Weight Loss and Maintenance: Skiing as Useful Metaphor

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on October 18, 2010 at 11:11 am

Weight loss is down-hill skiing. It requires a certain skill set and, losing more than 60 pounds, I was on nobody’s bunny slope. In down-hill skiing people cheer you on; you get regular compliments as people see your “results.” People ask your advice. Sometimes you feel like a celebrity. It’s hard work, but rewarding. Then you get to the bottom of the slope and you coast. The compliments get spaced further apart, you swoosh past the cheering crowds and leave them behind you, but you keep coasting, for a while. Try to avoid saying, “If I can do it, anyone can.” So many people end up regretting that.

When you are completely out of momentum the ski lift attendant shows up. It’s all quiet now, and he’s got your lift ticket and a coupon for the restaurant at the ski lodge. That coupon looks really tempting, because you are hungry, or something akin to that. Your stomach is calling out for food, sending you signals to eat.

In the real world, you’re impelled toward the kitchen, the pantry. Maybe you stop yourself and turn around. You ask yourself, why am I doing this? I have no good reason to be hungry. I’ve eaten plenty, according to my food journal/diet plan/calorie allotment (circle one or create your own), but I want to eat more. Something must be wrong with me. If you try to distract yourself by picking up a women’s magazine, it may advise you to distract yourself further with a bubble bath, a pedicure, a shopping trip, a walk, or by brushing your teeth. Good Lord. That’s not going to help you for long. And then you’ll find yourself wandering into the kitchen, because nothing is wrong with you. You really are hungry, or, more accurately, you are impelled to eat.  Jump to a new metaphor: ballroom dancing.

Physically, at this point, there is a chemical cotillion happening inside your body. The Endocrine Musicians and Ballroom Dance Troupe are performing the Wow, We Just Figured Out That You Lost a Bunch of Weight and You Better Eat Tango. There are many chemicals that play some part in communicating with you regarding your hunger and satiety (satisfaction, fullness). The known, resident dancers include, in alphabetical order: adiponectin, agouti-related protein, CART and CCK (if it goes by an acronym, that means even scientists recognize it’s overcomplicated), cortisol, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (say THAT three times), ghrelin, insulin, leptin, melanocortin, nitric oxide, NPY, norepinephrine, peptide YY3-36, resistin, serotonin and visfatin, while thyroid hormone serves as the drummer in the band, setting the pace at which everyone moves. A grand troupe of gastro-intestinal micro-organisms has formed a complicated kick line of its own and weaves about the edges. In addition to the resident dancers, you may introduce guest performers who may or may not throw them off balance, such as glucose, fructose, MSG and other additives and preservatives, aspartame, livestock hormones or antibiotics, prescription drugs, fatigue, stress, pesticides, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and other characters that mess with your body’s self-regulation.

Even the scientists don’t know precisely how all these characters interact. I know, however, that these chemicals, and all the ones I don’t know about, are clueless that your “developed” culture has established a BMI range of 18.5 to 25 that it thinks is attractive, “normal,” “healthy,” etc.   The social director at this dance, your DNA, has announced to these chemical quicksteppers that you are capable of a much higher BMI, and you aren’t living up to your potential anymore. The crowd goes wild, because everyone desperately wants to help you. So they dance and send you physical hunger cues, and they speak or sing in mental impulses, some you might be able to verbalize, but most are extraverbal. The dancers speak Endocrine, the language of your body. It is as real as English, Russian, Chinese or French, and as persuasive as a Parisian paramour. There are probably a dozen dialects of Endocrine. High-Weight Endocrine may be a very different language from Low-Weight Endocrine. And when your body, which speaks High-Weight Endocrine, finds itself in the province of Low Weight, a confusing argument ensues. It pushes you, impels you to go commune with the cracker box in the pantry, and/or the cheese brick in the fridge, and/or the ice cream tub in the freezer, and/or any other method of transport back to your home province of High Weight.

And here, my metaphors take a pause, and I caution my size acceptance friends to stop reading now or read further with caution. Using the tags that appear alphabetically over my headlines, I’ll warn you when it is unsafe to read. “Size acceptance okay” means you won’t be triggered. “Size acceptance questionable” means I don’t know. “Size acceptance triggering” means even I recognize it’s a bad idea for you to read it.  This article gets the “questionable” label because of the next paragraph.

