Thursday, November 6, 2014

Off Switch Eating

I've lost about 30 pounds since the beginning of June.  That's enough weight that people notice, and many ask what it is I'm doing.

I know what people want to hear is that it's something that doesn't involve much sacrifice.  Unfortunately that's not the way it works.  For me, anyway.  Everyone's bodies and goals are different, so I can only say what works for me and people can take from it what they will.

For various reasons my weight has been up and down and all over the map.  I know at this point what my body responds to, how exercise and food affects it, and where most of my limits are.  My 30s were all spent in and out of pregnancies and breast feeding, and dealing with the stress of small children, starting a business, and my husband's deployments.  But now my last baby is about to turn eight, Ian returned from Iraq four years ago, and I've finally arrived at a place where I have no excuses for getting control over my own body and my health and my habits.

I've learned that exercise has almost no impact on my weight.  I swim a mile almost every day.  That was true 30 pounds ago and it's true now.  Exercise is important, and I'm glad it's something I've added to my routine, but I think weight loss has to do with what you eat, not how you move.  Exercise does affect the shape I'm in.  I think if I'd lost 30 pounds rapidly and without exercise I would look very different.  For instance, my arms are not flabby anymore, but only because my muscle tone is good and my skin has had time to adjust to the change.  So I'm not saying exercise isn't helping, but it does not affect the numbers on the scale.

What has brought my weight down is eating less.  I know, shocking.  But I'm not someone who wants to track every bite I put into my mouth.  I don't want to think that hard.

So I've come up with a system for myself that I'm calling "Off Switch Eating."

This is how I explained it to my kids the other day:  The people I know who maintain a healthy weight tend to have a good internal gauge for when they should stop eating.  They can eat a half a plate of pasta and then their off switch kicks in and they know they are done.  I don't have a working off switch for certain foods.  I can eat the whole cake, or all the cookies, or an entire pizza, and at no time does my body tell me to stop.  I have to rely entirely on my mind to exert some will power in order not to eat too much.  Now I only eat foods for which I have an off switch so I don't have to think about it.

When I cut out sugar, dairy, and wheat, it had little to do with any particular research or food philosophy, and more to do with the fact that those foods are hard for me to manage responsibly.  (So even though they are not on my "official" list there are other things I try to avoid as well, such as potatoes and rice, because they are bad in excess and I don't have an off switch for them, either.)

Now I'm left with foods that I like, but that I'm not going to overindulge in.  For instance, apples are okay.  I'll eat an apple.  But I don't have to track how many apples I'm eating because the odds of my eating apples to the point of destruction is absurd.  I could eat maybe, what, two apples?  The idea of, say, ten, is insane for me.

There are some things I eat that have a sort of external off switch.  Steak, for one.  I could keep eating steak, but I'm not going to buy and prepare that much steak, so when it's gone, well, I'm done eating it.  Pineapple is another.  I bought a big container of fresh cut pineapple recently because I wanted to snack on something sweet, but I ate so much of it that it tore up the inside of my mouth.  I got down to the bottom of the container and I ate the last few pieces even though they hurt at that point.  (I will buy a smaller container next time.)

I don't eat breakfast, I bring a bag of food to work and eat that on and off through dinnertime, and sometimes I have an evening snack.  I eat a lot of quinoa, avocado, cherry tomatoes, grapes, spinach, tuna, chick peas, nuts.... 

I believe we don't need to eat as much as we think we do.  We get fixated on these images of a balanced breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and if we have to organize our eating around feeding a group (i.e. making sure the kids all get fed at regular intervals) then we may not be getting a realistic picture of how to eat for individual needs.  As much as I love the idea of family dinners I seldom sit down with my kids at mealtimes anymore because my work schedule doesn't allow it, and that's been helping.  I'm eating less, but I'm eating all day, so I don't feel deprived.

It's not easy, but it's not actually hard, either.  I just choose not to start eating stuff where I won't stop.  I did not indulge in any Halloween candy.  I keep away from cookies at rehearsals.  If I'm going out someplace where others will be having ice cream or something tempting I bring a little bag of grapes and walnuts to have something to munch.  There are moments it's very, very hard.  But most of the time it's not a big deal at all.  The upcoming holidays will be a challenge, but I think I'll be fine.  I'll focus on the stuff I can eat, and just remember what it was like to have pie.  (I've had my share of pie.  I can't claim to have been denied enough pie in my lifetime.)

I am about five to ten pounds away from entering the normal weight range for my height on a typical height/weight chart.  I am about twenty pounds away from where I would like to be and try to stay.  I currently weigh less than it says on my driver's license.  I am almost down to what I weighed on my wedding day.

Body image is a funny thing, though.  I know I am lighter, but I feel fatter.  Most of this probably has to do with simply paying attention.  When I was over 200 pounds it was upsetting, and it was easier to live with myself by not looking in the mirror, or studying my body too closely.  Now as I shrink in some places my eye is drawn more critically to the places that are left.

Weight fluctuations also seem to matter less above a certain size.  When I was an 18 back in the spring I simply had clothes that were big.  Ten pounds one way or the other didn't change the fit of "big."  Right now I'm wearing a 10, and if my weight goes up a couple of pounds one week my clothes are uncomfortably snug, so any little change seems huge.  Trying on clothes is still depressing because nothing fits well, I'm just feeling bad about clothes in a different section of the store.

