Okay, so I think it’ll…

Okay, so I think it'll help me ground this discussion if I talk specifically about my own experiences with weight / weight loss / calories / etc. Here goes -- more than you ever wanted to know about my weight.

  • Childhood: I think I was a pretty average kid, based on the photos -- not particularly skinny, not fat. More of a bookworm than an athlete, though I do have a vague memory of winning the third-grade sprinting contest, beating all the other girls *and* boys. I didn't have much endurance, but I think I was a pretty fast sprinter for a while; I used to do well at dodgeball and capture-the-flag, that sort of thing. I don't remember having any food issues. In my family's house, you ate what was put in front of you, and you cleaned your plate, because there were starving children in Africa. I think that usually meant cereal for breakfast, cold-cut sandwich and fruit for lunch, rice, meat curry, and vegetable curry for dinner. We didn't eat dessert, I don't think, and I don't think I noticed the lack. Maybe some fruit after the meal. No soda in the house, and sweets only came out when people were visiting.

  • Age 9: I hit puberty early, and developed 34DD breasts. This was not fun on a kid's body. But I think I was still on the thin side. Start of body-consciousness, though.

  • Pre-teen: I was lucky enough to be spared acne. But my parents sent me to spend a summer at my aunt's house in Chicago, and she lived in an apartment building at the time. I had fun playing with her little girls, but it was all indoor play. I had been used to running around our neighborhood all summer; that summer, I spent mostly sitting in front of the tv, watching re-runs of Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies. By the end of the summer, my uncle was calling me a 'plum pudding'. I'm not sure how old I was -- I'd guess around 12. This is when I started feeling somewhat overweight, and when my mother started pushing me to eat less.

  • High school: I went to an all-girls' school where we slopped around in sweats most of the time, which I think spared me a lot of grief. I was now my adult height, 5 feet tall, and about 125 pounds, which my doctor said was 5-15 pounds heavier than I should be. I claimed that I should get a weight allowance for the big boobs, but he didn't seem to buy that argument. Throughout high school, my mother, looking ahead to my arranged marriage, was agitating for me to lose weight. She was also a bit bewildered, I think -- she had been naturally slender until she'd had three children (and still remained of pretty average weight), so didn't understand where my extra pounds had come from. I was in the beginnings of my rebellious teenager phase, so even though I was mildly unhappy about feeling 'plump', I steadfastly refused to try to diet (or dress better, or wear make-up, etc. and so on).

  • College: Freshman year, instead of gaining the traditional 'freshman fifteen,' I got a horrible case of the flu, and couldn't eat anything except crackers for two weeks. Just couldn't keep a damn thing down. I dropped to 118 pounds, which put me inside the doctor's healthy-weight guidelines for the first time in my adult life, and once I got over the flu, felt great. I had also gotten a job running mail around the departments, which involved walking around a flat campus for two hours every day, the first regular exercise I'd had in my life. That probably contributed to my staying at around 120 pounds for the next two years.

  • Upper-level college: I started gaining more weight -- a steady 2-3 pounds a year. Interestingly, although I was still a perfectly reasonable size 8, I still 'thought I was fat' a lot of the time. Mostly I managed to ignore the feeling, though. I didn't diet, and I sometimes wore skimpy clothes -- midriff-baring tops, short-shorts. I was also dating for real for the first time in my life, and at a school with a 60/40 male/female ratio, the male attention felt great. I was a flirty little minx. Those poor geeky boys.

  • Age 23: By now, I had hit 135 pounds, and was starting to worry. Where was all this weight coming from? Was I really eating too much? It's true I didn't exercise much at all. We had moved to Philly by then, and I biked ten minutes to and from work, but it was entirely flat, so I don't think it did much. I was working as a secretary for an endocrinologist by then, and noticed a lot of patients being diagnosed with hypothyroidism who seemed to have a lot of the same experiences I had -- steady weight gain, feeling cold all the time, feeling unreasonably tired, mood swings. I asked my boss whether I might be hypothyroid, and she gently told me that probably I wasn't. But I asked my dad, and he told me that of my eight aunts, four of them were hypothyroid. When I told my boss this additional info, she had my bloodwork tested, and sure enough, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. My thyroid gland had been failing for some period of time, not producing enough thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone basically regulates your body's metabolism, how fast your internal thermostat runs. Without sufficient thyroid hormone, that thermostat doesn't work so well. She prescribed Synthroid, supplemental thyroid hormone, enough to bring my T4 and TSH back up to normal levels. I started taking it, grateful that it didn't come with any unpleasant side effects. I stopped feeling so exhausted and cold, and also stopped gaining weight. (I was severely tempted to double or triple my dosage, to make myself hyperthyroid instead, with a super-fast metabolism -- tons of energy and skinniness! Unfortunately, down that road lies heart failure...)

