On my first day at my current job, one of my colleagues brought in a dozen doughnuts to welcome me to the team. I love doughnuts. And pie. And cake and ice cream and french fries and pancakes. But I almost never eat those things anymore.
Instead of simply saying no, I declined in the most awkward way possible: I told these friendly people, many of whom I had met only minutes earlier, that I used to be 90 pounds heavier, really didn’t like weighing that much, and now eat garbage only on very special occasions.
I’ve delivered that explanation dozens of times over the past two years. Most people react by hemming and hawing. A few folks get defensive. Both reactions are understandable. Not only are my responses incongruous, they are fundamentally impolite. But I do it anyway, because full disclosure is the best tool I have for putting people off. They feel awkward, they don’t want to feel that way again, so they don’t ask a second time, or push me to try something just this once.
And I’d rather be rude and healthy than compliant and obese.
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I worked hard to get my weight under control. I did it because I am vain and because I was scared of dying young. After doing some research, I settled on the following strategy: I maintained a mild weekly calorie deficit by keeping a food journal ; lifted weights several days a week to increase my lean body mass and insulin sensitivity; cut alcohol consumption to a few occasions per month (and no more than three drinks per occasion); and switched from cigarettes to nicotine gum.
Introducing those things one by one over several years took me from north of 280 pounds to 195, and lowered my blood pressure from 146/90 to 106/60. Was it easy? It was not. But putting a structure in place - filling out my food diary every day, keeping my gym appointments come hell or high water - made it simple.
But as any formerly or currently obese person will tell you, keeping the weight off is exactly the opposite. You can’t rigorously diet forever, but you also can’t eat whenever you feel like it, because you feel like eating all the time and you feel like eating garbage. My way is a good compromise: I don’t weigh my food anymore, but I also don’t eat just because someone puts something in front of my face.
Since that first day, no one at work has offered me doughnuts or candy or any other junk food. Which means for the price of 30 awkward seconds, I have permanently reduced the amount of temptation I will encounter at a place where I spend a significant number of my waking hours. That kind of reprieve is an absolute steal for a recently reformed over-eater. Even now I feel like I have gotten away with something.
My reaction makes sense. Social science shows that peer pressure is wired into our brains. We take more risks when we’re around others. According to one study, “the human brain places more value on winning in a social setting than it does on winning when you’re alone.” That makes it much harder to say no to our vices, especially when people ask us to partake again and again.
By being honest, I short-circuit that conversation. And, as research shows, that minor public dissent gives others permission to lay off (or, in some cases, decide that they, too, would like to forgo a sweet or cigarette). As one writer explained, keeping a budget around friends who wanted to go out for drinks and dinner was hard. The best way to avoid getting pressured was honest communication. “It doesn’t need to be a speech,” Claire Murdough wrote on LifeHacker. “What’s been the most successful has usually been short, sweet and truthful: ‘I want to, but I can’t afford it right now.’ “
I deploy this awkward honesty for my other vices. When people suggest drinks after work, I tell them I used to have a problem with alcohol, didn’t enjoy how it made me feel and so now don’t drink during the work week. When department store cashiers try to sign me up for credit cards, I tell them it took me years to pay off a credit card I misused when I was younger, and don’t want or need another one. The more I do it, the less embarrassed I feel.
It’s not lost on me that this is strange behavior. I wasn’t raised to act like this. In fact, I was raised to say yes to basically everything. Saying no makes me squirm. I’m also a terrible negotiator. By saying, “no, and here’s why” all in one breath, I don’t have to deal with a follow-up offer. The other person is simply too embarrassed (on my behalf) to make one.
It also feels really good to politely dissent against cultural norms that were going to kill me.
Many of us pay a terrible price for going with the flow when it comes to food and alcohol. Heart disease kills half a million Americans a year, while 86 million people in this country are pre-diabetic and 1 in 6 of us drink eight or more drinks in a sitting four times a month. In essence, many of us are drowning in “yes.” I didn’t want to die of it.
There’s a cruel irony in living this way. Being blunt about my limitations has kept obesity and alcoholism at bay. It also makes me look like someone who can eat doughnuts for breakfast now and again, or attend the occasional happy hour.
And I probably can do those things without falling completely off the wagon. But why risk it? After all, the environmental and genetic factors that made me obese are not necessarily gone. I’m still the same person who was diagnosed with high blood pressure at age 13; still the son of a man who needed open heart surgery at age 51; still the adult who said “yes” until he could barely stand to look at himself in a mirror.
So now I say no, and I say why, and I plan to keep doing so until the world stops offering me things that I desperately want but definitely shouldn’t have.
Mike Riggs, a staff writer at Freethink Media, writes the Tiny Letter about weight loss. He wrote this for the Washington Post.