Thursday, April 28, 2011

Holiday Eating - from the 12-20-10 issue of Bandwagon on the Road

Food has been the guest of honor at human gatherings since the beginning of time. When I watch my gang of dogs attack their kibble, ferociously protecting it from others, I think that sharing food must be a uniquely human impulse (but then again, I'm not a zoologist). I've visited poverty-stricken countries where even a starving family will share a bowl of rice with a beggar. For many people, offering food to a guest is a point of pride. My own grandmother would not let anyone leave her house even remotely hungry. To be polite, you ate her food (with 2nd, 3rd and 4th helpings) even if you'd already eaten a generous meal before you arrived.

With that code of behavior underlying human social relationships, refusing food at holiday celebrations can make you look rude and unappreciative. So how do you safely navigate all those meals? You want to avoid the embarrassment of eating problems like PB's, sliming, or stuck episodes. You want to stick with your weight loss eating plan and go on losing weight (or at least maintaining your weight), but at the same time, you want to enjoy foods that only appear at this time of year. You don't want to call attention to your eating because it's nobody else's business (especially if you're with people who don't know about your weight loss surgery). What's a bandster to do?

Let's look at 3 of the most common holiday eating situations:

1. a meal or party at someone's home

2. a meal or party at a restaurant or other public venue

3. a meal or party at your own home

There is one piece of advice that applies to all three situations. I've mentioned this before...can you guess what it is? That's right, it's:

A D V A N C E P L A N N I N G !

Before each event, do your research. Make some calls to find out what food will be served. Restaurant parties sponsored by employers, unions, clubs & associations often involve a limited set menu - a choice of 2 or 3 entrees - so choose a safe one. I'd go with the fish instead of the prime rib or lasagna, for example. At other restaurant events, you can order from the menu, so call the restaurant (or look it up online) and choose 2 possible meals (in case one isn't available the day you're there).

If you're going to someone's home or to a potluck meal at work, church, or wherever, bring something healthy that you know you can eat and/or drink. A buffet style meal can be scary - how will you resist all those treats? - but it actually gives you some control over what ends up on your plate and in your mouth. First of all, take a tour of the buffet to identify the foods you can eat and want to eat (treats are allowed in small portions if you're sure you can resist the urge to go back to the buffet for more helpings). Choose 4 to 6 items that you're going to enjoy. If you want to try something you've never had before, use common sense in evaluating its risks. Avoid foods that in some other form have caused you eating problems in the past, and inspect the new food for texture and consistency - soft or cooked food is probably OK, but if you got stuck on a raw veggy last week, that gorgeous crudité platter probably isn't going to work for you this week.

Grab a salad or dessert plate instead of a dinner plate, and a small salad fork (if available). Put one spoonful of each of the selected items on your plate. Ignore the champagne fountain - it's mighty hard to balance a plate and a glass at the same time anyway. Find a place to sit or stand far away from the buffet. Eat your food slowly, paying attention to your eating skills and to the flavors in the food. Don't try to eat and chat at the same time. Use a conversation with another guest as a chance to take a break from your eating. You can also use it as an excuse to get rid of your plate (even if food is still on it) by saying something like, "I can't juggle this plate and visit at the same time - let me just put it down somewhere." Then you can become so engrossed in the conversation that you "forget" your plate altogether.

If the event is a sit-down meal, you'll have to adjust your approach depending on how the food is served. If your host or a waiter serves you a loaded plate, you can take a small bite every now and then while pushing the food around on your plate as if you're eating it, and if someone comments that you haven't finished your food, you can say, "Gosh, it's all so good, but it's just too much!" If the meal is served in a pass-the-serving-dish fashion, just pass the dish you're not going to eat without any comment at all. If someone says, "Aren't you going to try my special turtle-and-frog salad?" you can respond with something like, "Can you believe I had a huge turtle dinner just last night?" or "I'll have some of that the next time the dish goes around," or "Not tonight, thanks."

A meal or party at your own home will involve more work on your part but give you the most control over the menu. One of the advantages of being the host or hostess is that no one's going to be surprised if you're always busy fetching and carrying food and never seen actually eating it. If someone comments on your light (or non-existent) eating, you can say, "I'm so bad - I nibbled while I was cooking and now I'm too full to eat anything else."

