Columnist Richard S. Bogartz: Reflections on resolutions and weight

Friday, January 05, 2018

Again it’s time for the exercise in futility known as New Year’s resolutions, and what better target than weight?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informs us that more than one-third (36.5 percent) of U.S. adults have obesity; obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death; the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; and the medical costs for people who have obesity were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

We know that resolutions don’t work. When you pit resolutions against desires, resolutions virtually always lose. The solution, perhaps, is to change the desires. I will share my personal experiences with desires and my suggestion for an experiment that omits resolutions and other forms of struggle.

At my largest weight, I weighed 253. I now weigh 181. That is 72 pounds, I chuckle. I am continuing to lose weight, slowly. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute calculator informs me my Body Mass Index is 22.9. Normal weight is a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9, with 21.7 at the midpoint. I am in the normal range a bit above the midpoint. At 253 I earned a presidential obesity award. I am happy to slowly, effortlessly lose more weight, but I will have to work on retaining muscle which tends to go with the fat when you shed weight.

I don’t know how this happened. Some history: I read a book on how to reverse diabetes. The book suggested minimizing sugar and fat intake, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, except for watermelon and pineapple (too much sugar), and nuts and avocados (too much fat), and going vegan. I did all that for years and weight came off. Then the losses idled down.

At some point, a few years ago (take my time estimates with a grain of salt), I realized that there was more to the story. I discovered that some foods make me want to eat and some foods don’t. I am presently convinced that what I eat determines what and how much I eat. Some foods all but compel me to eat. I call those foods “trigger foods.” I dropped the veganism, stuck with eating fruits and vegetables a lot, and now mind my triggers.

For me, bread and sugar are the archvillains. It seems obvious why many restaurants serve you free bread before you order. For me, peanuts trigger eating peanuts; cashews, cashews; and bread, everything.

Apples and grapefruits don’t trigger anything. These days I eat virtually no foods that are manufactured. I occasionally miss bread and pasta, but I never crave them. I have no cravings. I do not eat craving-generators so I crave not.

Sometimes it is scary how often and how long I go without feeling hunger. But slowly my weight has been dropping. Painlessly. Effortlessly. There is no struggle. I pretty much eat what I want and pretty much as much as I want.

I don’t know if this will work for you or not. That is a big admission for me. I used to be utterly convinced that what I found to be good for me would be good for everyone. So naïve.

I spent years telling everyone how wonderful Transcendental Meditation is. My friends put up with this. Some even tried it. I don’t do that any more (unless I am doing it again here).

I definitely don’t know if trigger foods is a broadly useful notion or the key to weight loss. I am pretty confident that while some trigger foods will be shared by lots of people, we all have to discover our own triggers. I put trigger foods out here as the basis for a possible experiment for you to try. It can’t be worse than a New Year’s resolution.

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.