Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Story: Weight Loss Through Diet Change

First: Don’t diet. Dieting implies a short-term change built on forcing yourself to eat unnaturally. A boiled egg for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, salad for dinner. Nobody can sustain that. You’re so hungry that when you see a Snickers, you head for a corner and snarf it down. And even if you conscientiously stick to the diet plan, you face trouble when you return to “normal” eating. Remember normal eating? That was what caused the weight gain to begin with.

Losing weight comes from changing your attitude toward food. Food is a source of energy and health, not a reward or a way to kill time. And eating healthy doesn’t mean you’ve ruined the social aspects of food. You can enjoy a convivial visit with friends over a well-balanced meal. And eating healthy can be every bit as satisfying as eating the fatty stuff.

The pleasures of overeating are fleeting, but the results long-lasting.

Some tips:

1. Create a spreadsheet and write down everything you eat. I focused only on calories, to simplify things, but I kept my eyes open to foods that were high in sodium or sugars. You’ll be surprised at how much the little things add up. Use a site like to help you find nutrition information on the foods you eat. For example, that Snickers bar has 271 calories, 122 of those from fat. One bar has 26 percent of your daily recommended allotment of trans fat. It has a substantial 28.8 grams of sugar. Dieticians recommend that you keep sugar under 48 grams a day, so a Snickers gives you more than 50 percent of that. Think about it: Look at the fleeting pleasure, the lasting damage.

2. Be honest in the spreadsheet. If you have a glass of wine, look at the size. Five ounces of red wine have roughly 147 calories, according to the USDA. Yet, do you limit yourself to that small a portion? My wine glasses contain eight ounces, and I tend to fill them up, which raises the calorie count to 235. The larger glass then, has 88 more calories. In 40 days that extra wine will turn into a pound of fat. That’s nine pounds a year.

3. Remember the math. One pound equals 3500 calories. The average moderately active adult woman should consume 1800 to 2200 calories a day; moderately active adult males can consume 2200 to 2400 calories a day. If you cut 100 calories a day, you will lose one pound every 35 days. Likewise, if you add just 100 calories a day—about a third of a Snickers— you will add a pound every 35 days. I am here to tell you that it does add up, slowly, and with great chubbiness.

4. Replace high-fat habits with body-pleasing options. Before I turned healthy, I started each Sunday with two chocolate long johns and a Diet Coke. At the beginning of my weight-loss program, I cut this down to one long john and a Diet Coke. Eventually, I cut out both pastries and the Diet Coke. Instead, I now have whole wheat toast with cinnamon sweetened with Stevia. Cinnamon is an antioxidant, Stevia is a natural sweetener, and whole wheat can cut your breast cancer risk. I drink black cherry juice or decaffeinated coffee sweetened with natural agave juice. And I am fine with it. I do not feel like I am sacrificing treats at all.

5. Eat breakfast. The Weight Control Registry monitors people who have lost more than 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year. Seventy-eight percent of respondents eat breakfast every day. Breakfast gets you going with energy, balances your metabolism, and keeps you from getting too hungry and overeating. I actually eat two breakfasts. I start with organic oats with blueberries and almond milk. In mid-morning, I drink a smoothie.

6. Smoothies are wonders. You can pack healthy goodies into a blender and make enough ahead of time for two to three days. I sip on the smoothie when others are drinking high-caffeine, high-fat coffee drinks. My recipe is simple: fat-free yogurt, a banana, green tea, black cherry juice, and whatever fruit I have on hand, usually some type of organic berries, either fresh or frozen.

7. Keep healthy snacks on hand. I have a mid-afternoon snack of organic broccoli dipped into hummus. I make a trail mix of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, organic raisins, organic unsweetened dried cranberries, and almonds. You need no extra salt or sugar. I sometimes get fancy and buy yogurt almonds. I keep a Baggie of this in my purse for snacks whenever. Sometimes I mix it with broccoli for a truly yummy snack. I also like strips of green or red peppers, both powerful antioxidants high in Vitamin C and E

8. Keep unhealthy foods out of reach. Keep them out of the house if possible. I love peanuts and potato chips and tend to lose control when eating them. My husband has more sense and keeps them in his basement office drawer. I know where they are but have enough dignity to keep from stealing them from his office. I mean, really.

9. Eat at home. Restaurants are full of temptations, and there’s a reason they taste so good. Wonder why the pasta is so much better at your favorite Italian bistro than at home? Butter. Lots of it. You’re far more likely to maintain a healthy diet at home.

