Reader Request: Weight Worries

How to manage weight worries

Allison popped this question into the suggestion box:

I would love to see something on maintaining a weight you feel happy with without stressing/keeping your emotional well-being in check while eating what you want and not gaining weight.

Eating and weight are incredibly personal, and there’s no single way to deal with either that will work for everyone. Maintaining a certain weight will mean different actions for different people. “Eating what you want and not gaining weight” is especially tricky for many people, myself included. (What I want is generally deep-fried, and a steady diet of fried items probably won’t help me out in the longevity department. Or the self-love department either.) I wish I had an easy answer to this one, but I’m afraid I don’t. I’m not a psychologist or a nutritionist or a fitness expert. All I can do is share what’s worked for me and hope that will spark a larger conversation. So let’s take this a chunk at a time:

Maintaining a weight you feel happy with

Gosh, even this is challenging. Many women are unhappy with their weight, no matter how much or little they weigh. Most people also have a set point – a bit of a misnomer as it’s really a range of weights that bodies return to again and again – and although this can change, it is typically identifiable. Over your adult life, what is the weight range that you’ve stuck to for the longest? Or come back to the most times? Mine is right in the 140 -150 pound range, and has been since I was about 18.

But set point is wiggly and won’t work for everyone. If you have gained or lost weight gradually over many years, your body may cling to a new set point. Or you may feel like your natural set point has always been higher or lower than you’d like it to be. I bring it up because – as someone who has battled weight and self-image issues my whole life – my own weight has fluctuated almost constantly, and I have seldom felt truly content and happy with my weight.* No matter what I weighed, it generally felt “wrong.” Set point seems relatively concrete, but also personal and flexible. It’s YOUR set point, the place where your body seems to want to rest. (As opposed to BMI or other measures that leave no room for individuality.)

Maintenance itself is totally personal. What you eat and do to keep your weight at a certain point will be very specific to you. If you are currently at a weight that you’d like to maintain, consider talking with a nutritionist, fitness expert, or doctor about what might help keep you there.

Keeping your emotional well-being

Staying positive and happy when it comes to weight and self-image can be tough, too, especially if you’re someone who has struggled with eating and weight for a long time. We live in a world full of judgmental messages about food, eating, exercise, fitness, and weight so it can feel nearly impossible to find serenity. One thing that I’ve found helpful is to think about food as fuel. I love food and eating, and associate both with social situations and emotional states. I can’t change that. But using some of what I learned at Green Mountain, I’ve started to think about what my body is really asking for. When I feel a craving hit, I try to distance myself and examine what’s going on. And much of the time when chocolate and French fries eclipse everything else in my brain, it’s water, rest, or emotional reassurance that I really want. And if I really do need food, I’ve found that the craving for fries often vanishes if I eat a pear instead. (Not always!)  It’s completely unscientific, but it works for me. And just thinking about food as fuel – something my body needs to function – strips away some of the stress and emotion that typically surrounds eating. For me.

I think a key concept to ponder as you look at maintaining your emotional well-being as it relates to weight is this: Be kind to yourself. If you eat more than you “should,” forgive. If you feel like every decision you make about food is stressful, consider ways to make it less loaded. Ask for help. Talk about how you feel with people you trust. Our culture encourages restrictive eating, categorizes foods and activities as “good” and “bad,” and does loads of other things that make it tough to stay positive. As you navigate all of that, try to remember that you deserve kindness from yourself. Always.

Eating what you want and not gaining weight

Honestly, I’ve got nothing. I know there are people out there who want to eat raw greens and quinoa every day, but I am not one of them. The only thing I can offer here from my personal experience comes down to re-thinking how you categorize food. When I think of French fries – my favorite food – I think reward, happy, and delicious but also fatty, naughty, and bad. When I think of kale I think of healthy, nutritious, and good but also nasty, punishment, and chores. Nowadays, I try to remember that “healthy” foods like fresh fruits and veggies are not punishment foods. They’re not inherently “good” either, as too many cherries will make me just as sick (or sicker) as too many fries. If you can merge “eating what you want” with “eating nutritious, healthy foods” it might help stave off additional weight gain.

But it might not. The reason that I gained weight over the holidays last year was that I was eating what I wanted and not worrying about it. And I think that’s pretty common. I wasn’t eating fast food at every meal, and most of my eating choices were sound. I still gained weight. I’ve never been able to kick my eating, exercise, and body care routines into auto pilot and maintain a set weight. Ever.

Again, I wish so hard that I had some less negative and more concrete answers for you and for Allison, but since I’m not a health expert myself and since my own experiences have been somewhat challenging and frustrating, this is the best I can offer. I try to steer clear of topics that are directly related to food since they are so volatile and personal, but since this question tied into weight and self-image I wanted to share my own experiences.

*As a sidenote, writing here and doing lots of personal work and reflection have brought me to the point where I love and accept myself. But although I’m overjoyed to have made this peace with my physical self, feeling actively happy about my body is still a daily battle for me.

Image courtesy Mason Masteka.

Originally posted 2013-04-11 06:32:22.

