Addicted to Dieting

            My obsession with losing weight began in my middle-school years when I realized, thanks to the cruel taunting of my classmates, that I was the fattest kid. Not just among the girls, but the fattest student in the entire school.

            The Internet did not back then and since we lived out in the country, far from a library, my ability to access information about nutrition was limited. Occasionally, when I had saved enough money and was allowed to accompany my mom to the store, I’d buy a teen magazine geared that, if my hopes were met, offered tips to losing and maintaining.

            I learned that fresh fruits and vegetables were the basics of weight loss combined with exercise. I was an active kid, so all I had to do was stay outside longer riding my bike or roller skating in the garage or hiking in the woods behind our house. In the summers it was often too hot and humid to spend much time outdoors, so that’s when I’d ride or skate in circles in the garage. In wintertime I was back to circling the garage as well as sledding from one neighbor’s yard to the next. None of that activity helped.

During the summer months our garden produced tomatoes, green beans and carrots. Strawberries, blackberries and rhubarb were the only fruits. In off seasons we only ate canned and processed fruits and vegetables, which much later on I discovered were soaked in a thick, sweet syrup.

I knew enough to eat the fresh over the processed, but there were rules about cleaning your plate. We were also not permitted to refuse a particular item, so maintaining a diet was next to impossible.

Add to my problems the issue of my mom’s cooking: it was laden with sauces, gravies and carbs. Lots of bread and pasta. What meat we did have was tough unless she cooked it for hours. Chicken was only oven-roasted in a thick layer of oil. We never ate fish except for the few times when my dad went fishing and returned with catfish which my mom baked. One healthy meal out of hundreds! Oh…but she ruined any enjoyment of the fish: she was worried that we’d swallow bones, so she made sure that we chewed the fish until it was a tasteless much.

I did what I could, when I could. It must have helped as my weight remained more or less the same.

At the end of ninth grade we drove from Ohio to California, eating out every single meal. Like most kids I preferred burgers and fries topped off with the occasional milkshake, when permitted. By the time we reached what would be our home in the Sacramento area, my clothes were tight.

It was too hot to do anything except eat ice cream. And popsicles. My dad was often away, so my mom turned to quick meals, slopping together anything and everything, none of which was healthy.

Before school began we moved to the SF Bay Area. By now I was hard-pressed to squeeze my body into the clothes I’d brought on the journey. My mom had no choice but to take me shopping, an embarrassment to be sure. There was no mall at that time: only one main street with stores that catered to slim people. The only one that had clothes my size was a Montgomery Wards clearance shop.

My choices were limited to tent-style dresses. Girls weren’t permitted to wear pants to school, so I was stuck with what now would be called mu-mus. Bright patterns of flowing fabric that hid my flab, but marked me as the fat kid.

I returned to obsessing over food, but once again, had little choice or say in what I ate. Back in Ohio I ate school lunches that were awful. No matter as at least one nun made sure our trays were empty before we could go outside and play. I wasn’t interested in playing as I had no friends, it was cool in the cafeteria, and so I’d outlast the nuns.

In California there were no school lunches. Instead I was handed a lunch bag with a bologna sandwich inside, slathered in mayonnaise. Every single day. No fresh fruit, but sometimes a cookie.

No one at school watched what I ate, so I often threw half my lunch away, praying each time that my brother wouldn’t see.

We lived on top of a hill, so taking the dog for a walk became my primary source of exercise. We’d go around and around the block until the poor thing was so exhausted I’d have to carry her.

Health class was mandatory. I learned more about nutrition than I’d ever known before. The problem was that the more I learned, the more I understood that almost nothing we ate was healthy. I tried sharing my findings with my mother, but it only made her angry. I could either eat what she prepared or starve. But I couldn’t choose to starve because I was physically punished each time I refused to eat a meal.

I was able to stay active, however, thanks to PE and being on the school’s bowling team. I maintained my weight, not what I wanted, but at least I didn’t get fatter.

When I went away to college, for the first time, I had complete control over what I stuffed in my face. As I strolled past the buffet line, my eyes feasted on the range of possibilities. I understood that most of the options wouldn’t help me lose weight, but the sheer joy of being able to take what I wanted removed all thoughts of dieting from my brain.

