Anna Verhulst, a medicine student and winner of Pitch contest on Recipe to Losing Weight at TEDxMaastricht – Transcript
Anna Verhulst – Medicine Student and Winner of Pitch Contest
Did you know that the average caveman in the Stone Age spent five times as much energy on physical activity as the average American adult today? And I mean our average caveman in the Stone Age had to walk for up to 16 kilometers a day, had to chase his prey for days on end, so then when he finally made his kill, he could rightfully stuff his face with meat and eat as much as he wanted.
However, nowadays, overeating is a global problem and the cause of many severe health threats. 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischemic heart disease burden, and up to 41% of certain cancer burdens are linked to obesity.
So, these numbers are the things you learn from text books, the facts everyone can look up on the Internet. But once I started working in the hospital as a junior intern, and met people who were struggling with obesity, I realized that it’s often not these physical consequences that seem to matter most to those who are overweight themselves.
Let’s take a look at the picture of this girl as an example. The quote that came to my mind when I saw this picture was: “To lose confidence in one’s body, is to lose confidence in oneself.”
Because the girl you see is only 15 years old, but she already weighs over 100 kilograms, and tonight she’s going to her high school’s prom, and you can see she’s all dressed up, posing for a picture, probably taken by one of her parents.
And yet, in spite of the brave smile she’s putting up, you can also instantly sense her insecurity. You can see she’s not really looking forward to the night. Only 15 years old with a whole life ahead of her, and already she has lost confidence in herself.
And this is only one example of people who are severely unhappy in their body, but still can’t manage to lose weight. And it made me wonder why, because there are stacks of books on how to lose weight, web pages full of tips and tricks, and plenty of experts to guide you through the process.
So, if it’s not for a lack of tools, then why is it so many of us can’t manage to lose weight or keep the weight off?
And I ask myself all these questions, and then, as we are taught within the problem-based learning system here at Maastricht University, I realized that the best way to find the answer was to go look for it myself.
And so I stumbled upon some research on the science of complexity by two professors at York University in Canada. And I found their theory surprisingly applicable to the process of losing weight. You see, they proposed there are three types of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.
So, simple problems are the ones like following a recipe. You need some basic techniques and perhaps a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, following the recipe has a very high chance of success.
Complicated problems cover problems like sending a rocket to the Moon, which does sound pretty complicated to me. However, complicated problems can often be broken down into a string of simple problems. So when coordinated well, these complicated problems still carry a high rate of success.
Finally, complex problems are the ones like raising a child. There is no recipe for success. And while raising one child may certainly provide experience, it doesn’t guarantee success with the next child because every child is unique and may require an entirely different approach.
So, our cavemen in the Stone Age didn’t have any notice of complexity, his life was simple, and basic, and as simple pretty much as it could be. But, nowadays, in our modern time, the process of losing weight definitely seems to be a complex problem, there is no recipe for success. And certainly there may be some basic ingredients, eating differently, changing your exercise pattern, but there are no standard tools to use, and no definitive order of steps to follow.
The remarkable thing is that many things in our environment suggest that losing weight is, in fact, simply a matter of following a recipe. Drink these shakes, eat these protein bars, skip all carbs, drink gallons of water, avoid all sugars, and you will lose weight, and you will be happy forever, and you will never feel insecure in your life anymore, ever, right? No.
I’d like to take you back to the picture of the girl we saw at the beginning, because the next picture is the same girl one year later. And seven years later, she is standing here right in front of you, sharing a story that appears to be now about as personal as it gets.
And five months ago I told my story for the very first time at the TEDxMaastricht pitch night. I showed the audience the same two pictures leaving the second one to right before the end.
And when I told them that it was the same girl as in the first picture, an audible sigh of genuine surprise went through the public because they realized, as you do by now, that that girl was me.
And what struck me most after the pitch night were not the kind words from my friends, and not the compliments from strangers in the audience. No, it was that audible sigh of genuine surprise that I had heard when showing the second picture that quite confused me.
You see, I had never expected that anyone seeing that first picture wouldn’t immediately recognize the girl to be me because whenever I picture myself in my head, I still look that way.
Seven years after physically losing 40 kilos, I still struggle to recognize the way my body looks now. And it confused me because I’d always thought that losing weight was as simple as, well, losing the weight.
So, only a moment ago, I told you about how losing weight is a complex problem, that there are no standard tools to use and no definitive order of steps to follow. But most importantly, that it’s a personal problem requiring a personal solution, it’s a matter of compiling your own personal recipe to losing weight.
So, have I found all the ingredients to my recipe of losing weight and keeping the weight off and being happy with my new body? I think that in the past few years I have found out about quite a few things that worked for me, but it’s the final seasoning of the dish that’s still a bit of a struggle.
You see, it’s scary as hell to admit that sometimes I’m still feeling fat, and that when I look in the mirror I struggle to recognize the same image other people see when looking at me, and that sharing my story with you today, means overcoming one of my biggest fears.
Because what I’m scared of most is not that I stumble on words or forget my lines. What I’m scared of most is that when I leave this stage, you will look at your neighbor, raise an eyebrow, and say: “I don’t get why she’s on stage; she’s still fat.”
But I also know that that fear is irrational, as are many fears, and I no longer want to be scared because a great man once said that: “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it,” and that: “the brave man is not he who is not afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
And maybe, the triumph over one of my biggest fears is that final seasoning my dish needs, my final step to completing my recipe to losing weight.
So, as long as I’m still scared, I will continue to conquer my fear, and I will continue to tell my story until I no longer need to summon up any courage to tell people that I used to be fat, but no longer am.
And I hope some of you may find comfort in this story, knowing that losing weight and being happy with your new body is not always as easy as our society makes you think. And I hope you will find your own ingredients and compile your own recipe.
And do remember, that, in the end, it’s only one person that has to be satisfied with the taste of the final dish. And that person is you.