Monday, March 1, 2010

Michelle's Top Ten Guidelines for Healthy Eating and Losing Weight

I've struggled with my weight nearly my whole life. I have been in Weight Watchers (WW) off and on since 1995, and I have attended WW meetings in 4 different states and the District of Columbia. I have tried several other diets and increased exercise as ways to lose weight. I've attempted dieting with group support, on my own and with an online buddy. I have had some minor successes in weight loss in the past, and I have learned many lessons along the way. It all started to come together in 2009.

A WW meeting I attended last spring was one of those negative ones where everyone in the room seemed obsessed with how hard it all was. How could they be expected to eat so little food? How could they cut the amount of food they ate with every ten pounds they lost? This was impossible. It went on and on for more than ten minutes. By the end of it, I was so frustrated and could feel that my motivation to go on had leaked out with each complaint until I was almost empty.

Finally, I wanted to scream, "It's not about the food!" You know you won't starve. It's about the emotions. You are using food to meet your emotional needs or to anesthetize emotions you don't want to confront, and you're rebelling against the thought of your emotional needs not being met.

These thoughts surprised me, but they were extremely helpful and illuminating. For me this effort to become a healthy writer and eater is not about the food. It's much more mental and emotional. My greatest barrier to success is often myself. I've had to come up with ways to combat my mental and emotional barriers. I've developed ten guidelines for healthy eating that helps me combat my urge for emotional eating and lose weight.

Michelle's Top Ten Guidelines for Healthy Eating and Losing Weight

1) Promise Yourself You'll Give It a Year

At the beginning of 2009, I promised myself I'd give it my all to lose weight that whole year and spent time figuring out what "my all" would entail. I reflected on what had worked for me in my past attempts at weight loss, what hadn't and why I always quit trying. I used that information to figure out how I could change my results. I decided that my biggest mistake was that I never gave it enough time. I let my discouragement at how hard or how slow it was convince me to believe it was impossible and quit after a few months. I needed to see if trying for a whole year would make a difference. I even broke this down into smaller goals to make it even harder for me to quit. I would attend 45-50 WW meetings and work out at least 100 times.

Resolving that I would try all year is the best thing I've ever done for my weight loss. Whenever I've gotten frustrated at how slowly the weight comes off, I can't contemplate quitting because I promised myself I would give it a whole year. All that energy that used to go into the discouragement I let myself feel and the angst over whether I should keep trying, should I just quit, could I really do this went instead into my continued efforts to lose weight. This determination carried me through the 18 times I gained weight in 2009. At the end of the year, I was nearly 30 pounds and several clothes sizes smaller. I was so thrilled with the results I promised to give it my all in 2010 and for however long it took me to get to a healthy BMI.

2) Find a Way to Be Aware of What You Are Eating and Make Healthy Choices

In a lot of ways, my journey is not about the food, but I have had to recognize that food is my drug of choice. I've used it for decades as a coping mechanism, as a way to anesthetize emotions, to avoid ugly thoughts or emotions, to reduce stress, and to reward myself. I have to learn how to be aware of what, how much, and why I am eating at all times and must work to ensure I'm eating a healthy amount. I have to fight myself on this because if I'm not mindful of what I'm eating, I will overeat.

I have 4 keys to succeeding at this:

a) Keep a Food Diary
b) Practice Portion Control
c) Make healthy, nutritious and satisfying food choices
d) Occasionally indulge

3) Manage Your Expectations

So much of the successful journey to becoming a healthy eater and losing weight is mental. You need to learn how to manage your thoughts, avoid playing mind games with yourself, and just keep working at it whenever you hit a rough patch. One way I accomplish this is by managing my expectations on a day-to-day or even minute-by-minute basis and over the long term. I need to have healthy expectations about how low my goal weight can be, how long it will take me to reach a goal weight and how much I expect to lose each time I step on the scale. In fact, I try to be "Zen like" and approach the scale with zero expectations of any weight loss at all.

4) Plan and Prepare for Success

I try to ask myself the following questions on a regular basis: What do I need to do to succeed in my weight loss efforts? What should I do for the short term and for the long term? What challenges can I anticipate? How can I approach these challenges so that they won't sabotage my efforts? What kind of support systems and habits can I build into my life that will help me lose weight and ultimately maintain a healthy lifestyle?

