Saturday, April 6, 2013

Then and Now

There wasn't a lot about my childhood in rural Kansas that wasn't organic. Okay, so Mom seemed to have an affinity for Kool-Aid, but other than that, we grew up eating vegetables that we had grown in our two gardens, beef from the cows my parents picked out directly from the pasture for slaughtering, and drinking milk from large glass jars through which you see the milk separate from the cream. Mom even used that cream to make butter, which I despised for reasons I've yet to figure out. We did our chores, played outside, watched minimal TV (though with only a couple of stations in the days before cable, that wasn't much of a sacrifice), and did our homework without the slightest intervention from our parents. And though it wasn't at all unusual for the times, there wasn't one of the seven of us who was even the least bit overweight. What large family can say that today?

Sadly, the answer is very few.

As I grew up and moved away from that farming community, my eating habits changed. I managed to stay slim until I began having children. I held onto ten pounds after each pregnancy and then started adding a few pounds to that each year after I turned forty. I sometimes think that people who are skinny during early life see themselves as just a good diet away from being skinny people again, and those who are fat throughout their early lives and shed the pounds after puberty see themselves as fat people who are one over-indulgent year away from being fat again. I was definitely the former and just couldn't see myself for the way I really looked by the time I tipped the scale at 182 pounds. That's a lot of excess weight for my relatively short frame (5', 4 1/2 ").

I still loved and ate the vegetables that were the staple of my childhood diet. I ate the wholesome meals I grew up on, as well. But I also indulged daily on the other things I loved - sweets. I loved to bake and had something in the house all the time. Like most Americans, my concept of an appropriate portion size was greatly exaggerated. I also took the bag of cookies to the TV room and mindlessly snacked on them or something like them nearly every night. If I weren't such a high-energy person, I would have been much more obese. That is clear to me now.

In April of 2008, my daughter told me that I was going to be a grandma. I was thrilled! My daughter knew she had to quit smoking (a habit she clearly got from me no matter how much I preached against it, while puffing on a cigarette), and she asked me to do it with her. I had just celebrated my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary the month before and recalled thinking that given the smoking, the slight and persistent wheeze in my chest, the annual bout of bronchitis I seemed to get, and my weight, it would probably be the last milestone anniversary I would be alive to enjoy. My husband even agreed with me when I mentioned my concern to him. I knew it was finally time to quit forever. I had quit for my pregnancies and to nurse but always picked up the habit again. I decided to join my daughter to positively impact my own health and to be a better example to her than I had been as a smoker throughout her childhood.

About a month after I quit, I was watching TV and heard a statistic about how difficult it is to lose weight once a person quits smoking. It was a shocking statistic that I can't quote now, but my memory is that is was something like losing five or six pounds over a period of several months was great because the woman had quit smoking at the same time. I worried that if I didn't diet, this statistic suggested that I might actually gain weight, and I just knew that I couldn't get any fatter. So I decided to go on a diet.


Nothing conventional for me!  

I read, read, read about how to lose weight in a healthy way and then developed a diet and fitness plan that worked for me. I lost nearly sixty pounds in six months almost five years ago and have kept it off since that time. It was all about how I looked when I started and ALL about how I feel now. 

Left: 182 lbs. March 2008
Right: 124 lbs. Summer 2012


As I said, my metamorphosis started a few months after I quit smoking and then learned that this would most likely make it difficult to lose weight. I most definitely did not  want to look like a grandma while still in my forties, but the news that I would soon be one also made me realize that I already looked the part. Of course, I colored the gray hair, but I was a frumpy, middle-aged woman in appearance, and my appearance affected the way I lived my life. I made up my mind that I was not going to look grandmotherly by the time my first grandchild was born at the end of December 2008. It was the end of May, so I had almost six months to get 'er done!

I started my diet at the beginning of June. And if you knew me at all, you'd know that when I set my mind on something, I go all the way

I had been on diets before and had always been successful in losing weight. It really isn't that difficult with all the diet products available to us. We can buy non-fat yogurt, diet colas, fake desserts, skim milk, lean frozen dinners, etc., etc., etc. The problem for me was that the weight would (always) slowly come back. 

