Bad news for fat people. A recent study shows that if you’re fat, the chances of you ever getting over it are less than 1%. If you’re morbidly obese, your chances are even worse.
Weight and health are things I’ve struggled with all my life. When I say I feel for fat people, I’m not saying it as a guy who is 6 feet tall, 160 lbs, ripped, and who has never struggled to be anything but. I’m saying it as someone who was once officially rated by a BMI test as obese, and 8 years later is still working, and struggling, to do right for my body and health. I know what it’s like to hate my body and hate myself. I know what it’s like to be depressed over what I look like. I know what it’s like to never go swimming, to suck your stomach in as though you could hide the bulges. I know what it’s like to feel like a terrible, worthless person because I can’t seem to resist eating high quantities of low quality foods. I know what it’s like to resist, feel good, and then celebrate by binging, and then feel horrible. I know every rationalization for eating what I shouldn’t, for not eating what I should, for making commitments and then breaking them. I know what it’s like to try, succeed, fail, try again, succeed again, and fail again, and repeat the process 100 times. I’ve been there, and when I see someone who is struggling my heart weeps for them. We admire the fit athlete with the Bruce Lee physique, but if admiration were doled out for effort, we might find that it’s the fat guy eating the slice of pizza who has worked 10x as much as Bruce Lee ever did.
Fat People Think Differently
There are those who say the difference between a thin, healthy person, and a fat, unhealthy person, is that the thin person has self control and the fat person doesn’t. Although I’ve considered the idea at length, I don’t believe that for a second. I believe in the vast majority of cases, fat people struggle with physical cravings that are beyond what most thin people have ever experienced. I don’t believe any thin person knows what it’s like inside the mind of a fat person, unless they used to be a fat person. And as the study shows, those people are rare.
Here’s a small snapshot of what it’s like to be a fat person. Growing up, my family would buy a half gallon of ice cream, perhaps once a week. There were six of us, so it didn’t go very far. We would each have a modest sized bowl, and that was the end of it. We never kept ice cream in our freezer. When we bought it, it was gone–immediately. One day I was at a friend’s house and noticed they had three or four half gallons of ice cream in their freezer. I was stunned. How could this be? What kind of crazy family would leave ice cream in their freezer, unconsumed? It just didn’t compute for me.
Another day, we happened to have extra ice cream in our freezer, temporarily. A friend of mine came over, and I asked him if he wanted a bowl, because that’s how you come up with an excuse to have your own bowl. He said yes, so I scooped out two bowls of ice cream. When I gave him his bowl, his eyes went wide. “Josh, what is this?!” he asked incredulously. I honestly had no clue what he was surprised by. Had I not given him enough? No, what shocked him was how much I had put in his bowl, about 3-4 healthy sized scoops. He asked me to put all of it back except for one scoop. Now it was my turn to be shocked.
Half Gallons Are For Amateurs
In 1994 I went to college. Many kids go crazy when they live away from home for the first time. There are parties, drinking, drugs, sex, etc. I was no exception to that stereotype. Except that I was a Mormon kid going to a Mormon school in Idaho, so my idea of going crazy looked like this–my first day in town I went to the local Walmart and bought a 5 lb bag of gummy orange slices, two cans of heavy whipped cream, some cherry cordials that were on sale, a few boxes of strawberry and Butterfinger flavored Quik (I had never heard of such a thing and figured I had to try it at least once in my life), and then I went back to my dorm room and ate most of it. That’s how things started, and it pretty much continued for the whole school year. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Soda, candy, ice cream–it was all available for cheap, if not free, since I was on a cafeteria meal plan. I got all I could. But the best was yet to come.
