Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: A Formerly Overweight Physician Offers Her Advice

When a medical student attended a talk from Dr. Michelle May, it completely changed the way she thought about food.

Medical doctor speaking with a patient.

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We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

In the next few articles, patients and colleagues provide their own recipes for weight loss success. The stories and advice are down-to-earth and powerful. I learned a great deal from them, and I believe you will too.

Jessica: The Formerly Overweight Physician

Do you ever wonder if your physician has a clue? Time after time he says you need to lose weight, but does he know how hard that is? Has he ever walked in your shoes? Although no two people ever have exactly the same experience, it’s reassuring to know that people who give advice truly understand your situation and emotionally connect with what you’re trying to achieve. When it comes to managing weight, Dr. Jessica can relate.

As the youngest of three girls and the child of a mother who had a love/hate relationship with food and exercise, Jessica became well-versed in dieting lingo at a young age. Jealousy between her normal weight and overweight sisters taught her that a thin body was something to be coveted. All the while, her mom’s on-again-off-again diets led to inconsistency in what food was available at home. At family gatherings the women always talked about food and diets they were on, or about to start. Jessica recalls climbing on top of the bathroom sink so she could have a full-length mirror to determine if her chubby legs looked unattractive in her soccer uniform. She was only five years old.

Her weight history is like a neon sign flashing in her memory bank. When all the first graders at her school were weighed as part of fitness testing, Jessica was one of only three girls who topped the 100-pound mark. At that time, in her town, childhood obesity was not as prevalent as it is today, and her size was something she couldn’t hide. As a middle schooler she tried to restrict calories and follow the lead of everything she learned about dieting from her family. This led to some yo-yoing of her weight, but soccer was what really prevented her weight from ballooning out of control. Though a bit heavier than the other girls, she was a good player. Lots of practice, games, and all-day weekend tournaments kept her on the move and made it difficult to consume more calories than she burned. She loved the sport and continued playing through high school and even competed at the small university she attended.

But when college soccer ended and Jessica began medical school, things began to change. Long hours of studying, stress, and less physical activity led to steady weight gain. Her family medicine residency only made things worse, demanding even longer hours and more pressure to perform well. By her third year of residency she was 40 to 50 pounds overweight.

Despite gaining weight, Jessica never lost her dieting mentality. If she ate the wrong things, she was aware and felt guilty. She tried to manage her weight, but seemed to be just spinning her wheels. As a physician she knew the dangers of obesity and feared the plight of many women in her family.

During her third year of residency, Jessica’s approach to dieting turned on its head. She heard Dr. Michelle May, the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, present a different perspective on weight management. Dr. May’s non-restrictive, mindful approach to eating taught Jessica to pay attention and eat when she was hungry, slow down, and pay attention to fullness. She became more aware of her relationship with food and learned to avoid emotional eating. She stopped having negative feelings if she decided to eat less-healthy food in moderation. She began exercising because it made her feel good, rather than exercising just to burn off something she shouldn’t have eaten.

As a result, Jessica lost 45 pounds over 18 months. Ten years and three kids later, Jessica has maintained her weight without returning to yo-yo dieting or guilt-driven behavior. As a family physician she works closely with her patients, helping them lose weight and maintain their success. Her personal experiences shaped the recipe for success she promotes.

  • Stop using food as a consolation for a bad day or as a reward for hard work. Instead, find other rewarding, pleasurable things to do. Jessica encourages people to make a list of ten non-food treats to replace food. Five of them should be quick and easy things that can be “go tos” after a tough day, or a reward for a job well done.
  • Cope with problems rather than using food to tamp down negative emotions. Understand what drives your eating and tackle those things head on. Jessica quotes Dr. May and says, “If a trigger doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it.”
  • Exercise because it makes you feel good, not to burn off calories.
  • Enjoy things in moderation without guilt. Anything forbidden is alluring. Take the power away—everything is permissible, but not beneficial.
  • Keep the environment clear of triggers. Even though Jessica doesn’t make anything off limits, she suggests keeping high-risk foods out of arm’s reach.
  • Realize that your approach may need to change in each season of life. Sometimes it’s most helpful to focus on planning our behavior, while at other times we have to think more about handling our emotions, being mindful of our reactions, or making the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

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