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Dr. Phil has just finished taping an episode of his TV talk show and now, back in his office, the famously tough-talking self-help guru has gone completely to mush. His suit jacket and tie have come off, and the good doctor -- all six-feet-four, 240 pounds of him -- is cooing over a brand-new addition to his family. "Isn't she a sweetheart?" he says in his folksy Texas twang, cradling an 8-week-old Labrador mix from the local SPCA in his beefy arms. But his wife, Robin, isn't so positive about the pup. Chatting with a friend just outside the soundstage on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, the petite brunette asks how long it typically takes for the breed to mellow out. "A couple years -- at best?" she says incredulously, laughing and rolling her eyes. Uh-oh. Guess it's a conflict this couple will have to iron out.
And nobody does it better than Dr. Phil. For eight years he has made it his business to help TV viewers deal with problems and clean up the mess we often make of our lives. In his most recent best-seller, Family First (Free Press, 2004), he tells parents it's their duty to get their misbehaving children in shape and offers them a step-by-step plan to make their households not just functional but phenomenal. And with The Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook (Free Press, 2004), published as a follow-up to his blockbuster, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom (Free Press, 2003), Dr. Phil continues his crusade against what he sees as one of the biggest health threats to Americans today.
Much of his advice comes from counseling overweight patients when he was known as Phillip C. McGraw, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Texas. But his war on fat is also personal. His father, Joe McGraw, was chronically obese and died in 1993 of heart problems; obesity, in fact, runs in the family. Four years ago Dr. Phil, now 54, had his own scare when tests revealed he had high triglyceride levels, which can contribute to heart disease. Taking a dose of his own medicine, he "got real" by adopting a healthier diet and upping his cardiovascular exercise. He now adheres to a regimen that includes five miles on an elliptical trainer and weight training three mornings a week and an hour of tennis every afternoon.
When Dr. Phil isn't busy with his smash daytime TV talk show, now in its third season and boasting some 8 million viewers daily, he spends as much time as possible with Robin, 51, and sons Jay, 25, and Jordan, 18. Dr. Phil recently spoke about the reasons behind our unhealthy relationship with food -- and what Americans must do to end it for good.
Q: Your new book emphasizes the importance of making your spouse and children a priority. How does being overweight affect your family?
Dr. Phil: Your ability to participate in their lives is greatly diminished. You've got less energy and stamina and higher levels of fatigue, so you are far less willing to play with them, walk the dog with them, get out to the park and run around with them. So some of the core things over which family members bond are being compromised because you can't get in the game. There's no way that's not going to erode the relationship between you and your child.
Also, there's a clear family dynamic in being overweight and obese. I grew up in the South, and the first thing my mother and grandmother would do when you came over was feed you. They love you with food. If your lifestyle is too focused on food and the center of your family is the kitchen, everybody will hang out there and nibble and graze.
Q: How does being overweight affect communication and intimacy between husband and wife?
Dr. Phil: If a spouse feels unattractive and unappealing, his or her sexual confidence typically takes a beating. Since it's often too dangerous to admit feelings of sexual inadequacy, people tend to avoid the situation and argue over "safer" topics like money, kids, and so on. And that's not a good thing.
Q: You've talked about using food to cope with bad feelings and to celebrate happy occasions. Why are we so emotionally tied up with eating?
Dr. Phil: Part of it is the marketing machine in America. The wily people behind these strategies understand that the No. 1 need in all of us is acceptance. And this plays on two levels. First, a baked potato never says no. A cheeseburger never has a headache. I mean, you never get rejected by food. Also, if you look at fast-food commercials, it's all beautiful people, cool kids laughing and families grinning from ear to ear. So there's this image of fun, celebration, and belonging. Well, that's what advertisers want you to experience. And that's how they program people to eat emotionally.
Q: It's like cultivating an addiction.
Dr. Phil: There actually are things that happen on a physiological level. When you eat, blood goes to your digestive system. Your body temperature goes up and then there's this feeling of calm and relaxation. We like that feeling, and it becomes a habitual way of comforting ourselves. So you eat something that tastes good -- usually high in fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. You'll get fat, and you'll stay overweight until you learn to replace eating with some other coping skill.
Q: What's the most important first step to fixing the problem?
Dr. Phil: You've got to get real with yourself. I mean, don't play the victim. "Oh, I've got to diet. I've got to work out. Poor me." What a crock. The second thing is setting a realistic goal. Don't try to keep yourself at some emaciated level. I'm a big guy. I played football all my life. I weigh 240 pounds, but I've got real low body fat because I have a lot of bulk and muscle mass. And set a reasonable timeline, which is the difference between a dream and a goal. You say you wish you were as slender as when you were single. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you do. But that's not the same as saying I'm going to get down to 160 pounds from 185, and I'm going to do that by losing two pounds a week. You say I'm going to exercise four days a week. You make a plan and work it.