At the end of the school year, the cafeteria announced they had spent less than expected feeding all of students and would be issuing refunds based on what was left over. It was around $100, and it wasn’t issued as cash, but as a credit for buying food. But what did I need a food credit for? I was on a meal plan. My meals were all taken care of. However, the cafeteria had an all-you-could-eat ice cream bar. It was a horizontal freezer, just like you see at Baskin-Robbins, with a bunch of those 5-gallon containers of ice cream. You know, those round cardboard barrels? I talked to the cafeteria director and asked her if I could use my credit to buy 5-gallon containers of ice cream. She said sure, so I walked away with two 5-gallon containers of ice cream. She probably thought I was going to throw the Mormon equivalent of a keg party. One was mint-n-chip, the other was bubble gum, my favorite (I don’t like the pieces of gum in the ice cream, just the ice cream itself, fyi).
I had a skateshop with a friend in downtown Rexburg, Idaho, where the college was, and we had a large freezer there where I stored the 10 gallons of ice cream. On Monday, I started eating it. How long did it take me to consume 10 gallons of ice cream? 5 days. I ate it while sitting in the back of the shop watching skateboard videos. At first I would scoop it into a plastic cup, as though I were taking reasonable servings, but once I got over my shame then I ate directly from the 5-gallon containers. I would spit the pieces of bubble gum into one of those large plastic cups, the red and white kind you buy for BBQs. I think they hold about a standard cup and a half of liquid. In case you’re curious, the amount of bubble gum pieces in 5 gallons of bubble gum ice cream just about fills up one of those plastic cups. On Saturday, after I had finished the ice cream, I found out the local restaurant, Frontier Pies, was having a $1 pie sale, so I bought two blueberry pies and ate those too.
I never felt sick while eating all this. I felt great. I would get full, but a few hours later I was ready for more. The more I ate, the more I craved. If the cafeteria had credited more money to me, I would have eaten another 10 gallons of ice cream the next week.
Can you relate to this? When I’ve told this story to thin people, they look at me in stunned disgust. It’s beyond their comprehension. When I talk about it with fat people, they can relate all too well, and they start telling me their own stories of gluttony. This is part of what has convinced me that thin people simply don’t know what it’s like to experience the cravings a fat person does. Sure, thin people get hungry. Thin people have cravings. But it’s not the hunger and cravings fat people feel. We fat people are on a whole ‘nother level.
Interestingly, at this point I wasn’t fat. I had the eating habits of a fat person, but I weighed about 170 lbs and was six feet tall and in decent shape. That’s because I was skateboarding 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week. It wasn’t until years later that my habits, cravings, and desires would catch up with me.
10 years later I wasn’t skating much anymore, and my diet had only gotten worse. I was an entrepreneur, the kind that sits in front of a computer all day. I mostly consumed junk food. Fast food, ice cream, candy, etc. And the weight had been packed on. At my peak I reached 239 lbs. That’s technically obese for my height, although I didn’t think I was that fat, because I could see a lot of people around me who were a lot fatter. A LOT fatter. But I was fat enough to feel terrible about myself all the time.
I knew I was going to die young if I didn’t change something–permanently. By the end of 2006 I couldn’t walk up 10 stairs without wheezing. That short exertion meant I had to sit in a chair for five full minutes before I could breathe well enough to carry on a normal conversation. My business wasn’t in much better shape. Everything in my life seemed to be conspiring against me. I decided to give up, abandon my business, and go get an MBA at Harvard. But they didn’t want me either. Getting the rejection letter was rock-bottom for me. I was ready to do anything, but I didn’t have any idea what I was supposed to be doing in life. All I knew what that where was at wasn’t a good place.
In early 2007 a friend of mine invited me to watch him in a short triathlon. It was inspiring. Walking away from the event I remember groaning and thinking “This is what it’s going to take. I’m going to get sucked into this, I can feel it. There’s no way out.” By October of that year I had finished my first triathlon. In the spring of 2008 I finished a half-Ironman event. Then a marathon. Then another half-Ironman, and another marathon. I got into the culture of it. I made it part of my lifestyle. I read the magazines, and started learning about health and nutrition. We started making changes in our family to our diet and lifestyle. It was slow, hard work, with frequent setbacks. I wanted to be like the star athletes, but I wasn’t ready to commit to doing what they do, so I inched forward, grudgingly, a small step at a time.
