Food, a friend or foe? Pleasure or fuel? Culture or obsession? Eat it or fear it? 6 small meals a day or intermittent fasting?
Growing up in a Bangladeshi family where food was a way to show love, I had always been chubby. In college, I discovered booze and Domino's Pizza at 2am and gained a Freshman 40.
In my early 20s, a friend took me to her gym, where I decided to weigh myself. The number on the scale horrified me so much that I immediately started to make better choices around eating and continued to exercise almost everyday.
It took three years, but I managed to lose about 60 pounds from my 5'3 frame, going from a size 16 to a size 2. Initially, the pounds come off easily, simply because I was swapping burgers for salads. But after the first year, when I'd lost about 30 pounds, I started to plateau.
I became frustrated, and developed a complicated relationship with food, which lasted for the next year. I lived in a vicious cycle of over-exercising and under-eating followed by overeating.
Along the way, I tried going gluten-free for three months. When I heard about Paleo, I stopped eating oatmeal which made me even more crazy. While I didn't stick to a Paleo diet, I was always trying to figure out how to eat. I was running 5 to 7 miles a day, not eating enough, and then binging.
I became anxious about going to restaurants or gatherings where I knew there would be an abundance of rich foods. I felt like I could not trust myself around food. To make matters worse, the anxiety was fueling my IBS and I was developing food intolerances. It didn't help that I was weighing myself twice a day. The scale had power over me to make or break my day.
Desperate to overcome the plateau and food intolerances, I starting reading countless books on nutrition. It seemed like book every book promised great health and weight loss if you eat A and gave up B. Should I give up meat, grains, or starchy fruits to look and feel better? I became obsessed with how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat. Unconvinced of any specific diet, I decided to simply eat less. But the more I tried, the harder it became and I lost touch with the basics of how I lost weight in the first place: common sense!
Last summer, I had really bad acid reflux, constipation, and heartburn. It felt like any food I ate was attacking me. Doctors kept saying it was IBS, but they couldn't find anything actually wrong with me besides lactose intolerance. One day, I decided to stop stressing about everything and just go back to a simple approach of trying to eat healthy rather than eating LESS or adhering to dogma (like no oatmeal).
I started filling up on whole foods and adding more fats like peanut butter, avocado, or olive oil to every meal. Basically, I stopped OVER-researching food and eating more real food.
Today I have lost a total of over 60 pounds without adhering to any type of formalized diet (Atkins, Paleo, etc) or eliminating any food groups. I don't know exactly how many pounds I've lost because I stopped weighing myself, but I have gone down a pant size since the last time I stepped on the scale.
My heartburn, constipation, acid reflux, and food intolerances have gone away since I stopped stressing over what to eat, how much to eat, and being afraid that food was attacking me. I am naturally able to make better choices since I stopped putting food on a pedestal and over-thinking it. Once I stopped the stressing, weighing myself constantly, and believing that food was an enemy, everything balanced out and I naturally made better choices.
After losing 60 pounds on my own, I feel I can share some lessons from journey with you. Here are some ideas that helped me:
1. Find healthy foods you love, and eat them consistently.
Establish some go-to foods you love to eat and ask yourself "Can I eat this forever?" If the answer is yes, keep eating them! Find some staple lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, and brown-colored grains you enjoy and learn to grocery shop on auto-pilot. I love chicken, salmon, vegetables, yogurt, and apples. Once you find real, healthy, and nutritious foods you enjoy, your taste buds will adapt and you'll start to crave these foods.
2. Find exercise you love and do it to FEEL GOOD.
I love running and I love yoga. I will run for as long as my ankles permit me because if I don't I'll get cranky and depressed. Conversely, I detest Zumba and spinning. Find exercises you enjoy and would do even if you reached your ideal weight.
3. Start a food journal and track everything from sleep, bowel movements, and your appetite.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to good health. Some people prefer small portions of everything and others prefer volume. I'd rather eat a large quantity of healthy stuff over a bite of something indulgent. So I'll spend my calories on more vegetables rather than more salad dressing and prefer to eat my biggest meal at dinner after a run rather than midday during work followed by afternoon meetings. Everyone has their own routine, so find what works for you.
4. Do not follow fads or give up food groups if you don't need to.
Almost every diet -- Mediterranean, vegan or Paleo -- encourages us to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods, refined starches and sugar! The common denominator among all these popular diets is eating real foods closest to their natural state. When you label something "good" or "bad" you will tend to crave the bad even more. Steel cut oatmeal is not Paleo and Greek yogurt is not vegan, but both are nutritious and healthy. Enjoy them if you like them!
5. Always be prepared.
Carry fruit or some other snack with you. I often tote a yogurt and granola with me to family dinners because I know there will be copious amounts of sweets served and I don't want to succumb to temptation. Know your triggers and find healthier alternatives.
6. Remember: You are not Beyonce prepping for "Dreamgirls" so don't impose added pressure and a timeline.
It took me years to lose 60 pounds but I never gained it back. Exercise and healthy eating are a lifestyle, not a project. Don't just do it for a vacation, wedding or reunion. Do it forever.
7. Find ways to nurture yourself emotionally.
Yoga has quieted the negativity in my head. There are days when I need extra sleep, extra water, and extra rest, and on those days, I listen to my body and what it needs. Make sure to stay well rested, hydrated, and positive.
You are your own best doctor, trainer, nutritionist and chef. Trust yourself and let common sense to be your guide.