Sunday, January 6, 2013

Being healthy vs being thin

There is a big part of my story that I have been reluctant to write about lately. That's because the myths around this particular issue are so pervasive that even those who are committed to tolerance of our differences often times feel free to judge. I've been on the receiving end of that judgement for most of my life. And its painful. Since its possible to hide those differences when you're simply reading someone's words online - I've been content to keep quiet and avoid the pain.

But lately that silence has been building up in me and I can tell that every now and then it gets in the way of my being able to write freely. So here's my story.

Heading in to my teens, I was quite the developing beauty. I'd post pictures, but I don't want to. You'll just have to take my word for it. As a result of some health issues (that's a whole other story!), I gained 30 pounds in less than 6 months when I was 13. Thus began my life as a "fat girl."

Over the course of the next 25-30 years I lost over 200 pounds on various diets and gained over 250 pounds. What I was going to eat/not eat became the single most consuming question of my life. The fact that every weight loss was followed by a weight gain meant I was weak-willed and undisciplined.

All of the sudden when I was almost 40 years old it finally dawned on me...the more I dieted, the fatter I got. And so I stopped dieting. In the subsequent 19 years, I have stayed exactly the same weight. For the first time in my life, I throw out clothes when they're worn out - not because I have outgrown them.

One of the things that triggered that change was that a friend of mine who I've known for years just casually told me one day that I didn't eat more than the average person. Since we'd travelled together several times, she'd seen me 24/7 and knew my eating habits pretty well. For the first time in my life, I realized that I wasn't fat because I ate more, I was fat because of all the dieting.

Now, if you've been properly educated in this culture-of-thin, I'm sure you think that my conclusions were a bit crazy. But what I was to subsequently learn is that they're backed up by science...just not the science the $40 billion weight loss industry wants you to hear about.

I eventually read two books that explained it all: The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos and Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata. The latter is a health writer for the New York Times. As a result they published  some excerpts from her book. She cites research by Dr. Jules Hirsch at Rockefeller University in which he studied obese subjects who lost an average of 100 pounds.
Every time the result was the same. The weight, so painstakingly lost, came right back. But since this was a research study, the investigators were also measuring metabolic changes, psychiatric conditions, body temperature and pulse. And that led them to a surprising conclusion: fat people who lost large amounts of weight might look like someone who was never fat, but they were very different. In fact, by every metabolic measurement, they seemed like people who were starving.

Before the diet began, the fat subjects’ metabolism was normal — the number of calories burned per square meter of body surface was no different from that of people who had never been fat. But when they lost weight, they were burning as much as 24 percent fewer calories per square meter of their surface area than the calories consumed by those who were naturally thin.

The Rockefeller subjects also had a psychiatric syndrome, called semi-starvation neurosis, which had been noticed before in people of normal weight who had been starved. They dreamed of food, they fantasized about food or about breaking their diet. They were anxious and depressed; some had thoughts of suicide. They secreted food in their rooms. And they binged.
In referring to "semi-starvation neurosis," Kolata is talking about the work in the 1940's of Dr. Ansel Benjamin Keys who had set out to study starvation. He enlisted 40 normal weight men who were pre-screened to be psychologically healthy and "starved" them by feeding them 1,600 calories a day of extremely healthy food.
As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish -- with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Keys. The men's resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped...

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were profound. So much so that Keys called it "semistarvation neurosis." The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed...

When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites and ate voraciously, some eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, yet never felt full. Three months after the dieting, though, none of the men had regained his former physical capacity, noted Keys. On average, the men regained to their original weights plus 10%.
Kolata's article goes on to describe a study in which the reverse was also proven to be true...thin people who gained weight lost it almost immediately after the research was completed.
The implications were clear. There is a reason that fat people cannot stay thin after they diet and that thin people cannot stay fat when they force themselves to gain weight. The body’s metabolism speeds up or slows down to keep weight within a narrow range. Gain weight and the metabolism can as much as double; lose weight and it can slow to half its original speed...

The findings also provided evidence for a phenomenon that scientists like Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Leibel were certain was true — each person has a comfortable weight range to which the body gravitates. The range might span 10 or 20 pounds: someone might be able to weigh 120 to 140 pounds without too much effort. Going much above or much below the natural weight range is difficult, however; the body resists by increasing or decreasing the appetite and changing the metabolism to push the weight back to the range it seeks.
All of this not only explained why I had actually gained weight as a result of dieting, it caused me to reflect on why I tended towards depression and apathy all through my adolescence and beyond. To combine the effects of semi-starvation neurosis with the judgement I felt from others and the self-blame I was heaping on myself all the time - its a wonder I survived at all.

It also explains why I've felt so damned healthy since I stopped dieting. I still have to live pretty regularly with the judgement of others - but at least I'm not also killing myself in the process. In other words, in order to be healthy - I had to stop caring about being thin.


  1. This is very interesting. I have lost 40 pounds ( with about 60 to go) this past year by eating normally and not dieting. I am exercising more by doing exercise (like walking) that I love, which also helps my weight loss. I plan to take over 3 years to lose the rest

  2. By the way, I LOVE your blog. You are an amazing writer. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks bk.

      I think you can never go wrong in doing what you love. Congratulations!!!!

  3. Weight is a matter of what you eat as well as how much you eat. I lost 40 pounds simply by changing what I eat. I eat all I want. I exercise the same. It is not a diet. It is a life style change.

    1. Weight is a matter of what you eat as well as how much you eat.

      Niether my experience nor the science bears that out.

