by Jan Cullinane. Previously published in the 2015 Fall Issue.
I love the articles about people who have lost 100, 200 and 300 or more pounds. Their stories are inspiring and riveting, and I find their before and after photos mesmerizing.
But, what about people who would like to lose 20 or so pounds? Those who don’t want/don’t need/can’t afford/aren’t candidates for any kind of surgical intervention, not eligible for a stint on The Biggest Loser and people who don’t have the time or means, desire to go to an adult weight-loss ranch or camp for a period of several weeks, yet want to get back to “the way they were,” to paraphrase Barbra Streisand.
I’m in the latter group. I’m way past my baby-making days, but was still carrying the six or so pounds I never lost from each of my three children. So, an extra 18 pounds right there. Compound that with a slower, aging metabolism, and I’ve been carrying around an extra 25 pounds since my 40s (I’m 61). Until recently, I was still eating like I did as a teenager/young adult; the good old days when my metabolism was humming and I could eat/drink whatever I wanted with impunity.
I have a background in Biology and a keen interest in health. I knew in theory what I needed to do: control portion sizes (our metabolism slows as we age, due to more fat and less muscle, and our organs require fewer calories), keep moving and eat healthy. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we all know it isn’t. It wasn’t until I closely examined my own lifestyle and habits, and read a lot about behavior, that I figured out how to change things in order to lose that extra weight. Over the past six months, I’ve lost 16.8 pounds (my scale measures to the tenth of a pound), and it hasn’t been too hard. But, I did have to change some long-term behaviors and habits. The following hacks may not work for everyone, but here is what worked for me:
Get rid of the junk food in the house
This single, simple change made the biggest difference. I realized I could be “good” all day, but when it was about 8 or 9 p.m., the cookies, candy or ice cream would start calling to me. I had read the research about willpower being a finite resource that gets “used up” over the course of a day. This concept resonated with me. No wonder I could work, volunteer, eat a healthy breakfast and lunch and fulfill other commitments when my willpower was high, but when night fell, I began to crave junk food. Removing it from the house made all the difference. I now reach for a banana or an apple or raspberries or some pistachios rather than devour six marshmallow-covered cookies or eat a large bowl of Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. If I go to a friend’s house, I’ll eat dessert – I’m not a saint.
Weigh yourself every morning
I used to weigh myself once a week, as many experts recommend, but I found I was “gaming the system” by thinking if I ate too much one day, I still had five or six days to recover before it “counted.” But, guess what – I used that rationalization almost every day and then, when weigh-day was approaching, I tried to “cram,” like studying for a test, only in this case it was to try and not eat. And, I almost always gained weight or stayed the same. So, I went to the every-day weigh-in, first thing in the morning. I decided to allow a gain of two pounds over a two-day period; if my weight rose more than that, I knew I had to eat less (the food intake is more important than the amount of exercise when it comes to losing weight).
Get a fitness tracker
This one surprised me. My daughter gave me a Fitbit Zip for my birthday. I’m fortunate that I like to exercise, and felt I didn’t need a little machine that counts how many daily steps I take. I didn’t think seeing these numbers on a little screen would make a difference to me, but it does. For example, I find I’m more likely to park even farther away when going to a store or a meeting, to take my dog on an extra-long walk, to sign up for an extra exercise class, or to walk after dinner. All so I could see my “number” increase!
Ditch diet drinks
I haven’t totally cut them out, but I have cut way back, and replaced them with water (but I have to admit, sometimes there’s nothing like a Coke Zero with pizza when eating out). I fell into the common trap that since I was “saving” calories by drinking a diet soda, I could eat more of something else. Research has convinced me that diet drinks can “trick” the mind into craving more sweets, can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, can erode tooth enamel, can cause headaches, and can contribute to lower bone density. So, I don’t purchase diet drinks anymore, either.
Use extrinsic motivators
As I mentioned, I like to exercise, but I’m not motivated to go to the gym on my own. However, I’m delighted to attend a weight class, play doubles’ tennis with friends, walk my dog (he demands it with those big brown eyes looking up at me beseechingly), or ride my bike to the store. I hate shopping, so my little basket is perfect; I’m out of there fast, and it forces me to ride the two miles each way several times a week. One hint: my fitness tracker won’t work on the bike if it’s attached at my waist – I have to hook it to my sock or the bottom of my shorts or jeans, so it can record my bike “steps.”
Concentrate on the here and now
I know I should be thinking about eating well and exercising more to avoid lifestyle-related cancers and lowering my chances for heart disease and diabetes down the road. However, what I’ve found works for me is concentrating on what eating less junk food and moving more does for me NOW: feeling more energetic, sleeping more soundly, the social benefits of tennis and exercise classes, making my dog even happier, and the enjoyment of nature when I ride my bike. And, let’s be honest: it’s gratifying when people notice I’ve lost weight and tell me I look good.
My secret weapon
Okay, sometimes when I’m home, I need a chocolate fix. So, I’ll drink a glass of milk with chocolate syrup (2 tbls = 100 calories) a few times a week with lunch or dinner. I find it satisfies the craving. I’m not tempted to drink gallons of milk for the chocolate buzz (although I have been tempted a few times to just squirt the syrup directly into my mouth).
I’m not saying these hacks will work for everyone. But, they have worked for me, and it’s been relatively painless. I still eat out frequently, still have a glass of wine with dinner when eating at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, or when entertaining at home, but the weight has come off slowly and steadily without my feeling deprived. People have noticed, and that’s very nice, too. The negative? As I said, I don’t like shopping, but have had to buy new shorts and jeans. After losing (almost) 17 pounds, they were too loose.
I have a little more than eight pounds to go to get back to a weight that is right for me. I’m pretty sure maintaining the new weight won’t be a piece of cake (so to speak), but I feel after six months of these new behaviors, I’ve developed and solidified better life-long habits. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know in another six months how things are progressing.
Jan Cullinane is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. Her current book is The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement (AARP/Wiley).