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44 Responses to “Reader Request: Weight Worries”

  1. Ashe

    “Eating what you want and not gaining weight”

    For me, this has become an important facet of my weight loss. And the biggest way I’ve kept eating what I want (in moderation) is to think of it as “calories in/calories out.”

    I began calorie tracking (roughly) because I didn’t know how much I was putting in myself, and I wasn’t working out. When I added exercise into my regular routine, I knew that exercise was the trade off for eating what I want.

    I’ve talked to many women who say, “I just went to the gym, I don’t want to eat a cupcake, that feels wrong!” But we go to the gym so we CAN eat the cupcake. I had a very active, slim girlfriend who hated when people would make comments about what she ate. Her response was, “I work out really hard so I CAN eat what I want.” So for me, there’s a strong correlation between working hard and eating the naughty treats.

    It’s also a balancing game: I have to give up something else in the day– maybe no mid-afternoon snack for that big burger at dinner.

    Over the years, we’ve also learned that healthy does not have to mean not delicious! We’ve been incorporating more legumes, vegetables, and fruits into our diets with success, and even with low calorie options, but exploring more in the kitchen, too! A delicious meal that’s healthy and made at home has become just as satisfying as those “foods I want.”

  2. Anonymous

    I am one of those people who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. I think it boils down to three factors:

    (1) Genetic luck– I’ve always been reasonably thin regardless of how I ate or exercised.

    (2) Food preferences– I don’t like meat very much, but I love vegetables. Left to my own devices, what I want to eat day to day is mostly beans and veggies.

    (3) Lifestyle choices– I don’t own a car, so if I want to go somewhere, it involves a good deal of walking. Going grocery shopping involves me, a backpack, and a lot of food. I work from home and periodically have to exercise during the day to clear my head.

    Mostly, though, I think I just got lucky in terms of the body I got and the sorts of foods I developed a taste for.

  3. Bronwyn

    Great post. Simple, sound advice. I like it. As a dietitian I hear so much about what people “can/can’t eat”, “good and bad foods”. It is a very tough place for people to navigate, particularly with weight, body image and health being so intertwined.

  4. CJ

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this! This topic was on my mind yesterday, as I sunk into a spiral of fat shame and depression. As soon as I read this this morning, I realized that I feed my daughter (age 5) a healthy breakfast and lunch, but neglect to feed myself and then subsist on soda/junk food all day. Right after I read this, I decided to stop depriving myself of nutrition. I cooked the both of us a healthy breakfast, and actually took the time to sit down with her and eat instead of buzzing around the house trying to do everything else.

    Food = fuel, what a simple concept! After a balanced breakfast, the whole world looked brighter, and I felt ready to tackle it. 🙂 Maybe today I won’t spend the whole afternoon slumped at my work desk, regretting the four Cokes I drank.

  5. Claire

    This is very timely for me. I’m currently trying to lose some weight and it I am finding it difficult. It may be I have a set point as I tend to bounce between a 5 pound range but I know I can get past the lower one because I have before.

    I never thought to think about food as fuel. I mean, I know that it is but as you say, so much more comes with it. I have never really assessed my relationship with food but know that I comfort eat. This post has definitely given me some tips to try and some things to think about. Thank you.

  6. Lucy

    I was 153lb at my heaviest at 24, lost 15lb slowly over a year before I got married, maintained 145-7 for 3 years with an occasional bout of exercise until I hit 28 in September 2012, and since then have done nothing differently and gone back up to 150lb. I am not comfortable at this weight, but when I stepped on the scales in the nurse’s office on Monday I almost cried. I associate 150lb with me as “fat, looks terrible in photos” yet 3lbs fewer and the barrier in my head isn’t there.
    I am currently cutting out junk and exercising to lose about 7lb again by summer, which gets me back into a 10 (US 6) but I’m trying not to think beyond that because I think it’s partly due to my age/changing hormones and what I will have to do long term to not gain weight depresses me. A lot. So I have my own comfort point but I think I might have to accept that it will go up unless I force myself to eat beans and quinoa forever and ever!

    I don’t think food will ever be fuel to me – my ultimate treats involve going out to eat or ordering in.

  7. alice

    Definitely a tricky and very personal topic! I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth so passing up on candy and dessert was never a big deal. These days I appreciate a well made sweet, but when faced with foods with low nutritional value, I only eat it if it’s going to taste great, otherwise why bother? For me, this eliminates a lot of processed junk food. I refuse to eat low-fat or non-fat anything because I kind of think those versions are less satisfying and you just end up wanting to eat more than you need. I also try not to drink my calories and opt for water, coffee and tea for my daily beverages. It’s a really easy way to eliminate unnecessary sugar.

