Fifty pounds, fifty-ish changes

I was fat. I really didn’t want to admit that to anyone, much less to myself. I was “fat but fit,” I told myself. After all, I could walk a fair distance, my stamina was good, my numbers were good (well, other than that pesky very slightly high fasting blood sugar number) (that my then-doctor was concerned might mean a pre-diabetic state) (but it wasn’t that bad and my overall numbers were good, right?). (Denial. Total denial.)

And then, in July of 2012, I made a decision that I would stop wanting to be thinner and healthier and I would do something about it. That’s been a good decision, but an extremely challenging task.

I’ve lost slightly more than fifty pounds over the last three years. I still have fourteen pounds more that I plan to lose. At dog events these days, people ask me how I’ve managed to lose the weight. I know exactly what answer they want: “Oh, it was easy, I followed the Blah-Blah Diet and the pounds just fell off and I never felt hungry.” We all have that fantasy.

Sadly, it is a fantasy, at least in my experience. I gained the weight over years and years of bad habits and one health problem that kept me from keeping fit–my chondrosarcoma (an adult bone cancer), which made walking painful and something I avoided, mostly. I stopped running. I stopped walking quickly. I continued to do agility, thankfully, since without agility I probably wouldn’t have caught the chondrosarcoma as early as I did. A surgeon took my left knee apart and put it back together, cancer-free, in 2007. After that, I started wanting to really do something about my weight.

I tried a bunch of relatively easy things between 2007 and 2012 and nothing really worked; I lost weight, I gained it back. Etc. I was still thinking about “diets” and not about changing my life. Changing my life is what it has taken, though–because my “old life” was what made me fat. I did focus a lot during those years on eating a very healthy diet, which was good. I got used to a life without too much processed food (other than breads and rice) and stopped eating most foods with added sugars. I also worked on getting back to a limp-free, pain-free regular walking habit. By 2012, I was walking around two miles a day with the dogs, albeit pretty slowly. Maybe once a week I’d walk more than that.

When I decided to lose weight, my doctor referred me to a nutritionist. The nutritionist had me record everything I ate for three weeks, and we discussed my eating habits at length. Ultimately, she looked at my diet and said “if you’re telling the truth, you should be losing a quarter to a half a pound a week.” The idea that I was lying amused me, mostly, and angered me, a little. I understood about lying to your doctor–it’s hard to admit you occasionally scarf down an entire sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints (isn’t that one serving?)–but I had made an effort to be honest, so that we could get a place that would be helpful. However, I had been eating a lot more carefully those three weeks, because who wants to admit to a nutritionist that you made really stupid food choices? I asked the nutritionist what I should do if I got hungry (because no one wants to feel hungry) and she said “you’re going to feel hungry, sometimes you just have to power through it.”

I went to Weight Watchers back in the 80s (after I had the kids, to lose the baby weight) and they kept saying “you don’t need to feel hungry”–and I was hungry all the time. Hearing that hunger was okay, from a nutritionist with a good history of helping people lose weight, was somehow very empowering. So that was change number 2: accepting hunger as a good thing. (Change number 1 was writing down everything I ate, with measurements (weight/volume/quantity). I still do that. It helps me know when it’s time to just stop eating.)

But since I wasn’t lying, and I wasn’t losing a quarter-pound a week (although my weight was stable at that point), I still needed to figure out how to lose weight. I am a researcher by inclination–never happier than when asked to find actual scientific solutions to problems–and so I went off and researched weight loss. I found the National Weight Control Registry, which is probably the best source for information out there, in that it requires that people keep the weight off for at least a year before they’re allowed to tell their stories. Every story is the same, basically: I ate less and I moved more.

I researched some more. I read books on changing business environments (this book was a favorite: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard); I read what are called “weight loss memoirs” (this post would qualify); I read books on fitness for those of advanced years (love this book: Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life).
I read books on creating new habits for happiness and a better life (Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives and The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun).