10. A low-fat diet can help reduce the risk of recurrence of hormone-receptor-negative (HR-)breast cancer, the type I was diagnosed with in 2006, according to the Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study (WINS). A low-fat diet—of 32 grams a day, or roughly 20 percent of your daily allotment of fat—caused women not only to lose weight, but to lower their risk of breast cancer. Those with HR- reduced their risk of recurrence by an impressive 42 percent. Women with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer (HR+) also benefit from lower weight, according to a more recent study published in the November 26, 2008 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study, of 280,000 postmenopausal women, showed that the risk of breast cancer increased with weight gain.

11. Weigh yourself regularly. I do it daily and find it a significant motivator. If I am up more than three pounds several days in a row, I up my exercise and cut my calories until I get back down.

12. Exercise. Diet alone is usually not enough. Ninety percent of Weight Control Registry members exercise an average of an hour a day. I don’t do that much—I try for four hours a week.

My Story: Weight Loss Through Exercise

What I learned by using exercise as one tool to lose weight (with special thanks to the trainer who helped me succeed):

1. My pleasant strolls around the lake with my friend were lovely, but they were doing nothing for my cardiovascular system and were not helping me with weight loss. To be beneficial, exercise has to increase your heart rate. My goal was to get my heart rate up to 120 at least mid-way in a walk, and keep it there most of the way. That transformed my 45-minute stroll around the lake into a 30-minute workout.

Some tips on heart rate:

• Adults typically have a resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats a minute. The lower the number, the better.

• On the other end of the spectrum is your maximum heart rate. Determine this by deducting your age from 220. I began my program at age 59, so my maximum heart rate was 161.

• When exercising, your aim should be reaching 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. My goal of 120 was about 75 percent of my maximum.

• It’s simple to measure your heart rate: Find the pulse point in your wrist or your neck until you can feel your pulse regularly enough to begin counting. Time yourself for 15 seconds. Multiply that by 4, to get the rate for a minute, or 60 seconds. If your rate is 30, your heart rate is at 120. A heart rate monitor can do this electronically, but your finger is cheaper and needs no batteries.

• Don’t overdo it. If you exercise at 85 percent or higher, you can do damage to your heart and your bones.

• Check with your doctor before getting started to make sure you have no health risks that would affect your exercise.

2. When I reached a goal, it was time to push myself more, not sit back and congratulate myself. If you want to continue losing weight, you have to keep increasing your exercise. Be reasonable. If you walk 30 minutes a day, add another five every two weeks or so. You can stop the increases once you have met your goal. At that point, keep exercising at the same rate to maintain that weight loss. Same thing with lifting weights. If you have been lifting 20 pounds at ten counts, gradually add more counts and more weights—first, go for 12 counts at 20 pounds, then 15 at 20 pounds. Then add five pounds and start the process again with ten counts at 25 pounds.

3. I had to listen to my body and do what it could handle. I tried jogging and liked it for a while—mostly I liked that I could do it. Eventually, though, my bones began to hurt and I had to be honest that it was just too jarring for my body. It helped me lose the weight, but I do not need it for maintenance. Occasionally, I run for a minute or two during a walk, just to get my heart rate up, but I do not try for any significant length. I am not opposed to jogging—for others. I just know it is not for me, and I know that if I hate doing something I will simply avoid it. I love walking and hiking, so that is my exercise of choice.

4. I don’t let myself get lazy. I stopped working with the trainer after a year, but I still have him in my head—it’s as though he’s sitting on my shoulder. When I am on a hike and think it is time to rest, or stop altogether, my interior voice tells me to keep going just a bit longer, push myself just a bit more. I have learned I can. And I am pretty doggone proud of that. And thankful.

My Story: Healthy Weight Loss

I weigh the same today as I did 25 years ago. In between, though, I gained and lost 50 pounds. Losing that weight, I am sure, helped me beat the breast cancer I was diagnosed with in 2006. And research shows that the exercise plan and low fat diet I adopted can help keep my cancer from returning.

So, yea for me for losing the weight. Why, though, did it take me so long to get to it?

The weight began creeping up in my early 40s when I started teaching. I loved the work, but it was exhausting while not being much of a workout; I spent hours at a time sitting and grading papers. I went home too pooped to exercise, but eager for a glass of wine and some comfort food. I went from a size 10 to a 12, 14, then 16.

