The Secret to My Successful Weight Loss and Maintenance (I Think)

I haven’t posted in a (very) long time, mostly because I couldn’t decide what to post about. While I have posted a lot of ideas here about ways to get healthy and lose weight, none of them felt like the root cause of why I was successful this time. People would ask what my secret is, and I’d say “healthy eating and exercising” and while that was true, it didn’t feel like the whole story. They would say “you must have worked very hard,” and I would just nod my head, but honestly it didn’t seem that hard. That was the big mystery: Why did it actually seem relatively easy, when every time I have tried to lose weight before I have failed? This Saturday, I will have maintained my 100 pound weight loss for a year (hooray!), and I think I may have finally figured out what my secret really was.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that my weight was on a very slow upward trend. Thinking about it, I realized that I was still having some sweet cravings, and in response had been eating a lot of dried fruit–healthy, but also very high in calories. I also was still having honey in my coffee in the morning, the last bit of added sugar I still had every day. I decided to try an experiment, and do without the honey in my coffee and see if I could still enjoy a cup of coffee without it. I told myself I would just try it for a week, and then I could always start putting it in again. I started just having my coffee with milk. Almost instantaneously, I stopped having cravings during the day. My weight has been slowly dropping again, with no extra effort from me.

Around the same time, my sister-in-law, who had recently gone gluten-free the right way–removing all the processed foods that contain gluten, and not replacing them with gluten-free processed crap–commented on how her appetite had regulated, and she was finally getting normal hunger cues.

I knew that cutting processed foods was an important part of why I lost weight and have kept it off. Processed food has almost no nutritional value, and just adds a bunch of unneeded calories. It digests quickly, so you get hungry again fast. I now think that wasn’t the whole story.

So, here is what I think is my secret: Sugar and other highly processed carbs were messing up my satiation (fullness) and satiety (hunger) cues. Previously, I always felt out of control of my weight, I was just hungry more often than other people, and had a bigger appetite when it was time to eat. I thought that people like me were just different, and that if I wanted to lose weight I would just have to always resist those factors, and be hungry all the time. Now I believe that I was partly right. I think some people are different, in that sugar and processed carbs affect some people more than they do others.

These foods with a high glycemic load raise blood sugar levels quickly. Insulin is released to drop blood sugar levels, and low blood sugar levels cause hunger, and may lead to cravings for more foods that will quickly raise blood sugar levels again, and the cycle begins again. According to a study published about a year ago by Dr. David Ludwig, these foods also trigger the reward and pleasure centers of the brain, which can have an addictive quality in some people, and lead to overeating. We all have that friend who eats tons of junk, and still stays lean. Just like some people can drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics, some people can eat these highly processed carbs, and not end up with weight problems. But for others, like me, we are better off abstaining.

By starting to exercise vigorously, I think I was able to break this cycle without even realizing it. There is some evidence that exercise helps to regulate blood sugar levels, and that is what I think happened with me when I started doing Zumba. After that, I was able to start down the path of healthier eating without my cravings being overpowering, and as I cut out more processed food, I had even less cravings. With the removal of these highly processed carbs, my fullness and hunger responses corrected themselves.

I think this also may explain why some people are very successful on low-carb or paleo diets, since those would also cut out added sugars and other processed carbs. However, I feel like these diets are often too restrictive, and cut out some carbs that are actually pretty healthy.

I’m also not saying that all you have to do is cut out added sugars and processed carbs. Other things I’ve discussed such as eating lots of vegetables and fruit and watching portion sizes are still very important. However, I think by cutting out the added sugars and processed carbs, it may make everything else infinitely easier.

I still allow myself a sweet treat now and then, but only occasionally, so it actually is a treat. I savor every bite, and I eat it with the knowledge that I will have to exercise a lot of willpower to not give into cravings later. Often I will have the treat at the end of the day (say, for dessert after dinner), and just make sure to not eat anything else after.

So, if you are struggling with your weight, my secret may or may not be your secret as well. There is no one who argues that added sugar and other processed carbs are good for you, and almost everyone agrees that they are bad for you, so you have nothing to lose by not eating them (except some unwanted weight), and you might gain a control over your eating you never thought possible. The process of cutting out the added sugar and processed carbs will not be easy, but I feel like it is incredibly worth it, to finally feel like I have some control. I’m unsure how long it will take for the cravings to completely go away, or how much processed carbs you will need to cut to feel the effects. It could be (and likely is) that each individual is very different in this. Over the next few days, I plan to post some tips on getting rid of added sugar and processed carbs.

