Maclean's Canada Editor BARBARA WICKENS tells how she did it—with some help
WHEN MY DOCTOR suggested in August 2000, for the second or third year in a row, that I lose a few pounds, I blurted out, "How can I when I'm ravenous all the time?" A slight exaggeration, perhaps. Still, hunger pangs seemed always ready to rumble. (By the way, I am not going to tell you my weight, then or now, so don't ask!) Fortunately, my GP had something for me other than a vague recommendation—she referred me to a weight-management specialist. While there are plenty of doctors and dieticians in Toronto offering a variety of weight-loss methods, many of them legitimate, she'd recently heard Dr. Lance Levy speak and was impressed. He offers no gimmicks, no complicated food regimens, no B-12 shots. But he does have a common-sense approach so uncommon that it could be mistaken for a magic formula. To him, obesity is a medical problem, not a character flaw. By the time most of his patients—myself included— show up at his clinic, they've already gained, lost and regained tens, sometimes hundreds, of pounds. Contrary to popular belief, they know what a healthy diet is— and judge themselves harshly when selfrestraint fails them.
Still, focussing on what they eat clearly doesn't work. No, for Levy, the key is why. Healthy habits will stick, he maintains, only after the psychological and/or physiological factors that led to the overeating in the first place are identified and treated. It's a complex trial-and-error process. The underlying causes may include problems like mood dis-
orders—some people, for instance, sense unpleasant feelings like sadness and anxiety as hunger—or the impulsivity of attention deficit disorder. Levy checks for gastrointestinal problems, medical illnesses and chronic pain (it not only interferes with exercising, it can lead to noshing as a distraction or a subconscious effort at self-medication). For me, an arthritic hip was one such culprit.
But the biggest surprise was the role that sleep—or, more accurately, lack of it—plays. Turns out, if you don't wake up refreshed, you'll try to boost your flagging energy levels by nibbling on high-calorie snacks all day. And once again, you won't feel like exercising. A night spent in a sleep clinic with electrodes glued all over my body (what have my shins got to do with it?) showed I have sleep apnea—my breathing would be disrupted or simply stop for a while. I was fitted with a so-called CPAP device—the acronym stands for continuous positive airways pressure. I now go to bed wearing a face mask attached by hose to a machine that blows air through the passages to maintain proper airflow in the lungs. Once I got over my dismay at looking like Hannibal Lecter, I adjusted quite well. It hasn't turned me into a morning person—I can't think of anything that could—but at least I have the energy to work, play and get on with my life.
Levy did offer a few handy "diet" tips—but they relate more to helping the body's biology than counting calories per se. In fact, he told me to eat—about every four hours. When you skip meals, you disrupt the com-
plex interplay of hormonal and neurological messages that help the brain and other organs regulate appetite, and you'll inevitably eat more later on. I was already eating breakfast, so I didn't need convincing on that score. But it was novel to be encouraged to eat a late-afternoon snack of about 200 calories. That provides enough energy to take the time to prepare a healthy dinner instead of immediately chowing down on whatever high-fat prepared food is handy when you walk in the door after work. And because it takes the appetite-control receptors a while to receive the signals, it's a good idea to start meals with soup or salad. In other words, start the clock running with lowcalorie stuff.
If there's a downside to this slow-andsteady approach, it's that it's, well, slow. It took me 1V2 years to lose the first 20 lb. Still, it was progress, and I was starting to exercise more. At first, I walked 10 minutes to
my streetcar stop instead of taking the connecting bus. I added yoga to my routine and started walking greater distances. Then, about this time last year, I stumbled onto Jean's Marines, named for Toronto doctor Jean Marmoreo and her plan to train 100 women who had never run a marathon to take part in the U.S. Marine Corps 42-km event in Washington in late October. I wasn't sure about the marathon part, but liked the group dynamic, and so I persisted with the training regimen. By May I was hooked and signed up to go.
We had sorted ourselves into "platoons" of fast and not-so-fast runners—and walkers, where I belonged. At first we were pleased to walk five kilometres. By August, we were logging at least 5 0 km a week, about half of that at one go. We refused to say we were "just"
walking; we were, after all, doing the same strength-building exercises and distance training that the runners were. Now my weight was dropping steadily; I lost the remaining 30 lb. in about nine months. On Oct. 27,1 completed the Marine Corps Marathon in a blistering 6:23:04 to finish 13,665th of the 14,078 who completed the course.
I've since adopted an adult dog, and Bernadette and I go for several walks a day. I'm not putting in the distances I did before the marathon, but I've managed to avoid regaining any pounds. I'd lost weight before, and the bigger challenge was to keep it off. This time, I have a fighting chance. This approach does not rely on selfrestraint alone—as Levy says, in a contest between willpower and biology, biology wins every time. Treating obesity in this light lifts a tremendous burden of shame. I felt better, and better about myself, long before I lost a pound. PI
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