    I agree food isn’t morally good or bad, but it’s hard to argue that there are nutritionally dense and empty foods out there and it’s probably a better idea to sate hunger on the dense foods first and the empty stuff should be just a nice treat. I don’t think exercise and eating anything you want ought to be correlated because exercise isn’t just about deleting calories from your system and eating junk also isn’t just about calories. To me, eating mindfully is good for health and emotional well-being (not because I feel morally virtuous or anything, but because I find that depriving myself of nutritious foods makes me feel horrible). And one last note, a lot of people seem to think that eating healthy is about only eating steamed vegetables with zero salt on them, or lettuces with no dressings, and I believe that just shows how skewed our eating habits have become in this country. The choice is not between french fries, cupcakes and raw kale…

  8. Gillian

    Thank-you Sally! Awesome post!
    So far in my journey I’m realizing that each of us is unique and it’s going to take varying approaches to find what really cliques and helps us live the life we want in a peaceful way. I’d recommend to keep reading and looking around and go towards what cliques with you. Be patient but don’t give up learning and growing 🙂 Pick and choose from what people have to offer and tailor it to the uniquely awesome you!
    Here are some great resources you might want to look at
    http://sarahjenks.com/
    http://sheilaviers.com/
    http://eatingmindfully.com/

  9. Amy

    Good post! These are tough issues to grapple with. I have struggled with this (like most of us) throughout my teens and twenties. Now in my thirties, I’ve found a little more peace but it’s still a bumpy road at times. The set point thing is really good. I realized a number of years ago that what I thought my set point should be (based on media and supposedly scientific factors like BMI) was way out of reach for me – getting within even spitting distance of that number required about 10 hours/week at the gym and rigorous food intake monitoring. This is beyond just working hard – it’s no less than a second job. And you’re doomed to failure anyway because you’re life cannot accommodate that all the time, even if you make it the proverbial “priority”. Having realized all that, I’ve dramatically adjusted my expectations – not lowered, adjusted. This has helped a lot and allows me to live in the reality that my body is not meant to be static – it’s going to change over the years depending on a lot of factors and I don’t have to fight that.

    What else I’ve found extremely helpful: reading “The Fat Nutritionist” blog, reading the Green Mountain blog, just finished reading the book “Health at Every Size” (game-changer there). I cleared my facebook and pinterest feeds of any posts that use stock images of fitness models or talk about food as good/bad or “cheating” or make jokes about fatness/obesity. I was surprised to find how many people and organizations I deleted that I originally thought had more of a holistic/balanced approach to wellbeing, but were really just using it as a facade to maintain the status quo. I’ve become a much more critical consumer with a stronger BS meter.

    I’m trying to make my own health perspective 100% about how I want to feel (and “not fat” isn’t a feeling), keeping my blood pressure/cholesterol in check, and treating clinic depression as naturally as is realistic. For the most part, this way of thinking comes easy now, but it has taken years to cast off those demons, and still they continue to spin around all of us constantly in our society. They do latch on from time to time but they’re much easier to shake off now.

    My best to everyone walking this path!

  10. Sarah

    This is something I have been struggling with lately, as I quit smoking on January 21, 2013, and have been gained SO MUCH weight! I used the patch but anytime I wanted a cigarette, I just put chocolate in my mouth. I know this isn’t the best way to quit but I had severe bronchitis and actually inflamed my ribs by coughing so much (it hurts so much worse than you would think, I literally could not move for a week), so I was desperate to quit. And I did, but I also gained A LOT of weight. Probably 20 pounds. I won’t weight myself because I hate doing it but I can tell by the way my pants fit. I was already a size 16/18, now I’m in a 20.

    I guess a big part of the weight loss struggle for me now (and always) has been the idea that I have to change myself for some reason. That I am not okay the way I am. That’s a message I got everyday of my life for ten years from my alcoholic father, and it still makes me angry and confused and frustrated. I just want to be lovable, accepted, beautiful, smart, kind, and fat and have that be okay. Every instinct I have to “fix” myself is an instinct that also tells me I am not okay the way I am and have to change myself to be loved and accepted. And I really just want to be okay the way I am, big belly, chunky thighs, flabby arms, and all. It’s so much more than just health for me, it’s a psychological battle and it causes me a lot of pain. I don’t have any answers and every time I approach a state of loving self-acceptance, it usually falls apart when I gain a little weight.

    • Lass

      Just wanted to say congrats on quitting and that I totally get your response. I feel the same way and was raised by an alcoholic father for 10 years as well. And you quit smoking on my birthday! Just wanted to say I totally get it. Same problem here.

    • GingerR

      It’s good to have quit smoking. Once you get that so it’s “old news” then you can tweak your diet and get back to where you were originally, or at least close enough to be happy.

      • LK

        My dad used sunflower seeds. They worked well because they take time to open so you can’t eat a bunch at once. Congrats on quitting! Best of luck!

  11. LK

    Moderation is key to eating what you want. You cannot eat an entire bag of potato chips and expect to not gain weight. Eat a little of what you like, if what you like is not particularly good for your body.

    I use to be the “eat whatever I want” person. Didn’t matter how much. Now in my late 20s it matters. Moderation plus exercise seems to make all the difference in maintaining weight.