That is where my research started. I wanted to lose weight in a healthy way so that it would be gone for good. I knew that it would require lifestyle changes, but I also understood from my early reading that the way I lost the weight (like losing as much muscle as fat) was a big determiner of how quickly it would come back. I knew I needed to eat a "diet" that I was prepared to eat for the rest of my life. I'm not talking about eating a certain number foods from a list that values those foods at certain point levels or eating foods full of fake fat, fake sugar, and just a whole butt-load of chemicals. I wanted to lose weight eating healthy foods that would allow me to burn fat without losing too much muscle, since muscle loss during diets decreases the person's caloric needs after he or she stops the diet, thus setting him or her up for weight gain. Basically, you can never stop "dieting" because you no longer have the muscle you had prior to the diet to burn the calories you eat (and you gained weight at that level when you had more muscle!). 

I had watched a news program about a study done on how diet sodas affect the body. I learned that your body responds to the anticipated sugar load, not to the real one. So when we drink a diet cola and our taste buds sense a large intake of sugar, the brain signals the pancreas to produce insulin to help the cells take in the glucose and convert it into energy. When the perceived sugar intake is entirely false, as in the case of artificial sweeteners, insulin is produced but has nothing upon which to act. High levels of insulin in your bloodstream are harmful, so your body seems to trigger a hunger response or a craving to get you to eat something to use the insulin it produced. Study after study has demonstrated a link between drinking diet sodas and weight gain. And though the theory offered in the original news program I watched has yet to be proved, I knew enough to decide that with this diet, I would not use any artificial sweeteners. 

I began my diet with a "before" picture. What a shock! Somehow I just really didn't see the truth when I looked in the mirror. It's a phenomenon I don't understand, but when looking at those pictures, one frontal shot and one from the side, I just couldn't believe they were pictures of me. I started my period the next day, and I used that as a justification for why I looked so "bloated" in the picture. As I write this, I laugh at that memory of myself. I mean, really!  How could a few pounds of water weight possibly explain the extra fifty or sixty pounds I was looking at in those pictures? I guess we tell ourselves what we need to believe. At any rate, the pictures got me motivated. I bought and read a book that I won't name (because no matter what you put out there, someone is going to challenge it) that I found very useful as I defined my goals for the diet. I learned that everybody loses muscle when they diet no matter how well-designed the diet. To combat this, I decided to incorporate weight-training into my weight-loss plan. I also learned from this and another book the importance of including some aerobic exercise in my plan. This would allow me to lose weight at a little faster pace - and I was on a deadline! 

When I decided what to eat, I chose to follow the practice of calorie shifting. In one book I read, the author basically said that we aren't going to outsmart our metabolism, which has evolved over millions of years. If we stay at a static daily caloric intake, our bodies soon figure this out and learn to conserve energy at that intake level to protect its fat. This author recommended tracking one's calorie expenditures and then having low and high days. These are defined as high or low by the percentage of the day's caloric expenditures that one would eat. I don't recall the recommendations from the book because I never followed them exactly. They were too high for me. I chose to eat around 70% of my caloric expenditures on low days and 85% - 90% of my caloric need on my high days. I usually practiced a schedule of three low days and one high day, but I also made a point to avoid rigidly following any specific schedule in the interest of at least trying to outsmart my body's evolutionary response. I made an Excel spreadsheet to calculate my intake of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and calories to ensure they stayed at about a ratio of 15% fat, 60% carbs, and 25% protein. The protein level was slightly less than what the author of the first book recommended, but I just found it too difficult to eat that much protein. 

And it worked it for me, which is the point I'm trying to make. I took a lot of information from a variety of sources and designed a plan that suited MY lifestyle, MY tastes, and MY priorities. I don't believe anybody can tell you what works for you. If you really want to change your life, you'll be willing to invest the time to do the research, sort out what you believe and don't believe based on your own experiences, and then do the work. People who have asked me how I lost the weight have said time and time again that they just couldn't do it. It is too much work and takes too much time.  My thought is that they will do what it takes (whatever that may be for them) once they want it badly enough. I wanted it badly. 

Doing the research, reading the books (the first one was over 300 pages), and developing my diet and exercise plan and spreadsheet did require a sizable initial investment of time. Once all of that was in place and I had developed a database of diets to use in my daily meal planning, the administrative time each day was minimal. 