  • Age 24-30: I held steady at 135-140 pounds through this period, roughly a size 8-10 (M/L) in clothes. I would've liked to be thinner, and still 'felt fat', but I was basically okay with my weight, I think. Enough that I made no efforts to diet. I was still a total slacker about exercise during most of this time.

  • Age 30: Kevin and I broke up. I was devastated. I ate a lot, for most of a year, and sat alone in my dark apartment and cried. I gained weight, almost twenty pounds. When I was hitting 160, and about to move out of the regular department of the clothing stores, I finally decided I didn't want to be this heavy. Especially because it wasn't going to do me any good when I got back on the dating scene. I tried the cabbage soup diet, which was disgusting and which I gave up after three days. After that, I tried a more sensible plan, eating less and exercising. I don't remember, but I don't think I actually counted calories. I did lose some weight, dropping back down to 150 pounds. I started dating other guys. Kevin and I got back together. (I don't think either the other guys or Kevin actually cared about my ten pounds one way or another, but I suspect they made a big difference to my self-esteem and how I presented myself).

  • Age 31 - 32. Somewhere in here, I decided I wanted to lose some more weight. I tracked my calories for a while, and determined that when I was regularly taking my Synthroid, eating 1300 calories a day maintained my current weight. Everything I read said that to lose 1-2 pounds/week, you needed to cut about 300 calories a day. Or, alternatively, burn 300 calories in exercise. I decided to do a mix, with the help of a personal trainer and a gym membership. I very strictly exercised 3-4 days/week and counted calories for about three months. I lost about twelve pounds, down to around 137-138, putting me back in size 8-10 clothes. While I still wanted to be thinner, I no longer had the willpower to continue the regimen. The calorie counting was particularly irritating, as was being a little hungry all the time.

  • Age 32-35. I tried to eat vaguely around 1300 calories/day, avoid dessert, take small portions, eat more leafy greens, etc. Wasn't religious about it, which was better for my sanity, but still, had what felt like fairly healthy eating patterns for my height/weight/body type/metabolism. I wouldn't call this dieting, or cutting calories -- I think I was just eating the appropriate amount for my body type / metabolism, and my plan was to keep doing that indefinitely. Also tried to exercise, although that came and went. I held steady around 137-140 for these three years. It's too bad that I don't know whether it would have continued longer.

  • Age 35-36. I got pregnant, gained about 30 pounds (a reasonable amount of weight) over the course of the pregnancy, up to about 170 pounds (and up three bra sizes, yick). Lost ten or so pounds right away when Kavi was born -- that was mostly her, plus amniotic fluid and such. Have basically held steady around 160 pounds since then. Am deeply unhappy about this weight; it's distributed such that I can still wear 'regular' clothes, size 12/14 (XL), but I definitely 'feel fat' a lot of the time, and am discouraged shopping for clothes that fit me comfortably but are still flattering. I feel like I now spend a lot of time, energy, and money when I'm trying to find clothes that look good on me -- and when I don't make that attempt, and shlump around in sweats or pyjamas, I feel fat and frumpy and gross. I occasionally (maybe once every three months or so) have huge neurotic meltdowns about how fat I am and cry for hours.

  • Age 36+. Right now, I weigh 158.8 lbs. I hate that weight. In my fantasies, I would like to weigh 120 lbs -- that would make me feel actually slightly thin, I think. I also have smaller breasts in my fantasies, so I can more easily shop for clothes that fit me. I think I'd be solidly happy if I could go back to my college weight of 130. Practically speaking, I think I'd be content if I went back to the 137-140 range. That seems reasonable for a 35-something mother of one, no longer actively trying to compete in the dating scene. Although of course, it's something of a moveable feast -- whatever amount of overweight you think you are, you always feel as if you'd be so much happier if you were only ten pounds lighter...

