Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble gobble

193 pounds
I ended up being too sick to go to the family Thanksgiving celebration this year. It's only the second time I've missed a traditional turkey dinner. (The last time occurred during my adolescence when, due to unforeseen complications, my family ended up eating tuna salad sandwiches for Thanksgiving.) The effect of missing a big family dinner this year has been that I've been thinking all day about the meaning of the holiday and, of course, about the tradition of eating until we feel sick.

I heard earlier today that the average American eats 4400 calories on Thanksgiving day—that's twice what most of us eat on a normal day. As I explained in my post on indulgence, I fully believe in the importance of giving into our cravings from time to time.

And I guess I feel the same way about Thanksgiving. It's hard to imagine going to a big turkey dinner and counting calories or skipping dessert. I mean, what would be the point?

I remember one Thanksgiving years ago . . . I was living in D.C., so I celebrated the holiday with an aunt and uncle who live in northern Virginia. The only problem was that this particular aunt and uncle happen to be health nuts, so there was nothing fattening or high calorie on the table: there was no cheese ball, there was turkey but no gravy, the potatoes—regular and sweet—were baked and served plain, the stuffing and rolls were nonexistent, and the cranberries and green beans were steamed. I can't remember if there was dessert, but I have a vague memory of low-fat ice cream. I felt like I had died and gone to culinary hell. To me, Thanksgiving isn't really Thanksgiving if, at the end of the day, you don't feel like you've eaten too much.

And I guess this all comes back to one of the main reasons for this blog: if we don't allow ourselves these random pleasures from time to time, then I worry that we force ourselves to live in a constant state of denial. A state that pushes us to crave what we can't have even more.

So now that you've all finished gorging yourself on turkey and potatoes and stuffing covered in thick gravy, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, rolls oozing with butter, green beans in a decadent casserole of mushroom soup and french fried onions, and a big piece of pumpkin pie a la mode, don't forget how important it is to give into our cravings from time to time and not feel bad about yourself for doing it. It will all balance itself out anyway. Because chances are that if you went overboard today, you'll probably cut back tomorrow.

And those people who cut the gravy and the butter and the fat and the sugar today? Trust me, they'll be the first ones in line at Cinnabon when they hit the mall tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Talking Turkey

193 pounds
Two days until Thanksgiving, and everyone is talking about what they're thankful for.

It's easy for me to sum up what I'm most thankful for: my husband, our life together (including our jobs), my family and friends.

And I have to say I'm also thankful for this blog—normally I have trouble getting any writing done this late in the semester because of the pile of ungraded papers that all college professors find themselves buried under after the midterm. But this semester the blog has kept me focused and motivated all the way through the term no matter how many papers I've had to grade.

I'm also thankful for those of you who read on a regular basis—I think of you all every time I get frustrated with myself and want to give up living a healthy lifestyle.

You might be thinking that I should be thankful for the fact that I've lost ten pounds since I started this blog, but to be honest, that's really not as important to me as the fact that I've learned to love myself the way I am—at 193 pounds or at 203 pounds. I don't think I can begin to describe how much I appreciate being able to feel good about myself no matter how much I weigh. And I still believe that this is the key to weight loss and healthy living. So I'm thankful for my ability to do that, and I hope that you all are able to be thankful for that as well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I will not be ashamed either

193 pounds
I had good news and bad news again at the doctor's office today . . .

. . . good news because my waist size is 35 inches, which is exactly where I want it to be and just within the recommended guidelines since women with a waist bigger than 35 inches are at greater risk for health problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and breast cancer*. (For men, it's 40 inches.) I had been worried lately that my waist had grown bigger than 35 inches, mostly because of the fibroids but also because of my weight gain last year, so I was relieved to hear that was not the case.

On the other hand, I felt like the nurse who was taking my vitals was trying desperately to find something to criticize about my health, and that really bothered me.

She was a tiny little woman—petite really—and she kept making strange comments about my body.

