Friday, November 16, 2012

In Praise of Plateaus

Everyone who is interested in plant-based eating and health should read Moonwatcher's blog, Plant-Based Slow Motion Miracle.  She is a terrific writer and her story of recovery from MS is really inspiring.

In a recent post, Moonwatcher talked about "the power of the plateau."   Everyone who's ever been on a diet has heard of plateaus.  A plateau is when you stop losing weight for a while and just . . . sit.  Much ink has been spilled about why plateaus happen and how to get off them.  The emphasis is usually on getting off the plateau ASAP, and sometimes you read crazy suggestions for how to make that happen.  Moonwatcher has a different take.  First of all, she expands the concept so it's not just about weight loss, but about other kinds of life journeys.  And then she gives a definition of "plateau" that I really love and want to carry with me:  "place of wide vistas and new perspective."

I like this idea a lot.  A plateau is not someplace to dread, someplace to leave as quickly as possible.  A plateau is a place to rest, look around and take stock.  And a plateau could be a place to live.

According to, a mesa is like a mini plateau.  Earlier this fall when my girlfriend and I vacationed in Colorado and New Mexico, we visited Mesa Verde National Park.  The reason most people visit Mesa Verde, and the reason I wanted to visit it, was to see cliff dwellings -- the remains of homes built by the Anasazi people who lived there between the years 600 and 1300.  The cliff dwellings that have been best preserved are not on top of the mesa -- they are built in these sort of shallow caves in the side of the mesa, near the top:

Cliff Palace.  NPS Photo.
 Amazing, right?  I didn't take this picture, by the way.  It's from the Park Service web site.  I did see this view, though.  At the very top of the picture you can see a little bit of the top of the mesa -- the plateau .

The Anasazi people had their houses tucked into the side of the mesa, but they spent most of their time on top of the mesa.  That's where they hunted and farmed.  Imagine climbing the side of a cliff to get to work every morning.  That's what these folks did.  So a plateau can be a place of activity, a place to live your life.

On this blog I've talked a little bit about my eating disorder and my process of recovery.  In the program I belong to, we talk about recovery being on three levels:  physical, emotional, and spiritual.  For me, physical recovery has included weight loss.  And when it comes to weight loss, I have been on a plateau for about nine months.

I started this recovery journey during the summer of 2011.  At that time I was obese and had been for many years.  I had type II diabetes and sleep apnea, and bending over to tie my shoes was uncomfortable.

I had tremendous physical recovery in the first six months.  I lost 60 pounds.  I have no diabetes complications, and my doctor has reduced my medication by half.  I haven't had another sleep study done yet, but the sleep apnea appears to be gone and I no longer use a machine at night to breathe.  I can bend over, cross my legs, run for a bus without getting out of breath.  I had to get smaller clothes twice.  I am still about 30 pounds overweight according to the BMI charts, but I feel really good.  

That process of rapid physical recovery is exciting.  People notice and pay compliments (I am actually very uncomfortable with this, but that's a topic for another post).  Giving away your clothes and buying smaller ones is fun.  You're continually noticing your body doing things it couldn't do before.  I remember the first time I realized that I had crossed my legs at the knee.  I hadn't thought about it or struggled.  It was just what my body wanted to do.

The plateau -- not so much.  You don't get to keep buying new stuff.  The things that were new and exciting become routine.  When you look in the mirror, instead of noticing how much thinner you've become, you notice how fat you still are.  Sometimes you feel angry and fed up with having to work so hard just to stay in the same place.  Sometimes you give up and eat cookies for a week or two.  Then you gain weight, which I must say is a lot worse than being on a plateau, not to mention all the other symptoms that return.  You pull yourself together and lose the weight again, get your sanity back.  And you're back on the plateau.  Where you were before.

A plateau is level -- there aren't any highs or lows.  I think that state of being is really hard for people like me to accept.  If I'm not elated, I tend to arrange matters so I will be miserable.   As painful as that is, I think it feels more comfortable to me than just going along, living life without drama or great events.  In the same way, I think weight going up or down feels more comfortable to me than "just" staying the same, even though staying the same at this lower weight is really a miracle.

I've done a lot of thinking since I've been on this plateau.  I have told myself many times that the timeline for weight loss, and the number at which my weight ultimately settles, are not within my control.  I have told myself I shouldn't worry about those things, and just accept what happens.  But that has been hard for me to do.  I still spend way too much time on the scale.

Before the plateau started, I consulted a dietitian who gave me a structured food plan with specific portion sizes for each meal.  I had a lot of trouble following it consistently -- I think at the time it felt too much like a diet to me, and I was kind of setting myself up for binges.  I set the plan aside after a while and tried various other, less structured ways of eating -- that is, when I wasn't diving head first into foods that are poison for me.  I had a couple of short relapses.  I also did a lot of emotional and spiritual work -- in those areas, I was not at all on a plateau.

Lately I've been having some trouble with my eating.  It has not felt stable, and I've had some slip ups that hurt me physically and emotionally.  A few days ago, a wise person in  my life suggested I go back to the plan the dietitian gave me.  Today is day four of following that plan.  I have stayed off the scale, and so far this does not feel like a diet.  It feels like a way of getting some peace around food.  I know I have a lot of emotional and spiritual work to do so I can hold on to that feeling.

Staying on the plan has not been easy, but it does feel sustainable.  It's a healthy plan I could follow forever.  I don't know whether following it will result in more weight loss or not, but I do feel like staying on it will lead to my weighing what I am supposed to weigh (whatever that number may be).  And today, I am at the weight I am supposed to be at today.

I don't know whether I am staying on this plateau, but I am trying to relax and enjoy the view.      

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