“If You Want to Lose Weight, You Will.”

fresh-vegetablesJean Nidetch, the founder of Weight Watchers, died on April 29, at the age of 91. In 1962, after a lifetime of struggling with her weight, she picked up a copy of a diet from the New York City Board of Health and gave it a try. After losing 20 pounds, she invited a few friends over to tell them about it. After losing 72 pounds and meeting her goal, she officially opened Weight Watchers in May 1963.

When I was in my mid-20s, I decided to get serious about weight loss and exercise. I began a self-made exercise program of running and biking for miles each evening and ate a self-determined low-calorie diet. After losing ten pounds, I felt proud of myself and dreamed of a future where clothes fit and young men sought my company. Then the needle on the scale came to an abrupt halt.

Weeks went by as I cut more and more foods from my diet, trying to get that needle to budge. I was irate that my steadfast resolve was no longer showing results. Out of desperation, I called Weight Watchers. They encouraged me to attend a meeting, and though I was doubtful, I went. I was amazed to find out I didn’t have to starve to lose weight. I could eat bread, cheese and lots of other things, but in moderation. I spent the rest of the summer making myself beautiful meals and exclaiming to anyone who would listen, “Can you believe I’m on a diet, and I can eat all of this?” Weight Watchers taught me about maintaining a balanced diet and making wise food choices. I owe that to Jean Nidetch.

Look Around You
“If you want to lose weight, you will,” stated Nidetch very simply. How often do we say we want to lose weight but simultaneously do nothing about it? Or we look at someone enviously thinking, “I wish I looked like that.” It’s as if we expect some sort of a miracle to happen without any effort on our parts. But if you study the thinner people around you, you will see that they are doing things daily to manage their weight. If their muscles are toned, you know they exercise regularly. If their skin is clear and they have a healthy glow, they are probably drinking lots of water and getting well-balanced nutrition. It doesn’t happen magically. It takes work.

Nidetch learned similar things by studying the people around her and observing that thin people had different habits. In restaurants she saw that they put their forks down between bites, ate slowly, chewed thoroughly and enjoyed the company they kept rather than focusing on shoveling food into their mouths. I’ve noticed a similar effect in the checkout line at the grocery store: A slender person usually has a cartful of healthy fruits and vegetables, lean meats and unprocessed, high fiber foods. The weight-challenged person has cookies, sugary juices or soda and overly processed convenience foods.

Retrain Your Brain
If you want to look a certain way, it takes more than a single decision to “start a diet” or “get more exercise.” It is a series of decisions that occur throughout the day. When you think you are hungry, try to catch yourself. Pause, and make a conscious decision. Ask yourself: Am I bored? Am I thirsty? Am I tired? Do I want that food only because it’s there? Am I following the crowd? (When you get together with friends and have a drink because everyone else is having one, do you ever ask yourself if you really want that drink?)

I have read that the human brain develops paths that deepen as we make the same decision over and over. It is easier to follow the well-worn path of your thinking than it is to form a new path. This may be why we get more set in our ways as we age—because our brains go straight to the same conclusion without stopping to consider other options.

At each of these moments, there is an opportunity to make a small but important decision. It’s easy to forget your resolve and grab a cookie or drink that glass of wine. It’s much harder to remember you have a choice. You can grab some food as a quick fix, or you can distract yourself with a phone call to a friend. You can order a glass of wine or ask for seltzer with lemon. The more often you make the smart choice, the easier it becomes. (Don’t worry if your friends whine that you are “being good.” They are also admiring your resolve.)

If you want to change how you think about food, you have to actively work to trail-break a new path in your brain. The new path eventually becomes the chosen path, and your brain gets there more easily.

Jean Nidetch told her followers to put down your fork. “Let go of the instrument that made you fat,” she said. She also said that she used to eat her rewards. In the end, she said, “The reward is self-respect.”

Managing Comfort Foods

photo-18“Why do the things that are so bad for us make you feel the best?” moaned Thor, a wedding-cake-addicted nurse on HBO’s “Nurse Jackie.” Thor’s angst struck a chord with me. Is there a way to find comfort without relying on your favorite comfort food?

When I was a teenager attending Weight Watchers meetings, my group leader talked about “red light” foods—the ones we shouldn’t have in the house because, once we begin, we can’t stop eating them. Weight Watchers was much more restrictive in those days, and they had just announced that peanut butter had been added to the “allowed” foods list.

I remember how excited my fellow weight-watchers were, but very soon they were also complaining: “There is no way anyone can stop at one tablespoonful,” they said. And so, we learned about red light and green light foods. Green light foods are the ones you can eat all day without gaining an ounce: Think, “lettuce, carrots and broccoli.” I don’t have to tell you about the red light foods—you know yours!

How do we handle these red light foods? If you live alone, you can probably keep them out of the house altogether. But if your non-weight-challenged spouse loves ice cream, and your skinny, active kids love Yodels, what do you do?

