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When Unhealthy is Okay. Really! (What I Learned From a Cat)

Posted Aug 11 2008 9:10pm

My friend and the Editor-in-Chief of OH Magazine, Nikki Johnson, wrote the following article.  I was deeply touched by it and how it relates to us as weight loss surgery patients.  I thought it was so true and wanted to share it on my blog.

When Unhealthy is Okay. Really!

a.k.a. “What I Learned From a Cat”

A 44-pound feline — 30 pounds overweight –  has been all over the news. While many of the people who comment on the stories are a bit tired of all of the fuss, I can’t help but watch him with interest. I am a cat-lover, and I am sure that has something to do with it, but I also find it interesting that this kitty struggles with a problem all too many humans know too well.

While “Prince Chunk”  (or princess, depending on who you ask, since his gender had been reported both ways) is a rather exceptional feline, he’s not alone in the fat cat world. Prince was found on the street, as was our cat, Monte, and the street seemed to have created some rather interesting behaviors in our kitty:

- Monte would take food of any description he could find. It was a few years before he quit ripping into unopened tortilla chip bags to steal chips.

- Monte would eat in huge quantities and intimidate any other cat so that it wouldn’t get much to eat. We finally had to feed the kitties in different rooms. It was like he wasn’t sure he would ever eat again.

- If we weren’t careful, the steady supply of food he had access to in our home caused significant weight gain. If there was food, he would eat.

Now, I am no psychologist and I am no animal behaviorist, but I can conjecture! It looks to me like Monte, who apparently lived at a school and supplemented his diet of mice and lizards with tidbits from children’s lunches, had developed both a taste for the wrong foods (anything vaguely palatable) and a fear that his next meal may be a long time in coming, so he ate like crazy whenever he could. He has scars all over the front of his body, which means he was the aggressor in many a fight, and he was engaged in a fight for self-preservation. No small task on the streets of Los Angeles.

There’s no telling a cat that it is safe in a new home, with plenty to eat and no need to raid the chip bag. There’s only showing it over time, and providing healthy food and plenty of security. That’s exactly what we did with Monte. We fed him regularly, loved him, kept him indoors out of harm’s way and convinced him, eventually, that his old behaviors weren’t necessary.

Monte is now the cat at our house (we have two) that is second to eat. Our much smaller female cat gets first dibs, and he will stand back and wait until a second bowl appears. Chip bags exist unmolested - even after they have been opened - and while Monte is a bit chunky, he’s not the enormous cat who had trouble cleaning himself properly that he became when first given what he needed on a regular basis.

I can’t help but think that this type of dynamic must exist for many of us who have issues with food. We eat improperly because it meets some need, and even when we are placed in a safe place and given healthier choices, it sometimes takes us a while to figure out that we don’t need to eat the way we used to.

I lived with another family when I was in my very early 20s. At one point, the mom of the house pulled me aside and said, “this unhealthy behavior” (pick one!) “served you really well when you were in an unsafe situation, but you are safe now. You don’t need to do that anymore.” It was a revelation. While she wasn’t talking about food, the same thing applies.

Like other maladaptive behaviors, my unhealthy eating behavior has served me well - it helped me make it through some painful experiences. In that sense, it wasn’t BAD. It was functional in that situation. However, what is bad is not figuring out that I have other options. It’s not noticing that I am no longer “on the street” (to use the Monte analogy) and that I don’t need to do that anymore. I can make other, healthier choices.

Prince cat probably has his own history. Genetics must play a role, as must his behavior, resulting from whatever his story has been. The role of the vet and his new someday family will be to help him realize that his days of wandering the streets at 44 pounds are over. He’s got a new lifestyle open to him. All he needs to do is learn to live with his new boundaries.

Perhaps that is easier to do when you are a cat locked up indoors, receiving your food on schedule and enjoying exercise in the form of interactive play. Most of us, however, won’t ever live lives that are that structured. We, however, have something that cat does not — the ability to choose our own paths. We can see unhealthy for what it is — useful, when we needed it to survive, but no longer necessary in our lives — and we can choose to embrace something else. It’s harder, for sure, but it also comes with perks… like being able to look back someday and see how far we have come on our own steam. Because no matter what tools and support we may choose, help is only help when it is embraced, and that is always our own singular choice.

So, when is unhealthy okay? When it is your story - your past. When it moves out of the way to make way for your future. It’s okay when you can look at your own life and tell yourself the story: “here’s where you came from, and that’s okay. But look, just look where you are now! More than that, look where you can be tomorrow!”

Thanks Nikki!

Believe In Yourself,

Cathy, CLC

Certified Life Coach, Weight Loss Surgery Coach

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