Okay, so that takes us through to today. Looking at my history, it certainly looks like when I eat more calories, I gain weight, and when I eat fewer calories and exercise, I lose weight. I don't know that it's reasonable to say flatly '1000 calories is starving yourself' -- I think it depends a lot on your metabolism, your height, your gender, and what your body wants for its base level of calories.

I definitely don't want to generalize from my own experience to that of anybody else!!! For one thing, just looking at my little sister, it's clear that metabolism plays a huge role. Sharmila is a size 0/2 -- you can count the ribs on her back, the bones of her spine. She looks like a little bird. But she eats at least as much as I do, and sometimes, a lot more, and almost never exercises. Her metabolism is like that of a hummingbird, it seems; she needs to eat a tremendous amount to fuel it. Mine is more like that of a sloth. (Okay, I don't know anything about sloth metabolism. But you know what I mean.)

But given all of this, it does seem reasonable to me that, for me, calories in/out does pretty sharply correlate to weight gain/loss. No? Debbie, 'The Rotund' (is there a better name to call you?), I would really appreciate your thoughts on this. I don't know anything about set point, for example. Are there some basic primer articles online, or books I should order, to understand this better? Ideally ones that my doctor sisters would approve...

Note: I'm not positive on the dates of any of the above -- I'd have to go back to my journal to figure it out more accurately. But I think it's roughly right.

11 thoughts on “Okay, so I think it’ll…”

  1. Have you tried Weight Watchers? I’ve lost almost all my preg, weight by following the plan. It’s not a diet – you can eat anything as long as you stay within your points range. I swear by it.

  2. No, I haven’t. I do know some people who love it, but I don’t know how well it adapts to someone who cooks a lot of curries at home? And I have friends who have done it, and then had weight that ping-ponged afterwards, which worries me — they only stay down when they stay actively on the plan. I don’t know that I want to do it for the rest of my life.

  3. Broadly speaking, with any weight-loss plan, even one as simply constructed as “eat fewer calories and exercise more”, your weight only stays down when you stay actively on the plan. There’s nothing unique about Weight Watchers in that sense.

    The basic idea of “set point” is that your body has a natural weight that it will defend, as it were. You can lose weight below your set point, but as soon as you slack from your constant dietary vigilance, you’ll return to your set point. I know there are a lot of biomedical researchers investigating how the set point actually functions, on a biological level. It’s possible to alter your set point, but it’s not easy, and Ye Olde Standard Diet Plan isn’t enough. (I don’t have any pointers handy to articles or whatnot, but all I’d be doing to get them would be googling, and you can do that just as well as I can. 🙂

  4. Susan, thanks for the set point info. But I think I still don’t understand your first paragraph, and I feel like an idiot for not getting it, because your phrasing is so simple. But I’ll try again.

    What I thought happened was: If I eat 1300 calories in a day, that’s what my body needs for maintenance. So if I eat less, it burns some of my stored fat. If that’s true, once I lose some of that fat (say 10 pounds), why would I need to stay on a reduced diet to keep from gaining back weight? Doesn’t my body still need basically 1300 calories a day for maintenance? (Does that amount change, when I’m at different weights? I thought it didn’t change by enough to matter — am I wrong in that?)

    I feel like I’m missing something really obvious here. 🙁

  5. Yes, that amount can change when your weight changes. (It can also vary dependent on other changes, but you didn’t ask about those 🙂 .)

  6. I admit that I don’t really understand calorie counts–my only experience with structured dieting stuff was with Weight Watchers. They count in “points”, which are calculated based on a combination of calories, fat, and fiber. But the daily “points” budget (either for losing weight or for maintaining a particular weight) is different depending on your current weight.

    I mean, think it through as a common-sense thing, right? Or a physics thing. If calories are fuel for the body, then the maintenance calorie requirements for a bigger body should be larger than for a smaller one, because there’s more body mass to be moved around on a day to day basis.

