I’ve been overweight since around 6 years old. I’m 41 now, so that’s 35 years of experience battling my weight, and when I was younger, an addiction to food. Being overweight as a child and teenager can make you feel frustrated, confused, embarrassed, and many other negative emotions. Both the mental and physical toll on the mind and body can be severe. Especially when you get made fun of and bullied by your peers. Kids don’t understand the complications of eating disorders, so unless their parents have explained things to them, they don’t realize how truly cruel it is to pick on someone for their weight. Instead, they far too often see the adults in their lives making fun of those who are overweight, “ugly” in their eyes, odd, or different in any way, so it’s normal to them.
I’ve even experienced adults believing that pressure from my peers about my weight would help me change my eating habits. I’m sure that type of motivation can work for some, but for many, it just makes them feel even worse because they don’t know how to stop feeling and doing how they do. Some people have what is called Compulsive Eating Disorder where they feel like they can’t stop themselves from binging on food, and there is even a current controversy over whether someone can actually be addicted to food. I believe that you can definitely be addicted to food, because I have experienced it.
Before my chronic conditions really reared their ugly heads, I (thought) I was an average person who just had a weight problem because my family liked good ole’ Appalachian cooking. Huge home-cooked Sunday meals, dining out at restaurants with huge portions, and basically being a family of “foodies,” contributed to my weight problem, but it was much more than that. It felt like there was an invisible force coming from the food, pulling me in, making me think about the next good meal. When I ate, I felt good. It was that simple. That’s all it takes, especially as child.
Eating made me feel better. No matter what happened, food made me feel better- emotionally. In the beginning, the physical effects happen so gradually that you don’t even realize you are far bigger than what is healthy until it’s already past a point that it would be fairly easy to stop. For me in particular, I didn’t start recognizing long-term consequences until high school at least. Even then, I didn’t really get serious about changing my eating habits. I tried dieting off and on, of course, like many of us do, but nothing ever worked, nor was anything I tried something that would have been sustainable anyway.
I didn’t understand then that it would become something I had to learn all about in order to exist without being so sick I can’t function at all. I didn’t understand then how much easier it would have been for me to make the necessary changes when I was in my teenage body that could still handle making drastic changes fairly quickly. I didn’t realize that basically all my favorite foods were doing the absolute worst things to my body. I did have stomach issues back then, but I thought it was just something everyone dealt with. I had no understanding that they could have been avoided, until it was too late. Had I recognized all of these things when I was young enough that my body could still handle the exercising, and all the necessary changes, without it being harder and taking much longer, things may have gone a bit better.
Had I been in optimal physical condition when I started noticing the first symptoms of my chronic illnesses, I likely could have gotten them mostly managed, which would have likely affected how long I was able to keep working and doing other activities. It wouldn’t have prevented them completely, but it’s common sense that the better physical condition you’re in, the better your body can deal with injury and illness. Being morbidly obese when it all started did not help things at all. I didn’t really start making serious changes until my body literally forced me to. Then, it was like a crash course that I had to learn in order to not have room-spinning nausea attacking me 24 hours a day.
Now that I’m over 15 years into dealing with my body wanting to do everything it can to make my life difficult, I’ve learned some tricks and helpful insights about changing to healthy eating habits. I thought it might help someone to write them all out, so here it goes:
- Stop trying to lose weight. That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make. Your goal needs to be to get healthy. Period. You want to reduce your calories/fat (probably,) but you also want to reduce your cholesterol, sugar, and sodium intake.
- Stop eating almost anything that comes pre-packaged. I’m serious. This is probably the most important thing along with the next tip. I have found, after years of really trying to listen to my body, that there is always some type of reaction from packaged foods. I didn’t really notice it until my body went through a time where I couldn’t eat really anything without getting sick, so I fasted for 3 days, and then started reintroducing foods one at a time. Each time I would try something that wasn’t fresh, I got really sick (I wrote all about that experience in “Replacing & Systematically Eliminating Foods to Feel Better: Tasty Suggestions & How To Start The Process” ) Yes, this means eliminating quite a lot of convenient foods, but you can do so slowly. I have a very short list of packaged things I use, and most have to be in very small amounts or they will still give me a horrible experience. Even if you don’t have the stomach issues I do, cutting out all the pre-packaged stuff makes a significant difference in feeling better and weight loss, so it’s helpful either way. These are the few foods I still eat that I don’t make myself.
a. Almond milk, Reddi-whip Coconut milk whipped cream, & coconut oil
b. The few spices and flavorings that I am able to still use (very sparingly,) like salt, poultry seasoning, dehydrated onion, & vanilla
c. Things I can’t really make myself- sugar, natural almond butter, etc.
d. Bread ONLY from a fresh bakery department. I can’t handle any other type of bread. Either from the bakery or homemade.
e. A very few condiment type things- Ken’s Steakhouse Honey Mustard & Miracle Whip
- Cook. Find a way to make the time to cook your own meals. If you’re busy, use meal prepping to make it a lot easier. Use whatever day you have some downtime and take a couple of hours prepping your meals for the week. It will help considerably, because it makes it almost as fast and easy as fast food drive-thru’s, saves money, and is a whole lot healthier.