The one thing that saved me from putting on the pounds was the anxiety I experienced every day. I was still a lonely kid, much to my great sadness. That alone should have been enough to keep my weight down. Add to that the pressure to get the highest marks in all my classes in order to keep my state-funded scholarship, and there were times I truly couldn’t eat.

For the first time in my life I lost weight! I never got skinny, but I certainly was no longer obese. I marveled at how good I looked, which inspired me to monitor what went into my mouth. I became more selective, choosing those things that I knew were longer in calories. I even switched to nonfat milk, which nauseated me.

Thus began a years-long journey of yo-yo dieting. At school I’d lose weight: at home I’d gain. I’d lose ten pounds, then put on fifteen. Lose ten more, but add twelve. Until the summer when I got a job on campus and so didn’t have to return home.

That truly changed my life. I was no longer under my mother’s supervision for almost the entire school year, so could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. I was able to lose weight and keep it off. By the time I graduated from college, I looked great. Not skinny, but also not fat.

With no job and no place to live, I returned home. Nothing about my mother’s cooking had changed. Everything was fried, covered in bread crumbs, drowning in a sauce or gravy and paired with pasta. My weight began to rise.

Thankfully I found a job that allowed me to pack my own lunch. I still had bologna sandwiches, which was not a good option, but often had an apple. I balanced the not-so-good with the good. I lost a little.

I saved enough to buy my first car then get my first apartment.  This was a liberating change in my life. I chose what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had freedom to come and go as I pleased. And I took up skiing, an activity that I’d never done before. I wasn’t great at it, but it was hard work. I lost a little bit more.

I got married and now had to cook for two. I was a lousy cook. The one cookbook that saved me used some form of soup in every recipe. I also had one that mixed fruits, cheeses and marshmallows in Jell-O. These were not the healthiest meals, so I gained weight.

We bought a house and soon I was pregnant. The next fifty years were a continuous struggle with weight. I’d diet, lose, then gain. I’d try a different diet, lose, then gain more. I ballooned. There’s no nicer word for it. It was as if someone had attached an air hose and filled me with air.

I drank prepared mixes that were guaranteed to lead to weight loss. I’d lose some, then put on more.

I joined the local gym and worked out at least five days a week. I bought frozen foods that I could microwave at work, thinking that would help me lose weight. They did, but then I regained whatever I’d lost.

Dieting was, by now, an addiction. Every moment that I was awake was consumed with thoughts of food. We now had three kids and I was the primary cook. They were picky eaters and my range of options was narrow. I turned into my mother, plating meals covered in sauces and paired with pastas.

I’d go to the gym only to come home and eat a handful of cookies that were supposed to go in the kids’ lunches. I didn’t know how to cook fresh vegetables, so they came from cans. I’d add slabs of butter or cover them with cheese sauces.

I got fatter and fatter even though dieting was always on my mind. I needed larger sizes of clothes, tops and bottoms. At one point I was wearing size 3X tops and size 22 pants. I was embarrassed, but not enough to cease control.

It was when the photo taken at my school came out that it began to dawn on me that I was obese. For years I had been avoiding family photos, so the idea was in my brain; it had yet to move to the forefront.

Even when doctors asked if I knew I was fat, that didn’t shock me long enough to make positive change. I rationalized it away. I had big bones. I was healthy. I could swim and exercise at the gym. I played soccer and coached a team and even refereed, which meant running up and down the field.

About four years ago I decided to stop the yo-yoing. I had been attending Weight Watchers meetings for a few years by then, but the calculating points confused me so badly that I didn’t track what I ate. I pretended to keep the info in my head. Pretended that I knew what I was consuming and making better choices.

I did lose thirty pounds. My knee went bad. After surgery I put the weight back on. I lost twenty. Then had surgery on the other knee and my weight went back up. I lost ten, then broke something and because I couldn’t exercise, put it all back on.

If I had charted my weight over that period of time, it would have looked like a roller coaster. Up, then down. Climb back up, then drop down. Over and over.

I am proud to say that I no longer fall into the obese category. I lost almost 80 pounds and have kept it off for over three years.

However, I am still addicted to dieting. I think about food constantly. I want to stuff something in my mouth even when I’m not hungry. I yearn for cookies and cakes and pies. I want the pasta drowning in sauce. I’m love a big, juicy hamburger with a side of fries. I love hot dogs and pizza.

