A lot of people think that being overweight is a result of greed and/or laziness. It seems like such an obvious problem to fix. You just need to eat less and/or move more. If it really were that easy, there wouldn’t be so many overweight people in the world.
Think about someone in your life who is overweight. Are they an intelligent human being? Are they able to function in their daily lives by recognizing the consequences of their actions and avoiding doing things that cause them discomfort or harm? I’m guessing the answer is yes.
So, if the person is intelligent and is able to manage their lives according to their understanding of what is best for them, why can they not lose weight?
I have been overweight my entire life until quite recently. I have no recollection of not being overweight in my life before now. I was very lucky in that I have always had lots of friends, and I was rarely openly teased or bullied due my weight, but the fact that I was overweight affected almost every area of my life — my friendships and relationships, my career, my hobbies, etc. Almost every night before I went to sleep, I would think about how my life would be different if I could just lose the weight. And I would promise myself that I would wake up in the morning and tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow, I would get some exercise. Tomorrow, I would eat properly.
Tomorrow never came. I was always stuck in a cycle of hoping and wishing for change and then being disappointed and discouraged that I could never get myself to change. Hope. Disappointment. Hope. Disappointment. Hope. Disappointment.
It was so disheartening. I would think to myself, “Why do I have to be overweight? Did I do something in a past life to deserve this? I must have been really, really mean to someone who was overweight to be forced to live in this overweight body my whole life, with not even a minute of reprieve.”
It’s not like I was incapable of doing hard things. If there is something that I want to do, I can bring laser-level focus to it. In the dictionary, there should be a picture of me beside the definition of stubborn. I love trying to figure things out and the more complex the problem, the more I want to play with it in my head until I can work out a solution.
So, why, WHY was it so hard for me to lose weight?
It wasn’t from lack of trying, although I will admit that I did not try every single weight loss gimmick out there. I joined gyms, I tried to develop exercise programs for myself, I tried to get partners to help me stay on track with my movement goals. I tried various diets that were low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb, etc. I could never get myself to continue to exercise on a regular basis, and I could never stick to a diet for very long. And after trying so many things and failing, I pretty much gave up. I decided that unless I felt that something was sustainable, there was no point starting. It was just more hope and disappointment in a different package.
In my thirties, I lost about 40 pounds (18 kg). At first, I started losing weight naturally because I didn’t have a car, and I was riding my bike everywhere. I had also moved back to Japan, so I might have been eating a bit better than when I was in Canada. I didn’t actually notice that I had lost weight until someone pointed it out to me. Once I did notice, I tried to up my game with more exercise and learning more about which foods are better for me and which foods I need to avoid. In 2006, I got down to 145 lbs (66 kg), which is still overweight, but it’s obviously better than the 185 lbs (84 kg) where I started.
You would think that I would have been happy at 145 lbs, but I was not. I was obsessed with my scale and I weighed myself every day. That was fine as long as I was losing weight, but shortly after getting to 145 lbs, the scales started moving up. I thought maybe I had lost the weight too quickly and my body needed time to figure out what the new normal was going to be, so maybe it was okay for me to go up a few pounds. But then a few pounds turned into a few more. And a few more. And soon, 145 lbs was a distant memory, and I managed to get myself all the way back up to 185 lbs.
Can you imagine what kind of nightmare that was?
The cruel irony of this situation was that when I was at the lower weight, I was still very critical of my body and was not happy with it. I would scrutinize pictures of myself obsessively and think “still fat” and “why can’t I just be like everyone else?”. Then, when I had gained all the weight back, I would look at those same photos and think, “I looked really good there. Why couldn’t I see it then?”
This is not the story of someone who is stupid and doesn’t know that eating right and exercising leads to weight loss. This is the story of someone who was broken and didn’t know how to fix herself. There was something wrong with how I was doing things, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. In all my stubbornness and tenacity, in all my joy in solving puzzles and complex problems, I could not figure this out.
I could not figure this out.
Oh, and I also need to tell you that I did not stop at 185 lbs on the way back up. I thought for sure that I could at least stop gaining weight when I got back to that weight. Nope. I got up to 185 lbs, and before I could blink I was 190 lbs. I thought to myself, “I’m only 5’2” (157 cm). There is no way I can get up to 200 lbs. Also wrong. I hit 200 lbs and just kept on going. My highest recorded weight was 223 lbs (101.5 kg). Looking back at pictures of myself when I first hit 185 lbs (before I had lost the weight), I would think, “Why didn’t I just stay there? Losing weight seems to have catapulted me to an even higher weight than I was before.”
If you have never struggled with your weight, I hope this gives you some insight into what it feels like. I knew I needed to eat better, and I knew I needed to exercise, but I could not get myself to do it. Then I could get myself to do it, but I couldn’t keep it up. Then, as a result of actually being able to do it, I ended up worse off than when I started.
Again, I am not stupid. I am sure of it. I have the report cards and test results to prove that I am capable of learning and understanding very difficult things. And I am also not alone. Every single person who is or has ever been overweight is reading this and saying “yeah” to at least some part of my story.
