I’ve been on one successful diet in my life. I’ve also been obese, apart from that dieting stint, since I was about 13. Being fat does suck. It makes your life more difficult, and is extremely damaging to your sense of self-confidence and motivation.
Even in America, where the “it’s not what’s on the outside” mantra was pummeled into us as children, it is still very apparent that being obese is considered a bad thing. And that is in part because major health issues that can be drawn back to consumption habits – heart disease, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, kidney or liver failure – have been found time and again to occur at a higher rate in obese individuals.
Not only are obese people more likely to suffer from these sorts of health problems as they advance in age, they’re also much more prone to experiencing an increased rate of general physical deterioration, brought on by excessive weight and / or poor diet. People who are obese age more quickly and die younger. Obesity has also brought about a wider culture in the US that accepts or even celebrates excess indulgence in food and drink, a trend that food and beverage corporations have been all too happy to exploit over the years. (Largely through the use of high fructose corn syrup and processed meat that have made packing caloric density into cheap, fast meals easier than ever.)
This has often led me to ask myself: Why am I fat? If it’s so terrible and so harmful to me as an individual, why am I not terrified of the consequences? Well, you could probably ask the same of any obese person, and the answer would likely boil down to this: we like food. Or soda. Or candy. Or beer. Food is comforting – it makes us feel better. Our brains exhibit a highly positive, encouraging response when presented with foods or drinks we greatly enjoy. This obviously doesn’t explain everyone’s obesity (there can be severe and difficult-to-treat underlying medical conditions that cause obesity), but it does in many cases – like mine.
But doesn’t everyone experience this? Well, yes, to an extent. But not always to the same degree, or for the same root reasons.
It wasn’t until my teen years – often an age where food consumption increases quite a bit anyway to spur growth – that I started turning toward food to ease the extreme emotional burdens of social life (or lack thereof), acne, and my responsibilities as a student. It was a perfect storm of factors. Eventually, it simply became a habit. Much like playing video games or watching TV, food became something to do to distract myself from the emotional rigors of my daily life. I hated being a teenager – and I look back on that time of my life with little fondness. My life was not terrible, but I certainly wasn’t happy. Food was a comforting addiction to cope with that, even though it was also contributing to the problem.
Even as I became more comfortable in my skin during high school, I got fatter. I don’t know exactly where or when I peaked – I would guess around freshman year of college – but I was a little fatter than I am now. I also wore it like a younger person – more in my face and neck than I do today (now is much more in the gut, hooray).
I don’t remember when or why exactly I made the decision to lose weight. After freshman year of college, I felt a little less socially awkward, but I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I was frustrated. I’m sort of an angry person sometimes, and I do try to put that to effective use, and that’s what I did. I remember being so upset that I was fat, so infuriated at myself that I had let it happen to me, and that it was all my fault.
I began to research in earnest about daily calorie burn figures, and devised a plan that is similar to what most family doctors would recommend: calorie counting. I limited myself strictly to 1500 calories per day, which is on the low side for a male in their early 20’s, but by no means dangerous for someone who is obese (it might be a little dangerous if, say, I weighed 130lbs – something I absolutely do not anticipate ever being as a 6’1” male). I tracked my caloric intake religiously. I would never give myself the benefit of the doubt on foods where I could not get an exact count, and wrote off dinners where I couldn’t find or accurately estimate calories as 2000 calorie days, or more if I felt particularly guilty. I calculated my weight loss over time, and it actually matched up to reality pretty well.
Let me be the first to tell you: it’s pretty fucking hard to do this. It takes an insane amount of focus and dedication, and the ability to deny yourself when your mind is screaming at you to just eat a little more. The first two weeks were, frankly, torturous at times. I don’t recall if I “broke” during those fourteen days when I started. I probably did, once or twice. Most fit people (or those who just have ultra-robust metabolism) simply don’t understand the lengths to which your mind will go to convince you that you need more. It is what I imagine an alcoholic or a heroin addict goes through very early on in the withdrawal process, waiting between fixes. Of course, that’s also as bad as things get when it comes to hunger, though – you’re not going to go into a flop sweat, hallucinate, and start convulsing on the floor from having a case of the munchies (or your body telling you that you are), it’s just… uncomfortable.
The initial shock was probably made worse because I, as a result of being a broke and lazy college student, chose extremely high-protein, calorie-dense foods that were even less likely to provide a feeling of fullness. Canned chili and dairy-free soups – foods with few or no simple carbohydrates. Our bodies exhibit a much more marked emotional and physiological response to simple carbs, producing (allegedly) dopamine and serotonin in our brains, and a shot of insulin in anticipation of an increased blood glucose level. The foods I ate did not regularly produce this response. I think this helped me lower my emotional attachment to food significantly. The first two weeks were hell, the second two merely difficult. After that, my stomach shrank and my mindset changed, and dieting became much easier.
About 9 months into this routine (with more and more lenience in my diet as I lost more weight, actually), I had lost around 65lbs. Now, I know some people will say “it’s not healthy to lose so much weight so quickly without a lot of exercise involved,” but really, I didn’t give a fuck – I had gotten so far, made so much progress. A big help came from 6 weeks of archaeological field school, where I was able to eat more, but also did intense manual labor for 4-6 hours every single day. My metabolism got a boost, I’m sure. I was the happiest and healthiest-feeling I’ve ever been. Really. I was buying nice clothes in normal sizes, being social, and enjoying my life so much more.
By late in senior year of college, I had gained back maybe 25-30lbs. I put the onus here largely on beer, not food (well, maybe a few late Friday night post-bar Jack In The Box runs). I had turned 21, and my love of craft brews went straight to my gut. But by the time I left undergrad, I was ready to start turning it around again. And then I went to law school, and my plans were utterly derailed. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. I hated it. I met some nice people, but it wasn’t the right professional culture for me. I know for a fact now that I would despise being a lawyer. So, I drank beer and ate fattening foods to cope with the stress. I got fatter.
I’ve been away from school one year now, and at this point I have basically gained back all the weight I lost in college. It is extremely aggravating. But about 2 weeks ago, I resolved to start again on my 1500 calorie routine. In part, because I was involved in a rather jarring car accident back in January that injured my back. I’ve been told several times by my doctors that I risk aggravating any long term effects of my injuries, and the health of my back in general, by maintaining my current weight. It was a good enough reason for me.
I’ve been pretty good – not perfect – but good enough that I feel confident about what I’m doing. I feel more positive with each day I can say I achieved what I set out to. And while I’ve had two previous false starts in the last couple years, this is by far the most successful one yet. I also know a lot more about what to avoid post-diet, and anticipate (hopefully) a lower-stress environment in which to re-acclimate to normal levels of food consumption when I reach a point I am happy with.
So, why am I telling all of you? Well, because I’d be a liar to at least several dozen people who read part of this (let’s face it, it’s long) if I was still as fat as I am today 6 months from now. I’m not going to post a bunch of updates (that seems weird to me), but I’m going to look back at this during trying times, and I’m going to think about what I said. Just knowing I put it out there will strengthen my resolve – so thanks for reading.