By Dr. Ken Buckle
In my previous job prior to starting Gratia Plena, I did a fair amount of business travel. One of the enjoyable things about business travel for me was the human element. You never know who might be sitting next to you on a plane or around you in the airport, and what you might experience. It could really be pretty fun sometimes, which was nice because there were plenty of things about business travel that were not very pleasant.
I recall on one trip when I happened to be seated in the plane behind a boxer and his entourage of about three or four. I am not sure who the boxer was because I’m really not that into boxing, but he must have been somewhat serious and successful at his sport since he was travelling with this group of followers. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to them, but there were a few minutes during the flight when I had to stop what I was doing and secretly observe their activity.
The flight attendant was working her way down the aisle toward us with her tray of snacks. When she got to their row, she asked if any of them wanted what she was giving away (cute little packages of cookies and crackers). The boxer took one and immediately flipped it over. He started reading out the ingredients out loud, very slowly and carefully. One of them must have been either his trainer or nutritionist. Without looking up when the boxer finished reading aloud, this person simply said “no white flour.” Without saying anything, the boxer handed the package back to the flight attendant.
I was amazed. There were a couple of things here that impressed me. First, the boxer had developed a habit of knowing exactly what was going into his body and making sure that it was healthy. For him, food was fuel. He had learned that his body will not function at its highest level if he puts junk into it. Second, he had an expert to advise and support him. He put total confidence into this person and didn’t question anything. They both had the same goal: victory at the next fight. This was very serious to them. That boxer wanted to punish his opponent, and not take a beating himself. They were definitely on a mission.
Obesity is a significant problem in the United States today, both among children and adults. The number of people with this health issue is staggering. The causes are many and are complex. The costs associated with Obesity are very high, both in terms of money and medical resources, but also when it comes to personal suffering and social stigma and discrimination. The recovery from Obesity is a long road, and is extremely complicated and challenging.
A new study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals a couple of interesting and important findings. First, low glycaemic diets are preferable when it comes to keeping weight off, over low fat diets and low carbohydrate diets. A low glycaemic diet is one that controls blood sugar. We have known for some time that sugar spikes after eating can lead to the dreaded sugar crash which leaves a person feeling hungry, lethargic, tired, irritable, confused, light-headed, and sometimes with a headache. The study reminds us that it is better to reduce refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, potato products and those sugary foods that we crave. This was the strategy of the boxer I mentioned above. Traditional carbohydrates like stone-ground breads or whole oats digest slowly and so they raise blood sugar slowly. Instead of simply reducing carbohydrates or fats from the menu, a better goal is to eat healthier fats and carbohydrates.
Fast foods are notoriously terrible for high carbohydrate loading. A person can become addicted to fast foods in a sense, because of the increases in hunger after the carbohydrate crash. I recall my son’s high school friend Matt, who recently made the local news due to his successful health changes. Matt was quite overweight after finishing college. One of the changes he decided to make was to virtually eliminate fast foods as an option. He also embarked on a serious exercise regimen that prepared him for Triathlons and soon, and Iron Man event! Now he helps others on his website.
So changing the menu is essential to combat Obesity. Changing the size of the plate is also important. One of the challenges in the United States today is that menu portion sizes have exploded in the restaurant industry. Sometimes I almost have to laugh at the size of the plates being brought to the table. Restaurants have found this to be an effective way to increase their profits. My friend Ellen in Phoenix never ever eats an entire meal at the restaurant. In fact when we sit down we could ask the waiter to bring her a “doggy bag” at the same time he serves the meal, because we all know she will take most of it home. At home, you can also put away your big plates and just keep out the smaller ones. This will help remind and encourage you to watch your portion sizes.
Some of the other strategies for changing eating behavior involve putting the fork in the non-dominant hand, to slow down the rate of consumption. A similar trick is to put the fork down after every bite. Slowing down the rate of eating is important so that the brain can get the message as soon as possible when the stomach is full. Another tip is to eat with the television or computer turned off. Some people go into a trance while they are eating, especially if there are distractions. My very first psychotherapy client many years ago overate while reading books. Her ritual was to surround herself with food while she read. At some point she would snap out of her spell, unaware of how much she had eaten. Some people eat so fast or without thinking and the brain doesn’t get the message “I’m full” until too much has been eaten.
Exercise is critical when it comes to maintaining and losing weight. I remember once reading a clever article that tried to analyze and determine the very best exercise available. The fitness expert author considered walking versus running and sit-ups versus jumping jacks and so on. Then there’s the extreme Navy Seal training versus the latest Ab rocket buster twister thing-a-ma-jigs, and so on. The study was carefully and thoroughly done to compare how many calories are burned and how much muscle toning might occur with each different exercise. The clever conclusion was that the very best exercise was the one that a person will keep doing long-term. It didn’t so much matter exactly what type of exercise it might be, as long as it was enjoyable enough so that the person wouldn’t give it up. Simple walking and swimming are two of the most excellent exercises you can do, and they are low impact.