In posts to come, I will cite some scientific studies to support the idea that the endocrine profile of a reduced-weight person is different from a naturally trim person or a fat person who hasn’t dieted. I will talk more about what I think is happening in our bodies when we find ourselves (unwittingly) eating to regain weight, and what I do to counter my natural endocrine impulses. This discussion will move us further from the weight-loss ski slope and the brief, easy “coast” that followed. I’ll talk about the transition to cross-country skis and the trek that is maintenance for the few people who can do it – lonely and difficult, but not without some interesting scenery and a few rewards. People in the size acceptance community call them “thin privilege,” and they are right.

  1. I worship at your feet…and eagerly await your next post.

  2. When the popular media continue to frame the regain phenomenon in terms of psychological dysfunction (aka “emotional eating”), the media effectively reinforces shame and self loathing for individuals experiencing powerful physiological *commands* to regain. But one learns to have low expectations from capitalist driven media, no matter how much damage they contribute to our world.

    When health care providers frame the regain phenomenon in terms of inadequate *will power* or *motivation*, or the patient’s failure to adopt *lifestyle changes*, providers institutionalize and reify a weight management mythology that increases shame, self loathing, prejudice and discrimination. In other words, they harm humanity at both the level of the individual and at a cultural level.

    This horrifying amount of damage, created in the guise of “health CARE”, is neither healthy nor caring. It is destructive and cruel.

  3. RNegade, How aptly and eloquently put.

    I would like to add the growing masochism I see on the weight loss blogs. One incredibly foul-mouthed, mean blogger who spouts ignorant drivel about his herculean successes with weight loss is the focus of an adoring (definitely mostly female) readership who lap up his insults.

    What kind of a world is this?

    Oh, I’ve finally realized that I must no longer read this blog. It makes me simultaneously angry and depressed.

  4. I love your metaphors of skiing and, especially, the endocrine dance. I am not the least bit surprised that endocrine profiles of dieters differs from that of non-dieters (fat or thin). But I suspect it’s even more insidious than you describe here. Because, at least in my experience, the endocrine (or whatever they may be) dancers not only compel my body to eat, they also compel it to keep a stranglehold on whatever calories are consumed. Thus even if I resist the urges and stick to my diet/allotment/etc., my body finds a way to resist losing or even maintaining weight – sometimes even gaining despite diet/activity levels that should (and used to) induce weight loss.

  5. Ah, NewMe, I am sorry, but not surprised. For what it is worth, I had to go through a very dark time and emerge on the other side. The realizations I am posting here came together as a kind of “Eureka” multi-month revelation process, after spending years in the size acceptance community while simultaneously maintaining my losses. And I stewed about whether I should even post them, for just this reason. I knew my words could be discouraging to the 3% club of maintainers and triggering to the 97% club of size acceptance advocates who are former serial dieters, all at the same time. What a horrid prospect!

    But for too long, weight-loss maintenance has been papered over, and people’s experiences have been marginalized — especially if they regain weight. They’re assumed to be in denial. Those of us who succeed are met with a one-dimensional acknowledgement. Our doctors tell us to “keep up the good work,” having no idea what they’re saying. And so I thought, I gotta do it. I gotta tell what I perceive as the truth (maybe it’s only my truth) and let the chips fall where they may.

    A suggestions: you can probably use my size acceptance code in reverse. When something says “Size Acceptance okay,” you’ll know that’s a day I’m affirming the existence of the dark side of our experience as maintainers. On days I say “Size Acceptance triggering” I’ll be revealing the startegies I use to maintain, and I’ll be talking about how I force the joy into “the job.” Size Acceptance questionable will probably be safe for you too, on your strong days.

  6. RNegade, Viajera and NewMe, you are all bright and perceptive observers of this process, from different perspectives. I love hearing from you.

  7. The more I ruminate, the more I think my maintainer peeps need their own codes, and I need a “page” that explains my codes, so that people can read with caution. I don’t want to scare off maintainers, because there are days I need the support desperately.

    And just because something is your preferred code, doesn’t bar you from reading whatever you want. There are days that SA people can read triggering things, but others when they can’t, and, likewise, there are days when maintainers are feeling pretty strong and can read size acceptance friendly posts, but days when that will not do. And our best discussions may happen on those days when we can “cross over” from time to time. I must think some more, but NewMe, in the meantime, don’t give up on me.

