Is it About Choice?

I actually started this post back in December. And in some ways, I’ve already written what I’m going to say at least twice before. But a recent chain of events has caused me to give this topic yet another go. It’s all about the fundamental question of “choice.”

The first event in this chain happened in mid-November. I was still hanging in there on the last diet run, but starting to feel those old habits sneak back into the daily routine. I posted that I was “getting worried” that The Switch may be on its way to shutting itself off. One comment on that was by Roni who said:

“the Switch is not under our control”

When I read that I laughed aloud as this is where you and I disagree the most.

Even though there are factors that INFLUENCE the switch I still think you relinquish your control of it too easily.

As Anna said above, what the alternative? I will always believe you have a choice. It’s a hard choice and you may not want to make it all the time but simply throwing your hands in the air and saying it’s not in your control seems like a cop out to me.

Echoing these sentiments almost verbatim was Debbi who recently said:

IF losing weight is important to you, you CAN do it. It’s not like you don’t know what to eat. You’ve been on enough diets that you know that taco bell will not cause you to lose weight, even if it is just one taco. You have done this so you KNOW how to do it. I think that it’s BS to say that you have no control over it. I think that is an excuse and just giving up. You control what goes in your mouth and what you do.

I hate what I’m about to do here. Obviously, I wouldn’t have called out these two comments if I wasn’t about to refute their claims. And the reason I hate that is because I want them to be right about this. Both of these comments could be used to positively influence people, bringing us back from the brink of dietary despair and empowering us to take charge of our lives. That’s what this is all about: helping each other even in the face of enormous odds.

So that’s why I hate playing the part of Mr. Reality, because Mr. Reality (to the optimist) always looks like Mr. Pessimist. I’m all “down, down, down” and all “woe is me” and it looks like I’m trying to host a little pity party all for myself. So I need to figure out a way to say this without coming across like that, but I’m not sure if I can. I truly believe that a little realism can be just as effective as a rah-rah cheer, when properly internalized. But no one likes to hear about reality when they’re attempting to buck the odds.

Is it about Choice?

My answer typically tends towards “no”, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been around me the last two decades. And I find it really disappointing that people interpret this as an excuse to eat whatever I feel like. Because I do not feel that way. Who on a successful thirty-pounds-lost, six-month run of a diet CHOOSES to fail? Who on the third day of a brand new diet CHOOSES to fail? Who really and truly WANTS to stay in an unhappy state?

If this were as easy as a simple CHOICE, there wouldn’t be a two-billion-dollar-per-year diet industry out there. If this were as easy as CHOOSING our destiny, then why do 75%, 85%, 95% of us fail at this? If our Favorite Diet Plan is sooooo successful and easy, why do we now find ourselves on it for the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth time? If this simply came down to CHOICE, we’d be done and I could finally get back to blogging about puppies.

How’s that for a rah-rah speech? I know, I know. I’m Mr. Negativity and Joe Cop-out. But humor me and let me continue, because I think I may have an explanation.

The Heart of the Problem

The debate over choice is rooted in one precept: that everything our bodies do can be neatly divided into two areas: involuntary and voluntary. I’m pretty sure the entire planet agrees that keeping our hearts beating is in the former category and that going bungee jumping is in the latter. Your body chooses to keep blood moving around your body while your brain chooses to jump head-first into a river with only a rubber band to save you. Clear as a bell.

Unfortunately, this black-and-white view of the world tends to overlook the mysterious dark area between involuntary and voluntary called compulsion. We all know compulsive behavior. We’ve all seen it. And to tell someone who suffers from OCD to simply CHOOSE to stop tapping the light switch twenty-four times before leaving the room is a bit unhelpful on many levels.

“But Charlie,” you say. “There’s a huge difference between a documented disorder and you eating that third bag of Doritos. How can you be so callous as to even suggest there’s a link between the two?” Well, that’s easy: a large body of evidence. The only thing that can explain thirty million dieters failing over and over and over again–in spite of having every intention and desire and the will to succeed–is that some sort of overwhelming compelling force is making us do otherwise.

I think everyone knows what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling you get in the middle of that third bag of Doritos and you’re wondering, “Why am I doing this?” “Why can’t I stop?” You try. You really try. But you can’t. Ironically, shortly after Roni’s above comment, she posted this:

WHAT is with the night time snacking? You aren’t even hungry. Actually you’re full. Over full!

There’s nothing wrong with a “snack” but now you are entering the eating just to eat stage. Night after night it’s the same thing. You don’t even know WHY you are pillaging the pantry, you just are. Is out of habit? Boredom? What? WHAT is it?!?

