Ann Garvin on the secret to why losing weight is tough

Ann Garvin on the secret to why losing weight is tough

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.”

Ann Garvin: It’s so nice to be here. That phrase, I could feel that in my heart.

Zibby: You have a such a unique background. There are so many reasons I wanted to talk to you on this show. Can you start by telling everybody both — I want to know your personal journey and also your professional one because you’re a professor and an expert and all the rest. Lots to discuss.

Ann: There’s so much. I know. I’ll try to keep it short and not start with my childhood.

Zibby: No, start with your childhood. Tell me when it all started and your own experience with your weight and body. Then we’ll go into your professional life, if you don’t mind. It’s a little intrusive of me.

Ann: No, I don’t mind at all. It’s great. I was always a stick-thin kid growing up. Puberty took a really long time to hit me. My mother was very, very small and very tiny until she had babies. Then she changed. I experienced how much she disliked that change. When I was young, I got the message. God, I love my mom. She died in the last couple years. She was my best friend. Nobody does it exactly right, so I just have to explain all that.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Ann: She did have an us-versus-them theory about her body. I got that message that it’s not okay to have a soft belly and aging is not the greatest thing. I think I internalized that. It took me many years to come around from that. In college, I lived with a lot of girls who had, for sure, eating disorders that went undiagnosed. I probably had one too just in terms of not really being able to see my body in the way that it was actually and then also thinking that you can manipulate your body in a way that maybe you can’t. I think we all go through things like that. Maybe all is a little bit of an umbrella term, but I think people do. For many years, I had a push/pull with this ideal of what the cultural idea of a body is and what a women’s actual body is and what it’s for and how it’s really our best friend and if our bodies are the greatest that it can only be, then that’s the only way we live the way we really want to live. Your body is really your best friend, but it took me a long time and a lot of thinking to come around to that idea.

Probably if someone were to ask me what the key to weight and weight management is, it’s really understanding that your body is on your side and that it only wants to do the best for you. I think of my body like I think of my dog. I love my dog so much. I would never push on my dog’s soft belly and say, do some sit-ups. It’s brutal. I would never do that. I always think, why would I do that to my body which I really love as much as or more than I love my dog? If my body falls out of whack, then I’m not able to do any of the things that I want to do. Anyway, took me a while to get there. After babies, your body changes. You have to understand that after menopause, your body changes. Through menopause, your body changes. Instead of really hating your body for that, I think we have to understand that those things are fantastic and they offer all kinds of benefits. I started working as a nurse right out of college. I didn’t work with women. I mostly worked with men because I worked at the VA hospital. I got fascinated with how to get people moving in the hospital to make them feel better. I went and got a master’s in exercise physiology and a PhD in exercise psychology. That’s where my thinking came in terms of weight. I’m meshing my personal story and my professional story together, but I don’t think I can keep that apart.

Zibby: No, this is great. Keep going.

Ann: Once I started studied health psychology, I had a focus primarily in weight and body and how it changes based on both exercise, but also mood and anxiety and depression. That was where all my research was. I started to understand that the way that we feel about our bodies and the understanding of our cultural influence on our bodies is the first step to understanding where we should be in terms of our body weight. Then I started talking to students about it. I found that the current-day students were really no different than I was thirty years ago in terms of my thinking about the body. Certainly, the culture is better about a wider range of body. We’re getting there, but we’re certainly not there now. Now people are feeling better if they do have a booty. Whereas in my day and age, it was stick thin, flat stomach, fourteen-year-old boy, no hips. We are just pushing women back and forth into this idea that their body is for external consumption and not for loving your kids, doing the things you want to do, reading books, writing books, traveling, experiencing the world.

If we can tease out those two things, then we can start to think about, what we do that would care for our bodies in the best way? How do we love it? I think loving your body in this day and age is one of the hardest things to do because we’ve removed ourselves from our bodies. Our bodies are this annoying thing that doesn’t pull its weight in terms of thinness. Then we have our bodies over here who are getting us to bring our kids to soccer and do all of the things that we enjoy. We haven’t put those two things together. I have really strong ideas about how to do that. I certainly have talked about that in a major way. I do think that that’s our first step. People are always saying to me, what do you think about weight loss? What’s the first step for weight loss? I would say the first step for weight loss is the hardest step, which is trying to get around your thinking about your body and what it’s for and what works the best. For me, here’s the other thing. I don’t compete with other women and their bodies. I look at other people’s bodies, and I admire them. I wonder about their struggles. I think about them all the time. You know who I compete with? My younger self.