I tried to diet. I would lose a few pounds, then gain them right back. It took me two months once to lose ten pounds. I regained it in two weeks. Clearly losing weight was impossible.

Then came my wellness exam of 2005. It did not go well. My blood sugar was high enough to put me at risk for diabetes, My cholesterol had spiked. And my weight was at an all-time high. My body mass index was 29.5—just .5 short of obese. I was a hair’s breadth away from being plain old fat and it was affecting my health.

I was 50 pounds overweight. I was carrying the equivalent of a four-year-old child of extra fat.

Plus, I was getting urinary tract infections as much as four times a year. I did research and was sobered by the fact that these can be a sign of immune system problems and diabetes. An out-of-whack immune system, I am sure, was one cause of my cancer.

When I got the written report than follows up the exam, nearly all of the ten pages listed one health risk I faced: diabetes, heart attack, cancer, stroke, you name it. Each page had the same reminder: “This would be improved if you would lose weight.”

Never before had I been given that message so blatantly: Lose weight if your health matters to you.

I considered my options. I wanted to focus on exercise as much as I could. I had always been active and enjoyed the outdoors and I wanted to enjoy hikes in the mountains again without puffing. But I knew I needed to eat less as well. And I knew I needed a system to keep me in line, to keep me in track.

Several friends recommended a personal trainer. One had lost 100 pounds working with him and was now running marathons. That had appeal, but the cost was high--$1500 for twice-weekly sessions for five months.

A colleague, though, reminded me that $1500 wouldn’t even cover my deductible if I had a heart attack. That was the permission I needed.

Rather than a luxury, I considered Tim Ives, my trainer, an investment in my health. He helped me drop the pounds gradually and, more important, keep them off.

And he taught me to change my perception of what I could do.

I learned that losing weight is a process that simply takes time and commitment. I began to actually work out—lifting weights, jogging, and walking briskly at least four hours a week. And I dieted. I limited myself to 1200 calories a day and kept track of them religiously. I usually lost weight consistently, but occasionally I would step on the scale and be a pound or two over. I was thrown, but I didn’t give up. I kept at it and the pounds dropped off.

I was paying a trainer good money. I was determined to show a benefit. Plus, I made a big deal out of the fact that I was going to lose weight. I had made a commitment in front of friends, family, and colleagues. And research shows that I did two things right: I got help, rather than trying to go it alone. And I went public. Both made me accountable for my weight loss.

When I signed up, I told Tim I wanted to lose 20 pounds. When I hit that level, I kept going because I had simply changed the way I lived. I plateaud  at 50 pounds and stayed there. It feels like I am where I should be.

There are far cheaper ways to do much the same thing, such as group trainers, online supports like, and weight loss group like Weight Watchers. Tim was valuable, though, in educating me about how to benefit from exercise and how to keep from hurting myself. I had once tried a do-it-yourself exercise regimen and threw out my hip, sidelining me seriously for weeks and costing me a nice chunk of money for physical therapy.

Plus, Tim pushed me and didn’t let me slow down when things got tough. He showed me that I could do things I never thought possible. Bench press? Me? I was almost 60 and I had never lifted a weight in my life. High time, Tim said.

Tim weighed me every week and wrote down the results. With him watching and recording, I was embarrassed when I didn’t lose. More motivation.

The change in my diet was all my own.

On most days, I gave up butter, salad dressing, bread, dessert, fried foods, and cream sauces. I ate lots of vegetables and a good amount of fruit. I drank much water. Occasionally, though, I allowed myself a treat, because I could not stick to a diet that was too austere.

I never veered off the exercise, though. I took one day off a week, but adamantly laced up my running shoes on all other days.

I’ve lost that four-year-old child I used to carry everywhere and I’ve kept her off for nearly two years. As a result, exercise is easier and more fun. I hike quicker and easier, with far less puffing. This summer, I made it up the mountain by our Colorado cabin, my original goal when I began working with Tim. I was two years late, the cancer throwing me off a bit.

Exercise and eating right have become a new way of living, not a short-term change. I know I can never go back to my life of literally chewing the fat and spending my days in a desk chair. But feeling healthy and energetic and looking at myself in a size 10 is more important than the taste of any hot fudge sundae. Well, usually.

For details on how I did it, read My Story: Weight Loss Through Exercise and My Story: Weight Loss Through Diet Change.