  12. SamJ

    For me, weight management is a result of a trifecta — movement, muscle mass and food. As you get older you lose muscle, so if you stay the same, it’s because your body is maintaining it’s set point. I try to not think about my weight. Instead (and at the urging of my doctor) I started exercising. Exercise did not make me lose weight by itself (at first). But when I altered my diet to no longer include soda, and cut back on processed foods, I saw a change. It was not quick, it happened gradually and even when I reduced my exercise, my body was able to maintain the new weight – so I guess I did reset my set point. What I notice now isn’t that the weight loss makes me look better — it’s that I feel stronger. And I my arms sag less – but I can’t tell if it is because of the weight loss, or if it is because I can now do pushups. I also have better posture, so I stand taller and that gives me more body confidence. The weight loss was a nice side effect, but it wasn’t the goal and it wasn’t the only benefit. I would like to say if you don’t feel happy with your body — ask it to do more — take a walk, or go for a bike ride or skip rope or go on a hike, or do some gardening — because feeling how capable your body is, increasing your body’s capabilies — it will make you feel proud. Increasing your body confidence shouldn’t be about depriving yourself, it should be about increassing your abilities and engaging with your body.

  13. Eudoxia

    Like Amy, I’ve really benefited from reading The Fat Nutritionist blog (http://www.fatnutritionist.com/). Michelle’s writing is amazing. And I love her mantra “Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.” (more on that here: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/food-you-like-is-food-that-feels-good/)

    I think one of the most important things I am working to internalise is that my weight is outside of my control, thus trying to control my weight is silly. In particular, any kind of goal like “lose X amount by Y date” is not helpful, because I can’t actually control whether I succeed or not. A goal like “get out in the fresh air every day, and go jogging twice in the next 2 weeks now that it’s warmer and jogging looks like fun” is more helpful, because if I act in a particular way I can be certain of achieving it. It’s weird, and hard, because so much advertising tries to tell me that if I do A, B, C I will lose weight and if I do X, Y, Z I will gain weight … but those things are not actually true, because weight loss/gain doesn’t work like that for everybody! (E.g. for a particular person, eating lots of X might make them gain weight, but for another person it might not).

    Better to focus on things that are actually true, like “if I go jogging in the park (and do it sensibly) I will get better at jogging and get fresh air!” and “if I buy fruit I really like, I get to eat fruit I really like!” and “I’ve noticed I feel good when I eat Y, so if I cook Y frequently I get to feel good more frequently!”.

  14. Sarah O.

    This post is very timely for me as well. When I was in middle school and high school I tended to have a very negative self image/ body image and felt that I was over weight even though I was 105 pounds. Luckily, I grew out of that phase by the time I went to college, but as I have entered my 20s and soon-to-be 30s I’ve noticed that my weight has increased and I can feel those negative body image thoughts creep back into my head- especially at certain times like when my husband takes me to shop for fitness clothes or when the doctor put me on the scale and it was higher than I thought. Generally when these thoughts are persistant enough, I’ll try to do something about it like start calorie counting again and/or start a new fitness routine and when I start noticing some changes for the better- like my pants fit a little better or my belly pooch is looking a little less poofy, then I start to like my body again. But its a contstant cycle with good days and bad days.

  15. Aziraphale

    Hm, well, I’m not a good one to ask when it comes to the question of how to maintain good body image, since I’m happy with my relatively slender, athletic body and it has proved, over the years, to be resistant to change. (We’ll see what happens when I hit menopause, though. I hear that after 50, all bets are off). But I do know something about maintaining weight and “eating what you want and staying healthy”. For most people, the answer involves three things: moderate exercise, adequate sleep and being sensible about food. By “sensible”, I mean eating healthy food, and also simply not eating too much. Junk food is fine, as long as you don’t overdo it. When I say my body is “resistant to change”, that doesn’t mean that I can binge on chips all day and stay thin. I’ve just established a comfortable pattern of eating reasonably well and getting a decent amount of exercise and sleep. I can stuff myself with Oreos on occasion, but I have no doubt that if I did that every day, stopped hiking and started burning the candle at both ends, my weight would indeed creep up.

  16. sarah

    One fun way to approach a balanced diet is to try and eat a rainbow of foods. This is how my husband and I approach it – considering that the colours of plants are often caused by the nutrient compounds they contain (the betacarotene which makes carrots orange, the lycopene which makes tomatoes red, the etc.), we strive to eat a rainbow of foods and cover all our bases. This approach may be particularly useful for those of us who are aesthetically inclined, because it satisfies both our hunger for food and for beauty, which is a nice way to think about food (WITHOUT stigma or uncomfortable moral attributions of good/bad).

    And while there is a time and place for processed foods, have you ever noticed how many of them are just … BEIGE?

  17. scarlet

    What works for me is eating food prepared at home from scratch most of the time. I avoid any processed or denatured foods as a regular part of my diet. I eat plenty of fat and calories, but I do look askance at processed foods made with sugar (any form), white flour, cheap salt, vegetable seed oils, and unpronounceable ingredients. Eating fresh keeps my weight steady or slowly decreasing, even if I include rich foods like whole milk, cream, eggs, or natural cheese. Most of my carbohydrates come from vegetables or legumes. I also try to include cultured foods in my diet several times a day for the probiotics.