Please, give me feedback on what you think of this idea, and whether you are going to try reducing your added sugars and processed carbs!

Weekly Healthy Habit #3: Portion Control

Now to one of the important benefits of eating all of those vegetables–it should be a bit easier to reduce the portion sizes of the foods that you can’t eat with abandon. As I stated in my previous post, I control the portion size of all foods except vegetables at each meal–and I had to learn what a correct portion actually looks like–and then load up on the vegetables until I feel satisfied.

The first part of portion control I am going to talk about is using smaller plates and bowls. As I discussed in one of my earliest posts, I started having dinner on salad plates instead of dinner plates early on in my journey, and I still do to this day. When I am serving myself dinner, I imagine the plate as being split into quarters; I put the protein on one quarter, the starch on one quarter, and the vegetable on the other half of the plate. For my plates, that works out just about right for portions sizes. Here’s some examples of what that looks like:

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As you can see from these pictures, the starch is often a starchy vegetable rather than something grain based. We also frequently have more than one kind of vegetable with our meal, depending on what is in season. We have lots more variety in vegetables during the summer, of course.

I also use smaller bowls when I am serving myself snacks, like nuts or dried fruit. Items like these are healthy, but the serving size is very small. If you put a small amount of food on a big plate or in a big bowl, it can look depressingly small. But put it on a small plate or bowl, where it fills it up, and you really can fool your mind into thinking that you are getting more.

 

How the Habit of Eating More Vegetables Has Helped Me Get Healthy

As I said when I introduced this habit, this is probably my #1 recommendation to people, and that is because of how much this habit has helped me. Because here’s the thing…I LOVE to eat. And I love to eat a lot of food. I’m not so great at doing that whole “only eat when you are hungry” and “stop eating when you are satisfied, not stuffed” thing–though I continue to try to work on that. Oh, and the “eat slowly” thing is a work in progress too.

So, I practice portion control (next week’s habit!) with everything else, and I let myself go crazy with the veggies. I make A TON of veggies with every dinner, so that if I want to keep eating, I can let myself do that…just with only the veggies. If there are leftovers, that’s terrific, I’ll have them with lunch the next day. If I want to snack between meals, even if I’m not hungry, that’s fine…but only with veggies–and sometimes fruit, though I do watch the quantity of fruit I eat in a day. If I am actually hungry, I will often have some protein with my veggies or fruit.

And here’s the thing…veggies are absolutely delicious. I love veggies. Sure, I love to experiment with them, and try cooking them in different ways. But most of the time I just love to quickly pan steam them with a little garlic and salt, as I described in this recipe, or I grill them like in this one. I also love a great crunchy salad, and sometimes experiment with different salads and dressings. If you don’t like vegetables a lot, or don’t know how to prepare them, this article from the Kitchn has some great tips. I think it would be impossible to really get healthy without being in a habit of cooking regularly, and I will definitely talk about that in a future post as well.

So, if you like to eat like I do, try making about twice as much vegetables as you think is reasonable, and go at it! You will be getting lots of healthy vitamins and nutrients, you won’t be hungry since veggies have lots of good filling fiber, and as a result you may find yourself eating less of the stuff that isn’t as healthy. It certainly worked–and continues to work–for me.

Links From Around the Web on Eating More Fruits and Vegetables

Here’s some great ideas from around the web on how to eat more vegetables and fruit:

40 Unexpected Ways to Add Veggies to a Meal – great ideas from Greatist.com, a site with lots of fitness and nutrition information.

How to Get More Vegetables into Your Diet – from my favorite nutritionist, Monica Reinagel the Nutrition Diva. She gives very fact-filled, no gimmicks advice.

12 Ways to Eat More Vegetables and Fruit – from Cooking Light. I have ambivalent feelings about the magazine and website. They have some great ideas and recipes, but in my opinion they still use too much white flour and sugar and processed foods in some of their recipes

Weekly Healthy Habit #2: Eat Lots of Vegetables and Fruit

This week, I’m going to talk about my favorite subject, fruits and veggies! Seriously, if anyone ever asks me my secret to losing weight and getting healthy, I always tell them learn to love vegetables and eat a ton of them.

Vegetables have a very high nutrient density. That means that they have a lot of nutrients compared to the amount of calories. They also usually have quite a lot of fiber. So they fill you up, give you lots of great stuff your body needs, and don’t add on a lot of calories to your day. Oh yeah, and they taste fantastic too! My goal for most dinners, and often lunch as well, is to pack in as many different vegetables as I can. I eat an unlimited amount of vegetables–seriously, a lot–and about 3-4 servings of fruit each day. Fruit has a bit more calories than vegetables, so I try to exercise some portion control. I often have fruit in my breakfast, and when I have a craving for something sweet during the day. I also have an apple almost every night for dessert while they are in season.

