Health has been a pendulum for me for way too long.
Given the way I swing from extremes—weight, appetite, energy, mood—it took me a long time to believe that “normal” was a legitimate, achievable state of being, and not just some fickle, imaginary standard used primarily to body-shame me. “Normal” was just something I passed on my way to some new compulsive, unhealthy behavior, all supposedly in the name of trying to improve my health.
From crash diets to boot camps, I seemed to try every health “trick” without enjoying any permanent change. It took me much longer than I am proud of to realize that the problem with all my efforts wasn’t the science or the gimmicks—it was my attitude.
The Last Straw
In the midst of one of my super-restrictive diets, I started having serious digestive issues that led to my being hospitalized. The doctors informed me that the problem had nothing to do with diet—it was, in their words, some combination of genetics, age, and bad luck.
Up to that point, I had actually been losing weight, but when they prescribed steroids to help my digestive system repair itself, I went through one of the most intense, concentrated periods of weight gain in my entire life (more than 50 pounds in less than four months). While my doctors assured me this was a normal side-effect, I couldn’t believe the change.
“Why,” I asked, “for all of my efforts to get healthier, does it seem like I am being punished?”
While my doctor did express sympathy, he also made the aside that, based on what I had told him about my diet, it seemed like I was already punishing myself before I started gaining weight. That little observation—and the truth behind it—was a revelation to me at the time.. Instead of training myself to enjoy good health and make choices based on self-love, I had turned everything into a process of self-denial, abuse, and punishment.
Avoid Crime and Punishment
Don’t get me wrong—the book is deservedly a classic. But policing your life to root out unhealthy behavior turns everything into a one-mad game of cops and robbers. Simply eliminating bad behaviors (avoiding exercise, eating out of habit rather than hunger) too often turns into a punishment we inflict on ourselves for allowing our health to get out of balance.
But all this focus on physical behaviors neglects the important mental and emotional side of trying to get healthier. When I viewed everything I did through a lens of “Good” or “Bad” for my health goals, I was miserable—all my unhealthy habits swallowed up my focus and energy, and kept me from enjoying or appreciating when I made a positive choice to replace it.
Psychologists have proven that punishment is not the most effective way to change behavior. Yet that was exactly what I was doing to myself every time I set a new health goal—and it was failing me, every time.
Balance Means Avoiding Extremes
Binge eating is a dangerous yet common disorder. For many of us, the compulsion of over-indulge prevents us from truly enjoying treats. When a snack turns into a feeding frenzy, the little rewards we allow ourselves turn into punishments, and undue any positive progress.
One of the best things I ever did for my health was to realize that the foods I most often binge-ate (for me, chips) were no longer a source of pleasure. If I ate them, I ate too many, and felt bad. If I tried to stop, I would try some new fad diet and end up frustrated, then relapse into binging on chips.
You know what your dietary worst enemy is—we all do. That is the place to start cutting: not whole food groups or ingredients, but the specific things that bring out the worst in you. When a guilty pleasure becomes self-destructive, it is ok to avoid and replace it. I always thought cutting one bad food would never make a difference, so if I gave up chips, it was always as part of some grand new dietary scheme.
This was a mistake, because most of my diet was actually pretty healthy—outside of my tendency to indulge myself with snack foods, especially chips. Every time I went on a new elimination diet that cut out chips, I realized I was cutting out more than my problem food, and changing my goals too much. Chips are not a food group; chips are just one unhealthy item that I consistently failed to eat in moderation. When I decided to stop buying them, and change nothing else about my diet, I actually ate healthier anyway, because my snack habits stopped revolving around binging.
Not feeling like I had keep myself stocked with chips—only to finish the whole bag in one sitting—gave me the positivity boost I needed to bring a little more discipline into the rest of my diet.
A Little Help from My Friends
When I had gotten about halfway through losing my steroid-induced weight, I had another flare up of the same digestion issue and had to go back to the doctor. It wasn’t as dramatic as the first (I avoided the hospital this time), but I was still afraid that all my work was about to be undone by another round of steroids. It was devastating.
This time, after listening to my concerns, my doctor instead referred me to a pharmacist, whom he said would help me to better manage my weight while dealing with my digestive issues. He said normally, Medication Therapy Management was recommended for older (Medicare) patients with chronic conditions, but given my concerns, and my success in recovering from the last bout of steroids, I might benefit from it.
“After all,” he joked, “good health can also be a chronic condition.”
This was the last thing I needed, considering how taking drugs had worked out for me the last time I got a prescription.
A Mixed Solution
It turned out that my new pharmacist wanted to do a lot more than fill prescriptions. He was a big advocate of supplements—something I had been skeptical of ever since, at the insistence of my chiropractor, I tried a totally dead-end “cleanse” that relied heavily on taking a whole host of little green capsules.
This pharmacist, without hesitation, explained why supplements alone will never do the trick (and how my chiropractor likely made money off of selling them as part of his “cleanse” program). I complained that I didn’t want more of the old prescriptions, as I was still trying to recover months after I had stopped taking them.
His alternative suggestions (including probiotics, of which I am now a great fan) not only helped my digestive system get back on track faster than the steroids had done previously, but I was able to avoid the dramatic weight-gain I had feared was unavoidable. I stopped losing weight as I had been, at least until this latest flare-up got under control, but the fact that I didn’t balloon again under steroids was like a blessing.
For once, it seemed, I had avoided punishment, and instead simply kept my balance.
Not Black and White
Right and wrong aren’t always as clear cut as we might like; the same goes for healthy behaviors. Understanding that reality is complex, and that solutions don’t always hinge on taking a magic pill (or avoiding them like the plague), helped me aim for balance, rather than a new health revolution.
All my efforts to follow extreme diets and exercise regimens were doomed to fail from the start, because they framed everything in terms of black and white, right and wrong. More than that, though, they never allowed me to enjoy what I got right, because I was too occupied with my fear of what felt like punishments for all that I got wrong.
Today, I am healthier than I have ever been, and I believe it is because I embraced the grey: simply aiming for balance, and taking both success and the occasional indulgence in stride.
Photo credit: Butz.2013