Today I weigh in at about 180 lbs, with a target weight of 170 lbs. It’s not about the weight so much as it is about health. I think 170 lbs is a healthy weight for my height and build, assuming I’m taking care of myself and not starving myself just to hit the weight goal. My current activity of choice is trail running. I run up and down mountains in Hong Kong where we live now. I feel great. A few months ago I ran a 50K race that took me 10.5 hours to complete. No, I’m slow but not that slow, but the race was over a bunch of mountains. On October 31st I’ll be doing my first 70K ever. Also over mountains. Then the next goal is to do a 100K, and someday I would still like to complete a full Ironman and a 100 mile trail run.
I guess this makes me part of the 1% in the study. It was simple–eat less, eat better, and exercise more, but that’s easier said than done. It wasn’t just a matter of saying “I’m going to do it!” and then doing it. Other factors were involved.
Hong Kong vs. the U.S.
Although I started on my journey to recovery 8 years ago, it has been an evolution. One particularly eye-opening event for me was moving to Hong Kong. I lost 10 lbs in the two months after we moved here, without trying. That’s because in Hong Kong most people don’t own cars but use public transportation. But that still means a lot of walking. Plus food portions are a lot smaller in Hong Kong. If you go to a restaurant you’re likely to leave a little bit hungry and rarely, if ever, stuffed. They don’t have Texas Roadhouse here, or anything like unto it. But the real shock was when I returned to the US after a year in Hong Kong. As soon as I got off the plane and started driving around two things stood out to me; 1) all the cars were huge, and 2) so were all the people. Everyone was fat. I mean, really fat. Without having realized it, I had become accustomed to being around people in Hong Kong who simply aren’t that large, with rare exceptions. After a few weeks in the US it was blindingly obvious why most people in Hong Kong are thin, and most people in the US are fat. In the US, people get almost zero exercise, and they eat lots of bad food. That’s it. There’s not much more to it. Here’s a comparison between my commute in the US, and my commute in Hong Kong.
- Hong Kong commute. Walk out front door, get on bike, ride 10 minutes to ferry. Walk onto ferry, work for 30 minutes. Walk off ferry, walk for 10-15 minutes to subway. Walk another 5 minutes through subway station. Get on subway. Get off subway, walk 5 minutes to surface. Walk 5 to 10 minutes to appointment. Finish appointment. Walk 5 to 10 minutes back to subway. 5 minutes down to subway from surface. 5 minutes to surface from subway. Walk 5 to 10 minutes to next appointment. Repeat as many as 2-3 more times that day. Walk 10-15 minutes back to ferry. Ride bike 10 minutes home from ferry. Total exercise time in a normal day = as much as 2 hours, and that’s without trying to get any exercise. Compare that to a US commute.
- US commute. Walk from kitchen to garage. Get in car. Drive car to work. Drive around for 5 minutes trying to find parking space close to door so don’t have to walk 100 feet. Exit car. Walk for 60 seconds to office. Sit down. Work, with an occasional break for bathroom or to go to lunch, which only involves a few minutes of walking. Get back in car. Drive home. Walk from garage to kitchen. Total exercise time in a normal day = as little as 5 minutes.
Add to this that in Hong Kong you’re given half as much food at lunch, and it’s half as rich, and at least part of the problem becomes clear.
The Final Motivator
In early 2015 we found out that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It wasn’t a huge surprise, given that she has two sisters, one cousin, and two aunts who already have it. My wife had already dived into the research when her sisters got it, but she dove in with renewed vigor when she found out she had it. The short story is that there is no better treatment for MS at this point other than eating an almost vegan. And not just an almost vegan diet (since french fries and potato chips are “vegan”) but a whole foods, low fat, almost vegan diet. We’ve cut out virtually all saturated fat, including palm and coconut oils. Not that these oils are necessarily bad for anyone else, but there is evidence they’re harmful for people with MS. Our diets had already improved substantially since 2007, but all the improvements made from 2007 to 2014 were perhaps only equal to the changes we made in the last six months alone. I’ve lost about 20 lbs since we made these changes to our lifestyle, even though I feel like we were doing pretty well before.
