Fitness · Nutrition

Weight Control: The Art of the Possible

How calories are viewed by those who diet and those in the weight loss industry is a complex issue. One of
these has to do with the question of exercise. I can remember a time when diet books used to advise that it wasn’t worth the effort to exercise. If one hour of walking only burns 200 calories, then why bother? It seemed much easier not to eat the extra 200 calories (the equivalent of two pats of butter.) It is now known that exercise does more than burn calories at a one to one ratio. It boosts metabolism by causing calories to be burned at a faster rate for a few hours, even after the exercise itself is over. It also can keep your metabolism burning at a higher rate on an ongoing basis by building muscle, which requires more energy to sustain than fat.

How do these findings effect our approach to weight loss? What it means is that it is possible to sustain weight loss without a lifetime of hunger by accepting two fundamental principles: you can’t eat whatever you want whenever you want, and second, you should get some exercise. This is true at all ages, but for women facing menopause, it is essential to learn how to do this if you want to deal with this vexing problem of “fat.” The good news now is that it is more appropriately being seen as a chronic medical condition.

I want to reframe these concepts so that they enter the realm of the possible vs. the ideal. The two keys are retraining the way you think about these ideas, and going slow. If you stick with these principles, the goal of achieving healthier weight is easier to attain.

The first cognitive change you must make is to stop thinking about dieting and exercise and rename them “health habits.” These are positive changes you are introducing, adding to your life, not forms of pain and deprivation. People can endure neither for very long, but they can learn new habits if they are given enough time, and if the changes are not too demanding. This is what is meant when you hear “diets don’t work.” A diet is usually a burst of unnatural behavior, difficult to continue in the long run, involving deprivation, hunger, and the lack of gratification.

But it is possible to change your weight. A way of thinking about habits is to examine some other health habits you have already mastered. A good one is dental hygiene. Most adults do not find it hard to perform basic dental hygiene. They might skip flossing once in a while, perhaps wait too long between dental appointments, but they accept the idea that if they want to keep their teeth healthy, they need to brush those teeth twice a day. Children don’t always accept this idea right away—but as they mature, the habit becomes ingrained, and as adults they realize that this need is a reality. It becomes automatic, and most people miss it if they can’t brush their teeth for some reason. The point I’m making is that the habit has been accepted and mastered and it is therefore not difficult to maintain. Many people even enjoy it. Healthy eating habits can be achieved in a similar way.

Accept the idea that achieving healthy eating habits is not an unusual form of deprivation but an adaptation to reality and adulthood. In addition, accept the idea that new habits develop slowly and may take some discipline at first, until they become second nature. There are no magic bullets when it comes to habits (though there are tools that can help). You are the student and you are the teacher as well. You understand that you are doing this for your own good. The analogy to alcohol is useful here. Although some people do not drink ever, many of those who do, often don’t drink everyday and if they do, they are careful to be moderate. On weekends or special occasions they may loosen up a bit, but many adults rarely like losing control. They understand the consequences of excessive drinking and do not even have to work too hard to drink moderately. On the other hand, some people are addicted to drinking; they have a physical vulnerability that makes it hard to drink moderately. The rest of the world often doesn’t understand this behavior. They think these people should control themselves, and “pull themselves together.” From this point of view, alcoholism is seen as a psychological or moral failing, and one that within voluntary control.

The same is true about attitudes towards the overweight and obese. Many people do not understand the complicated interplay between behavioral and physical elements that occurs for a great many people who suffer with weight problems. In addition to the discovery of metabolic syndrome, researchers have begun to see that some people experience hunger more intensely, and metabolize and burn calories at different rates. However, just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean that you can give in, any more than an alcoholic can use that reasoning. Those who recover know they must change if they are to live a healthier life, and in many cases, live at all. Giving up liquor can be very tough at first, but with time and support, not to mention the positive reinforcement of how much better they feel, it gets easier.

Carbohydrate addiction has some differences from alcoholism. Usually people are not born with the “disease,” but once there is a real addiction to carbohydrates, it can spin out of control. It’s somewhat like smoking: if you stop, you’ll eventually stop craving cigarettes, though it may be harder for some than others.

The difference between food and alcohol or cigarettes is that you cannot give up eating entirely. But if you view yourself as someone who has a chronic tendency to get addicted to certain types of food and ways of eating, you can reframe your thinking and accept the idea that you can’t eat anything you want, (even though your sister or husband can) and get away with it.

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