In his new book “The Life You Want: Get Motivated, Lose Weight and Be Happy,” Bob Greene shares simple steps to help overcome the emotional and physical stumbling blocks that stand in one’s way to fulfillment. An excerpt.
Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are the trips I used to take with my family to visit my grandmother and great-grandmother. The two of them lived together a short distance from our suburban home, and every few weeks or so, my parents would pack us kids into the car and hit the turnpike to make the twenty-five-minute drive to Camden, New Jersey. I’d hear my mom calling for me — I was inevitably outside riding my bike, kicking a ball around, or playing catch with a friend — and I’d hop into the backseat, reluctant to stop what I was doing but always happy to see my grandmother and great-grandmother once we reached our destination.
What was unusual about the experience, though, was that my great-grandmother was bedridden. I can’t remember ever seeing her get out of bed. And of course she was never able to come outside and play with my sister and me. Instead we would talk to her while standing on top of a chair that had been placed next to her bed for visitors.
The “party line” on my great-grandmother was that she was immobile because of a bad knee. When I was older, it occurred to me that the knee story was just a nice way of saying that she was too overweight to get around. but back then nobody referred to her weight problem, and if my great-grandmother was at all bothered by the state she was in, she kept it well hidden from us kids. since I was so young, I accepted her situation just the way it was, but I think that deep down I also sensed that her days could have been better. My world was all about running, jumping, kicking, climbing — I was always moving — so even at a young age, I was aware that someone who is bedridden misses out on many of the joys of life. That isn’t to say that there weren’t good times. Those visits with my great-grandmother were fun, and she always seemed to have a great outlook. but as I reflect on it now, it’s sad that her life was so limited — especially because it didn’t have to be that way.
I often think about my great-grandmother when I work with clients, write about weight loss, or simply when I hear some statistic about the dismal rate of weight loss success in this country. only a small percentage of people who lose a significant amount of weight end up keeping it off, and the burning question, of course, is Why? Why do most people who change their eating and exercise habits change them right back again? What is it that prevents them from pursuing better health and a life of greater physical ease? And what is so special about the people who do succeed at long-term weight loss? What are they doing that the majority of Americans aren’t?
I’ll never know exactly what prevented my great-grandmother from losing enough weight to get back on her feet again, but she must have been facing issues far deeper than just the challenge of reining in her eating. At the time, without the insight I would gain years later while working with people struggling to slim down, it just seemed like a sad yet unpreventable situation. Nevertheless, I was curious — and still am — about why my great-grandmother had to live such a restricted life.
I know that most kids would have just shrugged off the fact that an older relative was bedridden. However — and sometimes to the annoyance of my parents — I was never like most kids when it came to matters of health and well-being. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t conscious of what was good for you and what was bad for you, and that was particularly true when it came to my family’s diet. Like most families at the time, we were meat and potatoes eaters, although we also always had a variety of vegetables on our dinner plates. My mom was somewhat ahead of her time in that respect, always serving vegetables of different colors — say, green spinach and yellow squash — to give us an assortment of vitamins.
So, overall, our diet wasn’t bad — only, I wanted it to be better. Anytime my parents would serve foods that I’d heard were unhealthy, I’d be quick to call them on it. I’d read a newspaper article about how nitrates were linked to cancer, and I’d refuse bacon with breakfast. Salt? It causes high blood pressure, Mom! Long before the fat-free revolution of the eighties and nineties, I was trimming the fat off my meat at the dinner table and urging everyone else to do the same. To my parents, I was just Bob being Bob — a little odd, but they loved me anyway.
Perhaps I was a bit over the top, but it’s also true that my family had genuine health concerns. Many of my relatives, not just my great-grandmother, battled with their weight, and my dad was a smoker. To his credit, he eventually quit, but when I was a teenager, he was still going at it, and it really bothered me. One time my family planned to take a great cross-country road trip in an RV, and I opted to stay home. I told my parents it was because someone had to take care of the dogs, but the truth was that I didn’t want to spend weeks trapped in a cabin on wheels cloudy with my dad’s cigarette smoke.