So here is what I did!

Body Measurements: On the first day of each month, I measured my waist, bust, upper arm, thigh, and hips with a tape measure and recorded the measurements for comparison. 

Body Composition: I assessed my body composition with an Omron monitor like this one so I could understand my overall gains and losses and make adjustments to my plan if they seemed necessary. I know that no device is going to compare to professional measurements, but I was not going to go somewhere every week and pay a person to measure my skin folds and calculate this for me. I took the measurements in all the places I could reach on my own and then compared them to the scale's calculations when I first got it. They were amazingly accurate. The scale was enough for me. It allowed me to see that I was actually gaining muscle most of the time while I was losing fat. It also has a visceral fat reading, which for me was always at a healthy number. This was not the case for my husband, and it helped him see the need to get on board with me since visceral fat can be an indicator of heart disease, a health risk that runs in his family. 

Photographs: I took a set of pictures - one frontal shot and one side shot. I took them in the same clothes (a bra and jeans, so I won't be sharing those), in front of the same door, at the same time each Saturday morning. I would then crop the shots and put them next to the previous weeks' photos on a digital page to allow me to visually compare the photos and see my progress in a way a number can't explain. It was one of the most motivating components of my plan. I had to buy two more pairs of the same jeans in different sizes and one identical bra in a smaller size so all the pictures would be the same. This was money well-spent. The pictures of my shrinking self are amazing! 

Meal Plan: I made a daily food plan. As I said, I used a 15:60:25 ratio of fats to carbs to protein as a rough guide. I intentionally planned meals significantly outside those limits on occasion to keep my body guessing. Most of us eat a fairly static set of foods. So after a couple of weeks of making food plans using a program like Excel, you have a pretty good database of foods with their nutritional information from which to draw. I usually started with the previous day's plan, gave it a new date and number, and then conducted a search of my diet folder to find the foods I wanted. I either got the nutrition facts from the food labels or went to for fresh or unlabeled foods. There are lots of other food databases out there, but Calorie King was my favorite. 

Fitness Plan: This changed more than any other part of my plan. I started off walking twice a day - once in the morning and once in the evening. Three or four times a week I did a full-body weights routine from an old Jane Fonda video I bought online (dirt cheap). It included a starter level that was to be used for at least the first six weeks and then a more advanced level that I used later. I had an elaborate fitness plan tracking page that took too much time to complete, so I eventually simplified it to just a small box on my food plan page. I varied the length of the morning and evening walks to ensure that my calorie burn was never the same two days in a row. Once I added running, I cut out the evening walk. I worked up to five miles of running per day in the first couple of weeks and stuck with that, but I still varied the length of my morning walk. 

The Omron scale gives a reading of your basal metabolic needs ("daily caloric need" at the top of the box above), but I had started with figures from a page of the website that worked for me. I always chose the sedentary level so I could calculate my exercise calories on my own. To do this when I walked outside, I wore a pedometer and used another function of the site that gives calories burned per mile by walking. I found it much more accurate than the treadmill figures I had available to me at the time. I eventually took up running (or jogging, as a friend of mine likes to remind me, though I think my sweat and fatigue gave me the right to call it as I see it, and I was working way too hard to call it anything but running). This necessitated the purchase of a new treadmill that could handle the demands of a daily five-mile run. My new treadmill allows me to put in my personal stats, and the figures are dead-on with what I've found online. 

Note: You do not have to run to achieve good results. My daughter used my plan to lose weight and just couldn't run. I love the physical high I get from running and the sense of accomplishment I get from being able to run for an hour. I had to quit running every day after I achieved my goal weight because I got too thin and couldn't seem to eat enough to counter the running without going back to my old unhealthy food choices (cookies, chocolate, Little Debbie's whatever). I hurt my knee in a "dog" accident a little over a year ago and couldn't run at all for quite a while. It did not cause me to gain weight. Running is a personal choice, but all of us need some type of physical activity on a regular basis (meaning every day, as far as I'm concerned) for optimal health. Our bodies were designed to be active. 

