Weight! Weight! Don’t Tell Me...


Hi, my name is Bill. Middle aged today, I've been in a tug of war with obesity since my teen years. Some would call me a successful dieter because I've managed mostly to keep the weight off over the long haul. That is true, and I think that achievement has added a lot of good to my life. But like any achievement it has taken determination, perseverance, and some improvisation. Here is my story.

I was actually at a pretty normal weight through early childhood and up into grade school. But somewhere around the age of 8, I started to grow a root beer belly. I was (and am) short, never was a terribly active youngster, loved (and still love) sweets, and had the tendency to finish off the food my siblings would leave on their plates -- jokingly referring to myself as a garbage disposal. So the eventual expansion of my waistline certainly made sense. I had an affinity for the rich stuff, too.... like the leftover fat my wiser siblings would trim off their steaks. Or discarded chicken skin. When I had the money, I'd buy soda and candy or snack cakes at the corner store or at school. My parents were also depression-era children, told to completely clean their plates so as not to waste precious food. That was a requirement for us kids, as well. The meals were often (if not mostly) middle-European recipes their parents had brought over from the old country, meat-heavy with sauces and gravies, recipes that ensured all the fatty drippings got included. And do you ever remember being told you'd get no dessert if you didn't finish your meal? We rather should have been rewarded if we were smart enough to stop when we were full! My mother was also a wonderful baker.... and while all those great desserts made for lovely food memories, they certainly added to my weight. I also never really thought about my eating habits -- if I was hungry, I just ate, if I could get at the food. So, with all this, I weighed 205 pounds by the time I was 15. With my short stature, that made me clinically obese.

The teen years are a terrible time to be fat, for anyone. One's appearance weighs heavily (so to speak) in one's peers' view of who and what you are. Fat is not just unattractive, it's defining. And being something of a wall flower, I had no particular socially redeeming qualities, like humor or sport abilities, to make up for my girth. Additionally, back in that era, far fewer people were overweight than are so today, so a tubby kid like me really stood out and was an easy target for ridicule. I even got stuck with the rather stinging high school nickname of "Hot Dog."

At one point back in late grade school, I came down with intestinal flu. All the awful classic symptoms. My stomach hurt for two weeks after that, so I ate little. But afterwards I noticed that I had lost 10 pounds. Wow.... eat less, lose weight. Eureka! That taught me that I could shed pounds if I really wanted, but it didn't last. My weight continued to climb over time. But eventually, in my junior year of high school, after breaking the 200 pound mark, I decided to adjust my daily diet a bit and see if I could trim down from that ominous peak. As I recall, my main changes were to avoid second helpings, desserts, and bedtime snacks. Over the period of a year I lost a couple dozen pounds. (That, combined with an upswing in my scholastic skills, earned me a Most Improved Student award and a nomination to the local Junior Achievement annual awards. Nobody was more surprised at those developments than I was, believe me!)

Then came my first year of college. I seemed to forget my good eating habits and regained a fair amount of weight on the bland but abundant cafeteria food. (Ah, the freshman 15, and beyond.) Then one day between my sophomore and junior years, while working a Summer painting job in a hospital, I had a pivotal experience. A nurse (who had known me from previous Summers there) strolled up to me as I stood on a ladder, paintbrush in my hand. In her spry and very thick Cockney accent, she said, "You've gained weight, mister painter!" That hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately decided it was time to grab the controls, permanently. I wanted my fat days to end. I didn't go onto a crash diet, mind you, but rather I took on full-time, careful regulation of everything I ate. I bought a little pocket booklet that listed the calories (by weight or serving) of hundreds of foods. I carried it with me everywhere. I also bought a food scale. If I was at home (or dorm), I'd weigh my portions. If not, as when at a restaurant, friend's home, picnic, etc., I'd carefully estimate portions so I'd know my caloric intake. As I recall, I (somewhat arbitrarily) set my daily limit to 1600 calories. It worked. It wasn't too long until I got myself back down into the 160 pound range. I also developed, based on all that measuring and calorie book consultation, a pretty good skill at approximating portion size and calorie content that has held up over time. (This is where most dieters fall down.... they tend to underestimate both their portion sizes and the caloric density of the foods they choose.)

