Six years ago, I had a week when two bad things happened. My doctor told me I had diabetes, and then, back at home, I tried on my beautiful wool shirt with its silk lining, size 20, and couldn’t pull up the zipper. You can lie to yourself, but when your shirt won’t close, that is an undeniable reality. I realized I did not want this anymore. I did a lot of research to understand the disease of diabetes, and I went from a size 22 to a size 8.
I thought about how I gained the weight. It seemed to creep up without me really noticing. I reasoned I’d have to lose it the same way: slowly, but questioning what I ate and expending a continual, low-level of energy. I didn’t want to go to any meetings or have to weigh myself in front of other people. I had tried meal-plan food, which isn’t very good. I didn’t have expensive fitness equipment, a personal coach or a gym. What I did was walk.
At the same time I was trying to lose weight, I noticed people throughout the world were getting heavier and heavier. I wondered, how could this happen? It couldn’t be that everyone was newly eating way more calories.
The actual food each of us can access is part of the problem, but there are many complicated reasons. We live in a world that gives approval to being thin but pushes food at you everywhere you look. Coffee places have pastries at eye level, on pedestals. Grocery stores have displays of candy right in your face as you wait to leave. Pharmacies have huge sections devoted to candy. And stores discount and promote delectable items that are easy, extra sales, like white chocolate pistachio cookies, candied pecans, Italian tiramisu, Belgium chocolate, crisp almond cookies, four-cheese pizza, Marsala with butter and cream, cinnamon bread with cream cheese — all this food. That’s the way I used to eat, all night, every night.
I don’t eat like that anymore. I am fortunate enough to live within five miles of four grocery stores and a farmer’s market. I am able to hop on a bus with my dog and carry a heavy backpack full of healthy food to my home. Many people can’t do this. They are disabled or can’t afford it or live in a food desert. Maybe they have problems getting around or don’t see as well as they used to. They eat TV dinners, generic pizza, cereal, but no fresh fruit or vegetables.
Go to any fast food restaurant, and you will see a steady stream of gray-faced people surviving on the dollar menu. Unhealthy food is all we think we can manage.
Homeless people have it worse. Every drop-in center has a table full of donated pastries. There are places to get a meal, but sometimes the food isn’t cooked all the way, like unpeeled potato chunks, mashed but still hard. Homeless people have no way to store or prepare food. Often, they have nothing at all to eat.
An eternal cause of unintentional weight gain is what I call “predatory food sales.” The packaging is designed before the food is created. The advertising is pitched to make you want things full of sugar, fat and salt: food that is bad for you, with long lists of ingredients. Food you didn’t know you wanted. The food conglomerates don’t care about you, your blood pressure, your eyesight or your failing kidneys. There are millions just like you with money to spend.
I was also able to get out and do some serious walking during my weight-loss years. I walked in place at home and did several four-hour walks outside weekly. Mobility is another concern in our world. The weather is unhospitable, or the air is polluted, or it’s unsafe, due to stigmatizations against them or mental or physical illness. I have a big dog, so walking wasn’t too daunting.
There is nothing like a good, steady walk to make you feel your walker’s high. You begin to feel confident and strong and see yourself differently. Not a pathetic weakling who can’t make it up the staircase, but a Titan of the Earth and her dog Thor, out to go conquer something.
I recall my walks from 30 years ago, when my son was a baby. My husband would drop off the baby at my work and then go to his job. I would clock out and walk the mile home with my baby in the stroller. This was in Austin, mid-summer. I would pour water on his little shirt to keep him somewhat cool, which he hated. I did this daily walk because circumstances demanded it. Otherwise, I never walked. It’s a logistics problem to get out of the house when you have little ones.
There is a hormone called cortisol. It’s our stress hormone and rampant all around. It raises blood sugar, causing insulin to spike, causing weight gain. Cortisol tells your body “something bad is happening — maybe famine. Let’s hold onto our fat stores.”
The next reason for worldwide weight gain is one nobody ever mentions. I believe this is the strongest contributing factor. My informal yet desperate research found a class of toxic chemicals in plastics and agricultural sprays that produce “obesogens.” These chemicals, such as BPA, emit particles that terribly affect people’s frangible bodies. Obesogens cause metabolic syndrome (endocrine disruption) and are a direct cause of weight gain, insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes. They cause your metabolism to slow down and increase belly fat, which is the most unhealthy place for fat to go.
