Saturday, November 28th, 2009...11:09 AM
So, Skinny Trainer, What Do You Know About Being Fat?
I have been thin, OK, skinny, all of my life. Other than wanting to go out to eat to celebrate or the random craving now and then, I don’t have “issues” with food. If anything, I don’t think about food, and I have been known to regularly let my blood sugar get too low because I forget to eat. As a personal trainer, I feel confident in my abilities to help people learn to make exercise a part of their daily routine. I am proud to know that I can help people feel stronger and more confident, but when it comes to dealing with people’s eating habits, sometimes I feel stuck. Sure, I can suggest a food journal or ways to cut hidden calories. I can recommend that people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food, but at the end of the day I think, “Is that really getting to the root of the problem?”
So, when I heard about the book Obese From the Heart: A Fat Psychiatrist Discloses by Dr. Sara L. Stein, M.D., my interest was piqued. Hmmm . . . this seemed like a book I should read. So I did, in about two days.
What I loved about this book was its brutal honesty. Dr. Stein is a psychiatrist who works with bariatric (obese) patients, but she’s obese, too. How does that work? Why would someone want to get help with their weight problem from someone who obviously hasn’t quite figured it out themselves? I know why now: because she understands. She knows the struggle, the self-doubt, the fear, and everything else associated with food addiction. She gets it like no skinny person can.
The most humbling thing I realized in reading this book was that we are all really the same. We all turn to one tool (or vice) or another to soothe our anxiety or to try to get ourselves out of a funk or even a deep depression. We drink, we smoke, we do drugs, we exercise, we read, we watch TV, we stay up too late on the computer refreshing Facebook hoping that another friend is up late, or we eat. The underlying problems are the same. It’s just that the tools that we use to cope are different. Many of us are able to conquer our addictions, but the paradox of food, what makes food addiction so hard to manage, is that the over-eater can’t just give food up like cigarettes or alcohol or Facebook. They have to eat. So, the obese person must learn to deal with their food cravings while continuing to require calories to survive. What a nightmare. Stein lays it out in no uncertain terms: “So begins the brutal cycle of trying to control your addiction while still using.”
Sure, there are other factors that contribute to obesity: genetics, thyroid problems, culture, and chemical food additives in fast and processed foods designed to make foods taste irresistible. However, except for the rare few, there are deeper issues bubbling below the surface: depression, anxiety, anger, trauma, grief, suppressed emotions, multi-tasking, stress, exhaustion, boredom. Not only can a person become addicted to the substance that helps them deal with these problems, but they can get addicted to the problem itself. For example, a person can get addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with productivity. Then, in response to their body’s signals to slow down, they may turn to food, alcohol, etc. to help them relax, creating another addiction. I clearly realized for the first time in reading this book that addictions come in layers and the repercussions, in turn, are complicated as well. In order to deal with any of it, you must treat the whole person and not just throw solutions at one part of the problem or the other. Dr. Stein doesn’t suggest that improved diet and exercise or bariatric surgery won’t help the obese person to lose weight, but she very clearly warns that failure is almost guaranteed if these approaches are seen as magic bullets.
I don’t have all the answers. Dr. Stein doesn’t either. I do know that my approach to helping my clients continue to make changes that improve their health will shift gears a little bit. Exercise is a good start. It helps the person feel like they are doing SOMETHING to deal with their problem, but they need more. A food journal or counting calories or boxing up half your lunch might work for those who are overweight simply because they are not paying attention, and I have those clients; but for the clients who struggle daily with what they eat, I need a different approach. Without playing dietitian or therapist, I will suggest. I will prod. I will offer ideas for small, realistic changes in eating like substituting fruit for processed sugar. I will encourage my clients to take time for themselves to relax and recharge. I will suggest that they get sunlight. I will recommend prayer, affirmation, meditation, gratitude. I will help my clients recognize negative thought patterns. I will honor my clients in the bodies they are in. I will encourage my clients to seek joy in everyday things. I will meditate on Namaste: “The divine in me honors the divine in you.” In so doing, I will remind my clients to honor the divine in themselves. When necessary, I will refer my clients to others who can help them better than I to deal with the underlying issues. I do a lot of this already. It’s in my nature. It is part of my mission. Now, I feel assured that it is the only way.
Maybe this is all just wishful thinking. Maybe the skinny trainer still doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Maybe. Dr. Stein calls obesity “the last unanswered prejudice. It is acceptable in society to ignore, demean, degrade, to be openly hostile toward, and to generally overlook obese individuals.” We allow ourselves to do this because we sometimes forget to see the obese as “individuals” at all. This is why looking at the whole person in trying to help makes so much more sense to me than a stupid food journal and calorie counting.
Thanks Dr. Stein for your insight and thanks to my clients who challenge me everyday to see a reflection of myself in them.
Update (01/12/2010): Just today I saw an interview with Dr. Stein on YouTube!
About the Author:
Chris Heidel is the owner and primary personal trainer with Libra Fitness in Austin, TX, a private, in-home studio. Chris focuses her business on developing mentoring relationships with her clients built on trust and meaningful support to help them set, achieve, and maintain realistic fitness goals. Chris truly believes that while getting in shape isn’t easy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Chris is certified through the American Council on Exercise.