Q: Easier said than done. You might swear to run four mornings a week, but getting out of bed in the morning is awfully hard.
Dr. Phil: It is. But there are things you can do to support your resolve. Create some accountability with yourself. If I don't work out today, I don't watch TV tonight. Don't be a lone ranger. If you don't trust yourself, get somebody you do trust to exercise with, like a friend or spouse. But if they don't show up, that's not your excuse to not be there.
Q: Let's talk about your diet plan.
Dr. Phil: It's not a weight-loss diet, which is absolutely a bad thing. Look, I could put you on nothing but cabbage soup or kumquats and cardboard. Will you lose weight? No doubt about it. But diets are so restrictive you're ultimately going to rebel and binge. Then you'll feel guilty, start medicating yourself with food, and it all tumbles downhill. It's the oldest definition of insanity in the world -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Many people who ride the diet roller coaster are at a higher risk of heart disease than those who don't. It's tough on your system.
So the nutritional key is changing the way you eat across the board. Fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, and poultry and fish take time and effort to prepare. Many of these foods are high in fiber, low in fat and sugar, and they're natural hunger suppressors. Even an apple requires a great deal of chewing and can't be eaten quickly like convenience foods. So, don't get burgers and fries from the burger doodle down there. Steer clear of candy and baked foods that you can grab and eat on the run. All that sugar triggers an insulin secretion, which causes your blood sugar to drop. That's when you get hungry. I mean, this isn't rocket science.
And of course you do need portion control. You know, people will say to me, "Oh my gosh, I've been doing so well and tomorrow's my birthday, and I'm going to be so tempted to eat cake." You know what I say? Sit down and eat the cake. You're not in prison. The problem is if you eat birthday cake every day.
Q: But we all know that you may eat right and exercise, and even reap rewards, but still backslide. Why?
Dr. Phil: First, immediate gratification. When you eat that hot peach cobbler with ice cream you get a payoff right now. Will you gain pounds if you do that every day for a month? Yes, but that's tomorrow. So there's no question that a small, immediate reward is much more powerful than a remote penalty. Second, you can't diet by willpower alone. Willpower is a myth. Everybody gets fired up around New Year's Eve. This time I'm losing that 30 pounds. I'm gonna do this! You drive by the health club the day after and you can't park within three blocks of the place. Go at the end of March and it looks like they moved out of town. Willpower has to do with excitement and emotions, but emotions are fickle fuel. They come and go. You've got to program your life so that it carries you in the right direction when you don't feel like it.
Q: How do you accomplish this?
Dr. Phil: You behave your way to success. When you choose a certain behavior, you choose the consequences. Then it gains momentum and becomes easier. But you have to program your life to do it. You can't just promise yourself you're going to exercise every day, but make an appointment at a certain time and place. Every day, I'm on the tennis court at five o'clock. I protect my appointment by bringing my equipment with me in the morning. I've geared my day to wind down so that I can get out of here on time. I'll play whether I'm tired or not because I just know that I'll get my blood flowing and feel better. When I get home, I don't stop off in the kitchen before dinner. And we've scheduled dinner after my son finishes playing on the lacrosse team. My whole life is set up to support my commitment. That's different than willpower. Willpower is "want to." Programming is "how to."
Q: How do you deal with family and friends who sabotage your plan?
Dr. Phil: There are some people who just don't want you to succeed. Think about it. Five girls meet for lunch and one shows up having lost 30 pounds. The others go, "Oh, great." And you might have friends who just don't get it. They want you to go to happy hour with them and sit there for two hours smoking, drinking, and eating a double order of nachos. Go to the gym instead or make some new friends, at least during the time you're vulnerable. But most people mean well, like my mom. I mean, she'd take a bullet for me in a second. She's not trying to sabotage me. So for family members I suggest sitting down and saying to them, "I'm working really hard to stay in shape. You could really help me by not tempting me, okay?" Most people will embrace it.
Q: You've talked about creating a "no-fail" environment by tossing out junk-food stashes. How realistic is this for the average working mom?
Dr. Phil: Again, it all comes down to changing your lifestyle. Say you come home from work, it's late, and the kids are demanding dinner -- quick. Plan ahead by having some meat in the fridge and potatoes and lots of vegetables on hand. Saying no to junk food doesn't mean you're punishing the kids. What you're getting rid of is highly addictive, unhealthy, non-nutritive foods. That doesn't sound mean to me. Phase them out so they begin to make better choices and develop better eating habits. Will they resist this at first? Yes. But 70 percent of children who are overweight or obese will stay that way as adults. Don't sabotage them.
Q: The bottom line is that you're saying something people don't want to hear -- that weight control is a lifetime of hard work and vigilance.
Dr. Phil: It is, but here's the thing -- momentum is the key. Once I chose to do what was right and healthy, my weight hasn't gone up or down five pounds in 10 years. I've never said it's easy. But it's absolutely doable.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2005.