  8. I’m new to maintaining ( about 65 lbs lost) and barely hanging on.
    Now I know why.

    I’m proud to say that I’ve never told any of my new “fans” that “anybody can do it”.
    I tell them ” You can probably lose 65 lbs if you want to badly enough, but prepare to suffer day and night for the rest of your freaking life. It’s hell. Just my opinion, of course” It often takes people aback a bit.
    Guess it’s all those hormones making me grouchy and irritable..

  9. Major “oops”. I think I wasn’t clear. I love reading your blog. Not depressing at all! It’s the other one, written by the foulest mouthed bully I’ve met in many a moon, that I have now cut out of my blog-reading diet. lol

  10. You know, that might have been a fortuitous accident. Do you think I need labels for maintainers? I know I do for Size Acceptance people who are disgusted with yo-yoing and just want and deserve to find affirmation and acceptance as they are. I know, too, however, that I need to speak freely about what I do and feel, and those thoughts are not “safe” for many Size Acceptance folks.

    One Maintainer label would probably be “Maintainer encouraging,” and would likely accompany all the “Size Acceptance triggering” posts. I may not need any other labels. Hmmm.

  11. Also a new maintainer here – maintaining a 80lb+ loss for about 2 years (and experiencing the fun of gaining a controlled amount during pregnancy).

    I think your descriptions of maintenance are spot on. There’s definitely some variation: for some people, the maintaining feels like 90 hours per week of drudgery and no paid vacations, and for some, it’s a demanding but fulfilling job with lots of flex-time and free coffee. But either way, yeah, it’s more of a job than a few minor tweaks to your “lifestyle.”

    I love your downhill skiing metaphor. Losing weight is physically demanding, but doing so while maintaining your sanity and sense of perspective takes nothing short of a herculean effort. I think it’s important to keep in mind that being thinner doesn’t make you a better person…and that’s hard to remember when everyone around you – esecially well-intentioned friends and loved ones – do their utmost to convince you otherwise (though they never use those exact words).

    It’s also hard to keep in mind that although it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to devote hours a day to exercise, cooking healthy foods, planning meals, and researching nutrition (and sorting through the seemingly endless supply of contradictory findings), it would ALSO be a legitimate choice to devote that time to other pursuits.

    I was excited to see that a blog like this existed in the first place. A lot of the weight maintenance blogs out there are entertaining, informative, enthusiastic, etc. Sometimes reading them picks up my mood on a day when I really don’t feel like going to my “second job.” But it’s hard not to feel a little out of place reading them, when I agree with so much of what is said at size acceptance blogs, too. This blog more closely reflects my own feelings about maintenance. I’m looking forward to reading more of what you have to say!

  12. @NewMe: I know what you mean by the sadomasochistic bloggers who need to hate obese people in order to motivate themselves to continue losing. Almost as disconcerting to me are the bloggers who sail through weight loss, seemingly without a care in the world (slight hyperbole here), then slowly start to “slip” and “struggle” and finally begin regaining after maintaining for some time. THEN they too begin to flog themselves and question their own psychological fitness. Some of it makes me want to cry because they become like enemies to themselves. Finally, there are a few who do manage to maintain without much drama (I mean that in a caring way), but they fail to acknowledge the unique support system which got them there, by which I mean their socially constructed privileges, everything from availability of health care, access to healthy foods (try eating well on food from donated sources!), access to psychological counselling, and/or access to safe environment in which to exercise. No, I want to tell them, just because YOU can do it doesn’t mean ANYONE can. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to hear that.

  13. Hi Debra,
    I just found your blog today from a link from a fat acceptance blog I also just discovered today. I am both really thrilled to have found you, as your words have validated feelings that I’ve had for years, but I’m also torn. I’m not “maintaining” but am, for the third time in this year alone, and at least the hundredth time over the course of my life, trying to lose weight again. Each time I’ve lost, whether I’ve lost ten pounds or 60 (my max, from three years ago), I’ve regained, and have blamed myself and felt shame and loathing. On top of that, I am a feminist, and the fat acceptance message strongly resonates with me. So my disgust at my own body makes me feel even worse. Anyway, I don’t know where I’m at, or where I’m going exactly, but I am really happy to have found your blog, as well as the one that brought me here,