Monday, April 25, 2011

The guest at my table

I may not always be aware of it, or care to acknowledge it, but there is an uninvited guest at my table, and it’s not the Ghost of Christmas Dinners Past.

Recently my friend Wilbur, who is active in Overeater’s Anonymous and has lost 45 pounds as a result, sent me an e-mail with something striking in it. I’m paraphrasing the message a bit for brevity, but I think you’ll get the message. Wilbur wrote:

"I have come to see that for me it is not about food addiction. It is not about trigger foods. It is about the mind, the crazy mind that suddenly, quixotically tells me it is okay to start eating. I can binge on anything. It is not about picking up one piece of food. It is about a mental state which tells me to do things I don’t want to do. And it is about a bodily state which sets up craving where there is never enough. That is the obsession that’s been lifted from me now. Healthy eating of healthy foods in healthy amounts is eating with God. Not drinking alcoholic beverages is drinking with God."

When I wrote Bandwagon, I was beginning to have inklings that there was a spiritual issue at the core of my eating problem, but I didn’t write much about it then because my own awareness was so new. And I’m trying to be careful with how I present it in the Bandwagon™ on the Road newsletters because I don’t want to turn off people who don’t want to hear the word God. Sometimes when I’m writing I hear myself switch into Preacher mode and feel that’s not a good thing. (I think Teacher mode is better on the whole.) But I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to eat with God. I do want to, on so many levels, in so many ways, that it’s really the subject of an entire book.

Breaking Bread Together

Many of us feel anxious when we contemplate what it will be like to share a meal with others after our weight loss surgery. Will we be able to enjoy a nice restaurant meal? How will we deal with food-centered celebrations at work, at church, at home? What about that Caribbean cruise we’ve always dreamed of, with wonderful food available 24 hours a day? Will we be forced to sip water and nibble on a piece of stale Melba toast while everyone else parties hearty? Should we just avoid social eating altogether?
I’m here to tell you that life does go on after weight loss surgery, a life that includes both food- and non-food- centered activities, but in my case the whole business of social eating is quite different now than it was pre-op. And that’s a good thing, when you consider how much overeating I did and what poor food choices I used to make, especially in my overseas travels. (Let’s face it, what I practiced then was plain old gluttony.) Life after weight loss surgery involves a new and improved approach to eating in order to optimize weight loss (and weight maintenance once you’re at your weight goal), but it should not involve Draconian deprivation, suffering, torture, or entombing yourself inside a brick wall like a medieval nun trying to avoid all temptations of the flesh. Breaking bread together is a vital part of human life that does more than fill our bellies – it fills our souls and cements our communities, be they lay or religious.
What does it mean to break bread together? Although many Christians believe that “breaking bread” symbolizes the Last Supper, history tells us that the “breaking of bread” is in fact a standard Jewish expression from pre-Christian times which refers to the action of “breaking bread” at the start of a meal, a ritual performed by the head of a household or the host presiding at the meal. The host would break the loaf of bread in two pieces and speak a prayer thanking God for the bread and the meal, and for the fellowship in sharing God’s blessings with the family and guests present at the table.
That kind of fellowship is no small thing, especially in an age with a highly mobile population that communicates more via text than via voice or face-to-face meetings. The weekly Sabbath meal with an extended family that those of raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition once took for granted seem to be disappearing…we’re too modern, too fast-paced, spread too far apart, to spare the time for that kind of gathering now.
I’m not saying that you ought to spend every Friday evening or Sunday afternoon trapped in a small room with bickering relatives, but we all need social activities in order to thrive as human and social beings. If your family’s Sunday gathering involves making your mother cry because you won’t eat a third helping of lasagna, you can still enjoy fellowship with people who are less likely to push your guilt buttons. And if everyone you know, from your partner to your office mate to your best friend from high school, keeps telling you things like, “It’s OK, one little piece of cheesecake won’t hurt,” it may be time to rethink your relationships and the boundaries you need to set.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fear of Fat

