The Early Days

So I threw all my weight into the process. I spent hours reading everything I could about weight loss. I used success stories I found in the MyFitnessPal app community blogs for motivation. In fact, I learned a lot about weighing foods and how to track my progress from those boards. I never made my own posts but I crept along, snatching little tips where I could and trying them out for myself.

If I had to pick one thing that was most important to my weight loss, I would say tracking. Tracking food, activity, and how much weight I was losing motivated me. I didn’t just love the results, I loved the process. I can say without hesitation that I could not have done this if I had not been data-driven.

I’ve brought up the mobile applications I use before, such as MyFitnessPal and Samsung Health, but there is another app I use called Libra. This is a special app and I think it has done the most to help me emotionally. The app is used to track your weight over time. Most people think of their weight as a fixed thing. I weigh X number of pounds etc. But the truth is that weight is not static. Trying stepping on a scale, recording the number, then drink 16 ounces of water. Get back on the scale and see if your weight has not gone up around 1 pound.

Humans are in a constant flux of metabolic activities. Our weight responds to how much we’ve had to eat and drink. In fact, if you consume a high-carbohydrate meal, you may find that you are extra thirsty. That’s because the body requires extra water to process and store carbohydrates. Your weight will go up, only to drop within a few days as the body burns up the fuel. This process often stymies people who are in the early days and months of exercise programs because it seems that the harder they work, the more they gain (more on this great article in later posts).

A sample trend line from Libra. I’m gaining a bit right now, but I know I can reverse the trend with better habits. I don’t have to give up.

For myself, I always wanted to see a drop in that magic scale number. If I had stayed the same, or somehow gained weight, I was a complete failure. Understanding that my weight was not a fixed number, but a range, really helped ease the emotional aspect of stepping on the scale. I could afford to be up a little or stay the same, as long as my overall trend was weight loss. Libra makes that possible by calculating your weight data over time and smoothing out the bumps.

An additional benefit to data-driven weight loss is that it helps separate the clinical aspects of weight loss from the emotional. Or, it did for me anyway. I was not a bad person because my weight went up after an indulgent slice of chocolate cake. I didn’t need to just give up because my scale flashed a high number. It gave me the space to say my body is complex and that so long as a make good efforts most of the time, I will see some success. And so far that has been true. Creating the distance between what is happening physically and emotionally was critical for me, especially in those early days when everything seemed to ride on what would happen when my feet hit that scale.

Next week I hope to share a little more about the emotional process and how much and little I’ve changed!

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Good for You (or GFY, for short)

I wrote last week about weighing my food. My food scale and my bathroom scale are the most important tools in my arsenal. They are how I track what is going into my mouth and the results they have on my body. I use many tools to track my weight and activity but this week, I’m going to focus on activity.

In earlier posts, I wrote about how many of our calories are expended for different activity types. Intentional exercise makes up a small portion of our calorie burn, but it is an area where we have some control. You may not be able to increase how many calories you burn breathing, but you can opt to take the stairs more often, or take up running or weight lifting. For me, increased physical activity came first from walking, and later from running and weight lifting, with a heavy focus on the running. When I began the weight loss process, the most important thing to me was returning to a prior state of capability. I wasn’t thinking about weight loss as much as I was thinking about what I could do versus what I couldn’t. And I think that is the best place for most people to start. What do you want to be able to do that you can’t do now?

Me, dreading the next trip up the rope tow. And my beautiful daughter.

When I was at my highest weights, I really struggled to do many things. I remember losing my breath going up stairs when I was in school. I dreaded taking them. But I made myself do it. I think I had an instinctual sense that if I didn’t at least try to keep moving, I would find myself home bound before long. I had a hard time doing stuff with my kids. Once, I went tubing with my daughter, and it was so hard to get out of the tube when it reached the top of the hill. I had to do a half roll, hope to land on my knees, and try to push myself up before my daughter’s tube reached the top. I’ve never worked as hard as I did when I weighed too much.

When I started walking, it took me a very long time to walk one mile. I’m glad I didn’t focus on how long it took at the time. It felt fast. And I suppose fast and slow are relative terms. I focused on getting outside every day and it wasn’t long before I was hooked. I was lucky that I was inspired to start in the spring because I found the world increasingly beautiful as I went along. I had missed the sun and the wind so much!

Five laps around that track equals one mile. Today, my fastest mile is around 8 minutes.

Before long, I started tracking my walking. I was curious to see how many miles I could go. I started with the stopwatch feature on my phone. I would head down to a walking track at a local playground and try to get around it as quickly as possible. Once, an older woman stopped me to ask how often I visited the track. I told her I was trying to get down there everyday during the week. She flashed me the sympathy face and said “oh good for you!” I’m sure she meant well, but it was hard not to take it as an insult. I still remember it all these years later.

