After struggling with weight issues for most of my life, I finally made the decision on 16 Sep 2012, that it was time to go on a journey to health rather than just lose weight. That year had been the lowest in my life –filled with deep stress over my job and corresponding bad choices that caused my weight to shoot up to 319.4 pounds, my blood pressure to rocket to 1997/106 (June 2012), my self-esteem reduced to a sliver, and my legs too swollen to move easily without pain some days. Because I have allergies to chemicals additives in medicines and foods (including residues from the manufacturing processes), I couldn’t even do the medicines that might help with many of the problems I had. But without doing something to remove the stress and promote healing, the medicines are really pretty much useless and can be quite harmful at times. Additionally, at 60 years old, I only have so much time left and I didn’t want to spend it housebound because I couldn’t move. So a lifelong journey to attain and maintain a healthy life style and fitness became the obvious option – but it took about 4 months of sick misery before I finally made the decision to get on with that journey.
Because I’ve had several people ask me how I lost the weight despite health issues, I’m going to outline some basic principles that I have incorporated into this journey. A health journey is unique for each person since we all have different genetics and life experiences. So I’ll try to tell you what worked for me in a way that can help you think about your own journey. And for some facing similar problems such as chemical allergies, perhaps we can share solutions that have helped. I hope to take each of the topics below and write a more detailed post as time permits. And I have many more lessons to learn and challenges to face. I still have about 90 pounds to lose and will need to rebuild muscles weakened by years of inactivity coupled with growing old and a car accident this summer. But it’s just another set of steps in the journey.
1. Always think of your health as a continuous journey – not just a “one and done” fix. Quick fix programs almost always tend to fail (mine did). They can help supplement a long range strategy but should never replace it. Remember that you only have one body and spare parts are still hard to find. And just like getting rid of a bad habit, it takes much longer to fix something that’s broken than it does to break it.
2. The human body is one of the most complex, wonderfully integrated organisms in the world. You must think holistically about every part in your health journey. Understand that your mental, emotional and spiritual health are just as important to your physical health as the food you put in your body.
3. Learn to handle stress. While stress has value in revving up the body, we push it into overload. This causes bad things to happen such as weight gain, high blood pressure and other health problems. If stress is a big problem for you, try to figure out what is causing the stress and look at ways to minimize that stress. Perhaps it’s a self-esteem issue that is eating away at your heart – part of mine was. Or finances,health, child-care, a job and so on. I found online training at Coursera to be very beneficial in restoring my self-esteem. At my doctor’s recommendation, I also learned to use meditation and mindfulness techniques to help control my blood pressure.
4. Document everything and look back to find patterns and trends. I keep a daily health journal where I almost faithfully record things like weight, blood pressure, peak flow (for asthma control), food, problems I am having, exercise, even stressful events or weather which can sometimes cause problems. Although it may seem time consuming, it has helped me pinpoint patterns on problem areas that I would have forgotten (did I have an allergy attack after eating that food; how many times did I have a vertigo attack). It’s especially critical if trying to lose weight – we often are not aware of how much we eat. A journal helps remind us of how much we may be eating.
5. In the beginning, measure everything. Unless you’ve been done the road before and understand what carbs, calories and fats look like on your plate, measure everything – portion size, amount per portion, etc. Once you get a feel for it, you don’t need to do it for long (maybe 1-2 weeks). Take nothing for granted like you’ve done it before. You’ve probably forgotten (I had)
6. Record both your daily weight and then your measurements every two weeks. The daily weight is just for looking at possible problems. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve gained. But think about why – time of month, weather, ate too much, stress, etc. If it’s something you can control, then fix it. If it’s not, don’t worry about it. Measurements are hugely critical. As we lose fat and gain muscle, we can actually gain weight yet look better and be healthier. So your victories can come from both weight loss and measurement loss. I’ve lost 39.25 inches from my neck to my calves along with the 65 pounds. I went from a 3X (24-26Women’s) to a 0X (14-16 Women’s) with all those inches lost.
7. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas, foods, treatments (unless dangerous at the beginning). Get creative and have fun on the journey. But make sure you document the feedback on how they worked.
8. Enjoy food but go as close to raw as you can. It is critical to eliminate processed foods with preservatives and sugars from your life (you can still cook foods but preferably from scratch or with organic prepared foods). Keep vegetables and fruits raw when possible especially the dark leafy greens. But never hesitate to add additional veggies to soups, stews, smoothies when cooking. They add additional nutrients. Go organic if possible to keep out pesticides and herbicides.
9. Read labels on everything – food, hair/skin care, medicines, etc. Understand what is going into your body. Some of the additives are not on the labels, but the first start is to get the ones that are labeled out of your body. If possible go organic to keep out many of these additives although even organics can contain harmful additives.