My red light food is sugar. I adore sugar! When I eat it, I can’t get enough of it. I wake up the next morning, and my very first thought is, “What can I eat today that is sweet, and where will I find it?” My solution is to treat sugar as if it were a drug. To me, it is a drug. When I allow it into my life, it takes over. I drew the line last September, and I stopped eating sweets. I know if I have the slightest taste, I will fall off the wagon with such a thud, the pain will last a long time. And the pain of my tightening waistband will make me feel worse.

I find it hard to think of living the rest of my life without ice cream or my favorite Hershey Easter eggs (which I buy in bulk when they are available). I haven’t stopped thinking about sweets (yet). To compensate, I push them on my husband and enjoy them vicariously. Watching him consume two pieces of chocolate and calling it quits (“I’ve had enough.”) both inspires and maddens me. How do people do that?! It doesn’t surprise me that people who can do that don’t have a weight problem.

I think there is some sort of a trigger switch within us. While I tend to have the switch locked in the “on” position, I think the solution to moderation is to learn how to turn the switch on and off at will. I know the answer is not etching a line in stone about a particular food group, but for me, that works the best while I continue my search for how to use my on/off switch efficiently.

Geneen Roth has stayed at her natural weight for a few decades. She’d had a major weight problem in her youth, and now she coaches people on how to manage theirs by changing their relationship with food and life. She insists that “no change will happen without consistent effort over time…. As you develop new ways of being with food, they eventually replace the old ways. It doesn’t happen all at once.” Change isn’t an event, she says; it’s a process. The average time to break a habit may be 66 days, but for some people it may take as long as 254 days.

In Ms. Roth’s article “Transformation 101” (Good Housekeeping magazine, April 2010), she discusses the failure of sticking to a diet and how we then agonize over that failure. Focusing on the failure makes you an expert on failure rather than a champion of change. Instead she made it a habit to tell herself each day that change was possible while she recorded what she ate, ate only when she was hungry and paid attention to her feelings before and after she ate.

By repeating the same new behaviors each day, her brain was able to develop new pathways and new habits. She recommends that you “focus on a positive vision of yourself and decide on specific food-related actions you can take (ones that don’t involve punishment, shame or guilt) to enact that vision.” I think her approach and attitude are exceptional, and someday I hope to attend one of her workshops. She’s written several books if you want to learn more.

I feel positive and proud of my abstinence from sweets. However I still think about sugar, so I must be one of those people who needs 254 days to change a lifetime habit. The good news is that I have already made it to Day 222! In 32 days, I should be cured! Yeah, right….

Winter Doldrums

x bbqWe’ve changed the clocks, but I expect we are still a long, long way from enjoying a backyard barbecue. If you live in the northeast as I do, you’ve experienced a very gray, excessively cold, snow-laden winter. Even when the sun shines, it’s easy to look out the front door and feel defeated by the five-foot snow banks that are everywhere. But instead of bundling up and heading outside, what do you do? Head for the refrigerator?

For me, comfort food takes on a life of its own at this time of year. For some reason I can get through the holidays without gaining, but I can’t get through February and March. Come April, I must force myself into dieting. But maybe that’s okay.

Cabin fever can take over as the winter drags on. It stalls any motivation I might have left and creates negative self-talk that further beats me down. I know what to do: Go to the gym, take a walk, eat a salad. The more I tell myself what the solution is, the more I also tell myself that I’m a failure for not doing it.

I recently read a magazine article* that cited: “Desire + Frustration = Obsession.” I immediately thought of my obsession with weight. Isn’t this exactly what we suffer? We desire to be something we are not (a certain weight or svelte shape), and we are frustrated by our inability to get there and stay there. This leads to obsession! If A + B = C, then doesn’t C – B = A (Obsession – Frustration = Desire)?

So, how do we lessen or eradicate our frustration and get what we desire? A few weeks ago, I decided to give myself a break. Rather than fighting my sluggish motivation, I accepted that February and March are not easy months for me. If I don’t want to put on three sweaters, a hat, boots and gloves just to go to the gym and take them all off, it’s okay. The more I told myself it was okay, a funny thing happened.

When I stopped reprimanding myself, I became more willing to go to the gym—and I did go, for the first time in months. And I liked it—it turned out to be a great way to stop shivering and get toasty, without increasing the home heating bill! I also hit the ski slopes. Skiing requires a massive dressing process, carrying lots of awkward stuff to and from the car and driving an hour each way (if you’re lucky) to a mountain. But once I got there, I rediscovered how much I love it, which made the effort worthwhile.

I can’t say I’m making a lot less trips to the fridge, but I am moving more, and I’m yelling at myself less. And that feels good. It may be that I’ve discovered how to lessen my frustration, by not being so hard on myself. Spring will come, and along with all the layers of clothing, we’ll probably have to shed a few unwanted pounds. But perhaps the solution is to relax and enjoy this amazing, surprising winter that is trumping every other story on the evening news.