Because I had to manually keep track of mileage, it started to make sense to use a better app, so I switched over to an app that came preloaded on my smart phone, Samsung’s SHealth (which is now called Samsung Health). I still use this app to track my activity, my running, mostly. But you can track all kinds of things with it, from hiking to sleeping. If you have the right kind of hardware, you can even track your heartrate. Other apps, like MapMyRun and Strava work well too. Because I started with SHealth, I have found it too difficult to really try other apps. MapMyWalk is also popular and is probably a good app to start out with.

Next week, I’ll share more about those early days and the technology I use to stay on track!

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By Weight

I left off last week talking about some of the flaws in the information provided by the MyPlate site. Again, I’m not a doctor or a dietician; these observations come from what worked for me. Folks should always check with their doctors before they make any big diet or exercise changes.

One of the biggest flaws is that the system doesn’t account for special conditions, particularly metabolic variances, such as diabetes. Foods often contain more than one macronutrient, but when they are classified, they are usually identified as the macronutrient they contain in the highest concentration. For example, beans are identified as a protein. They do indeed contain a lot of protein. But they also contain carbohydrates, the macronutrient it is most important for diabetics to monitor.

The other major flaw is the units of measurement the site uses. For example, in one of their sample diet plans, some of the food items are measured by weight (such as meat), but others are measured by volume or sight. This is done intentionally to make diet control easier. The trouble is measuring solids by volume or sight is inaccurate. For example, in this menu plan, you should have a medium banana for breakfast on day 3. But what is a medium banana? Which of these two would you pick?

The banana on the right weighs 21 grams more than the one on the left.

This isn’t much of problem when a food, such as lettuce, is low-calorie, but it can be a huge difference in a high-calorie item, such as peanut butter. That same diet plan calls for using measuring spoons for peanut butter.

When you fill a measuring spoon with a solid, do you round it? Leave a little space? Keep it level? It all depends!

This visual aid is simple to understand but it doesn’t account for the size of the plate or the weight of the food.

You’ve probably all heard the that your serving of protein should be about the size of a deck of cards, or your serving of rice should be the size of your fist. These tips are great for some people!

My first food scale, purchased from Walmart for around $15

Others, like me, will round that measuring spoon, either intentionally or subconsciously, and wind up eating hundreds to thousands more calories than we need. Measuring by sight and volume is common in the United States but it’s less common elsewhere. I suspect the metric versus imperial systems play a role here.

I admit to feeling a bit obsessive when I bought my first food scale. It seemed like a bridge too far; but after really thinking about it, it made a lot of sense to me. Going back to my car analogy from earlier, it would be stupid to put gasoline into my car without tracking how much I was putting in. Humans don’t have automatic stops like cars do. Some of us are able to tell when we’ve had enough food and are able to stop eating. Others, like me, lack that capability. For me, weighing my food has had the best results and I still consider my first food scale purchase as the number one tool and reason I’ve had the success I’ve had. I’ll share more about my habits next week!

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I Did it!

On October 22, 2017, I completed my very first marathon, the 29th Ashworth Awards Baystate Marathon. I finished in 1,264th place with a net time of 5:31:56.2. Preparing for and running this race was one of the most difficult things I have ever done and I could never have done it without the loving support of my family and friends. I could not thank them enough.

Photos are courtesy of the Greater Lowell Road RunnersBaystate Marathon, Capstone Photography, and my wonderful family.

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Talkin’ Bout Diet

The word diet absolutely sucks, doesn’t it? When I think of the word, I envision tiny portions of salad, smoothies, and “sensible meals”. That advertising really works!

But, there is a difference between a diet and the diet. The diet, yours or mine, is a summative word meant to cover everything you eat. If you eat sensible pizza, but also salads, and pears, your diet includes pizza, salad, and pears.

This is an important distinction to make because when I write about diet, I don’t mean to say I’m following a specific diet, such as the SlimFast diet in the video. I mean to say that when I analyze my diet, I’m looking at all the things I eat.

Food is often characterized as good or bad. Apples are good, ice cream is bad. It’s true that different foods have different caloric and nutritional properties, but those associations we’ve made to them are psychological. How many times have you heard someone say they’re “going to be naughty” and have a bit of cake? Or heard someone say “I’m trying to be good” while picking off a vegetable platter? What we’re really criticizing is our own behavior. So it’s important to shake off some of those ideas and the best way to start is to look objectively at food, though that’s easier said than done!