That’s the hardest competition of all because with every ticking moment, that self is farther away. That younger self didn’t have babies and didn’t have a million things to do and could exercise whenever I wanted, etc. That competition is particularly poisonous. However, I look at those pictures and I think, oh, my gosh, I was in such good shape. Then I look at myself now and I kind of bully myself about it. I have a softer belly. I look different. I had to understand a couple of things about bodies. One of the things I had to understand is, as a scientist, we know that everything falls on a normal curve. There are always going to be people with a percentage of body fat that’s higher for their health. There’s always people that have a percentage of body fat that are very low, and that’s perfectly okay. Everybody else falls here. If we think everybody should be up here, very thin, I guess it’s down here, very thin, then we are even falling in the face of science that says to us everybody’s genetic determines what is the correct body fat percentage.

That’s another thing that we have to fight with, this idea that there’s this ideal body shape and it’s the shape that we see on the Oscars or it’s the shape that we see in all the catalogues with women who have no breasts, no hips, and the clothes hang on them like a hanger. It’s so hard for us to see those continuous images and then look at us and reconcile our own bodies. So here I am. I got my PhD in health psychology with a fundamental focus on nutrition. I taught nutrition for thirty years. Yet what I’m talking about is psychology before we even get into food stuff, carbohydrates, fat, whatever. It’s also, even knowing all that, I want everyone to hear me say I struggle with the same thing, even with all of the good information, all of the right information. I live in the same poisonous culture that everyone else does about weight. I think what we have to understand, too, is that, how much are we willing to give up for the culture to pursue a certain kind of weight? That, I think, is a really big thing. I want to say a couple more things.

Zibby: Great. This is the best interview I’ve ever done. I can just relax and listen to you. This is great. Keep going.

Ann: I talk too much. Always on my report card.

Zibby: No, it’s perfect.

Ann: Now I lost my train of thought because I got embarrassed because I was talking too much. What I was going to say about that is that I think one of the things that we are very afraid of is to walk back on the culture and say, I’m going to be a little softer, and that’s probably okay. We’re worried a little bit about how we’re going to feel about ourselves and how people are looking at us and what it means. What it means is, when you get a little softer, what people see is a lack of control because a perfectly controlled self is one that can control all of your behaviors and all your passions and not feed them with your mouth. I just think that that’s one of the most toxic kinds of things. Here’s something else. We’re supposed to love food. Food is our sustenance. It’s not the enemy. If we don’t get enough food, then that’s the end of us. What happened all of a sudden in our culture that we became, food is sort of the enemy? which is the worst possible give and take because at that give and take we’re saying food is the enemy, stay away from food, but also, food is the thing that keeps you alive and you should only eat good food. Then you have that tongue that tastes everything so acutely and is such a pleasure center, but we’re like, ignore that. You need to ignore that. That’s really a tough thing to ask people to do on a regular basis.

I remember what I was going to say. That is this. This is fascinating. We don’t know how to healthfully — when I say healthfully, I mean psychologically, bone health, heart health, everything. We do not know how to healthfully help women who are very close to their ideal weight lose weight. We don’t know how to do it. You know why we don’t know how to do it? It’s unethical to study it. You are not allowed, as a scientist, to take a person who is at their ideal weight or close to it — not cultural ideal; physiological ideal — and study it because to reduce their weight would make them unhealthy. As scientists, we have the Nuremberg trials that show us that we are not allowed to hurt our subjects. Reducing their weight past what would be considered ideal is unethical and not allowed. That means all of the information you’re reading about weight loss has been made for people, for men mostly, but also women or people that are extremely overweight, not in a normal range of overweight. When you try to do those things and it doesn’t work, you think you’re weak. In fact, they weren’t meant for you. We don’t know how to help people lose weight who are close to their weight because it’s not a healthy thing to do. We don’t want you to look good in a swimsuit. We want your bones to be dense. We want you to be psychologically healthy and not thinking about food all the time and searching for food, which is exactly what happens when we reduce your calorie intake to the point where you become a person who’s constantly thinking in the back of their head, so when are we going to eat again?