What does our diet look like? Today we had oatmeal with blueberries, walnuts, bananas, and raisins for breakfast, and a large cup of water. For lunch I had a big, green salad with yellow and red peppers, tomatoes, avocado, refried beans, a cilantro + white bean dressing that is getting closer and closer to Cafe Rio’s salad dressing, and salsa. We all have big green salads every day for lunch. Last night for dinner we had cauliflower and peas in a sauce that tasted a bit like an Indian tikka masala sauce, and wheat noodle spaghetti. We have lots of green smoothies. We have fish every once in a while, although I think we may cut that out soon as well. We have a dehydrator and I love dried fruit, so I’m constantly snacking on dried mango, bananas, apples, and pineapple. Sweets are pretty much eliminated. Our “ice cream” is a frozen banana smushed and mixed with soy or almond milk, and maybe some cocoa powder.
One interesting thing is that switching to eating no meat or dairy was very hard for 3 weeks. In the 4th week, it all changed, and suddenly my cravings went away. The vegan diet started to taste a lot better. Today, I feel like my taste buds are much more alive and that I enjoy my food more than I did before when I was eating meat. I feel like I’ve awoken from some sort of taste sleep into a much richer world of variety and flavors. Yes, I still miss old foods, but I find it’s more a matter of nostalgia than craving, and I think the nostalgia will dissipate over time.
I’ve enjoyed books like Eat to Live, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Whole, and Fast Food Nation. There are a lot of interesting documentaries out there as well like Supersize Me, Food, Inc., and Forks Over Knives (haven’t seen it yet but everyone tells me I’ll love it). None of these books or documentaries is perfect and I don’t believe everything they say or claim, but I buy into the notion that a large part of our health problem in the US is due to a corrupt system. Corporations that run corn and dairy farms have lobbied politicians to create food subsidies, paid for with your taxes, that make our food “cheaper” by masking the true cost. So when you buy a Big Mac and you think “Wow, this is cheap!” it’s cheap because the price you pay at the restaurant is only part of what you’re paying. These food subsidies are marketed to us as supporting poor, individual farmers, when the reality is that they hurt family farmers and benefit large corporations. Take away the food subsidies and yes, the cost of milk and everything made with corn (which is pretty much everything) would likely rise. If our food system weren’t distorted by government regulations which were written by corporate interests, you’d probably eat a lot less dairy and meat, and a lot more vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans. You’d probably be more likely to grow your own food. And you’d probably be a lot healthier for it. And wealthier (growing your own food is tax free, for now). Of course this would be terrible for Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont, and other manufacturers of pesticides, fertilizers, as well as for large chain restaurants. The Farm Bill is worth almost a trillion dollars in corporate handouts (your tax dollars at work), which is why corporations spent $500 million on lobbying to make sure it passed again the last time around.
The Real Problem and the Real Solution
It’s easy to blame the obesity epidemic in the US on large corporations and the government. We should work to end food subsidies (as well as all other subsidies) and get the government completely out of the health business. But due to the entrenched interests and the mutual benefits that flow to both politicians and corporations from subsidies that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But you can control what you eat today. And here is the simple, but hard, truth–if you want to lose weight, be healthy, and not die young, you’re going to need to adopt a vegan or near vegan lifestyle with a focus on a diet that is primarily made of fresh, whole vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans. You’d rather die, you say? You’ll get your wish soon enough if you keep doing what you’ve been doing. We’re only seeing the beginning of how bad things are going to get in the US. The old people dying today didn’t grow up on the diet you’re consuming. 20 years from now the kids who are fat and being diagnosed with diabetes today are going to be 30-year old dying invalids, requiring $250,000 of care per year at someone else’s expense. That someone is going to be you, if you’re not a 50-year old invalid yourself by that point. Getting yourself healthy might not fix the societal problem, but at least you don’t have to be one of those invalids, dependent on an increasingly broke government for your care. You can save yourself. You can have a positive influence on your children, and perhaps save them as well. And you can have a positive influence on others around you. Who knows how many might follow your example. It was a friend who saved me because of his example. Everyone is looking for inspiration when it comes to getting healthy.
