My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

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Dieting retrospective

In January I wrote a couple of posts on dieting, in an attempt to make clear my own thoughts on losing weight and maintaining a healthy relationship with food.

Dieting Tips part 1 and part 2

Someone left an appreciative comment on part 2, so I thought I should post an update on how my idiosyncratic approach to dieting has fared in the nine months since I wrote those posts.

In short, it has been very successful. I’ve lost nearly 20 kgs, and I’ve found it easy to maintain my current weight.

The most effective part of the diet was to complete the link between how I felt about being overweight, and the eating behaviours that were making me overweight in the first place. It might sound a bit harsh, but if you feel miserable when you look in the mirror, hold onto that misery for the rest of the day and use it to diminish your appetite.

But it helps to do so with the conviction that if you eat less you will definitely lose weight. There are a lot of conflicting messages about obesity, including the idea that some people simply cannot lose weight, or that there are hormonal, genetic, psychological, environmental, and social causes for obesity that make attempts at weight loss futile.

Or how about this one: “I have a friend who eats more than I do, but they never put on weight!” The (weak) implication is that weight is therefore not directly related to food intake.

I countered these conflicting messages with the simple conclusion that regardless of how overweight people might be, if we starved to death we would all lose weight before we die.

We are all products of our biology, culture, family, society, and environment; but we are still free to change our behaviour, provided we can understand where things are going wrong, the cause and effect of our unwanted circumstances.

Before my diet, my motivations for eating were often compounded: I would eat at meal-times because of habit, I would eat snacks because of boredom, I would use the process of eating as a kind of escapism, I would seek the sensory feedback of a full stomach to distract from other negative feelings including dissatisfaction at being overweight.

Now my attitude to food at any given point in time is dominated by wanting to avoid the dissatisfaction of being overweight, and wanting to maintain the benefits of a healthy weight. But other motives have gradually accrued: new habits of not eating for most of the day, the feeling of an empty stomach as the new normal, avoiding the heaviness and distraction of being full of food.

In practical terms, I know that I need very little food to maintain my current weight, and for personal reasons I prefer to eat as little as possible until the end of the day. So in any given day I’ll most likely eat nothing until dinnertime.

I’ll eat more if I have a lot of work to do and need the energy. Sometimes I’ll eat more if there’s a celebration or party. There’s a lot of latitude when you know you can easily not eat for most of the following days.

I usually have one or two espresso coffees with milk, which is a kind of substitution for eating during the morning. I could probably do without them, but coffee and tea aren’t a big deal.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. I avoid eating when I’m not genuinely hungry, and I used my negative emotions about being overweight to help me achieve this new approach. I cut through uncertainty about the causes of being overweight by looking to the bottom line of food intake versus expenditure. And as I lost weight, it became easier to continue than to stop.

One final point: I didn’t chart the progression of weight loss, but subjectively it was very rapid. At the time I wondered whether there was some kind of psycho-physiological system at work – that by diminishing my appetite and strictly controlling my intake I had somehow ‘told’ my body to change how it was storing energy and processing food.

That’s highly speculative. It’s equally possible that the weight loss seemed rapid because I wasn’t keeping track of it, and because I knew that it was really just a symptom or outcome of the processes of escapist eating I have described in the earlier posts. In other words, I wasn’t dieting to lose weight. I was putting a stop to an escapist dynamic of which weight gain was the unwanted side-effect. It may have seemed rapid because my mind was elsewhere.

My diet isn’t perfect. Perhaps I would feel better if I ate breakfast and skipped dinner. Or ate smaller portions throughout the day. I’m guessing that the way I eat at present is the path of least resistance to diminishing overall intake. Perhaps the next challenge should be to vary the routine and see what benefits and limitations the changes bring?

Regardless, it’s good to have the psychological freedom to even consider changing the approach, because I know and understand the mechanism that drove my weight change in the first place.

 

Do you like being overweight?

Embed from Getty Images

Hopefully this will be the final in my series on dieting.

If you’ve followed it so far, you should appreciate the distinction between eating out of hunger and eating to gratify the appetite.

If you are overweight, then you are (all things being equal) eating excessively, and this excessive eating is motivated by the appetite, which demands gratification regardless of the physical and psychological consequences.

If you don’t like being overweight, if looking in the mirror fills you with dismay at how much excess weight you are carrying, then use that dissatisfaction to help you clarify your eating habits.

Each time you go to eat something – even if it be something healthy like a tomato or carrot – stop and check whether or not you are still overweight. If you are still overweight, are you still unhappy with this situation? If you are still unhappy with this situation, could you perhaps not eat any more food for now, and thereby stop contributing to the situation that makes you unhappy?

Appetite has ways of clouding your judgement, so although this line of questioning might seem harsh, it is necessarily harsh.

If you stick to it, you will eventually find that your body does need food at times, even if you are still overweight. You will get to a point where the question “can I go on without eating?” is met in the negative. But even so, it then requires only the smallest amount of food to keep you going.