First, she said that she didn't want to ruin my day, but I had to get on the scale. I told her I didn't mind, but I was irritated by the suggestion that a number on the scale would ruin my day. And I also was bothered by the idea that she felt comfortable saying that—because it's the kind of comment that reinforces the notion that we should be bothered by these numbers when, in truth, we should all know that such numbers are not necessarily the best indicator of our health or our attractiveness.

Then she took my medical history, and when I told her that I don't know much about health problems in my biological family because I'm adopted, she pushed me on the subject. I had told her earlier that I have met my biological family, so she asked if any of them were obese.

Not if anyone of them had cancer.

Not if any of them had heart disease.

But if any of them were obese.

To be honest, I was offended. Was she trying to say that she thought I looked like the kind of person who might have obese relatives? Because that's definitely the message I got.

But rather than show my offense, I answered the question and told her that I really don't know. No, none of the biological relatives I have met are obese (and none of them are super thin either), but I have only met a handful of the people who share my genes.

She suggested that I contact them and find out for sure, but if you know anything about family dynamics, you can probably imagine how difficult that would be for me to do with people to whom I'm technically related but barely know.

Still, what really bothered me was her implicit assumption that I would have obese relatives. Sure, she was thinking about protecting my health, but I am definitely not the person who walks in a room and makes people think "obese." My body is actually hourglass-shaped, nipping in at the waist and blossoming at the hips. In fact, this nurse was the first person to ever ask me about it. My doctors have told me time and time again that they are not worried about my weight and that I should continue doing what I'm doing: exercising regularly and trying to eat as many home-cooked meals as possible—so it was a surprise that a nurse introduced the subject.

So why did this nurse feel comfortable doing so? What I really believe is that people in our country are so obsessed with body image that they feel comfortable criticizing anyone who doesn't fit into the really narrow definition of American beauty. It's as if we've given small people free rein to judge those of us who are not tiny, as if curvy people and people who are not naturally thin are second-class citizens who are expected to be ashamed when someone asks us to get on the scale or talk about our bodies, a fact that really bothers me and makes me feel even more strongly that we need to expand our notion of beauty. And I, for one, won't give into the pressure to feel bad about my body.

No, I'm not skinny! So freaking what?! No, I don't weigh 125 pounds. Who gives a damn?!

All of the tests they have given me say that I'm in good shape, all of the doctors say I'm healthy, and I will not allow some petite little nurse to make me feel bad about myself no matter how hard she tries to do so.

I didn't say anything this morning because I didn't want to sound defensive, but what I should have done is broach the problem directly and ask her if she was worried about my weight rather than listening to her tap dance around the issue. And that's what I'll do in the future . . . if someone is hinting at something, I'm going to make them say it, rather than letting them make passive aggressive comments that seem designed to hurt my self-esteem more than improve my health. And I recommend that you all do the same.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The race is not to the swift . . .

193 pounds
I'm sure some of you have noticed that I've been stuck at the same weight of 194 to 195 pounds for months now. I hit 193 one day over the summer, but the next day I was back up to 194. But over the past week, I have finally busted through this plateau, hitting as low as 192 over the weekend and bouncing back and forth between 192 and 194 since then.

Plateaus, as we all know, are frustrating as hell, possibly the most frustrating part about trying to lose weight. You're going along doing everything right—eating well but not starving yourself, exercising as much as you can, indulging only on special occasions or weekends—but for some reason, the numbers on the scale won't freaking budge. It's easy to get impatient at times like these and resort to drastic measures like cutting calories to an unhealthy level, but I don't think that kind of behavior solves anything in the long run.

What I do think works is to stay the course, on the one hand, and mix it up, on the other hand. By "staying the course," I mean keep eating well and exercising, and by "mixing it up," I mean changing how, when, where, and how long you exercise. All of the research about weight loss shows that once our bodies get used to a routine—like hitting the gym for 45 minutes every night after work—they adjust to that routine and start storing fat and burning calories at a slower rate, a rate that will maintain our weight rather than reduce it.

One of the ways to get around this problem is to confuse our bodies. There are two simply ways to do this . . .