You’re experiencing compulsion. Your body has wrested control from you and is moving calories into your body. It’s not going to tell you why or even ask your permission. Even Debbi knows what I’m talking about. Her first comment on the topic was:

I GET what you mean by the switch but I also GET what Roni says. I’m more with you though, it’s almost like an unknown force that turns it on and keeps it on. Sure we have a choice and control but sometimes, no matter how hard we WANT it, it just isn’t going to happen.

That “unknown force” has a name: compulsion.

So What’s The Point of All This?

My goal here is to get this out in the open and talk about it. Mr. Reality believes that admitting the problem is the first step in fixing it. If we turn a blind eye to the fact that “unknown forces” drive us to do things we’d rather not do, then no upbeat rah-rah speech will save us. I feel like confronting this fact out in the open is a necessary step to getting past it.

I already know the standard reply to the compulsive binge: “Yes, Charlie, but you have a CHOICE about whether you pick yourself back up and get right back on track.” To me, this still falls into the “blind eye” category because it completely dismisses the fact that the binge took place in the first place. If CHOICE were as powerful as you say, then the binge wouldn’t have happened at all. And if I couldn’t prevent the first binge, what will be different about the second one?

Next Steps

So there it is. It’s all out in the open now and we can talk about it. Our job is to somehow turn the reality of compulsion into a positive force. How? I have no idea. I mean, If I knew that, then thirty million people would be giving me two billion dollars a year. (And that’d be sweet, because I’d then immediately give all of it back to fight hunger and homelessness. But that’s a topic for another day.)

So what’s your take on all this? Am I really just giving up and copping out? Am I bringing people down? Am I lazy or completely crazy? Or am I on to something? Let’s talk!

15 Responses to “Is it About Choice?”

Biz said
February 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

I could related to this post on so many levels – especially this past week! I would eat my McDonald’s oatmeal for breakfast, then the two WW meals at the hospital for lunch and dinner.

Then get home and bake myself a pizza – never weighing how much cheese I put on, etc. And while I was eating it I kept asking myself “did you really need this? were you even hungry?”

And like you said if you chose to lose weight, it should just fall off, right?! I wish we both had the answers Charlie! 😀

Love, your prettier sister, Biz

    Charlie said
    February 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

    When you asked yourself, “Did you really need this?” the answer is obvious: yes, you did. Your body decided it needed it. Probably not for pure nutritional reasons, but it needed it. Hang in there!

Debbi Does Dinner Healthy said
February 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm

To say that you have no choice is like saying that you were made defectively and that your being overweight is beyond your control. Robots have no choice, they are programmed what to do. When you say “The switch is off and it’s beyond my control”, you may not FEEL like you are giving yourself “an excuse to eat whatever I feel like” but that’s what many people will interpret this as.

After “on a successful thirty-pounds-lost, six-month run of a diet”, the switch goes off. I have a word for that. Complacency.

You feel good, you look good, you KNOW how to succeed, so something turns off. Which means you are CHOOSING to stop.

This is exactly what happened to me. I lost about 100 lbs, looked good, felt good, bought new clothes and grew complacent. I had a hard time regaining control but I never felt that it was BEYOND my control. When I ate 3 granola bars for a snack, it was because I said “screw it, I’m hungry and they taste good”. Yes, I did want to lose weight but I totally CHOSE not to. I chose wrong. Frustrating? Yes, but still I believe, ultimately a choice. I KNEW I was making the wrong decisions. I didn’t feel compelled beyond my control to continue eating.

If you don’t care enough, it’s easy to be “compelled” to do something that you don’t want to.

You get mad at one of your kids. We all get so mad at them that we just want to shake them, right? Yet, you control yourself and you don’t beat the crap out of them because you care enough about yourself, your child and the consequences. Maybe your standing with God, the emotional effects on the child and the consequence of prison keep you from doing bodily harm to this child. You are in control. If it is IMPORTANT ENOUGH to you, you WILL control yourself.

I am making rice crispy bars today. I am in a crabby mood also. I can CHOOSE to eat one and satisfy my mouth for 10 seconds, or I can care enough about trying to lose this fat and get healthy. I view this as life and death. I am 5’2″ and 22o lbs. I am obese until like 169 lbs. People are dying and getting diseases all the time for just being fat.

I GET the switch, it does turn on and it turns off. If mine turns off, it’s because I am choosing to turn it off. It will probably be because I once again grew complacent, it won’t be because I woke up one day and decided “hey, I’m going to stop dieting and slowly gain it back”. It would happen gradually, but I still say it would be a choice.