Despite how any of this sounds, the truth is I don't dislike my body.  I've never wanted another one, I've always just wanted the one I have to be in better shape.  My body works well.  I've got good skin and hair, I like being tall, I can hear and see and smell and touch, no chronic pain or diseases to battle, and I even take a perverse sort of pride in my body's flaws such as the way my feet point inward because of a twist in my knees.  It's a good, dependable body and I'm glad to be in it.  It's mine.  The weight problem is frustrating because of what it seems to reflect about me and my priorities.  I'm disappointed in myself for not treating the one body I have better.  Overeating is disrespectful of what is in reality my home.

I can forgive myself for overindulgence in the past.  The heaviest non-pregnancy weight I ever reached was a year after I had Aden.  That was reflective of the degree to which I lost focus on myself, which was understandable considering my adjustment to a new way of life and putting great energy into someone else.  I worked hard to get in shape after that, but it was a roller-coaster with four more pregnancies (two of which ended in miscarriage) and the two deployments.  Something had to give when Quinn was born and Ian was in Iraq and I was trapped in the house with all the kids, so I don't blame myself for eating too many cookies and slices of pizza.  I'm not perfect and that's okay.

But now I'm trying to do better.  I'm in a different place, one with support and more options.  I am trying to eat for the weight I want to be, and wherever that levels out will be fine.  It would be great not to feel blobby, and I can't seem to escape the double chin thing I have going on, and I will never be in a position where I want to show anyone my belly, but that's okay.  My husband finds me attractive, my kids love me no matter what, and I'm not interested in winning a beauty contest.  I want to build violins and make music, so I just need good hands, not cute ones.

People ask when I'll start adding my forbidden foods back into my diet, but I'm not looking at it that way.  I'm not trying to eat this way "until."  I'm simply trying a new way to eat, period.

The off switch idea is working for me so far.  In addition to the weight loss I don't get headaches anymore.  I used to have a problem with little white zits on my cheeks and those are almost entirely gone.  I never have any kind of digestive distress.  I'm sure avoiding sugar has been good for my teeth, not just my waistline.

I can't look at it in terms of what I'm not getting to eat, because really, nobody gets to eat everything they want every day.  If I pick an item off the dessert cart I'm not getting to eat any of the others.  Currently I'm just taking one fewer dessert than that.  Maybe not forever, but for now.  It does feel like a sacrifice because it is.  For me being a healthy weight is going to be work and there's no getting around that.  I can accept whatever shape my body is in as long as I can be proud of the choices that brought me there.  And on that score I'm finally doing better.


  1. I love a lot of things about this post. I always see your blog as a glimpse into the future, here with a three-year-old and another on the way. Before I got pregnant, I gained some weight, having gotten down to a pretty good number around the time my son turned one and a half. And now I'm in the whole "what fits what doesn't good grief when am I ever going to get to exercise' mindset.

    Somewhere, in my mind's eye, I see a future where my kids are old enough that I'll have time to do it more easily. And to cook with a bit more planning and foresight than I do now. It's good to hear your tale of coming out of the early years and focusing on care of you. Thanks for being so honest about it.

    1. I think the hard part about being where you are is being kind to yourself while you don't have as many choices. I look back at my 30s and think, "Whoa, how did I do all of that?" Well, at the time with the comfort of chocolate. There are certainly challenges in my 40s, but when your kids are more independent it means you can be more independent, and I feel as if my world is opening up again. There's good stuff at every stage, really, they are sometimes just harder to appreciate while you are in them.

  2. Congratulations! I'm sure you look great. Our kids are just now to the age where I can leave them in the house long enough to go for a run if I want to. It feels like parole. Probably for them, too.

    1. Parole! I know, it's like a miracle the first time you don't have to bring everyone with you all the time. I remember taking the kids for a walk once when Ian was gone, and I had Quinn strapped to the front of me, and a girl on each hand, and we S L O W L Y made our way around the block, and I realized I felt like some small mammal covered with her young in a nature film. It's amazing to have the kids at home and just... leave them there for a bit.

  3. I'm in a similar boat in that I have been losing weight since about the beginning of the summer and people are noticing and asking what I'm doing... except I'm basically just eating (slightly) healthier and running. I started out with a very specific eating plan and which has been modified so much- and I cheat so often- I don't really have an eating plan at all any more, although I've made some of the changes permanent. So when people ask, I just say that I'm running a lot. Which is true. BUT, I realized as I read this, that you're right on with the off-switch eating thing... I've more or less cut out (some of) the things I go crazy with and can't seem to stop eating.

    So my point is... you're awesome! Both for being so dedicated and taking care of yourself, and for explaining it so well, and giving it a fun little name: Off-Switch Eating! The next diet fad?! ;-) (Just kidding, I hate diet fads, but you've got a trendy little name and everything...)

    1. Don't you feel like when people ask you what you're doing like they want you to say something magically easy? Like, "Oh! I drink a raw egg first thing in the morning and then I can eat whatever I want!" It seems insane that we even have to say "Diet and exercise" but really, those are the only things that are healthy to do. Duh.

      Keep on running! (With or without underwear!)

    2. Hahaha!! I'm supposed to go 12 miles tomorrow- longest distance yet- and I think I'm going to try without!!! ��

  4. Congratulations! Whenever I lose enough weight for people to notice I find they are all disappointed when I tell them portion control, calories and exercise. Nobody wants to work at something that was so easy to put on. :oS

    I too find it hard to stop eating and I'm in a not-so-great place at the moment. The weight's back up and I'm not getting the exercise my body needs to feel good and be happy. I'm trying to find my way to getting back on track...