Being overweight is hard work

We are always told it’s hard to lose weight. But consider how hard it is to gain and maintain weight.

Sometimes we hear about actors gaining weight for a role, and how difficult they find it.

Think about it: your body consumes energy just by being alive. And the heavier you are, the more energy it consumes.

If you’re overweight you’re already going to a lot of effort, time, and expense obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.

It takes energy to eat! It takes energy to digest. It takes energy to convert excess energy into fat. And it takes energy to carry around that stored energy in your body.

Your body has to work hard to eat, digest, and excrete. Being overweight takes hard work.

And it takes dedication too. You can’t simply eat a lot one day and then gain weight. You have to eat consistently. You need your average intake to be consistently high.

Think about how much time and effort it takes each day to maintain your weight. Wouldn’t it be easier not to? To give your body a break, let it wind down. Give it space to relax and be free from the high-intensity processing of food for a while.

Okay, this one idea isn’t going to change your eating habits, but there’s some truth to it, and it’s worth playing with fresh perspectives to shift your established patterns and habits of thought.

It really does take a lot to become and remain overweight.

Weight loss: connecting the dots

The basics of weight gain and loss are simple. I eat an average daily amount of food. If it’s more than I physically need, I gain weight. If it’s less, I lose weight. If it’s equivalent I maintain weight.

Since I’m currently overweight, that average daily amount has been more than I need. I’ve been decreasing the amount I eat, and sure enough my weight is also slowly decreasing.

Some people adjust their food intake with ease, but others of us find it difficult. When I had been overweight for most of my adult life I found it extremely difficult to decrease the amount I was eating sustainably.

In the end what helped me (and became the subject of my book) was a personal approach informed by my work as a philosopher.

Approaching weight loss as a process of discovery and personal meaning helped me, because that’s where I find enjoyment.

I turned weight loss from an exercise in caloric restriction into a kind of personal philosophical experiment and adventure.

And that’s why it’s a bit different for me now. You can’t have the exact same adventure twice, not when you’ve changed and grown in the process.

I’m more patient now. I know it just takes time for my body to catch up to my changed eating pattern. I’m also less intense. I accept that I’m still eating for pleasure at specific times, and I’m aware that I am deluding myself a little when I have some late night snacks.

But what I love about my approach is that I can’t hide from my own awareness and insight. I’m aware that I’m still slightly overweight and that I don’t like being overweight. And I’m also aware that when I snack I am ignoring those feelings temporarily.

This higher level consciousness grows over time and repeated experiences. There’s only so many times I can keep repeating the same actions and having the same unwanted outcome.

It’s just that I haven’t mindfully connected the dots between the brief sensation and distraction of the late night snack and the continued unwanted experience of being overweight.

But something has to give. If I’m really genuinely tired of being overweight and miss how my body feels when I’m in the normal range of BMI…I’ll bring that focus and feeling to mind next time I’m tempted to snack.

Exercise for pleasure and distraction

Finding things to replace overeating as your primary source of pleasure and escape is not immediately easy.

I’m drinking more coffee, but coffee is a hobby for me, not just consumption. What else can I do?

It will probably end up being a combination, a variety of different things. And some of those things might stretch and challenge your idea of what constitutes pleasure and enjoyment.

It’s a bit like the cliché of a drug addict whose whole life revolves around their next hit. When they eventually get off the drug it’s not as though any single other thing replaces it. They replace the drug with a life.

So think outside the box.

One unexpected source of enjoyment might be exercise. Going for a walk when you’d usually eat, doing a couple of sit-ups, moving your body in a different way…

Exercise can be enjoyable. Doing something different can be enjoyable. Variety itself is enjoyable.

So if you’re struggling to find something more enjoyable than eating, try finding four things that are less enjoyable on their own, but enough to liven your life and get you exploring possibilities.

And isn’t it also enjoyable to find new ways of changing your long-term eating habits? Even if something doesn’t seem enjoyable in its own right, it can become enjoyable when it serves a greater purpose.

When failure is not a setback

Valentine’s day, and with a new baby we celebrated at home with an assortment of nice foods: cheeses, pâté, dips, and so on.

I ate more than I think I should have, and I’m regretful for not adhering to my diet. I’m still overweight of course, but while eating I “forgot” and just enjoyed the food, with the excuse of it being a special occasion.

I remember this happening last time. I mentioned in my book that I came up with one simple rule to follow…and immediately broke it.

I broke it many times back then. And that doesn’t sound good. I don’t feel good about failing to follow my rule now either.

And yet failure is not a setback. Observing myself honestly during this failure reinforces the lessons I’m learning.