This isn’t just a change in the amount of raw calories consumed, it’s also a change to your relationship with food, or to be more precise, your relationship with your appetite.

You will probably discover that there are numerous unexpected ways in which you gratify your appetite. Even healthy foods can gratify it.

What you’re fasting from is not the food so much as the craving appetite that drives you.It can be a fearsome opponent, so don’t be afraid to really use your displeasure with your appearance to motivate you.

Bring your eating back to the question of whether you are still overweight, whether you are still unhappy about being fat.

If you really are overweight, there’s nothing wrong with being unhappy about it, not liking the way your body looks.

We’re told that obesity is a disease, and, well, diseases often look bad; ill-health often looks bad; gluttony usually looks bad.  It’s nothing personal, just nature.

You wince when you see a terrible sunburn on your neck or face, so of course you wince when you see your abdomen protruding beyond its healthy limits.

When you go to eat, check to see whether you are still overweight or not. If you are, don’t eat unless you are literally shaking with fatigue, and then have only a bite or two.

Don’t eat for the pleasure it brings, or at least let the pleasure be subdued by your dismay at being unattractively overweight.

We’re told not to feel ashamed of being overweight, and I’m not advocating that you begin to feel ashamed if you don’t already. Rather, most people already do feel ashamed, so they might as well put the shame to good use.

As I mentioned before (I think), apart from the problem of being overweight, there’s the problem of being unhappy about it, yet doing nothing to change it. If I really don’t like being overweight, surely that would motivate me to change the most basic cause of weight-gain: consumption.

It would, or it could, if it weren’t for the alluring escapism provided by the appetite, something that needs to be reined in if we are to successfully alter our relationship with food.

More dieting tips

(Following on from the previous post)

It’s important to make the link between unhappiness and frustration at being overweight, and the pleasure and mindlessness of escapist eating.

Most of us feel bad about being overweight. We don’t like our appearance, or what it says about our relationship with food or how we relate to ourselves.

But we usually only feel bad when we notice our appearance. We quickly forget about it, which in itself implies escapism. Overweight people are rarely constantly unhappy.

Yet the unhappiness and dissatisfaction at being overweight is a powerful motive for change. In fact, we might go so far as to say that most overweight people are insufficiently unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. Most of us feel sudden pangs of embarrassment or dismay, but it passes.

If we were serious about losing weight, improving our appearance, and changing our relationship with food, we would cling to that unhappiness, embarrassment and other negative emotions like a gift. But instead we endure them briefly, feel bad about ourselves, get distracted, and end up losing ourselves in the pleasure of eating once again.

Those negative emotions are always stalking you anyway, why not put them to good use? Bring them to the forefront of your mind. The next time you feel dismayed or ashamed of being overweight; the next time you recognise that rolls of fat are unbecoming; the next time you find yourself frustrated at clothes that no longer fit, take that dissatisfaction and dismay and hold on to them at least as far as your next meal.

Hold on to those negative emotions the next time you approach your food, and refuse the opportunity to escape the negative emotion, to wipe it away with taste, texture, aroma, and the little rituals of eating.

Hold on to your unhappiness the next time you see a piece of cake or a bowl of curry, and ask yourself whether you actually need to eat something now, or if you are just eating for pleasure. You know where eating for pleasure has brought you. Try something different for a while.

Bear in mind there is nothing easy about this. Escapist eating implies a state of mind that does not easily find alternative sources of happiness and pleasure in life. It may imply depression or anxiety, or other disturbances.

But the underlying logic is hard to escape: if you are unhappy about being overweight, yet you continue to eat in excess, then there is something incoherent in your experience and your intentions. Coherence implies a reconciliation of these conflicting aims: either eat appropriately, or stop feeling bad about the physical consequences of excess.

Looking back, it proved helpful to me to dwell more on the unhappiness I felt at my appearance and my weight, and to extend that unhappiness into a critical analysis of my eating habits. Since weight and eating habits are so intimately related, it became clear that something was “going wrong” when I ate. That “going wrong” proved to be escapism.

Why else do people eat when they do not need to eat, and when the consequences of such unnecessary and excessive eating bring them unhappiness?

There’s a cake sitting on the table to my right. It is tasty and looks appetising, and I find myself drawn to eat some of it. But why do I want to eat it? Honestly I am not hungry – I could just as easily not eat it and continue with my work. But I still experience a desire to eat it, as though part of me believes eating it will be a wonderful pleasure.

Perhaps eating the cake would be pleasant. But why am I in such dire need of pleasure right now? Am I unhappy, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated, angry, sad, or afraid? Is my life so unpleasant that I feel the need to eat cake just to lift my base mood, despite knowing that the temporary pleasure of eating it will contribute to future unhappiness of being overweight?

