Pictured above is me in 2007 when I had just completed a half-marathon and had spent my life dieting versus Present Day (refusing to diet EVER again).
It would be nice to think that in this day and age, we have finally found effective means to help people get to and maintain a healthy weight or manage their weight for those of us who find it a struggle. As someone who has lost and gained weight, yo-yo dieted, obsessed about my body size, weight, appearance, and fitting into the jeans I wore ten years ago, I am intimately aware of the ins and outs of struggling with my weight.
A lifelong battle, it came to a head when I was 27 years old, in 2009 and finally had gastric bypass surgery, subsequently losing over 150 pounds. Although I had gotten down to a healthy weight for my height, known as BMI, or body mass index, common weight loss lingo, I continued to have to manage my eating habits, lifestyle, nutrition and more all these years since and there is no indication that this cross to bear is ever going to let me go. It will be a lifetime struggle. But does it HAVE to be like this???
Where did things go haywire that this thing was assigned as my thing?! Nature or nurture?! Come on, is it genetic or was it environmental or social and how can I help others, especially younger generations to avoid getting run into this ditch they will spend their lifetime trying to dig their way out of so they can drive forward and develop deeper purposes in their life, or the energy to put toward those purposes if only, if ONLY, it were not all being diverted toward “losing that last ten pounds,” or “losing that baby weight,” or “fitting into those jeans,” or “looking good in my swimsuit for summer.”
It is lovely to see the efforts toward inclusion in our society; an effort to mitigate the stigma of being overweight, promote tolerance and acceptance of people of all sizes and shapes, and certainly that is important to minimize and reduce shame that is at the core of the problem. Unfortunately, accepting someone for being obese and being kind does not really resolve things. I guarantee that if someone is obese, they know it, they do not need those around them to point it out, that’s for sure. So there is a bigger struggle at stake. Don’t get me wrong, kindness is a muscle, absolutely, but if someone is obese, they don’t simply get healthier because people manage not to shame them, as humans we are very self-sufficient at shaming ourselves all on our own.
The Real Offender is NOT Food, and it is most certainly not faulty willpower in our wiring; it is SHAME. The real victim is NOT our weight; it is our spirit.
In fact, we shame ourselves better than anyone else. We are a constant voice in our head, available for free 24-7 and boy that voice is a beast! We truly will not see a reduction in the obesity epidemic until we can tame that beast. For middle age and up, we’re cooked; if we have this struggle, if you have this struggle, then you will probably be at war with yourself forever. However, for younger generations, we can make such a difference if we learn to fight right. In addition, for middle aged folks like myself and above, we can certainly battle the beast daily and win one day at a time.
The term, the “Beast” came from my incredible friend Kelly Coffey, creator of The Pleasure Principles at strongcoffey.com, which are a pathway to the best available methodology in the world for this matter. How did Coffey hit the nail on the head? Unlike the education our dieticians today delved into, she knows because she lived it. I have lived it too, my entire life. And while we may feel like we’re alone in this and this extreme level of weight loss struggle is uncommon, our 150 BILLION (yes, with a B) DOLLAR weight loss industry would beg to differ.
The way I see it, there are three types of people in the western world when it comes to weight: 1) The folks who never struggled with their weight a day in their life, 2) the ones who struggle with it situationally (like to fit into their wedding dress, lose the baby weight, or do a marathon, for example), and 3) those like myself and Coffey who, for our whole or most of our lives, regardless of our size, struggle with our weight, our body image, self-consciousness, shame and disordered eating. For those like myself, I am preaching to the choir, you know everything I have said or will say deep in your bones, yet many of us are still drowning. For the second group, situational strugglers, you may have some idea about how oddly challenging weight loss is from your experience, but you can’t grasp the depth of complex emotional and mental elements that create such vulnerability to obesity and eating management. For the first group, you most likely have no idea what I am talking about because it all seems so bizarre, counterintuitive and like it should be so simple in your eyes.