The human body processes three main energy sources derived from food: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Most people already know about these. They are referred to as macronutrients and the human body needs all three to perform. Most of the food we eat contains a mix of at least two but often three of the macronutrients. Those macronutrients contain smaller units of nutrition called micronutrients. These include vitamins, such as vitamin C, and minerals, such as iron, the body also needs.

When I first started losing weight, I didn’t know any of that except for what I had learned from ad campaigns, both corporate and public. I knew about the food pyramid, but I also had more current information from sites like Choose MyPlate, the US Federal Government’s answer to nutrition management. None of these sources of information about the diet provide flawless information and they can be dangerous.

For example, I entered my information into Choose MyPlate early in my journey. The site spit out my Body Mass Index (BMI), told me I was obese, and then told me what my diet should look like. The trouble was the diet it recommended was for someone in the “normal” BMI range for my height. Because I weighed much more than that, I needed more energy than that, much more. And not just the macronutrients. Eating so little made me lack in micronutrients as well. And I could afford to have more too while losing weight. Doing so would have prevented the problems I mentioned in my last post.

But I really believed, for example, that I was supposed to be eating only 4-6 ounces of a protein source per day. Thats startlingly low even for someone in my “normal” BMI range. I suspect this is so because, at the time, the site did not account for activity. A nurse or a restaurant server, who spends their work day running back and forth, could not survive on those diets. And neither could I. Fortunately, it seems the site is much improved from the time I accessed it in the summer of 2015. Users can now select calorie levels and the MyPlate Checklist Calculator now asks for activity levels. It still has flaws though, which I’ll address next week!

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Bonuses and Pitfalls

And so I spent the summer of 2015 restricting my diet beyond what was healthy. I lost 46.6 pounds over June, July, and August. That I was obese to begin with helped mitigate some of the direst consequences of under eating. But as I researched more about nutrition and what I should be eating, I figured out how dangerous my eating habits had become. Fortunately, I was able to return to a healthier, though imperfect, weight loss pattern.

What I learned from this experience is that some people should never count calories. It’s so easy to become obsessed with them. I had never felt as powerful as I did when I watched how I could control my body, reshaping myself, by restricting what I ate. And it wasn’t just the change in my body, it was a change in my mind. I was filled with pride over my superior willpower, despite the fact that I was unhealthy.

Weight loss is not always the wonderful experience one might expect. I went into the process imagining a return to my teen years. That I would fit into the same clothes and do the same things. I was searching for my youth as much as I was searching for my waistline. But those days don’t come back.

In many ways, what I have now is markedly better than anything I ever had during my teen years. I may doze off on the couch early now and I don’t think I’ll ever go rollerblading again but I’ve replaced those experiences with new and exciting ones, such as running with a running club, watching my kids grow, and seeing my husband advance in his career.

Despite all of that, I was shocked to see how much my body had changed as a result of my weight gain and loss. The loss revealed bad stretch marks all over my body. My belly, my arms, my thighs, even my calves and the back of my knees now bear them. And loose skin, I now have a lot of that!

My physiology changed also. I have developed a low pulse rate. The average range is somewhere between 60 and 80, but mine is usually between 40 and 60. I also have something called vasovagal syncope now, which is a fancy way of saying I faint sometimes. And my heart palpitations, which I had occasionally before the loss are now more regular. I can get hundreds of them in a short period.

This sweatshirt reaches the middle of my thighs.

And one of the weirdest things I’ve noticed, and I’ve heard is not uncommon, is not being able to reconcile what your body used to look like and what it looks like now. When I shop for clothing, I find myself in the plus size section without even thinking about it. I bought a sweatshirt recently from my running club that is at least three sizes too large. And I tried it on before I bought it.

From what I understand, this can be a temporary or permanent condition. It makes a lot of sense to me though because as I had been gaining weight, I didn’t recognize the changes in myself then either.

In my next post, I’ll write more about how I changed my diet and what has been working for me. It’s not all salads!

 

 

Progress photos, the left is in June, the right in August:

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Burning It Off

In my last post, I wrote about what calories are and how I set my goals. In that post I noted that a simple equation for caloric balance was:

Energy consumed – energy expended = energy balance

I wrote a bit about energy consumed but I didn’t say much about energy expended. We expend energy all the time. The video in my last post covers the topic in more detail but a quick explanation is that your body processes, such as breathing, burn the majority of energy you consume. You’d still need well-balanced meals even if you slept all day. You burn the rest processing the foods you eat and with your daily activity. The split usually goes something like 70% to bodily functions, 10% to digestive processes, and 20% to other activity. That other activity includes everything from reaching up to scratch your nose to running for 30 minutes.

