(and other unfortunate untruths)
I ran into an old neighbor yesterday. He had driven over from the valley to enjoy some days by the sea with his little Maltese mix, Jacks. I saw right away that he’d gained a significant amount of weight since our last encounter.
When I first made his acquaintance a few years back, he was morbidly obese (BMI above 35). “I come from a big Italian family,” he told me sheepishly. In fact, his wife and two teenage daughters all carried significant baggage despite their active weekends exploring the beach and boogie boarding in the chilly water.
Eventually, he underwent gastric bypass surgery and the weight began melting off.
Beware: the honeymoon never lasts
During the weight loss phase, dieters (and gastric patients) feel strong and committed—after all, they’re still very much in touch with the nightmare of obesity and its complications. However, over time, as they habituate to a new thinner self, weight loss slows and stops. Life presents its same ups and downs, and decades-old habits begin to reassert themselves.
I’m guessing this is what happened to my old neighbor. He probably doesn’t even remember the certainty with which he proclaimed that he’d never let himself gain weight again. But after I walked away from our exchange, I imagined him asking me for help.
What would I tell him?
Change is hard (but not impossible)
For starters, I’d tell him that making permanent dietary change is very hard—and not because I’d ask him to stop eating certain foods or stick to the food plan no matter what.
If I’ve learned anything over these years of getting myself straight with food, and then helping others along the path, it’s that controlling what you put in your mouth is virtually impossible, at least at first.
It’s gonna be hard because I would ask him to make some other changes—and stick to them no matter what.
What’s so hard about that?
His mind, that’s what.
His hungry brain will cut him off at every corner with rationales like, “Why should I weigh this fried chicken if I’m just gonna eat it anyway? I’ll get right back on track tomorrow, and then I’ll put everything on the scale before I eat it.”
When it gets hard, keep at it (don’t change plans)
I’d emphasize the difficulty of his undertaking—not to discourage him, but so he’d know that when it gets hard it’s not because he hasn’t found what works for him. It’s hard because he lives in a culture in which the object of his desire (highly refined, salted, oiled, smoked, and fried food) is within constant and easy reach, and everybody’s doing it!
Sugar, for instance, isn’t like that other white powder—most of his friends and cohorts don’t do that, and it’s expensive, hard to get, illegal, and highly frowned upon. In fact, if you attend a 12-step meeting in an effort to rid yourself of cocaine addiction, the addicts-in-recovery there will probably offer you some cookies to help soften the harsh reality of the long road ahead.
The ubiquitous nature of highly addictive standard American fare is a juggernaut that few will ever overcome, especially by attempting to do so head on (as in trying not to eat certain foods), despite the best of intentions.
Instead, I would have him focus on behaviors he can control—like keeping a food log, weighing and measuring, and answering some questions every night before bed. Eventually, we’d work on delayed gratification strategies and techniques for handling eating out, dealing with trigger foods, etc.
At no point would I tell him, “You just gotta stick to your plan!”
That never works, and it’s demoralizing.
In my program, success is redefined from, “Yay, I only ate nutrient-dense foods today!” to, “Yay me! I completed all assignments and stuck to my new healthy food habits regardless of what I ate today.”
Don’t become overconfident—success early on is not a good indicator of long-term success (remember, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever). Prepare yourself for the challenges ahead. A change in lifelong eating habits will not happen overnight. Instead of trying to follow a nutrient-dense diet, take concrete action. Begin by keeping a food log, which is easier than ever with smartphone apps. Enter your food immediately after eating, no matter what.
And be patient—long-lasting change takes a long time.