by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
In December of 2014, I had the pleasure of filming a segment for BBC’s Good Morning Britain on the science and treatment of overeating, food, and addiction. There, I was immediately drawn to Carla Andrews, one of the British women featured. I sensed from her a serious determination that she was truly ready to confront her demons and do the arduous work necessary to change her life. At 38 years old, the 254 pounds Carla carried on her 5-foot-2½-inch frame was already burdening her with metabolic disease, including high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Since that first meeting, I’ve worked closely with Carla, coaching her as she removed 70 pounds of excess fat, reversed her medical conditions, and discovered her inner adventuresome athlete. She’s also a successful entrepreneur and a single mother of two teenagers, both diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve previously written about her success and consequent enhanced health and well-being.
Fourteen months later, I’m circling back to give you a glimpse into the reality of what it takes to maintain newly achieved mental and physical fitness. Dropping inches, fitting into smaller clothes, feeling healthier, enjoying higher energy, and looking fit are terrific rewards you reap as you achieve greater well-being. However, the shedding of excess fat is one process. Keeping it off is another. Sustaining any mind-body improvement requires a lifetime of mindfulness and unending refinements as you continue to be challenged by daily life.
The key to sustainable success involves paying attention to changes taking place and then doing the right thing to survive each challenge. The logic behind it is reflected in Charles Darwin’s quote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” This mental and physical flexibility is critical and lifesaving, helping us to avoid self-destruction in the face of adversity. I tell the people I coach to A square (A2) it throughout the day—continuously Adapt and Adjust to solve problems and find solutions.
With that in mind, here’s a glimpse into Carla’s real-life challenges (you might see some that sound familiar), along with 5 tips for anyone striving to keep the weight off.
“I am struggling at the moment, mostly with putting me first. My hectic schedule is getting in the way. I’m up at 5 a.m., get ready, eat my porridge, kick my boys’ butts to get up, and then leave for work around 7ish. I then deliver workshops all day, grabbing a quick lunch in between—yeah, I keep forgetting my mid-morning fruit, so I often feel starved. Around 3ish, I leave and go on to my evening sessions, usually running from 4 till 7, but it’s often 8 when I get away. Then when I get home, I have my admin, prep, and marketing to do. This seems to be my life at the moment 24/7… In all fairness, what I do doesn’t feel like work because I love it so much, but it does get in the way of my physical self when I am working 15-hour days.“
1. Beware of falling off your own radar. Professional success often catches folks by surprise. You’re passionate and work hard and hope to be successful. The next thing you know, you’re overburdened with a mountain of work. Your Plan A, when you had more time for self-care, no longer works. As a result, planning healthy meals and physical activity both fall by the wayside as you juggle professional and personal responsibilities. As I like to say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Given how busy her days had become, Carla needed a new plan to accommodate her expanding professional obligations. To resolve her work-related issue, she made a smart decision to get help by hiring a new team member to shoulder some of the workload. And then:
“I thought I found someone last week, it was the most satisfying feeling to know that my to-do list was being attacked by someone else. I went to the gym that day with such a spring in my step, knowing all my things were being dealt with. However, she decided not to take the post due to family commitments. So, I am back to the stress of finding the right person, and training them once again.”
2. Understand that life’s a roller-coaster ride of triumphs and frustrations. Buckle up for the ride, and strive to avoid making any kind of strict and inflexible expectations along the way. I created this mantra for people who become paralyzed by disappointments: “The greatest stresses of life come from unmet expectations.” Don’t assume or expect. Instead, hope that things turn out well. Hoping gives you more mental wiggle room in your daily planning, helping to ensure a softer landing when plans are interrupted or take a different direction. Also, instead of feeling down in the dumps when plans go awry, change your perspective and view any challenge as a great opportunity to practice your Adapting and Adjusting skills. For that matter, wake up each day and say to yourself, “Bring it on!” And look forward to every chance to show how well you can navigate each challenge.
“I have a posh gym near me with a membership of over £1,000 a year, which is double that of my other local, government-run gym. However, it is like being on a five-star holiday! Then it hit me. I spend more than £1,000 keeping my car on the road a year. My little car that I am hoping I will get 10 years of life out of. Hey, I need my body to keep going for at least another 40 years. I decided I am more important than my car and bought myself the prestigious gym membership. And God, two weeks in, I am loving it. Hour in the gym—mainly weights, then followed by 20 lengths in the pool, steam room, and Jacuzzi. After a 15-hour day, it is just what the doctor ordered.”
