I Once Was Obese and Now I’m Not. Please Don’t Applaud.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 13 2012 5:00 AM

I Once Was Obese

And now I’m not. Please don’t applaud me for losing the weight.

Bathroom Scale.
Is the traditional nutritional mantra—burn fewer calories than you consume—useless on the individual level?

Photo by Thinkstock/Jupiterimages.

I am a veteran of weight-loss support groups and 12-step programs, in-person and online. So I know well that the only acceptable way to do this is to make my confession up front: Only by admitting our problems do we have any hope of overcoming them. And when it comes to obesity, there’s only one confession that anyone has any interest in hearing.

I once weighed 352 pounds.

Or 356. The trouble is I don’t really know my starting weight. When you cross over from merely obese to morbidly obese, it’s hard to find a scale in the bath part of Bed Bath & Beyond to accommodate your girth. Even many doctors’ offices don’t carry a scale large enough for the truly fat. This usually ends in a nurse whispering, “Well, how much do you think you weigh?” as if you, the nonmedical professional, were a better judge of this than anyone else—despite the fact that according to many medical professionals, you are lazy, unattractive, stupid, and stubbornly unwilling to comply with treatment.

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One thing about not knowing your starting weight: In those early days of weight loss, when you can reasonably expect the numbers to diminish rapidly, you may not have any accurate way of accounting for them. So you miss out on that Pavlovian spur to greater feats of diet and exercise when you need it the most.

Now that I’m merely on the chubby side of normal (size 12) and weight loss is considerably more difficult—an hour-by-hour grind of Zumba and deprivation, of parceling out each ounce and calorie on my constant companion, a chrome Cuisinart kitchen scale—the fact that I don’t get to put an accurate starting number on my MyFitnessPal weight-loss ticker prevents me from presenting my numerical value and virtue to the world.

“Virtue” may seem like an odd word here, but only because I haven’t quite reached my goal weight. When I do, I can imagine the praise that will come in. In MyFitnessPal Internet speak, “WTG!!!!11!!” In co-worker speak: “OMG, what’s your secret?” or “Congratulations on your achievement,” like I’ve just delivered a really superb Nobel laureate address. A quick scan of Amazon or the international reach of The Biggest Loser tells us that we revere people who manage to drop obscene amounts of weight, and the more housebound and disgusting to begin with, the better. These are tales of midnight binges and food combinations (Twinkies wrapped in bacon and dipped in guacamole) to make even the strongest stomach twist, and the grosser they are, the greater the moral redemption at the end.

Harmless encouragement, perhaps, but there’s a darker underside. If obese people who drop their excess poundage are to be commended and given book deals, those who can’t manage it—well, let’s regard them as the child rapists and five-pack-a-day self-destructive hedonists that they are. We need someone to hate, and smokers are a dying breed. Obesity, as every reputable news source has been reminding us for the last 25 years, is the new normal. Except that it’s still OK to hate the obese. In a perverse way, people like me make it harder for every fat person out there. If Formerly Fat X can do it, why can’t my morbidly obese sister-in-law?

Shannon Chamberlain on her weight loss struggles.
Shannon Chamberlain

This despite the fact that every shred of evidence available to medical science indicates that it’s nearly impossible to take off large amounts of weight and keep it off. That was largely the point of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine article from earlier this year, from which the main takeaway was that even a more than typically well-informed healthy eater and marathoner like Parker-Pope is 60 pounds overweight. And her experience is not unusual. Of the statistically minuscule number of people who ever manage to take off serious poundage in the first place, an even tinier number manage to keep it off in the long term. The article describes the complexity of metabolic changes that occur in dieting obese patients that seem to effectively convince their bodies that they are perpetually starving and should conserve every calorie consumed and burn fewer calories than most people would easily shed through normal activity or exercise. “A sobering reality,” writes Parker-Pope, “[is that] once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will remain fat.”

Parker-Pope personalizes that point through the story of Janice Bridge, one of the statistically small number of people qualified to join the National Weight Loss Registry, which tracks 10,000 people who have permanently lost a lot of weight. Bridge weighs her lettuce, eats 500 fewer calories per day than every means of medical measurement says she should be able to eat, and burns off another 500 calories in exercise. Medically speaking, she is nearly starving to death. In reality, she’s maintaining at a number that indicates that she is still overweight.

This is the story of my adult life. Bridge initially lost most of her weight by following what is technically termed a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD), or fewer than 800 calories per day, usually in liquid form. These diets are poorly studied beyond their implications for patients, say, with diabetes (the diabetes usually goes away), but anecdotally, they seem to work for a lot of obese patients who haven’t seen weight loss with other eating plans.

The blandness of that pronouncement can’t possibly describe the reality of actually being on a VLCD. Mine wasn’t medically supervised or liquid, and perhaps this made it harder than usual. Every morning I ate a packet of raspberries—an officially low-glycemic, low-calorie food—and drank three cups of coffee, because caffeine staves off my appetite. Then I’d go home at the end of the workday and eat exactly half of my dinner so that my husband wouldn’t realize what I was doing to myself and intervene. I knew that if anyone told me it was a bad idea, I would stop. Eating 800 calories a day and burning up about 400 of them on the treadmill at lunch doesn’t leave you with much will to resist. Brain function slows. Your entire life becomes about a set of numbers on a page. Was it only 758 today? Excellent work, but you’re still a fat pig. 811? You fat loser, you.

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