In January, the attention of Americans turns to weight loss.
Retailers exploit this interest, displaying towers of shiny new diet books. The media pumps out stories, offers tips and guidance (the same tips as every other year) and earnestly discusses the ways to make our New Year's resolutions work. Gyms fill will newbies. Thankfully, it will all be over in a couple of weeks and those with the serious intent of changing their lives will be able to go back to work undistracted.
January is an odd time for self-renewal. Yes, the calendar turns a page and we move into a new year. The business cycle starts anew. But for a good part of the United States, January is a cold, unfriendly month. It's hot soup and mashed potato time, the very month when a little extra fat feels good. In Cleveland, the prospect of heading out for a run through slushy streets covered by slate gray skies is a tough sell even for career exercisers.
Of course January is weight loss month because it is preceded by the season called, "I Have to Eat It, It's the Holidays". We have developed an unfortunate cycle of gorging and disgorging on a yearly basis. This mirrors the shorter cycle we run more frequently throughout the year: eat things we know we shouldn't, gain weight, then diet to get them off. The problem, as we are all well aware, is that we eventually reach a point when we can't get the weight off anymore. We burn out, allow the higher weight to become our new reality and start adding extra pounds to that new base.
I know that I am preaching to the choir, but the reason that weight resolutions and periodic diets don't work is that they have nothing to do with the real work of making oneself healthy. That little chore requires committing oneself to a new way of viewing food and to new personal and permanent rules about how to eat. These rules include guidelines for such things as exceptions. Over the holidays, some maintainers may allow themselves a certain amount of indulgence for example, where others may stick strictly to their daily plan. But it's programmed. Flying by the seat of one's pants is a rarity among maintainers, who are well aware that the food winds blow with gale force. Crashing is likely unless someone has a close eye on the rudder.
January, then, is the silly season for weight loss. This month's People leads with the popular "Half Their Size" feature. Here are the amazing before and after photos, the airbrushed pictures of beautiful women in their skinny jeans, and the tantalizing promise that anyone can lose a mere 100 pounds or so. The guidance for wannabes?
One woman hung a bikini in her garage and looked at it while she worked out on the elliptical.
Another ate a lot of spinach; she suggests you take weight loss 5 pounds at a time.
To People's credit, they do provide a section that features subjects of the Half Their Size issue in years past. These successful maintainers look inspiring, but the amount of useful information that accompanies their stories is miniscule. How are they doing it and what made them able to do what they couldn't before? That's the information that might help a curious reader, but it's not included. These features are strictly about the photos. There's no room for content.
Us Weekly has a cover that touts "Diets that Work" and suggests that each of us can have legs like JLo and Rihanna's abs. The diet guidance below each photo of skinny women in shorts and bathing suits is mostly useless. One woman did 2 1/2 hours a day of karate and boxing while training for a movie (try that after getting home from a day at the office!), another does sessions that "shorten the muscle fibers", a third practices "portion control".
In addition to sparse information, the women in these photos are mostly in their mid 20s, a time when dieting tends to work. What does any of this mean for the 50-year-old empty nester who has been struggling with slow and steady weight gain for ten years? Here's my favorite quote from Us Weekly.
It comes from Mariah Carey, who has been up and down the scale more frequently than Kirstie Alley. Once again she is at a smaller size and is now a spokesperson for Jenny Craig. Carey says of herself, "I'm extremely disciplined." Hmmmm.
Silly season tips abound. The sillier the better. Here are a couple of great ones: Eat with large forks. Spice soup with pepper. Put coconut oil in your coffee to "increase metabolism". Oh my.
If silly season has your head spinning, here's what I suggest:
1. Cover your ears and close your eyes. There's too much information out there, most of which is ineffectual or just plain wrong.
2. Make a resolution, but not a weight loss resolution. Instead, resolve to begin the process of making yourself an all around healthier person, someone who will feel good and live well over an extended lifespan.
3. Pick a time of year when you will begin. It doesn't have to be tomorrow. It does have to be a time when you won't have immediate challenges from food....challenges like weddings, cruises, or birthdays. Give yourself a month when you aren't forced into situations when food is likely to win. Start with some breathing room in front of you.
4. Resolve to try eating a diet of real food, pretty much as it comes from the earth or its animals. Unless the food in a can or package is original and not adulterated with "stuff", don't eat it. If you are looking for weight loss as a part of this renewal, stop eating sugars, potatoes, and starchy foods like grains and the things made from grains (cereal, bread, pasta, flour based baked goods).
5. Read books, articles and blogs that further your knowledge of eating style.
6. Start looking around for a kind of sustained physical activity that you think you would enjoy once you mastered it. Start doing that thing at a beginner level and without significant challenge. Work up. If you do it for three months and don't like it, start over with something else.
7. Observe yourself and take note (either mentally or in written form) of your progress along the way. Does your skin look better? Do you feel happier? Do you have more energy? Are you less anxious? These are all results that have been observed after changes in the way people eat and live.
Silly season can be fun if you don't take it too seriously. Within a week or two, most of America will be back to its predictable cycle of weight gain and periodic dieting. Be bold, and head off in a different direction. Happy New Year!
Follow more of Dr. Berkeley's blogs at www.refusetoregain.com and view her weight loss videos on YouTube.