Oh I had such a good question from Diane at iVillage yesterday. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Which is funny, considering the question.
She wondered whether keeping a journal every day, keeping stats, writing it all down, might not lead to an unhealthy obsession with weight loss and fitness.
I love that question. And she’s right to ask it, because obsessing on this one aspect of your life can not only thrust your life out of balance, but also make you a very boring party conversationalist.
As usual, when I try to think about this simple question, my head runs in at least three directions. One, I think if you’re morbidly obese, obsessiveness about getting the weight off is not a bad thing. Two, you may be accused of having an obsession by people who are uncomfortable with your success. Three, when people ask about obsession, they are usually wondering or worrying to some degree about eating disorders. Eating disorders are a different kind of problem, whose symptoms include excessive dieting, purging, and exercise. These disorders are not usually found in morbidly obese people, but in already average-weight men and women who use dieting and exercise very differently and for different reasons than do people who are obese and working hard to lose the weight.
’nuff said about number three. I’m more interested today in a-one and a-two.
One: Obsessive Dieting and Exercising Among the Morbidly Obese
I learned this: It takes an enormous amount of focus to lose 50-100-200 lbs. or more. Many of us can rustle up plenty of willpower for a couple of weeks. Willpower is a good thing to have and to be able to summon, but a sustained weight loss and fitness program, an effort to build new habits and rearrange your life to make room for those new habits? That takes relentless focus, prioritization. When you decide, as a morbidly obese person, that you’re going to change your body and your health, now and forever, you have decided that, for a solid year or more, you will put yourself in a new world.
You’re leaving your comfortable life, and entering one with lots of new experiences, new foods, new feelings, new environments, and workout clothes made with lycra. It’s crazy stuff. There’s so much to learn. And it’s hard to be on a constant path of learning, especially if you’re over 20. You want to just relax, take a break. You’d like to return to eating Oreos in front of the TV at 11p.m. Your friends want to go out for pizza. The kids want ice cream. You’d rather sleep in than go to the gym. You’d rather eat frozen pizza rolls than go to the grocery store for baby spinach.
Focus. Focus. Focus. It’s easy to have it at the beginning of a weight loss program, and so easy to lose it after the first 4-5 weeks. Certainly it’s easy to lose it once you hit a plateau.
So finding support online, writing in your journal, meeting with people once a week to talk about it, working out at the gym 3-6 days a week, is that obsessive? Maybe. But if you need it, you need it. This is your one life and your one body. If you obsess on this for a year or two? And in return you extend your life by 10 to 20 years, and make every day a more comfortable and pleasant experience, sleep better, feel better, have more energy for the stuff you want to do? Avoid irreparable damage to your joints? I’m not sure obsession is so bad in this case.
Two: Friends and Family Want to Know: Are you Obsessing?
This is more amusing than anything else. Are you getting too skinny? Are you going to be able to maintain this? Are you sure you’re going have time for this? You’re not going to get anorexic on us now, are you? Are you STILL losing weight?
Note to friends: I’m 5’7″ tall, and my weight has traveled between 147 and 154 (back and forth, back and forth, and I’m at that high point as I write this) for the past 15 months, when I reached my goal. I have a medium frame. Depending on what medical chart you choose, that puts me at either the very highest weight, or slightly overweight for my height and age, 42. I weigh at least 5 lbs. more than I did when I married.
And I receive at least 3 suggestions per week that I might be too thin, might have taken this diet thing too far. I had better stop now. These comments have been coming all year. The comments come from surprising places, and usually from people I see rarely.
I think these folks really do have the best intentions when they ask. They want me to be healthy and happy. They carry around an image of me in their heads that looks like the old me, and are startled every time they see me. It will take a few years for them to change that snapshot in their minds. Coworkers and family who watched the weight disappear gradually, and especially those who knew me when I wasn’t heavy have an easier time of it.
The hardest folks to work with are those who are really kind of cranky with me for succeeding. Luckily, I have a friend I used to work with who lost a significant amount of weight a couple of years before I did. Watching the way people reacted to her weight loss helped me deal with this crankiness when it was my turn. People who had worked with and loved her for years, became suspicious of her success. A bizarre distancing revealed itself in many ways, from small snippy comments to outright hostility. It happens.
My theory is there are a lot of crazy messages out there for obese people, suggesting that dieting won’t work and really obese people might as well not try. Every success (and there are lots of successes, usually owing to dogged, consistent work) breaks down a wall somebody might be leaning on. No one likes to lose their footing. It’s common for me to receive the most alarmist comments from folks who have sort of given up on weight loss. These folks are sure I’m doomed to regain my weight and ruin my health from obsessive dieting and exercise. I used to be one of these people, and I know they’re not bad. They really believe what they’re telling me.
I don’t have advice for how to deal with these folks, except to wait it out. Your new, wonderful, medical stats won’t impress them. Your diminishing prescription medicine costs won’t mollify them. I think, in fact, what they are going through will look a lot like classic mourning steps. With this friend who lost weight before me, I noticed folks started out being cranky, but after awhile accepted her new body and life, and with time, they got over her success and were able to have a normal conversation with her again. It’ll come.
So. Is record keeping obsessive? Maybe. If keeping too close a tab on your numbers affects the way you feel about yourself, ease back, and track weight and measurements once a week or once a month. I do recommend you track what you eat, so you have a record of what foods agree with you and what foods don’t, and you do know how much you’re consuming. Do track your workouts, so you can look back after a month and see how far you’ve progressed. But mainly, do write down your observations about your weight loss successes and setbacks. This writing reveals so much, and helps you gain understanding about what you’ll need to keep your focus, keep moving ahead.