    The other approach that helps is accepting I will never weigh a tiny amount. I am 5’10” tall, have dense bones and musculature, and an hourglass figure with full hips and breasts. I used to beat myself up for weighing 155-165. I based all my information on appropriate weight and size on advice designed for shorter women. Now I accept that it is natural and healthy for me to weigh more than someone who is 5’3″ or 5’5″ or 5’7.” I worry more about body composition than weight.

  18. Kari Serenity

    For me its all about finding healthy foods that are also tasty, so eating them doesn’t feel like a chore! And mixing them up every once in awhile, since I tend to be a lazy cook and make the same thing over and over. =)

    • Margaret

      I totally agree. I learned to make stuff that was delicious and good for me, and found dishes at restaurants I like that would feel like a treat without being too high-calorie/fatty/etc.

      Still every once in a while I will have a treat like ice cream or a cupcake; however, I’ve redefined “every once in a while” from “a few times a week” to “a couple times a month.”

  19. mimi

    I’m 45 years old, my weight is somewhere north of 200. I don’t weigh myself, so my best guess is somewhere between 230 and 240. I was a chubby little kid (about 5 years old when I first realized something was “wrong” with my body) a pretty normal sized (looking back on it) teen and 20 something.
    My big regret, that I wasted so much of my youth worrying about my weight even at 150, 160 or 170 when I thought I was huge.
    Your body is going to change over time, your hips will round and get softer, your boobs are going to sag, your hair is going to thin, get grey or change texture your skin is going to lose it’s elasticity.
    I’m so much more comfortable with myself now, because I realize that when I’m sixty I’m going to wish I looked 45, so what’s the point of wishing I look 25 now!
    Also, I’ve separated out thinness from health and fitness and don’t treat eating and exercise as a zero sum game. I eat what I want (and it turns out your body often craves what it needs including fruits and vegetables) and I exercise regularly — the rest is not up to me.

  20. Jessica

    About 2 months ago, I started logging everything I eat and every time I exercise in a great iphone app. In my teens, this would have probably been a way to help me eat in a disordered way. Now, I find it really empowering, eye-opening, and helpful. I can see much more precisely how my body reacts to certain foods, and am much, much more mindful of what I’m actually eating. (4 huge cookies is really objectively 4 huge cookies, not just 1 because I’ve consumed the evidence.)

    I now see it as a positive challenge to make sure I’m eating lots of fruit and veggies and enough fiber and protein. And I absolutely love that I can budget for less-nutrient dense foods (peanut butter cups, doritos). For me, the process has removed all guilt associated with food, and been a really positive way to view eating. It’s also been really empowering for me to see documented evidence that I’m getting stronger and fitter as time goes on.

    I’m a data junkie, so perhaps for other folks of a similar mindset, logging would be helpful?

  21. annie

    I’ve had a truly crappy relationship with food since middle school, when my mother first put me on what I now realize was a starvation diet. All food got so wrapped up in me being good/bad that I couldn’t possibly make any sort of food choices based on how hungry I was, or what my body needed. I lost weight at first, and felt great about my body, and got a lot of positive attention from family and friends, then when I leveled off without changing everything, and the praise stopped, and my sense of control over my body stopped, I went the other way. And since I felt like I couldn’t control myself, I stopped trying to be “good”, and ate all the “bad” foods I wanted. Which just confirmed my suspicion that none of this had been right in the first place, that I had always been “bad.” For me, the process of healing my relationship with food came when I made a conscious effort to quit using any words that were moralistic in any way. I stopped even describing foods I liked as “tasting ‘good’.” I would say “delicious” or “creamy” or “crunchy” or whatever would describe the food. And once I really got in the habit of removing the emotion from food, I found myself wanting to eat a much healthier diet. I no longer feel either the compulsion to eat processed foods or tons of sugar, and I find myself actually enjoying whole, real foods that I cook for myself. It’s not that I never put sugar in my coffee, or eat Doritos when at a party, but since it’s not an emotional act any more, I can listen to my body. I can stop when I’m full, and eat when I’m hungry. But by learning to be forgiving with myself, and staying generally active, I’m much healthier than I was, even at my starvation diet weight low. And what’s more, I am eating what I want and not gaining weight. I am no longer stressed about my body or my weight. That is my solution for eating what I want and not gaining weight, removing the emotion and learning to listen to my body. I’m not saying it was easy, it wasn’t, and it was a process of years, and I am still working, but I’m much happier these days, and enjoying the journey.

  22. shebolt

    Gillian makes a great point. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. What works for me may or may not work for anyone else, and vice versa.

    Personally, I hate feeling like I’m depriving myself. Dieting is just about the worst thing I can imagine. I’ve kept myself thin by copious exercise, which I enjoy, and by eating sensibly without following fads or doing anything too extreme. Most people are surprised to hear that I have a slow metabolism.

    I found that I love the kind of exercise that gives me the endorphin rush. Yes, this means I need to sweat. I have friends who hate to sweat, so my solution would be absolutely wrong for them. I discovered a love of cycling and never looked back. I’m now a competitive amateur cyclist, which involves a year-round commitment to training.