However, regardless of which group you fall into, many more of you can relate than you know. For obesity is not actually a problem; it is a symptom. It is a symptom of deeper emotional struggles and until we address the root of the symptom, the symptom will continue to crush our society with extensive wasted energy being applied toward a never-ending battle to lose weight. Those who can relate much deeper than expected includes those that struggle with alcohol addiction, drug addiction, cigarette or nicotine addiction, sex addiction, gambling addiction, retail therapy, and so on. The pattern is evident. The problem is not the “drug of choice,” but rather the reason for turning to a maladaptive coping mechanism.
It is really that simple. Some cope with drugs or alcohol or shopping or pornography or excessive video game playing or screen time, while others cope with eating comforting foods or overeating. Unfortunately, the drug of choice does cumulative damage over time, the snowball effect, and with using comfort foods to cope, the damage happens in the body by wreaking havoc on our hormones, our blood sugar, our neurological function, and more. The impact over time of the logical, “I want to be a healthy weight,” and the habitual, “eating cookies or chips will make me feel better after a stressful day,” inner conflict is a yo-yo effect which deepens the damage to our internal functioning. Our bodies were never evolutionarily developed to have to manage excessive or “junk” food intake just as they were never evolved to deal with toxic substances like drugs or alcohol. Apart from trying to rid the system of them, of course, which is why chronic use causes nothing but chaos.
Back to inclusiveness efforts, as important as they are to stop the pervasive shaming our society has done for decades, the problem is if someone is struggling with obesity, they DO need help and support; just acceptance is not the final answer. We know, those of us that have struggled with losing weight, just as well as everyone else, that being overweight is NOT healthy. We know the correlation between obesity and chronic illnesses, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and more, and we know how it guts our energy level every day carrying the extra weight around all day. We also know that weight is not the only measure of physical health and that many who are a “healthy weight” or underweight are even more unhealthy than us, society just does not see it as easily via appearance. So we fuss about the stigma because it disproportionately shames those of us who turn to food and incorrectly gives positive feedback to those who maybe don’t eat a whole lot, but smoke like a chimney or drink like a fish. In the end, pick your poison. We’re all killing ourselves this way. Which really is not so surprising when you look at our suicide rates, and yet I ask you again, does it HAVE to be like this?!
Is this the way of the world? If we want it to be different, we have to do things different because if nothing changes, nothing changes. While this presents a larger issue, let’s dial it down and focus in again on the diet dilemma. It is estimated that about 55 million Americans attempt to lose weight on a diet every single year! A 150 billion dollar industry. The industry’s economic clout alone gives a great many people, companies, and organizations a great motivation to perpetuate the struggle through their maintaining the status quo, and yet, as a people, a highly developed, capable, compassionate people, don’t we owe ourselves better?!
1. Dieting Does NOT Work
Here is the hard truth about dieting. Dieting is the cause of the problem, not a solution. A study of Australian adolescents found that those who engage in dieting are FIVE times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Further, those whose diets place them on extreme restrictions are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Over here in America, research shows that most people regain more than 50% of the weight they lose within two years of starting a diet and regain more than 80% within five years. So diets do not work. And yet, we continue to jump on them like a frog onto a lilypad, as if there is nowhere else to go, or maybe we just can’t resist. It is like gambling, the intermittent conditioning of off and on success keeps us coming back for the thrill of possible success.
We especially see this attraction spike every new year, when we are all conditioned culturally to make resolutions and the most common and most marketed in the advertising industry is weight loss. Everyone from the morbidly obese to the person that wants to lose those last five pounds is tempted to take it on again and again. WHY???? I think part of the temptation is the quick high we try to obtain of external validation. When we lose weight, other people notice. We get compliments, or we can wear clothes we previously couldn’t that spawn compliments and affirmation, or we look better in our bathing suits, or we feel better and that draws positive feedback. That hit of positive attention is powerful. Anyone who argues this is encouraged to look at social media. The impact social media platforms, posts, and participation play in our day-to-day feelings both personally and as a society is incredibly potent. So it only stands to reason we are tempted to play into the need and desire to diet.
