Losing weight is an American obsession. It fuels the publishing industry, drives reality TV, and forms the bulk of our water cooler conversations. But how does it really work? What finally spurs us to action?
Sometimes it’s a medical diagnosis – high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and reduced kidney function. You’re tired all the time, a simmering anger and depression plagues your ever step, and you’re sick of it. Even some of your XXL shirts don’t fit anymore. You can’t breathe and cut your toe nails at the same time. You stopped tucking in your shirts years ago. You spend as little time as possible naked. Then it hits you – you’ve got the American Disease. You’re fat.
It takes years to get fat. You have to really work at it. First, stop moving. Then, eat way more than you need, and make sure the food you eat is composed of overly-processed fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. When in doubt, deep fry.
Then tell yourself that you prefer this kind of food. You need it. It makes you happy. And all other manner of lies.
All this was happening to me. It was time to change. I’d tasted freedom before – in decades past I’d quit cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. I knew how to let things go. But my work wasn’t done. Food was my final frontier.
My decision to lose weight was a child of many mothers. One was my doctor at Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Mikus. He watched me slip further and further away from the ideal. Like any good teacher, he matched the lesson to the student. He knew I’d take a rather intellectual approach to the whole thing so he suggested a couple of books by Michael Pollan, Food Rules and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then I watched some documentaries, Food, Inc. and King Corn. My reëducation had begun. Like most Americans, I had no idea where my food came from or what it even was – and more important, why it was killing me. Dr. Mikus and Michael Pollan became my gurus. But I still wasn’t free.
I’ve been a member of 24 Hour Fitness for 15 years. I’d been a gym dabbler, going through periods of total commitment and even longer periods of total absence. Something was missing.
The final straw was my nephrologist. I didn’t even know what a nephrologist was. Now I had one. There were sudden concerns about my kidney function. After he read my labs he sent me an email. The subject header read, “Moderate Kidney Disease, Chronic.” He kept saying it’s not as bad as it sounds. Good, because it sounds terrible.
The good news – it was reversible. All I had to do was, well, everything.
I needed help. I needed structure. I needed a map. I needed a team. As with any recovery process, the fastest way to fail is to white knuckle it alone. The wise words of my friend Anne Day kept sounding in my ear, “Allow it to be easy.”
I Googled Medifast and made an appointment. I sat down with Coleen and Tran at the Mission Valley center. We did a thorough body analysis and wrote a plan – three months to lose 25 pounds, then a year of follow-up counseling. Eating five small meals and drinking a half gallon of water a day. Making sure the nutritional balance was right and geared toward fat burning. I don’t really understand it – it’s science. I’m more of an art guy. But I trusted my growing team of advisors and surrendered to their superior knowledge.
The results have been startling. In the first three weeks I lost 15 pounds, most of the way toward my goal. Suddenly I can breathe and cut my toe nails at the same time again.
Another important voice in my Greek chorus of cheerleaders was Louise Hay and her classic book You Can Heal Your Life. The undisputed queen of New Age optimism, Hay offers a compelling portrait of New Thought claims with deep roots in the world’s ancient wisdom traditions, namely, that our life is a product of our thoughts. I immediately typed several of her affirmations on a note in my iPhone and read them out loud every day. My favorite one is, “I nourish myself with spiritual food and I am satisfied and free.” When you say that to yourself everyday something weird happens – it becomes true. Now I can drive by In-N-Out and Chipotle without even a ripple of craving. Doughnuts have become invisible. The smell of pizza in the Costco Food Court no longer sends me on a downward spiral of longing and loathing.
A few weeks ago I posted something on Facebook about an annoying moment at the gym. The woman on the elliptical machine next to me was talking so loud on her phone that I couldn’t focus on the music blaring out of my iPod’s ear buds. All I could hear was her. Tim Flannery, multiple World Series-winning third-base coach for the San Francisco Giants and musical friend, commented on my thread. “Turn off the music and concentrate on running and getting stronger.” I typed that into my iPhone too, immediately appointing Tim as my honorary personal trainer. When a world champion athlete and professional coach gives you free advice, you take it. For years my central focus at the gym was my iTunes playlist – Son Volt, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and the like. Now I leave my iPod at home. I run. I focus on my breathing. I feel myself getting stronger.
Then other voices joined the chorus. Magazine articles from the New Yorker, Shambhala Sun, and Unity Magazine crossed my path. It’s as if the universe were conspiring for my success. Wherever I turned I kept getting the message that weight loss fails if it comes from a place of self-loathing. The foundation of any successful health-restoration plan has to be a deep sense of self-respect and self-love. You can’t go to the gym thinking I’m mad at myself, I’ve got to lose weight, who I am now is wrong and bad and I have to change. You’ve got to go to the gym thinking, I’m so excited about the prospect of liberating the real me from years of neglect, I am willing to do whatever it takes to become who I really am by letting go of everything and anything that doesn’t serve my highest good. Real weight loss can never be grounded in a negative body image. Something far more primal and fundamental is at stake. Your body is a miracle of flesh, bone, muscle, sinew, ligament, fluid, chemicals, electricity, and spirit. Your well-being depends on its optimal functioning. In my case, there is a lean, mean, vibrant, energetic man somewhere under this fat suit. And he wants to come out and play.
They call it weight loss. But that’s just a by-product. What you’re really losing is a mistaken world view, a battery of delusional notions that conspire against your highest good, a grim and toxic narrative that binds you to a slowly suicidal path. When you lose weight, what you’re really losing is a mistaken notion of where your joy lies. This is a story about mental emancipation, not physical transformation. When we re-invent and re-imagine our relationship with food and with our body, we are virtually reborn. Spiritual nourishment is so much more delicious than recreational eating. Food is medicine, a sacred connection to the embodied energy of the cosmos, not cheap entertainment. When you come to see food as it really is, you come to see yourself as you really are. Then your destructive habits drop away one by one and you begin to respect yourself. You experience an abundance of joy no plate could ever hold. And you come to rest in the knowledge that letting go is the only way to get everything you really want.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterbolland), or write to him at email@example.com