Eventually I gravitated away from so much measuring and just relied on estimating. For a while in my mid 20s, I moved to being very restrictive with food on weekdays but would eat anything I wanted on the weekends. This worked pretty well, since at the time I roomed with two or three other guys who liked to have big corporate meals on Saturday or Sunday evenings, or have a big feed at a restaurant after a long afternoon hike in the hills. I also learned to lean on particular foods that I both liked and that are low in calorie density, using these as substitutes for heavier foods. Naturally, that meant a higher percentage of veggies, and limiting or avoiding heavy items like pizza, fried foods, desserts, red meats, cheeses, cream sauces, most any fast food, and so forth. (I'd already switched to skim milk before I was 20.) I'm fortunate in that I truly enjoy many light foods such as chicken, turkey, most fruits, virtually any fish, clear broth soups, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, green beans, beets, artichokes, green salads (being cautious with the dressing), low calorie condiments (assorted mustards, balsamic vinegar), salsa, fat free dairy products, and so forth.

What it feels like to dine with others

One of the downsides of weight management has been dealing with group meals. There are a few challenging facets to this. One is finding foods that fit my goals from among the assortment of available offerings, something that is not always easy. A second is the attention I sometimes garner by not eating what -- or as much -- as others are eating in the group. I've many times found it necessary to explain myself to curious co-diners who ask if I'm a vegetarian (having picked a plate full of veggies) or who comment that I eat like a bird (eating very little because the selection is slim). A third issue I deal with is the sense of exclusion that stems from not being able to freely choose from the abundance that others so casually participate in. While community meals are generally meant to be a time of bonding as well as nourishment, I've many times found myself feeling silently marginalized by my own self-imposed regimentation, which brings on a sort of social reticence. I have sometimes overcome that by simply finishing my portion, dropping my napkin over my empty plate, doing my best to ignore the food environment, and making an extra effort to stay engaged in conversation. Unfortunately, that's not my basic nature, so it doesn't always happen.

Dealing with holidays or food-intensive events

Studies of people who have successfully controlled their weight for the long term have shown a few common characteristics to their approach to food and eating situations. One is that they frequently weigh themselves -- something that has not been a habit of mine. But other practices that I do share with this population are (a) sticking to a reduced, selective overall range of foods, (b) using exercise to help manage weight, and (c) not veering from the intended course. That third item would mean not making exceptions to the target food selections or portion sizes even at parties, picnics, festivals, on holidays, at carnivals, on vacations, and so forth. This may sound boring, but it seems long-term weight controllers gravitate to this practice autonomously, probably out of the concern that derailing one's diet at a birthday bash or holiday gathering may lead to more and more exceptions, and eventually to failing at weight management.

National Weight Control Registry participation

In 2008, I learned of an organization that researches the practices and life styles of people who have successfully lost over 30 pounds of body weight and kept the weight off for 3-5 years (BL: check references). The organization is called the National Weight Control Registry. I found them through an article in the OnHealth newsletter published by Consumer Reports. I was fascinated by the idea, because for many years I have wanted to know who else out there in the big, wide world was also engaged in this lifetime undertaking of the Lone Ranger fat fight. (I personally have never met anyone who acknowledged taking part in this endeavor.) I got in touch with the organization, and they set up a 1-hour telephone interview with me to document my weight management history. They also sent me an extensive questionnaire that queried my background, attitudes toward food, and overall life style. (The questionnaire also seemed geared to unearth the likelihood of psychological problems, which are not unknown among some individuals who eventually take weight control too far.) In addition, the organization sent me a pedometer that I was to wear with me everywhere for a week in order to accurately assess my activity level and caloric output. Along with that, I was to log everything I ate during the same period, even any sticks of gum I might have chewed. A few weeks after I returned the questionnaire, food log, and pedometer, they sent me a summary of their observations, including my actual daily caloric output contrasted to the total calories summed up from my food log. As turns out to be typical of dieters, I'd underestimated my consumption -- in my case, by a couple hundred calories (as I recall, I'd logged about 2100 but burned 2300; and since I wasn't losing weight, I must actually have eaten the latter amount).

The kinds of food substitutions I make

One of the key tools I have in my weight control arsenal is the substitution of flavorful light fare for the heavier stuff. This seems pretty logical and an obvious approach, but it is often shunned by dieters because they don't want to give up their pizza for an iceberg lettuce salad. But I think that unsatisfying comparison is somewhat misguided, and that the all-important satiety factor can be upheld without concluding you have to eat salted celery all day. Here are some of the substitutions I have made and recommend, moving from conventional (generally heavy) food or food types to lighter fare:

* Reduce meat consumption altogether (most people get too much protein as it is and can cut back on meat, especially fatty meats such as bacon, sausage, steaks, and untrimmed pork).