2. The Weight Loss Industry PUSHES Diets More Than Dealers Push Drugs
Instead of just demonizing superficial shaming and unkindness, maybe we should be demonizing the weight loss industry playing on our vulnerability to line their pockets by keeping us on the hamster wheel, dangling a carrot that we will never quite be able to reach. Or the advertising industry that capitalizes on superficial means of promoting virtually anything, perpetuating the standard of perfection that leaves everyone falling short. Certainly we can see that culturally things run far deeper than the need for us to all just eat less and exercise more.
So what is the solution then to this epidemic of obesity, superficial striving, and underlying crisis of self-shame, unworthiness and maladaptive coping mechanisms pervading our daily lives? How do we get healthy without dieting? How do we learn to love and accept ourselves, regardless of the effectiveness of inclusivity efforts? Well, Coffey’s program is the hands down best method I have ever seen so far. What it comes down to though is really cutting down the tree of evil at its’ roots.
3. Battling Shame
We have to continue to cut off the shame that is manifested through our culture and society. We have to develop our inclusiveness efforts in focusing NOT on the fact that people of ALL sizes are beautiful and worthy and enough, but instead turning it on its head and saying that people are beautiful and worthy and enough period. I mean, come on, its like someone saying to an older woman, “you look good for your age.” That backhanded compliment still sets her apart. It’s a qualifier that ultimately slaps her in the face reminding her of something she is well aware of. If you want to compliment someone, try just saying, “Gosh, you are freaking beautiful.” No need to mention for your age, for your size, or anything else. Keep it simple, isn’t that easier anyway?! So yes, battling the beast is certainly something we have to do and we need to step up our game.
4. Teaching and Promoting Inherent Self-Worth
We also have to promote a whole lot more than inclusivity and “nutritious eating.” We have to promote self-care, self-love, integrity to ourselves, loyalty to our physical bodies and our souls, normalizing prioritizing our physical health and emotional wellbeing, especially for populations that are hardwired to put themselves last like mothers and single parents. We have to educate our kids on these things and flood our media with propaganda that promotes prioritizing our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing with real and readily available tools and resources that we can put in their hands to equip them to change the game for themselves and generations to come. This is about teaching kids and reprogramming all of us to not judge our own worthiness by the way we look. While the skeptic in you may have a hard time imagining a world less superficial, our neuroplasticity is now well-documented and with intentional efforts we could make significant strides with support from the mainstream.
5. Addressing the Absence of Healthy Coping Skills
Remember my question about nature versus nurture?! Humans are not born overeating. They are not born addicted to sugar. They are not born preferring processed food to natural or whole foods. They are certainly not born with the propensity to “eat their emotions away.” These are learned behaviors. So whether the struggle is instigated through ingrained generational parenting methodology and habits, the use of shame as a tool to control in early development, the social shame of looking different or not being good enough in really any way, or just the habit of eating something sweet to make themselves feel better, like getting ice cream for comfort if they lose a ball game, or ice cream to celebrate if they won the ball game, really it’s all the same. These are all learned behaviors which can be unlearned and we can choose to not train these behaviors or allow these behaviors to pervade our mainstream in a way that perpetuates the problem. But in order to do so, we have to understand how important it is that we arm our kids (and ourselves) with alternative coping strategies and assist them in building their “coping muscle” so they are prepared and can turn these strategies into habits and automatic go-to methods for support.
While we do see increasing efforts to promote not only inclusivity, but also self-care, exercise, and reaching out for therapy, we still have a long way to go and how we frame it has a huge impact on the success of the effort. “Food is the most over-utilized anxiety drug; exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant.” When you look at marketing and encouragement for exercise, there is this feeling of it being a task, a chore, a responsibility, or a solution to what must be a problem. See, how you frame it makes all the difference. When you promote movement as an opportunity, a privilege, a source of pleasure, relief, fun and something that will feel good, the response would be far different. Instead of going to the gym being a chore, what if it could be the best part of our day?! For many it is, and it is for those that you see the success stories; you see that it all comes back to “feeling.”
