Oprah Winfrey How I beat yo-yo dieting
After a lifetime of battling weight, Oprah Winfrey has discovered the secret to eating what you want and staying healthy and happy. Here in an emotional extract from her book, she shares her epiphany with The Australian Women’s Weekly.
Maya Angelou, my wonderfully wise mother-sister-friend, once said, “When you know better, you do better.” Well, I thought I knew all there was to know about losing weight. Over the years, I’d interviewed every expert, I’d tried every diet. For one brief moment, back in 1988, it seemed like I’d found the secret: after a four-month liquid diet (which is a nice way of saying “fast”), I practically leapt onto the stage of my show to reveal my brand-new body in a pair of skinny minnie Calvin Klein jeans. To prove the point, I hauled out a little red wagon loaded with actual fat representing the pounds I’d starved myself to lose.
And then – no pun intended – fell off the wagon. As, of course, I was bound to do, I started eating again. I lied to myself. I broke promises to myself. I beat myself up. I let myself down. I felt like a spectacular failure.
And the worst part was I did this over and over again. My lowest moment came the year I was afraid to win an Emmy; I couldn’t stand to think how fat I’d look to all the pretty soap stars in the audience if I had to waddle up to the podium. It didn’t matter that I’d be wearing handtailored couture. In my mind, to my shame, I’d be dressed in fat.
If Maya were here right now (and, as I sit writing this, I like to believe she is), I’d say, “Okay, if anyone knows better when it comes to dieting, it’s me. So how do you explain my endless struggles with weight? Why is it that, with all this experience and information, I haven’t done better?” My guess is she’d probably smile and, in that commanding voice unlike any I’ve ever heard, she’d say, “Well, my dear, when you’re truly ready to know, you will.” And, as usual, she’d be right.
You can tell yourself to eat less and move more, you can cut down on carbs (so long, lasagne) and salty snacks (goodbye, Mr Chips), you can practise portion control and begin the day with a balanced breakfast – at this point we all know the drill. But it’s one thing to be able to recite the rules of dieting and quite another to fully internalise and know the truth of maintaining a healthy weight.
The reality is that, for most of us, diets are a temporary solution at
When you eat consciously and well, you feed your body and your spirit.
best. They last as long as our willpower holds out. But how long can any of us hold our breath before we need a gulp of air? I’ve fallen into every trap, from “The diet starts first thing Monday morning” to “I’ll have the cheeseburger and fries with a diet soda, please”. Yes, I’ve made every excuse in the book.
That’s where I was in the summer of 2015 when Weight Watchers called. Seventeen pounds beyond my already steadily overweight weight. And yes, you read that right – Weight Watchers actually called me!
For years, my daily prayer had been, “Lord, what should I do next? I’ve tried everything already. Twice.” So I not only took the call from Weight Watchers, I decided to take it as the answer to my prayer. The call came and I was ready to listen. Something inside me shifted. The need to see a certain number on the scale, to wear a specific size, had somehow fallen away and released me. How exhilarating to suddenly think I might be able to stop being a slave to yo-yo dieting, that I might be able to live freely and independently, eating the way I chose in order to fuel my life! I could be free from the burden of stressing out over what to eat next, free from the guilt of regretting what I’d just eaten.
Somewhere buried beneath the decades of trial and error – the seesawing between fat and fasting, feast and famine, the shame and fear and frustration – was a belief that I could find balance and satisfaction with food without having to declare war on myself. I dreamed of detente, of eating with pleasure, ease and maybe even a hint of joy.
For most of my life, emotional eating has been my negative behavioural hot button. I’ve only recently learned to process and not repress with food whatever I’m experiencing that’s uncomfortable.
All the years when my regular routine included taping at least two and sometimes three shows a day, people would ask how I managed the stress and I’d say, “I don’t feel stress.” I never felt it because I ate it. Just the slightest inkling of discomfort – a phone call I didn’t want to make, an encounter that might result in a less-than-pleasing outcome – would have me reaching for something salty or crunchy and feeling immediately comforted and soothed.
Unwanted emotion triggers unwanted behaviour. Now I’ve learned to do so much better. I not only feel what I feel when appropriate, I speak it out loud. When I have to make a hard decision, I lean right into it, rather than
procrastinating and burying stuff that later shows up in my thighs. For sure, it’s a new way of being.
This new consciousness extends to how I eat – and this is where Weight Watchers has been so helpful. It’s a really effective tool for being more aware of the food I put on my plate and in my mouth. It’s not a diet. You can eat anything you want – and I do. I use the point system like a game. I get 30 points a day to play with as I like. The healthier my choices, the more plays I get.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been the kind of person who wants to share the things that make life better. When I come upon something useful, something that brings me pleasure or comfort or ease, I want everyone else to know about it and benefit from it, too. And that is how my new cookbook, Food, Health and Happiness, came to be. It’s part of my life story – the lessons I’ve learned, the discoveries I’ve made – told through food.
What I now know for sure: food is supposed to be about joy, not suffering. It’s meant to nourish and sustain us, not cause us pain. When you eat consciously and well, you feed your body and your spirit. And that makes all life more delicious!
When I decided to write this book a while back, I took a long look at myself in a full-length mirror. From the top of my ponytailed head down to the bunioned feet I inherited from my father, I just stood very still, very naked, staring in the mirror.
Pretty soon a quiet little mantra emerged: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I began thinking about all the times I’ve been so critical, so judgmental of this body that has carried me through nearly 63 years. Thank you, I said. Thank you for allowing me, as the old folks used to say in church, to wake up clothed in my right mind. Thank you. Thank you for shoulders that are sturdy and knees that still work.
Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to walk and to stand, and to make myself fully awake. And thank you for letting me share that hardearned consciousness.
As for food, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and allow for two snacks. I track my points. I try my best to remain consciously in the game – mindful of what I’m eating, thinking and doing. I weigh myself periodically, but I’m focused on life beyond the scale. I’ve lost over 40 pounds since I started Weight Watchers. Maybe it’ll be 50 by the time you read this, or maybe it won’t. I no longer have a target weight I’m desperate to hit or a destination I’m rushing to reach.
These days, my goal is a lot more worthwhile: to end my battle with weight without feeling guilt or shame, without the critic in my head hissing, “You blew it!” I embrace my practice of counting points as a tool to help me reframe my attitude, redirect my thinking and reform my old habits. I hold myself accountable, but I don’t take myself to task. I’m stepping up and out of my own history and into the light of self-awareness, acceptance and love. I’m moving forward with better health and a happiness so deep and rewarding that I have a new favourite word for it: contentment.
I finally get to make peace with my story of food. And I wish the very same for you.
Oprah has reframed her relationship with food and dieting. “Food is supposed to be about joy, not suffering,” she says.
This is an exclusive edited extract from Food, Health and Happiness by Oprah Winfrey, Macmillan. For recipes, see page 124.