Sunday, March 3, 2013

If you can't say something nice...

There have been a lot of times when other people have made my life much harder than it had to be. Bullies who liked to fling racial slurs at me in high school? Check.  College roommates who made my living situation miserable? Check. Creepers who think it's appropriate to honk at me and call me a bitch when I ignore them trying to holla at me through a car window? Check. One of the most disconcerting times other people have made my life harder is when I have tried to lose weight. 

Before we get to that, though, let's rewind a little. I did not start my life overweight.  In fact, I was a healthy weight in preschool.
Somewhere around 1990 when I was in preschool.
Things started to go downhill after that, though.  I grew up in a stereotypical Black family and we ate a lot of stereotypical soul food at home--deep fried everything, vegetables smothered in bacon grease to add "flavor," and lots of rich high calorie desserts.  On top of that the house was always full of junk food.  I was too little to know what eating food like that would mean for my body later and even if I had known I had very little choice in what food I was given so I ate and the consequences showed up as I got older.

I think I was 7 or 8 here.
I was 8 or 9 here.
Middle School
Why am i telling you this story? Because this is not the first time I have tried to reach a healthy weight.  The first time was somewhere between 8th and 9th grade when poor nutrition and lack of exercise helped me reach a very unhealthy 216.4 pounds. I was miserable. I had been made fun of since 5th grade (that was the year a kid in my class gave everyone those little Valentine's Day cards and reserved one for me that said "A Big Card for a Big Woman.") I had braces and bad skin and on top of that I was huge compared to the other girls in my class who were able to  cheerlead and play basketball, none of which I was able, because of my size, to do.  

One of my aunts offered to pay for me to join Weight Watchers over the summer and I decided to try it.  At the time Weight Watchers was still using the original points system and I did really well on the program.  When the school year started, it was much harder to stay on plan because smack dab in the middle of my day was a huge diet land mine: school lunch.  

Lunch at my high school was like a junk food lover's dream.  Pizza in one line, burgers or fried chicken sandwiches in another, sides were always unhealthy like mashed potatoes loaded with butter, buttery rolls, or french fries.  They did have a salad bar, but I have Crohn's Disease and raw vegetables make me really sick at my stomach. I took one look at the available options and knew that I would gain weight if I ate a school lunch and then turned around and ate whatever my family was having at home.  

If you don't believe me, consider this story from ABC news about school lunch guidelines.  The article talks about how recent changes in the guidelines require that school lunches contain more fruits and vegetables than they did when I was in high school.  While this is an improvement (since ketchup counted as a vegetable when I was in school), the lunches are still supposed to contain between 750 and 850 calories. 

I was extremely sedentary at the time and probably weighed around 180 pounds.  Based on that information I could probably have eaten around 2,000 calories per day if I wanted to maintain my weight, but since I was trying to lose weight I needed to eat fewer calories than that.  I have explained how your basal metabolic rate works before on this blog, but let's use this opportunity to go through an example.  Suppose I was aiming to lose 1 pound per week. I would need to create a calorie deficit of 3500 calories per week, a goal I could accomplish either by eating fewer calories per day or by burning more calories per day by working out.  I was really inactive as a teenager so I chose the eat fewer calories option.

In order to lose 1 pound per week I needed to eat 500 fewer calories per day than I burned (which would add up to a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories each week).  Since I burned around 2,000 calories per day, my maximum calorie intake would need to be around 1,500 calories per day in order to lose a pound a week.  

Back to those school lunches.  If I ate one of those 850 calorie school lunches (assuming that my school's lunches weren't more than that given the new requirements that the lunches be healthier), I would only be able to eat 650 calories for the rest of the day, breakfast, dinner, and snacks.  Since I knew that my food at home would also be high in calories, I ultimately decided to eat breakfast at home, have a Slimfast bar or other light snack at school, and then eat dinner with my family at home.  I was taking in more than enough calories over the course of the day, but because I was "skipping lunch" my mom accused me of having an eating disorder and forced me to see an eating disorder specialist for over a year. 

It was incredibly galling. I was following a highly regarded weight loss program and eating a healthy number of calories for the first time in my life only to have my own mother try to stop the healthy changes I was making in my life. I'm sure she thought she was helping me, and I'm not telling this story to attack her, but I also think it is a really good illustration of how little people know about weight loss and food. There are certainly arguments for eating 3 or more smaller meals per day, but if you go that route each of your meals can only be around 300 calories each. You can't eat multiple 800+ calorie meals each day and expect to lose or maintain your weight. In terms of nourishing your body and reaching/maintaining a healthy weight you are going to have to eat the appropriate number of calories for your body. Whether you eat those calories in a single meal or spread across more meals is up to you.

I know my mom really did not understand that point, but you should.  Weight loss is a choose your own adventure story, not a have someone choose your adventure for you story. The beauty of being an adult is that no one can meddle in my weight loss journey this time around quite the way they did in the past.  I do my grocery shopping. I make my food.  I count my calories. I am responsible for my success or my failure.  Even so, there are still people who make annoying comments when I mention that I am trying to lose weight.
My goal weight has always been somewhere between 130-135 pounds which is smack dab in the middle of the healthy weight range for someone who is 5'3. I know how much weight I need to lose to reach that healthy range, but lately I have started telling people that "I want to reach a healthy weight for someone my height" rather than telling them the number of pounds I want need to lose.
When I mention how much weight I am trying to lose someone inevitably tells me "Don't lose too much weight now."  I typically respond with a polite "I won't," but the reality is that comments like that are rife with ignorance and never fail to make me furious.  There is some serious information asymmetry between me and the other party in the conversation because I am holding a lot of information that the other party is not.  I am the only one who knows how much I weigh.  The other party may think they know what I weigh, but until they have seen the number on the scale they are just making assumptions based on a lack of information.

As the person who knows all the relevant information (like my height and current weight), and who has spent a fair amount of time educating herself about body mass index and the optimal weight range for someone my height, I know that I could get down to 120 pounds and still be at a perfectly healthy weight.  I know that my goal weight range is actually at the high end of the healthy weight range for a 5'3 woman.  Even if I did not know all of those things I would still know that the other person in the conversation does not know my life and is not in a position to comment intelligently on my weight loss.

I don't know what drives people to make comments like "Don't lose too much weight!"  Maybe it comes from a place of jealousy or maybe it comes from a place of concern.  Either way, it is patronizing and unappreciated.  If someone is trying to change their life for the better do not presume that they do not know what they are doing or that you know better than them what their weight should be.  It suggests that they are unable to do their own research about weight loss and make the decisions that are in their best interests. It suggests you, the person with the least information of the two of you, is in the best position to make the best decision for someone else. Condescending much?  

The next time someone tells you they are trying to lose weight, the appropriate response is to congratulate them on their journey, ask if they have tried any new recipes or products, and wish them luck as they continue to make changes and strive to be healthier. Sometimes you have to remember the lessons you learned as a child.  In this case, the appropriate lesson is if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.   

Has anyone ever made an upsetting comment about your weight loss journey?

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