We do know a little bit about behavioral. We know how to ask people not to eat snacks and that kind of thing. If you are in a calorie deficit and your body knows that you’re in a calorie deficit, all your body knows — it’s like your dog — is, I’m a little hungry. When you should be thinking about this book that you’re reading or this podcast that you’re doing or this other thing that you’re working on, there is this niggling constant tap on your shoulder saying, you know what, you’re kind of hungry. You’re a little bit hungry. Eventually, when you stop doing whatever it is that’s distracting you and you start to get tired, that’s when the Doritos come out. You’re like, I’m tired. I’m hungry. You don’t know why you can’t stop eating. That’s the psychological drive. There’s, in fact, a super great study that was done in the fifties that we couldn’t even do anymore, on men, called the Minnesota Keys Study.

They calorie restricted men. Then they watched their behavior. What they did, they became what we normally consider a woman’s behavior or an eating disorder behavior, eating disorder. They searched for food. They ate too much food. They drank too much coffee. They drank too much water. They chewed too much gum. All because they were in a deficit. Then they became eating disordered in a true sense. They were psychologically healthy, very lean men, but they put them on a calorie restriction, which is what we do with women all the time. We’re like, you have a tiny little body fat. Stop eating. Exercise more. Now we’re in a deficit. Then we have this tap on our shoulder. You put that on top of being fatigued all the time — what woman is not fatigued? If you go on Twitter or on Facebook, there is eight million coffee jokes about how we all need coffee. We need coffee. I need coffee. I just said to my daughter today, “Oh, my god, my best friend is coffee.”

Zibby: I’m holding a — I’m trying not to drink as we talk. Yes, I know.

Ann: After saying all that about the psychology of eating, I would say the number-one tip I tell people, the number-one thing you have to do before you ever change any other thing in your life is you have to get enough sleep. Here’s why you have to get enough sleep. If you’re tired, you’re not going to chop vegetables. You’re not going to grocery shop. If you’re tired, you’re not going to sauté something. If you’re tired and you’re starving, which most of us are if we’re in a diet situation and we’re living an American life, you are absolutely not going to be searching things and making food prep and doing all these things that we’re asking you to do because we’re reducing your calories. You’re too tired to do that. You’re too tired to hold back any kind of normal, healthy, mammal behavior, which is to go look for food. The other thing is, if you’re tired — when I say tired, I kind of mean sleep deprived because most people are a little bit sleep deprived. What happens when you’re sleep deprived is you became an abnormal carbohydrate metabolizer, which means you act a little bit like you’re diabetic. You know that feeling because two things happen. You get a little lightheaded. That’s what ketosis is. Don’t even get me started on ketosis and eating the high-fat diets and keto diets. If you become ketosis and you go into the hospital, they will fix that because it’s an abnormal state. It is not a good state. There are so many problems with it. Having said that, you start to feel a little dizzy. That’s one thing.

You start to carve carbohydrates in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. All of a sudden, you want sugar, honestly. It’s the end of the day and you’re like, god, I could really use some sugar. That is sleep deprivation. That also means that as an abnormal carbohydrate metabolizer, you’re going to store fat faster. Even when you’re sleeping, you’re doing that. Because your body needs to be fully rested to metabolize in the way that it needs to metabolize food, sleep is the number-one health behavior. In fact, I’m like a sleep evangelist. I’m a sleepy person anyway. I sleep a lot. I think I was sort of forced into that. There is never a day that I don’t get eight to nine hours of sleep, ever. That changed my life in the best of ways. That right there is enough for people to go, I’m not doing that. I can’t do that. I’m going to drop my calories. I’m going to do keto. I’m going to do whatever it is I have to do, but I’m not getting enough sleep. I get that. What I would say is, absolutely without fail I became more productive when I got more sleep. Then with a fully slept mind, I can focus and do more work. For god’s sake, I get a lot done in a day. The reason that happens is because I get enough sleep. And I nap. That’s the other thing. I always nap every day no matter what. I nap every day. I’m not saying everybody needs my amount of sleep. Nine hours is average. Whatever it is, whatever you think it is — oh, I can even tell you whether you need more or not. Do you want to hear this?

Zibby: Yes.