* Substitute fish or skinned poultry for red meats.

* Substitute tofu for meat (not everybody's favorite, I know).

* Avoid anything that's been lowered into a vat of hot oil (i.e., deep fried foods). Baked, broiled, braised, poached, steamed, or boiled are the ways to go.

* Watch out for veggie alternatives to burgers, links and such -- they often have a lot of oil added to bolster the flavor and texture, returning their calorie density right back to the meat patty you've passed up. (Point: Oil is the most calorie dense food there is. It beats sugar by a big margin, and without even having a lot of flavor. Do what you can to limit it, without excluding it altogether, since it is necessary for the absorption of some nutrients. And pick the healthy oils!)

* For canned fish, go with water-packed, not oil-packed.

* Choose low-fat or fat-free milk, cheeses, mayo, dressings, and yogurt (including frozen).

* Pick whole wheat products over any refined flour products (bread, pasta).

* Eat a serving of veggies as a replacement for a starch (such as mashed potatoes, pasta, or white rice).

* When substituting veggies for a heavier selection, make them more interesting with balsamic vinegar, seasoned salt (watch the sodium!), mixed herbs, an exotic mustard, or a few spoons full of salsa.

* Use light margarine instead of stick margarine or butter.

* Pan fry or saute only in cooking spray, not in a layer of oil (of any kind).

* Dress baked potatoes with fat-free sour cream and tomato salsa. Works great.

* At Starbucks, try basic coffee (almost 100% calorie-free) with a bit of milk. Those lattes and other specialty drinks are really just desserts disguised as coffee and are true mountain-makers.

* For chips and the like, choose the baked kind. And those infrequently.

* Always look at the calorie count on packaged goods. You'll learn before long what's bad and what's not, and what you like from among the lighter stuff.

* Balsamic vinegar makes a wonderful, extremely low calorie substitute for dressing.

* Choose clear broth soups over any other kind.

Appetite control by beverage sipping

Between meal hunger can be a real downfall for dieters. Your stomach growls between breakfast and lunch, or mid-afternoon, or before bedtime, and the refrigerator beckons. What to do? Well, I learned this trick incidentally many years ago, and later found the scientific basis for it: sip on a beverage. Keep a mug of tea, coffee, broth, or just a cup of water close by, and occasionally take a sip. This is surprisingly effective in quelling the growling stomach. Why? The hunger you feel is actually the stomach making a sweeping motion, preparing itself for the arrival of food. If you swallow a little something -- practically anything -- you will trigger a calming effect and your stomach will settle down again, easing the hunger pang. One cup of tea or coffee can last for hours doing this job! It's pretty amazing. (An anecdote: For years, when I'd go on an outing with family or friends, I'd find myself getting unpleasantly hungry in the middle of our visit to a museum, aquarium, or whathaveyou, not knowing why. I eventually realized it was because I didn't have my usual tea or coffee at the ready for the occasional sip. The solution? Bringing along a bottle of water, or an Americano from Starbucks.)

Portion control

Pre-packaged foods, from frozen entrees to candy bars, provide measured servings that have a few advantages: Little or no preparation is needed, you know "exactly" how many calories you're getting, and you get the satisfaction of being able to finish the entire serving and not having to stop and push a portion of it away. (It's surprising how important that third point can be.) Want to occasionally fit a candy bar into your regimen? Have a 250-calorie Snickers bar and a cup of coffee for lunch sometime (and only that). You'd be surprised how satisfying that is, especially if you don't hurry through it. As frozen entrees go, they seldom taste as good as freshly prepared foods, but there is nonetheless a pleasant sense that somebody somewhere went through the trouble of making a meal for you. That may sound trite, but it really can bring a nice feeling.

Circumstantial exceptions -- no free lunches!

I've mentioned that successful long-term weight managers don't make exceptions to their eating patterns even for special events or holidays. In that same light, keeping one's intake in check includes not letting unplanned or unexpected circumstances grant you special dietary license. What do I mean by that? Well, just because there's leftover Halloween candy, or a box of donuts at the coffee station at work, or a tray of leftover sandwiches from a manager's meeting, or a cake someone brought in for a birthday or shower, or a half a pizza in the fridge from your teen's sleepover party.... does not magically make the eating ok. The fact that the food is free or unexpected takes not one single calorie out of it. You can indulge, but unless you "rebalance" you will pay. I find it's best just to avoid such incidental arrivals. (Yes, that's not easy.) Or cut back on consumption elsewhere in the day to make room, keeping in mind that these surprise foods are usually very high in calories and you'll need to cut out quite a bit of other, normal intake to accommodate. (I always find it difficult to subtract food later in the day after I've spontaneously splurged on an incidental treat like one of the one's I've mentioned. Planning ahead, if you know the food is coming, works much better.) Another method I've found helpful is to just sample the freebie food (and by "sample" I mean one bite)  so as to not feel completely left out, and not to miss experiencing the taste and texture. But one needs to stop after a sample!

