March 27, 2014

The Down & Dirty: Part 2

In the words of Kermit the Frog, Hi-Ho! In the intro to this series, I explained that it’s time to get up close and personal. And if Kermit thinks it’s not easy being green, he has no idea how not easy it was being an overweight teenage girl or young woman in the United States circa the 1990s and early 2000s. (And I suspect it hasn’t gotten any easier in the decade-plus that’s passed since then.)

So in today’s post, I’ll continue laying the groundwork that will support the heartfelt posts to come later—the ones about how the human body really works, and why calorie counting, fat gram slashing, and eating less and moving more are a one-way ticket to a black hole of frustration just waiting to suck you and your best intentions right in and never let you out. (Okay, to be honest, watching calories, exercising more, and all that jazz aren’t completely useless, but they’re not the end-all be-all they’ve been cracked up to be. More on that when we get into the science. For now, I’m still spilling my guts.)

Okay, here we go. Lemme just open up this vein and we’ll get started

I am a diet and exercise veteran. Watching calories, being an exercise junkie, the cabbage soup diet, Power Bars and marathon training—you name it, I’ve done it. I’ve been around the block a few times; it’s not my first rodeo; been there, done that, and all the other phrases that boil down to, I ain’t new to this.

I came to study nutrition because after years of following advice that was supposed to get me results did not deliver those results, I finally stopped and questioned why. So let’s see what those early years entailed.

Like I said in the intro, I was a chubby kid. My parents owned an ice cream & candy store, and boy, did I help myself to the inventory. Couple that with me being a sedentary bookworm and it’s no surprise that I was a pudgy—but happy—kid. (By the way, how come when “the experts” talk about the link between overweight and excessive TV watching, they conveniently ignore the people who spend hours upon hours reading or studying? Unless I’m mistaken, sitting is sitting, so I don’t think we can necessarily correlate weight gain with people’s television habits. Talk about a serious moral judgment. [My hobby is more highbrow than yours! We both sit for hours on end, but your sitting causes obesity, while mine causes higher S.A.T. scores!] But I digress…We’ll come back to the morality issue in the future, because it’s a biggie.)

Then came this thing called puberty. I became a young lady, and I became more concerned with how I looked in the eyes of the young gentlemen. I also became much more concerned with how I looked in my own eyes. Chalk it up to my own personal preference, or to being steeped in the modern Western beauty aesthetic, but wherever my ideas of “pretty” and “thin” came from, one thing was crystal clear: I didn’t fit either category.

So I did what any intelligent person would do: I started eating a little differently and doing a little more exercise. The key word here is “little.” And as could be expected, not much changed. So let’s fast forward to high school and college. I kicked things into high gear at this point, because if it’s no fun being a chubby girl at 13 or 14 in our society, it is orders of magnitude less so at 18 or 21.

Before I get into the diet and exercise aspect of my failed attempt to remake my younger self, I want to share why it was so important to me to change the way I looked. But before I do that, let me say that I firmly believe self-esteem and self-worth should not and are not tied to body size or shape. Plenty of larger folks feel fantastic in their own skin, love the heck out of life, and live it to the max. And God bless ‘em. (Please put that in a bottle so I can buy some.) However, when I was younger, I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to set aside my feelings about the shape of my body or the physical force of Earth’s gravity upon it (which is what weight actually is), and have those not dictate the level of enjoyment I did (or, more accurately, did not) get out of life. So while I absolutely believe weight shouldn’t dictate someone’s self-esteem, for millions of people, that’s exactly what it does. (Hey, millions of people believe joining the Marines is extremely freaking hardcore; doesn’t mean they’re gonna run out and do it.)

So that being said, we can proceed by understanding that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I did let my body size rule my mind.

Fast forward to high school. Tired of never having a date, damn near nauseated by what I saw in the mirror, and terrified that I would never, ever feel “pretty,” I took up jogging. I would say “running,” but my 12 to 15-minute miles were really more of a trot. My speed and endurance increased pretty quickly, and I knew I was becoming healthier. What did not happen, however, were any changes in my shape. I wasn't weighing myself at the time, but my clothes didn't fit any differently and I didn't see any changes in my appearance.