One of the most common ways I plan and prepare for success is to meal plan for the upcoming week and go to the grocery store to ensure I have healthy food on hand to eat. Other ways I've done this include: cooking one day for the month, figuring out healthy meal options I can have when eating out, throwing out my fat clothes, developing a game plan for the holidays or food pushers, evaluating my past year and setting goals for the upcoming year, finding goals to work towards that have nothing to do with the scale, and asking tough questions such as can I take a break, what's in a number, and am I backsliding.

5) Find Other Ways to Measure Your Progress Besides the Scale

The scale is not my friend. It's a necessary part of tracking my progress, but I can't let it become the "be all" of my journey to becoming and staying a healthy writer. Sure, there are times when I love the number it shows, but it also breaks my heart on a regular basis. I've got to come up with other ways to acknowledge what I've accomplished and give me motivation to continue. Learning to recognize non-scale victories keeps me going when I'm not losing weight and is an important part of making my journey a success.

6) Learn to Recognize Emotional Eating and Develop Ways to Combat that Urge

The key to this is asking yourself why am I eating. Am I experiencing physical hunger or emotional hunger? You need to learn to recognize the signs of physical hunger, such as a growling stomach, lack of energy, light-headedness, a headache, and the signs of emotional hunger. Have you eaten enough that day that you should not be hungry yet? Are you eating for reward or because you think you deserve a treat? Do you have an almost uncontrollable urge to eat, but you have no idea what you want to eat and nothing you eat satisfies you? Are you feeling an emotion that you don't want to acknowledge? Learning to recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger is a skill you can develop over time.

Since January 2009, I've developed short-term and long-term tactics to help me combat my urge for emotional eating. When I am confronted with an urge to eat for emotional reasons and not for physical reasons, to eat for reward or even to binge eat, I try to stop and recognize why I want to eat. I tell myself that I'm not hungry and don't need to eat. I try to distract myself. I'll try to find some kind of external motivation or "sign" that will stop me from overeating. If I can't resist the urge, I'll try to contain it to just one meal and get back on the healthy eating wagon at the next meal.

Another step I try to take whenever I feel like overeating or binging is ask myself why do I want to do this. What emotions am I feeling that are encouraging me to overeat as a way to suppress them? Can I address these emotions? What is causing these emotions? Why am I upset? Can I figure out ways to address what is making me upset and work out these emotions? Can I change the situation? Can I change my reaction to the situation? Can I change my thoughts about the situation and eventually change my emotions? I sometimes do this emotional searching in a blog post, such as the one on jealousy, fear of success or the dark side of the holidays.

Healthy guidelines 7-10 are also long-term tactics of mine to combat emotional eating.

7) Develop Ways to Comfort Yourself Besides Eating

One of the ways I combat my emotional eating is to find other healthier methods to comfort and soothe myself so that I don't turn to food and overeat. Nature can soothe me. Escaping into a great book has always worked for me. Other ideas include knitting, exercise, meditation, listening to music, dancing around your living room to said music, attending church services, calling a friend on the phone, taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, and doing something social with friends or family.

8) Enjoy the Benefits of Exercise

In his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, David Kessler argues that the only feeling of reward close to the one you get from overeating comes from exercise, and you can literally rewire your brain to want the healthy version and not the unhealthy version. I have been trying to do this since May of 2009 and have had a lot of success with it. I've taken the time to figure out what exercise I enjoy and focus on the benefits I get from exercise as opposed to thinking of it as something I have to do to lose weight. I'm learning to really enjoy and appreciate regular exercise. I miss it, and the benefits it gives me, when I've gone too long between gym visits.

9) Determine Why You Started to Overeat and Address that Wound

I learned this guideline by watching The Biggest Loser. A set of questions that the trainers want the contestants to answer before they leave the ranch is: When did you start overeating and gaining weight? What was happening in your life at that time? How did you feel? It all builds to the question why did you start overeating. The trainers firmly believe that this is the most important lesson of all for the contestants. In order to reach their current state of being morbidly obese, these contestants had to have some serious emotional eating issues. They have to figure out why they started overeating so that they stop and finally conquer this issue. They need to face these emotions and work out some kind of resolution, or they'll just gain the weight back.

Realizing how and why the urge to overeat all started was an important step in learning how to stop or moderate this behavior. Once you know this original wound, you can heal it or at least face it and change your reaction to it. Forcing myself to go through this exercise has made a profound impact on my weight loss and my confidence that I'll be able to keep it off.

10) Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

The key to figuring out what a healthy relationship to food is may be realizing what it is not and what you can't look to food to provide. It won't fix your problems. It won't fill a void in your life. It won't heal an emotional wound you are trying to ignore. Any comfort, soothing or joy is temporary at best. It won't make you happy. Figuring out what will is a much better long-term tactic than overeating.

These ten guidelines are still a work in progress. I plan to write more about them throughout 2010 as I continue losing weight. While I'm not a fast loser, these practices are helping me with my most successful attempt to lose weight. I'm nearly 35 pounds lighter than I was in the beginning of January 2009 and several sizes smaller. I am fully committed to making it to a healthy BMI. What I've learned along the way will help me get to that goal weight and stay there.

What do you think? Do you find these guidelines helpful? What am I missing? What do you think I should add?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at


Elise Hayes on March 1, 2010 at 6:47 AM said...

Two tips resonated the most with me:
1. Finding a way, other than the scale, to measure your progress. Michelle, I know you've used both clothes sizes and pictures to help. Sometimes, particularly when you're exercising, the scale doesn't tell the whole story. I'm still the same weight I was nine months ago, but I've tripled my exercise and my clothes are fitting differently, looking better. Yay!

2. Asking the question of *why* I'm eating. It demands a bit of self-reflection that often helps me recognize that I don't really want a snack--I'm not hungry--but I'm procrastinating about something, or having a hard time starting on a new work project for the day (so the eating is a stalling technique).

And an update on my mom, who is back at WW: I cautiously ran the idea of reading Kessler's book past her and she seemed genuinely interested. I'll email her the reference this week. Yay!

Michelle Butler on March 1, 2010 at 9:17 AM said...

Great news about your mom, Elise! I hope she likes the Kessler book. That and the Zen of Eating are the two books that helped me the most last year.

Re: Measurement other than the scale

I've definitely had times on this journey when I felt like I was getting smaller every week (due to lots of exercise) but was not getting any smaller on the scale. It started to play with my mind, so I had to really figure out how I could ignore the scale's number but still keep making forward progress.

I still haven't figured out how important the scale is as a measurement. Since I've been in the 12's, people have started telling me I look fine, I don't need to lose more weight, etc., but I have quite a bit more weight to lose according to the scale. At this point, I'm still using my goal of getting back to the healthy weight range/BMI range as my end goal. I've got at least 30 pounds to go. I do believe I can get there though.

Anne MacFarlane on March 1, 2010 at 11:31 AM said...

Michelle, I think we could be twins, our WW stories are so similar.

One of the things that I've learned to ask myself before I dig into the carton of ice-cream (I know I'll eat most of even if I tell myself I only want a taste) is: when I finish eating this will it make me happy? The answer, of course, is always "no." A lot of the time that's enough to make me put down the spoon.

I also use this same question when I want to buy something I don't need or is too expensive.

Michelle Butler on March 1, 2010 at 11:35 AM said...

Anne, it's comforting to know that our WW stories are similar. For so long, WW meetings were such a site of failure and history of failure that it was painful to walk into a location based on that one fact alone.

I think that's a great question - for eating and for buying/spending. Suze Ormand makes a lot on that last bit - the connection between emotions and spending.

Tawny on March 1, 2010 at 5:48 PM said...

What a wonderful list, Michelle :-)

I took body measurements today because I was feeling frustration with the scale, despite seeing a difference in how my clothes fit. I think too many factors impact that scale number, and we put so much energy and faith in it that we let it really drag us down. Measurements, hopefully, will negate some of that.

Michelle Butler on March 1, 2010 at 6:13 PM said...

Thanks, Tawny!

I think it's a really good idea to take your measurements. Particularly if you are working out, you may be surprised by how many inches you've lost even if the scale has not budged. Way to go. :)

Sally Kilpatrick on March 2, 2010 at 1:27 PM said...

Michelle, your advice is very well thought out and similar to many of my revelations over the past few years. I can see, though, that there are still mile to go before I sleep.

thanks for sharing,

Michelle Butler on March 2, 2010 at 2:13 PM said...

Thanks, Sally! You can get there - and give yourself time to do it as well. It's not going to happen overnight, but you'll reach a point when you are surprised how far you've gone - and it's no longer so hard to keep going. Best wishes!

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