Transcript

Books: Living Large

Living Large
(Photo courtesy Rodale Books)
Michael S. Berman
Author, Political Strategist
Thursday, March 16, 2006; 1:00 PM

Is it the goal of life to be thin? Or to be happy?

In his new book, "Living Large," political strategist and lobbyist Michael S. Berman details how those two goals became one in his life. As a self-described "fat man", Berman chronicles his journey from guilt to acceptance and shares his insight into the pain and challenges of being seriously overweight. Berman was profiled in Monday's Style section: The Measure of a Man , ( Post, March 13 )

Berman was online Thursday, March 16, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book, his lifelong struggle with obesity and how he eventually found happiness and acceptance.

Berman is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Duberstein Group, a consulting firm. He previously served as counsel and deputy chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale. He has been active in every presidential campaign since 1964 and is on the board of several nonprofit organizations, including teh Human Rights Campaign and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Berman co-wrote "Living Large" with Laurence Shames, formerly the ethics columnist for Esquire and author of other bestselling books.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Berman, I look forward to reading your book. I have struggled throughout my life with my weight -- sometimes doing very unhealthy things to control it, and lately trying to be at peace with it and find a measure of health and happiness.

I am a female who works in your professional field -- though I have not yet attained your level of success.

I was drawn to behind-the-scenes politics with the idea that I could be appreciated for my brains and somewhat forgiven for my failure to conform with America's outrageous beauty standard, but some days I have the sinking feeling that it's only somewhat true.

I wonder if you think things are different for women? In your opinion, do we have it easier or harder because of the expectations that are placed on us? (I can see both sides of this -- I'm not baiting you, I would genuinely like to hear your opinion.)

Thank you, both for the book and for the answer.

Michael S. Berman: I believe that it is harder for fat women than it is for fat men. Women have been forced to deal with the images that the media presents to us of what women should look like. Men have been luckier in that regard. Mens clothing for fat people has progressed that I belive similar clothing has progressed for women. And of course men's fashions really don't change very much. The blazer and slacks I am wearing today are identical to those that I owned when I was 18 and only the size has changed.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: As somebody who went from skinny to fat after an illness that rendered me inactive as a kid AND has a metabolic disorder that drops my calorie count...

I found your story touching. Research indicates there are "fat viruses" that seem to permanently change metabolism for life.

I think there are a lot of factors involved, some foods definitely trigger overeating -- I found almost any kind of sweetened meat (honey ham, BBQ chicken), etc. to trigger overeating-- it was the blood sugar ride involved. I literally could scarf down over 8 chicken legs in a day, hour by hour. I hate the taste of honey glazed ham but I found it addictive as well. I now know that fructose can interfere with blood sugar control.

Once I learned that, I was able to control my weight increase. I have no problems NOT gaining weight now... but my body is stuck at 50 lbs above what it should be.

Michael S. Berman: You have learned an important lession. Each of us is different. Foods that trigger hunger in you may have little effect on me. It may well be that your present weight which you describe as 50 pounds above what you should be is where you actually should be...I am not suggesting that you should try to reduce that amount...of that is your desire.. but don't let it become an obsession...you may have settled in. I weight 240 today....I would really like to get down to 220...but if I do and hold it...that is where I am stopping and based onthe charts that is about 50 pounds more than I should be.

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Potomac, Md.: I've just read the profile of you in the Style section on Monday and want to thank you for writing the book that describes my life. I'm looking forward to reading it. As someone who has been heavy his whole life and has tried every road to thinness imaginable I have come to realize that acceptance is the key to happiness. I have a daily exercise regimen with a personal trainer and try to watch what I eat. I'm still heavy but feel great and just passed one of my goals which is to be able to walk for an entire round of golf!!

Michael S. Berman: My hat is off to you. You certainly have found an important key in exercise. I think working at fitness or as I like to describe it...functionality...is very important...second only to paying attention to your health. I believe it is inevitable that fat people will have health issues related to their fatness over time. You need to watch out for them and then find medical personnel that will work with you on resolving those special problems...without simply reminding you every time you visit that you are too fat.

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Washington, D.C.: I look forward to reading your book. As a female lobbyist, I am curious if you looked into how weight could be a barrier to success in this industry. After years of struggling with weight I finally lost 70 pounds and notice a great change in how I am treated professionally. Is it the same for men? It is very difficult to maintain a healthy weight in an industry that thrives on breakfast, lunch and dinner events and I greatly appreciate your willingness to go public with your own struggle.

Michael S. Berman: I think the barrier relates to how so many people respond to fat people generally. There is a bias. Many of my friends have admitted they had such feelings early in our relationship, which they got over as we got to know each other better. The meal relationship is tough. I know exactly what you mean. I basically try to pick at food or two eat only select items and avoid the extras like bread and butter. Finally, I drink a lot of water or soft drinks just to get a sense of fullness.