Months before I started my journey, I had picked up a Fitbit. I never used it consistently and never monitored my caloric intake with it. But with my renewed drive, I strapped the device on and started tracking my steps. Fitbit’s default goal is 10,000 steps per day. This number, not surprisingly, seems to come from an advertising campaign that ran in Japan in the 60s. Advertising works.

MyFitnessPal allows the user to link their Fitbit data to their account, making it possible to track calories and activity in the same place. This is a valuable connection to make. People who are super active, say nurses, need to consume more energy than people like me who remain mostly sedentary during their daily lives.

On top of one’s daily activity is intentional exercise. And this is where I got into trouble. I figured out that I could consume the number of calories allotted by MyFitnessPal, sometimes less, and burn even more calories through exercise. Great!

Here are a few samples of my caloric intake during June and July of 2015 (total calories consumed not shown):

 

Going back to the energy equation, for the week in June, I was consuming 1,280 calories a day, which was 878 calories below my goal. For the week in July, I was consuming 1,406 calories per day, which was 889 calories below my goal. From there, I exercised until I dropped the number even lower, to 954 and 777 calories per day respectively.

I did not understand how dangerous this was. I thought the faster the better. On one day in July, I walked nearly 10 miles and ate very little. Looking back, I do not know how hunger did not overwhelm me. I do not remember feeling hunger. I was just so excited to be losing and getting back to where I wanted to be that it didn’t matter.

In retrospect, I suffered everything from headaches to heart palpitations due to the rapid loss and lack of nutrition. On June 28th, 2015, I weighed 251.6 pounds, on August 2nd, 2015, I weighed 232.6. I lost 19 pounds in a little over one month. This was nowhere close to healthy weight loss.

It’s important to note that I fell into this. I did not intend to eat so little or put myself at risk. I genuinely thought I was making good choices. All the articles I read about how being fat was dangerous and all the ideas I had suggested that I needed to get the weight off as quickly as possible.

I’ll write more about my journey next week but for now, here is a link to the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline.

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A Simple Equation

After I downloaded the MyFitnessPal app, I jumped right in! My calorie goal was 2,040 calories. When I first started this adventure, I understood that a person needed a certain number of calories a day. Thanks to nutrition labels and PSAs (that have both upsides and downsides), I knew men needed 2,500 calories per day whereas women needed 2,000. But that was pretty much all I knew and I suspect I’m not alone here.

And so, the number of calories I needed to lose weight was the same number the average woman needs to achieve weight equilibrium. I had been consuming thousands more calories in food than I needed. A pound is roughly equivalent to 3,500 calories. If you can cut 500 calories a day for a week, you can lose a pound a week. In my case, I was cutting 1,000 calories per day.

Like a foot is a measurement of length, a calorie is a measure of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water by one degree Celsius. Is that confusing? Yup! I find it helpful to think about calories to a body in the same fashion as I think about gallons of gas to a car.

A simple equation for this is:
Energy consumed – energy expended = energy balance

Furthering the car analogy, if I put too little gas in my car, I’ll run out before I reach my destination. Too much and I’ll have excess in my tank. In the body, this works out to weight loss and weight gain; therefore, practicing weight management is like practicing how much fuel you put into your car. Like cars, not all people are the same. Some are larger than others, some more efficient. These details matter to the individual but they do not change the basic equation.

I did not know any of this when I first started losing weight. Research over the last two years revealed this information to me in bits and pieces. Counting calories is like counting anything else. When you take medicine, you’re careful to take just the right amount. It follows that you should do the same with what you’re eating. And this is not just for weight management either. Knowing what and how much you’re eating helps you track the nutrients you’re taking in which may help reveal common issues such as too little iron or vitamin D.

For me, losing 2 pounds a week was a great goal. But losing 3 or 4 or even 5 seemed like a much better idea. I could get the extra weight off quicker, which would make physical activity easier. I started this process because I wanted to be happier and getting out there running, skating, hiking, and doing all the things I missed out on was the goal more so than the weight loss itself. To use a cliché, weight loss was a means to an end.

As it turns out, though, losing weight that quickly is dangerous. My lack of knowledge took another bite out of me and in my early weight loss days, I brushed up against compulsive exercise and anorexia, which I’ll discuss more in my next post.

A short but informative video detailing calories and how they work that I wish I had seen early in life:

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Part of a Complete Breakfast

How do you define running? I never thought much about that until well into my running career but in the beginning, running was just whatever was faster than walking. For me, running wasn’t (and still isn’t) a fixed concept. If I was moving my arms and legs like a runner, I was running and I still think that’s true.