1) Change your exercise routine by engaging in different kinds of physical activity. If you're normally the person who hits the elliptical at the gym, try the rowing machine and a round of weights. If you always go for a jog every morning, try swimming once or twice a week. Simply changing what kind of exercise you do can confuse your body enough to increase your metabolism and start burning more calories.

You can accomplish the same goal by changing the length and time of your workouts—try working out three times a day for ten minutes rather than working out for thirty minutes all at once—or even the place where you exercise, like running or walking outside instead of on a treadmill.

As I've mentioned in my "Returning to Childhood" post, it always amazes me how boring our exercise routines become as we get older. When we were kids we engaged in a myriad of different physical activities, but as we get older—ironically when we most need to mix it up—we fall back on the same tired, old workout. I'm as guilty of this as the next person, but I try my best to get away from always doing the same thing.

2) The second way to confuse your body is to incorporate interval training into your workout. You can add intervals to your workout by periodically increasing your rate of exertion. So let's say you're out talking a leisurely walk . . . if you wanted to add intervals to your walk, you would walk as fast as you could for 60-90 seconds and then slow back down to your normal pace, and maybe you would do this 3-10 times during the course of your workout.

Again, the reason this can help you break through a plateau is because intervals—like variety in your exercise routine—can confuse your body and, therefore, make it burn more calories.

What's ironic about all of this is that, sometimes, confusing your body can also be accomplished by exercising less, and that's what's happened to me over the past ten days.

As I mentioned in my "Good news/bad news" post last week, I've had some health problems recently and, as a result, have been forced to exercise a lot less lately. My body's response to this sudden change has been to start burning more calories, and that's why I've finally broken through my plateau. It's an interesting turn of events—and a somewhat frustrating one if, like me, you've been trying to lose weight for months with no luck—but I'm not going to complain.

I have actually had the same thing happen to me twice before.

In the fall of 2002, I increased my daily exercise routine from 30 to 60 minutes and started using intervals for the first time in my life. I did this because, though I had lost about ten pounds between 1999 and 2002, dropping from around 200 pounds to 190 pounds, I could just not get below the 190 mark. Once I increased the amount I exercised and added intervals, I broke through my plateau and lost a pound or two, but I was disappointed in how little I had accomplished.

Ironically, the real windfall occurred a few weeks later when I sprained my ankle and couldn't workout for over a month. During the time that I was laid up, I lost an amazing six pounds, brining my weight down to the low 180s for the first time in four years. Of course, what I lost was probably all muscle weight, but when I got back to my 60-minute workouts and regained my muscle, the weight never came back, and I bottomed out at 180 pounds even.

I had a similar experience in 2006 after a year of grueling workouts during which time I was averaging twelve hours of exercise a week in an attempt to get below 180 pounds. I did not lose a single pound that whole year, but at the end of those twelve months, we moved to North Carolina, and, as a result, my workout routine immediately changed. I was no longer able to go to the gym and had to rely on less structured ways to exercise—like walking outside. Within a few weeks of this change, my weight dropped below 180, and I hit my all-time adult low of 176 pounds.

All of this is to say that though it's important to change our routine, it's also important to recognize that even when the scale isn't budging, we're still doing our body a load of good. During that year of working out for two hours a day, I felt like I wasn't accomplishing anything, but the truth was that the effort I was making was going to pay off in the long run . . . if only I could be patient enough to wait for it to happen.

I know full well that my recent plateau-busting weight loss may not last more than a few days, but I also know that as long as I keep living in a healthy way that I know is good for me, I am accomplishing my goals—no matter what the scale says.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lightning Legs

194 pounds
As I've mentioned before, even though I was in perfect shape throughout my childhood and well into my twenties, I was never a small girl, and when I was young, I got the "thunder thighs" comment on more than one occasion. Back then, a comment like that could send me into a downward spiral of insecurity and self-doubt. Of course, I've since learned to love my womanly thighs, but it took a long time to get there.

