or context about their situation.
The bottom line is this: Weight Loss is Hard !
What happened recently? Well, first the AMA declared obesity a disease, which naturally prompted some very divisive debate. I know way too many people who struggle with eating disorders of one type or another – bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, stress-eating, stress-non-eating, and so on – to even give that a second thought. Of COURSE it is a disease, just as other addictions such as alcoholism are diseases.
What does a non-binding medical declaration have to do with anything? Well, it is an opportunity for people to say things without thinking. I was traveling for work when it came on CNN in the company cafeteria, and someone at the table said “send those people out on a few runs with Mike and have them eat his diet, and that would end the so-called obesity epidemic real quick’, which was met with “more like a laziness and junk food epidemic!” The thing is, the perception of everyone working on my project is that I have ALWAYS weighed between 170-180 and run 50+ miles per week.
The very next day I went to order a veggie wrap for lunch and the (very nice) people running the kitchen decided they wanted to push the ‘stick to your ribs’ options with me – maybe it was because I was wearing a new fitted shirt, but they told me I needed to put some meat on my bones, and on and on. It was very clear that they looked at me as super-skinny and needing more food – and yes, this is in a Southern-ish area where ‘comfort food’ is king, and they are just barely meeting the ‘healthy options’ corporate mandate!
And finally, last week I had someone approach me about marathon training,recommended by two folks from my old project as a ‘big time runner’. The comment from the person after I talked about running several days a week, building up miles and pace, the importance of nutrition and so on … “well, I’m sure it is easier for someone with a ‘runner’s body’ like you …”
Three stories – one where my public identity is clearly ‘thin person’, another where well-meaning folks place challenges in my attempts to maintain healthy eating habits, and a third where my ‘runner’s body’ made my running and marathon training much easier than it would be for a ‘non runner’.
I mentioned these to my wife, and she chuckled and said ‘but to most people all of that stuff IS true … you ARE a thin person who can easily afford to eat a guilty meal or twenty, and you definitely look at ease out for a run’. She knew me at my heaviest as well, so she understands how hard it is for me to wrap my head around all of this.
More than a couple of times since I started losing weight, people have come to me for advice.Bbut since I have stabilized and have now switched projects, I have had people dismiss my comments about weight loss, with one person even saying ‘yeah, like you’d know anything about being fat … I bet if you managed to gain 5 pounds you could just skip lunch and be right back where you started’.
So let me reiterate: Weight Loss is Hard ! And let me review my weight loss story:
Just over a year ago I was the second-heaviest in my life at ~275lbs, after peaking at ~375 in February 1989 several months out of college. For the vast majority of the 23 years in between, I weighed close to 200 lbs, occasionally down to ~190 and up to 220. I have made four concerted efforts to lose weight in my life – in 1989 I dropped from 375 to 185, in 2000 from 240 to 190, in 2008 from 245 to 200, and in 2012 from 275 to 175 (and holding halfway through 2013).
I consider myself fortunate in three ways:
- My body and joints allowed me to start ‘jogging’ back in 1989, and they still support my running habit now.
- When I am exercising, my already-healthy eating habits get even MORE healthy, and I am more aware of my intake.
- And most importantly, when I am exercising and eating correctly, I can lose weight fairly quickly and maintain a healthy weight for an extended time.
Because of this – and because with the exception of a few years after my thyroid quit,I have LOVED my morning runs ever since I started back in 1989. I have had more than a few folks tell me that losing weight is ‘easy’ for me, with more than one saying that so long as I was running I could eat whatever I wanted and stay thin.
Of course that isn’t true, but the reality was that since my general eating was under control I could more easily allow myself a ‘guilty pleasure’ meal or snack on occasion.
For me, weight has always been a challenge, and it is one that has required hard work, focus and sustained discipline. Last week I posted on Facebook that I put on some new clothes and looked in the mirror and was actually happy with what I saw – that is an extremely rare thing borne out of that work and discipline.
I mean, I get up at 4AM for my morning runs; I have to get everything started around the house before heading out, then get the kids up and started before school and myself off to work (hopefully after at least coffee with Lisa!). My work schedule has been crazy, and then there are activities for the kids, cooking dinner at least half the time (my wife’s hours are even MORE insane than mine), cleaning, and so on before grabbing a bit of quality family and husband-wife time before bed, and I seldom go to sleep before 11PM. I have plenty of chances to take the easy path and not exercise or grab something quick and processed rather than healthier homemade food.
But I also know I am fortunate – fortunate to be able to engage in exercise that is so effective at weight loss, fortunate to have naturally healthy eating habits (and a wife who is also always up for eating well), and fortunate that my metabolism responds to my exercising and helps me shed pounds.
For many others, even hard work isn’t enough to get the results I have gotten through the years. Maybe their joints won’t allow for running or other high intensity exercise; maybe their digestive systems are very particular which limits diet options; perhaps their metabolism is such that even diet and exercise isn’t enough to propel rapid weight loss. No amount of telling them ‘just eat less and exercise’ is going to help their self-esteem; they have likely tried many times before, perhaps tried multiple fad diets and pretty much everything possible in the hopes of getting their body to look and feel a certain way.
I am not pretending to be a font of knowledge beyond what works for me, but here are some thoughts for those who struggle to lose weight:
- You’re eating back all the calories you burn / You’re not eating as healthfully as you think : I love peanut butter and trail mix as recovery / snack foods. But guess what – peanut butter (awesome as it is) is loaded with fat, and trail mix is horrifically high in calories (and the portions are deceptively small). So be very wary of these types of things. Some people are ravenous after exercising, others are not – you need recovery food, but keep it in control. Also – with all of the HFCS and other fillers in our foods, we are often not getting the nutrition we think based on the label.
- You’re not measuring the right things : On one blog I follow, the woman was torturing herself over 3 pounds on the scale while all her clothes were fitting great and she knew she was in the shape of her life. Solution? She and her husband and baby were moving into a new house and used that opportunity to pack away the scale … for good!
- You’re skimping on sleep / You’re battling chronic stress : when your body isn’t happy with your situation, it has funny ways of taking charge, such as retaining fat stores assuming you are stressed or sleep-deprived due to something that will soon require a massive energy boost. Get some sleep and find a way to channel stress (for me, that is also running) to help lose weight.
- You have an underlying issue : when my thyroid quit on me, it was around the same time as I got laid off from my previous job and was on a furious job hunt. So I assumed my exhaustion was due to combined stress and exhaustion, and I knew I was a ‘stress eater’. But my physical (word of advice: when laid off, grab all medical benefits before they expire!) showed it was my thyroid, and easily ‘fixed’ with a pill!
The bottom line is this: Weight loss is hard , and I applaud anyone who has succeeded at losing the weight and keeping it off. I have now spent more of my life thin than fat, and while I am pleased with what I have done, I am not complacent, because I have seen weight creep back onto me more than a couple of times when I started to believe that I could do anything and stay thin – bad habits are easy to form!
So if you see someone who is a bit overweight whose clothes look a bit loose, feel free to ask if they have lost weight and compliment them even if they aren’t trying to lose; and if you see someone out running or walking or biking, give a wave or a nod of support … it means something, believe it or not. Because losing weight and keeping in shape is hard, and getting positive feedback can make all the difference.