I’ll stop rambling now, not even sure if anything here was coherant or makes sense. 🙂

    Charlie said
    February 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    I get the part about complacency. And that was probably a bad example on my part, because we’ve ALL been there! “Hey, I lost a thousand pounds. I DESERVE this.” That’s the kiss of death and the decision we make at that point is the dreaded this-one-bite-won’t-hurt mentality. It’s a slippery, slippery slope.

    But I had not yet reached any sort of complacency on this most recent go around. I got off to a great start, dropping from 234 to 216 or so in just two months. Then my body started craving food like it didn’t before. In those first two months, I’d eat 1500-2000 calories a day and feel perfectly fine. I lost a lot of weight at that level. I never felt hungry or deprived or starved. I felt good! I enjoyed it.

    I never made a conscious choice to begin craving food. This is the crux of my argument and what the whole Switch is based on. Yes, we may argue back and forth on whether it was my choice to give in to a craving after that point. What I’m saying is that for two months I didn’t crave food. And then suddenly, almost overnight, I did. THAT’s when it gets hard. THAT’s what I mean by The Switch going off. And that’s the point I’m trying to focus on: what happens when your system suddenly makes it difficult? What is that boundary between it being easy and being impossible?

allan said
February 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm

I think you are being lazy and finding a symptom for your failing. At the end of the day, not eating the Dorito’s at all can be labelled a compulsion to get healthy. Again, semantics and all while you are eating the chips. In the end, just don’t eat them at all. That would work.

    Charlie said
    February 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Yes, but if the “just don’t eat them all” approach works, then why doesn’t it work? That’s what I keep coming around to. If it’s such a no-brainer to NOT overeat, then why has this been such an impossible feat for millions and millions of people for so long? There simply HAS to be more going on here than a simple, “just don’t eat them all.”

Mayura said
February 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I’ve never commented on here before, but this is such an interesting topic, I feel compelled to pitch in.
So, my two cents:
I don’t think it’s ENTIRELY choice. You do have some control, but you don’t consciously decide to eat every thing you put in your mouth. Especially when busy, stressed, in a hurry, bored etc. Most of the things you eat, you reach for out of habit. And I think that’s the key – HABIT.
The way you eat is a habit that you’ve acquired over a large period of time. It’s a part of your lifestyle. Any diet that requires a drastic change in your eating habits is not going to work for long. If you decide to entirely cut out foods from your diet that you’ve been eating on a regular basis (pizza or meat or doritos), the deprivation you eventually feel (because you’re so used to eating normally these foods) will backfire on you and cause you to binge on them in even greater amounts (3 bags of doritos).
To permanently alter the way you eat, you have to make small changes over time and incorporate them into your lifestyle. Some people are lucky to have imbibed good eating habits in childhood – balanced meals, small portions, regular meal times, occasional indulgences. If not, you’ve got to SLOWLY acquire them in adulthood, which is hard, but it’s the only way that works permanently. Of course, the above strategy does not lead to rapid weight loss, but any diet that you can’t keep up for the rest of your life (comfortably) will backfire on you and impede your weight loss eventually. The good thing is that good eating habits become easier over time once they’ve become…habit. It’s just a matter of inculcating them slowly and sticking with them. And I’ll end my essay on that note :).

    Charlie said
    February 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for posting! Your use of the term “habit” could just be a variation on the term I used, “compulsion”. I know conventional wisdom doesn’t think of food the same way as alcohol, drugs, OCD, or other compulsive/additive behaviors. But they all exhibit the same symptoms: the body doing what it does because that’s what it does. And habits, good or bad, as everybody knows, are hard to break.

CrazyLady said
February 22, 2011 at 4:47 am

I haven’t commented here in a long time!! Sorry. 🙂 Anyway I too felt compelled to join in on this one. I totally get what you are saying Charlie. Basically sometimes it’s quite easy to choose to do it all right but other times it’s near impossible. For me I think the key is that my eating is mainly emotional. I eat to manage/hide/comfort/whatever my feelings. I don’t always recognise this and even when I do it doesn’t always stop me but I do think this is why so many people fail on diets. The emotional side is not dealt with at all. Yes some people just need to learn how to eat better and then they are sorted but others like me know how to eat healthily, know to exercise but my emotions or the lack of ability to deal with them perhaps have a major impact on my eating.

I also think this is why Roni has been so successful. Plus I think she would see the switch as more of a dimmer rather than just going on and off if that makes any sense. One crappy food choice doesn’t have to mean that’s it for the day or 1 crappy food day doesn’t mean that’s it for the week.