    However, training alone will not keep me at a good weight. I can easily gain pounds if allow myself to eat whatever I want, mostly because the foods I crave are particularly bad for me. So I’ve learned to eat a mostly good diet, with lots of lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. But I will splurge sometimes. I don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”, I just know what I need to eat in small doses. It helps that, since I’ve been paying attention, I realize that it may be wonderful to eat that bowl of ice cream or mac n’ cheese, but I feel horrible shortly after. This is a physical reaction to carbs and sugars in high doses, not a mental “why did I eat that?” I allow myself those items, just in much smaller quantities.

    I monitor my weight daily. If I’ve gained more weight than I want, I cut out the splurges for a while. Since I never allow myself to put on more than about 5 pounds extra, I never have to struggle too hard to lose it again.

  23. JW

    hi – To Sally’s “food = fuel” and “figure out then eat what you are really craving/hungry for” guidelines, I’d add another basic: Try to eat mostly when you are truly physically hungry, and stop when you’re physically full.

    This sounds so simple but it’s amazing how disconnected we can get from those physical cues! So many other things intervene in our daily lives and society.

    After decades of problems with eating and body image, I trained myself to mostly follow these guidelines and it has been working well for several years – I can eat what I want and stay at a healthy, stable weight. I view exercise as a (for me) enjoyable way to stay strong and get to be hungry more often! The book “Overcoming Overeating” was really helpful for me, exploring the reasons why we tend to eat for other reasons than hunger and fuel, and suggesting ways to deal with those issues and learn to trust our own physical cues again.

  24. GingerR

    I step on the scale every morning. I’ve put on around 20 pounds since I was in my 20s. A few major jumps, after the births of my children, then a gradual few pounds here and there. Although it’s 20 pounds I consider myself reasonably successful at maintaining my weight. When you’re young you think that willpower and diet can save you, but that’s just not true. It’s the combination of a slowing metabolism and changing priorities.

    For me it’s about habits and portions. I eat the same things for breakfast and lunch (which I brown bag) and that helps me to be in the habit of not overeating. I bring snacks and goodies into my house mindfully. If they are there I will most likely eat them. I waste food without remorse. I throw stuff out if it’s sitting around the house tempting me.

    I compare maintaining or changing weight to a battle ship in the ocean. They don’t turn on a dime. It’s gradual changes, a steady pace. You have to stop gaining and stay in the same place before you can head in a different direction.

  25. Gillian

    Sally, as an extension to this topic, do you have any advice on dealing with weight gain when it’s tied up in other upsetting health and lifestyle issues? For example:

    I am 24 and have worked a secretarial job for two years. I sit for hours a day. Before that I worked at an orchard store where I stood all day, lifted lots of apples, and ate mostly fruit. Prior to that was college and high school. My physical activity was year of dance and Tang Soo Do. I was in my best shape while preparing for my black belt test, and then I let myself relax…for years. I’m 5’4″ and was always very thin (runs in the family) – didn’t hit 100 lbs until after age 20.

    After taking so long to reach 100, I gained 15-20 lbs in the past YEAR. That is a lot when you were a small person. My weight goes straight to my stomach and butt, which leaves me feeling like a marshmallow. Limbs are as bony as ever. I am extremely uncomfortable with my weight gain because the distribution means half my clothes don’t fit, and those that fit can make me look pregnant. I go to great lengths to hide my stomach because of the pregnant appearance.

    I’m working on getting back into exercising and trying to eat better. I’ve been a vegetarian since 15 but not the best with veggies. Too much pizza. I’m transitioning to vegan because my body is not handling dairy. But the underlying struggle beyond the weight gain is that bad reactions to various birth control methods made me sick for the past six months. I am off of all hormonal methods now since my body can’t tolerate them, but they made me miserable and it’s lingering due to my discomfort with my weight. I had to quit them for serious reasons – stroke risk and exacerbated depression – but the bloating, skin breakouts, terrible moods, etc left me in a bad mental space to deal with my weight.

    Apologies that this was so long! I don’t know if I have a specific question so much as I would love to hear how other women have dealt with the relationship between hormonal changes or birth control problems, and weight gain. It feels like an added layer to struggle through.

    • Sally

      Oh, Gillian, you’ve been through so much. And in such a short span of time. I’ve experienced weight and skin changes due to switches in birth control and anti-anxiety medications, too, so I can really sympathize. I’d say the main things to remember are these:

      1. If you decide it is important to lose weight, there is no race to do so. Don’t put additional pressure on yourself to get the weight off quickly, even though it feels like it arrived quickly. You can find a way that will feel good and healthy, even if it takes a while.

      2. Be kind to yourself. You’ve gone through a lot of personal and physical change, and it can be tempting to blame or shame your body. Try to avoid those thought patterns. Your psyche and body both need patience and love right now, as best you can provide them.

      Both of those things have been helpful to me in the past. I’d also recommend buying a few items of clothing that fit and flatter you today. Trying to squeeze into clothes that don’t fit any longer is likely to exacerbate negative body feelings. Thrift them, swap them, or even buy them at Target if spending big now isn’t something you want to do. But dressing for your today-body will help you feel less unhappy in the present moment.

      Hope that helps, my dear.

