There aren't a lot of people reading this who will know what it's like to have more than a hundred pounds to lose, and even fewer who have lost that amount or more. But I'm one of them.
If you need to lose what the smarmy "Leptoprin" ads refer to as "vanity pounds," I doubt anything I'm going to say here will be too useful for you. I don't know what it would be like to feel you "need" to lose 10 or 20 pounds - to me, that amount of weight doesn't even register. I am sorry to say that, because I know from bitter memories of adolescence that even the smallest deviation from the ideal can cause someone's self-esteem enormous wounds, but if you are out of high school and still agonizing over having an imperfect body, I can only suggest that instead of working on your diet, you consider working on accepting your body as it is. Feel free to tell me I simply don't understand, because you're right, I really don't.
What I do understand is having a body that seems to have become an enemy. That doesn't work right. That is driven by hungers and cravings that are shameful and condemned. That doesn't appear to function the way other people's bodies function, but the reason for that is not believed to be physical, but mental or emotional. You're lazy, greedy, slobby, gluttonous, addicted, compulsive, unbalanced, needy, immature, weak.
After an adolescence of pure hell, spent in the 70s when being nearly six feet tall still didn't exempt me from the expectation that I should wear a Twiggy-like size 6, when bulimia and obsessive dieting were all that kept me in the size 12 that still felt like a tent to me, I stumbled on a book that set me free. It was called Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. I haven't re-read that book since those days more than 25 years ago, and I have no idea how it might hold up, but the message that I got from reading it then was simple: I am not an ornamental object and have no obligation to maximize my physical attractiveness for the viewing enjoyment of those around me.
So instead of staying on the dieting merry-go-round for all my adult life, I got off. I said "no thanks" to a culture of lifelong denial and insanity, and simply accepted that I was going to be bigger than my society wanted me to be. I learned that many of the health drawbacks of having a larger amount of body fat were more related to lack of activity and unhealthy eating habits than to body fat itself, and since I was extremely active and limber and strong, and, while my idea of what constitutes "healthy eating" has changed a great deal over the years, I certainly ate better than most everyone else my age, I figured I was ahead of the game even while being "overweight."
But as I got to my late 30s, I began to suffer some of the physiological effects of having too much body fat. I was also suffering from my misunderstanding of what constitutes "healthy eating" for me, and was eating an extremely low fat vegetarian diet that did not agree with me at all. I gained my last 80 pounds while eating this diet, and it put the final touches on a world-class case of insulin resistance, the last step before a full-blown Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. I was extremely fatigued, had trouble getting up in the morning, slept badly, kept gaining weight despite not increasing my food intake or reducing my activity level, was nearly comatose with sleepiness after eating and in the late afternoons, could rarely manage to eat anything at all in the mornings, but once I started eating in the afternoon, couldn't stop until I went to bed. I had massive cravings for starchy foods, and while during most of my thirties and early forties I didn't eat sugar, still suffered from unbearable cravings for sweets, especially chocolate.
I started eating meat again, and did feel a little bit better, but overall my physical condition continued to deteriorate. Things that used to be quite easy, such as taking my dogs on long walks or showing my dogs, became more and more difficult.
I wasn't sure what to do. I'd done Weight Watchers and a few other weight loss programs during high school and college and immediately afterward, and that was the exact mentality I had left behind forever when I read Orbach's book. I believed firmly that my problem with food was emotional and mental, and that I had to change my brain and my emotional responses to food in order to break its hold on me. I didn't want to be yet another woman who went on and off diets, and believed (I think correctly) that if I started any kind of weight loss program when my own feelings about diet, weight, and body image were so conflicted, I was guaranteed not to stick with it.
Two changes in my life occurred around this time. One I've already written about in The Food of Love Thing. The other is that I joined a small private email list started by a friend of mine, for dog lovers who wanted to be healthier, with a strong focus on weight loss. I wasn't entirely comfortable with that focus, as my introductory post to the list reveals, but I was interested in being healthy and heaven knows I do love dogs. So I joined. A woman who I've known and worked with online for many years was on that list, and had recently lost more than one hundred and fifty pounds. Another friend on the list was planning to have weight loss surgery in the near future. One of my closest friends had already had weight loss surgery a couple of years before, and had lost a couple hundred pounds afterward.
Weight loss surgery was something that absolutely terrified me. It violated everything I felt and believed about what I owe my body, and how I feel I should treat my body. While I support each person's right to make a decision that is appropriate for them on this issue, for me it was an absolute impossibility. But I was in a state of near-despair, having been working on this issue for my entire life and still, as I neared my mid-forties, being so unhappy and so unhealthy - and so confused and conflicted.