This early interest in health and fitness seemed to foretell my future — and, of course, I would eventually seek a career in that direction. But it wasn’t a straight line from counseling my parents at the dinner table to counseling clients. There were many other subjects I was passionate about, too, some of which I considered pursuing as a profession. Among them was a somewhat precocious fascination with psychology. One of the books I discovered and, oddly, enjoyed reading at the tender age of about thirteen was Abraham Maslow’s “Toward a Psychology of Being.” I still have my old yellowing, highlighted copy. Maslow, known as the father of humanistic psychology, classified the motives that drive human beings into five levels and shaped them into a pyramid called the hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs like those for food and water. According to Maslow, it is only when we satisfy those needs that we will be motivated to move up to higher levels and seek things such as love and self-esteem. At the top of his pyramid is self-actualization: the need to reach your potential as a person. Maslow’s take on human nature revealed a deep understanding of the human psyche, and I continue to be influenced by it today. When it came time for me to go to college, I was offered a soccer scholarship to Brandeis University in Boston, where Maslow had been chairman of the psychology department for two decades before he died in 1970. I gave serious consideration to attending the school and studying psychology. However, I was also drawn in a different direction, and, in the end, I turned down the scholarship and opted to go to the University of Delaware, where I studied health and physical education. I would later earn a graduate degree from the University of Arizona in exercise physiology, emphasizing metabolism and weight loss. But my fascination with the way the mind works also endured, and I took psychology courses all through college and kept reading psychology books on my own.
Psychology was mostly a personal interest; I didn’t expect that it would have much to do with my chosen career as an exercise physiologist specializing in fitness and weight loss. but the more I worked with clients struggling to change their eating and exercise habits, the clearer it became to me that psychology has everything to do with fitness and weight loss. While it’s important to have good diet and exercise strategies in place, I’ve never met anyone who was able to stick with healthy eating and physical activity if he didn’t have his emotional and psychological life in order. Going back to some of the questions I mentioned earlier — Why do most people who change their eating and exercise habits change them right back again? What is it that prevents them from pursuing better health and a life of greater physical ease? — I think I can say with some certainty that, contrary to what people often think, the biggest barriers to long-term weight loss aren’t ineffective diets or inadequate exercise plans.
In most cases, the biggest barriers to losing weight and keeping it off are related to the way you think, how you feel, and how you manage your life.
Early on in my career, I began working with clients who’d tell me that although they initially had no problem following a nutritious eating plan and ramping up their physical activity, they’d let their new habits slide after a while. When I’d ask, “Why did you give that up?” rarely did anyone have a viable answer. So I’d probe more. “How was your life when you were eating right and exercising?” Inevitably, they’d always say, “My life was great!” never did I hear “My life was terrible when I was eating right, exercising, and taking care of myself.” As I got to know them better, I would usually learn that body weight wasn’t the only issue they were trying to manage. In most cases, they were also dealing with — or not dealing with — some kind of deeply rooted emotional or psychological issue or they were simply having trouble managing their lives.
When you try to lose weight without tackling the underlying issues that cause you to overeat and choose a sedentary life in the first place, the odds against your success are significant. And the underlying issues I’m talking about can take many forms. Maybe you’re in the grip of a bad relationship; it’s hard to make healthful changes when you don’t have the support of a significant other or if the drama of that relationship drives you to take comfort in food. Maybe your efforts to cope with the stress of financial troubles, overwork, or a bad job are sucking up the energy you need to lead a healthier life. Many people still bear emotional scars from disheartening experiences in their youth, such as growing up with authority figures, even parents, who wounded their self-esteem and body image; or having run-ins with physical education teachers who made them feel ungainly and uncoordinated. If that’s your situation, then there’s a substantial obstacle in your path. Likewise if you’re still suffering from a physical or psychological trauma that happened long ago but that you’ve never adequately addressed. Divorces, family fights, loneliness, grief, a sense of purposelessness — these are all things that can be significant barriers to successful weight loss. When someone is inactive and overeats, it frequently gets chalked up to laziness and lack of willpower, but more often than not, the real reasons that someone can’t muster up the motivation are far more complex.
While I love the work I do, one thing I don’t like about the diet-and-fitness industry in general is that the psychological side of weight loss — and its importance — is rarely fully acknowledged. Instead, much of the industry seems to thrive on hooking people on the diet and exercise plans du jour, each one hawked as a breakthrough. My problem with these plans is that they lead people to believe (or they even say outright) that if you just eat some magic combination of food or work out in some special way, you will lose weight and keep it off forever. In fact, we now have pretty good data showing that one program doesn’t work all that much better than the next as long as calories are cut and activity is boosted; what matters most is how motivated someone is to stay on a program of reduced calories and increased exercise.