It’s Not About Self Control
I know, I know, it’s not enough. The bad stuff, the good stuff, it’s not enough to give you the motivation to change. Of course you know you’ll die young if you don’t get healthy. You know if you get healthy life will be so much more rewarding. You know what you do influences others for bad or good. That’s part of what is so depressing when, despite knowing all this, you still can’t change. It’s harder than that. I know. I’ve been there. There’s some good news here. It’s not about self control.
Everyone thinks fat people lack self control, including fat people. You think if you could just come up with the willpower, you could fix all this. But that’s only a small part of the problem. The book that opened my eyes on this was Change Anything: The Science of Personal Success. The authors refute this claim in the book, showing that self control, while important, isn’t enough to overcome problems like bad health habits. You need to take five other steps to make real changes. Then, the impossible becomes possible, if not easy. For example, have you ever noticed that it’s pretty easy to not eat ice cream if there isn’t any in the house, but almost impossible if it’s sitting there within arm’s reach? It’s not self control that makes it easy to resist something that isn’t there. In this example, success is achieved by setting up an environment that make self control irrelevant. The book goes into detail on this and five other ways you can work towards making the changes you want to make in your life, without having to focus on self control.
Here are some of the things that have made it easier for me to make what I feel are drastic changes to my health.
- Education. The more I learn about health and nutrition, the easier it is to live a healthful lifestyle. Read articles and books. Become a health nut.
- Friends. Find friends who are will to join and support you. It’s especially critical that your family supports you. In my case, our entire family’s eating habits have changed, and it wouldn’t work any other way. Yes, that has been tough on the kids, but I think it might have been easier had we been more cold-turkey about it, rather than phasing it in. I’ve been surprised how receptive they’ve been when we’ve used this as a teaching moment about health and nutrition.
- Exercise. The more I exercise, the more I crave healthful foods. When I stop exercising, I crave bad food. It’s win-win vs. lose-lose.
- Move to Hong Kong. Ok, maybe not Hong Kong, but I’m serious about moving. If you live somewhere where you can’t do anything without a car, maybe you should move somewhere that makes walking more reasonable. Yeah, that’s kind of a big change, but so is dying young. Having moved to Asia, I’m finding it’s not such a big deal. Why not go live in Europe or Asia for a few years?
- Pray. I couldn’t have done it on my own. I’ve prayed for help, a lot, and I feel like my prayers have been answered. Don’t believe in God? You might by the time you’re done.
This is my story, told in brief. I hope it might help you. I know how hard it is to make changes when it comes to health. I also know it’s possible because I’ve done it. I feel like the meth addict who relapses 100 times but then somehow gets clean. Except I’m not 100% there just yet. I’m happy to answer any questions, if there’s anything I can share that might be of assistance.
Update: While I believe fat people think differently than thin people, I don’t know why that is. Are the two groups born different? Is it environment? Training? A choice? A combination of all that and more? In my case, I still don’t know where the way I think about food came from. What I do know is that I’ve been able to change it, at least to a point. It’s still a work in progress. But that gives me hope that many others, and perhaps everyone, can modify how they think about food. Maybe anyone can overcome the cravings, the binging, the constant “I know I’m only pulling in to get gas in the car and I shouldn’t walk inside, but…now how did I end up in the checkout line with this half pound bag of Swedish fish? Oh well, too late to back out now.”Liked it? Share it!