What Did I Learn About Weight Control?

Blame it on height

According to my scale, my weight is perfect, but I am several inches too short. If I could become taller without gaining weight my physique would be perfect. Perhaps the real problem is the coffee I drank as a kid somehow stunted my growth. But, in the real world, I simply share a condition that is all too common in the modern world; I’m a bit overweight.

I’m fortunate; my weight problem is relatively minor; my overall health is good, I’m active and my body shape could be much worse. However, there are many people that face a much greater challenge and, in some cases, their weight problem poses an immediate threat to their health.

Intake vs Outgo

Having read countless articles and even books which posit various theories that explain why people are overweight and I’ve even tried some of the ideas suggested. I’ve come to the conclusion that it still all boils down to the ratio of calories taken in to calories expended, something that is common knowledge, and almost as commonly explained away by various theories du jour.

A while back it occurred to me that I, and many others, have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking how to lose weight; a question which always can be answered by keeping calorie intake below calories expended, I realized that a much more salient question is why do people tend to eat more calories than they require?

There are any number of vectors that this discussion could pursue. It’s not my purpose to attempt to explain metabolism; there are others that are far more qualified than I for this task. I would recommend Gut, by Guilia Enders as a starting point. The direction I intend to pursue comes down to our internal feedback; paying attention to the signals our body sends to tell us when we’ve eaten enough, eaten the wrong thing, eaten something potentially poisonous, etc.

Signals To Which I’ve Always Paid Attention

The most important moment in my journey towards understanding this subject came when I realized that I am actually quite good at paying attention to some somatic signals. I’ve tried to be active and exercise, especially as time has worn on, but there is a cost. After years of running, bicycling, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and other activities I have undertaken, I have had to visit the orthopedic surgeon from time to time; in fact to the tune of about seven surgeries, most of them minor. When a surgeon grinds away at your bones the aftermath tends to be painful.

After a routine arthroscopy of the knee or shoulder, it’s quite common to be issued a prescription for some heavy duty painkiller medications and most of these are potentially addictive. The normal prescription is for 30 tablets, a 15 day supply when taken as directed. These are usually given with firm instructions to take one when you get home, which is typically no more than 3-4 hours after outpatient surgery. This is done in order to stay ahead of the pain because you are still a bit numbed when you first come out of the operating room. One more pain pill at bedtime (if the surgery was in the morning) and then two tablets per day until your post surgical follow up visit.

I always follow the instruction to take that first pain pill and usually have another the morning after the surgery. Thereafter it varies, but I rarely end up taking more than three of the prescribed pain killers in total, usually within the first two days after surgery. Once the acute pain fades away, I begin to feel the effects of the painkiller and find it much less tolerable than a bit of surgical pain. Let me rephrase that; as soon as the pain abates enough for the signal to get through to my conscious thoughts, I heed the signal that the painkiller is numbing me overall and I do not like that feeling.

I just gave an example of listening to a signal. What is more, I listened to a signal and chose between two evils as it were, a bit of pain or a numbed feeling from painkillers. I made a choice, and that was to not accept the effects of the painkiller once the most acute pain had passed. During my followup visit with the surgeon I am routinely asked if I need any more pain medication and I routinely answer; “I still have 27 left in the bottle.”

Now, keep in mind that these are highly addictive substances such as OxyContin. I don’t credit my control of these to some superabundance of character; I credit my control of these, simply, to the fact that I consciously select my preferred outcome and reject the sensations these medications cause as undesirable.

I will interject, at this point, that while I enjoy the occasional shot of Grand Marnier or Single Malt Scotch, I do not enjoy the feeling I get from drinking alcohol frequently. If I have a nightcap on Friday and another on Saturday, my internal feedback mechanism causes even the thought of liquor to be unpleasant by the time Sunday rolls around. My internal “toxicometer”is no better calibrated than anyone else’s; I’m just aware of its existence and pay attention to what it tells me.

I had help in this

From an early age, probably around kindergarten, my father took time to explain some things to me. He explained the existence of alcoholic beverages and that some people abused these. He also explained that it was possible to become an alcoholic and that alcohol could take over a man’s life if it wasn’t used prudently. Then he explained the existence of drugs and that the same sort of thing can happen when people misuse drugs.

In this one conversation, along with an occasional reminder, and he had given me the tools I needed in order to deal with a very thorny subject. He also taught by example, because he drank very sparingly, 2-3 beers per year and never even approached drunkenness. The only drugs he ever used were over the counter sinus remedies and he was quite sparing with those as well.

It worked. When I was in high school and invited to do some heavy underage drinking and I turned it down. Likewise for pot, etc. I had the tools needed and, perhaps most importantly, I had been taught that the sensations from abusing alcohol and/or drugs were not desirable. I had been taught that there was a choice and that I was in control of making that choice.

Food and the moment of decision

My father and I never had that conversation with regard to eating. My father had a significant weight problem and, while he was not a moral weakling by any means, he did have his own struggles with regard to food consumption, body weight, and the health problems that come as a result.

He would implore me to eat carefully, nag me if he thought I was eating too many starches and otherwise make my life miserable at mealtimes; not because he was cruel, not because he was a hypocrite (which he was not), but because he didn’t want to see me have weight problems. Unfortunately, he did not have at his disposal the one bit of information that was salient. He didn’t know about the point of decision as it applied to eating.