I’ve always resisted giving the impression that there’s any magic to weight loss, or that it’s easy. That’s another flaw I see in the diet and fitness industry. Weight loss is often presented as something that anyone can do, and with minimal effort. If that were true, there wouldn’t be, by some estimates, less than a 20 percent success rate. As they say, the numbers don’t lie. That isn’t to say that you can’t be a part of that successful 20 percent. I want you to be, I encourage you to be, and I know that if you’re committed, you will be. But I also know that it requires taking a good, hard look at yourself and your motivations, your triggers, your fears, and your self-talk. You’ve got to explore and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, including those that you may have been disregarding for quite a while. Your goal should be to change what’s going on inside you. When that happens, changing your eating and exercise habits—and attaining a healthy body weight — will naturally follow.
I’ve always resisted giving the impression that there’s any magic to weight loss, or that it’s easy. That’s another flaw I see in the diet and fitness industry. Weight loss is often presented as something that anyone can do, and with minimal effort. If that were true, there wouldn’t be, by some estimates, less than a 20 percent success rate. As they say, the numbers don’t lie. That isn’t to say that you can’t be a part of that successful 20 percent. I want you to be, I encourage you to be, and I know that if you’re committed, you will be. But I also know that it requires taking a good, hard look at yourself and your motivations, your triggers, your fears, and your self-talk. You’ve got to explore and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, including those that you may have been disregarding for quite a while. your goal should be to change what’s going on inside you. When that happens, changing your eating and exercise habits — and attaining a healthy body weight — will naturally follow.
The emotional and psychological side of weight loss has always been important to me. In previous books of mine, I’ve even given readers “assignments” to help them get to know their state of mind better. Now I want to take it to a deeper level, and for that I’ve turned to Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, for her expertise. Ann is a psychologist and leading expert in the area of body image and weight control. As director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and a distinguished scholar for the Partnership for Women’s Health at Columbia University, Ann brings a wealth of both scientific knowledge and hands-on experience to the table. not only is she familiar with the research in this area, she has spent years working with patients who seek solace and stress relief in food and whose efforts to make healthy changes have been hobbled by low self-esteem or a distorted body image. Talking to people struggling with their weight every day has given Ann considerable insight into the mental and emotional roadblocks standing in the way of success, and has helped her develop effective tools for knocking down those obstacles. Now, in this book, she’s going to share them with you.
I have also asked Janis Jibrin, MS, RD, to weigh in on the psychological, physiological, and practical issues that surround overeating and poor food choices. Janis is a Washington, DC–based dietitian who, in her private practice, specializes in weight loss and eating disorders. she is not only well acquainted with the triggers of emotional eating, she is well armed with sensible advice on how to eat more healthfully without completely denying yourself the pleasurable aspects of food. Janis is one of the best dietitians I’ve ever worked with. She really knows the research, and she has a knack for translating it into workable solutions for people who’ve tried more than a few times yet failed to lose weight.
Together Ann, Janis, and I are going to give you the tools you need to begin the hard work of change. What we’re presenting is an integrated approach to achieving the most fulfilling life possible. Too often people focus on only one aspect of weight loss, be it diet, or exercise, or the psychological aspects of overeating. but that’s like fixing only one leg of a table when all of them are wobbly; eventually the other legs are going to give out, and the table is going to collapse even if the strong leg holds steady. being overweight tends to be a multifaceted problem. We’re going to help you tackle it from every angle, and that includes strengthening your emotional foundation as well as dealing with the physiological hardwiring we all have that further complicates our efforts to change. Many people who don’t triumph at weight loss beat themselves up without taking into consideration that humans are predisposed to eat as much fat and sugar as possible to conserve our energy and to avoid discomfort — all of which contribute to the difficulty of changing eating and exercise habits. The truth is, there are some things about your physiology that you can’t change, and a natural propensity to seek pleasure is one of them.
What you can change, however, is what gives you pleasure as well as your tolerance for discomfort.