Journal: This was second only to the pictures in terms of motivating me to stay focused. I usually started my journal entry (on computer) at the beginning of the day outlining my plans for activity and diet. I included my daily weight. I know experts say you shouldn't weigh every day, but I needed to do it. For me it was an accountability issue. I learned not to get upset at a pound or two weight gain in a day if I had eaten something higher in sodium (like my favorite "Quick Broccoli with Beef" recipe, which contains soy sauce). I expected it and knew I'd see the correction the next day. I also learned that if I had eaten watermelon, asparagus, and some herbal tea all in the same day, I tended to see a greater loss the next day because of the diuretic properties of those foods. I learned not to get too excited about that, either. But the journal was a way for me to plan my activities of the day, to express my joys and frustrations over how things were going, and to speculate on cause and effect relationships (like the fact that my "calorie deficit" never matched the actual loss one would expect based on that percentage of a 3500-calorie pound; it tended to be a much greater loss). I finished my journal at the end of the day, and this was another way I held myself accountable for sticking to the plan. I printed it on the back of the day's food plan and put it in a notebook. I even took pictures of my new self or pictures when I got back into old clothes that I loved and included them in my journal. When I hit milestones, I'd take a picture of the scale and put it on the journal page, so it has become like my scrapbook of my metamorphosis, and it's a book I now treasure. 

My Results

The weight truly just seemed to melt away. As has always been the case for me, I shed a lot of pounds very quickly - 20 pounds in the first month! Then it slowed down, as it should have. What was radically different for me this time was what didn't happen. 

I never cheated on this diet. Not once!  
I remember years ago when I joined Weight Watchers after I had my last child. My husband followed my diet. I bought the groceries, planned the meals, and cooked all the food, so he didn't have a lot of choice at mealtime. But he saw that I was losing weight and decided to stop snacking and stick to a man-sized serving of what I was eating. When I would cheat, which was all the time, he wouldn't cheat with me. He would act puzzled at my behavior and say something along the line of how cheating defeated the purpose of dieting. As if it were that simple!  But I bought lots of the Weight Watcher desserts so I wouldn't feel deprived and continued to feed my sweet tooth (with artificial sweeteners) and to drink diet soda. Of course I cheated. I almost had to given all the insulin floating around my system with nothing to do!  I still lost the weight and got down to my pre-pregnancy weight. Then I gained it all back in two years. I believe it was different for me this time because I consumed absolutely no artificial sweeteners and planned my meals ahead of time. If I got hungry, there was something I could eat to satisfy that hunger. I planned three meals and three snacks a day, but I ate them when I was hungry. It was quite often difficult to make myself eat that last snack. I also ate lots of vegetables and fruits that were high in fiber and gave me the sensation of being full, thus reducing my desire for food. I also noticed that my sweet tooth pretty much disappeared. In the 4 1/2 years since I lost the weight I have noticed a correlation between indulging in the occasional dessert  (which I recommend - balance is everything in life) and wanting something sweet later in the day. For me at least, eating sweets begets eating sweets. I now know this and plan a high-fiber food for later in the day (the Weight Watcher soup recipe I got long ago is both delicious and great for curbing my hunger). One of the books I read addressed the glycemic index. I was eating rice cakes and watermelon, both of which are high on the glycemic index. I learned that if I wanted to continue eating those things, I should pair them with foods that are low on the glycemic index to slow down the rate at which they are broken down. When you're satisfied (barring an eating disorder), you are much less likely to cheat. I really wasn't hungry past the first month. I didn't allow myself to go hungry for hours on end because I didn't want to trigger energy conservation. Which leads me to my next point.  

I never plateaued on this diet. Not once!  
This I attribute largely to the calorie shifting. I remember getting "stuck" at one weight or another for a couple of weeks at a time when I was on Weight Watchers. They would give me an alternative plan to follow for the next week, and it usually worked. But I did not engage in any exercise when I did WW and ate the same number of points for weeks on end. With MY weight-loss plan (so much more than a diet), I was constantly shaking things up with different daily calorie goals and different levels of exercise. 

And the Best Part Is . . . .

Once again, my husband saw what I was doing and didn't want to eat my dust!  He joined me in changing his lifestyle. He ate the foods I was eating, got on the treadmill (albeit only on the weekends, and he would never run), and he shed the pounds, too. The difference in our 25th anniversary picture (on the left) and our 26th anniversary picture (on the right) pretty much tells the story. 

