Ending the Battle with Body

I went on my first weight loss diet when I was thirteen. I was horrified by my curves, especially those thighs, but photos show I wasn’t overweight. I don’t remember how much weight I lost, but I do remember my mother’s praise. She honored me for joining her in her unending battle against body.

I was a girl with a healthy appetite for vegetables, fruit, lean protein, even whole grain breads. I also went through periods of emotional overeating. It wasn’t quite an eating disorder, but it was disordered eating. I dieted strenuously with great discipline, but when I got upset about something—my dad’s death when I was fourteen, for example—my will weakened and I gained weight. I must have been on ten diets by the time I was twenty years old and ten more by the age of thirty. Then ten more before I turned fifty. Each time I lost weight, I gained it back more easily.

I found harmony with my body in 2000 when I was fifty-five. The war had ended. I was sure. But that was before my husband got sick in 2006 and died in 2008. The desire to overeat returned to haunt me. I’ve wrestled with this issue since.

I’m not alone.

By the time women are fifty, over half are overweight. As we age, it gets worse. We torture ourselves with severely restrictive weight loss diets. After the weight comes off, it often goes back on. When we severely limit calories, we lose muscle, no matter how much we exercise. Our body interprets severe calorie restriction as famine and tries to conserve every ounce of flesh. The starvation effect can lower our metabolism by 30%, so we eat less and gain more.

To change this pattern, we need patience and we need to be smart.

Elaine teaching 2005

Weight Loss and Exercise

By the 1970s, aerobic exercise was linked to successful weight loss. I walked 45 minutes a day and suggested aerobic exercise for my nutrition clients.

My focus on aerobics didn’t work for me, and later studies showed it didn’t work well for anyone. I continued gaining and losing, unaware that, despite aerobic exercise, I was losing metabolically active lean muscle each time I lost weight.

In 2000, with a forty-year history of dieting disaster, my plan changed. I began lifting weights and eventually became a personal trainer to teach other women how to get the most strength and muscle in the least amount of time. I ate 1700 calories a day and lost 30 pounds in six months. I slowly added more healthy food and ate around 2250 calories a day in three meals and one or two snacks. I was healthy, strong, and lean.

Elaine teaching 2007

What happened next?

My husband Vic was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. What did I do? I took care of him, I wept, and I ate. After he made it through the first round of challenging treatment in 2007, I turned to my own health. My exercise was still in place, but I ate too many treats–partly because I cooked them for Vic to keep his weight up but more because I was sedating my anxiety.

With the help of a close friend, I got back on track. We reported our food intake to each other each day. I returned to what Vic called “my fighting weight” with the same plan I used in 2000. I felt fit again, but then my mother died, Vic’s cancer returned, and I became a full-time caregiver until Vic died, too.

My sane plan quietly waited for me to find my way back to life. Meanwhile I walked to heal my wounds and ate healthy food even when I ate too much.

Still, it became easy to say, “I don’t have time to take care of myself; I’ll do it later; I’m too overwhelmed today. My health doesn’t matter as much as ____ (you fill in the blank).”

It wasn’t true. Taking care of my body matters. It lifts me out of depression. I’m back on track at the moment, but I know it’s a tenuous truce. I’m fifteen pounds heavier and much weaker than I was when Vic died. Yes, I’m older, but it’s not just about age.

Vic Elaine weights

Begin With Mental Changes

  • Drop the women’s magazine promises of quick solutions to a long-term problem. You know they’re not true. Work toward slow, lasting transformation.
  • Look in a mirror and say something positive about your body every day. Does that make you uncomfortable? We’re OK with attacking our bodies for every flaw and sending ourselves critical, demeaning messages, but it makes us squirm to say one nice thing to ourselves. Try it. “I have healthy skin. I like the shape of my big toe.” Watch the negative messages you send your body. No wonder it’s behaving like your enemy.
  • Look at the women in advertising with a wise eye. They’re frail and easy to push around. Is that what we want? Besides, those “perfect” bodies are air brushed and photo-shopped.

Playful about strength 2013

Exercise Is Your Ally—Physically and Psychologically

  • Lift weights twice a week, progressively and with moderate intensity. Being overweight does not prevent you from excelling at strength training. See articles at my website for become stronger in two thirty minute sessions a week. You’ll love the vitality and the long-term effect on your metabolism.
  • Be physically active every day. The general exercise section of my website offers aerobic exercise guidelines, balance, and simple stretches. Meet a friend for a hike or a yoga class. Bike or swim with your family. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Dance in the living room with your dog or your kids or yourself. Play.

Elaine 2007

Reach Your Goals with Good Nutrition

  • Nurture your body with healthy real food—fresh vegetables, lean protein, fruits, low fat dairy, healthy vegetable oils, and moderate amounts of whole grains. Be aware of junk food porn and constant enticement at every store. Read the articles at my web site for good nutrition ideas and delicious easy recipes
  • Lose no more than 4-5 pounds a month by eating at least 1,500 calories a day. I hear you howling in protest. How many times have you said, “I have to lose this weight fast, right now, this week?” How many times have you read magazine articles that promised a miraculous change in ten days? How many times have you lost weight and gained it back along with extra fat? If you reach a good weight slowly, it won’t interfere with what you really need to do—be strong and energetic and repair your busted metabolism.
  • Don’t ignore your body when it’s hungry. Respond with a high protein snack. Real hunger is honest communication, your body’s wisdom speaking to you. Listen to your body.

