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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Settling into maintenance mode

Originally published Nov. 26, 2005, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

It’s been nine months since I had gastric-bypass surgery, and this is the first month I’ve logged less than a 10-pound loss. Though it was a jarring realization when I first stepped on the scale, I’ve been expecting this.

The rate of loss typically begins to slow sometime between six and 12 months post-op. The slowdown occurs for a couple of reasons. One is that, as a person gets closer to his or her goal, the body naturally slows down in preparation for maintenance. The other is that, after six months, a surgical weight-loss patient’s dietary restrictions are reduced and “normal” eating resumes.

“Normal” does not mean “same as pre-op.” Resuming the bad habits that led to obesity is a bad choice at best. Normal is merely a label describing how the patient should eat for the rest of his or her life. And as somebody who is going through the process, I can tell you that normal is scary.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made some discoveries that disturb me. Not only can I eat more in a single sitting than before, but cravings and “head hunger” have returned. For the uninitiated, head hunger is when you think you’re hungry even though there is no possible way your belly could be empty. I find head hunger most often occurs for me within a couple hours of eating a low-protein meal or during times of stress. The head hunger attacks are different, depending upon their cause. When I’m stressed, I feel that I’m famished, even if I have just eaten. But when I haven’t had enough protein, I just feel peckish. It’s as if I go all day long without ever being satisfied by what I eat. I’m not necessarily hungry, just not full.I imagine these phenomena didn’t develop overnight. They’ve probably been quietly lurking beneath the surface for the past couple of months. But now that I’ve recognized them, I have to work hard against them.

This is proof to me that there is no magic pill when it comes to weight loss. Even having my digestive tract rearranged didn’t stop me from having to come to terms with my brain’s ability to sabotage my efforts. The only difference between my current struggle and my weight loss attempts in the past is that surgery enabled me to lose a substantial amount of weight before my mind could interfere. In my old life, I would have lost 20 pounds at this point and felt so far from my goal. But now, I am closer than I have ever been to a normal weight. I’ve lost 150 pounds, and my goal is 35 pounds away — so close I can almost taste it. My goal will come within the next six months, provided I don’t let myself get sidetracked.

Though I still struggle with my eating habits — primarily not going back to my old ways — I am more focused than ever. I work out harder at the gym than I have in the past. Every day that I’m on the treadmill, I’m pushing myself. Last week, I went from walking 30 minutes at a pace of 3.5 miles an hour Tuesday to 30 minutes at 3.7 on Friday. It may not seem like much of an improvement, but it’s made the difference for me from glistening after 30 minutes to being drenched in sweat. I also push myself more on the weight machines. I’m more apt to increase the weight now and then, if only for my last couple of reps.

For some reason, pushing myself so hard at the gym makes me more attuned to my eating habits as well. I’m not perfect, but I find myself paying more attention to my portion size and making better choices on days when I’ve had a tough workout. In my old life, I would have considered a hard workout reason to reward myself with a Carmelo Sensation from Barista’s. Now, I reward myself with a shot of wheatgrass juice from Jamba Juice. I figure if I just finished burning 400 calories, I’d like to keep them off — not invite them back for a visit.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Say nothing at all

Originally published Nov. 19, 2005, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

Writing this column about my experiences with gastric-bypass surgery has made me an expert of sorts when it comes to the subject of obesity.

Every now and then I get an e-mail or a phone call from a reader wanting advice. Occasionally, the person wants my advice on how to approach someone about having gastric-bypass surgery.

The request takes different forms. Sometimes, it’s a simple, “There’s somebody I want you to meet. I think they could get a lot out of hearing your story.” Other times, it’s a more direct, “There’s someone I know whom I think would benefit from the surgery you had. What should I tell him?”My response is usually, “Nothing.”

Having struggled with my weight most of my life, I know what a personal battle it is. It’s hard enough going out into the world every day with a visible weakness, knowing what people think when they see you.