Fortunately, new research has revealed that big thighs are actually good for you. In fact, an article in the British Medical Journal announced that people "with thighs over 60cm (23.6 inches) in circumference have a lower risk of heart disease and early death" and "those with the smallest thighs—below 55cmm [about 22 inches]—had twice the risk of early death or serious health problems."*

Apparently, the issue is a lack of muscle. Those of us with strong legs can count on our muscles to keep us healthy; whereas, those with "too little muscle mass" can have a problem with "the body not responding to insulin properly, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and, in the long run, heart disease."*

The key is obviously that we want to have muscular legs—not just big legs—but that doesn't mean our legs need to be perfectly sculpted either.

I know many women like me—women who have an active and healthy lifestyle and have never had small legs—who will feel vindicated by this research. As anyone who has engaged in any strenuous activity over a prolonged period of time knows, your legs get more muscular—and bigger—when you exercise a lot (tennis champ Serena Williams being the best example of this), so it's nice to know that well developed thighs are something we can now be proud of rather than ashamed about.

I've long believed that one of the drawbacks of being naturally thin is that you aren't forced to think as often about diet and exercise and, by extension, your health. And this study reinforces the notion that curvy women—who often work hard to stay fit—have yet another reason to walk with pride.

I found the Nike ad above earlier, and I think the copy for this ad is a good way to end tonight . . .

I have thunder thighs.
And that's a compliment
because they are strong
and toned
and muscular
and though they are unwelcome
in the petite section,
they are cheered on in marathons.
Fifty years from now
I'll bounce a grandchild on my thunder thighs
and then I'll go out for a run.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Good news / bad news

195 pounds
Let's start with the bad news . . .

I spent Saturday night in the hospital because of complications relating to the fibroids that have decided to make their home in my gut.

(And as much as I wish these people were my doctors, alas, they were not.)

Lots of women—40% to be exact—have fibroids, but until I found out I had them, I had no idea what they were or how many of us were affected by them. Fibroids are "muscular tumors that grow in the wall of the uterus" and are "almost always benign."*

Often, fibroids are harmless, but they can be uncomfortable and big, which is just another reason why it's ridiculous to hold adult women to the unreasonable standards of beauty that exist in our society.

I can't help it if my stomach is no longer flat! I have the uterus of a woman who is 14-weeks pregnant because of these fibroids, and what that means is that my pant size has gone up a size or two from my regular 14. Of course, I'm sensitive about my new little tummy, but what can I do? Like I said, this is a part of life for nearly half of all women, and if I let myself worry about something as silly as the number on my Gap jeans, I imagine I would have a pretty poor image of myself.

So the bad news is that I was in the hospital because of some pretty nasty pain that is being caused by my fibroids.

The good news is that even after the doctors and nurses found out how much I weigh (and interestingly didn't even blink at the number I told them), they spent a significant amount of time complimenting me on my health. They were impressed with my pulse, heart rate, and cholesterol levels; thrilled with my exercise routine and penchant for whole foods; and downright wowed by my Olympic athlete blood pressure—all of which they said is the result of my regular exercise.

I can't tell you how good that made me feel.

In many ways, I felt vindicated because I spend a good deal of my time trying to convince myself—trying to convince the world—that our self-esteem and health is not determined by a number on the scale or the size on our pants but rather by things like our blood pressure, our heart rate, our cholesterol count. And that we can and should feel good about ourselves even if we don't fit into the narrow American definition of beauty.

So when the people in the emergency room—the people who really do know better—repeatedly praised me for my healthy ways, I couldn't help but feel as if I had won a small but significant battle in my war on how we see ourselves.

