When friends and acquaintances see I've lost 38 pounds, the follow-up question I've been asked most often, with eyes as large as plates from the Cheesecake Factory, is: "What's your secret?"
When I reply simply: "I ate less," I can see the reaction in their faces. That's not a secret! Where's the magic protein shake? No Neanderthal-themed meals? An eliminate-all-the-pleasure-from-your-life diet? A crackpot Internet article with all the answers?
Wait. Not that last one. Stick with me.
True, eating less is not a secret. It is simple, but, for me, simple didn't mean easy or fast. If it was, it would be a lot sexier and I'd probably found a multi-level marketing company based on it and make a mint. So, I'm keeping my day job. But maybe I can help a few people with what I learned when I lost 38 pounds without trying any fad diets.
I met my weight loss goal
I have successfully lost 38 pounds, most of it in 2018. I wasn't always overweight. Five years ago, I gained about 20 pounds when I moved house and had a job change in a short period of time. Oversized sweatpants during a period of unemployment masked my gain. I was alarmed and tried a lot of different things to lose weight. I gained more, up to nearly 40 pounds over my adult average. I tried a lot of things that I thought might work for me, but I didn't hit my stride where all the pieces fell into place until this year when, after years of trying, I really lost all of those 38 pounds.
I didn't follow a fad diet
It's dizzying how many fad diets are on the market at any given time. Most recently, I cheered on colleagues who successfully completed Whole30, and I hoped they felt good and learned about themselves. I mean, I did the Master Cleanse - including the saltwater flush - when I was in my mid-twenties. I'm not immune to the seduction of fast weight loss solutions. Anyone I know who has kept weight off while following one of these plans, I'd posit that they found a lifestyle that works for them - and that they're consuming an overall lower-calorie diet than what they used to eat. A friend who swore off sugar has kept off 30 pounds for three years. (Fun fact: Sugar has a lot of calories)!
First law of thermodynamics
Let's talk about the first law of thermodynamics. Energy can be transferred but never lost. Don't be scared; we all learned this in sixth grade. So, how does middle-school science relate to weight loss? Calories. Calories are units of energy! Within online weight loss and healthy eating communities, managing weight loss through calorie monitoring can be called CICO: calories in, calories out. When we read a food package, the label includes the energy, in units of kilocalories (what we colloquially call calories) included in the packet. You can even see servings and calories on the front of packaging in the U.S. now. And, thanks to crowdsourcing user-generated content there are large online libraries that can calculate the calories in home recipes and concoctions from fast food eateries. People who follow a CICO strategy try to find a lifestyle whereby they consume fewer calories than they spend, in the hope that this will lead to weight loss.
Self-improvement, emphasis on 'self'
For better or worse, with CICO, I did have to do a lot of trial and error to find those new habits that were sustainable and enjoyable for me. This is why no one will be able to tell you how to reach your goal. It's why I have no "secret" to weight loss. My "things" are not going to be your "things." You know what your work, family, and school schedule is. You know what other things take up time in your week. You know how much you like to cook or not. You know if you have allergies or health factors to consider. You know if you have a family of others with different needs to feed alongside yourself. You know what foods you can't live without! Those are the choices that everyone has to make for themselves. You're unique! Fantastic and complicated you. Looking at it through a problem-solving lens, gamifying a calorie goal by thinking how to "spend" them, can help you live a lower-calorie lifestyle.
Gather data about yourself
Whenever I try to make a big change for myself that I know will take longer than a trip to Ikea and some bickering over Scandinavian furniture, I start with a period of observation of my own patterns. I ate the foods I normally enjoy, and tracked how many calories were in them. I didn't pressure myself to change anything, yet. By reading labels, using an app like MyFitnessPal, and my food scale, over months, I got a picture of how many calories were in my regular routine as it was - and uncovered some innocent-looking high-calorie culprits I didn't even know were hiding there. (French fries, I'm sorry, you're not usually good enough to be worth it.) I also noticed how food makes me feel. I asked myself: Do you know what it feels like when you're satisfied, as compared to full? Do you know what emotional environments can trigger overeating? Though this data-gathering is a great way to start, it hasn't ever ended. I still read labels. I still make note when foods make my stomach grumble. I've learned how my guts feel when I've eaten a fine amount of food. These are lessons that will serve me for years to come, as I learn even more.
Where am I willing to compromise?