If we jump forward to today, I now weigh 126 pounds. I have lost almost 100 pounds over about a year and a half. I have been able to lose the weight and keep it off over that time.
However, as they say on the bottom of every advertisement for financial investments, past results do not determine future results. I could put all of that weight back on so quickly it would make your head spin. I could do it in less than half the time it took me to lose the weight. And I would not stop at 223 lbs. I don’t even know how high I would get. I understand now that there literally is no limit. It doesn’t matter how short I am. I don’t get any special treatment because of my height. 300 lbs is easily achievable. Stay tuned and I will explain why in a few minutes.
But before I do that…
I’m sure you are wondering how I was finally able to lose the weight. Was it because I suddenly developed willpower? Do I now have all the knowledge I need to prepare healthy food? Am I now a veteran gym-rat with a monogrammed towel set and a favourite StairMaster with the best view of the city?
No, no, and no.
What changed is that I realized that what I was dealing with was not a problem that needed better understanding of how food works, or better willpower, or more exercise. The problem needed to be reframed entirely into a story of addiction.
Addiction happens when you try to solve a problem using the wrong tool. In my case, I am not actually sure exactly what problem I was trying to solve (I’m still trying to process that part), but the tool that I was using to solve it was food. I would eat when I was happy, sad, angry, hurt, bored, tired, or experiencing any other kind of feeling. And, while I know, on an intellectual level, that eating doesn’t solve any problems, it definitely made me feel better. Or I thought it did. Or it did until it didn’t. Or I wanted it to.
I would sometimes eat until I was so full I felt physically uncomfortable. I would eat because I thought of a particular food, and couldn’t stop thinking about it until I ate it. I would eat snacks all day long instead of waiting for meals, like I constantly needed to comfort myself throughout the day, like having an intravenous drip of sweet reassurance. I would eat when I was hungry and also when I was not hungry. I actually don’t think I recognized hunger as a physical sensation in my body. It was more like an emotional need that had to be met. I would hide food in various places (in my office, in my purse, in my car, etc.) so that there would never be a time that I could not access food. I was scared of hunger and needed to protect myself from it.
If you tell a person who thinks like that about food to “eat less”, it is basically the same as telling someone who is addicted to drugs to “use less”. Uh huh. Good advice. I will get right on that.
And yet, this is what doctors and well-meaning friends do. They tell you to eat less. They tell you to stop doing the thing that is giving you comfort. They look at you as if you are insane because you can’t stop doing something that is clearly resulting in harm. Because they can’t see that you can’t stop. You don’t want to stop. Because if you stop, how are you going to handle it when something bad happens? If you stop, what kinds of feelings will come in? If you stop… Well, the point is moot actually, because you can’t stop.
Can you see what I am trying to say? If someone has a relationship with food that goes beyond eating food for sustenance, then no amount of intelligence or willpower will help, and no diets or exercise regimes will work. The problem is not the food, it’s the addiction. The food is just the wrong tool that is being used at the time. It could be alcohol, drugs, smoking, shopping, sex, gambling, or any of a number of other kinds of addictive substances or behaviours instead. The person just happens to be using food as the wrong tool. So, until the problem is reframed as a problem of addiction, and not a problem of greed or laziness or insert-other-character-judgments-here, there is no hope in finding any kind of solution that will actually work.
Addiction is a taboo subject. No one wants to admit that they are addicted to anything, and if someone is addicted to something, they find it hard to get treatment because they don’t want to admit that they need help. It’s easier just to stay in the addiction than to risk the reputational damage that might happen if people know.
Well, I am Shaney Crawford, and I am addicted to food. I know it for sure, and I am not afraid to tell anyone about it. I have managed to lose weight and get to a normal BMI, but that does not change the fact that I am addicted to food. That is why I know just how easy it would be for me to weigh 300 lbs. I am and will always be a food addict. I need to have a treatment plan that is based on a clear understanding of how addiction works and how it needs to be treated. Being addicted to food is hard because I need to face the reality of my addiction three times a day. But with the proper support and treatment in place, it is possible to be in a state of recovery.
Because my weight loss has been so dramatic, people ask me about it all the time. I never know what to say because most people want a quick fix / miracle story and they are not interested in a long or complicated conversation, so I usually just say something like, “I changed my relationship with food”. I sometimes go a bit further and say that I was addicted to food and now I am receiving treatment for it, or something like that. But usually the person’s eyes gloss over when my answer is not something like “keto” or “intermittent fasting”.
I guess there are two main points to my writing today:
- If you are overweight and you have tried dieting and exercising and you are not finding success, maybe there is another way of thinking about the problem. Not everyone who is overweight is addicted to food, so that may not be the answer for you, but maybe there is another answer out there that is waiting for you.
- If you are not overweight and have never struggled with your weight, then please understand the complexity of this problem. People who are overweight are not stupid, greedy, or lazy.
And there is a third, more general, point to be made:
I actually planned to write about procrastination today, but this is what came out instead. So, I guess I am procrastinating from writing about procrastination.