It’s February, and just about the time of year when all those new year’s resolutions you were so convinced you could make a solid commitment to in December and the first couple weeks of January are being to fade… your tenacity to falter…
I will eat better, or less, or stop snacking… I will start an exercise routine, or exercise more often, or walk more every day… I will go on a diet, or lose weight, or get fit…
We often use the arrival of the new year to ring in a new attempt to improve our health, or our looks, or our size. But by now, most people have already run out of steam or have begun to scale back their commitments. Fitness centers that were packed to the gills on January 2nd have become re-accessible to the regulars, refrigerators that were packed with brightly colored fresh produce have begun to collect take-out containers, pizza boxes and convenience foods, and the scale has been shoved behind the door under the toilet paper.
I am NOT trying to shame you. I have been here more times than I can count, and, as an exercise scientist and wellness professional, I can confirm that most people who make such new year’s resolutions have abandoned them within six weeks. It is so disheartening to begin every year tingling with energy to change something in our lives we don’t like and then watch that drive literally drive away and disappear around the corner, leaving us feeling like complete and utter failures. And to add insult to injury we are left with the frustration of not being able control our own behavior, to say nothing of the body we walk around in every day. Oh, I’ve been here!
But two year’s ago, on January 21, 2018, a kaleidoscopic shift happened. I opened a computer file that contained the results of my annual physical, and the numbers scared me stiff… I’d gained more weight than I thought possible, my blood glucose, triglyceride and cholesterol levels had all skyrocketed, and my doctor wanted to put me on meds. I was angry and ready to do something about it. I opened a new document and started typing:
I want to lose 20 lbs by my birthday, June 20th, when I will turn 55 years old. WHY?
- Not because I have to satisfy society’s perception of what I “should” weight.
- Not to lower my BMI, which is NOT a valid measure of the healthfulness of my size.
- NOT to “fit in” to my doctor’s idea of what of I “should” weigh.
- NOT because I have a poor body image or to attract a future partner.
I want to lose this 20 lbs because it has been a ball & chain around my neck for more than 10 years—ever since my cholesterol shot up and I asked the nurse why that would have happened and she looked at my chart and said, “You gained 20 pounds. What did you expect?” I want my LDL to go back down to a reasonable number, and I don’t want to have to go on cholesterol-reducing drugs. And I don’t want to turn 55 years old weighing 174 pounds. It’s just wrong, for me, for my happiness, for my healthiness, for my back and my knees. I want to control the things in my life that have resulted in me gaining this weight and not being able to take it off: stress, anxiety and depression. These things have resulted in me drinking too much and binging and using food and drink as a way to comfort myself. I need to create new comforts in my life so my relationship with food and drink returns to one of balance and peace, not overindulgence and guilty pleasure!!
I can do this!
This “manifesto” came out complete, without thought, editing, or effort. And when words flow through me like this, when I write as if I am merely a vessel through which the universe expresses itself, I know it is pure truth. So I made this promise to myself, and only myself, to lose 20 pounds by my birthday, and if my cholesterol did not go down, to consider medication. I knew, better than most, that if I could find a way to balance my personal and professional my life, I could create healthy comforts and change my relationship with food and drink to one of respect and harmony. Synchronicity being what it is, my mom had a book she’d recently used to develop some new eating habits. After reading a couple of chapters, I was intrigued, but needed to vet the concepts, so I bought a related book: WHOLE, by T. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study. I was immediately engrossed in understanding how my experience fit in with our culture’s issues surrounding food, and by February I had adopted a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet (WFPBD).
Yes, I went cold-turkey, from a pescatarian (a seafood-eating vegetarian) to a no-processed-food-eating vegan; I adopted a Whole Food Plant-Based lifestyle. And for me, it was easy. Why? Because I knew exactly what I wanted – a new life! My manifesto crystallized that for me, and reading Campbell’s book was like reading the Bible, it gave me the resources, understanding and faith I needed to make a change in my behavior that was almost 55 years in the making. And the good news…? Within one month of changing my diet I was off my nightly heartburn-pill regimen, my depression and anxiety abated, my energy was through the roof and I was back to a regular exercise routine. I’ve always found that positive behavior changes seem to string together, and if I hold on tight and follow that thread I can bring joy into my life and spread that joy around to others. And yes, in January 2019, the scale showed I’d lost 60 pounds, and the blood test revealed normal glucose and triglyceride levels, and a 115 point drop in my cholesterol.
Now, here’s the good news for those of you out there somewhere, reading this and thinking… “yeah, right, I could never do that…”
YES YOU CAN!
I don’t have steel-reinforced willpower. I don’t possess super-powers that allow me to do what you can’t. I am just a woman who got in touch with her own inner genius, her soul, her true voice and paid attention to what she heard. I made helping myself the most important thing I could do to help the chaotic world around me. I truly believe that if you cannot be self-compassionate, you cannot optimize your ability to be compassionate toward others. By shifting my focus inward and listening to my whole self, I realized that if I wanted to be part of making the world a better place to live, I had to live right, and that meant taking care of my home – my body – first, before anything else.
I had discovered the primary defining factor that differentiates between successful and unsuccessful behavior change, the thing that determines if you stick with your New Year’s resolution or drop it like a hot potato… I found my WHY. “What WHY?,” you ask. The WHY that drives you to do what you choose to do. It is different for each person and each behavior you engage in, but it’s there for certain. You may have to dig, but if you do, you’ll find it, that reason you do what you do, whether it’s eating a piece of pizza, or a stalk of broccoli, taking an extra walk around the block or binge-watching Netflix. The WHY is a self-directed, unique, and best-case intrinsic reason to behave in any given way.
Once I found my WHY, my desire to optimize my wellness so I could help others find joy in doing the same, and that priority was clear in my heart and my mind, the rest was easy. I saw that it wasn’t selfish to focus on myself; rather, it was a commitment to help right the whole world, and that commitment started at home, my home, my body. That focus, that drive, that motivation, moved me past the daily grind of “this is too hard, this takes too much time, I want ice cream, I want cheese, I can’t eat with my friends, people are making fun of me…..” to a place where each thing I chose to put in my mouth became part of a commitment to my fellow humans, animals, the environment and the soul of the world.
By adopting a Whole Food Plant-Based lifestyle, I say to the world “I am NOT OK with the standard American diet and all the disease and environmental havoc it wreaks. I am NOT OK with the waste and the pollution and the subliminal advertising and the more-is-always-better mindset. I am NOT OK with using food as a substitute for real joy and as a salve for emotional wounds. I will NOT accept the crap that food manufacturers want to sell me, and I will definitely NOT go quietly into that dark night!
I stand for REAL food, taking the time to honor the only home I’ll live in forever – my body – and helping my fellow humans create wellness in their own lives. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what is right for you, but I do know that asking yourself the WHY questions is always I good idea whether you are drafting New Year’s resolutions, pondering their failure, or just trying to understand the things you do on a daily basis. Go ahead, make that first baby step… take a good, hard, long look inward, and find your own WHY.
Wishing You All the Best.
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Author: Michelle Thall, PhD