But, to tell this story well, I must back up a few steps and talk about diet. Four days after I started walking, I started making diet changes. Health gurus, doctors, well-meaning friends and family always told me that diet and exercise was the key to weight management. They are right about that. Where I went afoul was failing to realize I needed weight management. I also didn’t really know anything about diet and exercise.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t play any sports and I don’t recall having a formal education about diet, excepting, perhaps the food pyramid (which has been widely criticized since its adoption in 1992 for resting on shaky scientific evidence). I was 9 when the food pyramid became part of the diet lexicon. Other popular diets at the time included the SlimFast and the Atkins Diet. I won’t speak to these programs as I never used them, but I would encourage people to research them critically if they plan to.

Food messaging in the 80s and 90s informed my diet choices. I remember seeing cereal commercials like this one growing up:

The pertinent part of that commercial comes at the end, when an actual apple is replaced by a bowl of Apple Jacks. In the same frame, you see a glass of what is probably apple juice, a glass of milk, and a pitcher of milk, presumably for pouring over the cereal. This was the ideal breakfast to my young self and I strived to make it whenever I could. Reveling in the joy of seeing my spot at the table laid out just so. In a later post, I’ll try to explain why this diet was and is problematic for me and many others too but for now, back to my early diet changes.

I knew a lot of people who used different mobile apps to track their diets so I downloaded one called MyFitnessPal. Most of you have probably heard of it by now. It’s a relatively simple application that can be used to track what you eat. You must decide what to do with that information though. Most people use it to count the caloric value of their food but others use it to track things such as how much sugar they are consuming.

When I first opened the application, it prompted me to select a goal, gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight. Lose weight, of course! After that, it asked me how much I’d like to lose a week. All the extra wasn’t an option so I went with 2 pounds per week, the highest possible amount the app permits. I was nearly 120 pounds overweight so this was a good goal for me. I did not know that at the time though and sometimes what you don’t know hurts you. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the early mistakes I made and how increasing physical activity was both helpful and harmful. For now, I leave you with this video of a Hi-C Ecto Cooler commercial.

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The Luxury of a Chunky Puppy

Before I go any further, I want to note that this story is my own. I’m not a medical professional and so on. I’m just a person who found some stuff that made her happy.

After I quit smoking, I spent a few months adjusting to my new non-smoking lifestyle, gained an additional 20 pounds (making me 280 pounds), and moved on to increasing my daily activity. I left off last week talking about taking a walk.  And for the first few weeks of May, that’s what I did. I picked a landmark near my house, which wound up being about a mile, and I started walking there once a day. When I started doing it, I didn’t set up a daily walk as a goal and if I had, I don’t think I would have met it. I did walk nearly every day, but weather and general malaise got in the way sometimes.

Chloe, my chunky puppy, Christmas of 2014.

It must have taken me half an hour to walk a mile then. Sometimes I took my dog with me for the walk. She was also overweight. The two of us made quite a sight waddling down the road and I say that with the greatest affection. This may seem out of line but I look back on those days with fondness. Too often, fat is associated with shame and misery. I was heavy, true, but I was also alive.

When I say that, I don’t just mean literally. Equally important in this story is how I had not been walking up to this point. I spent much of my time on a couch or in a bed, in front of a computer or a television. I had a more than sedentary lifestyle. I could do some things for my kids, such as getting to their games and schools. I could put up occasional bursts of energy such as hauling beach gear down to the shore. But these activities were far more taxing than they would have been had I been spending more time doing them.

Me, skating with my daughter, winter 2013. Check out the face of abject terror and how stiff I was!

When I first started walking, I first started realizing how much I had been missing. The sun and the air felt so good! And the smells and sounds of the outdoors were near overwhelming. The look on the dog’s face when I pulled out the leash; such animalistic joy. I felt that and I think that, more than any goal setting, is what motivated me much of the time.

I know that sounds ridiculous. If the outdoors was so great, why did I stop being outside? Well, I believed that a life of convenience was both the gift and the goal of adulthood, starting with being able to drive yourself where you needed to be. Adults also choose what they want to eat and what is the ultimate dinner convenience? Eating at a restaurant or getting take out.

Being able to do this meant success. Look at what is considered an appropriate household budget. Entertainment and dining out are luxury entries. If I was enjoying those things, it must mean I was successful! I understand now that this is a juvenile way of looking at life, but I don’t think I’m the only one who received this message (check out this infographic from TurboTax). And if a life of convenience was the mark of success, the reverse was the mark of failure.

But once I started walking, I started to see a new type of success and before long, I wanted to run.

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