Ann: Here’s how you know, if you do it without caffeine. You have to do it without a stimulant. You can’t take your Adderall. You can’t take your caffeine for the day that you’re going to check this out. Here’s what happens. If you sleep a normal week period when you’re normally in and out, and then on the day that you’re not having caffeine or whatever, you sit and do something boring, usually driving — if you’re in the Midwest, it’s driving. It could be something other that’s really dull. I’m sorry, but I think church can be very dull. If I’m sitting in church or if I’m driving and the sun is hitting me and I fall asleep, then I’m sleep deprived. Here’s why. Whenever the attention in the room goes down, your body that’s sleep deprived goes, things are quieting down. This is a good time to take a nap. I don’t need my full attention right now. I’m going to fall asleep. If, though, you don’t fall asleep and you fidget and you haven’t been on caffeine, then your body says, I’m kind of bored. I need a little stimulation. I don’t need any sleep. I need stimulation. That’s how you can tell. When the activity level goes down and you start to fall asleep, chances are you’re sleep deprived.

Zibby: That makes sense.

Ann: It does, right? It does make sense, but I had to read the research on it to really understand it. I just thought that maybe I was oversleeping. I thought a lot of things. I thought, oh, just go have another cup of coffee or whatever.

Zibby: Ann, there was so much in there that I found totally interesting. I could have a hundred conversations with you now. The part I want to go back to is women who don’t necessarily have to lose, say, a hundred pounds, but want to lose twenty pounds or ten pounds or five pounds. They still want to do that. It doesn’t mean they’re going to starve. Sometimes you could say it’s weight you don’t necessarily need to have on you. You might feel better. Your knees might feel better. There are reasons to get rid of that even though it’s not a significant amount. Even though science hasn’t studied it, what do you do then to get rid of those pounds versus without the voice saying you’re hungry all the time or having to rely on all those things? What should we do? How should we do it?

Ann: It’s a perfect question. You asked the perfect question. How do you do it? There’s a couple things that you can do. The first thing is sleep. You have to sleep because your body will hang onto that body weight if you’re sleep deprived. It won’t give you a hand. It will fight you the whole way because it needs to. That’s the first thing. I know that’s not a thing that people really like to hear, but that’s the first thing. The next thing is, we have to start thinking about our bodies as our best friends and stop thinking about it like it’s fighting us. We have to give it the nutrition that it needs without overnutrition. You know what? Putting on weight is just overnutrition. You don’t need all of those things. The other thing is, drink enough the water. The reason you need to drink enough water is because often, we interpret hunger as thirst. It’s a hard one because you’re also having to go to the bathroom all the time, which is really a pain. I’m not going to say anything new to you about, how do you do it? Really, we know what we have to do. We have to sleep. We have to drink water. We have to move every day. We have to move more than we don’t move. I’m not saying you have to do Pilates or yoga or run a triathlon. I would say, in fact, you probably don’t need to do those things to the extent that you think you need to do those things. The exercise isn’t going to save you unless you do so much that there isn’t time for anything else, so that doesn’t really make sense. Exercise is something that we do for our health but not necessarily for weight loss. Although, it does work because it is a calorie deficit, but it doesn’t work like it can. I have stuff on my blog that specifically does the math on that.

I would say that you have to be very careful about getting the right kind of nutrients. There is so much misinformation out there like keto diets and the coffee with butter and so many, so much misinformation. I know Weight Watchers is something that you talked about before. Weight Watchers is actually the best program. Without a doubt, it is the best program. The only issue that I have with it is that is requires you to be very diligent. Then when you’re not so diligent, you put it back on. I think that that’s really the only place where it can be a problem. With that diligence comes deprivation. With deprivation, we fall off the wagon all the time. When we’re doing it, we have to be less diligent on the program so that it’s easier to maintain as we move forward, which also means that ten pounds is going to take longer to lose. That’s okay. You have an interesting life. Nobody can see it on you anyway. You just have to allow yourself the time it takes to do it. What you’re doing is you’re changing the course of the Titanic. You’re changing your health behaviors as you move differently. I can tell you, when I’ve gained weight, I’ve moved the Titanic in the wrong direction. I’ve changed all my healthy behaviors. I’ve stopped doing those things. Now I have to move myself back to the way that I was before. It’s so easy to slip moving the Titanic in that direction because we’re inundated so much with misinformation about food and there’s so much delicious food out there. Does that help?

Zibby: Yes, but — I get it. I’m loving my body, blah, blah, blah. I’m pretending I’m having a good night’s sleep, which of course I’m not, but let’s just pretend. Now it comes time to eat. I’m not going to do a crazy — personally, I don’t eat a crazy diet. I’m trying really hard to eat regular whole food, anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean, whatever. I’m trying. Once you get in that and you get rid of the sugar all the time, I’ve found my cravings to be almost gone, whereas they were constant before. My mood is actually much more stable now that I’m not having huge sugar highs and lows all the time. But how do you just stay eating the right foods? What is overnutrition? Is it just eating too much? Is it too much salmon? Too many grapes? Can I really feel guilty about that? I don’t think so.

