When I was fat, there wasn’t much anyone could do to convince me to do something about it. I was busy, didn’t like to cook, enjoyed my less than nutrient-dense foods, and besides… who should I believe about HOW to lose weight? With so many conflicting opinions out there, it just didn’t seem worth my time to do something that was probably not going to work anyway.
Because it wasn’t like I hadn’t made at least a few half-hearted efforts over the years. I ate the Snackwell cookies, like everyone else in the ‘80s did. I chose the low fat options, the sugar free coffee creamers, the light beers. I ate a McLean burger at McDonald’s (at least once), switched from ice cream to frozen yogurt, did Atkins… lost 30 pounds with it, in fact! And gained 40 back.
I tried the Carb Addict’s diet till I realized being addicted to carbs wasn’t my issue, and gave various supplements a shot here and there. I stocked up on Lean Cuisine microwave boxes and committed myself to power walking every morning for 40 minutes before the workday started. I kept that up for well over a year, and never dropped a pound.
You couldn’t say anything to make me feel bad enough about being overweight to make a diffrence. As far as I knew, I’d made enough attempts, and they weren’t worth the trouble.
There wasn’t anything you could say to my fat kids, either. Mostly, that’s because their ways were my ways, and kids tend to do what their parents do. They had no choice but to eat what I served them. Just think about it for a minute: our kids are growing up in homes with parents who don’t know how to feed them well (like me), and going to schools that feed them garbage and are corrupted by the influence of the food industry. We don’t teach them anything really useful in health or biology classes (for instance, how to shop smart, cook healthy, and eat well), and if you were to try to make them feel bad about being fat, what good would that do? How could you possibly blame a kid for factors over which he has no control?
So really, it came as absolutely no surprise to me last week to see the results of a recent study conducted at Yale University: Apparently, messages like the one seen here (“being fat takes the fun out of being a kid”) only serve to make the obese feel “depressed, defeated and ashamed.”
Gee. Ya think?
It never ceases to amaze me how people can be so clueless about… people. There are as many paths to losing weight as there are overweight people in the world, but there is one way that almost assuredly will not work for any but those who willfully and stubbornly choose to be subjected to it.
And that’s by shaming them.
Shame has its place in the world, for sure. I should be ashamed when I’ve done something wrong. I should feel a sense of shame when I have plenty and others have little and I refuse to share. I should feel shame about the fact that I ever turned on the television at any point in my life to watch the show The Biggest Loser.
And yes, about that… I am ashamed, because I’ve done it. Not often, but more than once. (Maybe I didn’t turn on the TV with the intent of watching it, but instead stumbled upon it in a rare moment of channel flipping. Not sure. Shameful just the same.)
But in spite of my shame, that show is the perfect tool to underscore my point that shame has no place in our society’s collective weight loss efforts.
If you’ve never seen the show, good… you have nothing to be ashamed of. But to quickly run down the premise: a bunch of seriously obese people agree to be locked up at a compound for as long as more than half a year. They are divided into two teams, and they spend nearly all their time in a gym with a trainer who yells at them to push harder and do more. To add to their sense of guilt, they are made to compete with each other in feats of strength, endurance, or silliness that give people immunity from being kicked off the island (wait, I think I’m mixing my metaphors, or reality shows). At times, other challenges are thrown in that put a tremendous amount of pressure on one or more individuals to do things like win a competition to spare another individual from being voted off, or to lose a certain amount of weight to save the whole team from Some Awful Thing.
And indeed, these people do lose weight. Some as many as ten pounds a week. And they are weighed, half naked, on national television, for all the world to see if they did something good (like lose a dozen pounds) or something bad (like lose only five when the team needed at least eight). The team that loses the most pounds that week is the winner, which means the other team is the one that has to tell someone to go home.
That as a nation we watch this spectacle could be a source of serious collective shame, if it weren’t for the fact that so many people are so desperate to lose weight and reclaim their health that they’ve been duped into thinking this is a model to emulate.
And perhaps the contestants should be ashamed of going on that show in the first place and letting the producers exploit their situation for profit. But they shouldn’t feel ashamed for being fat.
Why? Because there are a thousand reasons why we’re fat that we haven’t actively brought on ourselves. To name just a few:
- The food industry promotes fattening, addictive, artificially created food stuffs – thousands of which are marketed as diet, low fat, or otherwise somehow “good for you” foods – that don’t tell us when to stop eating, and in fact make us crave eating more of it, more often. This is, in my opinion, the number one reason.
- Relentless marketing of these products has convinced our minds that they are more appealing than they actually are.