One of the aspects of weight maintenance that I didn’t expect is the persistent fear of fat.
When I say “fear of fat”, I’m not talking (right now, anyway) about the cultural phenomenon that makes us worship emaciated celebrities and scorn the obese ones. I’m talking about fear of fat on the local level, inside our own hearts and minds.
You’d think that my track record with my band would give me confidence. I lost all my excess weight, I regained 25 pounds, and then I re-lost those 25 pounds. I still have the basic tools I need to deal with weight gain: my band, my knowledge of how to use it, and my own inner resources (perseverance, intelligence, discipline). I’ve gained a boatload of self-confidence and feel strongly that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I can skate smoothly over the bright, shiny surface of my new life for days on end, forgetting that I was once fat, forgetting that I could become fat again. But sooner or later, something pushes my fear button and I hear Sting singing the melancholy song, “Fragile:”

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
How fragile we are how fragile we are

I don’t want to live my life with the fear of fat (or anything else) coloring my every thought, spoiling my pleasures, steering me away from taking risks that might yield wonderful things, inhibiting my to function like a normal (whatever that is), healthy person. On the other hand, fear of loss or injury helps me behave safely. I wear a seat belt when I’m in a car, I don’t exceed the speed limit when I’m driving, I lock my car before I walk away from it, I wash my hands, take my medication, and look both ways before crossing the street. Perhaps it’s a good thing to remember how fragile I am, so that dangerous impulses won’t send me and my bandwagon flying off the edge of a cliff, and so that I remember to thank God for the blessing of just being alive.
I was fat for a long, long time. Many of the important events of my young and middle adulthood were shaped, or at least influenced, by my obesity. Entire thought systems grew up around my fat, to explain it, justify it, banish it, nullify it. My daily habits, what I ate and how I moved, were coordinated by my fatness for over 30 years. I lost my excess weight in a fraction of that time, so it’s no wonder that my brain hasn’t quite caught up to the change in my body.
On the other hand, I arrived at my weight goal 2-1/2 years ago. That’s 30 months. If my brain devoted one lousy month to each year of twisted development, I could have been free by now! But it didn’t. I guess I was too involved with all these interesting and absorbing new activities: exercise, making new friends, clothes shopping, socializing, book and newsletter publishing, volunteer work, paid work. I forgot that Fat Jean was still inside of me, scratching her head and saying, “Hey, what’s going on here? Did anyone bring donuts?”
Although sometimes I wish I could find an exorcist to get rid of Fat Jean, I’m enough of a realist to sense that she’s never going to go away completely. She’ll be at my side as I step on the scales in the morning, whispering, “I told you so,” as I groan about a weight gain. She’ll be pulling on my elbow when I walk into a room full of people, encouraging me to investigate the food rather than introduce myself to a stranger. She’ll embrace me when I’m tired and sad, reminding me that true comfort is found only in chocolate.
Fat Jean is another reminder of how fragile I am. As much as I hated the obesity she led me into, I know that she’s not evil. She was doing the best she could to survive in difficult life circumstances, using some tools and skills I no longer need. The memories she holds are full of the strife and sadness that – along with many other factors – made me who I am today. That’s a strong, sensible, compassionate woman. I don’t need to dwell on Fat Jean, on what she reminds me of or what I fear, in order to benefit from the lessons she and I learned together. My plan is to do my best to balance the sad and fearful thoughts with joyous and hopeful ones. Yes, I know I already have the reputation of being the Eternal Optimist, but even I have to watch for the negative stuff that seeps through my walls from time to time. The Negatives are going to have to audition from now on to earn a moment on stage. If a Negative can teach me or remind me of something important, it can do its song-and-dance routine. If not, it’s outta here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bikini Season