Tune in a movie, sit on the couch, and heat up a bag of popcorn (94% fat-free, of course). When the show’s over, pack up your gym bag and head to the gym, or find your sunglasses, breathe in some crisp fresh air, and take a walk. Live for the moment, and stop yelling at yourself! When you eliminate your frustrations, you are likely to smile and enjoy more, and if that isn’t good for your weight, it is certainly good for your psyche!


*To give credit where it is due: Kevin West’s article “Love in a Jar” appeared in Martha Stewart Living in June 2013. His obsession was to recreate his gran’s jam. (FYI: I am always years behind on my magazine-reading, so you can count on me to quote more out-of-date articles in the future.)

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Resolution vs Habit

champagne-02We are three weeks into the new year, a time when most new year’s resolutions are waning. Did you make one this year, and how is it going?

On average it takes 66 days to establish a new habit, depending on how difficult your task is. Studies show that changing a habit is good for your brain, because it forces it to work differently. Some habits become part of you, such as taking the same route to work each day; others seem to require daily resolve. For example, I floss my teeth every night (well, almost every night), and I’ve been doing that for more than a year. In reality, I have established the habit of remembering to floss, but each night I still have to resolve to take action to get it done.

Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing–that’s why we recommend it daily.” Okay, that may sound silly, but the truth is that nothing is going to change without continual work and effort. Accepting that fate may be the key to understanding and fighting our food demons.

In Mika Brzezinski’s book, “Obsessed,” she claims that obsession and constant vigilance over food will forever be a part of her. It is something she is learning to live with. Her co-author friend, Diane, laments, “Dieting is the most active sport I have ever engaged in. If practice made perfect, I’d be as thin as a ghost.”

I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to live by hard-and-fast rules, more so than mushy self-promises to do better. Rules relieve me of having to make a decision every time I am faced with temptation. It works great until I break the rule, and then all my resolve flies out the window! Then I berate myself until I can establish a new rule to live by. All that negative self-talk cannot be mentally healthy! Is the trick to never break the rule, or is it to allow ourselves some slack to break it very occasionally? And if we do cut ourselves some slack, do we need a second rule to govern how much?

In my adult life, I have managed to have fairly good control over my weight–though most people don’t realize I go up and down 15 pounds every few years. While I have changed lots of eating habits permanently, I have certainly not eradicated my obsession with food and diet, which is probably the source of the aforementioned weight swing. Those crazy signals to eat, just because something is there or because I can get away with it, are my daily struggle. There must be a way to retrain our brains to treat food differently. Wouldn’t it be great to be free of the obsession?

So, which is it? Do we need more resolve, or is it a matter of developing new habits?

My Scale and Me


photo-14My scale and I are about the same vintage. The scale is the color of a 1950s pink bathroom. Its small, clouded plastic window is cracked, it perpetually registers 4 pounds light, and at some point I tried to mask its pinkness with blue-and-white contact paper. I’ve considered buying a sleek, new digital scale that will weigh me to the very ounce. But my memory of every major life event is accompanied by a 3-digit number, indelibly etched in my mind, from this particular scale. More accurate readings, reported at the doctor’s office or a Weight Watchers meeting, are a mythical blip on my radar–those numbers have no bearing on my reality: I measure my existence by the specific number shown on my old, pink scale. Do you remember your life by the number on your scale? Is that good or bad?

My old scale has been both enemy and friend for a lifetime. When it gives me good news, I smile, maybe even gloat. When it gives me bad news, I get angry and want to throw in the towel on good eating. Often I avoid getting on it, because I know a “bad” number will affect me for the rest of the day, especially when I was expecting a “good” number.

Always tall for my age, I don’t remember weighing less than 100 pounds. Kids are curious; asking another kid how much she weighs was part of the usual playground banter. When my weight exceeded 100 pounds, I didn’t like the surprised responses I received. I wasn’t fat, but I was a head taller than my much-less-than-1oo-pound school chums. I quickly learned to be embarrassed by my weight. Why is it that the number itself matters so much?

While home from college one summer, I made a bet with my father based on my scale. If I got that scale to say 135, he’d send me back to college with my own car. I got it in writing and wrote up a contract which Dad dutifully, and hopefully, signed. I dreamed of a vanity license plate showing my 3 initials and the number 135. For a few weeks, I diligently dieted. But I quickly became bored and went back to my old habits. By the end of summer, little progress had been made. I still dream about that license plate! And I still don’t weigh 135! Shall I keep trying or is that number mythical, too? Is it possible our bodies are meant to be a certain weight, even if we don’t agree with the number?

Does your scale play a central role in your life? Tell me about your scale or your feelings and memories about the number on it. Does a bad reading make you go off the deep end? Does a good reading put a bounce in your step?____________________________________________________________

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