- There are different body types- learn what specifically works for yours. Don’t expect your body to behave exactly like someone else’s. Too often, we compare our progress to others and it hurts us. What works for your genetic makeup and specific body type, may not be what works for someone else, and vice-versa. There are different publications that can assist you with this based on your blood type, and you can even get genetic testing to tell you what foods work best with your body. Those can be a bit expensive though, so a cheap way is to just learn to recognize the signs the body is giving when you eat foods, and going through a systematic process of eliminating things, then reintroducing, to see if that specific food is causing a problem. It takes time to accomplish, but by the time it’s done, you already have a wonderful start on changing your habits, and some weight will likely even come off throughout the process. (More information on how in the article I mentioned in #2)
- Don’t try to change everything all at once. Once you figure out what foods work best with your body type, start figuring out what combination of foods will keep you filled up throughout the day. I did this by “organizing” the foods I knew I could eat in to groups. There are foods I can basically eat any time, things I can eat in moderation, and things I can only have very small amounts of (you can base this on calorie/fat/sugar/sodium content, or what foods bother your stomach- whatever applies in your situation.) I then further divided the things I can only eat in moderation and very little of into which ones I could have daily, 2-3 times a week, or only once in awhile. Once I did all this, it allowed me to see exactly how I needed to plan my meals to work best for my body. At this point, I still wasn’t looking too closely at portion size for individual meals- that comes next.
- Start leaving food on the plate. One of the hardest things for me was not eating everything I put on my plate. It took me quite some time to get my brain around putting less on my plate, so not eating all that was there became an important part of changing my habits. I began by leaving one bite each meal, then gradually left two, then three, and so on until the portions I was eating were down to a reasonable amount.
- Make other small changes. Little things really do matter and will add up. Again, start out small- when you’re making a sandwich, reduce the amount of condiments, cheese, meat, and anything else that adds to the calorie/fat, cholesterol, sugar, or sodium content. If you’re putting sugar on your cereal, or in your oatmeal, or whatever, use a couple less spoons than you normally would. I don’t recommend using artificial sweeteners of any kind, or “diet” foods. Again, the best way for me has been to go the all natural, no preservatives, no fried foods, no dairy, and extremely minimal pre-packaged foods. If you drink diet soda, I suggest switching to regular and reducing how much you drink. In my opinion, this is the healthier option. Just use less of the bad stuff. Less mayo, less ketchup, less sugar, less salt, less dairy (or none,)
- Also make small changes in your physical activities. Do simple things, like leave half of your lunch in the fridge so you have to go back for it, or only get half the food you normally would so you have to go back and get more. Park as far away from doors as you can. If you can walk somewhere, or bike, instead of using a car or public transport, do it. I intentionally leave things downstairs to force myself to walk back down there to get it, or out in the car so I know it will make me walk out there. If you are at home, try not to just sit around. Walk in place while watching TV, get up and do stretches and a few light exercises every 30ish minutes, if your body can handle it- anything that makes you move rather than sit. I have to do things this way because my chronic medical conditions keep me from being able to do a regular workout, so I need to fit physical activity in whenever my body will allow it, but these little things can be done in addition to exercising regularly to add to your physical activity level, helping with weight & being healthy.
- Get rid of the bad stuff. Don’t have it in your environment where you’ll be tempted. Keep things that are healthy so that when you can’t keep yourself from eating, it’s at least not a bag of chips, or thing of cookies. Only get something special occasionally to treat yourself, and make sure you get just enough for that reward. Don’t get extra because you’ll be tempted to eat more than you meant to. Rewarding yourself occasionally is fine, eating things that are bad for you, daily, leads to problems.
Eating healthier can be a daunting task, but using these methods can help make it easier to get started, and eventually, sustain. And- the more you do it- the easier it gets. A lot of people don’t realize that. The less you eat of the bad stuff, the worse it tastes to you when you DO eat it. At one point, I loved the taste of deep-fried foods, thought the huge portions at restaurants (regular restaurants,) were too small, and would eat the decadent, huge desserts (really meant to share,)- and still want more.
Now, I can feel the grease coating my mouth from deep-fried foods and it repulses me; I can make at least 3 meals out of one of the restaurant portions; and can’t even finish a regular cookie, or small brownie, because it’s too rich for me. I LOVED dairy- milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream- anything. Since I’ve had to stop eating it, I can smell it from across the room and it’s not an appealing smell. Sour cream, especially, and that used to be my favorite. It’s amazing how much easier it is for me to resist these foods compared to what it was when I started.
My theory is, you just have to cleanse your palate, and once that happens, is when it starts getting easier. I listen to my body now. If it makes a food taste bad to me, I don’t eat it (now that I’ve gotten to this point,) because it ALWAYS means it will make me feel badly somehow. This also has implications for children. If we start them out without all the sugar, grease, and processed things, they won’t constantly crave them, and see them as a once-in-awhile-type thing, instead. I actually notice this in general, in people from different regions. For example, those raised in California are more likely to have healthier eating habits than someone raised with Southern home-cooking. At least that’s how it’s been in my experience. The point is, it gets better and easier. Just start out with these simple ways of eating healthier, then you can delve even deeper into the world of healthy eating if you want. I created this graphic to save as a quick reference, or share with others who need to know where to begin.