The other night I was telling Josh about a friend who was struggling to lose weight, who had expressed frustration at reducing calories and still gaining weight. Josh and I got talking about the various things both of us have learned about weight loss in the last year, and I realized some of this might be useful insight to pass along. I don’t in any way claim to be an expert, these are just things I learned that worked for me. To me they now seem common sense, but given how messed up many of our relationships to food, exercise, and our bodies are, maybe some of this can be helpful to someone else.
A note: I’m gonna throw it all out there and use real numbers. Shocking, I know. But I’m doing this for two reasons:
1. Women need to get better at being honest about this, and not being bitches to each other about it. If I’m heavy I don’t feel good about myself so I’m ashamed to say how much I weigh. But if I lose weight I’m reluctant to say a number because other women get snarky about it. Can we knock it off?
2. One of my main points is that numbers are relative. 150 lbs. on my frame is too much. 150 lbs. on someone else is perfect. This is all about what’s right for you, not what some vague standard of “health” or “thin” is.
I started putting on weight in 2009, when I left an active, on-my-feet retail job for a desk job (and quit smoking at the same time.) At my heaviest I was 155 lbs, and I was miserable with it for several years. I not only had to buy all new clothes, I decided that I’d never fit into my size 4 jeans again so I gave it all to goodwill. I was pretty miserable with my size but not able to find the motivation to do something about it.
Something finally tipped the balance last summer, and the weight started coming off. I managed to keep steady through the holidays, and I’ve actually lost more weight through this winter – the jacket my mom gave me for Christmas is too big now.
I’ve lost 30 pounds in the last 9 months. I’m now at 125, which is perfect. I not only fit into my wedding dress again, it’s a touch big. Any more would be too thin. Plus, I love that my dog and I are the same weight.
Again, I’m not an expert. I’m not a health guru. I smoke and drink and eat bacon whenever I get a chance. Every single one of these “rules” has an exception. But I do think it points to an overall philosophy that is useful.
So, without further ado, here are the things I’ve learned:
1. This is so important – EAT REAL FOOD.
Cut out the processed crap. None of it is actually food and all of it will hurt you. It can take time to get yourself off processed food – it took me years. But when you realize how bad that stuff makes you feel it gets easier. I used to have to wean myself off fast food after every tech week. I would crave it for days after. Now I can’t imagine wanting to eat at McDonalds.
1a. When I say “eat real food,” I also mean the full version of things. Anything that has the word “lite” or “diet” in it is not good for you. Eat butter. Eat cream. Don’t go for the low-fat option. None of these things are inherently bad for you, it’s just all about moderation. If something is “lite” it has been processed. Butter is ok. Just don’t eat a whole stick of it in one sitting.
1b. Stop drinking soda. ESPECIALLY diet soda.
That shit is evil. Seriously. I know so many people who are addicted to Diet Coke. It is not good for you. I don’t know anyone who drinks Diet Coke in moderation. All you are doing is consuming unnecessary calories that don’t hydrate you and probably will give you cancer. Drink water. Don’t buy soda at the grocery store, and skip the “meal” when you eat out. Just ask for a cup for water. You’ll save yourself a ton of money. Which means you’ll have more money for beer.
2. Learn how to cook.
Again, this is something that started years ago, and didn’t come easily. But if you learn to love food, real food; good fresh in-season not-processed food, your life will be so much better. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Baby steps. Stop buying Ragu. Buy a can of tomato sauce, an onion, garlic, and some fresh herbs instead. Figure that out before you move on. I think a lot of people are afraid of cooking because they try too much at once. I used to be utterly hopeless in the kitchen. I’m not any more. Teach yourself. You’re smart. There is so much pleasure to be had from food and eating, I don’t get why anyone would want to eat crap when they can have the real thing.
2a. This isn’t as much about weight loss, but stop limiting what you are willing to eat. I have very little tolerance for people who cut out entire food groups because they don’t like them. I used to hate olives. I kept trying them until they started tasting good. Now I love them. Same with sushi. And green peppers. Often people don’t like a particular food because they had a bad version of it. There is a huge difference between a frozen olive on a pizza and a fresh kalamata. This is why good, fresh, real food is important.
