Real Talk: Dieting Isn’t For The Weak

Starting a diet sucks.  Starting to exercise sucks.  I’m not going to blow sunshine up your yu-yu and tell you how wonderful it is to be embarking on this journey. It may, indeed, be wonderful that a decision has been made to pursue better health– but it sure doesn’t feel like it from the perspective of the dieter.

The dieter sees a mountain in front of them and they know the climb is going to be frustrating, painful, filled with moments of suffering. They have likely tried various diets and methods, and listened to all sorts of advice being spewed at them by skinny people.

Standing in front of them may be some “super-fit” dressed in spandex workout attire, lecturing them because they are a personal trainer or workout fanatic, or have been fit their entire natural lives. Most of their soliloquy will ring hollow against the backdrop of the dieter’s personal history and struggle with weight.  It’s not that they are wrong – so apologies to all you Super-fits out there with good intentions!

Being Able To Relate:

What the “super-fit” lacks is credibility. Sure, they work hard for their bodies, and they put in the time to keep it perfect and trim, but, they haven’t walked that road of obesity. They don’t have even the slightest clue as to what it is like to face the daunting task of starting a diet as an obese person.  It’s not the same as needing to take off a couple of pounds gained over the holiday. 

The journey out of obesity is incredibly hard work that affects not just the body but the mind.  It’s an exercise in discipline, in-fact, it is MORE than an exercise – it’s a trial.  Embarking on a diet is more difficult than nearly anything …but the rewards are also greater than I ever could have imagined.

decision making

Starting a Diet:

So…you have made the decision.  Deciding that you are committed and have had enough of living as an obese person is the first step. It’s not an easy decision to make. Sure, we all “want” to do it …but more often than not, we fall down when it comes to the commitment part.  Each of us has done that many times. But this time it is different and you’re really going to do it. (If you are still on the fence, read my article on Making The Decision).  Now what you need to do is put together your system, develop your plan, and …get an idea of what you are going to run into.  Let’s take a look at some things you can expect:

It’s As Much About Your Head:

When I say that the rewards are greater than I ever could have imagined, I’m serious.  As someone who has been obese their entire life, I never knew what was on the “other side”, as it were.  I never have experienced life without the physical, mental and emotional stigma of obesity.  Make no mistake, the impacts of obesity are tremendous in each of those three categories.  It’s not until you are well into the struggle, see some positive results and your life starts changing that you fully realize how much mental and emotional work you have to do to overcome the impacts of obesity. 

An entire separate article could be written on these unseen impacts of obesity and the role that society plays in the stigma.  However, for my purposes here, I will just say that even today, two and a half years after I started my diet, I deal with the mental impacts on a daily basis.  Things crop up and I recognize that my way of thinking and reacting has been conditioned by my experience in obesity.   Indeed, the work we do is not just about our bodies, it’s as much about how we feel, think, react and comprehend. We see things through obesity colored lenses, and it takes time and serious work to take off those glasses.   

It’s Going To Take Longer Than You Think:

stopwatch

It’s pretty normal for people to go into a diet and think they are going to transform themselves in record time.  You see it all the time on TV, in ads, throughout media.  “Transform your body in 30 days”, “Lose 15 pounds in 15 days” or you see testimonials by happy, photogenic people who claim to have lost metric ass-loads of weight with a given system. All of these things – even if we know better – impact our subconscious and naturally drive us to believe, somewhere down deep, that there is an easy, fast way to make us skinny and achieve the body we’ve always wanted.   

To be sure, some systems work. While I am proof of that, it does take time.  Physical and emotional change is a lengthy process and we need to be prepared for the fact that our journey is a long one.

People Won’t Notice Your Losses Right Away:

If you start from a place of extreme obesity, like I did, people will not immediately notice your progress.  I think I ended up losing close to 100 pounds before I had anyone approach me with a comment like “hey Ethan, you’re looking good – have you lost a little weight?” 

I should qualify this by saying that there were some that knew I was working on this and were supportive from the start.  However there were just as many that knew and said nothing, deliberately, because they believed my efforts would lead to nothing or they didn’t want to bring it up because they didn’t want to “jinx” my efforts…or they simply didn’t know what to say. While it boggles my mind that people could not know what to say or how to show support, if you combine that number with those that didn’t know I was dieting in the first place, the results are that the vast majority of people won’t notice or comment.

Don’t be deterred if people don’t notice your initial weight loss. Remember, this is about you and how you feel.  Resist the pull to seek validation in the positive compliments from others. Keep foremost in your mind that this is your battle for better health and better happiness, and it’s not contingent on the approval of others. 