There are a few habits you should try to form when it comes to fruits and (especially) vegetables. When grocery shopping, load up your cart from the produce section. If available, try to visit a farmer’s market weekly, or join a local CSA–visit LocalHarvest.org to find one near you. Then, plan to have fruits or vegetables with every single meal and snack. In fact, vegetables should make up the majority of the volume of food on your plate for most meals.

Today is Meatless Monday, so it is a great day to start this topic! Try having a vegetarian dinner once a week, where the vegetables get to be the star. Tonight we are eating vegetarian tacos, which is one of my kids (and my) favorites. I posted about taco night a year ago, but for that post I used ground turkey. More often, I now make my taco filling with tempeh and a lot of veggies. Tonight I will probably put in mushrooms and zucchini along with the tempeh and tomatoes. I will post an updated recipe soon. I hardly ever have a tortilla with my taco filling any more, I’ve recently discovered how delicious it is on a roasted sweet potato. Then I layer it with shredded romaine, tomato, and salsa verde. Mmmm, I’m getting hungry for dinner!

I will post more ideas about meals featuring a lot of vegetables and fruit, and links to websites to help get ideas about how to add more vegetables to your diet. In the meantime, go grab a carrot stick and get munching!

Mindfulness Can Be a Challenge

Today I couldn’t get to a class at the gym, but I have gotten into the habit of exercising every day, so felt like I should do something. That’s the benefit of creating healthy habits, it just feels wrong if you don’t follow through with them.

Yesterday my husband was talking about this wonderful hike he took near our house so I thought it would be a good way to get some exercise, and to make sure that he doesn’t pass me on the Fitbit leaderboard (ha ha, he’ll never pass me!)

As I started my walk, I had an internal dialogue going in my head…and it wasn’t a good one. I was grumbling about how I really didn’t feel like walking, I much prefer going to classes at the gym, walking felt boring in comparison. Grumble grumble grumble…I entered the hiking trail and started climbing up the hill, and my internal grumbling went to the fact that my legs were sore from strength training yesterday, I was still bored, so on and so forth.

Suddenly I realized…it is a beautiful day in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are having an unseasonably warm and dry winter, a fact for which I am sure we will all pay with water restrictions this summer, but for now it is really lovely outside. The woods I was hiking through are lovely and still a bit wild, even though they are surrounded by suburbs on all sides. My body is strong, and I love the feeling of my muscles working hard, even when they are a bit sore. As I started being more mindful of my surrounding, of the beautiful day, of the way my body felt, my internal grumbles faded and I felt more at peace, and my walk became a lovely experience.

So sometimes you have to work to calm all your grumblings, and just be mindful of the moment.

Mindfulness While Grocery Shopping

An important step in eating more mindfully is being mindful when buying your groceries. Avoiding impulse buying, and knowing about the food you are purchasing will go a long way towards a healthier lifestyle.

Before you shop, make a grocery list. This will help reduce impulse buying. I really like GroceryIQ–I keep the list on my iPhone, and my husband can update the list from his phone and it will sync back to mine. I actually shop at a lot of different stores–Trader Joe’s (primarily), our local grocery store, Costco, the farmer’s market, etc.–and I can keep a list for each one.

Michael Pollan has a great video speaking to the marketing strategies used by grocery stores to get you to buy the heavily processed products with higher profit margins. It is good advice to follow while shopping. Pay attention to the marketing strategies used to get you to buy certain foods–like huge displays when you walk in the door–and work to avoid them. When you do buy a product in a box or can, pay attention to what is on the ingredient list and the nutrition label. I often use Fooducate while shopping, an app that lets you scan the barcode of different foods, and gives them a letter grade based on a number of factors, including level of processing, nutrition, ingredients, etc. Perhaps I look a little strange standing in the store scanning products into my phone, but I don’t really care. It is actually kind of fun.

Don’t assume that just because it is at store like Whole Foods, or organic, or gluten-free, or has some kind of health claim on the label, that a food is automatically good for you. We can tend to think this way due to the “health halo” effect, but it can still be heavily processed and contain empty calories and lots of sugar.

Next week’s healthy habit will be about adding more fruit and vegetables to your meals and snacks, but this week try becoming more aware of how much fruit and vegetables you are currently buying and eating.