I’ve often said (in the past 20 or so years) that I have no desire to ever wear a bikini again, not in public and not in private. I have to admit there’s an undertone of sour grapes in that statement, because I suspect that if I had a nice, trim waist and a flat abdomen, I’d look for excuses to wear a bikini, the way I now look for excuses to wear short skirts and show off my legs. I’d want to celebrate that nice-looking part of me – nothing wrong with that, is there? But it ain’t gonna happen unless I win the lottery (after buying a ticket for the first time, of course) and have some extensive plastic surgery on my mid-section. Most of the time I’m able to hide the jelly-roll (or Danish pastry, as I’ve called it in the past) by dressing carefully – nothing too clingy, nothing that smacks of maternity-wear, and nothing too short that would call attention to the trouble zone. Yet I struggle with the sight of my middle every day, when I step out of the shower, when I’m getting dressed, when I see my reflection in the big mirror at the fitness studio, when I’m in in a retail store fitting room. The pudge is always there. Why, I ask you? Why? I’ve been exercising 5-7 days a week since the day after my band surgery, doing aerobic/cardio training, strength training, flexibility and stretching exercises, everything I can think of to keep my body as trim as possible. For a year now I’ve been working extra hard on improving my posture, which has a greater effect on the appearance of your middle than you might expect, and on strengthening my abdominal muscles. I’m doing better with posture and I know my abs are stronger because my lower back has stopped complaining and I’m able to do exercises (like the plank) that you just can’t do for more than a few seconds without strong abs. But the pudge is still there. After obsessing about this for a few months, I began to wonder if the fat was in my head, not in my abs. I decided to prove to myself that I am genetically fated to have a flabby middle by comparing my pre-op and current torso measurements. This exercise would show (I told myself) that my middle (waist and abdomen) had lost a smaller percentage of inches than my bust or hips. Unless my math was wrong (which is not impossible), my measurements prove that my theory is not true after all: Bust – down 12% Waist – down 17% Abdomen – down 17% Hips – down 21% So, what’s really going on? Am I suffering from a mild form of body dysmorphia, or is the pudge truly there to stay? Well, after some research about belly fat (which did not include clicking on one of those omnipresent internet ads that proclaim, “Trim belly fat with this one weird old trick.”), I’ve decided that the pudge is real, not imagined. Some of the factors that influence the appearance of your belly include diastasis recti (abdominal muscles that become separated during pregnancy); excessive subcutaneous fat in the midsection (that’s the fat just below the skin), which is the evolutionary fate of child-bearing humans; excessive visceral fat (the more medically dangerous fat that clings to your internal organs, thereby pushing your abdominal muscles outward); and body proportions. I’m short-waisted and wide-hipped, so the short distance between my rib cage and pelvic bones, and the width of my hips, make me look thicker in the middle than a woman with the same waist measurement but a longer torso and/or narrower hips. In the diagram of 2 torsos, below, both torsos have the same “waist” measurement, but the one on the left looks “slim” while the one on the right looks “chunky” because it has a shorter torso. Other factors contributing to the appearance of a belly include age (skin loses elasticity we age, so at age 57, it’s no surprise that I’m sagging here and there); and finally, weak abdominal muscles and overstretched connective tissue (apparently not one of my problems now). So, what’s a jelly-belly to do? If I went on losing weight, eventually my visceral and subcutaneous fat cells would shrink, and so would my measurements. But I’m already on the verge of looking scrawny everywhere else, and losing more weight wouldn’t help that. I could invest in some shapewear, but my one encounter with a Spanx knock-off was discouraging. It took me 20 minutes just to get into the danged thing, and I was so miserably uncomfortable that after wearing it for an hour while at work, I ducked into the ladies’ room and peeled it off. I’m all about comfort, which is one of the reasons you’ll never see me wearing spiked high heel shoes (safety is the other reason). I could save my pennies up for a liposuction session, which I might be able to afford by the time I’m 79 or 80 years old. My plan now is to keep on doing what I’m doing. Exercise all my abdominal muscles, not just the showy ones in front but also the waist-cinching oblique muscles. Pay attention to my posture every waking moment, using the ABC method to pull in my Abs, tuck in my Butt, and push out my Chest with my shoulders back and down. Go on dressing carefully so that my appearance to others, and my own reflection in the mirror, don’t loudly advertise my jelly-belly.

Monday, April 4, 2011

With this band, I thee wed...