Having someone approach you with their answer to your problem is insulting at best. Apply it to a different situation and the insensitivity becomes more apparent. You wouldn’t approach a hirsute woman and tell her that laser hair removal would be the perfect solution to her unsightly beard. Nor would you tell Uncle Charles that a little lipo would take care of those love handles in a jiffy. So why would you suggest major surgery to an overweight coworker?

The answer to that is simple.

In our diet-crazed society, obesity is the one shortcoming that isn’t taboo to discuss in public. Under the guise of showing concern, we are free to tell Uncle Charles that his big belly is bad for his heart, and insurance just might cover gastric bypass. We don’t think twice about asking a coworker to join us at our next Weight Watchers meeting. We freely assume that overweight people are unhealthy and unhappy.Though that was true for me, it’s not true for everyone. I see plus-sized individuals at the gym every day who could run circles around most skinny-minnies — and they are proud to boast low blood pressure and cholesterol. And then there are people like David Letterman, who despite his slender physique, had emergency heart surgery just a few years ago.

Gastric bypass seems to me to have become the latest fad in the quest to overcome obesity. I think it’s an important tool, but it’s one that should be reserved only for those who truly want to make the lifestyle changes required. It can be a dangerous procedure that carries a laundry list of possible complications. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly or one that should be thrust upon someone else. It’s very personal, and I think those who are most successful after surgery are the ones who came to the decision on their own — without prodding from well-meaning friends or relatives.

Having said that, I would be remiss not to mention the other side of the coin.

Local life coach Monika Villasenor, who had gastric bypass about five years ago, believes that it’s OK to address destructive behavior in those close to us, provided it’s being done for the right reasons.

“Giving unwanted feedback to someone usually is not well-received,” she said to me during a recent chat.

Besides, Monika adds, it’s lot easier to dissect somebody else’s life than it is to face one’s own reality.S

he says it’s important to be clear before you approach someone that your intent comes from love and true concern as opposed to being a distraction from the pain that may exist in your own life.

“Is it serving you or serving them? There is a very fine line,” she said.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Old habits die hard

Originally published Nov. 12, 2005, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

Whenever I think my old life is behind me, something comes up to remind me that I’m still at the very beginning stages of an amazing life change. Sometimes I worry that no matter how hard I work, I’ll never overcome the habits that led to my morbid obesity. I know Rome wasn’t built in a day and all, but it would be nice to just rest on my laurels every now and then.

Stress is my downfall
Before having bariatric surgery in February, my biggest issue was stress. Actually, stress wasn’t the issue so much as my reaction to it. In times of stress or heavy burden, the first thing to go for me would be diligence in taking care of myself.

Exercise has always been the first thing to go. I would skip workouts, thinking that the time I generally spend in the gym would be better spent on commitments at work or home. But it was rarely the case that it would be enough. Sooner or later, I’d find myself skipping meals or grabbing a 99-cent heart attack on the run, all the while telling myself there was no time to fuel my body properly. After a couple weeks of that behavior — along with not sleeping enough — my energy would be zapped and I’d start frequenting cafés for blended triple-shot espresso drinks. Between the sugar and the caffeine, I’d be jolted into semiconsciousness for at least half a day. I’ve known this type of behavior is self-defeating for some time, but I could never figure out how to curb it. I just hoped that having my digestive system rerouted would make such behavior impossible. Boy was I wrong.

Still a struggle
It’s been almost eight months since my surgery, and for the most part, I’ve stayed on the narrow path. I skipped the gym for the better part of a month or so, but that was it. My tender tummy (or pouch, which is what it really is now) wouldn’t allow me to scarf anything, much less gulp a caffeinated drink or eat a Big Mac. Besides that, I didn’t suffer from head hunger yet and I had no trouble sticking with only eating three meals a day. Sometimes, it was even a struggle to eat more than two in a day. But over the last month, I’ve noticed the capacity of my pouch has increased. This is nothing to be worried about. It’s common for the tissue to relax around this time and start accommodating more food.T hat’s not a problem, so long as I stay on program and use that extra room to fit in more healthy protein, vegetables and some fruit. The problem is that staying on program is really hard for me when I’m frazzled.