  7. I’m not an expert at all, but my guess is that fiddling with calorie inputs and outputs is complicated because your caloric input and output have an effect on your metabolism. I don’t actually really understand what “metabolism” means in this context — “how fast you burn calories when you’re just sitting around and not exercising”? Maybe, but then what’s actually burning the calories? Something has to be converting that energy into something else, right? Or do you just not extract as much energy out of your food, i.e. your waste has more calories? That can’t be right. :^)

    But anyway, the point is that how many calories you burn in a day at a given level of exercise may also be a function of the level of exercise and of your weight, so if you’re at 120 pounds, and taking in 1300 calories, your body is converting more of them into fat than if you were 180 pounds. And likewise, if you’re burning 1000 calories a day with vigorous exercise, your body converts calories into fat at a different rate than if you’re not exercising at all, or burning 2000 a day on exercise.

    Does any of that make intuitive sense?

  8. Okay, yes, it makes sense that exercising changes your metabolism, so you burn calories at a different rate, and that you can put your body into starvation mode, so it burns calories at a different rate. That always made sense to me, and I agree that the whole ‘burning calories’ thing is probably a very complex mechanism in the body overall, affected by a lot of different aspects. For example, one of the aspects of having thyroid disease is that we tend to lose weight slower when dieting, even when we’re getting sufficient synthetic thyroid hormone — the body just isn’t as efficient in its functioning when it gets a chunk of hormone once a day, as opposed to portioning it out as necessary over the course of the day. So I would totally agree with and support anyone who said something like: The way your body handles calorie burning is a complex system, and it’s not as simple as just calories in/calories out.

    But that said — that doesn’t mean you should necessarily ignore calories in/calories out either. At least for me, it seems to basically be true that when I eat around 1300 calories and exercise mildly, I maintain whatever weight I’m at (at least in the 135-155 pound range). I think one of the things that bothers me most about the FA movement is the way some of its members seem to categorically dismiss the whole calorie question, and say it’s not worth even trying to manage your weight, because you will inevitably fail. It seems like they’ve just gone to the other extreme from the people who blithely proclaim — oh, eat less, and you’ll easily lose tons of weight! It doesn’t seem to me that either extreme position is accurate for most of the population.

    I also don’t know that it’s fair to say that if you diet, you’ll have to keep dieting to keep the weight off. Even if you end up needing to eat less than you were used to, once you reach your new, noticeably lower weight, that’s not dieting. That’s simply the new needs of your current size. I.e.:

    When I’m 150 pounds, let’s say I need to eat 1300 calories to maintain weight.

    When I’m losing, I eat 1000 calories a day (-300). I feel hungry all the time.

    When I’m at 130 pounds, my body now wants about 1200 – 1250 calories per day. (-50 to -100). A bit more if I’m doing mild exercise.

    So yes, at the new lower weight, I have a reduced caloric intake from my original intake — but it really doesn’t seem fair to call that dieting. I’m *not* continuing to diet; I’m just eating the amount my body currently wants, which is understandably less than it wanted when I had a bigger system for it to fuel.

  9. FWIW, I don’t like the term “dieting” at all — it definitely sounds to me like a short-term thing, like if you’re specifically trying to lose weight for some event where you need to be a certain weight for some reason. Eating a good quantity of healthy food isn’t “dieting” just because you’re eating less than you theoretically could if you ate every time you craved something tasty (e.g. constantly, for some of us :^).

  10. Hi Mary Anne,

    Do you remember me — we went to U of C together, but it’s been ages since we’ve been in touch. Sometimes I keep up with you from your blog. Kavya is very cute!
    My recent body / health thing that is great is T-Tapp (www.t-tapp.com). I’ve done it for about 6 or 7 weeks now, and while my weight is basically flat, I look a lot better and feel a million times better. I also have hypothyroidism and am short, so I gain weight easily — and this system has finally given me something that actually works. Lots of people lose weight on it (even though I have only lost about 1 pound so far), although she encourages measurement in inches (I’ve lost 2 inches in my waist, 1 in my thighs, etc.). Get the Total Workout if you decide to do it… or if you want more info, email me. It has really changed how I think about body and the “correct” weight. The basic workout is 15 minutes (or you can do a longer version if you have time)… done every other day, you get results and it’s quick.

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