  14. Margo, if you are otherwise healthy, then give the fat acceptance route a good try. Immerse yourself in the BFB archives. As to your health: Live joyfully most of the time, eat healthfully most of the time, exercise most days and treasure whatever body happens. With regard to those two in the middle, the healthy food and exercise, if I were you, I’d limit how much time and preoccupation I’d give them. I recommend eight to ten hours a week (even though I give 14 to 20, or more some weeks), Eight to ten hours are the “healthy living” equivalent of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, so that you may be a better participant in your own life, with your family and all with whom you have relationships. I, metaphorically, am wearing two or three oxygen masks, and I have that luxery because my life is otherwise pretty paired down and simple. I don’t recommend it for everyone — actually, I don’t recommend it for most people. When you’re visiting here, know that you are visiting outlier land. The 3% club. Think carefully before trying to join. I’ll hug you, welcome you, understand you (and even mentor you) if that’s your choice, but I’ll respect you if it’s not.

  15. Thank you so much, Debra.

  16. Debra,
    I found your blog, as many others have, through Big Fat Blog, and I love it. I’m a natural non-dieter, it’s been my own natural instinct long before I ever heard of HAES, I think it came from the typical harassment of being a fat child, and once I was on my own, with only a few excursions into low-carb attempts, I have not really dieted, and now do not at all. I did lose a lot of weight with the low-carb attempts, but of course it crept back on….very slowly, much slower than with other diets, but still, it’s a huge risk for little “gain” (ha ha, sorry).

    I wanted to especially thank you for realizing how difficult links can be for us colorblind people! I am that very rare colorblind female, and greatly appreciate that you considered us in your blog.

    Keep writing, you are affirming different things for different people and it’s all working!

  17. Thanks, Elizabeth. Glad to have you reading. Don’t let me trigger you!

  18. As a fat acceptor for several decades, I don’t personally find your last paragraph triggering. That could be because I haven’t dieted since high school. I lost about 25 pounds and still remember how awful I felt doing so, and how I absolutely hated the way people treated me because of it.
    Your final paragraph, if anything, made me feel affirmed. Weight loss is a miserable job, ditto for maintaining that loss. You are very honest about that job description in a way that few people are and I commend you. You don’t proselytize. I look forward to reading about your adventures in the same way I might read about some Olympic athlete, or a fakir who lives at the top of a tree for X number of years. That is to say, it’s interesting but not something I’m tempted to do.

  19. Look forward to seeing you around, Mulberry. You’re stronger than many in SA. You come by way of BFB, no?

  20. Yes, I am here by way of BFB. Don’t know about stronger – if I were, I’d be more outspoken in real life – but thank you for saying so.
    Maybe people did treat me better (or thought they did) when I lost weight, but it felt for all the world as if I were being mocked. I also felt rather ashamed for knuckling under societal dictates, as if I were kissing someone’s dirty ass in exchange for not being kicked in my own.
    The above is not meant to be in the least critical of someone else’s choices in this regard – you do what you have to in order to survive – it’s just my own personal feeling. It’s ultimately for you to decide if the rewards are worth the misery. I’m just explaining why I’m not inclined to diet for weight loss.

  21. I appreciate honest talk. Question: can you sense when someone is marginalizing your thoughts because of your weight v. your sex? I ask this because I have considered posting on it. When I was fat, I could tell. Now, I’m marginalized for being a woman, for being over a certain age, possibly for being blond. It’s hard to tell. When I was fat, I could just sense when that was why I might be running into condescension v. the other ways a jerk might write me off.

  22. If I’m being marginalized, I usually can’t tell why. I’ve always been fat, so I assume it’s mostly that, but there could be age and gender bias thrown in the mix. And how do you measure these things if more than one parameter has changed? You’ve lost a lot of weight, but you’ve also aged; does your perceived status go up, down, sideways? I’d love to read your opinions on this subject.

  23. It’ll be a while. I have other opinions that are more well formed to post. But that thread is ruminating on a back burner.

  24. Marginalization: an interesting topic. I have never been excessively overweight, but I am extremely short (well under 5′ but normally proportioned). I have definitely felt marginalized due to the combination of being a woman and being short. Add to that the fact that I am over 50 and the only thing left that makes me part of the mainstream is my European heritage. I hope that no one takes this to mean that I am a white supremacist–perish the thought! But I know that my life would be much tougher if, in addition to everything else, I were not white. Oh, and BTW, I’m not Christian, something which makes little difference in Canada, but seems to be of greater importance in the US…

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