Willpower and Losing Weight


There have been several articles recently in the New York Times Magazine taking it as accepted truth that you can’t lose weight and keep it off without help. The purpose of this note is to tell you from personal experience that this is not true. As in every field of endeavor, look at who’s benefiting from statements of this sort. Not you, but the “experts” who have a program to sell you. The more they can make you feel helpless, the better they do!


I do enjoy food! Like the old joke, some eat to live, but I live to eat. I am not ascetic. That makes it hard. The internal dialog is “You can’t give me up! I’m the one dependable joy in life! Just one more cookie; you can start your diet tomorrow!”


Recently, I carried two containers of cat litter from the car to the house, thinking they were damn heavy. I looked at the labels and saw they totaled 28 pounds – exactly what I have lost. I was carrying all that around every day. For the past six months, I have stayed at my new weight – 167 pounds – just right for my height and body type. I hike up Atalaya Mountain here without stopping for long periods to catch my breath. And all that weight came off my lower back. I want to tell you how that happened.


I have a lot of willpower. I went to M.I.T. from Oklahoma some years back, stayed on Dean’s List for six terms and eventually earned an MS. But, after I left college, I kept gaining weight, particularly after I quit smoking in 1990. Many times, I tried losing weight as I steadily grew toward 210 pounds from my college weight of 170. Typically, I got down to 185 or so for a bit, then gave up after a stressful event. Does this sound familiar?


While willpower alone is enough for a sprint to lower weight, and so are diet programs, it’s not enough to keep it off. Retaining weight loss needs willpower plus motivation. These are the motor and the fuel. My own judgment is that programs that “help” you will not be much more successful than your own determination in keeping your weight steady. Motivation comes from seriously considering the alternatives and deciding it’s a do-or-die thing, not just an option. That’s a firm internal decision, like when I suddenly quit smoking twenty years ago: I didn’t want to die from cancer. For weight loss, that turning point was statins. I hate taking statins. They make my joints and muscles hurt and dull my perception. Surely this can’t be good for me. But my cholesterol level was high. What I can tell you: for every pound I lost, I lost a point in total cholesterol with it. I no longer have to take statins. My doctor says he hasn’t seen a case like mine. That’s enough motivation.


Now for the details: during weight loss, I skipped lunch. Also: no cookies, bread, breaded things, pasta, rice, potato chips, donuts, ice cream. Just protein and veggies. Instead of being a duty, a good salad now makes my mouth water. Pickled herring in wine? Delicious! Those tiny carrots? Eat all you can hold for mid-day snacks! Or put a bowlful of frozen corn in the microwave and add a little square of butter to it! And I enjoy whole dill pickles. They trick my stomach into thinking it’s digested something, and a whole bottleful is 50 calories. Every once in a while, a double handful of mixed nuts. A three-egg omelet with everything including cheese will stop hunger pangs for a whole day.


But avoid like the plague all the little ways the American diet slips carbos into your life! Sweet gooey sauces [more sweet than sour, which is why you like them], french-fries, sandwiches, everything they serve at the local hamburger joint: out! Ice cream? Sorry. Coke? Nope. “Something sweet” after dinner? Just forget it. Dessert is not your birthright. Also, remember that you can eat half of what’s on that plate at the restaurant and have the rest tomorrow for lunch. But did I have to stop drinking wine? Absolutely not! The 600 calorie cookie I used to have every day at Harry’s Roadhouse in Santa Fe was worth six glasses of dry red wine. [Not that I drink that many, of course…!] If you do the right things, I guarantee you will not feel you’re punishing yourself.


I conclude with an even more encouraging story from the chef of what I regard to be the best restaurant in Santa Fe, the Galisteo Bistro, owner/chef Robert Chickering. The old saying “never trust a skinny chef” doesn’t apply to him! Over a similar time, he has lost one hundred pounds and is keeping it off. But, as he said in his last newsletter, “During these long projects, you must forgive yourself occasionally for lapses. Forgiveness eases the way, reminds us of the goal. Be kind to yourself. After all, it’s not a diet, as diets always fail. It’s a change in lifestyle!” [quoted with permission]


Good luck!