I realized that there was free will in the matter of weight control, but I know that I did;t realize where the decision point actually was. This is actually a key bit of information. When and where do we decide a matter can be not so obvious to us. For example, I’ve heard that dieting actually happens at the grocery store. With a little bit of deconstruction, this reduces to moving the decision point away from the dinner table and placing it at the point of acquisition and this makes a lot of sense.

A while back, I was at a membership warehouse, in line behind a family of quite obese people, and their cart was filled with high-calorie, low nutrition foods. They would not lack for whatever nutrients are peculiar to corn dogs and carrot cake, but the fact that even the teens in this family appeared to weigh at least 300 pounds I think I’m safe in stating that their eating choices were not promoting an ideal weight and that health problems are likely to follow.

In this case, the choices made at the grocery store were affecting the choices they would have at the dinner table. I don’t recall seeing much on the way of vegetables or fruit among their purchases. The children of that family may well have had no truly healthy choices at mealtime. Sadly, they are likely to pay a terrible price for the decisions their parents make at the grocery store.

Other decision points.

While the point about making sound dietary decisions when buying food is well taken, this is only one part of the story. There is another decision point which is much more effective in controlling weight and this involves some of the strongest muscles in your body.

The muscles that open and close your mouth are striated muscle, which means that they are under your conscious control The muscles that close the mouth are incredibly strong which means, simply stated, that nothing makes it into your mouth unless you choose it to. Every single bite taken is the result of a decision. Here’s the rub; most of the time, we don’t even realize that there is a decision happening. I will refer to an example that I love to use and will continue to use in a number of situations.

As I recall the anecdote; a young man was profoundly alcoholic, even though he was still in his twenties. One morning he entered his favorite bar just as they opened for the day and ordered a beer. It turns out that the bar was out of beer and expecting a delivery any moment, so they put a Long Island Iced Tea in front of him instead. He was slightly taken aback by the change in direction and hesitated. Just as he was getting ready to attack the L.I. Iced Tea the bartender placed in front of him a beer from the delivery that had just begun. The young man put down the L.I. Iced Tea to reach for the beer and then stopped entirely. He sat for a moment looking at the two beverages before him and quietly said: “maybe it’s the beer.” He stood up and walked out of the bar . . . for good, and was sober from that moment on.

What actually happened here is quite simple. Somewhere along the line, his decision to drink had become automated. He never consciously chose to drink because that decision had become a procedural memory. A pianist mastering the fingering of a scale is an example of procedural memory which is also known as muscle memory. Procedural memory is like a  macro in a computer program. If I hit a certain keystroke combination in my spreadsheet, a certain sequence of keystrokes will occur automatically and without further input from me. This is good if you are adding rows to a spreadsheet and want to conserve keystrokes, but not good if you find yourself opening your tenth beer of the night with little conscious memory of the nine that preceded it.

If someone forms a habit to abuse alcohol, abuse drugs or abuse food, it is quite possible for them to automate the approval process so that the impulse to consume is handed off to a procedural memory which then accomplishes the overconsumption without stopping to consciously decide whether or not this is a good choice to make. When the young man in the example above had to choose between beer and a Long Island Iced Tea that automated process was interrupted and he regained control over the matter. One would surmise that he looked at the sorry state of his life and decided to move in a new direction. It was a triumph of free will over habit.

Indeed, there may have been strong inner forces urging him towards abusing alcohol, but they were no stronger than the muscles controlling the opening and closing of the mouth and those were within his conscious control. So is cleaning your plate.

Survival misdirected.

A wild animal lives on the edge. They have to forage or hunt for food and, with a few exceptions for hoarding animals, they have to seek food daily or risk dying. If they are hunters, their food spoils quickly and must be consumed quickly. Both hunters and foragers have the risk of losing their meal to another animal that takes advantage of the opportunity to meet its own nutritional needs with as little effort as possible. Wild animals avoid obesity because, on the whole, their nutritional opportunities are limited compared to those of humans and even domestic animals. Once they are filled to satiety they rest, digest and usually do not seek more food until they are truly hungry again.

Humans, at least in much of the world, have a much more stable food situation. We store food, preserve food from spoilage, and usually have choices about which specific foods we will choose that day. However, humans still have a survival instinct and find it easy to fill up whenever we have the opportunity. Humans tend to have more nutritional opportunity, and tend to follow up a meal with a calorie rich but nutritionally sparse dessert. We also eat for social reasons and sometimes eat even when we are not hungry just to avoid offending a friend or relative. There was an episode of the Andy Griffith show built upon just this situation and it had great comedic effect.

It still reduces to choice.

In my own case, I decided to apply proven behaviors that I use to avoid substance abuse to the matter of eating and the results were immediate. I am learning to sense the most subtle feeling of fullness and I stop at that moment. My role model in this is the nozzle of a gas pump, which senses when the end of the nozzle is covered in liquid and stops the flow of gas immediately. An inexpensive gas nozzle is very sensitive in detecting when a gas tank is full and doesn’t pussyfoot around when it comes to shutting off and neither should a human when the first signs of satiety are detected.

Simply stated, people are overweight because they eat more calories than they expend. This can happen for a number of reasons; stress-eating as a self-soothing behavior, poor nutrition caused by choosing high-calorie but low-nutation foods, or possibly just a habit of eating via procedural memory without taking note of how much we are eating or the signs of satiety. In any event, the solution would seem to lie in becoming more conscious of our eating, listening to the feedback from our bodies (satiety signals) and choosing to act upon them with the same relentless sense of purpose as the nozzle on a gas pump.

Bon appetite!

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