If you’ve been married as long as I have (today is our 24th wedding anniversary), you’ll probably know what I mean when I say that at times, my relationship with my husband is a love-hate thing. The hate is provoked by stupid little things, like: why must an adult male in good health and in possession of all his faculties spit toothpaste on the bathroom mirror every single day of his life? Ten minutes after wanting to throttle him for that, I catch a glimpse of him cuddling a tiny kitten and my heart melts. He has truly been there for me through thick and thin (more thick than thin) and I can’t imagine life without him, but the next time I walk into the bathroom and see the Colgate version of a Jackson Pollock painting on the mirror, Mr. P’s life will hang by a thread, at least for a few moments.
I also have a love-hate relationship with my band at times. I resent it because it prevents me from eating mindlessly. I love it for the very same reason, but when I’m tired or hurried or distracted, the effort to eat carefully seems enormous. Why can’t my band just do its job and leave me the heck alone? I’m by no means a lazy person but there are days when living with an adjustable gastric band is a lot of work. It’s certainly not a spectator sport – to win this game, you have to jump right in and get busy, and it’s not over when the cheers fade away…it starts all over again the next day, and the next day, for the rest of your life. Like me and the stupid bathroom mirror.

Happily ever after?

A few weeks ago, I wrote that many people have bariatric surgery believing or hoping that it will solve everything, that they’ll never have to struggle with eating again. Most of the time, that’s not the happy ending to their story. Their story has a different ending that could be happy if they adjust their thinking to it. Is the burden of good eating choices too heavy? If surgery helps you lose all the excess weight, shouldn’t it help you maintain that weight loss without another thought for the rest of your life? Dream on.
I’ve seen a lot of bandsters (including the short blonde one in that bathroom mirror) crash into the Forever Wall, kind of like hitting the “seven-year itch” in a marriage. We prepare for band surgery with all the hope and care of a bride and groom planning a wedding – what we’ll wear, what we’ll eat, what music we’ll dance to. We enjoy a romantic honeymoon with the band, things go great for a while, and then things get harder and harder. At that point, you can fall in love with another bariatric procedure, believing that a revision to gastric bypass or whatever will hand you the key to happily-ever-after. Or you can stick with the partner you’ve already got, survive some tough times, and come out of it all the stronger.
My friend Tami send me these wise comments:
“Your comparison of WLS to marriage made me chuckle. One time my daughter asked me whether I’d ever divorce her dad (sometimes he can be such an ass!). I said, “Absolutely not. He’s family. You sometimes can’t stand your brother, but you can’t divorce him.” Now, if there was a serious “complication” in my marriage, like abuse, I’d have to reconsider my options. And that’s exactly how I feel about my band. It’s part of me, and as long as it doesn’t abuse me with serious complications, we’ll stick together. And just like my husband, I have to respect my band, take care of it, and learn from mistakes.”

To have and to hold - until it's no fun any more?

I’ve survived two complications with my band that I suppose you could classify as on the low side of serious: a band slip, and a flipped port. Since the actions my surgeon and I took in response to these complications were swift (in the case of the slip) and sensible (in the case of the port flip), neither one of them ever endangered me – not in terms of my health, and not in terms of my quality of life. In fact, they seemed quite minor to me compared to other problems that my fellow humans face every day – a terminal cancer diagnosis; a fatal automobile accident; a crippling disease; the loss of a partner; parent or child – that except for the occasional moment of frustration or angry, “Why me, God?”, I just kept trudging onward. Perhaps another person with a different world-view and/or different expectations would consider a band slip grounds for divorce. I can’t criticize people who chose divorce, whether it involves their spouse or their band. Only I can decide what’s acceptable and tolerable for me, and others must decide that for themselves. But if you walk down the church aisle three minutes before your wedding begins thinking, “If I don’t like marriage, I can always get a divorce,” perhaps you don’t belong in the church in that fancy get-up in front of all your family and friends after all.
At this (fairly advanced) stage of my life, I’m convinced that God or the universe throws nails on the road before me as a way to get my attention, make me stop and get my bearings, make me enjoy the scenery and make me appreciate how far I’ve traveled so far. So I do my best to learn what I can from each challenging situation with the gastric band that’s complaining or my husband who’s vigorously brushing his teeth or the dog who’s chewing on a chair leg. For all I know, my greatest goal in life is to be a champion cleaner of bathroom mirrors!