General lack of support or acknowledgement of weight management

As I've noted, this weight control endeavor of mine has been a real Lone Ranger adventure. My determination has been essentially self-originating. And without my making a specific move to divulge to others my decades of efforts to keep myself from slipping back into obesity, my efforts go unnoticed -- and unreinforced. (Of course, how would anyone know I had been a tubby teen, or somehow sense the years I've been eschewing obesity?) When the topic does reach light (and I've been more expressive about it in recent times), the reaction is generally, "Oh, that's interesting....." And not much more. It would be nice if there were a little more curiosity over the accomplishment (if you can call it that) of managing my weight in a "food toxic environment" (a phrase used by the National Weight Control Registry folks to refer to the overabundance of cheap, appealing and calorie-dense but nutrient-poor food available today). The accolades are rare. Still, I plan to ford ahead, wary of the butterball days of my teens....

Advantages of losing weight

Ok, why do I do it? What really motivates me to keep the train on the weight control rails? And what are the benefits and built-in rewards for keeping the weight down? First, and earliest of my motivations, was social acceptance. I was ridiculed for being fat. I was hailed by strangers and some acquaintances as "fatso" or "lardo." My girthy appearance wasn't very becoming to the girls in my high school days. There may be less social penalty for being tubby nowadays, since being overweight is becoming more and more the norm (sadly). But being lighter also has given me a greater sense of satisfaction with my personal appearance. I'm not a particularly handsome specimen, so removing the burden of excess weight from my constitution has been a definite positive. It is easier to find clothing in my size than for a "plus" size. Little health nuisances like ingrown toenails (that fat toes are prone to) go away. Climbing around in attics and other monkeybar-like places is much easier. Workouts are easier on the joints. It's easier to fit in an airline seat. The inner thighs on pants don't wear out like they used to. Statistics show many long-term health concerns are reduced. And the list goes on.

Disadvantages of losing weight

It's not all peaches and cream (oops.... that's a dessert.... careful!) working to keep weight in check. One who manually manages body weight can no longer rely (if they ever could) on built-in regulation mechanisms for the fuel intake-versus-expenditure balance. So one keeps one's weight at a personally selected target, not at a natural "set point" (though it seems hard to believe that a natural set point could operate correctly in a world of inexpensive, readily available, calorie-dense food). Pick your target, and work to keep things there. I did find, after losing weight, that I chilled more easily (likely due to a lower metabolism rate) and noticed a propensity to reduced circulation in my fingers and toes in cold weather. But those have been manageable (and make me greatly appreciate the mild climate where I currently live). And as mentioned, I get the occasional -- if slightly uncomfortable -- question about my eating habits and whether I might be vegetarian (nothing wrong with being vegetarian!). These are innocent enough inquiries, but I often find it more comfortable to eat alone, if the option is available, not only so I won't draw inquisitive glances or comments from others around me, but also so I don't experience the sense of exclusion I mentioned earlier.

This weight management saga has been for me a truly permanent undertaking. Indeed, a "life style change," as nutritionists call it. One strong motivator has been my aversion to reverting into that 205 pound Hot Dog. I'm now in my 50s and still managing my weight as a full-time job. I have also done all this completely on my own. No coaching, no dietician, no support team, no buddy system, no Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig.... I have just used my own determination and personal judgement on how to manage my eating habits (which have varied over time). But I also realize that my dedication to controlling (some dietary experts call it suppressing) weight is the exception, not the rule. It seems there aren't many people willing to bear that same burden. (That's understandable.... it's much more fun just to eat!) I wish I could somehow help others who would also like to control their weight long-term. I'm not sure how. Maybe this blog will do some good in that respect. When I see an obese person consuming what I know is very calorie dense food or drink, I feel frustrated that they don't somehow know better.... or even seem to care. Although I'm also, quite candidly, somewhat envious that I can't freely eat those same foods. But then I really don't want the consequences of that indulgence.

And to this day I remember that nurse's poignant and pivotal remark. It was a turning point in my life.

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My Personal Battle of the Bulge