Because now I can see for myself that yes, I did enjoy the food, but that enjoyment was so brief and fleeting and now I feel bored and empty.

I feel physically full, and it doesn’t feel good. I don’t need the energy for anything, so why did I eat that much? I enjoyed the food but surely there’s more for me to enjoy?

Failure is not a setback because it only demonstrates the truth of our situation. You can break the rules as often as you like, but it will only provide more evidence that overeating is a very meagre short-term source of happiness.

Just-a-taste strategy

I skip breakfast because I can’t stand the thought of it in the mornings.

I skip lunch because I don’t need it, and I’ve found that if I do eat some lunch I don’t need any dinner.

I cook dinner for my wife and kids most nights, and I tend to enjoy it more when I’m a little hungry myself!

So that leaves dinner as my main meal. We all sit down together and eat the food I’ve prepared.

But now that I’m mindful of not overeating, what should I do if I find I can keep going without eating?

I’ve tried skipping dinner but that doesn’t seem right. The point of this diet is to find balance and there’s nothing balanced about fasting.

Even intermittent fasting is too arbitrary for my preference.

No, for me the solution is to eat some dinner. Try some of the delicious food I’ve made and share this time together with my family….but do so with a ridiculously small portion.

If I’ve made pizza, taste just enough to appreciate the flavour and the texture. It doesn’t take much at all. If I’ve made pasta, a spoonful of the sauce would be enough.

If this sounds too severe, that’s fine. But for me it doesn’t make sense to eat a large portion of food just for the enjoyment. If you can enjoy a tiny amount you will savour it more. Repeat performances in the form of larger servings take us back into “eating for pleasure” territory.

So in the name of balance my solution is to eat just enough to sample the food and join with my family in eating it, but nowhere near enough to turn it into a pleasure-seeking activity through overeating.

It is not easy at first. But the whole point is to bring our eating habits and bodyweight back into balance. That can’t be accomplished if we are, while overweight, allowing ourselves to overeat for the sake of pleasure.

I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. However tantalising the food may be, I am placing greater value on finding a more enriching life that does not depend so heavily on the pleasure of eating.

To look at it from a different perspective: what pleasures and joys and fulfilment have I neglected to find in my life, preferring instead the more easily accessible pleasure of eating to excess? What needs have gone unmet or unacknowledged because I have found immediate distraction in large quantities of tasty food?

That’s a question I can’t begin to answer on a full stomach.

Addiction as self-medication

My approach to diet involves recognising that I tend to overeat for two reasons: insufficient sources of pleasure and enjoyment in life, and as an escape from negative emotions.

In my case, what I thought was hunger was actually an impulse to distract myself from negative emotions.

The causes of negative emotion are different for all of us. That’s why I urge people to consider professional help and mental health support.

Like other forms of “addiction”, overeating can be a way of soothing and distracting from negative emotions. Studies into obesity have shown that for many, both the overeating and the weight gain can provide an unconscious solution to the problem of traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, and assault.

That’s why conventional diets don’t work for everyone. There’s an inner, often unconscious, struggle between the desire to lose weight for health and aesthetic and social reasons, and the desire to escape from very painful emotions or memories.

Have some compassion for yourself in this process. First, because you may be seeking to change behaviours that have been in place for years or decades. Second, because although self-medication with food or other substances tends to have negative side-effects in the long term, it’s also typically a case of doing the best we can under very difficult circumstances.

All things being equal, I doubt anyone prefers to be overweight. But all things are not equal. We work them out piece by piece over time, and compassion and understanding are not only deserved but essential.

When do you “need” to eat?

I ate very little yesterday and this morning only had a coffee. By 10AM I was feeling lightheaded and dizzy – a common side-effect of fasting.

When I first developed my diet, lightheadedness was a sign that I needed to eat something to keep going.

But since then my circumstances have changed quite a bit, and I’ve changed too. So when I started to feel dizzy I didn’t immediately eat something.

Tiredness and fatigue are not purely physical. My mood has improved a lot in the past year, and I no longer feel as fatigued as I used to. Plus my life is far more active and busy than it was back then

What I’m getting at is that my circumstances, and my subjective sense of needing to eat something to keep going have both changed. I need to recalibrate.

This morning I decided to eat something because I was worried about driving while feeling dizzy.

It worked. The dizziness went away and I kept going, taking a trip to the beach with my daughter.

It will take more time for me to fine-tune this sense of when I need to eat.

In the meantime I decided to eat a small serving of dinner tonight with my family. My reasoning is that – as I mention in my book – eating serves a communal, social purpose. Also, it was never my intention to eat as little as possible or to fast to the point of dizziness.