I’m cheering for you. I wish I could tell you I have it all together, but I can only write from where I am, so please cheer for me, too.

“Do what you know how to do,” I tell myself. “Be gentle and loving. Take care of this precious body. Love and nurture yourself.”

Chances are, you also know just what to do.

***

Most photos were taken by my husband Vic in 2007. The photo of Vic and me was taken in 2002. The photo of me scowling as I pretend to lift a rock Strong Man style was taken by my son Anthony in 2013.

Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications) won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss. Elaine writes about bereavement, family, marriage, and the environment. She facilitates bereavement workshops, gives presentations, and volunteers at Hospicare in Ithaca, NY. She was a nutritionist, exercise trainer, and women’s health care counselor for thirty years. She has been a student of nature, philosophy, Jungian psychology, mythology, and meditation for forty years and writes a weekly blog about life and loss. You can read more about Elaine and her work at her website.

Images courtesy of the author.

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16 thoughts on “Ending the Battle with Body

    1. Thank you, Paul. It’s a huge issue for most everyone who lives in a culture with commercially prepared food everywhere. We won’t go into mammoth serving sizes. This change has coincided with the rise in weight in the US. Fast food in schools? What are we thinking? May we all love and care for our precious bodies.

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  1. Am cheering you on Elaine! Thanks for cheering me on too! I’m learning – and your post has inspired me. I comfort eat for sure and quite unconsciously. Stuffing the feelings down with food … not always, but I do have a history of eating this way. Besides, I really really love food … and sweet things too …

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    1. Susan, it’s lovely to see you here. All I want (consciously) is to feel well, but sometimes I have to remind myself that short-term pleasure can bring long-term problems. I also love food and I love healthy food. Key for me is saying, “That’s enough.” As my teacher Marion Woodman said with a laugh about her own desire for sweets, “We can’t let a three-year-old make the decisions.” Glad to have you on my health team.

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  2. Great advice Elaine. Slow and steady with a lot of kindness. I have never been overweight. In fact, I fought the opposite condition. I didn’t appreciate the boys calling me ” stick” in junior high and deeply desired to fill an A cup bra. Then before ankle surgery 3 years ago I found I had an elevated glucose level. Mom kept hers a secret and was no longer here to discuss our common DNA flaw. My body mimics hers. So now my quest is good health and that means good nutrition, plenty of exercise and mindful snacks. Same issues, different motivation. Don’t we all just want to be healthy? No matter the image in the mirror .

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    1. Yes, slow, consistent, and kind. I’m glad you found out about your glucose level because that can do lots of damage as you know. And it can be so stealthy and sneaky. Yes, all I want is to be healthy and happy, too. That takes constant awareness of what makes me happy and healthy in the long haul. How can I take care of myself in the most loving way? It’s a lifetime practice, and my sons have the same issues. They both take good care of themselves and inspire me.

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  3. I feel like I am more at peace with my body than ever before even though i don’t do all the good things I know are good for you with regularity. I am lucky to have good genes. It’s awful how women especially spend so much of their lives fighting their body

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    1. What a gift to be at peace with your body, Jackie. Makes me happy to hear this. I agree with you that it’s awful to fight with our body and yet it seems to be a part of modern culture and a food-industry inundated culture. Part of this craving for impossible perfection which often seems to be correlated with impossible skinniness. This wasn’t a big issue when I was a kid (except with my mother), but go into any bookstore and there is a huge section on diet books. Makes me saddest when a very young child is obsessed with her looks. Be well. Be healthy.

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  4. Wow! That was just awesome Elaine! Great writing with wonderful (more importantly do-able) advice and I love all the photos you include. Ha-ha! Especially the one of you trying to pick up those rocks. Great hair btw! Strength training sounds awesome and I know despite my own healthy diet and walking/swimming regularly I do lack muscle. I could do with some of that ‘Warrior Strength.’

    You know I was thinking, sometimes we forget that the body takes that journey with us too, alongside our hearts and mind, and you’re right about how we end up battling it, heartlessly. As you know I’m working on a different kind of diet, I call it the Animus Diet which looks at balancing out a woman’s masculine and feminine aspects. As my spin class trainer says, ‘Great job!’ Blessings, Deborah.

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    1. Deborah and the Animus Diet. It has a ring to it.

      So much of my desire to regain full strength is about nurturing that warrior energy. For the sake of focus in this article, I didn’t bring in my health issues with vertigo. This makes exercise especially important and especially demanding. The more I maintain physical vitality, the easier it is for me to get through life every day. Work and discipline in exercise (spin classes!) makes everything else so much easier. Thanks for the hair complement. I had perms and all sorts of hair colors in the past, but now it’s just my natural gray hair. One of my sons is also getting lots of white hair in his early 40s, just like I did. Think of all the time I’ve saved by not fighting with hair color to conceal the white.

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    1. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Bravery is a needed quality for life and feeling well physically helps me feel courageous when I face the hard stuff. Thank you for helping me remember that.

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    1. Hi Josh. Thanks for taking time to make a comment. Many of us have difficult relationships with our bodies–women and men. My story isn’t unusual for a Western woman. Sometimes we need a little boost to rise to the occasion.

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