Deferred Gratification

I was reading an article today that had nothing to do with weight management – until it did. The article was an interview with an author of a book about confirmation bias and self-delusion. I find that interesting on its own, but then the author mentioned the Mischel Marshmallow test, which I hadn’t heard of but immediately googled after reading this:

You have to fight the desire for instant gratification. You’re always going to do it even if you know you do it. I wrote about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test, which asked kids to hold off eating a marshmallow placed in front of them. Children who were able to delay gratification ended up being the people who were more successful in life, in the way we consider people successful. They had better marriages, higher-paying jobs and more education. The correlation suggests that being good at delaying gratification means that you’re good at thinking about thinking.

The kids who succeeded weren’t the ones with the most willpower. They were the ones who didn’t even look at the marshmallow. Kids who failed the test were the ones who thought they were more in control then they really were. They’d stare at it. Smell it. They’d say, ok, I’ll just lick it and put it down. The kids who succeeded would bang their head on the table, slap their face, turn around and around in their chair. They knew they couldn’t trust themselves so they came up with strategies to outwit themselves.

The kids who succeeded were the ones who didn’t even look at the marshmallow – that’s brilliant! How did they figure that out so early? I had to manage my weight with an iron fist for years to finally figure that out in my 30s! And now, that’s exactly how I practice avoiding food I have no business eating. In a situation, such as a party or holiday event, where I find I can’t control the food environment (once I’ve made sure I haven’t sabotaged myself by being there hungry) I regularly pretend like the food either isn’t there, or isn’t food. I don’t play chicken with food I shouldn’t eat. No looking, longing, smelling, envisioning or bargaining, because I know I will never win if I start down that path.

Today I’m pleased to hear that all my effort might even be good for me beyond weight management. Deferred gratification – according to science, not just a key to weight management, but also to success in other aspects of life!

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What I did today to keep it off

Today I finally bit the bullet and got some gear I needed to keep running. I’d been trying to put it off because what I needed was expensive, but in the end it’s worth it to me to have the gear so I don’t give myself an excuse not to do my exercise. So now I have my fancy compression pants to replace the old ones, I have no excuses for not running this weekend.

This week has been very challenging for me mentally because I wasn’t able to weigh in on Tuesday. I find that the weeks that I don’t weigh in I worry a lot more about what is going on than the weeks that I do. It’s a double-edged sword, because the reason I don’t weigh in during my menstrual cycle is because seeing the 3-6 pound gain I get every month during that time will cause me a lot of anxiety, but also NOT weighing in causes me to imagine all sorts of scenarios that have no basis in reality.  In my mind my daily missteps get magnified and my successes minimized when I can’t see what’s actually going on with cold hard numbers. But I don’t want to get on the scale to see that it’s all true – even though it won’t be next week!

Scale management for me is mental management. I’d like to tell you I’ve got this all handled and sorted out but I still have to work at not being a complete head case every day. Some days more than others!

What vs How

If I could offer one piece of advice to thin people about fat people it would be this: They don’t need your dieting advice.

I know, pretty rich coming from somebody who gives a lot of diet advice, but hear me out. I was fat my entire life, I can remember being taunted by the other kids in kindergarten about being fat. I had one diet program after another shoved down my throat from the age of about 12 on. So as a fat person, there was one thing I knew inside and out: Diets. I knew every diet out there, I knew the theories behind them all, and I’d tried (and failed at) most of them. I knew more about losing weight than any thin person who’d never had to think about food or exercise and yet somehow wound up, through luck or genetics, naturally thin.

I knew what I needed to do to lose weight for most of my life, so why was I still overweight? Because I was lacking two important components: I didn’t know HOW to execute, and I didn’t have enough mental bandwidth to focus on it above all other things in my life.

One thing I realize, as I look back over my efforts at weight loss throughout my life, is that the only time I lost weight without help of a program was when I was unemployed – because it’s really hard! When I wasn’t working I could focus all of my energy and efforts on dieting and exercising and I didn’t have to worry about hunger affecting my performance at work; I could exercise for hours, plan and cook all my meals, research diet ideas, etc. Conversely, the times I was able to lose weight while working for a living was when I was enrolled in a formal program with behaviorists and dieticians providing the food, monitoring, educating and encouraging me each week.