Ann: No. Here’s what you need to do. You need to figure out what your weakness is when you get weak. What is it?

Zibby: Sugar. Anything with sugar.

Ann: Me too. It’s those lapses that are stopping you from moving forward. That’s not to say you always need to get rid of it. This is what I do. This is my rule. I am not allowed to eat sugar until seven o’clock at night, period. I have adopted that rule for years. I actually don’t break that rule because it’s been that rule for so many years. I find that after seven o’clock, I don’t usually want it. It’s really close to my bedtime. That may not be the rule that works for you. You have to figure out, when is it that you do the thing that’s hurting your diet the most? whatever that is. If you’re mostly doing what you say you’re doing, which I totally believe that’s really most of us —

Zibby: — It is now that I’m focusing on it, but I certainly wasn’t doing it before. Yes, I am doing it now, but I won’t do it forever, I’m sure. Anyway, sorry.

Ann: It’s all the same. It doesn’t matter whether it was before or after. You still probably had the same weakness before as you do now, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Ann: This is the best news ever. You don’t have to problem solve your whole diet. You only have to problem solve that weakness because that’s the thing that’s putting you over the edge. I know I have to problem solve sugar like nobody’s business because I love sugar more than I love anything in the world. It’s so satisfying and so wonderful in so many ways that it can come to me. I have to think about it every single time and whether I’m going to do it or not. A lot of times when I’m weak about sugar, it’s when I’m tired or it’s when something’s happening in my life that’s hard. I use it for that. I have to see when I’m weak, what I’m eating, if it’s worth it. I have to problem solve that and only that. I love that that’s the thing because I would say that most of us kind of know what we’re supposed to be doing. We are constantly like, should I eat this salmon? Should I have another bite of this salmon? Is the salmon the problem? The salmon is never the problem. The grapes are never the problem. Nobody got fat eating too much salmon and grapes. No one ever did. Our issues are whatever it is that we keep falling down on. If you look back at your behavior before you focused, what were those things? You’re going to fall back into those. What you should do is make a list of those and then problem solve those and get super creative about them.

I can give you some examples. I said that I don’t sugar at seven o’clock night because seven o’clock at night is when I want them. What I find is that I fall asleep. Sugar makes me tired. It’s got this inherent reasoning why I do it that way. It’s helpful that way. The benefits outweigh the negatives. Other things that I’ll do is, if I say to myself, Ann, life is too short, you need to have some sugar sometimes, don’t laugh, but I put it in the trunk of my car so that if I’m in bed and I want sugar, I have to go outside to the trunk of my car to get it. I almost never will. I know that sounds silly, but that’s really a useful thing for me. Other things that I’ll do is I won’t go get it at all. If I’m having a really hard time, I will have no sugar in the house except for a bag of sugar, but I’m not really interested in a bag of sugar. I make it really hard on me to get it. If my kids want sugar or something like that, again, it goes out in the car or in the basement. What we’ve found is it doesn’t matter — this is really good research. If you have sugar on your table or in your cupboards in the kitchen, piece of cake, it’s easy to get. If you just move it to the basement or down one floor from you, you can reduce your eating of that sugar by fifty percent. If you put it in a brown bag where you can’t see the label, you will reduce it by another ten percent. It’s amazing what you can do by not looking at it. All the sugar manufacturers know it. Everything’s in a pink box. A chocolate kiss is wrapped in a silver container with a friendly little flag. We have to look at what marketers do to get us to eat, and eat too much of it, and do the opposite. We have to understand that.

Zibby: Ann, this is amazing. I feel like I’ve gotten so many specific actionable tips that everybody can use in different ways and the insight and science behind it all in a little half-hour package. Thank you. This was perfect. Thank you so much. It makes it feel like the work is not so massive. There’s one thing, and you fix one part of it. That’s not to say it’s not a challenge to give things up, but also, it’s achievable. Thank you.

Ann: You’re welcome. Anytime you want to talk about it, just call me up. We don’t have to do it on a podcast either. We can do it on the phone. That’d be fine.

Zibby: Cool. All right, I might.

Ann: That’d be fine. So good to talk to you.

Zibby: So good to talk to you too. Thank you so much.

Ann: You’re welcome. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Ann Garvin on the secret to why losing weight is tough