Last year, I wrote about my lifetime adventures with diet in A Diet by Any Other Name. At that time, I had more or less settled on the sorts of food I wanted to eat, and what I generally wanted to avoid, but I still hadn’t figured out how to balance what I had learned and maintain a happy weight. I knew I was on the right track, but my weight was 25 pounds above where I preferred to be, and I felt there had to be a happy medium in there somewhere. I’m glad to say I finally found it. I lost the 25 pounds and am back to a size 12.
This blog outlines my process and my current lifestyle choices, but what works for me may not work for you. Ultimately, we are all individuals with unique needs, and you will probably have to experiment to find what works for you. By outlining my own process, however, I hope it will inspire you to find your own way.
Portion Size Matters – A Lot
Although I no longer follow the Weight Watchers diet, which advocates eating heavily processed (low-fat) foods, it taught me the meaning of a portion. This is the single most important thing you can internalize about your food. No matter what you eat, if you eat several portions in a single sitting, you are not going to lose weight. Most restaurants in the United States serve portions that are 3-4 times more than an individual should eat. I have been served entrees that could feed a small village. This actually makes me sad, given the amount of hunger in the world.
Just about the only thing you could eat a lot of without adding pounds is steamed or raw non-starchy vegetables, like carrots or broccoli. Everything else should be consumed in moderation. You should not eat more than 3 ounces of meat in a sitting, and that’s a lot less than most fish filets or steaks. For a visual, consider the size of a post-it note, and you’re close to 3 ounces.
A serving of carbohydrates is equal to a 1-cup measure. That means 1 cup of rice, 1 cup of potatoes, 1 cup of pasta, or 1 small slice of bread. I’ll talk more about carbohydrates in a bit, but to be successful, you shouldn’t have more than 1 serving per meal.
I am personally convinced that fats are necessary and good for you, including animal fats (and my cholesterol numbers for the past two years have never been better). However, you can certainly eat too much. Limit yourself to one slice or a half slice of cheese. Don’t overdo the oil. Make sure you moderate how much is in any given meal.
Cook Most of Your Own Food
If you eat out often, it will be very difficult to lose weight because you have no control over what is going into your meal. It could be full of processed foods and hidden fats. In addition, when a single plate contains portions that could feed 3 people, it can be hard to leave behind 2/3 of your food, because somewhere in your head, a little voice is telling you not to waste what you paid for.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with eating out—occasionally. The problem comes if you do it several times a week.
Eat a Low-Carb Diet
This is tough for a lot of people, because Americans consume an incredible amount of carbohydrates every day. It is not unusual for an American to eat two or more servings of carbohydrates with every meal. Carbs, alas, quickly turn to sugar in your body, and that creates a highly acidic environment that stresses your body, and of course, it increases the likelihood that those calories are going to be converted into fat. There are also some interesting studies out there that indicate that a high-carb diet is linked to early Alzheimer’s.
Personally, I have long loved carbs, and I’m a baker, so the thought of never having a biscuit, cake, or good bread again was just too much. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had some good results from forgoing carbs for awhile, so I was convinced there was something to that. But I also wanted to enjoy life, and strict diets just do not factor into that. What to do?
I decided to limit myself to a single serving of carbohydrate a day. Yes, that means no more than 1 cup of any carbohydrate. Most of the time, I choose to have my carb with dinner, since that is our big meal. I have been able to enjoy my food quite well in this way. One day, I might have roasted potatoes. On another, perhaps pasta or a small piece of bread. Or even cake for dessert. Just whatever I want. By approaching it in this way, I don’t feel at all deprived, and I feel better than I have in years.
If one serving of carb per day is just not enough for you, try at least limiting yourself to one serving (1 cup worth) per meal. The amount of carbs that you need will vary with your activity level and genetics. Also, try to consume carbs that have a higher fiber content. High fiber means less fattening.
If you decide to try eating a low-carb diet, however, it is important that you eat enough real fat. Low-fat processed foods plus a low-carb diet is a recipe for poor health. You will starve yourself. So it’s important to eat whole fats, but just enough. Eat too much, and you won’t lose weight; you will gain. This is why portion control is so important. It doesn’t take a lot of fat to feel sated.
I recently ate carbs for breakfast instead of dinner, and I was interested to note that I felt hungry again within two hours. The sugar rush doesn’t last long, with the result that you feel hungry again sooner, making you potentially eat more than you would have otherwise. Having a small serving of protein and fats for breakfast, however, holds me well until lunch, even after working out.
Eat Until You are Sated, Not Until You are Full
Americans, in particular, are accustomed to eating until they are full, and anything less than that feeling may feel like hunger to some. But I have found that eating until I feel full means that I have actually eaten too much. In short, I needed to give myself a smaller portion.
When I eat until I am sated instead of full, I feel much better. I feel more alert, and I have more energy. Eating until I feel full weighs me down, literally. Learning to discern the difference required me to pay attention to my body’s signals as I eat, and that is a very good thing. It is something that many people have forgotten how to do, but with practice, you can absolutely relearn this essential skill.
