Earlier this week, I opined that the first unfairness of weight-loss maintenance is that it is not a zippy lifestyle, but a third- to half-time unpaid job. Like any job, it need not be joyless, but one may need to force joy into it. Here’s a typical day at “work.”
4:30 am: I stand on the scale. It’s like checking email and voice mail. What message has my body left me? If my weight is stable and below my current “panic weight” I still must work, but it’s a little less stressful than if I have to reverse a one-pound (or more) regain, a process that may require weeks of “tweaking” my regimen.
4:30-5:30 am: I don my exercise clothes, take a thyroid pill, make a pot of coffee, prepare my mind.
5:30-6:30 am: I take my place in front of the TV, wearing a weighted vest and ankle weights, with hand weights at the ready. In order for an aerobics DVD to be “productive” (prevent a weight slide), I know I must carry 20 to 30 extra pounds throughout an average 55 minute routine, and often I add extra moves and double-time the instructor in interval bursts. I must soak my bra with sweat. Alternatively, I go to the gym and use the track and weights, or I walk outdoors, but I must go longer – two hours walking seven miles counts for a day’s exercise, for example.
I exercise daily, excepting three days off per month.
It was when my honeymoon romance with exercise fizzled that I realized I wasn’t modeling a lifestyle but working a job with an unforgiving boss. The naturally trim gym rats may take a vacation if they want – several days, a week, sometimes a month or more. When they return to the gym they grouse loudly, “I’m gonna feel this tomorrow.” Indeed they will, but they are rejuvenated by their vacation, and they will be back in their groove soon, suffering no visible consequences for their time off.
If I took a month off, that could mean a ten-pound regain. And it won’t “come right off if you return to your routine,” as people love to pontificate. Perhaps that’s true for people who gain weight near the top of their natural range, but credible research confirms that when you are below your body’s highest established weight range, it is Herculean to muster the calorie deficit to reverse any regain. This makes sense. When you lost weight in the first place, the first ten pounds came off at lightning speed compared to the last ten. If you must lose those last ten pounds again, it won’t happen at the speed of the first ten, even if their regain was sudden. But back to “the job.”
7:15 am: Breakfast. Three hundred calories, heavy on protein and fiber. Perhaps organic peanut butter on apple slices.
7:30 am: “Conference” time in the shower, with myself. How is the day going to play out food-wise? Do I have lunch plans? Must I cook dinner for the family or is tonight an activity night for my son? I think through every restaurant where I’ll eat, every potential “food situation.” Is there a pot luck to handle? Is there an occasion where I’ll need to eat or decline someone’s home-baked treats?
I must plan how I am going to space out 1,600 to 2,000 calories over the course of the day, and, of course, I’ve already had 300. I plan my day with several basic assumptions guiding me. I know I will get an hour of satiety (fullness) for every 100 calories I eat, for example. This is only reliable up to 600 calories of intake, which equals 6 hours of satiety. One thousand calories in a single sitting won’t last ten hours, for example, and the excess calories will go to storage.
Metaphorically, I must spend the day ice skating on a single blade at the edge of hunger. Getting hungry could cue my internal endocrine chorus of binge impulses. Fighting those impulses turns a normal “day on the job” into a distracting, high-stress work day. Getting too full will likely create fat stores.
There are assumptions about what I will eat, too. Many modern foods are literally “off the table”: baked goods by anyone whose last name is “Incorporated,” red meat on white bread, ANYTHING breaded and fried. I can “have a bite” from time to time, but I’ll regret anything bigger than a Girl Scout cookie.
Since I know that my hunger cues are reliable up to 600-calories-equals-six-hours, if I’m facing a situation with unknown foods I’ll plan to count calories in reverse. That entails eating when just at the verge of hunger an estimated 450 calories of what is on my plate, then paying attention. If my pre-hunger cues resurface at three hours, I adjust the count down to 300; if I’m not hungry at 4.5 hours, I adjust the number upward accordingly.
The additional two-to-three hours of my maintenance “job” happen in spurts throughout the day. It’s more professional than time-clock, blue collar in nature. I spend time preparing whole grains instead of instant rice, I chop vegetables, I scrutinize labels in grocery stores, I spend time on the internet or in the library reviewing research on nutrition, fitness and obesity. I rely on science journals. Most mainstream “lifestyle” reporters are merely cheerleaders for the latest weight-loss fad. My research, over time, has led me to limit refined carbohydrates and eliminate foods that include bovine growth hormone, transfats and certain additives, such as MSG and TBHQ. Obesity research is confusing and mostly inconclusive, but I don’t take many chances.
9:30 pm: Bedtime. Seven hours of sleep (eight would be ideal) helps control hunger hormones.
Given the time and effort, does maintenance qualify as an eating-disordered state? As I’ve said before, I am unqualified to diagnose, but there’s no denying that it occupies considerable mental real estate and the exercise is hard on the joints. My current regimen is gentler than when I was running on concrete sidewalks, but still causes some unhealthy pain. I also don’t know whether I could do maintenance if my “real” work were inflexible.
When someone tells me they plan to lose weight (and I wince if they say I’m their role model), I advise them instead to live joyfully, eat healthfully, exercise, and treasure whatever body happens. While I devote 14 to 20 hours per week to my food and exercise practices, it seems more sane and sustainable to devote 8 to ten hours, a quarter time job, to crafting a less toxic diet and exercising in some pleasant way. This likely won’t, however, create or maintain radical weight loss.