And what is it precisely about the eating of the cake that will bring such pleasure? Is it the sweetness of the sugar, the moist and crunchy textures, the flavour of banana, hazelnut, and cinnamon, the caramelized golden syrup? Or is it just the movement of my jaw, the process of eating, the feeling of something in my stomach?

But I know from past experience that if I eat a piece of cake I might then be tempted to have some leftover curry. And later this evening I will be sorely tempted to cook some pasta, and eat some ice-cream.  It isn’t the cake per se, just that the cake happens to be the nearest and most enticing object of temptation at the present moment.

What all of those eating experiences have in common is that they take me away from the present moment. They offer an escape from whatever I happen to be feeling or not feeling right now, even though the escape is temporary and the consequences are themselves a cause of future unhappiness.

The unhappiness is more real than the escape, and there is more to be gained in facing reality than indulging in fleeting escapist pleasures.  Besides, most of us have already tried escaping, and we know what it brings. Rarely do we bring ourselves to try the experience of unhappiness and see where it leads.

If you try this, or work out your own approach, you will eventually find that you can tell the difference between eating for escape and eating to quell genuine hunger. Many of us have not experienced genuine hunger for years, if ever. We go from meal to meal without our digestive systems ever getting close to empty. We eat till we are overfull, and get “hungry” when we’re able to eat some more.

There are surely a number of ways to lose weight and stop escapist eating. This is the one I’ve found most valuable, because it doesn’t attempt to “cheat” and it forces us into a more honest experience of our own feelings. That being said, I’ve let it slide over the last few months. It’s easy to lapse into eating for the sake of pleasure, and the escapism this entails. At the same time, being aware of and accepting of your negative emotions is inherently challenging.

But imagine what it might be like to stop escaping from the problems and dissatisfactions in your life for once, and refuse the easy, self-destructive escapes that life offers?

Dieting Tips

Trying to reinvigorate my diet after letting it slide for a few months, I’m slowly remembering the key points.

Firstly, normal diets attempt to “cheat” in some way. They control quantities, but allow you to eat whatever type of food you like. Or they control the type of food, but let you eat as much as you like of those types. These diets avoid the pain of refusing to indulge your appetite.

Secondly, we like to indulge our appetite because it allows us to escape from painful, dull, or otherwise unpleasant experiences of reality. Escaping from such experiences means we do not address the underlying disquiet or suffering or lack of enthusiasm in our lives. It is important to recognise that flavours, mouthfeel, texture, temperature, rituals and even the physical activity of eating can all be used as a distraction from reality.

Thirdly, food is not intrinsically enjoyable. The experience of eating is something we create actively with our own minds. Enjoyment requires attention, energy, and a degree of complicity as we actively savour and relish the eating experience.

This approach to dieting is painful and powerful because it goes right to the heart of the problem: identifying eating as a means of escaping from unpleasant aspects of reality.

For most of us, being overweight is an expression of our escapism.

Yet such escapism is self-defeating. The physical and psychological suffering will come back to haunt us in the form of illness, shame, and more unpleasant experiences. Escapism simply defers the pain, and deferring the pain is painful in its own right.

The thought of never again escaping into food and eating can be terrifying, and raises the prospect of a life empty of the significant enjoyment provided by food. But as the third point identified, this enjoyment is actually provided by our own minds, not by the food itself. Food merely provides us with an opportunity to focus on something that is safely detached from the unpleasant and complex problems and feelings we are trying to escape from in the first place.

The truly painful thing is that we cannot imagine living without the constant escape provided by food.  The actual amount of food required for us to continue living is very small, relative to what we typically consume. And yet the thought of giving up eating-for-enjoyment terrifies us.

Most of us feel bad when we see our own overweight bodies in mirrors or photographs. And there’s a push in society to stop feeling “ashamed” of our bodies, and to reject the unrealistic ideals provided by media and marketing. We’re told to love ourselves as we are.

This is good advice, but if we are eating to escape then we are not loving ourselves as we are. I used to feel bad when I saw how overweight I was, but when I think about dieting and escapism, I begin to see the fat as representative of how frequently I am escaping into food. I start to see it not as some horrible imperfection or source of shame, but as letting myself down by avoiding the unpleasant realities or thoughts or feelings that motivate the escapism in the first place.

Dieting seems extraordinarily hard because we imagine ourselves having to endure the painful realities of life without our favoured escape. But those realities remain painful precisely because we keep trying to escape them. It’s less painful to eat than to acknowledge that we feel life is going nowhere. But it’s far, far healthier and more empowering to acknowledge such fears and feelings than to escape into the temporary distraction of food.

What do we wish to become: someone good at escaping, or someone able to face our fears? This diet is, after all, not really about dieting. It’s about facing the fears, the stagnation, the difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories* we’ve been trying to escape.

*Some people’s realities are more painful than others’, and I’m obviously not a doctor, not even in philosophy, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help when dealing with painful, traumatic, or otherwise difficult experiences.