I was reading a doctor-blog last night. (I know, I know. Do I have a life? Well, yes. But we all have our quirks. Sometimes I wonder whether, if I’d had better grades in high school and a little more encouragement, I might have actually become a doctor. I’ve been fascinated with the idea for a good part of my adult life. But I digress…)
This particular doctor, a primary care doc if I remember correctly, wrote a post about obesity. Having been up that particular road not so very long ago, I was interested in what the doc had to say on the subject. I sort of knew, but sometimes there are delightful surprises hidden in these blog posts, nuggets of hard-won wisdom and sparkling little jewels of reality that show up these doctor-writers as human like the rest of us. I settled down to read.
The post started out as expected with a graf focused on the current “obesity pandemic” here in the U.S., complete with statistics. Good enough. We are facing a real problem with this in America – we’re a pretty sedentary lot, living as we do mostly in the ‘burbs without any need-compelled hard labor to help us burn off the effects of too much high calorie, sugary, easy-to-get food. The solution to the problem is clear: We need to eat a lot less of those calories and move our bodies a lot more. Simple, right?
Well, yes, in theory. Hard to do in real-life.
The doc’s post was going right along with the status quo thinking in regards to obesity at this point. But then she suddely zig-zagged off the road into the trees.
First, she condemned the fashion industry for using tall, skeletal women to model clothing and the entertainment industry for glamorizing female actors who have the body fat of greyhounds. I was all for that. These ideals simply aren’t realistic for most women – we come in all shapes and sizes, and skeletal isn’t really the healthiest one to strive for. Size 0 dresses? Ridiculous.
You go, doc, I thought. Tell us how it is!
And then, just as I was getting ready for her to blast away at all this pressure our society puts on women to be “perfect,” this doctor flip-flopped, opining calmly that clothing in a women’s size 14 was just wayyyy too big. That what could possibly be wrong with striving for a size 6? It was actually just about right, she wrote. (Note: Audrey Heburn’s famous Little Black Dress in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a very petite size 6. The beautiful Miss Hepburn was a tiny woman.)
Yes, a presumably sane, female doctor of medicine wrote this.
Well, my jaw dropped. I felt my face go hot. And I immediately started to feel guilty because, you know, I wear a galumphing size 14 these days. I’m one of the lumbering elephants this doctor was calling out in her post: a fat, couch-potato lump of flabby American female.
I took a deep breath. No. This was … wrong. I forced myself to dump that painful, useless guilt. I might wear a size 14 today, dammit, but I wore a size 22 at this time a year ago. It took me about 20 years to get that heavy, gaining a few pounds one year, a few more the next. I’d given birth to a daughter and been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during those years, but I’d never just sat around in front of the tube scarfing up bon-bons.
In fact, I’ve been mindful of my weight since I was 13 years old. I’ve been “on” a low-fat diet for most of my life, though obviously I strayed now and then. Who doesn’t? The thing is, until recently, I was under the impression that a high-carb, low-fat diet was good for you. Pasta=energy, right? Athletes eat it all the time, and they’re not fat! Far as I was concerned, the real culprit was fat in our foods.
I believed, faithfully, in the FDA’s food pyramid. You know, the one that showed breads, grains and cereals at the bottom of the pyramid, indicating that our diets should consist more of those than anything else.
As a result, even though I used minimal olive oil when I cooked, ate little butter, cut out red meats, ate only wheat bread in sandwiches and paid attention to the fat content in my foods, I still gained an extra 80 pounds over two decades. Part of the reason I gained was that I didn’t exercise enough. I’d never been even close to “athletic” and I disliked exercise, associating it with PE class as a kid, where we were graded on our competitive physical abilities. I was a klutz. I wasn’t particularly strong or graceful. PE was a daily embarrassment. Why would I want do something that mostly humiliated me? Once out of school, I was glad no one could force me to play field hockey or do calesthenics any more.
As an adult I ended up flying a desk, my butt firmly planted in a chair. I was a graphic artist and a journalist. I was very good at both. I had skill and talent, and I worked hard. I’d come home whipped at night, even though I’d done little in the way of anything physical. I’d come home and take care of my family, cook, do laundry, and neaten up the house. And while I’ve never been big on watching television, once the chores were done I’d spend my evenings curled up on the sofa with a good book. Sometimes there were … chips.
But back to the point. This blogging doctor stated that a woman’s size 14 is too big. That a woman who’d wear that size is too fat. That instead, the woman who wears less than half that size is acceptable. Average. Ideal.