Mindless eating
At first I noticed my hands reaching for crackers when I was confronted with problems at work. If I didn’t stop myself fast enough, I’d know the error of my ways within an hour when a killer stomachache would set in. The too-full feeling is miserable after gastric-bypass surgery. There is abdominal cramping, accompanied by the feeling of having a stitch in your side as well as chest pain. The worst part of it all is that nothing can be done to alleviate the problem; you just have to wait it out.

Every time this would happen, I would chastise myself and vow to be more mindful.

Of course, if I could be mindful all the time, this wouldn’t be a problem. Now, I’m aware that this problem of mine still exists, but I still have no solution. At least I don’t skip workouts as much anymore. I have my workout partner to thank for that. She is ever diligent about picking me up four days a week, and she doesn’t let me slack off one bit at the gym.

As for my eating habits, they are a work in progress. I used to keep on-program foods at the office in case I was too buried with work to leave for lunch, but then I found myself mindlessly munching on those items between meals. I know from experience there is such thing as too much of something good. But now that my office is devoid of snackables, I run the risk of skipping meals, which is bad for me on many levels.

Lack of protein still makes me weak, and my blood sugar is prone to getting too low. Though I don’t have the answers to this problem, I’m working on it. I know there’s a solution, and it’s important to me to find it. I don’t want to wake up five years from now at the same weight I was eight months ago. That would make having surgery irrelevant, and I worked too hard for that.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Soaring to new heights

Originally published Nov. 5, 2005, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

I’ve never been a fan of the outdoors. My fair skin burns easily in the sun, and watching “Jaws” one too many times as a young child has ensured that I never feel entirely safe in water that’s not contained in a bathtub.But before I had gastric-bypass surgery in February, I realized that liking the outdoors was never really an option for me. The only hiking I ever did was at science camp in the sixth grade. As the biggest kid in the class, I spent so much time trying to keep up, I never got the chance to really appreciate the sights. That experience shaped my feelings toward the outdoorsfrom then on.

As my surgery neared, my husband and I started compiling a list of things we thought weight loss would help me accomplish. It included places we wanted to go that I didn’t feel comfortable visiting when I was more than 300 pounds. One of the big goals I had was to go hiking. My husband enjoys camping, fishing, water skiing, snow skiing and just being out in the fresh air.He feels a sense of renewal when communing with nature. It became important to me to at least try to share in his love once I was healthy enough to do so.

First hike leads to future plans
Our original plan was to go to Mount Diablo during the summer, but I still had a lot of trouble tolerating the heat, so we never went. In September, my husband and I joined his family on a picnic in Knights Ferry. It was a warm day, but I found the area to be pretty. We went back last weekend and enjoyed a short hike along the Stanislaus River.

Nestled between Oakdale and Sonora, Knights Ferry seems to stay fairly cool. We started with a walk from thepicnic grounds across the 365-foot-long covered bridge — reportedly the longest of its kind — and headed away from the town’s ruins toward the hills. Our hike took us from golden foothills to the rocky riverbank. I clambered up rocks that my husband, at 6-foot-4, easily leapt upon. I slipped a time or two, sliding on my backside, but all in all, it was loads of fun. I got dirty and sweaty but enjoyed the time with my husband — even when the only sound was that of my panting.

After the hike, we went back to the picnic grounds and talked about how much fun we had. We both agreed that our sneakers were too slippery and that we’d need actual hiking boots before trying another jaunt. At my husband’s urging, we left the grounds to check out a store he saw along the way in Oakdale that specializes in hiking boots. About $80 later, we left the store with a pair of boots for each of us and plans to tackle Mount Diablo this weekend.I n Danville, the park is expecting cool weather this weekend and we hope to take advantage of it to explore Rock City and Fossil Ridge. Maybe this time I’ll remember to take a camera so I can bring back proof of our trip.