  26. stacy

    I have a somewhat confusing relationship with food. Growing up my mother made sure that I had foods rich in calcium, vitamins and protein. She always worried if I was eating enough. I was a chubby teenager and was somewhat puzzled by this attitude. When, I became an adult my mother shared stories about her childhood. She grew up in a small farming community and everyone in her family had to work hard to make sure that there was enough to eat. Cakes, candy, and sweets were treats that was almost never in the house. I now realize why my mom takes such joy in feeding her family and friends. It is a point of pride for her and I think that makes me look at food a little differently.

  27. Kathy Derengowski

    A New Year’s Suggestion

    You’re not defined by diet.
    You’re not defined by weight.
    Yet industries have been designed
    to foster your self-hate.

    They want you to buy meal plans.
    They want to sell you pills.
    They say a loss of 20 pounds
    is sure to cure your ills.

    They want you to join health clubs,
    to keep yourself denied.
    They make their money on the things
    That steal away your pride.

    It’s all a ploy of marketing-
    the shame, the pain, the diet.
    It’s all a money-making scheme-
    So this year—just don’t buy it!

    Kathy Lundy Derengowski

  28. Ericka

    What a thoughtful post. Food and body image are such charged topics for me. As an overweight/obese child and teen who was harangued daily by family members about my failing, I often felt food was my only friend that wasn’t critical. I binged frequently on unhealthy food which in retrospect, never left me feeling very good except for the endorphin rush after immediate consumption. It has taken me 3 decades to realize how much better my body and mind feel on a healthy diet of moderation. I still enjoy food; I don’t think I could ever see it purely as fuel 100% of the time. 80% maybe.

  29. Kaycee Dolores

    Many women nowadays are very conscious of their weight. Believe me for I am one of them. Weight loss has always been a struggle for me. It is true when you said eating what you want without gaining weight is challenging to everyone because the foods that we like would usually lead us to become overweight or obese. For this reason, we turn to healthy foods to make sure that we stay physically fit. However, most weight loss programs and diets of today are very unrealistic and too restrictive which is why most overweight people do not get good results. It’s also difficult to maintain a weight that you’re happy with because the weight that you want is always unacceptable to the public so you end up being criticized and force yourself to find ways to live with the weight standards of other people even if it won’t make you happy. Thanks for the tips about how one can fight cravings, I’ve been having difficulty with this as well. I’ll probably try what worked for you and perhaps attain better results. I admire your mindset when it comes to food, I want to follow your example to help me avoid unhealthy foods and achieve my ideal weight.

  30. f.

    I probably have an odd perspective on this issue, as I had an eating disorder for much of my teens / early twenties. This means that weighing myself daily, counting calories and logging food items are triggers for me to start starving myself again. I have just started learning how to get regular exercise without that “running high” feeling being a gateway to want to not eat anything until I feel faint. But it’s hard, and I usually still rely on long walks or bike commuting to get in exercise without triggering myself into starving. It’s a constant challenge not to abuse my body or obsess about thinness.

    Actually, getting interested in fashion has really helped me get over my hatred of my body. I realized that it’s not my “fault” if not every cut of clothing fits me or flatters my body, because not every piece of clothing is for everyone. By appreciating fashion, I can look at women who are thinner than me and enjoy seeing their outfits instead of obsessing about how I should be that thin. And, wearing beautiful fabrics, great accessories, having a haircut I love etc. are things that can make me feel good about myself no matter what my weight or pants size are.

    When it comes to food, I really appreciate the whole intuitive eating approach, which is what I worked on in therapy too. I am careful to have a food routine because if I don’t have good food at home, it’s a crapshoot as to whether I’ll just start skipping meals and get into a spiral of starving myself. So I cook myself large portions of high-protein vegetarian food on weekends (usually lentils, veggies, and brown rice – there are those of us who love those foods!) and bring lunch to work during the week, as well as eating dinner from the same dish. It sounds a little boring but it’s easy to cook some new veggies every day as a side dish, or throw some tofu or Greek yogurt on top, or add a green salad. Plus I freeze lots of soup and legumes so I can thaw something out in a pinch. It’s all about having a well-stocked fridge to stop myself from making dumb impulse decisions – a principle that I believe works, whether you are trying to prevent yourself from eating french fries every night or going to bed hungry every night.

    Anyway, it’s also so important to treat yourself! I always make a plan to go out to eat once a week and not even think about whether or not what I’m eating is healthy. My earlier anorexic self would be shocked to see how joyfully I pack in the falafel, french fries, dumplings in butter sauce etc. on these occasions. The fact is that extreme denial isn’t good for us either. At this point in my life even if 3 doctors were to say, “If you’d just cut out red wine, beer, and weekly cheat meals, you’d be ten pounds lighter” I would honestly give them the middle finger and walk away laughing.

    • Lydia

      Eating food you prepare yourself from basic ingredients is key, I agree. We don’t buy much snack food. Well, my husband does, but he is kind of stingy with it. So when I am hungry there aren’t a lot of quick options. If you are hungry and don’t keep snacks, you can eat: veggies, fruit, cheese, an egg. Reasonable foods. Most of the carby, sugary things require loads of preparation. Try making pasta, bread, cake, cookies from scratch and it’s not a very efficient way to spend your time feeding yourself.