Perhaps we just give food too much power? Hell I dunno. I certainly haven’t this all solved but I do know that not focusing on the “number” helped me a lot!!! I just tried to focus on eating better and moving more and listening to/acknowledging my emotions. Then I went and had a baby and so I kinda need to start again. 🙂

    Charlie said
    February 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Welcome back. 🙂 You mention “emotional” and that ties back to both Biz’s and Mayura’s replies. When your experiencing emotions and are in need of comfort, this is still your body compelling you to soothe itself. This is why “emotional eating”, as it’s called, still feels so much out of our control . . . beyond “choice” as it were. I agree wholeheartedly that “One crappy food choice doesn’t have to mean that’s it for the day” but we succumb that anyway, oh so easily.

Anna said
February 22, 2011 at 11:53 am

Hiya Charlie

Nice to hear from you 🙂 But sorry to hear the switch is off again 🙁

I’m going through a similar thing. Was doing great in the first couple of months, but then the loss slows down, you dont see any progress, so you lose motivation and bad habits start to creep back in.

I dont know why. Perhaps it IS just an emotional roller coaster. I do think we have a choice though. I just think our resolve weakens for various reasons.

lack of progress
lack of support
lack of motivation
feelings of deprivation
feelings of ‘who cares?’
feelings of ‘whats the point?’
feelings of ‘accept me the way I am’
feelings of ‘i could be dead tomorrow anyhow so why not have chocolate today’!!!

And the fact is that unhealthy food tastes lovely!!! lol

So yeah, its an emotional thing and I struggle with those emotions daily, some days worse than others. So right now I’m accepting the good with the bad. Some days I eat well, some days I eat too much. I’m not losing weight, but I’m still exercising and I think I’ve got a handle on it. I’m just letting myself do whatever, without guilt!!

I think the guilt is something that just increases the overeating too!

Dont feel guilty, go with it. Try that and see if you find some peace? And then you might think, hey, I might start UNDEReating again and lose some blubber….lol

You know, perhaps just undereating for more than 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, is just not good for the soul??

Best, Anna 😀

    Charlie said
    February 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    “And the fact is that unhealthy food tastes lovely”. ‘Nuff said.

Happy Fun Pants said
February 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Hey there!

So I’m a bit late to the party, but I had yesterday off…from everything. 🙂

I think that this is the reason why I gravitated toward intuitive and mindful eating. The focus wasn’t on restriction.

If I’m not restricted, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I don’t feel resentful. And I don’t feel guilty.

For me, my eating compulsively has everything to do with the fact that I’m being soothed by the food. It’s familiar, it tastes good, it allows me to veg out, and it is a way that I treat myself to…well…not having it be a struggle like lots of other things in my life.

So unless I get rid of the reasons WHY I’m eating, I’ll never naturally just STOP eating the stuff FOREVER.

I lost almost 60 pounds and then I just stopped. Then I started gaining weight. So what “worked” for a year or so to help me lose the weight and now is broken in putting it back on?

It’s not a matter of having willpower – to just CHOOSE not to. I’m with you – that’s oversimplification.

The issue, IMHO, is that there is actually a payoff in the eating “bad” foods or in eating past the point of satiety. If we can track down the WHY we’re eating in ways that don’t bring us closer to the goals we set, we can have the courage to address those needs so that eating isn’t the only option.

I think it takes a lot of doing something to really “learn” it.

Do some people keep weight off the rest of their lives after diets? Maybe. But not most.

So is it a choice? Technically yes. But the choice doesn’t just surround the Dorito’s and distraction methods. It also means uncovering the payoffs of eating – and then choosing to address those issues, and then choosing to try something else that will soothe us in those moments.

How to do that? Well…that’s what I’m trying to figure out too.

    Charlie said
    February 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Hello again, Miss Pants! Not late to the party at all. It’s still the most recent post. 🙂 And you used the “soothe” word too. I think we’ve all felt that. After a long/rough day, just plopping down, vegging out, using the “I deserve this” excuse and polishing off that quart of ice cream in front of the TV. Not that I’VE ever done anything like that. 😛 But you did use another one of my favorite words: oversimplification. It’s a dangerous concept!

Julie said
February 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Hi Charlie. I don’t know the answer, I don’t think I can even try and guess. I know that if I over eat, I’ll get my fat back. If I’m good, it’ll stay off. It’s not simple and it’s mind games with your stomach. Most days my mind controls my tummy and all is good but once in awhile it’s not like that and then comes the over eating.
For me, I just want to be healthy. I want to be able to do things without panting. So I work hard to do that. Not always good, not always perfect but I’m trying.
It was fun and new thinking material, reading this post and all the comments. Interesting.
Take care Charlie and have a blessed evening.