Well, doc, I gotta tell you. I’m pissed. It took me a long time to drop four sizes, though not nearly as long as it took me to gain them. If I hadn’t done my own research into nutrition and weight loss, I don’t think I could have done it. I had to learn some things, like the way “enriched” white flour turns to sugar in our bodies. The way nearly all our processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup as one of the first five ingredients. The way the portions we’re served in restaurants are massive, giving us more calories in one meal than we need in an entire day. The way all those sugars we eat, knowingly or not, teach our bodies to hoard fat and crave more sugar – and in doing so, screw up the body’s ability to produce and use insulin. And the way that diets themselves teach our bodies to go instantly into starvation mode, slowing our metabolisms until the good times return.
No doctor ever told me any of that.
No wonder I got fat. Even if I’d exercised more, I probably would have, since pasta, enriched flour bread and white rice made up the larger part of my diet. I had no idea I shouldn’t eat processed foods.
In the end, losing weight required totally cutting anything “white” out of my diet – flour, rice, and sugar. Potatoes. Enriched flour, I discovered, simply meant that they’d taken the germ and hull off the grain before grinding it – and then put the lost nutrients back into it without the healthy fiber that the germ and hull would have provided in the first place. All those years of eating “healthy” wheat bread with enriched flour meant that I’d been eating a substance that turned directly into sugar once I digested it.
So even though I’d taught myself before I was 16 not to enjoy sweets too much; even though I had nothing even resembling a “sweet tooth,” I still became obese, thanks in great part to the hidden, added sugars in my diet. Even though I used minimal fats when I cooked and stayed away from fried foods when I went out, I still became obese. Even though I rarely bought cookies, crackers or other junk foods, I got fat. In fact, everything I ate was full of things that would make me get fat regardless of my caution. And I did.
With RA and a new diagnosis of pre-diabetes hanging over head, I switched to whole-grain everything. Whole grain bread. Whole grain pastas. I read labels compulsively (it took me twice as long to shop for half as much food). If the label said “enriched flour” I didn’t buy it. If it had HFCS within the first six ingredients, I put it back on the shelf. Because of this I stopped buying processed foods. If it came in a box and was easy to prepare, it probably had enriched flour and HFCS in it. It probably had more salt in one serving than I’d need in three days. Reject. I bought fresh vegetables. Fresh meat. And my cooking became very simple. I grilled the meat, using no extra fat. I ate salads and steamed vegetables. I learned to cook and ate a lot more fish (rather than fish sticks), which fortunately, I like very much. I’d never liked milk much, but I did like it in my coffee. I switched to soy creamer for that, and if I ate cold cereal, I’d use soymilk. I tried to switch to low-fat cheeses, but they tasted so awful I couldn’t stick to it. I ended up eating full-fat cheeses – but as a once or twice a week treat, in small quantities, rather than as a daily part of my diet. I ate more fresh fruit and didn’t bother with the canned varieties. I discovered delicious steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, brown basmati rice, Splenda, and the satisfaction of a crunchy handful of almonds rather than a napkin full of Fritos. Finally, instead of giving myself the same portion at dinner time that I gave my 6-foot-2 husband, I gave myself a good third less. Then half. I got used to not being full when I finished a meal.
And I lost 50 pounds. I wear size 14 pants. I don’t cut my own breath off when I try to tie my shoes. I can walk up my driveway without becoming breathless, and I can walk five miles (if I have the time free) without killing myself. Hell, I can walk three miles in 45 minutes, and while I feel like I’ve exercised, I’m not worn out. As long as my hands aren’t hurting too much, I can get a decent aerobic workout at Curves each day, too.
Yes, I still want to lose that last 30 pounds. It will put me into size 10 pants – I’ll weigh less, but I’ll still have wide hips, thanks to my Scandinavian ancestors. But Dr. Blogger, I’d have to starve myself like one of those magazine models or TV actresses to fit into a size 6. I’m only 5 feet, 4 inches tall, but I couldn’t fit into a 6 anything unless I weighed 90 pounds. And I’m sorry. That’s just plain not healthy.
But I’ll be honest. At 53 years old, I’m proud of my size 14 body. I’m proud of myself for achieving it in a year. I’m proud of myself for taking the stress of those extra pounds off my arthritic hips, knees, ankles and feet, and for getting my blood sugar back down into the normal, healthy range. I like the way I look for the first time in many, many years. And while I may still be technically “obese” – and disgustingly “fat” – in your critical eyes, doc, I’m no longer “morbidly obese.” I’ll lose the rest of the weight I want to lose, but I’ll continue to do it slowly and surely, eating far more wisely than I used to. I’ll be healthy.
But I sure won’t be perfect.