How Do You Stay So Thin?

That question has probably been posed to me more times than the number of calories that are in a Krispy Kreme donut.

It’s a reasonable question to ask, particularly of someone with a lean body. My initial response whenever I’m asked how I do it is to give the 35,000-foot overview: I mostly eat real food — not processed or junk, I exercise and I rarely drink alcohol.

The ones who are truly interested want me to then talk from the kitchen counter level. They want specifics. Details down to how many fat and carb grams a day I consume to what brands of supplements I’m taking. I’ll often sketch out a typical breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks scenario that reveals no sodas, no fast foods, not much cheese, and nary a noodle or donut.

I make tough choices.

It’s at that point that it becomes clear that they want to be thin but they really don’t want to be thin my way.

I can understand that.

I know it is really hard to change habits. Many people would rather keep eating like a kid, totally oblivious to consequences, short or long term. It takes a lot of work to learn how to take responsibility for your own body and health, to become educated about foods real or artificial, and capable of making decisions involving metric numbers and measuring.

But still I leave those conversations feeling sad. So many are likely to continue to haul their bodies around as if they are dragging a piano.

A report from the National Center for Health Statistics compiled with 2005-2006 data (the most recent numbers available when I wrote this column in 2009) show that more than 34 percent of adult Americans are obese, passing the number of people who are overweight (32.7 percent). Another report from the Centers for Disease Control reported that 32 percent of children are in the overweight category and 16 percent are obese. (STATS UPDATE: Data published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 2016 for CDC surveys that were conducted in 2013 and 2014 show more than 4 in 10 U.S. women are obese; 35 percent of men are obese; about 38 percent of all adults are obese; 17 percent of children are obese. FOR 2015-2016 period the CDC reports a rise to 39.8 percent of all adults; 18 percent of children are obese, which is nearly 2 out of 10 children.)

Reading that disturbing news and hearing the bloviated coverage about 2009 resolutions for that better-thinner-healthier life reminded me of an unusual conversation I had years ago with a very plump colleague. She was a lovely postmenopausal woman, always beautifully styled. One day in the newsroom she confided in me she had been seeing two men. I tried to contain any surprise but honestly, there was no way for me to suppress my left eyebrow from lifting high in that “Oh really?” kind of devilish way. And then wide smiles took control over both of our faces.

She said it was still too soon for her to know which man might win her heart. What she was certain of she said was that she was unhappy with the way her body looked without clothes. So much so, just the thought of undressing to be intimate with either one of her suitors made her anxious. As the inevitable show time, so to speak, in bed was coming closer she was desperate for my dieting tips.

When she asked me, “How do you stay so thin?” I unexpectedly found myself thinking in a whole new way about how to respond to that awkward question. What struck me was that what I really wanted to be able to say to her in that moment was the unspeakable: How do you stay so fat?

But I didn’t pose that question to her then because I assumed she would misunderstand my intention, about trying to get at a root cause. It was also an easy guess that this kind of reply would instead end up hurting her feelings, and she was already vulnerable enough.

Like so many other people, she was just looking for a quick solution. Fortunately this time I felt confident I had one that could do the trick for her.

First I asked her about her “go-to” foods — those favorites that are really the weak link in a person’s eating. I explained to her that I was looking for any of the foods that she’d comfort or reward herself with, the ones she craved when she was stressed.

“Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes. Definitely macaroni and cheese,” she said. “I love cheese.”

I told her the next time she found herself craving macaroni and cheese, “you need to stop and ask yourself a question.” Then I held out my hands in front of her. “Cheese,” I said as I snapped my left palm upward. “Or squeeze?” I said as I flipped my right wrist up to show its palm.

My hands had turned into scales.

I repeated the motions again as I asked her, “Cheese or squeeze?” Squeeze in terms of a lovey-dovey boyfriend. She laughed. I laughed.

“You’ve got to ask yourself before you eat, ‘What do I want more?’ You either want a sexy love life — a squeeze — or you want the cheese more. You just have to ask yourself that question before you eat anything.”

“I get it,” she said. “That’s brilliant. That’s so simple. It’s like a light bulb went off in my head just now.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It is simple. It’s always a choice. And you get to make it.”

In that moment my coworker was able to see that to have what she desired only required that she stop and ask herself that simple question.

Describing food as a drug of choice or equating food with addiction — as in someone saying they are addicted to potato chips – can easily be a distraction or excuse. It can even delay someone from seeing a basic truth and a solution. Most people (I’m not talking about anyone with rare genetic mutations that thwart usual remedies for weight loss) who are overeating and not exercising, or who are not burning off the excess calories they consume, have made a resoundingly clear statement to themselves. It’s one they mistakenly make over and over.

It’s the choice to not make the better choice.

My coworker liked the trick for helping her make the better choice.

I do too because the either/or equation can work for anyone. Instead of “squeeze” you can insert “health.”

I value mine and am grateful to have this body that is strong and lean and limber. Despite the challenges created by an under active thyroid (see earlier columns on my web site) and menopause, what has worked great for me was to pose the question “Is this food my friend?” If I can’t say yes, then that means it is not good for my goal of being healthy and so I don’t eat it.

The other strong motivator is the wisdom that was instilled in childhood. Being taught not to steal, not to lie, not to murder. And it is the same with what to eat and the way to eat.

Eating too much is called gluttony. There’s a valid reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. Being overweight doesn’t just kill your health — it also eats your soul and makes for a very sad existence. Those who are carrying excess baggage and who will honestly answer the tough question “How do you stay so fat?” can be led straight to the answers and to the best help that will rejuvenate their soul.

Oh yeah. The one and only Krispy Kreme donut I ate was about 8 years ago when I was a new resident of Texas when they were the hottest rage. Someone offered it as a surprise gift and I ate it out of curiosity. I knew right away it could never be my friend. Darn it.

— Giselle M. Massi © January 2009