3. Act as though your life is priceless. I absolutely loved the way Carla came to understand why she needed to prioritize her self-care. The comparison with what she invests in her car was a real wake-up call. She’s also allowing herself to enjoy personal time away from her other obligations, in order to regroup and refuel. This is a tough one for so many caregivers, especially women, who may feel selfish and often do not feel entitled or deserving of “me” time. If that feeling is a stumbling block to your progress, just remember that the best caregiver is a healthy caregiver! Carla is learning this—and something else as well: Instead of rewarding herself with a food binge, she’s switched out the eating for the joy of moving and then relaxing her body in the delightful environment of her new health club. Yes, it is what the doctor ordered!
“My mouth, however, has run away from me. That ugly word addiction has bitten me hard on the bottom since Christmas. I feel like a dirty heroin addict who can’t fight the cravings—I have lost my control. However, I am not beating myself up, nor am I in denial. I just feel like I need locking away to get it out of my system. I don’t have the answer at the moment. I start every day as if today is the day. I even start the day right. Yet, somewhere it turns to pot. You will be pleased to know my boys are kicking my butt, though. Holding me back, denying me ‘my one little treat.’ I plead like my life depends on it and then sulk like a child.”
4. Know that stress drives cravings. Carla learned early on that she has addictive eating behavior, fueled by her early years of trauma when food was her only solace. We’ve used my book The Hunger Fix as a blueprint for explaining the science of food and addiction, as well as a resource for ways to reverse her typical eating behaviors. The main trigger for the self-soothing eating pattern is toxic stress. When Carla is sleep deprived, can’t de-stress with physical activity, and is confronted with tough child-rearing challenges, it’s easy for her to start to feel helpless, hopeless, and defeated. Slipping down that slippery slope then leads to self-destructive behavior like overeating to anesthetize the pain of stress and the associated mental angst. Looking back, she can objectively describe her behavior. In the moment all she feels is an all-consuming craving. The key is to prevent this from happening in the first place. In reaching out to me, she knows she needs to regroup, and reorganize how she’s living her life to eliminate or minimize the overeating triggers.
“May I ask, who holds you up in life? You have so many people looking up to you—what’s your strength? I ask because last year, and every time we have spoken since, you are this oracle of wisdom, someone I admire greatly, and I get a glimpse of how hard you work. I ask because I am trying to work out if I can be all I want to be; is it realistic of me? Or, are you Superwoman? I want to reach the world, even a small percent, and guide people to living happier and healthy lives, and I know I can. One thing I have learnt, is that I am allowed to dream big, because I have learned dreams do come true if you take one step forward at a time.”
5. Remember that no one is superhuman. I’m frequently asked if I’m some kind of “superwoman” who can just whip through life without a stumble, and I have to smile. Look, no one is superhuman. That is a complete myth. We’re all wonderfully human, with our own unique strengths and vulnerabilities. We’re all slugging it out day-by-day, Adapting and Adjusting to the best of our ability. Of course everyone has the occasional “escape and hide under the bedsheets” moment—because we’re human. The difference is where we are in our journeys. Some, like myself, are highly educated in health and wellness and have practiced our healthy lifestyle behavior for many years. We’re just more experienced. We face similar stresses to anyone else’s, but we’re more adept at quickly regrouping and not defaulting to self-destruction. Because we’ve been at it for a while, we make it look easy, knowing that it’s never easy. The secret to success is to quickly identify problems, seek solutions, and avoid self-destructive land mines along the way. That takes plenty of practice, as Carla is now learning.
Through her professional work and her inspiring athleticism, Carla is already living her mission to “help guide people to living happier, healthier lives.” Her own struggles gift her with deep compassion for others who may just be starting their journey.
On a final note, Carla turns 40 in May. This is a special milestone, as she didn’t want to begin the next part of her life, entering perimenopause, obese and fraught with disabilities and medical disease. She’s achieved that goal. Now she’s learning that mindfully Adapting and Adjusting to each curveball life tosses her way is what it really takes to maintain that which she has attained. That lesson is a priceless birthday gift indeed. Rock on, Carla!
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, fellow of the American College of Physicians, and an expert in integrative and preventive medicine. A Senior Olympic triathlete, Dr. Peeke is known as “the doc who walks the talk” and is a medical expert and commentator for several national news networks. Dr. Peeke is the best-selling author of many books, including Fight Fat after Forty and Body-for-Life for Women. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.