by Barbara Berkeley, MD
Of course, I don't see what my patients do when they leave the office. In the occasional instance that I wind up at a dinner or event with someone I've treated, that person is always on his/her best behavior. It's one of the two major burdens of being a weight loss doc: 1. Everyone asks you about diet all the time and 2. People hate to eat with you.
Lately I've been very discouraged to observe that even those who are trying hard to maintain weight can convince themselves that it's ok to go significantly off plan now and then. As we've discussed here before, America knows no "now and then". Each and every day celebrates (or mourns) something and thus, there is always a good reason to eat.
When maintainers use a strategy that involves departing from their food constitution and rescuing themselves later, I call that "braking".
Braking simply means that the maintainer allows himself to roll downhill (dietarily speaking) and apply the brakes when the speed gets dangerous. Like other thrill rides, braking has its distinct dangers.
Yesterday, I took my first-ever downhill ski lesson (!). I quickly found out that it's fun to go fast but that you'll crash hard if you aren't a good stopper. I also learned that going back up the hill is really, really hard work. This experience led me to reflect on maintenance brakers. For me, everything becomes a weight loss analogy!
Many maintainers I've known have tried to use a strategy involving frequent braking. The most common idea is to eat off plan on the weekends and recover from Monday to Friday. "Off-plan" is a kind way of saying they will eat cookies, bread, pasta and whatever other carbs call to them. From what I've observed, this strategy---while attractive---doesn't work. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has had success as a post-weekend braker.
Another braking strategy is to eat off plan during special times like vacations. A variant of this is eating off plan on more frequent special occasions like birthdays, weddings, and parties. Here, it's been my observation that the vacation strategy may work for some. The strategy of more frequent exceptions does not appear to.
Post-vacation braking does appear to be successful for some maintainers. I do this myself and have found it to work well, but I have significant conditions for eating off plan on vacation which I will describe in a moment.
Braking is a dangerous strategy because each time we start eating S Foods (sugars and starches) we expose ourselves to the risk of major re-addiction. We take an even bigger risk when we expose ourselves during stressful periods when food can easily become more drug-like. This is probably the reason that frequency of braking predicts failure. The more we play with this, the more possibility we will crash.
Brakers also tend to vastly underestimate the body's ability to rapidly regain weight. If you have been maintaining weight, you are fighting the body's desire to regain. Insulin, produced by eating carbs, is the chemical your body is hoping to make because it can rapidly store fat. And, as we've discussed here many times, those who have been overweight tend to produce large shots of insulin rather than small ones, causing pounds to pack on in the blink of an eye. Once weight begins to climb, the maintainer is faced with his or her own painful climb....back up the exhausting diet mountain. Often, the effort is just not worth it and the new weight becomes baseline. As this happens repeatedly, the entire weight loss is wiped out.
Why do I reserve judgement on post vacation braking? I think it may work for some people (as it does for me) under certain conditions:
- You are away somewhere on vacation and not at home.
- You are already an experienced maintainer who has been stable for some time.
- Your vacation allows you to be more active than you are at home.
- You eat "off plan" only miminally to moderately.
- (Optional, but helpful) You are in a very warm or very cold place.
So, just to give you my personal observations, I've found that it's been very helpful to eat off plan only when I am far removed from my home environment. Back at home I am very rigorous about my daily diet and I truly enjoy the way I eat. When I travel, I try to weigh myself every day. I often find that the stress and dehydration of flying, the temperature (either hot or cold), and the increased walking and activity of vacationing will drop my weight. If I see this, I then may eat some things I wouldn't at home. For me, these will be a dessert here and there, an occasional piece of bread or some potatoes. I really don't go much farther than that and I still watch my weight and stop doing this if I'm climbing upwards. I follow my base diet 90% of the time, EVEN while on vacation. When I return home, I generally will not have to brake very much because my weight will be stable. What I will have to contend with is the stimulation caused by the foods I allowed into my diet. But because they were consumed somewhere else and because I'm so used to eating a certain way at home, they are generally soon forgotten. (The one time I remember having trouble was after a flight where I ate Doritos on the way home! I had a Dorito craving for weeks!!!).
I am always open to and interested in learning about maintenance strategies. While braking is not something I can recommend on a general basis, there may be readers who have found it works for them. If so, I'd love to know your experience and specifically what has been successful for you. Please feel free to comment.