Your Head Won’t Get It:

confused

Other people aren’t the only ones that won’t pick up on your weight loss.  It’s very likely that neither will your subconscious.  I still look in the mirror and see a fat man, from time to time. The definition of beautiful has been so cultivated by society, culture and media that nobody is immune to the effects of this skewed scale and what it makes us think …especially about ourselves. Young girls are particularly vulnerable to body image issues. You can lose hundreds of pounds (in my case) and still look at yourself as needing improvement and not the equivalent of everyone else. 

You may still feel odd, walking into a room – like people are staring at you in silent judgment.  That you continue to be typecast, and assumptions made about your character, will and what kind of person you are based on your weight.  I’m not going to tell you that it isn’t happening because I can’t possibly know that. But what I can tell you in that many times this kind of reaction remains in our brains well after we have lost the weight.  As you progress on your weight loss journey, be cognizant that your perceptions of yourself and what others may be thinking could be entirely skewed by your years being overweight.

Give Yourself A Mental Break:

We tend to be hardest on ourselves.  As we lose weight our physical capabilities change.  How easy it is to do certain tasks will change, and we will become more active.  Things we used to do to account for our weight may no longer apply.  Like when I needed to take something downstairs or fetch something from another floor, I would wait until I had more items to get – or spend time thinking about what else I wanted to accomplish while I was downstairs.  This was because navigating the stairs was difficult to do and represented an element of risk. I had actually dislocated my knee on stairs once.  So as a result I wanted to make sure I was being efficient. 

Now? I don’t think twice – I bound up and down the stairs as needed with no planning or extra care.  I just do it.  We do see all of our own flaws in sharp relief.  And we do know where we need to improve, so we also need to take special measures to help ourselves make the mental adjustment to being thinner. 

hurdles

Overcoming Mental Hurdles:

So the mental game is monumental …so what can we do to help ourselves see us as we really are? It’s a good question, In addition to weighing on a regular basis, we can also measure ourselves in key locations that will help us understand the progress we are making. Taking pictures along your journey can also be very helpful in providing visual evidence to yourself that you are changing.  Take photos when you are with friends or colleagues. Document yourself having a good time during those moments when you are not thinking about your weight. 

Look at those pictures when you are feeling like you are making no progress or thinking of yourself as still obese.  We may well still be, but to help our heads understand the transformation we are going through, it is beneficial to look at pictures and see the change we have made.  It’s important to understand that dealing with this takes time. We will likely be working on this for many years.    

Your Emotional Life Won’t Instantly Improve:

You wont suddenly be “loved by millions” if you lose weight.  Since society is a major driver in the negative impacts and cost of obesity, its natural to believe that if you lose weight those negatives will go away and suddenly you will be more popular or receive drastically more positive reactions from people.  That isn’t the case – not totally.  But the first thing you will notice is even more important: You will feel better about YOU!

Chances are, the emotional impacts of obesity are ingrained in you and it takes work to rid ourselves of the expectations and framework around which we have become accustomed to operating.  Know that your life, on a lot of levels, will become a lot better by losing weight – especially if you start from a place of extreme obesity.  But the work of improving ourselves internally must be done over time. Rebuilding confidence and learning to see ourselves as we are, and relating to people on a level other than that of an obese person (regardless of what labels THEY put on you) is a lengthy process that requires diligence and effort.  Be patient, you will be working on this aspect for a long time. It changes slower than the weight is lost.

You Will Screw Up – Accept It:

me6

I have a bit of inside information for you:  you’re human and not perfect.  I KNOW! This comes as a shock!  /sarcasm off.  You will have those days where you just can’t say no, and as a result, you consume treats that are not on your diet.  It’s not the end of the world.  Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Accept that you make mistakes and keep moving forward. Acknowledge that you could have done better then note what you will change to make that happen, but don’t beat yourself up needlessly.  I am particularly bad about this one.  But if you have one take-away, let it be this: Your attitude is everything!  It’s the difference between being successful and struggling. 

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too:

There will be those friends that can eat anything and stay rail thin.  Or people that are so active you can watch them dive into a pizza without one worry of the repercussions.  You and I are not one of those people.  There are trade offs to be made when it comes to improving our health. You can go to the bars with your friends, but if you have a bunch of drinks and food, that 3 mile walk is not going to offset it. 

You have to decide what takes priority here. Come up with social activities that are healthy and remove the temptation.  Or learn to limit your consumption when out with friends.  If that’s considered anti-social among your crowd, then I, again, point you to the fact that you must decide what is more important here.  It’s all about making choices.  The discipline it requires comes from you and nowhere else. Ultimately, you are responsible for the choices you make. Own them.

cake
Here is a cake. You shouldn’t eat this. Seriously.