The friend who owned the email list said to me one day that statistically, people who need to lose a hundred pounds or more virtually never do, unless they have weight loss surgery. And even those who do lose it, don't keep it off - even some who have weight loss surgery. I was starting to feel trapped, and that my future was closing in on me. I spent the next couple of days feeling increasingly frightened and out of control.
Two or three mornings later, however, I was driving to yoga class with my friend Lisa. Although she's one of these bird-like people who can't gain weight even when they try, she is also deeply compassionate and understanding, and listened intently to what I said, and to the pain behind it. After I'd spoken for several minutes, she asked me if I knew that our yoga teacher had once weighed 264 pounds.
I was shocked into silence. Our yoga teacher, a man in his 60s, was one of those wiry pretzel people who you think of when you think of, well, a yoga teacher. And at that very moment, I realized that statistics, while useful and interesting, say nothing about what one individual might do or be capable of. It may be that virtually everyone who tries to lose a hundred pounds fails. But not every individual fails, and I didn't have to fail.
My online friend who had successfully lost over a hundred fifty pounds without weight loss surgery had done it on the Atkins program. I didn't know much about Atkins, beyond the sort of media version that involves steak and bacon and eggs and not much else. Being me, of course I read a book on it - Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution. I'd already read some low-carb-leaning books on nutrition, such as The Schwarzbein Principle, but this was the first genuine "diet and weight loss" book I'd read in over 25 years.
I won't belabor the basic premise of the book here, because there is so much unbelievably bad information about the Atkins plan out there right now that I feel it deserves its own entry. I'll just say I liked the sound of the plan, it made sense to me, and I decided to try it. I set a date in the future to begin, cleared all my carby foods out of my house, and on May 19, 2003, I started Atkins.
I titled this entry "The First Hundred Pounds Are Easy," but in reality it was more like the first 85 were easy. They melted off quite quickly, at a rate of 5-10 pounds a month. From the first morning I woke up after being on the plan 24 hours, I had huge amounts of energy. I woke up with the sun, never felt the slightest bit of sleepiness after eating, and even before I'd lost any weight to speak of, felt younger than I had in a decade. As the weight vanished, so did a lifetime of irritable bowel syndrome. Then my aches and pains disappeared, other than the pain in my back from an injury I suffered in April of 2003. Then my skin got really soft and nice. And all those things were wonderful.
But something else that happened from the first day I consider a miracle: All my issues around food disappeared. All those things I thought were emotional or mental problems, all those cravings and conflicts, just vanished. Overnight. It seems that I'd actually DONE the emotional work I thought I'd done, and the cycle of overeating and all the problems it spawns was a leftover biochemical reaction to eating a diet high in carbohydrates, with the ensuing blood sugar problems it brought with it. It was that simple.
That simple for ME, I should say, as Atkins is not magic. I had done huge amounts of inner work getting ready for a permanent lifestyle change, and Atkins simply gave me the recipe book to use to prepare the meals for the next phase of my life. I've seen hundreds of people come onto the many Atkins email lists and fail, just as they failed on other diet plans. There is nothing in Atkins that will fix eating disorders that originate in the mind and the heart. But if you are, like me, trapped in a way of eating that was creating a blood sugar roller coaster, sapping your energy, and setting up a chain reaction of cravings and overeating, Atkins may be the missing link to finally having a functioning, healthy appetite that serves to let you know when you've eaten enough.
For the first time in my life I trust my hunger. I even trust my cravings, although who knew a girl could actually crave BROCCOLI?
As of this writing, I have lost 115 pounds in just over 19 months. I still have quite a bit to lose, but nowhere near as much as I've already lost. I have never eaten off plan and don't struggle with it. Despite common stereotypes about fat people, I'm actually a person of great determination and will power, and when I commit to something, I don't waver. I've been clean and sober for over 22 years. I know the feeling when it's real and permanent change. Until I was ready to commit to this change in my life, I didn't even try. I could tell that I wasn't ready. And when I was ready, I was fortunate to have a tool that works so well for me, that is so in harmony with my beliefs about nutrition.
The weight comes off much more slowly now, and at first it was hard to slow down to 2-5 pounds a month instead of 5-10. But in a way I'm grateful, as it's given me the chance to process the enormous change that's happened to my body and to my lifestyle in the last year and a half. I've had some emotional setbacks I didn't expect, such as grief when I had to give my old clothes away because they were too large. I didn't expect to mourn, but mourn I did. I had to learn that while I can control what I put in my mouth and how much exercise I get, I have no control over the scale, and that our bodies give up fat at erratic and unpredictable rates. I've seen friends try Atkins and give it up as not right for them, and had to understand and accept that one woman's miracle is another woman's big fat dud.
And I've had to learn the biggest lesson of all - what it's like to live free of a struggle that's dominated my life since I was 10 years old.