Exercise is incredibly important for your health and for maintaining a healthy weight, but you already know that. If you’re not already exercising, you probably have a list of reasons, but I urge you to reconsider them.
The primary reason most people don’t exercise is because they believe they do not have time for it. The truth is that you have the time to do anything you value. Make the time and find something that you enjoy. There is no point in trying to force yourself to jog if you hate it. You could take a daily walk, by yourself or with friends. Listen to music, or just chat while you go. Whatever you like to do. Or play a sport that provides a cardiovascular workout. Dance, or join a gym. Buy a DVD of Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Whatever works for you, as long as you do it at least 3 times a week.
When you exercise, you are literally telling yourself that you value your health, and that you matter. Do not underestimate the power of this understanding.
For myself, I joined a gym. I try to work out 5 days a week when I can, or at least 4. My gym offers a wide variety of classes, so I mix it up. I do weight lifting 2 days a week, yoga one day, and I take a group stationary bicycle class the other 2. It’s fun, and it gets me out of the house and away from distractions. I have also really enjoyed meeting new people at the gym. On weekends when the weather is good, my family and I also like to go hiking.
A Typical Day’s Menu
Aside from exercise, the things that have brought me back to my “normal” body weight, which I first achieved with Weight Watchers and have now achieved again while eating an unprocessed, higher fat diet, was to pay attention to portion size and eat one serving of carbohydrate per day.
A typical menu looks something like this, with variations:
I eat a high-fat, high-protein breakfast, which sustains me well through my workout until lunch. Here are some of the things I typically eat.
- 1 slice bacon, 1 egg, steamed vegetable (usually left over from the previous night’s dinner)
- 1 egg, 1/2 slice good quality cheese, steamed vegetable
- 1 egg, 1 small piece of leftover meat from the night before
When I eat lunch at home, I typically have one of the following options. If I go out for lunch, I try to find something carb-free, or I leave the carb on my plate. If it’s a special occasion, I’ll just have my daily carb with lunch.
- Salad with chopped raw veggies (carrot, celery, avocado, bell pepper, cucumber, whatever’s on hand). Some cooked veggies are good in salad, including sliced beets, and if I have them, I may add them. I always add some fat to the salad. Options include: 1 slice of chopped quality cheese or feta, 1 piece of crumbled bacon or ham, vinegar & oil dressing.
- A “sandwich without the bread,” or a deli plate: 2-3 slices of salami, 1 slice of good cheese, raw carrots, okra pickles, pepperoncini, possibly leftover vegetables from the night before.
Most days, I don’t eat snacks, but sometimes you just need something. These are good options.
- 1 handful of nuts
- 1 sliced banana with 1 Tbsp of almond butter drizzled over it
- Air-popped popcorn, seasoned with olive oil cooking spray and salt. (This is not the prepackaged microwave popcorn. You can either use an air popper or a microwave-safe popcorn bowl to pop your own kernels. It’s cheaper, and it’s easy!)
- 1 raw carrot or apple
Basically, I eat whatever I want for dinner while being mindful of portions. If this is challenging, try using a smaller plate and don’t go back for seconds.
- Meat of the day (fish, pork, beef, poultry, lamb, etc.), steamed green vegetable and/or orange vegetable, and my choice of carbohydrate (potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, polenta, etc.).
- I do not have dessert every day, but I may choose to make that my carb serving and eat extra vegetables with dinner. Sometimes a small bite of chocolate (about the size of a Hershey’s kiss) satisfies the sweet craving and hurts nothing.
Yes, I have a cocktail every evening. I prefer dryer drinks to sweet ones, which helps. A martini a day never hurt anyone, but as with everything else, moderation is key.
Of course, in life, we have special days and holidays, and I allow myself to be flexible then. It’s hard to imagine Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner with only one serving of carbohydrate, so I do indulge a little more on such days. This is not a problem, as long as it isn’t a regular habit.
Plan For Life
Whatever plan you come up with, make sure it is something you can live with for the rest of your life. Where diets go wrong is to give you a short-term change that you simply cannot sustain over the long term. You are living a life here, and to be successful you must be able to live with it. It is unrealistic to expect that you are never again going to eat treats or foods you like. You can still enjoy fats and treats, but the key is moderation. If you can achieve moderation, you can essentially eat whatever you want—just in smaller amounts.
If making dietary shifts is difficult for you, and you have battled weight all of your life, you may need to look at why you are overeating. It is extremely common for people with toxic backgrounds to eat emotionally. If it was never safe for you to express your true feelings at home, you probably stuffed them with something. Some people stuff their feelings with drugs and alcohol, while others do it with food. Food literally becomes their way of comforting themselves. If this sounds familiar, there are many things you can do to help you to heal, grow, and change these patterns. Counseling may help, as well as support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous. Healing your inner child is also an important part of this work, and my own book, Discovering Your Inner Child: Transforming Toxic Patterns and Finding Your Joy, can help you along this path as well. Emotional eating has certainly been a factor in my own life, and if I can overcome it, then you can, too.
Happy New Year, everyone, and healthy eating!