No one else can tell you how to sustainably make changes in your behavior that will promote weight loss. I don't mind skipping breakfast, so I do. I commute by train and walking, and I've been able to fold exercise into my day by walking instead of taking the subway. I don't drink much alcohol anyway, so it's easy for me to skip it. But that's me, not you!
Take what you learned in your data-gathering period and apply it.
What do you regularly eat that has higher calories than you expected, or take up a larger amount of your daily allowance than you'd prefer?
Are you willing to eat those foods less often?
Are you willing to enjoy half of your normal portion?
Are you willing to substitute some ingredients to make it lower calorie?
Are you willing to skip some snacks or substitute them for low-cal options?
Are you willing to lose weight more slowly by incorporating more gradual changes to your life?
Are you willing to change your shopping or travel patterns to access healthier choices?
If you do drink alcohol, if you're living a CICO mindset, there are at least two reasons to stay away: Having multiple drinks can have more calories than you imagine, and the buzz can make people vulnerable to making crummy late-night food choices.
How many calories per day did I eat?
There are a lot of calculators online to refer to, to find a daily calorie recommendation, but your best resource will be your own doctor. Schedule a physical or an appointment to discuss weight loss specifically. There could be health factors unique to you that could affect your weight loss journey. I visited my primary doctor, who referred me to a registered dietician. It was great to have some monitored support. Even when I was a fluffier person, I was and will always be petite, at least for my silly height of 4 feet 11.5 inches. The dietician confirmed that, for me, 1200 calories per day would promote a weight loss of 1 pound per week, which is regarded as a healthy pace for someone my size. Twelve hundred calories. Per day. That's one Chipotle burrito! Twelve hundred calories feels like no food at all. To meet the goal, I just had to be flexible. I blame our culture and our portion size expectations, which are as exaggerated as the portions themselves. It makes me think of the Mitch Hedberg joke about a New York deli sandwich having too much meat; when asked if he wanted anything else, he said, "A loaf of bread and some other people."
Choose my own portions
Portion control is how you can keep eating your favorites and lose weight at the same time.
I don't like to cook, and I haven't drawn a hard line against processed food - I do want to be a less-meat eater to be kinder to our environment; more lifestyle changes to come! - so I have found a lot of gold in the grocery freezer section. Taquitos, burritos, chicken strips, edamame, a rainbow of vegetables, berries - with these foods, and other fresh foods and recipes that are also portion-friendly, it's really easy to choose a variable number of items to prepare, stay within your daily calorie goals, and still feel like you have agency and pleasure. Two microwaved taquitos for a snack, five taquitos for a dinner! I found foods I liked eating repeatedly and had that portion-friendly flexibility I have come to love. Some of my favorites include hard-boiled eggs, salted peanuts, canned seltzer, stick pretzels, low-sodium salami, and cheese. Always cheese. I use a food scale to portion snacks I'd bought in bulk and measure foods from my fridge to learn more about portions. I keep stashes of portioned peanuts and granola bars in my office drawer.
What else did I change?
I've chosen to not entirely eliminate any whole groups of food. That seems to suck a lot of the fun out of life, and sounds hard to keep up alongside a diverse social life. I eat all of it: pizza, burgers, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese... just not often and rarely in the same meal. I eat with the awareness of the consequences that might follow if I made an indulgent choice. Where I used to have several pieces of pizza, I might have one. I eat half of a burger at a restaurant and bring home the rest for leftovers. I enjoy dinner with my family, as quality time together, so I usually eat snack-sized breakfast and lunch, so I can have a larger dinner. I've stopped habitually ordering appetizers, sides, and desserts at restaurants. I love Coca-Cola - full-high-fructose-strength, 140-calories-per-can Classic, not zero-calorie Diet - and still drink it, but a lot less often than I used to.
Be prepared, at home and away
When preparing food at home, I am much more careful with portions, and I use a food scale. I substitute lower-calorie ingredients in favorite recipes, or, even better, I choose specially formulated low-cal recipes that have been tested for good taste. Despite my reservations about the name because of feminism, I can't deny that I've become a fan of Gina Homolka's SkinnyTaste website and cookbooks. Her recipes taste great and don't have hard-to-find ingredients. Plus, I learned from her the glory of making shredded chicken in a slow cooker, which is another portion-friendly food. I can make a single chicken tortilla with salsa, or half of a chicken salad sandwich. Versatility is a way to my heart. I carry snacks with protein to stave off any hunger that may come when I can't feed myself more fully, which keeps down hunger and makes me less likely to overeat later. Knowing my go-to low-cal snacks and having them easily available has been so helpful.