When I started my story, I said my "diet" started out of concerns about how I looked. Since every previous diet I've been on was solely calorie-reduction in nature, the primary benefit I received was improved physical appearance, not improved physical fitness or improved health. Since this weight-loss plan was really a health and fitness plan that included giving up smoking, exercising every day, and making healthy food choices (which I continue to tweak today, but that's an even later post), what I got out of it went way beyond looking better in my clothes. There just aren't words to describe the difference in how I feel now. 

But I'm gonna' try. 

I remember the early days of my lifestyle change. I started out walking a couple of miles a day, which was tough! Then I added an evening walk, and there were literally mornings (most of them, in fact) when I walked painfully across the bedroom taking one slow step at  a time because every muscle in my legs ached. I was carrying all that extra weight around on my arthritic knees and ankles with muscles that had NEVER been taxed in such a way before. 

After the first month, I was walking ten miles a day. But that takes a long time, and I wanted to do more with my day than exercise. Since I wasn't willing to give up the calorie burning benefits of my exercise, I got this wild idea that maybe I'd try running. 

I literally laugh at the memory of those first days. I ran for three minutes on the treadmill and was sooooooooooooo out of breath - in three minutes and after a month of walking miles and miles every day! But the next day I did ten minutes, and the next day, 12 minutes. In two weeks I was up to an hour a day. I had never been a runner, never been an athlete, and I was able to run five miles a day in only two weeks. I remember talking to my mother about my goal, and she said she just knew I could do it. Her picture was on my dresser right there in front of the treadmill. So when I doubted myself, I just looked at her picture and remembered her unfaltering belief in me, and I pushed myself a little harder. 

I expected to have some physical backlash from all the running I was doing just as I had when I increased my walking. But the most amazing thing happened. Rather than having more pain and an adjustment period, I noticed less pain and then none in a very short time. I truly believe that running prevents arthritic pain for me. I've read (since then) that it does this for many people, but I can't wrap my mind around the cause and effect. I run on a good treadmill with a cushioned deck and I wear good running shoes, so I guess that helps reduce shock to my joints. That just can't be the whole story. A friend of mine always tells me that we just have to accept some things as true even when we can't explain them. So about eighteen months ago, I got tripped up in my dog's leash and fell. I injured my knee (fractured an arthritic spur I didn't know I had), and I couldn't run for months. It only took a couple of weeks for the pain in my ankle to return.  It is never there when I run faithfully and is only minimally painful when I walk daily. So now I accept the truth that for me, for reasons I don't understand, running is my preventive medicine. 

Less arthritic pain was just one of the health benefits I noticed. Another was (to my husband's delight) that I stopped snoring (and you don't know how difficult it is for me to admit that I possibly might have done such an unladylike thing as snore). I have had sleep problems for years to the degree that I finally went through a sleep study. I'm sure the excess fat that caused the snoring was probably why I was diagnosed with borderline sleep apnea. I still wake up a ridiculous number of times each night, but it's not because my airway is obstructed. 

It took some time, but I eventually was able to go off my medication for Restless Legs Syndrome. I did it to transition to a different medication with every intention of getting on the new medication in two weeks. To my complete shock, I no longer needed it. I had such severe problems with RLS for over a decade that I couldn't even make the hour-long car trip home from concerts I go to with my husband without having my medicine with me to take right before we left the concert hall. I sometimes have minor issues with it now, but they are rare and only a slight nuisance. RLS does not keep me up anymore. 

I used to have a lot of problems with nausea (go figure, put a bunch of junk in your body and your stomach gets upset). I never do now. 

I used to have headaches. They are rare now and only seem to happen when I forget to sleep on my "special" pillow for the arthritis I have in my neck. They aren't from riding the sugar roller coaster.  

I take no medications anymore - hardly ever need my allergies meds, either. 

I just feel good all of the time now. 

We truly are what we eat.

And I eat the good stuff.


  1. So proud of you, mama. Love you!

  2. Thanks, Baby! You were my inspiration (both for blogging and for paying attention to what was in the food I am eating).