Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why I'm Not Making "Resolutions": A Case Against Dieting

I haven't made New Year's Resolutions for a long time, but I do still enjoy making goals for myself.  I do it twice a year, in January and July typically.  I write down goals of stuff I plan to do anyway, not lofty crazy things.  This year I plan to graduate from college!  Let me tell you about why I no longer follow the "New Year's Resolutions" crowd.

The scene may be familiar to you, you may have even done it yourself in the past few days.  You might be gearing up to do it right now!  The thinking goes something like this:

"Okay, self.  This is it.  We've been slovenly and stupid, but THIS is a new year!  This is THE year, this is OUR year, the year we ______[turn 25/ turn 30/ graduate from college/ stop being stupid]_____ and it's going to be the year we transform our body as well!  Let's DO this!"

Feeling all pumped up, you set out to make a goal real by writing it down and planning it out.  The actual goal is unstated and goes something like this: "transform my physical body into something unrecognizable but totally hot, sexy, and above all: acceptable to others."  For me this particular body has never existed since I've always been a fat girl, but I just knew it could exist.

So, time to get writing.  I knew I had to set SMART goals, which included being specific, having time limits, writing it down, etc. Mine were usually about like this: "Okay, I want to lose 100 pounds this year, that's just 2 pounds per week- that's totally healthy and doable!  So, I will completely stop eating all sugar and sweets.  It'll be hard but it's worth it and I can do it.  I will only eat 1200 calories per day and I might even lose weight faster than my goal, and be really looking good by summer!  And of course I will have to exercise, so I will work out 30 minutes, 6 days per week.  I'll swim Mon/Wed/Fri, jog and strength train the other days, and go on a big hike for an hour every Saturday,"  and so on, you get the idea.  I plan every detail and set helps in place, like trying to find workout buddies, getting into online support groups, buying a year gym membership ahead of time so I have no excuse there, maybe buy new running shoes (even though I hate running), throwing out all the sweets in my house, etc.  Environmental control.

These are great goals that I have envisioned a dozen times as the key to "releasing" the real me out of its fat suit prison.  But here was the problem.  They were lofty, they were a stark shift from what I had been used to, they were unsustainable, and in fact they were unhealthy and setting me up for failure.

How will your body react if your norm is to eat around 2,500 calories per day, and only a little walking as your physical activity, and you suddenly cut your food intake by HALF and jump up to a "perfect" workout regimen?  My body reacted like this, as would most:  "Holy crud!!  What the hell is going on?!!  We must be starving, and running to try to find food! What apocalypse is going on out there?  Oh man, this is it, this is the end.  Emergency!  Emergency!  Going to code red- crisis management mode!"  My body senses a sudden catastrophic world event on many January 1st's.

Now time for the science nerd in me to come out.  What happens physiologically while on a low-calorie diet that your body is not used to, is that all food coming in as much as possible will be stored as fat for later in case the emergency gets even worse, and muscle gets broken down to be used for quick energy.  Cause if you're in a crisis, keeping your brain well-fed, and planning for the worst is top priority.  Your brain is not able to use energy from fat, and if you are starving your brain by eating a severely low-calorie diet, muscle is the quickest way to get energy to your brain.  Your body doesn't really have a way to tell how much fat it already has stored so that it can "cap" it at a certain amount, which is why you can get very morbidly obese people.  Your body will just keep making more fat when it is in these crises even though you already have a lot, or when there is a plain old excess of energy coming in.  Losing that muscle lowers my energy and makes sustaining this plan much more difficult.

(That was the cliff-notes version.  If you would like more details on why your brain doesn't use up your fat and a basic run-down on how energy is metabolized in your body, I got you covered.  But I'll put it on my science blog so as not to bog this post down.  Click here for that.  Bio Geo Nerd: Your Metabolism Doesn't Know It's the New Year )

Think of it like a budget crisis.  You're going along with a good job, everything is good, then you lose your job.  You have no money.  You pare down your budget and only pay for the ABSOLUTE necessities, taking more and more out of the budget that you possibly can.  First you get rid of perks like entertainment, start getting things at thrift stores, eventually you might even have to sell your car and take the bus, or even lose your home.  Occassionally you get some money as a gift, and you stick all of it in your savings to help get through this crisis since you have no idea how long it will last, and you continue to live on the bare minimum and leave your savings alone.  This is crisis mode.  
And the worst part, is that doing this screws up my metabolism.  So when the diet fails cause I can't sustain starvation (duh), my body has now gotten VERY good at making fat.  And it keeps using that talent, especially now that I'm back up to my normal 2,500 calories per day average.  Going on that diet just doomed me to being BETTER at storing energy (fat).  Just like our budget analogy, if you were able to get through the crisis by being miserly with your money, you will continue those habits and can build wealth while living on almost nothing.  That's great if I'm going to end up walking hundreds of miles in search of resources that have disappeared due to some catastrophic natural disaster, but for me living in the 21st century and wanting to get fit and also be attractive to others, it's not good news.

And guess what?  I've done this to myself dozens and dozens of times!  I've been helping my body hone those skills to be metabolically conservative, and been getting fatter and fatter.  My metabolism is in a bad state for the world I live in.  And I did it to myself.  By dieting.  I have "yo-yo dieted" my way UP the scale for the past 2+ decades, and now here I am.

Food and my body have been the enemy. My mental state of being completely obsessed about food, weight, dieting, my body have caused an eating disorder of the mind.  Through much counseling and introduction to the book "Intuitive Eating", I realized I had to quit dieting for good, and also learning about the Physiology and Biochemistry of it clenched that.

So, I don't diet.  I don't make weight-related New Year's Resolutions.  There may be some people who have not screwed up their body as badly as I have. I hope you haven't restricted yourself to the point that your body and brain are starving, and your body has to develop the talent of living on a shoe-string calorie budget.  It does a good job of scrimping, saving, putting away every calorie it possibly can, like a true miser.  I can just imagine my metabolism as an Ebeneezer Scrooge- never putting coal on the fire, but instead, hoarding all the gold into the money bins of my fat cells.
So instead, I choose to live an abundant life.  Enjoy food, really enjoy it.  When I eat what I want and actually pay attention to how great it is, and when I don't make any certain foods "the enemy", I can enjoy the pleasure of eating without overeating, and without guilting myself into wanting those forbidden foods more.  When I deprive myself I end up eating a lot of stuff I don't even like just to get a sugar "hit" or try to satisfy cravings with low-cal junk that makes me more hungry.  I'm letting my body know I'm there to take care of it.  I'm not going to jerk it around anymore with deprivation-abundance cycles.  I'm regaining my body's trust, however long it takes. I'm just going to take care and enjoy life, and my body and I are going to be on the same side.

Me last October, RIDICULOUSLY excited to be out riding with my kids.
Have a blessed 2015!

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