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Mt. Rainier, Md.: Mr. Berman, it seems that you were able to lose over 100 pounds and keep it off. I'm wondering why you feel that it is impossible to lose another, what 60 - 80 pounds that would reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes? I grant your job puts you in the way of a lot of temptation, but you have already shown a lot of discipline and will-power in your life, and you have education and resources that many others with this problem do not.

Michael S. Berman: I think it is possible to lose that next 60-80 pounds because it takes a great deal of effort to maintain the loss that I have already achieved. My experience has been over the years that when I try to push too far a moment comes...a tipping point if you will...my control basically disappears and I watch myself gaining back most or all of what I have lost...and often a bonus amount on top. So because I feel so much better at my current weight than at 335 pounds...I am comfortable just staying where I am.

I should know that I am not a big believer in the idea of will power being an important element of success in weight loss. I think it is over rated. I have great will power but id does not help me in this cause

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College Park, Md.: I gained about 50 pounds on a 5' 4" frame about 12 years ago, the result of bad back pain. Naturally I didn't gain it all at once; it just kind of snuck up on me. My blood pressure went up and I got more serious bouts of depression. Finally I found ways to use my discipline and competitiveness to start taking it off again. My blood pressure is going back down and my mood swings are leveling off. I'm certainly not giving up on this until I'm back to the good weight I had in my 30s. I've fought being overweight since I was 12 years old, and I've always found that the fight was worth it.

Michael S. Berman: More power to you. I know how hard you are working. Each of ushas to make a choice about how we approach excess weight. Happily for you...you have found a formula that works... stick with it.

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Cottage City, Md.: Taking a mess of off-the-counter crap to try to lose weight seems like an unusually stupid idea for an intelligent person. Does anyone with a double-digit IQ actually believe that stuff works? Sure, pumping uppers into your body can get your weight down for a while, while making you jittery and miserable. It's a shame you didn't try giving yourself a chance with exercise and reasonable portions of good food.

Michael S. Berman: You seem to have the idea that I took the various over the counter products that I purchased as I was doing research for this book. Fact is that I never took a single diet related product. I happen to believe that most if not all of them are nonsense. The weight I have lost and have now generally kept off was done but controling calories imput in terms of kinds of food and protions and expanding the amount that I burn through exercise.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your book, as I too enjoy life far more at 250 than I did at 180. Also, I think that skinny people have a lot of control issues that make them unpleasant that fat people just don't have. Think of Oprah, far more bearable fat than thin. Star Jones, not bearable fat or thin. Also, did it help having a boss, Ken Duberstein, who's never been a slim person. Did he understand?

Michael S. Berman: I think it is terrific that you have found a place at which you can be comfortable and enjoy life. However, I generally don't find skinny people unpleasant. I have many wonderful friends who can easily be described as slim. Working with my partners Ken Duberstein has been great and frankly my size relative to his or anyone else's has never been an issue. He looks pretty good to me.

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Vancouver, BC, Canada: Have you ever tried the non-dieting approach? Like Geneen Roth and others espouse? I am slowly losing my binging habits and overeating. I think in time, I will lose weight as well.. just wondering.

Michael S. Berman: I am not familar with the regimen that you describe so I am afraid that I cannot give you much of an anwer. But if it works for you...and...it does not include an eating style or other practices that are potentially hard on your health that go to it.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Americans are readily skeptical of everything -- advertising, the government, the price of gas -- except when it comes to weight. Then, despite documented 98% failure rates, we keep trying futile and unhealthful weight-loss diets. Why are Americans so willing to buy the big lie about "obesity"?

Michael S. Berman: They keep trying because they want to weigh less. It is hard and when folks are faced with difficult circumstances they will often look for panaceas. Many "diets" are useful and they can be helpful if they are not nutty on their face. I agree there is a lot out there that makes no sense at all but because of the increasing pressure to control weight and because folks are physically uncomfortable because of their weight...they keep looking for magic bullets...which as you suggest...don't exist. If they did there would not be any fat people.

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Washington, D.C.: If willpower is over-rated, then what do you suggest as a weight loss strategy? It's not impossible to lose weight. Of course some people will have thyroid disease or take medication that causes a gain, but most cases are just too much food and too little exercise. Isn't really more a matter of not wanting it enough? If you really, really want to be thin, you can pass up the cake.

Michael S. Berman: I believe that real fatness is a chronic disease. It cannot be cured...it can be managed. Actually losing weight is pretty easy..because if a program is working you get regular encouragement. But when the point comes that it is not working and you have lost some weight...then the hard part begins...maintenance...Of course calories in...calories out is the key but for folks who are really fat I believe there are often psychological issues involved that make it more difficult to lose weight or maintain weight loss.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I applaud your book. Living Large is not easy amid the many stereotypes in our culure. What do you see as the biggest stigma-type roadblock for men vs. women who are living large?