Mmm…rabbit food!
I got my diet in line, too—or, at least, in line with what my misguided teenage girl mind thought was the surefire way to lose weight: swapping out the “killers” (red meat, butter, cheese, eggs, etc.) for skim milk, cold breakfast cereal, skinless white meat chicken, pasta, bagels, and just about anything low-fat or fat-free you can imagine.

My running regimen continued. I was working so hard to lose weight -- harder than anyone I knew. Most of my friends seemed to be those genetically gifted freaks we all know and love to hate -- the people who don't exercise at all, eat “all the wrong things,” and yet look fantastic. I was putting forth more effort than I ever had, and I just could not wrap my head around why I wasn’t losing a single ounce. Call me a glutton for punishment; I kept on running. And I kept basing my diet on low and no-fat carbohydrates. Isn't that the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? If that's true, I was downright certifiable.

Damn you.
Damn you a thousand times over.
Things weren’t much different in college: hours and hours spent exercising, and turning dietary deprivation into an art form. And the results were exactly the same—namely, no results. All that effort for nothing. I was a little bit older, but not much about the world seemed different. To me, thin still equaled beautiful, and I was far from thin.

I was quite the accomplished little dork, band geek, go-getter. I was a straight-A student, in the jazz band, editor of the literary magazine, had a work-study job…the whole nine yards. But you know what? None of that mattered. None of it mattered because the one thing I wanted—the only thing I wanted—being “thin”—eluded me. And it eluded me despite incredible amounts of exercise and a low-fat diet. And it came so easily to my friends, most of whom wouldn’t know a barbell if it landed on their chest and pinned them to the ground, and who’d sooner cut their feet off altogether than put a pair of running shoes on them and go hit the pavement.

I came to the natural conclusion that I simply wasn't working hard enough. After all, if I was working hard enough, I would have seen results, right? So I did what any sensible person would do: I spent more time on the treadmill, more time on the bike, and ate less and less. Looking back, it’s a wonder I had enough energy to get through long days of classes, a campus job, band rehearsals, some semblance of a social life, and then add in exercise on top of that. I can only chalk it up to youth.

More effort, more deprivation, and still no results. Clearly, something was just plain wrong with me. There was no way that someone could be working as hard as I was and still not make any progress. I knew I was healthy. I knew I was fit. What I was not, was “thin.” This longing for something I thought I would never have came to define my adolescence and poison my 20’s.

It made me bitter and angry toward some of my best friends. Bitter toward the people for whom it came effortlessly. And, of course, it made me bitter and hateful toward myself. So what does a person who hates herself do? Yep, you guessed it: punish herself.

A veritable feast, at the time.
There was a time many years ago when I was unemployed and living with my parents. Being unemployed, I had little else to do but apply for jobs and work out. So I did work out. A lot. Over three hours a day, in fact. I went to the gym in the morning and again at night. And I ate a low-fat diet. Whole wheat toast with I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter Light. Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds cereal with skim milk or, when I was feeling wild, 2%. Fat-free yogurt. Low-fat cheese. Rice cakes. Granola bars. You know the drill.

And the weight didn’t budge. All that dietary fat avoidance, all that exercise, and nothing. Zip. Zilch. I continued to exercise and “eat right,” and yet, I was still carrying so much more body fat than the people around me—people who barely exercised, and lived on steady diets of fast food and heavy drinking. I was at my wit’s end. (Can you blame me, really? When you follow the advice that all the “experts” repeat over and over, in every source you see and hear, and you don’t see the expected results, it’s logical to assume you are not following the advice hard enough, or well enough, right? It’s logical to assume you are to blame, rather than stopping to question whether there might be something wrong with all that “expert advice.” Remember this idea. It’s gonna play big in upcoming posts.)

