The $60 billion dollar weight loss industry has taken a hit as more people pass on diet products and instead choose to eat healthier foods. Forget pills, gym memberships, or diet foods. I lost 20 pounds (and gained flat abs and firm thighs) through simple yet powerful lifestyle changes. And it didn’t cost me a cent. In fact, I saved money. So how did I lose 20 pounds in 15 weeks?
After I had my third child, I started eating healthy and walking daily. Within the year I had lost all my pregnancy weight. But a year after that, my stress level increased and the weight came back.
By January 2019, for the first time in my life (excluding pregnancy and postpartum periods) I had officially crossed over into “overweight” based on my body mass index.
Something had to change – and it was my behavior. My employer offered a free 12-week wellness program. As a Health Psychologist, I was aware of much of the information about losing weight. But knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things.
I chronicled my weight loss journey in recent posts. Here is a summary of what I learned and the changes I made toward a healthier lifestyle (and sexier body).
Week 0: Commitment to change
I decided to change my lifestyle. But this would not be a diet. It had to be a way of living that I can sustain for the foreseeable future.
To start, I thought back to what had worked for me in the past. Logging my food, exercise, and weight everyday worked for me. Just like tracking my finances, I found that whenever I stop recording what I do my behaviors change. I need to maintain this accountability to myself.
Accountability to others is also important for behavior change. I committed to attend a 12-week class (with weekly weigh-ins). I also found a friend with similar goals and we became each others’ accountability partner.
Week 1: Nutrition Basics
The first week of the class was reviewing basics of nutrition. First of all, eat food. Much of what we consume comes in boxes or cans.
When trying to lose weight, diet is more important than exercise. You may have heard that 3,500 calories = 1 pound. To lose one pound of weight, one needs to consume 500 fewer calories or burn 500 more calories a day than the body needs. Reducing what you eat by 500 calories is much easier than trying burn off 500 calories through exercise.
An easy way to cut calories is to reduce the amount of processed foods (which tend to have more calories and less nutritional value) and instead choose real foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and drink water.
Week 2: Physical Activity Basics
While my focus was on calorie reduction, physical activity is also very important for maintaining health. It is recommended that adults exercise at least 150 minutes a week.
Exercise is not my thing. I’ve never been an athletic person. I do enjoy walking outside. My dietician told us about Couch to 5k. Initially I scoffed at the idea of jogging. But after more thought I gave it a try.
Couch to 5k training plan starts with walking 5 minutes, jogging 2, then walking 5 more. I thought, “I can jog 2 minutes, no problem.” Boy, was I surprised to see how challenging 2 minutes was for me! But I stuck with the program. Jogging with someone else is a tremendous help, so I take my oldest child with me. Now, I can jog up to 45 minutes. And we are running our first 5K next week!
Week 3: Read Food Labels
Aim to eat real food (i.e., items that don’t even need nutrition facts). If an item does have a label, I pay more attention to it. Not only am I looking at calories, but also the amount of added sugars (which I now avoid).
I am also looking at nutritional value, such as amount of dietary fiber.
On the list of ingredients, I aim for 5 or fewer (and hopefully ingredients that I can read).
Week 4: Choose Healthy Snacks
Goodbye cookies, crackers, and candies. I have kept temptation out of the house and made smarter snacking choices. By forgoing processed boxed, canned, and frozen foods, I saved a ton of money on my food bill.
My house is now stocked with mouth-watering grapes, strawberries, nuts, almonds, apples with peanut butter, carrots with hummus, and my favorite: air popped popcorn.
See: Snack Attack
Week 5: Restaurants
Whenever I am gaining weight or going over my budget, the cause seems to be the same: going out to eat.
First, my family and I returned to eating more meals at home.
Second, when we did dine out, I planned ahead by studying menus and nutrition information online to make smarter choices.
Week 6: Portion Distortion
It’s sad to think about how much money we spend on calories we don’t want or need.
Did you know that adults eat 92% of what’s on their plate, regardless of how much is there? I was astounded by this number. (This is another reason to avoid dining out, as restaurants tend to have large plates with huge portion sizes).
Measuring serving sizes and using smaller plates are simple ways we can manage our portions and save money on food.
Week 7: Good Carbs, Bad Carbs
First fat was bad, so they made processed foods low-fat. To make them taste better sugar was added. That didn’t work either. So artificial sweeteners were used, but obesity rates continued to climb. Now carbs are thought to be the enemy. I’ve known people who have turned down air-popped, whole grain popcorn because it has carbs, but pepperoni is okay on their weight loss plan – I’m confused. How that is healthier?