The majority of people who succeed at weight loss have the same built-in inclinations and susceptibilities as you; they’ve simply been able to overcome them or at least manage them. And not because they’re superhuman. Most of them have successfully changed what gives them pleasure and increased their tolerance for discomfort because they’ve changed the most important thing of all: their minds. They think differently now about what it takes to reach weight loss goals. If they once may have believed that success was all about transforming their bodies with diet and physical activity, they know now that it’s really much more about transforming their lives. To obtain a healthier weight, you must, of course, change your eating and exercise habits — that’s a given. But the newer and more effective approach to obtaining a healthier weight entails changing your attitudes and the way you live.
Earlier I mentioned several of the things that can stand in the way of weight loss, such as unfulfilling jobs, family dramas, and emotional scars, to name just a few. These are issues far more serious than a weakness for desserts, so you can see that clearing the hurdles they present may take some major life renovations. Your relationship with your significant other, your work, financial issues, friendships, priorities — and especially the way you view and treat yourself — may have to change or at least be examined. It’s no exaggeration to say that successful losers undergo a true transformation, one that ranks up there with other biggies, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, from single person to spouse, from dependent student to independent breadwinner.
Ann, Janis, and I have all observed this phenomenon time and time again, and we’re not alone. It’s also one of the findings of a landmark study called the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). some of the most interesting and valuable knowledge those of us in the health field have gained about weight loss comes from the NWCR, a project begun back in 1994 by two researchers, one from the University of Colorado and one from Brown University. Since then, those researchers and their colleagues have collected information on more than six thousand people who’ve met the enrollment criteria: a loss of at least thirty pounds maintained for one or more years. (The average weight loss among the participants is actually sixty-six pounds, maintained for an average of five and a half years; some of them have even kept their weight off for more than sixteen years!)
There are many things that have helped the NWCR participants prevent weight regain. I will fill out the picture for you in a later chapter, but in the meantime, I think it’s important to know at the outset of your own journey that transformation played a critical role in their success. “radical weight loss without a newly defined identity is impossible to maintain, as massive evidence has shown in countless research studies, including the NWCR,” says Inga Treitler, PhD, a cultural anthropologist who has spent intense one-on-one time documenting the lives of NWCR participants. “This new identity requires letting go of part of the old life and adopting new habits that fit with the transformed identity.”
In my own observations, I’ve seen that sometimes the transformations are small: the guy who gives up a life in front of the TV to go out and play baseball with his son, the woman who skips enchiladas and margaritas with the gals to work out at the gym, the couple who replace their drinking buddies with walking buddies. And sometimes the transformations are radical. There’s the workaholic who switches (and downsizes) careers, the mom who confronts and ultimately spends less time with family members who are sabotaging her efforts to improve her health, and the people who even go so far as to end a relationship in order to better their lives.
Years ago, I met a man at my gym — call him John — who was worried about his wife — let’s refer to her as Denise — a woman both overweight and unhappy. I was already overbooked at the time, but this man’s genuine concern for his wife made me decide to free up time for an initial consultation with Denise. She ended up becoming a regular client.
Denise slowly started dropping weight, but she still seemed just as unhappy as when we’d started. The more I worked with her, the clearer it became why: Although she cared for John, he was holding her back in many ways, not the least of which was from pursuing her dream of acting. What’s more, while John had engaged me to help Denise, the closer she got to her goal weight, the more threatened he became by her newfound confidence and determination. Their marriage obviously wasn’t working for many reasons, these being just two of them. I knew that Denise would have to address the problems in her marriage if she ever wanted to reach her goal weight and live a happy life, and eventually she did. Denise and John divorced, and shortly thereafter, she landed the lead in a play — her lifelong dream. Through her work on the stage, she met the man of her dreams, also an actor, whom she later married.
A cautionary tale? Yes and no. I’m not saying that divorce is the answer to all of life’s problems. In Denise’s case, her strained marriage was preventing her from realizing her dreams and living a happy and fulfilled life. Is something preventing you from realizing your dreams and living a happy and fulfilled life? Realizing what changes you need to make and actually acting on them can be hard, even painful. But the results — happiness, joy, confidence, a renewed sense of self, to name just a few — are more than worth it.
From "The Life You Want" by Bob Greene, Ann Kearney-Cook, and Janis Jibrin. Copyright © 2010 by Bestlife Corporation. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.