So I ruined myself. Absolutely ruined myself. Self-esteem-wise, none of my accomplishments mattered. Not the 4.0, not the writing awards, not anything. People who know me “in real life” know that my not-so-secret dream is to be a novelist. But for years, I couldn’t write. How could I write when all I could think of when I sat down in front of a computer (or old-school paper notebook!) was how wide the span of my thighs was when I sat down in the chair? (True story. Yes, it’s pathetic, and yes, it’s sad. But yes, I actually did that to myself. My young woman’s mind was that far off the deep end. And I suspect someone out there—maybe a lot of someones—know just what I’m talking about. To those people, I offer {{hugs}}.) And instead of just getting over it and writing, I would grab someone else’s novel and go read for a while because jumping into someone else’s fictional world distracted me from my feelings of worthlessness. Same goes for TV and movies. Better to escape into fantasy than deal with my own reality. I’d be embarrassed to admit how much TV I watched in those years rather than doing any writing. Let’s just say I could probably recite a couple of Quantum Leap and JAG episodes word for word.
This is a very, very dark 
place to be.

Aaaaanyway, I was so used to feeling bad that feeling bad felt good. It was my comfort zone. I knew what to do with those feelings. And when I would have one of those rare days when I felt good, I liked it, and I enjoyed those happier feelings, but I was kind of unnerved at the same time. Uncomfortable. Because I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. It was like, “Who are you and what have you done with Amy?”

I recently read a quote…don’t remember where it came from, but I’m pretty sure it was Robb Wolf on Twitter. He said something like, “The difference between a groove, a rut, and the grave is depth and duration.” Whoa. Powerful stuff. I was in that rut for so long that I liked it. It was my home. It was what I was used to. And when I had a good day, I was out of my element. My mind was so accustomed to the rut that it didn’t know how to adjust to the new pattern, above and outside of the rut. So, invariably, I would fall right back into it, and usually breathe a sigh of relief when I did. Whew. This, I can deal with. Here, I know where I am.

Sad, huh? And it’s even more sad to me now, because I imagine there are a few people out there who are reading this and nodding their heads, because they know exactly what I’m talking about.
City of Pittsburgh Marathon, 2001.
Notice how pudgy and inflamed I look.
Thanks for that, tons of 
running and carb-loading!

I think part of the reason I felt like such a failure is because I was one. Let me explain. I wasn’t a failure at life. I wasn’t a failure at being a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, or a good employee. But I had failed to accomplish the only thing that meant anything to me (in my misguided mind at the time). I did eat less and move more. I exercised like crazy. I crossed the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, for cryin’ out loud. I wasn’t afraid of a hard workout. I drank diet soda. I baked frozen potatoes instead of frying. I was such a virtuous little calorie counter and exerciser, and yet, I was still losing the weight loss game big time.  

My poor self-image became a prison. I'll never know if I would have had a more enjoyable social life in my teens and twenties because my self-consciousness and nonexistent self-esteem prevented me from even trying. I spent so many nights alone, wondering why it seemed so easy for other people, why I couldn't have the one thing I wanted most.

The lightbulb moment.

Then I did finally stop and wonder about that “expert advice.” Somewhere deep in the recesses of my broken mind, it occurred to me that for all those years, two and two hadn’t added up to four. Eating less and moving more had gotten me approximately nowhere, and continuing to do more of the same would keep me there indefinitely.

Being that I’m now a nutritionist helping others get out of that rut, it’s safe to say I’ve gotten out of that nowhere place. Like I explained in the previous post, I still have bad days. (And I think a few here and there are normal. We’re only human.) But they’re not debilitating like they were way back when. Now, I recognize them for what they are: the products of wacky hormones, poor dietary choices, insufficient sleep, or going too long without people and activities that bring me joy. And they’re just that: bad days. They’re not the arbiter of my worth as a human being or my deservingness of love.

So the big question now is, how did I get to this place? How did I claw my way out of the hole?

I’ve got one or two more posts to share with you about that and then we’re going to jump into the science. Because that’s what this is all about: sharing the knowledge with you. Because when I tell you that this former dietary fat-fearing “cardio queen” now regularly enjoys bacon, egg yolks, coconut oil, heavy cream, and red meat, what underlies that is an understanding of basic human physiology. (And by the time we’re done, you’ll understand why I get so furious at those ridiculous 100-calorie packs of cookies, and get even more furious when I see recipes in Diabetes Forecast magazine that call for raisins, whole wheat flour, and apple juice. *Sigh.*)   

Until next time...

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained herein and the services provided are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing. Things can be no different on the guy side of the equation.

    Next time.