It was a tiny but important triumph in an otherwise awful day.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

My life in poetry

195 pounds
My friend Tom Hunley recently introduced me to a fabulous Denise Duhamel* poem that I think fits this blog perfectly, and I want to share with all of you . . .

by Denise Duhamel

The manatee tries a diet of only sea grass, but still stays fat.
Mistaking her for a mermaid from afar,
sailors of long ago lost interest when they got too close,
openly making fun of her chubbiness. She knows Rodney Dangerfield
would write jokes about her if she were more popular.
She's ashamed of her crooked teeth, her two big molars
that leave her sucking and grinding
with bad table manners. She swims towards danger
over and over, scars from motor boats on her back
reminders of her slow stupidness. She resents being
called a sea-cow. She hopes her whiskers don't show
in the light. She is the mammal who knows
about low self-esteem. I first met her on my honeymoon
in southern Florida. I was on a cruise in my one piece bathing suit.
The women in bikinis squealed and pointed to the nearby dolphins,
clapping so their sleek gray backs would come to the water's surface.
In the shadow of her prettier ocean sister, the manatee swam by also.
No one but I paid her much attention. I wanted to lend her
my make-up, massage her spine, lend a girlfriend-ear
and listen to her underwater troubles. I dreamt of her
as I slept in the warmth of my new husband. I dreamt of her
as he slept in the warmth of me. On a good day, too,
I can relate to the manatee, who knows
on some level that she is endangered
and believes in mating for life.

The poem captures why dieting stinks ("The Manatee tries a diet of sea grass, but still stays fat"), how we all worry too much about superficial things ("She's ashamed of her crooked teeth, her two big molars/ that leave her sucking and grinding/ with bad table manners") and have a tendency to make bad choices ("She swims towards danger/over and over, scars from motor boats on her back/ reminders of her slow stupidness), why it's so annoying when people judge us superficially ("She resents being/ called a sea-cow"), and how we all crave a loving partner ("the manatee, who knows/ on some level that she is endangered/ and believes in mating for life").

Could anyone have said it any better?

Thanks, Denise, for capturing how we all feel time and time again.

If you like this poem, please consider buying one of Denise's books here.

*Denise Duhamel was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1961. She received a B.F.A. degree from Emerson College and a M.F.A. degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry, most recentlyKa-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (2005), and Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005). A winner of an National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, including four volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994, and 1993). Duhamel teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood, Florida.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

You bring me down

195 pounds
I've talked many times about the dangers of processed foods, specifically in my post called "The Problem with Processed Foods." And I've also discussed in my "Little Pink Houses" post that when I was living in rural North Carolina, I figured out that many of the poor folks there were obese because the foods they had access too—fast food and the processed foods that are so readily available and affordable at Wal-Mart—were so bad for them. It wasn't necessarily that they were eating more as much as they were eating worse.

And this week there is new evidence to prove how bad processed foods really are. As it turns out, processed foods don't just make us obese, they also make us depressed. This is according to a study released Monday that was done by researchers at University College London and published by the British Journal of Psychiatry. And—as you probably guessed—the study also shows that whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and fish help to ward off depression because of their antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and variety of nutrients. In fact, the study showed that "those who ate the whole foods had a 26% lower risk of depression" while people who ate more processed foods were 58% more likely to be depressed.

Of course, this is incredibly ironic since the first thing most of us do when we're depressed or tired is reach for the junk food—whether it's Cheetos to feed our emotions or Rice-a-Roni to feed our families, we often fall back on processed foods to get us through the hard times. And now they're telling us that doing so starts a vicious cycle: we eat bad foods because we're depressed, and they, in turn, make us more depressed.

Thanks a lot, London researchers! Now what are we supposed to do?

I guess the only thing we can do is make sure we have plenty of non-processed foods around the house to help us get through the tough times. I'm not saying we can't ever reach for comfort foods; I'm just saying don't do it all the time—I think limiting processed foods to once a week is a good goal—and other times use whole foods to also satisfy those cravings. Foods like real cheese and whole wheat crackers, mangoes and watermelon, homemade wheat bread, frozen bananas dipped in real chocolate, berries, homemade guacamole, dried fruit, almonds and cashews, yogurt, vegetables with cottage cheese dip. That kind of thing. I go out of my way to keep that kind of stuff around the house. And even though I wish I had a bag of potato chips every time I open the pantry, I'm glad to see that most of the time, all I can find is a big jar of walnuts. If I can do it, I know you can too.