Know your triggers
Knowing triggers for emotional eating has been a savior. In a recent rough week when I knew I was facing some stress, I got ahead of it. I let myself have all the stick pretzels (53 sticks are 100 calories) and flavored seltzer (0 calories) that I wanted as I felt all the difficult feelings. The stressful situation passed, and I eventually felt better. Some of the dietitian's recommendations to me, to ease my other symptoms, were also aligned with weight loss. We were learning whether I might have a sensitivity to lactose, so I ate a lot less of it, or took lactase pills when I did. Eating less cheese hasn't harmed my waistline, and I eat reasonable portions now. I can still rock night cheese like Liz Lemon. The dietitian also recommended I eat fewer oily and fried foods, so I ate less, but I never eliminated them. Plus, cheese-flavored baked potato chips are a totally delicious alternative to salty fried snacks. As months went on, and I had success in eating less, my maternally tempered deskmate in our ubiquitous open floor plan often asked me, "Have you eaten?" I'd tell her honestly that I had, but it was true that it wasn't always a large salad or sandwich like a lot of coworkers ate; I'd eat a more snack-sized lunch. She didn't understand, but she cannot deny the results she sees in me.
Failure is progress
Just to be clear, I didn't figure out all of this all at once. I had high hopes for so many other tactics to lower calories and eat smaller portions that would crash and burn. I was sure those refrigerated boxes of portioned ingredients were the answer, until I realized it was a lot more cooking than I wanted to do. I enjoyed Sunday meal planning, but it wasn't practical for me every week. I've had to figure out how to get by on weekends, which are more social for me and less structured than my Monday through Friday workweek. I've had to figure out how to eat at parties. And that's OK. Making tweaks to my eating, incrementally over time, has made changes more likely to stick.
It only works if it works for you
A habit that sticks is a lifestyle change, up and up and up. You may have an idea in your mind about how to make this happen for yourself, only to find that Sunday meal planning doesn't fit into your kids' sports schedules at all, or that you actually hate veggie straws, so those aren't a good Doritos substitute after all. And it takes time. I definitely tried losing weight as soon as I noticed it was getting out of control. That was in 2013. It wasn't until here in 2018 that all that I've been reading and learning and trying has aligned, like a lunar eclipse, to be a seemingly faster process than it actually has been.
What about exercise?
After I peaked at my highest weight in early 2016, I noticed that I had lost so much core strength that I struggled to get off the couch. That was a low moment; sunk in the corner of my sectional sofa, admitting failure of grace, I rolled myself sideways off the sofa. So I got my tushie in gear. I worked incredibly hard, doing 60 minute HIIT workouts four-to-five times per week for a year, and I lost almost no weight. I felt fantastic about my strength gains, even if the scale didn't move. At the time, I didn't expect much in the way of weight loss from exercise. But exercise is good for my heart and it's nice to have some movement integrated into my lifestyle. Currently, I walk 2 miles per day as part of my commute.
There's more to health than weight loss
If you've read this far, you see I eat pizza and peanuts and microwavable taquitos. I'm no saint. I still think I should eat more vegetables and fewer processed foods. I still think I should lay off the salt. Eating fewer calories and losing weight is not an automatic gold medal for achieving good health. Just because I've lost 40 pounds doesn't mean I don't still have to learn other habits to lead me to better health and help me be a better global citizen and a more productive member of my family and community.
The tortoise wins!
This is something I want for my life, and I appreciate that it's a goal that takes time. There is no time like the present to start gathering your personal data, making some mistakes, partnering with your health providers. Who cares how long it takes? Step forward, now. Even though I look like a person who has met her New Year's resolution already, I didn't have to wait until after the holidays or for some other special occasion to make a lifestyle change. A lifestyle is how we live all the time, including holidays, special occasions and vacations and throughout both work and home life.
Forget the hare; the tortoise has endurance. Endurance is finding my personal rhythm, a sustainable one, a lifestyle change. I'm kind of a competitive person, so yeah, my money's on the legendary turtle.
These changes don't have to be huge. For instance, these small diet changes will still make a big difference.