I started putting virtual sticky notes on my computer screen. They said things like: “I will lose weight because I am walking the dogs three times a day.” At the time, it wasn’t true, but I was trying to add a third walk to the dogs’ day, in the late afternoon. It took about a month for that new habit to stick. Another note was “I will lose weight because I am enjoying every bite I eat.” Think about that one for a minute: my goal was to make sure I wasn’t eating food that made me feel bad, mentally or physically. Take my favorite chocolate bars, for example (Rittersport with hazelnuts); some days I have done a lot–a long run, a few long walks with the dogs, a bike ride–and those are the days I really enjoy that occasional chocolate bar. But once or twice I’ve taken a few bites and realized that I really don’t want all that sugar and fat.

I admitted to Jay that I had a problem. Now, Jay is not blind, but he is a very kind person, and I’d never discussed my weight with him, not seriously. He has never said anything like “you’d be more attractive if you lost weight.” He’s wonderful, and he deserves many perfect husband points for his behavior over our marriage. It turned out that he wanted to lose weight, to make his bicycling more enjoyable. He said he’d eat whatever I fed him and eat a bigger lunch if he needed to. Okay, I didn’t need to cook something different for him–that helped a lot.

I found a few articles about hunger. In one of them, the writer–a researcher on obesity–talked about learning to recognize true hunger. Cravings are one thing; hunger is another. Right now, this very minute, for example, I would love to have a big plate of southern-style buttery biscuits, with lots of honey. I know where this craving comes from–I had one last week and wow, it was great. But, really, I can wait a few more weeks before I have another one. I also would love a large piece of chocolate cake. But I’m not actually hungry. I know that because the thought of eating a big salad doesn’t appeal to me. I have a salad planned for lunch, and I’ll have it at lunch time (in about an hour), before I go to the grocery store. By lunch time, I’ll be hungry.

My daughter Stacia inspired the desire to run more. She was deeply affected, years ago, by Jay’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (he’s been in remission since 2001). Jay got involved with Team in Training when he was in chemo in 2001 and that led to his involvement with bicycling, our stores, the websites, our eventual move to Portland, and more. Stacia wanted to get more fit, and she first did the Couch to 5K program, then signed up for a marathon through Team in Training. Watching her complete a marathon, despite sore feet and hot weather, made me want to start running again. I found a Couch to 5K program online (there are hundreds of them) and started it, Christmas morning 2013, when it was dark and rainy, because a) I figured the neighbors wouldn’t see me and b) why wait until New Years, even if it was my New Years resolution? I had to do each week twice, because my weight and my knees and my lungs simply couldn’t support a faster rate of increase.

In a not-so-typical part of the weight-loss story, one inspiration was my dog, Rush. From puppyhood, Rush always wanted to move faster and do more and jump higher. He was a challenge to keep up with as a puppy, and it’s never gotten easier. When he was around a year old, it became obvious that I couldn’t take him to the off-leash park to let him run (his testosterone just kept getting in the way) and I had to figure out how else to get him enough exercise. How do you exercise a very healthy very fit poodle? I spent more time at agility barns and I trained him to run at further distances from me so that he could run fast even though I was slow, but it wasn’t really enough. One more reason to think about running.

I have found record-keeping to be a huge part of these changes. I have a Fitbit to keep track of steps; I also use their website for food logging and making sure I run a calorie deficit every day (I aim for 500 calories deficit, but mostly I end up around 350). I record my runs and most bicycle rides using a Garmin. (I started with a Forerunner 10–the simplest and least-expensive Garmin–and just upgraded to a Garmin Forerunner 225, which measures distance, steps, heartrate… and gives you a map of your run.)

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to eat, what I could eat, what I should eat. When Jay was first diagnosed with lymphoma, he couldn’t eat much because of the chemo, and we struggled to find a breakfast that worked for him. We ended up with a fruit-yogurt-protein powder smoothie (half frozen fruit, half non-fat plain yogurt, one scoop protein powder per person) that we still have for breakfast every day. Jay also makes himself oatmeal, but I just have the smoothie. Yes, I’m still hungry after my smoothie, but it’s enough food to make it to lunch, and remember the bit about powering through hunger? Well, that’s a habit now, too: I just say to myself “I can eat at lunchtime.” Sometimes I do make myself extra smoothie for drinking after my run, though. So that’s breakfast.