I have a mental picture of chemical executives sitting around a highly polished, mahogany table and gloating because they manufacture obesogen products and have acquired a patent on insulin. They are ecstatic. Shares are going way up. They make people sick, then make them well with extremely expensive insulin. “Cradle to grave, yep, we’re here.”
Another problem are societal restraints that affect the timing of our eating. Take something like a pint of ice cream. The worst time to have it is at night, when you’re tired and just want to relax with nice, comforting food. The ideal time for dessert is after a hardy breakfast and near the time of a long walk.
Most situations demand that we sit down. People who stand up are viewed with suspicion. It becomes awkward. At work, on public transportation and in offices, we are usually seated. At home, we sit again because we’re tired. You can order any food to your door and don’t even have to get up to answer the doorbell. Little kids at school are taught to sit quietly all day, and in some schools, they don’t get recess.
In America, food is so much more than nourishment. Food makes promises it can’t possibly keep. It’s symbolic. It’s the thing you were denied as a child. It’s something pleasant to focus on, to take your mind off stress. It’s how you spend evenings and weekends. It is comfort. I know this, because it was everything to me.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of agriculture changed the Farm Bill to favor corn production and give large subsidies to corn farmers. They went and changed the food pyramid so that grain portions swelled to 6–11 servings. People looked at that and started eating more and more grain products, thinking they were doing the right thing for their health. Vast amounts of corn were produced. Factories made corn products, such as high fructose corn syrup and corn chips like Fritos.
I love Fritos, but I don’t eat them anymore. Where I grew up in north Dallas, we loved driving by the Frito Lay headquarters with its scorching bright sign. This is a recipe from my childhood, called Frito Pie: Take a bag of Fritos, open it at the top, pour in some piping hot chili, and add diced onion and grated cheese. That’s all there is to it. We loved it.
There is empty-calorie food everywhere, any time. When you do eat junk food, your body knows it is getting food but not nutrition, and it tells you to keep eating in hope that it will get something better. When you eat healthy, you are getting nutrient-dense calories. You are satisfied with smaller portions. You can be full of Thanksgiving dinner, but suddenly have room for pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Different passageways.
Supper makes you full, but chips never do. As you eat, unmoving, you are turning yourself into foie gras; that is how the French farmers manage their geese. The birds are confined in a very small cage and force-fed. In people, you get Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) or diabetes; either of these increases the risk of developing the other. Diabetes damages the body because all the excess glucose in the blood starts to slip up the blood vessels. In NAFLD, the extra fat leads to inflammation in the liver. The tissue becomes scarred. This can lead to cirrhosis or organ failure and the cells start dying.
But everything tastes so good! Scientists can engineer food to make your brain’s pleasure center light up, addicting you to a loving association with the product. It makes you lovesick. Your fat cells are not passive receptacles. They are biochemically active, making you want more food, and sending out toxins that poison you and quietly make you increasingly sick.
By my calculatons, diabetes can hide in your body for years without you knowing it. By the time a doctor says you have it, your body is damaged. An additional consideration is that 20 percent of the general population has the Alzheimer’s gene, ApoE4, but 50 percent of all Alzheimer’s sufferers have it. With diabetes, the brain cells have insulin resistance, so the insulin can’t shepherd the glucose into the cells, and they starve to death. Without food, when it’s night, they’re at the door. Sometimes Alzheimer’s is called Type 3 diabetes. The real problem is spiking blood sugar caused by insulin resistance. And the question is, what causes insulin resistance?
There are early symptoms of diabetes. After eating carbohydrates, you feel horribly thirsty. I used to drink glass after glass of water, but remained thirsty. This is the body trying to dilute and expell excess glucose in the blood vessels. You can also feel unusually hungry after you eat, as your cells call out for more food because glucose can’t get into the cells.
Along with these signs, there is increased urination. The body tries in vain to shed its glucose load. Diabetes damages the nerves in your extremities. I noticed that the day after I ate a lot of sugary food, I had pain in my hands and feet. Glucose deposits build up in the tiny blood vessels of the eye, causing blurred vision, leading to blindness. The lower body can have wounds that don’t heal, especially the feet. When you lift your foot and it has dead white patches on the bottom, that is your blood vessels not being able to circulate properly. Excess glucose has an inflammatory effect on your flesh, leading to wounds and infections.
There are medicines to treat diabetes. I still take Metformin, which never gives me any side effects. The other medicines come with adverse effects. And they all are costly: Insulin, on average, is $600 monthly.