      My mom was a scratch cook, so I grew up eating meals that consist of these main categories: roast, sautéed or braised meat; one (ONE!) carb like bread or potatoes, a cooked veggie (like broccoli or peas) and a salad. I’ve continued this overall scheme more or less with my family. We eat veggies with butter, cook with olive oil or butter, and are liberal with spices. Nothing is off limits, but everything has to be reasonably easy and simple to make. (I LOVE LOVE LOVE Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.)

      I think the biggest hurdle for most people is time. We spend so much time shopping for food and preparing food compared to the average family, even though our meals are actually quite simple. It should take time to feed ourselves; it is a fundamental part of living. The problem is no one has time anymore, and I don’t have a solution to that.

      Anyway, my observation is that people who really struggle with weight/body image have an emotional relationship with it that I can’t pretend to understand. I wish I had some helpful advice in that regard, but I am afraid is each ones personal battle. I do think it is important not to think of foods as good/bad because it feeds into the emotional roller-coaster, reward and punish thing many people already feel when it comes to food and body image. Getting the emotions out of it, that would be the trick, but I don’t know how you do that.

      • alice

        I really like that you said your family spends a lot of time shopping and preparing food because I think I spend more time than my friends doing these things too. These activities actually relax me and I certainly enjoy the end result. One thing I do to save time during the week is to cook as much in advance as possible. So I make a big batch of brown rice/kasha/mixed beans and one or two main dishes to go with that. And then I’ll have a couple of easy things to cook during the week (a piece of fish, sausages, sauteed veggies, etc) to supplement. The big plus is that I minimize the pots and pans I have to wash during the week!

  31. Kirsten

    When my metabolism slowed during my late 20’s, weight gain became inevitable for me. Several things helped: realizing that there’s nothing wrong with being 5’9″ and 140 lbs, being complimented by my husband who’s frankly delighted with my new curves, eating only when hungry, and then only enough to satisfy that hunger. Still, it’s a daily balancing act, except for the monthly cycle when water retention and bloating tends to occur. Weighing myself then is too depressing, so I remind myself that I’m not fat, and that I’ll be my usual size in a few days.

  32. Kay

    Sally, thank you for your thoughtful musings. I’m 45 years old and short and curvy – probably 35-45 pounds heavier than most doctors would have me be – but I’m also very strong and can ride 100 miles on a bicycle in one day, run 2.5 miles, and swim for an hour straight, plus I play beach volleyball for fun and do aerobics class. My stomach is not flat – I’ve had a baby, after all – but I do have a good waist and look proportional.

    My sister and I are 16 months apart and completely different body styles. She is 44 years old, exactly at what weight the doctors would have her be, a boyish figure at a size 0 to 2 depending on the brand, and she also works out like crazy – walks 40 blocks every day to work and back, does strenuous exercise videos at home every weekend day.

    During our growing up, it was me that my mother focused most of her weight loss energies on, putting me on an iceberg lettuce and mandarin orange diet one summer after I had gone up 8 pounds from 125 to 133 in high school. I had a lot of body self-hatred when I left for college, and that reflected itself in my clothing choices – a lot of baggy, a lot of black. Add to that working minimum wage jobs full time while maintaining a full time college curriculum and it also became a lot of super cheap.

    It took me many years to realize that I had been saying I was on a diet but never lost any weight. What I was really doing was deflecting any positive feelings about my body.

    Fast forward many years into now.

    I look at my diet as a balance between getting the best possible nutrients out of the calories you take in. Sure, I have my burgers, fries and ice cream – but I also have spinach salad 2-4 days a week and Greek yogurt every morning. I also maintain portion control with those things that are truly empty calories – have 3 cookies, not the whole box.

    I quit smoking 13 years ago, after 13 years of doing it. I almost never drink, and when I do it’s not to excess – 2 glasses of wine and it stops tasting good.

    My focus is nutrition trade offs, not calorie or weight counting; strong, not skinny or size. Again, this may not work for everyone, but I’ve been at my “set point” for over 10 years and hope to continue it for many more, even through menopause.

    We women are very hard on each other. PLEASE cut back on the snark about someone gaining or losing a lot of weight. We do not know where they started from, or what they are going through, or what their relationship is to food. All bodies are beautiful.

    • Kay

      Well, that was kind of blathery… But what I meant to say is that we all have our own stories to tell, our own journeys to take. Find your own path; your own balance and health. Xoxo!

  33. Gillian

    You’re so sweet Sal! I am really trying to thrift some flexible summer clothes so that I don’t get myself too worked up over my weight gain, but I know swimsuits will be a struggle. I know I’m overly paranoid that I’ll look pregnant…which is great if you are but leads to awkward conversations if you aren’t. I just found some Target dress pants at Goodwill and was very happy wearing them to work yesterday. You are so right about working with your body and not fighting your shape when clothes are wrong. I realized I’ve been thinking with the mindset I had as a teen when the juniors brands DID fit me easily. That didn’t mean I was the “right size” – just a convenient size for mass marketing.