10. Planning – planning – planning.
a. Plan your meals and your snacks especially if you work. Cook them ahead and store individual prepared sizes (your own healthy version of fast food meals). Make them up the night before so that you have no excuses forgetting them and having running down for a quick snack in the cafeteria. Always have 1-2 in the freezer for the times you are too tired to cook when getting home late. That will save a stop at the fast food joint just a mile from home
b. Go for big rich tastes – fresh herbs, spices, healthy oils, honey, dark agave syrup (low glycemic index but rich flavor like molasses), lots of vegetables and fruits. Just be careful on the portions since they do contain calories.
c. Savor your first bite. It’s best if you can chew all your bites slowly as our grandmothers used to say, but if you don’t have time then savor the first bite. Taste and smell and feel that bite. The memory of that bite will satisfy your cravings as you inhale the rest.
d. Plan special treats. Don’t deprive yourself needlessly of something you love. Especially if you are going to have cut out something like sugars in the beginning. When I first started, I decided to cook a pan of organic brownies cut into 1/20th serving size and have just 1 per night. Nothing else sweet but that brownie. I froze the bulk of them since 20 brownies would go bad or get eaten in 20 days. I did that for the first 4 months. I craved that brownie and I savored every small bite when I ate it. And I lost 40pounds that first four months eating that brownie.
e. Look for alternatives. Potatoes are delicious but very high carb. Think about cauliflower or sweet potato instead. You can grill/bake both into something like French fries or mash both of them. You can turn the sweet potato savory by adding pepper and chili powder. There are wonderful recipes for anything online. Again get creative – don’t be tied to a recipe. Just make sure you understand the hidden costs of whatever you put together.
f. Put together foods that work for you. I am not really a smoothie fan. I like “CRUNCH” in my food. My crunchy smoothy equivalent might be a small serving of plain Greek yogurt (high protein), 1T honey, and about 6 walnut halves broken into smaller pieces. Crunchy and smooth in one dynamic taste treat. Or celery and walnuts together (very tasty).
g. If you travel, think about portable alternatives. I use organic nuts and dark chocolate for snacks. They go everywhere. But remember balance. A snack might be 4 small pieces of chocolate and 6-7 walnut halves (see picture).
11. Forgive the transgressions , delays and setbacks that may occur along the way. Take control of those things you can fix (like stress eating) and look for ways to handle those things you can’t help (how to get through a health crisis).
12. Find an encouraging support network that can help you through the bad times and celebrate your successes with you (mine is on Facebook but it can be anywhere and in multiple locations). This is hugely critical. If anyone is trying to tear you down while on your journey, you need to avoid them or figure out how to make them part of the team. There is no middle ground on this. The journey can be very hard without the strength that comes from this network.
13. Celebrate every victory (no matter how insignificant it may seem) with your support group. Capture the victories in some way like pictures of clothes you’re giving away now because they are too small. I have a photo of the two sales tags for the pair of 3X slacks I bought in August 2012 and the 0X pair I bought in April 2013 (you can see them on my Flickr set http://www.flickr.com/photos/kelcym/sets/72157633425346350/). It’s inspirational to see the change. Periodically celebrate with something special at a key milestone like 10pounds lost or dropped a dress size. While a planned food treat is ok, try to make the celebration a non-food event like a spa visit or something you couldn’t do before like hang gliding or getting a new top in a smaller size. My one year anniversary gift was a pendant on a 19inch chain. I had lost enough weight that my neck was now small enough for the chain to look great while feeling comfortable rather than choking me. And it’s now a constant reminder when I wear it that I have lost all that weight.
14. Build a health team especially if you are seriously overweight or have health issues. My team increased this year and includes my primary care physician (also does acupuncture), a chiropractor, physical therapists, dentist, ENT doctor, regular eye doctor and glaucoma specialist, and a master fitness trainer. I don’t need them all the time but I have professionals that I trust and can work with when needed.
15. Exercise is critical but it doesn’t need to be strenuous especially if you are very out of shape like I am. My exercise plan is coordinated with my health care professionals because of health issues. I found that as I lost weight, I also lost mass. I felt that I should be getting stronger but I was not. My physical therapist reminds me periodically that the weight (the fat) gave me strength. As I lost it the muscles were not yet strong enough to support the weight that still remained. But I can’t exercise at superhuman level to rebuild the muscles yet. It will happen but that will take some time. One of the worst things you can do is push yourself so hard that you get an injury that sets you back.
16. Get enough sleep. This is critical and something that I have problems with because of an early morning work schedule. If you can’t sleep enough at night, try to take power naps (20-30minutes) during the day. It’s not enough but better than nothing.
17. Don’t set an impossible goal. Setbacks will happen. For me it was two surgeries for sight-threatening glaucoma, severe debilitating vertigo attacks and a car accident. Yet I still managed to lose weight. I just had to slow down my goal of losing 100 pounds in the first year – but I still made it to 65 despite the setbacks. Think about the time delays as a period of healing for your body and as a way to learn to maintain those new healthy habits.
Remember that it’s the journey that’s important. I’m sure this list will keep growing over time. It will be interesting to look back and see what else I learn along the journey.