What do you say to the airlines,etc. who wish to charge for double-seating, etc.?

What do you say to a subway system based on seats to fit the average person from Japan (and not a living-large individual.)

Can you reflect upon the most critical areas for change so that all living-large individuals might be treated with the dignity and respect they all merit?

Thank you.

Michael S. Berman: You have posed several good questions...let me try them in order.

I think women have a hard time then men in terms of the response to them. I believe for example, women are more often discriminated in matters of employment than men. The stigma is that some folks just don't like to look at really fat people. I don't know whether you believe you are fat but have you ever responded badly within yourself to a fat person?

In terms of the double charge I have to tell you that I am sympathetic to the airlines. I first bought two seats for myself in the coach cabin of an international flight in 1971. There is an inconveniece that we create for those around us if we take up more than our alotted space. It would be nice if the seats were larger but it is not going to happen. Another way to approach it by the way is to travel at a time of day when the flights are not particularly full then you can have the advantage of two seats. For myself, I find the crowded condition as uncomfortable for me as I do for my neighbors.

I do think there should be more consideration given to seats on subways...perhaps benches would work better than body contoured seats. I believe I read actually that the Seattle ferry has in fact increased the size of their seats.

I think we need to stand up to people who are clearly discriminating against anyone because of their fatness.

We all have a right to be treated with dignity. Most important if you are a fat person is to be proud, to not let yourself sulk as I have done from time to time when I feel bias around me.

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Washington, D.C.: Michael, do you at all address the underlying cause of the uptick in obesity in the U.S. in the past few decades? I'm talking about things like high fructose corn syrup and other "innovations" in food first introduced courtesy of the fast food industry.

Have you thought about using your lobbying powers for good to maybe lobby for things like whole foods in school lunches or no vending machines in schools or truth in labeling on food?

Michael S. Berman: I do not address the underlying cause of the uptick in obesity in the U.S. I think it is a complicated subject and that we do not really know enough. However, I think there are a variety of causes. More eating of preprepared meals where the instinct of the maker is to make them "tasty" and that often means excess calories. Second, we like differently now than we did decades ago. There are whole neighborhoods that don't have sidewalks so walking is discouraged. We take physical education requirements out of the schooll....now they are talking about cutting recess.

I don't really blame particular products. I think we each have an obligation to know what we are eating and proximately how "fattening" it is and act accordingly.

I have not considered pro bono lobbying on behalf of better food in schools or more truth in advertising. I am afraid my pro-bono plate is full enough at this moment.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Michael, do you feel at all limited in what you eat? Can you describe a typical day's fare and then how you deal with special occasions -- like birthday cake, Maryland crab meals, etc.?

Michael S. Berman: For the last six years, I have kept daily food records. I write down what I eat and my estimate of quantity and then at the end of the day or after a few days I add calorie counts and keep track. For me frankly there is no typical day. I try to keep calories under 2500 if at all possible. But I eat just bout everything and sometimes I go overboard. For example, the other night at a party there was a really great chocolate cake. The heavy tasty kind. I believe that the piece of cake I ate had approximately 1250 calories or in that ballpark. That was not a day in which I held consumption to 2500 calories. In fact I recorded about 4500 calories....now the next day I was back down in the 2400 range.

I should point out that my calories counting is not precise. But I have taken scales into restaurants that I frequent and weighed portions and if you ask you can usually find out from your serving person the size of a portion. I will say that during the period when I was losing weight I did pretty severely limit pastries etc. However, now that I am maintaining I try just about everything but I did try to control portions. And when I blow a meal I may try and compensate on the downside at the next meal.

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Arlington, Va.: Michael, if will power isn't much help to you in your struggle with weight, what is?

Michael S. Berman: Routine. Recording what I am eating each day and doing approximate calorie counts as well as approximate fat intake. Being conscious of what I am doing helps a lot and for me that means writing it down

2nd exercise helps a lot. First it does burn calories although not all that many but it makes me feel better and when I feel better I tend to eat less.

3rd...I try to avoid temptation. If I am dying for almonds and the only size container available is 6 ounces and I just want two....when I have taken the two I literally throw away the rest. If it sits there I will eat it. That is also true of food generally.

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An RN, Beth Israel Hospital, New York, N.Y.: Many who "live large" shy away from the medical community.

Would you describe what challenges you have faced within the medical system?

What can medical and nursing schools, even training for physical therapists, nutritionists, general therapists, etc. do to improve the treatment relationship betweem themselves and the "living large" men and women they are to serve?