So addressing coping skills, emotional regulation, feeling good and other angles that encourage healthy coping skills instead of characterizing them as something that feels like “punishment” for someone being “unacceptable” then you can start to see the culture truly change for the better. I truly wonder why emotional health care, coping and understanding is not mandatory in our educational systems in grade school. This is something that is the root of SO many of our struggles in one form or another that there has never been a reason to count it out. Never has emotional health not been part of the human experience. No one is immune to feelings and vulnerabilities, frustrations, hardships, grief, loss, sadness and pain, so why would we NOT teach our children systematically how to best cope with emotional challenges?!
6. Maladaptive is as Maladaptive Does
While it may be an assumption this is taught by the parents in the home, we all know with the prevalence of single-parent families, working parents, and otherwise distracted parents lost in trying to cope with their OWN emotional struggles (and lack of ingrained healthy coping skills), it is no wonder our population is unarmed and vulnerable to mass marketing and promotion of cheap and instant coping alternatives like smoking, or alcohol, or sugar. You see, kids do what we do, not what we say, so if we turn to a sugary treat to relieve stress at the end of a hard day, it is only natural they will follow in our diabetic footsteps. Ugh. The same holds true with ending the evening or day with a glass of wine. And despite the fact that we are manipulated to believe that a glass of red wine is “good for you,” we also know that alcohol is a group one carcinogen. Oy vei. We are SO vulnerable. And yet we DETEST being vulnerable. Consequently, we AVOID vulnerability, or at least the feeling of vulnerability, ironically often with a glass of wine. Sheesh.
Now, before I conclude, let me address the pink elephant that just entered the room. I know there might have been many that were on board with everything I have said so far, mentally cheering me on as you read, yeah, yeah, yeah, that is right, she is right, we need to change things, we need to stop this weight loss cycle that is self-perpetuating and only furthering the problem, and THEN I judged your glass of wine and shot myself in the foot. Ugh. Take it back, you think. I shake my head. Alright, enough of this mental game, let’s have an honest conversation.
Because truly, this IS part of the problem. We rate and judge one another’s maladaptive behaviors based on our own desire to be okay. Enough. Worthy. Mature. Healthy. Et cetera. But the deep down dirty rotten no good truth of the matter is that alcohol is as a damaging as overeating as drugs, as sugar, as cocaine, as shopping to you drop from the weight of debt, or gambling yourself into a corner where your life is threatened by Billy Bob who just got out of prison and is trying to make a quick buck helping settle a debt, yes, Ugh is right. No, one is not better or worse than the other. Whatever you have made your go-to for relief, that is both the best and the worst one FOR YOU. And in the end, it is YOU who matters. Isn’t that the point?!
A maladaptive coping mechanism is what it is regardless of how you dress it up, right?! For example, it doesn’t matter if you are eating a pint of ice cream on the couch alone after a breakup, or eating a wheelbarrow full of junk food over the course of the day on Super Bowl Sunday. It doesn’t matter if you are binge drinking at a club while dancing with friends, or drinking a fifth of vodka at home alone sitting on the floor of your closet crying into a box of tissues. It is ALL toxic!!! The whole point is that we deserve better, YOU deserve better, our kids deserve better.
7. The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated. The rule is gold for a reason. We still put it up on a proverbial pedestal, and yet, what we struggle with is not so much how we treat others, but how we treat ourselves. One of my favorite pastors said one time, I bet you are not going to believe this, but I can boil down God’s instructions for us into SIX words. Ha! It sounded like a bar trick, but he actually did it. These were his words that day:
LOVE GOD. LOVE OTHERS. LOVE YOURSELF.