Besides, when I first worked out this approach to diet I was much more overweight, on the verge of obese. This time around I’m only slightly overweight, and the difference between what I need to eat and how much I’ve been overeating is less stark.

The factors may be innumerable, but that’s why I love the approach of working things out myself, with both generalisable principles and personal circumstances in mind.

Do you need to eat to feel better?

I’ve just made two delicious pizzas for my family, but there’s a problem: I don’t need to eat anything to keep going right now.

So these delicious, hot, wonderful pizzas…I’m not ready to eat them.

I’m not thrilled about this, but if I want to get into the normal BMI range I shouldn’t overeat, and by my definition eating when I can otherwise keep going is overeating.

They smell really good…

But what’s actually so bad about this situation? The food smells good. It probably tastes good. It would be pleasant to eat it.

So what?

Am I so lacking pleasures in life that I would rather ignore my body’s guidance than find something else to do?

Am I trying to hide from feelings of boredom, loneliness or dissatisfaction by gorging on tasty food?

Or do I feel like I’ve been on duty all day and dinner is supposed to be my time to relax!

I think that’s a big part of it. It’s not so much the food but the context. The time of day, the lull in activities, the proximity to bedtime for the kids and me, the promise of winding down.

But there’s something funny about that: if I look forward to the evening “wind down”, I’m implicitly excusing being wound up in the rest of the time.

I don’t like being wound up and tense and on high alert. Having the wind-down time seems like a reprieve…but wouldn’t it be better not to get so tense in the first place?

Maybe taking away the solace and comfortable escape of overeating at dinner time will help me find a way to stay chilled all the time?

I’m going to give it a try, because I respect my approach to diet and the signals my body is giving me. If I don’t need more food to keep going, then I won’t eat more food.

I already feel clearer with this decision and the stress of losing the escapist comfort is fading. I don’t need to eat to feel better.

What motivates your diet?

About three weeks ago my BMI was 26.59. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.

Today my BMI is 25.68. I’ve been focusing on my eating habits and motives for about ten days, and from past experience I’d expect to refine my process more over the coming week.

I won’t put a timetable on it, but while I’m preoccupied with my own motives and sensations around eating, I’m eating more to keep going with other aspects of life and less for escapism and pleasure and therefore it won’t be long before I’m back in the normal range for BMI.

Where I go from there is an open question. I tend not to focus on weight or aesthetic goals, because I really like the idea of seeing how my body and mind respond to a balanced and…let’s say philosophically satisfying…approach to eating.

If I eat only to give me the energy I need to keep going, what will I look and feel like? Not just because I’m consuming fewer calories but because I’m no longer using food to manage my emotional state. I’ve walked that path before, but I have to admit I’ve never gone right to the end.

To me that is an exciting and intriguing question. I’m curious to see what happens. Will I have to make myself eat more to have enough energy? Will I become someone who forgets to eat because I’m so engrossed in other activities? Will I find even more refined and satisfying sources of pleasure and fulfilment?

These questions are, for me at least, far more motivating than weight-loss goals and physical aesthetics these days.

Dieting: be strict or be honest?

Most diets depend on being strict with ourselves, fighting our own hunger, habits, and cravings to get weight down.

Many of them offer gimmicks, support, or reframing of the problem to help us win that fight.

My approach is more about being honest with ourselves as to why we are eating, connecting the dots between our bodyweight and our relationship with food.

There are lots of aspects to it, but the core of the diet is simple: if you regularly eat more than you need to keep going, you will gain/maintain your weight.

If you understand what’s going on and become mindful of your own motivations and your body’s signals, it becomes increasingly difficult to overeat. Not impossible, but very difficult.

You’re able to tell the difference between actual hunger and cravings, boredom, escapism; you’re able to recognise the negative emotions behind cravings; and even if you “fail” and overeat, it gives you an opportunity to fine-tune and observe the whole dynamic with awareness of what’s really going on in your mind and body.

I ate a big bowl of leftover noodles last night for dinner. And my body was telling me “woah! This is way too much!” It wouldn’t have felt that way a week ago.

And sure enough, three quarters of the way through I felt an unfamiliar feeling of my stomach stretching. I was pushing my limits and after finishing I felt more full than I can remember in a long time.

That might sound like a failure, and yeah it’s counter to my desire to lose weight. But I’m not making excuses to myself for it. I’m aware of what was going on in my mind and body at the time, and my natural conclusion is “boy, that wasn’t worth it!”

If your diet depends on being strict with arbitrary serving sizes, these “transgressions” are just as arbitrary and therefore easy to excuse and forgive or ignore.

But because my diet depends on a more honest and mindful relationship with my own body’s signals, when I eat too much my body shows me exactly what’s going on, and I cannot help but learn a lesson from it.