The reason I bring this up is because over the course of my weight management efforts I’ve learned that weight loss takes a huge amount of effort and concentration, and there are good times and bad times to undertake the work required. There were years, in my early 20s, when I knew I needed to lose weight, I knew exactly what I needed to do (because I’d had weight loss schemes shoved down my throat since I was 12) but I knew it wasn’t “the right time.” I was broke, I was depressed, I was working multiple jobs to get by – I didn’t have the time and energy to focus on it on my own, and I didn’t have the money to enroll in a program that could give me the structure I needed. However, when I was mentally ready, I found the tools I needed.

So when somebody says they want to lose weight and they know what to do to lose weight but they’re not ready to do it, you can be absolutely positive that they DO know what to do. It’s the how that’s hard. And whenever they’re ready, they’ll do what they need to do. No advice needed.

The Myth of the Set Point

I get asked about a weight or metabolic “set point” regularly. Usually people bring up the “set point” when they want to talk about why they are unable to lose weight. The “set point” is a very common subject in beauty and fashion magazines, for some reason. I see articles all the time talking about how you shouldn’t need to diet, just throw the scale away because your body will naturally revert to whatever is your “set point” and that’s the weight you should be and you can’t fight it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I really, truly think that if you want to lose weight, that’s great, but that if you don’t want to lose weight, that’s great too – I think everybody should be happy in their own body, regardless of societal expectations. But if you’re trying to lose and failing and blaming it on a set point, it may be time for some tough love.

There is no such thing as a “set point weight” that a body wants to be. My weight is determined by how much fuel I put in it versus how much fuel I burn. If I put more fuel in than I can burn, it will be stored as fat. If I don’t put enough in my body will consume the existing tissues. Simple, right? So, with that in mind, what is the “set point”? It can only be the level of fueling I regularly consume averaged over the course of weeks or months. If when I’m going about my daily life I typically consume more calories than I need, I will carry that as fat. It’s not a body set point, it’s a lifestyle set point. If my body always returns to a certain weight, it’s because I’m comfortable, and naturally returning to, those eating and exercise habits which are fueling my body to be at that weight. If I don’t like that weight, then I’ll want to determine where substitutions and modifications can be made to reduce the level of caloric intake I am regularly netting via diet and exercise. And I’ll need to make those changes permanent.

If I don’t want to make those changes, or to make them permanent, I have the option of accepting the weight that the lifestyle I want to live results in – there is nothing wrong with that. However, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to claim that my weight is due to a “set point.” My weight is due to a lifestyle that I have created, based on the choices I am willing (and not willing) to make.

When I was in my early 20s I didn’t own a scale, ate whatever I felt like and regulated based on how my clothing fit, and I ended up weighing over 380 pounds. At the time I believed the beauty magazine myths about a “set point” and I thought, Gosh, my set point must be high. No, it is not even possible that my body “wanted to be” at 400 pounds. I was morbidly obese because my lifestyle was out of control. I wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t have any tools for regulating or even measuring my daily intake. Most people need to exert at least a little bit of attention and control over their diets. Probably not to the extent that I do, but some.

I found this article today, written by an Actual Real Scientist about metabolic set point. This is a very concise, scientifically-based summary of the science (or lack of) on metabolic set points. I’ve found this to be accurate in my own experiences. It’s a quick read, and I highly recommend it.

Parties, and the Holiday Festive Eating Season

Saturday night I went to a party and flawlessly executed my plan to not consume any excess calories. I made this seemingly mad decision because I knew that Sunday would be a very challenging eating day, and I wanted to limit the weekend damage.  With the Holiday Festive Eating Season upon us, surviving parties is about to become a very necessary skill – autumn and winter mean lots of parties and lots of eating. If I ate everything I wanted at all of the parties on my calendar from now through New Years Day, I’d have a lot of weight to lose come January. I’d rather skip the January weight loss resolutions so it’s good to have a plan. Here are my strategies for limiting the damage done at holiday parties:

  • Don’t go hungry. I eat before parties where I know there will be food that I don’t need to eat. Fill up my stomach with supportive foods on my plan and I’m less likely to graze.
  • Get a drink into my hand ASAP upon arrival. And I mean something without calories, like water, iced tea, coffee, diet soda, etc. Sip it continually. Nobody has to know it’s not alcohol.
  • Do something with my other hand. Hold a camera and take pictures, hold my sweetie’s hand, play with kids, pet the cat, tell a story.
  • Stand anywhere but by the food table. Find a chair or stand in an area that doesn’t allow me to reach over and grab cookies all night. If I can’t even see the food table from where I am that’s even better.
  • Arrive late, leave early – thus reducing my exposure time to non-supportive food.
  • Remember there’s nothing I need on the food table.
  • Chew gum.
  • Remember it feels better to keep a promise to myself than to eat something that isn’t supportive.

