By Shaun Chavis
I've had a weight problem since I was 6. I've weighed as much as 256 pounds, and I'm currently around 225. At that weight and standing 5'4", my BMI is 38.6, which makes me "obese" or "extremely obese," depending on which chart you read.
Just thought I'd get that out right at the start of my blog here at Health.com, because certainly someone will check out my contributor photo and realize that I am not a slim woman. I've never been smaller than a size 14 (though I’m still determined to get into a 12). And just as my diabetic colleague Sean Kelley knows more than most about his disease, I know quite a bit about mine.
There's a funny thing about our perceptions of overweight people. We accept that people living with diabetes, cancer, celiac disorder, or any other condition know enough to teach the rest of us a thing or two. But we don't expect people who are struggling with extra fat to know anything about how to fight it. And it really rankles some people that those who teach about healthy eating have obvious weight struggles.
Years ago, Cooking Light, Health's sister magazine, published staff photos in a December issue. The staff had had a baby boom: A third were pregnant or had recently given birth when the photo was taken. Response? Readers sent in nasty letters about how fat they looked. Yet, Cooking Light's staff includes registered dietitians and test-kitchen pros who understand the science of healthy, diet-friendly cooking better than most culinary school–trained chefs. (And, if you ask me, better also than the people who make fat-free salad dressing.)
The reality is, even with all the credentials, we are humans first. I've spent most of my life trying to shed my weight, and once I joined Health's staff and started researching weight management as an editor, I gained a valuable perspective. Applying my journalist's brain let me step back and do some troubleshooting from a different angle. Since then, I've been able to put what I've learned as a journalist on a weight-loss beat to successful use.
Here's what a 225-pound weight-loss editor can bring to the discussion of losing weight:
1. Years of dieting—I've been on and off them since about age 9—have keenly honed my BS meter. I'll skip the Lemonade Cleanse and every rebirth of the Cabbage Soup Diet, because I trust my body only to weight-loss plans that science and sense tell me should work, and I encourage you to do the same. (That said, what works for me might not work for you. There's no single magic bullet.)
2. I like to think of my master's degree in gastronomy (a fancy way to describe studies in food anthropology, food history, food policy, and such) as a "get real" filter: It allows me to always remember real people are using the science that researchers come up with to make choices in kitchens, grocery stores, and restaurants. (While we're on the subject of my CV, I should also disclose that I'm not a registered dietitian.) I've heard nutrition students say, "But if people know they need to [pass up pastries, eat more fruit and vegetables, kick deep-fried food to the curb, etc.], why don't they?" Weight loss and nutrition seem simple when you take culture, lifestyle, personal preferences, human nature, and emotions out of the equation. But that's not how anyone lives.
3. Like any other weight-loss editor (and good journalist), I'm plugged into research, experts, sources—and perhaps most valuable, success. We've all heard the same, tired stats about how few people successfully lose weight and keep it off. If the odds are stacked so strongly against you, why not give it all up and rip through a box of Häagen-Dazs Coffee & Almond Crunch bars? Because even though I have a ways to go, I've tasted success: I've lost 31 pounds and I walk at least three miles a day most days of the week. I also get emails, letters, and pictures from people who've lost 30, 50, and 100 pounds or more. Just this week, I heard from a woman who lost 146 pounds. I'm not kidding—from time to time these stories have me in tears, or running down the hall grabbing anyone in sight: "ohmigoshcanyoubelievewhatthiswomanDID?" The keys to success that these readers share is a rich stash that I'm happy to share with you. The common theme? Damn the stats. It can be done.
4. Empathy. Sitting across a desk from a skinny-minnie dietitian to talk about getting rid of your fat isn't easy. You wonder, "Will she judge me too?" I've always found it easier to relax and open up about my struggles once I know that dietitian has been in my shoes. (Weight Watchers puts that dynamic to work: New dieters feel a little more comfortable once they know their leader's been overweight too.) Someone who's faced her own weight problems is likely to have advice that's been tested by real life, and when you're trying to navigate those daily challenges that can throw you off target, that's the kind of help you need. When I took this job, I asked one of my girlfriends, a slim news anchor, what she thought about a 200-plus-pound weight-loss editor. She looked at me and said, "I can believe advice from someone who's actually had to use it. Are you kidding?"
What's your take on this debate? I'd also love to hear about your weight-loss struggles and how you're facing them. Send me a comment! Or, follow me on twitter.