- The USDA’s food pyramid has promoted this kind of eating, in schools and everywhere else.
- The diet industry has convinced us that going on a diet, or drinking some kind of diet shake, is the best way to lose weight, when in fact it is an almost 95% sure ticket to regaining whatever weight you lose and then some.
- Each of us needs to figure out what way of eating is best for us, but we are constantly bombarded with hundreds of different and conflicting plans that confuse and overwhelm.
- We eat for comfort because in an over-stimulating environment, we really don’t know how to get to the bottom of our true physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
- We are overly stressed by work, by the economy, by gloom and doom at every turn… stress releases cortisol, the fat hormone, which keeps us from burning fat. The descendants of ancestors whose bodies rightly interpreted chronic stress as a sign of famine, our bodies mistake modern stresses for the same and will do whatever it takes to protect us from starving to death. Add to this the fact that when we’re stressed we tend to eat more, and more of those artificially processed junk foods, and we are just stuck in a vicious cycle.
- The reality of most jobs keeps us confined to a sedentary lifestyle most of the day. We don’t move enough, and then when the stressful day is over, we are too tired to work out, or we don’t know how to work out effectively. Again, because we are all different, what exercise works for you might not work for me, and it’s just too much effort to figure out what does, because we don’t eat enough real food to clear out the brain fog.
How is shame supposed to overcome all that? It can’t.
So shame doesn’t work psychologically, but there’s also evidence that the whole approach to losing weight espoused on the show – shame combined with caloric restriction combined with severe and prolonged periods of vigorous exercise – might not be physiologically sound, either. There are no long term results to see how participants fare with their weight loss after the show is over (I’m sure the network wouldn’t find the show so popular if there were). So earlier this year, researcher Darcy Johannsen decided to conduct a study on the metabolic responses of the show’s participants during the course of filming.
What she found was their metabolism slowed down considerably, so much so that they were basically failing to burn an entire meal’s worth of calories each day. The study’s conclusion for the long term success of the participants? “Unfortunately, fat free mass preservation did not prevent the slowing of metabolic rate during active weight loss, which may predispose to weight regain unless the participants maintain high levels of physical activity or significant caloric restriction.”
Which, I’m sure, most of the participants have been unable to do. Because perpetual calorie restriction in the sense of deprivation is generally not sustainable, nor is working out for six hours a day with a trainer screaming in your ear.
So, what to do? If shame isn’t the right motivation, what is?
My personal motivation is not something most people will have – or at least, I hope you don’t have to let things get to that point. Most people will not be sufficiently frightened by the prospect of an imminent heart attack to completely switch their diets from pizza and doughnuts to raw almonds and kale overnight.
But what I do know is that it wasn’t shame that moved me. It was knowledge, and a sense of peace knowing I was finally moving in the right direction.
One antidote to the Biggest Loser model is the approach put forward by Jon Gabriel. Gabriel is a man who once weighed 420 pounds. Today, he weighs 188, and has maintained that weight for seven years. He didn’t diet to lose the weight. He didn’t exercise the pounds away. He had no one screaming degrading things in his ear. Through his research, and drawing upon his background in biochemistry, he was able to understand that his body, as he put it, “wanted” to be fat. And that by going to extreme measures to force the pounds off, he was only setting himself up for the eventual sense of shame and failure that comes when the deprivation diet makes you want to eat your foot, or when you finally throw down the towel in the gym because no amount of time you spend on that treadmill is getting you anywhere. (Literally.)
What did Jon do? He decided to relax, accept his body exactly as it was in that moment, and eat what he wanted, while using various meditation and visualization practices to cultivate what he really wanted… which was to be healthy, trim, and crave nutritious foods. He never actually denied himself anything, but he continued to add more and more healthy foods to his diet… leafy greens, fruits, nuts and legumes. As time went on, he found that he developed a taste for real, whole foods, and lost his taste for the artificial food stuffs. In fact, with enough real food in the body, most people lose a desire to eat the processed foods entirely… because your tongue can taste how fake it is, and it no longer tastes good to you.
“It’s a powerful thing to be able to go from saying, ‘I want that but I can’t have it,’” Gabriel says, to, “‘I can have that but I don’t want it.’”
Indeed, that sounds like the BEST way to manage one’s food – and one’s life.
If you have some weight to lose, start by accepting yourself and being grateful for a body that only wants to protect you. Know that you can reclaim your health just by making some simple changes, one at a time.
And shame on anyone who would try to make you feel bad for doing so.
© 2012 The Wellness Wordsmith