I make mistakes. Instead of passing through the kitchen, I stop and scavenge. I try to choose low-calorie options, but that sugar cookie looks awfully good. I have plenty of fresh fruits in the house, but I’d rather have a brownie.

If someone offered me a thick milkshake I’d refuse, but dream of its taste. If plums were on the table, I’d take one, but still drool over the red velvet cake that everyone else was eating.

I’ve never understood why some can eat whatever they want and stay thin while the smell of a piece of See’s candy can add five pounds.

I now understand that dieting, or as Weight Watchers calls it, making lifestyle choices will be with me the rest of my life. For the first time I like how I look. It’s more than that: I’m proud of how I look.

In order to stay the way I am right now, my addiction to dieting is something I’ll be carting with me as surely as I put on a backpack when away from home.

I feel sorry for all those young kids who don’t have healthy choices at home. Their lives will be like mine, a never-ending battle with weight and desire.

Reflections on Being Obese

No one ever gets up in the morning and says I think I’ll get morbidly obese today. It’s not like deciding one day to learn how to ski or ride a bike. Those take intention, practice and skill. Becoming obese isn’t intentional, it takes no practice and requires absolutely no skill.

 Many obese people begin life that way. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child. She wasn’t a great cook and knew nothing about balanced meals, so much of what we ate was battered, fried or boiled to a mushy mess. Fruit was a treat.  Cookies were available at all times.

Mom made excellent pies and apple dumplings. Her homemade noodles were delicious. Her concoction of sauerkraut, polish sausage and drop dumplings was to die for. I hated her fried chicken. The top half was crispy but the bottom half was drenched with oil. Mom’s bacon was inconsistent: sometimes it was done to a crisp but most of the time it was limp and soggy. I still dislike friend chicken and bacon!

So, if you believe that being obese is a learned condition, then I learned from my mom that I had to anything and everything that was put on the table. It made no difference whether you liked it or not: you were watched and monitored for food consumption. I never saw my mom write it down, but somewhere in her head she stored how much of what we had eaten.

If you believe that being obese has a genetic connection, then I am my Grandma Reiske’s relative. She was short like me and quite round. Grandma was not a good cook so she snacked. A lot. She loved cheese and crackers (so do I), chocolate (same here) and cookies (yep!). She could make a meal out of those items and feel quite proud of herself.

If you believe that becoming obese is inevitable for some of us, then that’s also me. When your diet is not balanced as a child, you put on weight. When you’re not allowed to play outside as much as you’d like, well, that’s what my life was like. When you spend most of your time in your room, alone, imagining happy scenarios, that was me. Without healthy food and limited activity, I was doomed from the start. Years of that set my body on a weight-gaining course that was hard to stop. I’d have “lean” years for me, but then more and more weight would pile on.

If you believe that morbidly obese people really like how they look, then you’re an idiot. Imagine standing naked in front of a mirror and seeing rolls of fat. Imagine watching your blubber jiggle with the slightest movement. Imagine taking a hand and pushing those rolls up and down. Then think of the clothes you have to wear: saggy, baggy plain, unattractive outfits designed to sort of mask the fat beneath.

No one gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they’d love to be puffy like the Pillsbury dough boy. No one revels in having a body that resists all movement except for down. No one wants to wobble like a duck when they walk through a grocery store, especially knowing that people are going to be checking out what’s in your cart. No one wants feet so bulgy that you can only wear slippers.

Your response is to say, then quit eating. Nice. If only it were that simple. I have a friend who records everything she eats and tries to stay at 1800 calories per day. You’d think she’d lose weight, but she doesn’t. Monitoring and maintaining is all she can manage.

You can eliminate all sugars from your diet. However, when you do, that oatmeal raisin cookie hollers your name so loudly and so persistently that you cannot block it out. Unless you’ve heard that call, you have no idea how powerful it is. It’s like being pulled by the largest magnet on earth, a magnet with so much leverage that you cannot fight it no matter how hard you try.

That’s what life is like for the morbidly obese: day after day that magnet pulls, your name is called, you resist and resist and resist until your willpower is weakened. And when you give up, you can either consume everything in sight or portion things out. The problem with portioning is that the other half is still there, still calling your name.

So when you see a fat person, instead of staring while you shake your head in disgust, stop and think about what that person’s life is like. And then remember that no one sets a challenge for themselves to be obese.

Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?