Criminy, if it is that simple, how come things seem so hard?! Somewhere along the lines, those last two words dropped out of our sight line. In our quest to do better at loving others, we sacrificed loving ourselves, making the dangerous mistake of thinking that one countered the other; that if someone loved themselves, they must be self-centered and not love others, and alternatively, the more martyr-like someone became, the more revered they should be. But that is NOT what God intended from The Word, from the examples of the disciples.
8. What God Wants
Yes, he did say Take Up Your Cross. That is actually one of my favorite scriptures. Take up your cross and follow me. For, whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would lose his life for my sake will find it. Let’s really be clear though, self-medicating with anything maladaptive is NOT giving up your life for God. Taking up your cross is not about self-harm, obviously, so what is it about?! How do we wholeheartedly love others while loving ourselves? Well, I may not be a spiritual leader in any respect, but nonetheless, I would argue that taking up your cross is about each of us humbling ourselves, to allow ourselves to be witnessed in the midst of our vulnerability and struggle as we openly carry our cross, hopefully bringing our burdens closer and closer to God’s doorstep. Carrying our burdens TO him and then laying them down at the feet of Jesus and acknowledging openly our dependence on him for sustenance in all its worldly and spiritual and emotional forms. Perhaps it really is about humility more than needless suffering.
One of the true pleasures in our lives here on Earth are our connections; both to ourselves and each other. One of the defining features of addiction in my opinion is the loss of connection to ourselves. We abandon ourselves and in the process, our addiction takes hold and we lose our connection to others. The process has the defining hallmark feature of increasing isolation. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” -Johann Hari.
What starts with us abandoning ourselves, often at very young ages, when eating is the ONLY available cheap coping mechanism for relief, we make it impossible for us to show up in a way that we can successfully connect with others. It is so important to note that when it comes to food, I am not just talking here about food addiction or emotional eating, but that also the process of dieting and trying to lose weight is often the addiction itself. I have had an addiction to keeping my body small or losing weight as far back as I can remember, including starving myself to lose weight in first grade when I realized (in my mind) that I was fat, I was unpretty, and losing weight was the key to being worthy and happy like the rest of the kids my age.
10. What God Does NOT Want
Distraction and tons of time, money and energy (AKA resources, specifically precious, exhaustible resources) being squandered on superficial efforts and coping products, be it junk food, diet food, diet pills, alcohol, cigarettes, etc, when there is so much REAL work to be done. Last night I read The Velveteen Rabbit with my kids and the thought of what is real is on my mind. When weight is lost and gained, lost and gained, is it even real?! Are we really even battling the weight? I mean, really, what is going on here? Should we be fighting internal battles about what to eat, or fighting external battles to end hunger in our community, our state, or our country?! Distraction is a handy thing, but we need to make sure what we are distracting ourselves with has merit, substance and worth. When we leave this earth, will we want someone giving our eulogy to share about how we successfully lost weight, or how we looked good, or had a good figure?!
In The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit, “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” I think too many of us don’t understand. And maybe we do for others, but we hold ourselves to a different standard; we withhold grace from ourselves and that was not what God wanted for us; or wants for us. He knows…we can do better.
11. Coping Skills Are Not Trading Cards
When I had gastric bypass surgery, the surgeon warned me about being careful with alcohol. “It can go through your system quicker,” she said. “It can affect you more; try to limit your use and moderate. Some people have a risk when they can no longer eat much, to drink more alcohol instead.” Well, I can say from experience, not only was she right, for a long time, alcohol was really fun in my eyes. Honestly, I am still battling that belief today. I never went crazy completely with alcohol, as in a legit big spiral, but I know I drank too much many of the times I did drink and sometimes, far TOO MANY times, it had negative consequences on me or my life in one way or another. My message above is clear; our drug of choice to cope with life is irrelevant; ultimately they all serve the same purpose. They numb us to the negative and give us relief from something we want to avoid so yes, the more you manage appropriate eating, if you are an emotional eater, the more you will be looking for replacements. Since they all are maladaptive and counterproductive, it defeats the purpose if we are just switching from one to another. True healing and resolution requires us to go to the root and pull up the roots that led the tree of damage to grow in the first place. If we are to effectively wage war on the weight loss world, we have to address this tendency and be careful to protect ourselves from just replacing one bad habit with another.