After all the hubbub and infomercials, it seems that you just cannot beat the simple formula of comparing calories consumed against calories expended. You must eat right and exercise if you are going to control your weight, like my son’s classmate Matt whom I mentioned above. You cannot do one without the other and expect success. As an example, one of the old, tried and true formulas for estimating basal metabolism rate (BMR) is called the Harris-Benedict Equation. This equation actually has different calculations for men and women because each gender tends to have different a BMR. It shows you clearly that if you exercise less, then your calorie intake needs to be less. The formulas may be off slightly for people who are very muscular or very obese, but the basic approach is sound. One person told me that some days he may not feel like jogging, and so on these days he tells himself “well I guess you’re not going to eat much today.” He reports that sometimes this message to self is enough to get him to strap on the shoes and get going. This balance concept is where we need to intervene with children. We must teach them about exercise and nutrition at an early age, and model it for them.
Motivation is perhaps one of the most important elements in the fight against Obesity. If we are to make progress as a culture, we must realize that this is a matter of life and death. Nearly all addicts that I work with in successful recovery come to believe that their addiction will kill them if they don’t arrest it. It doesn’t matter whether they are addicted to cigarettes, sex, or alcohol. Obesity will kill you, make no mistake. One person I knew faced heart surgery because of her weight. After hearing this from the doctors, she was so terrified that she began walking every day. Each day she made it a point to walk a little further than the day before. She was highly motivated to lose weight because she didn’t want to die of a heart attack or during heart surgery. And she was successful.
In grad school in Chicago, Professor Bob Craig told our class once about the smoking cessation classes that he taught. In the first class he would provide information about tobacco and how to stop smoking and how his program would work. Then at the end of that first class, he’d pick up the trash can from the corner of the room and challenge the participants to pitch away their smokes right then and there. They would be shocked and surprised. We could tell by his devious smile that Professor Bob kind of enjoyed that part of his program, seeing the looks on their faces. He said that this was an important moment in their recovery, because this showed who was motivated and ready, and who was not. If the cigarettes came out of the purses and pockets, then they were going to make it. If not, then they were at risk of struggling through the program.
We have to find something to motivate our change. We’re going to fit into that pair of pants again. We’re going to earn a special vacation. We’re going to save a marriage or get a job. We might make a list of all of the bad things that have happened because of our weight, or the bad things that will happen if we don’t lose weight. We have to have that “come to Jesus” talk with ourselves.
But speaking of Jesus, this brings up an important point. While these types of changes may involve some degree of self-effort and self-will, we need to invite the Spirit of Life to be part of our change. Ultimately, it is God who transforms us and not just in the issues such as weight control or recovery from addiction or mental illness. God our Father, the Physician of the Soul, calls us to deeper transformation. This is not something we do through self-effort. Grace is involved. We participate in it, but we do not direct or control it. Let us pray that our more superficial change efforts may remind us of the deep healing and transformation that we need at the soul level.
And now, let’s wrap up with a couple of final closing thoughts…
Recent studies have found that for women, a program of change that involves peer support is particularly important. Support is of course important for men too, but not to the extent that it is for women. Peer recovery is a big deal these days. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is really pushing it right now. Recovery or change is not easy, and deep transformation is even more challenging. This is why we often talk about the “work” of recovery. It can also be frightening. Take courage. So buddy up and walk the road of recovery with an old or a new friend. Walk the road with the Spirit.
Time is part of this challenge. We have lots of good studies that illustrate how long people stick to a program of change, and when they tend to drop out. We find that it takes several weeks for the body to experience change, and it takes several weeks for a good habit to become fixed. Then the 90 day point is a critical milestone for sustained change, and then again nine months and a year. In order for a long-term recovery to be successful, the entire process will likely take several years. So because of this, when we are making a change that involves recovery from something like Obesity, we are much better off thinking of it in terms of a permanent life-style change than just a temporary diet or project.
Again, look for a spiritual element in your fight. Then, surrender to grace. When we are faced with a life-threatening difficulty, it is time to reassess. We think about what is important in life, and we think about the meaning of life. We ponder the meaning of the difficulty in front of us, and wonder if God may be giving us an invitation to something better. A better life than we have now, with true serenity and peace. We consider that it takes humility to admit that we are in a bad place, but this is where grace enters and gives us strength if we allow it. Grace is there for you. Just ask for it and it will be given. Surrender and let go.
This article could go on and on for sure on this topic. But I’ll pause here for today. I just had to tell you that little story about the boxer on the airplane. It was a good memory that makes me smile when I think of it. So hear the clang of the bell and take action, but don’t forget to surrender to the movement of God in your life. If you have some thoughts or comments, feel free to enter them below on this blog.