Lunch is pretty much always a very large salad, not too much salad dressing. Lots of vegetables–sometimes I cook them, sometimes they’re raw, sometimes some are cooked and others are raw–a piece or two of fruit (apples, plums, orange pieces), a small amount of meat. I’m very fond of chicken livers, and so are the dogs, so many days we share a container of chicken livers–I cook mine and add the dogs’ share to their midday soup. Yes, I know chicken livers are not that popular with most people. Other possibilities are fresh mozzarella cheese (not much) or a piece of chicken breast or a bit of plan-over left-over steak. In the winter, soup–using pretty much the same ingredients–is always a possibility.

Dinner is more complicated, because there’s the catch where I have to feed Jay too. That makes it less amenable to habit formation. I like to have soup when it’s cold, and salad when it’s warm, and once a week (not more) we can go out to dinner. Jay adds chips or crackers or bread to his meal, and I try to pretend I don’t want chips or crackers or bread, and I weigh out a reasonable portion, and I mostly manage to be satisfied with that. And I tell myself I can have some another time. Maybe next week. Or the week after that.

Four in the afternoon is my worst time. I crave a snack then. Sometimes I have veggies or fruit, sometimes I have nuts. It depends on things like how much I ran or bicycled that morning–and what we have planned for dinner. If we’re going out for dinner, I watch trash TV instead.

I made a list of all the habits I’ve created, in no particular order:

  • Walk dogs in the morning
  • Walk dogs before dinner
  • Walk dogs before bed
  • Go to bed between 9 and 10 almost every night
  • Eat an apple for snack
  • Eat a few raw carrots for snack
  • Eat a small yogurt for snack — preferably plain nonfat with some fruit
  • Eat a handful of nuts for snack
  • Spend half an hour three times a week running
  • One long run (more than an hour) or one very long bike ride (more than twenty miles) every week
  • Use Fitbit: aim for at least 45 active minutes per day (and at least 12000 steps)
  • Want ice cream? Bike to it
  • Want chocolate? Bike to it
  • Went for a run? Use luxurious lemon cream soap in the shower after
  • Went for a long bike ride? Arnica salts in a hot bath
  • Check every few weeks for clothes that are too big and give them away (there’s no going back, so no need to keep them)
  • Buy new clothes that are a bit snug, since I still have weight to lose
  • Eat yogurt-protein-fruit smoothie for breakfast every day
  • Record everything I eat, even if embarrassed
  • Enjoy, really enjoy, a small piece of cake every few weeks (but not more)
  • Eat salad for lunch almost every day
  • Set and follow regular mealtimes: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner
  • Don’t eat after dinner
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV
  • Use small plates
  • Serve food in the kitchen and eat it sitting at the dining room table, with silverware and a napkin
  • Freeze extra servings before eating–don’t leave them easily accessible!
  • One or two glasses of wine every few weeks, at most
  • Only one restaurant dinner a week–and plan for that meal and don’t indulge much
  • Before start cooking a meal, wash some carrots so it’s easy to snack on them
  • Buy a good food thermos and use it to bring salads or soups
  • Drink unsweetened ice tea or water or seltzer
  • Weigh daily and graph progress
  • Don’t eat food with a plastic wrapper
  • Don’t eat food with unrecognizable ingredients
  • When hungry, have a cup of tea and wait half an hour
  • Don’t eat between dinner and breakfast
  • Enjoy every bite. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t eat it.

2 thoughts on “Fifty pounds, fifty-ish changes

  1. Deena Lavine

    You inspire me. I see you run in the agility ring with Rush and want to be like you. To have such a strong body and stamina and speed are a goal for me, even though I am an out of shape 61 year old. Thank you for listing the steps you have taken. You are one awesome writer, educator and thank you – you INSPIRE me!

  2. Cathy Beck

    These are all excellent suggestions and you are inspirational! I’m so impressed you published a cookbook during this time. The amount of exercise you do each day clearly burns so many more calories then most people. For those not burning so many each day, I have found that if you go low on the carbs (not no carbs by any means) it helps – particularly if you are a post menopausal woman. I use Weight Watchers on-line to track all my daily food (which I agree is critical) ; try not to use their extra points and don’t give myself points for exercise and it works pretty well. I do a high protein breakfast, salads for lunch, same snacks as you and protein and veggies pretty much for dinner. Occasionally I’ll have a small portion of brown rice or sweet potato as well. When I do this, I lose. When I deviate, I gain!

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