Carbs are in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Carbs aren’t the enemy. It’s processed foods that should be questioned.
In an article recently published in Lancet, the Planetary Health Diet supports eating a plant-centered diet and reducing meats and added sugars by 50%. Researchers predict this change toward a sustainable food system can save lives through healthier diets, and also save our planet.
Week 8: Homemade Goodness
In addition to added sugars, processed foods are also full of added sodium. Salt is used not only for flavor, but also to increase shelf-life.
My family has started making more items at home. Soup broth, taco/chili seasoning, pizza dough, and tomato sauce are tastier, healthier, and less expensive when prepared at home.
See: Salt Life?
Week 9: Planning for Holidays and Parties
Sure maintaining my weight is manageable when I am in my routine and on my own turf. But there’s always a party, potluck, or holiday around the corner.
Whether someone brings donuts to work or you are filling your kids’ Easter eggs with candy, there are going to be temptations.
I didn’t eat a single bite of candy on Halloween or Christmas. But I wasn’t touching the candy, either. Consistent with my goal of reducing waste, for Easter I did not purchase individually wrapped candies. As I was filling the kids’ eggs, I found myself doing “three for you, one for me.” Balancing conflicting values is tough. Next year I will have to consider whether to go against one value and purchase wrapped candy if it means moving me closer to my value of eating it.
As for holidays and parties, I have been using the techniques I learned to make smarter choices. Not standing next to or in sight of food, bringing a healthy dish, and sampling (rather than depriving myself of or overindulging in) the higher-calorie items were particularly helpful.
Week 10: Mindful Eating
Did you know that it takes approximately 20 minutes to realize you are full? As a mother of three, I have mastered the art of speed-eating. Sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m eating until I look down and see an empty bowl.
Learning to savor the flavor, put my fork down between bites, and sip on water throughout the meal has helped me to eat less. Mindful eating has also helped me to enjoy my meal.
Week 11: Dealing with Weight-Loss Plateaus
Okay, it wasn’t all easy. Through this 15 weeks I encountered more than one period during which my weight stayed the same for weeks despite healthy eating and exercise.
To overcome the challenge, first I checked with my dietician about my weight-loss goals. It was important that I set realistic expectations for my weight. She asked me about my height and age and calculated my body mass index. She also looked at my bone structure (I’m pretty average, not large or small-boned). She agreed that my weight-loss goal was right on target.
She recommended I track all my meals and exercise using MyFitnessPal.
She then calculated my basal metabolic rate (BMR, the amount of calories I burn when at rest). There are on-line BMR calculators, but I found they were a couple hundred calories off from the in-office test.
With this information, my dietician saw that my diet and exercise were on track. She then asked me about my stress and sleep . . .
Week 12: Emotional Eating
When I am stressed, I crave ice cream, chocolate, and pizza. It doesn’t matter if we have plenty of time to cook and all the ingredients to make a healthy pizza at home, I want a big, greasy take-out pizza.
I have become aware of this and, fortunately, have learned to not give in to these temptations. By reminding myself that what I need isn’t pizza, it’s to reduce stress, I am able to focus on the problem (and not spend my dough on pizza).
Week 13: Maintaining The Routine
As my 12-week wellness class came to an end, I noticed I was starting to slip back into old habits. Namely, I started working rather than walking during my lunch break. I immediately noticed differences physically (e.g., weight gain and swollen legs) and emotionally (I was stressed and irritable).
Another lesson learned, it’s up to me to protect my time and make my wellbeing a priority.
See: Why Am I So Hangry?
Week 14: And Then I Was Injured
Just weeks before the 5K, and fell injuring both of my ankles and one knee. I have been in significant pain and unable to run for the past two weeks. It’s doubtful I will be able to return to training before the big day.
But I am not giving up. After researching safe ways to cross-train, I have decided on swimming and aqua jogging (running in deep water where your feet don’t touch the ground).
Water workouts have been great not only for cardio, but also for my legs and my core. My abs are looking better than they have in years. Luckily the pool has finally warmed up for the season!
Week 15: I Lost 21 pounds!
It’s been 15 weeks since I started my journey. I am now down 21 pounds!
My accountability partner and I both reached our goal weight. Today on our lunchtime walk, we talked about how this is a lifestyle change. We discussed how to go forward maintaining our losses and increasing our strength.
Now, I am eating healthier than ever before. I have muscles were I never did before. In addition to looking great, I am feeling great. I plan to keep up this lifestyle for years to come (and still enjoy an occasional pizza)!