      I'm really glad it worked for you - congratulations!

      I once lost 60 pounds over 90 months by doing exactly the same thing. It all came back some.

      My life style change is to quit trying to lose weight. I'm much healthier for it.

    2. Oops, that should be 60 pounds over 18 months.

    3. What changed at the end of 18 months if if it was not what kinds of food you were eating?

    4. Anyone who has ever lost that much weight knows that at some point your weight plateaus and you have to eat less in order to continue losing. That's because your body thinks its starving and your metabolism slows down to accommodate.

      Note that in Keys study, the otherwise healthy men were eating 1,600 calories/day when they contracted semi-starvation neurosis (perhaps the reason so many overweight people have things like heart problems - you KNOW every one of them have dieted throughout their lives).

      I have a cousin who once lost over 150 pounds. At the end, she said she would gain weight if she ate a baked potato (no toppings). No one can sustain that kind of starvation as a "life style." And if you try - you send yourself into semi-starvation neurosis. That's why over 90% of people who lose weight gain it back. At some point, that failure rate should tell us something.

    5. To change what,your weigh, eat different foods, not less food. I agree, starvation diets don't work. You cannot continually starve your body. That's why diets don't work. The key to changing your weight is to change what you eat, not how much you eat.

  4. I used to be able to lose weight fairly easy. Heading into menopause, I gained about 20 lbs. No matter how much I exercised (personal trainer even!) dieted, moaned, whined, nothing changed. I stayed at the same weight. I finally had to see a therapist because of an eating disorder. Not bulimia or anorexia. I could almost tell you the calories, fiber, carbs, etc. of any food I ate. I kept a calorie counter on my phone and computer. I tracked my daily exercise and calories burned. I was obsessed with my weight and appearance (or rather my perceived gigantic fat rolls).

    Finally and slowly through therapy, I am becoming more comfortable with my body and it's needs. I've discovered I like weightlifting and luckily my personal trainer is tuned into me and my food and weight issues. Some days it's hard because I am still susceptible to any new diet fad that comes along but overall, not dieting is the most freedom I have allowed myself in years. I am a healthy, 56 year old woman, who by the charts is probably 10-15 lbs. overweight (I don't weigh myself). I can live with that if my health is good.

    Thanks for the post Smartypants. One thing I have learned is that there are many people who have the same issue.

    1. Thanks so much Joy!

      Oh I know what you're talking about when you refer to obsession. Its how I lived for 25-30 years. And it pains me now to even think about it.

      Thank goodness you found a good therapist and trainer.

    2. P.S. Other than when I go to the doctor, I haven't weighed myself in almost 20 years. Don't own a scale and don't plan to get one.

  5. You do not need to go on a starvation diet to lose weight. You need to change what you eat more than how much you eat. When your weight plateaus, that means you are at your natural weight for the types of food you are eating. My calorie intake is probably about the same as before. One difference now is that when I over eat I will gain a pound or two as before. But, before when I returned to my normal amount of food, the pound or two stayed on my body. Now my weight drops back to it's normal place.

    I now weigh what I did 40 years ago...although it is distributed a bit differently.

    1. I have NO quarrel with eating healthy. I think that's important for all of us and I do my best in that area.

      Where I draw the line is when eating healthy becomes a strategy to lose weight. If I lose weight by eating healthy...fine. But I won't make it the goal I'm trying to reach.

      Hope that makes sense. It might be necessary only for people like me who have a tendency towards losing myself (as Joy talks about above) to an obsession about food. When you've dieted as long as I have, its a real liability.

    2. "Where I draw the line is when eating healthy becomes a strategy to lose weight."

      I agree, absolutely. I changed what I eat for health reasons. The weight loss is a side benefit. In fact, I think I looked better, or at least younger, when I was heavier. I have more wrinkles now.

      Also, I realize that changing what you eat is a real problem when you have an obsession about food. My wife could not do it.

    3. There are times that I think it would take 2-3 generations of women being totally comfortable with whatever they weigh in order to rid the whole gender of the toxicity that has built up in our psyches over our obsession with thinness.

    4. P.S. As an example of how that obsession builds up, I've often said that I would be a very rich woman if I had a nickel for every time I heard "You have such a pretty face, but..." Sometimes people didn't actually verbalize the "but," but it was ALWAYS there.

      Back in the 70's I got fired from my first professional job after college. It was about a year after I had gone through one of the most severe crash diets I'd ever tried. I lost about 30 pounds and pretty quickly gained it back (and then some). One of the reasons they stated for firing me was that I was obviously emotionally unstable because I had recently gained so much weight. I suspect that would be considered illegal today. But it wasn't at the time...and it left a scar.

      Those are just two examples of how this obsession with thinness is not just a figment of our imaginations. I could give you hundreds more. But most of them are too private and painful to talk about publicly.

    5. The obsession with thinness is continually reenforced by the media -- movies, TV, magazines, ads, etc. We are continually told that thinness equals beauty equals success. Men reenforce it also. We are not guiltless.

    6. I appreciate your understanding that.

  6. So glad to see your post. Completely agree that there is a difference between healthy and thin. Starvation diets is NEVER a good idea and they simply don't work. What it does do is to mess up your metabolism.

    Feel good about your body and realize we all come in different sizes. Be healthy and make good nutritional choices. Stay active. You can walk for fitness instead of spending hours at a gym. No obsessions necessary.

    Good luck!


why i've been awol

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