Snacking Can Get Out Of Hand: 

When I get hungry and need a little snack, if I have not prepped for it, I am more likely to grab something deliciously unhealthy.  For me, the big infractions remain peanut butter, chips and salsa, crackers and cheese, chocolate chips, baked goods. These things are great in moderation but a consistent diet of anything with refined sugar or wheat etc gets in the way of my diet.  Moderation means a very small amount.

These two beckon me down a rabbit hole that is so difficult to crawl out of!

Having healthy alternatives around for snacks is, generally, the answer.  Veggies and hummus is my go-to.  But know that if you haven’t planned for this, you could be setting yourself up for trouble. There are a lot of healthy 100-200 calorie snacks out there. Do some research and figure out what works for you.  But make sure to keep it clean and healthy.  100 calorie bags of cheese-itz are not going to cut it.   

Cravings:

Yes, you will have cravings and mighty they will be!  I had ridiculous cravings when I first started my diet. I was craving all those greasy, heavy foods that I had become accustomed to eating. Going from eating a diet of pizza, cheeseburgers, French fries, or whatever else tasted delicious to eating very clean is going to require an adjustment period.   Be patient!

In particular, my diet was filled with calorically dense foods.  After changing that to clean foods, it caused a lot of hunger, in addition to cravings, because I had cut back on calories in addition to overwhelming my taste buds with super rich food. The only way to wean yourself off all those heavy foods is to step back and feed yourself something better and cleaner until your system adjusts and becomes accustomed to a better version of normal.  That’s where your taste buds come in too.  Until then, hang in there.  Stick it out.  You will be glad you did!  

food
All of these things need to go away – and, eventually, you won’t miss them.

Taste Buds:

When you start your diet, and you start eating healthy, clean foods, you will run into a major difficulty. Nothing tastes very good.  Everything tastes like bland celery. In particular, I remember my protein bars all tasting like cardboard to me.  Or compressed sawdust.   They were awful – at least until my palate improved. I felt like I was denying myself and suffering without all my rich foods.  But there is a light at the end of the tunnel here.    

Cravings are driven by our taste buds. Weaning our system off the high fat and high sugar diets to which we have become accustomed will lead to a re-acclimation of our taste buds.  It’s amazing what can happen if we are able to stick to a clean diet for 90 days.  The things that you used to absolutely die for, are no longer interesting too you.  They feel heavy and like they are just “too much”.  What becomes delicious to you starts to be redefined by the healthy things that you are feeding your body. 

That moment that you are waiting for is when our taste buds change. For me, that was 90 days. After that point, I was not experiencing the cravings and the feelings of denying myself went away.  I was focused on my health, how I was feeling and the progress I was making.  It was a MAJOR positive turning point in my diet.  When I realized it happened, I knew that this lifestyle change was going to work for me.  So when it gets bad, friends, just tell yourself you only need to make it to 90 days. Hang in there, it WILL get better!

Initial Good Results Will Slow Down:

Weight loss can be rapid at the start. Often this is the result of water loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.  When we start losing weight, we are, generally, holding a lot of water and consuming extra calories through calorically dense foods with empty carbs that make us retain that weight.  We also are likely consuming too much salt which also inhibits water loss.  So once we clean up what we are putting in our bodies, our system reacts by losing extra weight right away.  We have removed the roadblocks that were promoting weight and water retention so now we are seeing that melt away, initially. 

Understand that once your body sheds these extra pounds that weight loss will slow down.  That’s NORMAL.  You aren’t doing anything wrong!  You have a system that is initially working – keep going!  Eventually you will get to a point where weight loss settles into a normalized rhythm, with periods of plateaus.  That, again, is NORMAL. You just need to stick with your system.  There are things you can do to deal with plateaus, but those are separate issues.  I tend to increase protein consumption and vary exercise routines to help me break plateaus.  But be comfortable at 1-2 pounds per week as an average weight loss. If you expect more, it will lead to frustration and it is likely not medically sound.   

Summary:

It’s mostly about managing expectations and not fooling yourself into thinking that this is anything but a slow, gradual, long-term commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Eventually that commitment will pay dividends and you will get where you need to be.

Lastly, I will say that with expectations comes compromise. It is important to understand that it’s not what we look like but rather how healthy we are and how much we are enabling ourselves to enjoy life. If you can keep your head in that kind of space, the compromises will be few and the rewards will be many.

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