If I was the government, I would see what a catastrophe this is turning into and would distribute free cans of lentil vegetable soup to everyone around.
Claudius the Emperor (A.D. 41–A.D. 54) instructed his servants to make sure there were plenty of low-cost vegetables in the markets of the empire. He had two practical reasons for doing this: Hungry people are dissatisfied and that brings trouble and well-nourished people will work harder and longer.
Some good news
What is true freedom? The freedom to eat junk food, feel bad and make the wrong people rich?
I had gained the weight one gram at a time, and that was how I had to lose it. It was not something to do, finish, before going back to my old ways.
I had been consuming 3,000 to 6,000 calories a day. I needed to change my philosophy, habits and ways of looking at food.
I ate differently and started walking and did a small amount of yoga. Because I lost weight slowly, I imagined water slipping over river stones. Sometimes I used simplistic slogans: Why sit when you can stand? Why just stand there? You don’t lose weight sitting down! Get up and walk!
There were many days my dog and I did hours-long walks. I realized, definitively, that walking made me feel happy. After a while each walk, I ceased noticing the work of it, the effort.
I went to grocery stores and bought vegetables, things without labels, that I actually liked. There were more than I thought. Peppers. Onions. Scallions. Shallots. Garlic. Celery. Mushrooms. Potatoes. Tomatoes. Tomatillos. Peas. Parsley.
I started to have a small amount of success on my own. Yet, people yakked to me about restricting certain food groups or saying it is all about strict portion control. This intimidated me and made me feel confused and stupid. Sometimes I worried I was doing it all wrong. Some people said we’re not supposed to consume carbs or dairy. That’s unrealistic to me. I have always figured that if diets worked, why would new ones keep cropping up? Diets mean someone is trying to sell you a book or membership or feel better about their own choices.
Eventually, I worked it out for myself. I formed habits and I strategized. I started getting up early and making my bed to practice self-discipline.
Each small success increased my motivation. I did not give up on wanting to feel better and I kept needing smaller and smaller pants.
All of my reasons for losing weight were entirely me doing this for myself. I wanted to be more fit in case I had to face a challenge. I wanted confidence. I wanted to look better, and not be judged by other people. I wanted to overcome my weakness and be strong-willed. My dog is 10, and he is streamlined and radiates health, and I wanted to be more like him.
Food is a need
It took three years to lose the weight, and the past three years I have maintained the same weight.
Once I lost weight, people started talking to me again. I could walk down the bus aisle without people flinching out of my way. My new clothes looked good on me. It was hard to believe I fit in such small clothes. When I got my flu shot, both the nurse and the student nurse with her burst out with a heartfelt compliment: “Nice delts!” No one had ever said anything like that to me before.
While writing this story, I suffered the worst food cravings. The rational adult in me shook its head at my sad inability to say no to chocolate and ice cream. I wonder if my cravings will ever stop. In the meantime, I will carry on.
I eat carbs. I eat protein with my carbs. I eat healthy food. I try to have protein and some fruit or vegetables alongside. A good snack for me is fruit and cheese.
When it’s suppertime, I often have a vegetable stew. Depending on my mood and level of desperation, I may have a lot of oven-baked French fries and oven-baked French toast using olive oil, not butter.
In the grocery store, I try to remember how good my dinner was the night before. I make a grocery list. I eat before I shop or run errands.
I keep in mind that market forces will do anything to sell me their food. They have brilliant tactics and know that sugar, fat and salt are addictive. And so, they wrap it in pretty, shiny packaging. I shop in the perimeter of a grocery story, where they put food that is just ingredients.
I now look at foods as their most basic. An Italian Bomboloni donut is sugar and fat encased in a protective layer of sugar, fat and white flour.
I remember that drinking soda or alcohol blasts glucose into my bloodstream and has many negative effects. I have water with my meals.
I let myself recognize that I have accomplished something when I walk a tough hill or an extra staircase. I find reasons to walk. I get off the bus a few stops early, even though vegetables are heavier than chips.
My relationship with food has become less obsessive. I have a garden and am making myself a new hat. My dog is a big motivator for me to go on a walk.
These are the new things I found to make myself happy. They are more than food. Food was never as fulfilling as I wanted it to be.
When I don’t get myself a food I want and quickly think, “now what am I going to eat?” I remember walking with my son in his stroller and his screeching when I dripped water on him. I remember that I have to keep going because I still have a lot of time left, and I want to enjoy it.
Read the full Dec. 11 - 17 issue.
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