Additionally, these kinds of behavior swaps are attractive for another reason. They are not all visible to the naked eye. If it’s social acceptance or external validation we are ultimately seeking, then it seems much “better for us” to have a drinking problem versus an overeating problem because as long as we look good, people will like us, and no one will know we’ve gone and rotted our liver along the way; at least until its too late and once we’re gone, it won’t matter anymore, right? Or will it? At the end of our life, will we be plagued with regrets?
In my case, the situation with alcohol became even more serious. In 2021, I donated one of my kidneys to a friend who was in Stage 5 Kidney Failure. It was, by the way, one of the BEST decisions of my life, and if I had a third kidney, I would do it again for someone else in a heartbeat. The experience was as much a blessing for me as it was for my recipient. But I digress. The living donor program did not say much about alcohol because my self-reported health inventories did not suggest any issues. You cannot drink 12 weeks before or after the surgery; but other than that, moderate use has no contraindication.
However, in my experience, it was much different, likely exacerbated by my gastric bypass history. Not only did alcohol filter through my system (obviously) at a slower rate, thereby staying in my system longer, but it clearly had a more significant impact on me. It got to the point where instead of substituting drinking alcohol for eating something sugary, alcohol actually MADE me hungry and want to eat more than if I had not drank and for me that was VERY unusual and bizarre; bizarre enough to draw the line, thank God. In reality though, there are far MORE reasons to draw the line, and yet knowing better does not necessarily give us the gumption to do better. Again, for some of us, it will be a lifetime struggle working through and managing all of this, our cross to bear, but for any who can get off this painful and exhausting un-merry-go-round, shouldn’t we?
12. Life is SO Much More
There is so much joy to be had, beauty to be seen, places to explore, adventures to experience, learning to live and goodness to feel to be blowing all of our precious time, money and energy on losing weight. It is SO boring. It is SO redundant; so monotonous. Creating connection only with others on the hamster wheel, allowing us to encourage each others’ preoccupation with weight loss obsessions. We could be so much happier and lighter at heart, ironic I know, if we could let go of our preoccupation with losing weight. In fact, as Coffey covers in her course, when people do the work, their weight, if needed, DOES come off. It naturally sorts itself out. Without them having to even worry about it.
The sad fact though is some of us actually are threatened or terrified at the idea of life being “more.” It is so sad to admit, but the reality is for those of us obsessed with our weight loss goals or managing our weight, that we KNOW, better than anyone, how much of a void would be left in our lives if we did not have weight loss to obsess about, and THAT scares us. Why?! Because it is unknown. It would most likely be new. That is, whatever we used to fill the void, a new hobby for example. New is scary because we risk failure. We risk rejection. We would actually RATHER try another diet and fail, having survived failing so many diets before, than to stop dieting, try something new, and risk failing at it.
So as you can see, I am here in the thick of things with you. I won’t tell you I have all the answers. What I can say is I understand. I get it. All of it. There is no judgment here; only empathy, grace and compassion. You are beautiful. As I tell you that, I am working on looking in the mirror and saying the same, even a second time, for the cheap seats in the back, because it does NOT have to be this way. We CAN take back our power; we can wage war on the paradigm that our weight determines our worth; and we can learn (and unlearn) as much as we need to choose better; to make choices that help our life to FEEL GOOD NOW. So the last question, I ask you. Will you join me? Do you want to stay on the side riddled with casualties of lives lost to the monotony of waiting to lose weight to feel good? Or will you join me in what should be the Global War on Weight Obsession and fight this worldly and toxic distraction and to instead use your powers for good?! For choosing to feel good now and choosing each day to live different than the mainstream, to use your power to own your worthiness and respect the gift of your body and your life in a whole new way?!