Those are my best strategies for non-meal parties. Meals, like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, are another matter entirely. I have some strategies for those as well, but that’s another post.

What did I miss? How do you manage your intake while still engaging in an active social life?

Motivational Quotes

I’ve been told I approach weight management with a certain ruthless pragmatism. I agree. Warm fuzzies are what you’re offered when somebody wants your money for a diet program. People who are selling something say that you can lose weight by eating anything you like. Riiiight. Eating anything I like is how I got to almost 400 pounds. Most complex things can’t be boiled down to a bumper sticker, and weight management is no exception.

That being said, I do have a couple of motivational quotes that I use as shorthand for a larger philosophy for when I’m dealing with temptation. Only two. I’m bad at motivational quotes for the same reason I’m no good at telling jokes: I have a memory like a goldfish. I very much enjoy a good joke, and you can tell me the same one over and over again. Same thing with motivational quotes – I can’t remember most of the good ones I’ve heard. I have only two that have stuck, mostly because they’ve become essential parts of my outlook.

The first one is, “You can have excuses, or you can have results. Pick one.”

I like this one because it goes right to the point. Whatever else may be going on is irrelevant. Either I choose to have results with my weight management, or I choose excuses. I hate excuses.

And second, “If you’re driving along the highway and one of your tires goes flat, you don’t get out and stick a knife in the other three.” This one comes in handy if I’m feeling like I’ve gotten off course and maybe I’m thinking about another food misadventure – you know the thinking, the “oh well, I’ve already screwed it up for today, might as well have that piece of cheesecake!” This is akin to dropping an egg on the kitchen floor and thinking, “Oh well, I’ve already dropped one, I guess I’ll throw the other eleven down too!” My body doesn’t recognize whether I’m eating something because I feel guilty for screwing up on my diet, or if I’m eating it because it’s on my plan, my body is just processing the calories I put in. Why would I throw an extra pile of unnecessary calories on the fire simply because I did once already today? That’s counter-productive.

And that’s it for motivational quotes. I try to avoid needing them by planning, policing my environment and having a solid idea of my caloric needs for the day in case I need to make on-the-spot decisions. Getting good at this is not an overnight process, I’ve been learning through trial and error for over 8 years now, and I learn new things all the time.

About Hunger

Something I had to learn about when I went from ~400 pounds to my current weight was hunger. I was never hungry when I was heaviest, because anytime I felt even the slightest pang I would eat. Now I have to understand my hunger and manage it. I don’t know if other maintainers of large weight loss have had a similar experience, but here’s what I’ve learned:

The first few years of maintaining my current weight I was hungry ALL THE TIME. I learned to understand the difference between stomach hunger, and real hunger. How I learned this was because real hunger causes something I call “bonking.” I bonk when my body is completely out of fuel. I become sluggish, irritable (very, very irritable), weak, cold, sometimes even shaky. That kind of hunger can’t be ignored or distracted. What I call “stomach hunger” is the regular signals my stomach sends to tell me I should eat. Stomach hunger can be evaluated to determine if it is serious and about to lead to bonking, or simply some of the screwy signals that are a legacy of my morbid obesity.

I don’t know if it’s normal to feel hungry most of the time, but I know that I do. And since most of my “normal weight” friends don’t report this sensation, either they feel it but properly recognized it early in their lives and categorize it as something else, or it’s a side effect of having been so obese and something that I’ll always have. My usual strategy is to manage my hunger throughout the day by eating regularly. I take the edge off on a regular basis with a small snack, usually fruit, sometimes yogurt or another protein-rich snack. I try to keep my snacks under 100 calories, but with a high volume. Fruits and veggies are perfect for this purpose, they usually ratchet back the hunger to something ignorable. Bonking can’t be fixed with a small snack, though, I usually require something a little more substantial if I’ve let myself get to that point, and that’s a dangerous place to be – bad decisions happen when I’m in that state – so I do my best to avoid bonking by managing the regular hunger throughout my day.

I know that this sensation of constant hunger has gotten slightly better, less present, over the years. It’s one of the changes to how I feel after losing all the weight that has been noticeable. When people say, “How is it different now that you’ve lost weight?” this is one of the things that is different. It took some time to adjust to the hunger, but now I manage it with regular snacks and exercise, because vigorous exercise also helps to control my hunger. I don’t know why, but it does.

Another data set learned through trial and error: Understanding the hunger signals and what they mean, and managing them accordingly.