Worrying About Weight Doesn't Help You Lose It
Most of the people I see spend most of their lives worrying about their own version of crooked stitches—the size of their thighs, their hips, their abdomens. As if those things signify something true or real about their lives. As if when we get to the end of our lives, a number on a scale will mean anything at all.
I was in a car accident recently. We were burbling away, two friends and I, on our way to a party, when suddenly we got sideswiped a few times by someone who ran a red light. After our car crashed into two lampposts, three other cars and one stop sign, it came to a total standstill. I crawled out of the hole in the side that used to be the door and, although my ankle throbbed, my head felt as if a brick had fallen on it and I couldn't breathe very well, I was alive. And suddenly, just being alive was enough. Was miraculous. Suddenly, nothing was important except the fact that I was still breathing.
I needed a wheelchair for six weeks because of a sprained ankle and a set of bruised ribs, and sometimes, when my husband was busy and couldn't transport me from the dining room to the living room, I'd sit outside and stare at the feast in my backyard. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Just the usual: clouds, trees, sun. Dog barking. Birds trilling. Wind blowing. The everyday jubilee I'd been passing on my way from desk to kitchen to desk as I worried about the stitches of work, family, errands, responsibilities. As I rushed frantically to keep up with the pace of emails, text messages, book deadlines. But since I had a concussion and couldn't think clearly, and since my usual mode of running around was impossible, I had a good excuse to stop everything and contemplate the little things. Like living and dying. There is nothing like a brush with death to get a girl thinking.
The first time I taught my retreat after the accident, I asked my students to make a list of 10 things they loved most about being alive. They wrote down things like: "reading to my daughter before bed," "swimming with my son," "holding my husband's hand," "being in the forest," "taking a hot bath." Then I asked them what they would spend their time on if they knew they had only a year to live. All of them elaborated on different versions of doing what they loved and of loving the people they cherished. Not one of them mentioned losing weight, although some of them did say that they would eat only what they really, really liked. Which brings me to the subject of dieting and weight loss and being fully alive.
Why diets don't work...and what you should do instead
However, by the end of the two-year study, all the participants gained back some of the weight they had lost. Two years of strict dieting and the end result is that you lose 10 pounds and gain back 4? Hmm. There's gotta be a better way to spend your time.
There is. It's called: Live the life you have. Love the body you've got. (This is not the same thing as saying "Give up and binge.")
Part of the reason that diets don't work is that when we are obsessively focused on how much we weigh, we are not focused on doing what we love or on loving what we love. We are thinking about what we will look like when we lose weight. We are spending our days counting calories or fat grams, as if we have forever to be alive, forever to turn to what we truly love. When the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch's last lecture swept across the Internet, when he spoke about having pancreatic cancer and six months to live, he spoke as a man whose priorities were clear. He wanted to spend every second he could with his family; he wanted his kids to have a visible record of his love. "I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable," he said. "I'm living like I'm dying. But at the same time, I'm very much living like I'm still living."
Every one of us has a terminal illness: It's called life. Although we want to believe that death only happens to other people, it only takes a second or two to realize that the D word is going to happen to us too. A car accident. A serious illness. An iffy mammogram. Suddenly, it's our life that is at stake. Our life whose stitches are numbered.
Ask yourself how you want to live.
Ask yourself what you would do with your time if you found out that your days were numbered. (Because they are. You just don't know what the number is.)
And, oh, ask yourself what you would eat.
While you might be tempted to say, "I'd eat pizza and cheesecake nonstop, because who cares about clogged arteries when time is limited?" ask
yourself if that's true. If life is so precious, why would you spend one minute of it making yourself sick?
When I was 19, my college roommate and I were traveling from Pisa to Rome in a rickety airplane. We were convinced that it was going to crash and in the last few minutes of the flight, I figured that as long as I was going to die, I might as well die eating chocolate. Despite the turbulence, I managed to polish off the entire 5-pound box I'd bought for my mother. If I had died, I would have gone out burping and in a sugar coma. Not exactly a graceful exit.
Rather than focusing on dieting and depriving yourself, which we all know does not work, turn your attention to what you love. Because if you love your life, you want to take care of your body. Even if you knew you only had six months to live, you might eat differently, you might even begin exercising every day, but it wouldn't be because you were ashamed of your body. It wouldn't be because your thighs weren't thin enough or the stitches of your life weren't good enough. It would be because you didn't want to miss a minute of the time you had left. Why wait? Why not cherish every crooked stitch of your life before another moment passes?
Geneen Roth's books were among the first to link compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image. She believes that we eat the way we live and that our relationships to food, money and love are exact reflections of our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the amount of joy, abundance, pain and scarcity we believe we have (or are allowed) to have in our lives.
Geneen has appeared on many national television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The View and Good Morning America. Articles about Roth and her work have appeared in numerous publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Time, Elle, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written a monthly column in Good Housekeeping magazine since 2007. Roth is the author of eight books, including The New York Times best-seller When Food Is Love and a memoir about love and loss, The Craggy Hole in My Heart. Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything is her newest book.
Read More from Geneen Roth:
What your cravings really mean
How to make peace with your body
Get over those last 10 pounds