Michael S. Berman: Thank you. You have asked a question that I am dying to answer.

Fat people shy away from the medical community because so many medical personnel make clear their disdain for fat people. This includes, doctors, nurses and everyone else involved in the medical community. As I am sure you know there are a number of studies that document this point of view.

I have been really lucky. I learned early that I did not have to deal with doctors in particular whose one note symphony was that I should lose weight. Fat people who go to doctors know that have an overweight problem. They don't have to go to a doctor to find that out. So, I only deal with medical personnel who are willing to treat medical conditions that might develop because of my fatness by treating that condition not telling me to lose weight and everything will be okay.

So, I have found doctors who are willing to do that.

I think a big part of the problem and one possible solution is that there is not much training in medical education that prepares the average doctor, nurse or therapist to understand what fat people go through in their daily lives and how important it is to them to have health care providers who demonstrate their understanding in their treatment.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I can identify with the problems of heavyset people in the workplace. Indeed, I have always noted that many offices resemble grown-up versions of high schools: the people who get by on their looks seem to be in the positions of power and self-support each other to keep power while getting the overweight and lesser attractive people to do the work for which they get credit. Many office situations never seem to grow up. What have you observed?

Michael S. Berman: I understand what you are saying and I have certainly heard the same from others. However, that has not been my experience. I have had the good fortune to be professionally successful as a result of working pretty hard and learning how to be the best at some aspect of my vocational or pro-bono world.

I think that it is often the case for fat people in the work place that they react to slights and obvious bias by being stand offish and not figuring out how to make people who expresses those views realilze that the worth of the person is not their size but what they can do and what is inside of them.

If you want an example, go in my book to the chapter on how I met my wife.

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Princeton, N.J.: I am a fat mathematician and have wondered about the following possibility: Although skinny people are in general healthier than fat ones, each person has an optimum weight for a given point in time. So if your optimum weight is high, you won't live as long as those with a lower one, but if you try to reduce it, you will also lower your life expectancy.

Michael S. Berman: We are in territory in which I am not completely comfortable about my real knowledge but let me give it a try. First, so called skinny people can also have a serious of problems relating to their potential underweight. I don't think I except the premise that a person with a high optimal weight might reduce their life expectancy if they lower their weight. I think you have to go pretty far down before that might be true.

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Rockville, Md.: I too have found calorie counting to be the only sure-fire way to lose weight. When I read the article the other day I chuckled when they described you scribbling your calorie count into a notebook. I do the same thing every day, but on one of my outdated business cards that I keep in my shirt pocket.

Sticking, or at least TRYING to stick to a calorie limit works wonders. The key is to do exactly what you do- keep an accurate count on your BAD DAYS as well as the good ones and never stop!

Michael S. Berman: Right on.

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Bethesda, Md.: I've also found journaling an important tool in weight loss. And occasional treats are important. But don't you think it's irresponsible to say that fatness is a disease? People around the world, and here until that last 20 years, have very low rates of overweight/obesity. You're just handing an excuse to 60 percent of our population.

Michael S. Berman: Obviously I do not think it is irresponsible to discuss fatness as a chronic disease. If you look at a simple dictionary definition of the wor is is a "serious, active,prolonged and deep rooted condition." Pretty well describes at least for me my fatness and that of others. I believe that once you come to grips with the nature of the condition and that it cant be cured your chances of effective management go up. And remember I am not talking about folks who are 20 or 30 pounds over weight or those who went from being "normal" weight went to overweight when the government decided to change BMI standards. I am talking about folks like myself who are anywhere from 75 to 200 pounds overweight.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for addressing the issue of living well as a fat person. I have been fat since the age of five or six and while I strive now to be healthier (I try to exercise regularly even if slowly; eat well but for the most part in moderation), I know that I will never be thin but was fortunate enough to come to that realization in my teens. I can't tell you the number of women half my size who won't go to the pool/beach because they don't want to be seen in a swimsuit. Yes, sometimes, I am uncomfortable, yes, people can be incredibly rude (or give unsolicited advice), but I have a good job, a wonderful education, incredible friends and a handsome, intelligent husband (who married me at my highest weight). What do you say when you (if you do) get stares or rude comments from people you don't even know?

Michael S. Berman: Since this is a family newspaper I can't really write what I would say to such people but you can figure it out. Frankly, You sound a lot like me but of a different sex. I have decided that for those folks it is there problem and I refuse to allow it to be my problem.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't you think it would be irresponsible of your doctors not to tell you to loose weight, if your weight is causing your problems? Doctors, after all, are there to help you prevent problems, too.

Michael S. Berman: Final answer. I don't think it would be irresponsible. Fat people know they are too fat and of course the first time you see a doctor they are going to discuss your weight. My problem is when it is repeated.

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