2b. In Season first, Local second, Organic third
I’ve pretty much stopped eating tomatoes unless it’s July, August, or September. I avoid asparagus unless it’s that magical three weeks in May. There’s nothing better than a grilled beet on an early fall day. Our food should be cyclical, and the unnatural expectation that we should be able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, is messed up. Don’t get me wrong, I drink more coffee than God, and I love a good banana or mango. But if there is something that is grown in this state in a particular season, I would much rather binge on it when it’s available than have the mediocre version flown in from Mexico all year round. Once you’ve had a good, Minnesota-grown, fresh off the vine heirloom tomato, the mealy, sad things you can get at the grocery store just don’t seem the same.
3. Portion control
My eyes are ALWAYS bigger than my stomach. I also eat fast, so I tend to keep eating before my stomach can realize it’s full and tell me. Now, I do cut my burger in half. Or just put less on my plate. Slow down, give your stomach time to catch up with your brain. You’ll realize you don’t need to eat as much as you think you do.
4. Be ok feeling hungry
I am a snacker, and if there’s food around I’ll eat it. I had to train myself that just because my stomach grumbles, it doesn’t mean I need to instantly satisfy it. Josh and I both have this weakness, so this is our solution: we don’t tempt ourselves. We know that if there is snack food in our house, we will eat it mindlessly. So we simply don’t buy it. No chips, no pretzels, no crackers. No one forces you to buy things at the grocery store. Use your brain instead of your stomach.
5. Buy a scale. Step on it every day.
This isn’t about what the number is, it’s about gaining an understanding of the cycles of your body. Weight is not a linear thing – our bodies naturally fluctuate throughout the day and across time. As a woman, my weight changes depending on where in my monthly cycle I am. Stepping on the scale every day helps me keep track of this. Also, when you know where you are it’s easier to control it. These days I find it a lot better to realize I’ve hit a lazy patch and correct it before 3 pounds turns into 15.
6. Be active
I hate exercise. I despise the idea of a gym membership. Some people can do it, but I know it’s not for me. But any movement is better than none. Standing is better than sitting. Walking is better than standing. Etc. If you want to lose weight you MUST get your heart rate up sometimes. You don’t have to go jogging every day. But you have to do SOMETHING. I started riding my bike more last year – again, I do this only as transportation, not as exercise. This winter I decided to keep riding to work. My office is barely a mile from my house, there isn’t a good bus, walking takes too long and driving would be expensive and stupid. Biking is the option that makes most sense. I do believe that a lot of my weight loss this winter has to do with the fact that I stayed on my bike. But it’s not like I was hardcore about it. I rode less than a mile there and back three times a week. That’s it. It is barely far enough to get my heart rate going, but it made a difference. A big one.
7. Don’t diet
Diets are not healthy. Diets are about achieving unrealistic results on unrealistic timescales that aren’t sustainable. Change your life, change your habits. Realize that it will take time. Realize that your first goal should be changing bad habits, not losing weight. Losing weight sustainably takes time. But if you make small steps to change your habits, you will lose weight without realizing it.
8. Own it
Feel good about yourself. As I mentioned earlier, women can be horrible to each other about our bodies. I have found myself being bashful about my success because other women react negatively because they don’t feel good about themselves. And that’s not healthy for anyone. I am in better shape than I have ever been and I feel good about it. I have learned to look people in the eye when they ask and say “Yes, I have lost weight. And I feel great. Thank you for noticing.” There is nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself.
Ultimately, I think the way our culture has created this idea that being healthy means denying yourself things is really messed up. I rarely deny myself anything. Given, I’m lucky that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I definitely have a bacon-mayonnaise-cheese-whiskey tooth. If I want a piece of cheesecake, I eat a piece of cheesecake. I make sure it’s the best damn cheesecake I can get. The more I’ve gotten processed food out of my diet, the more I’ve come to appreciate real food and to realize that it’s not about how much you do or don’t allow yourself to have, it’s about quality and appreciation. Eat real food. Eat good food. THAT’S what being healthy is all about.