Maggie lost some weight a few years ago. But like many people who go on diets, she couldn't keep the pounds off. She didn't eat enough food, so she was hungry. And she denied herself the food she really loved, like pizza.
Then she changed the way she looked at food and what it meant to be healthier. She lost 50 pounds and is now at her goal weight. Along the way, she lowered her blood pressure and blood sugar, and her asthma symptoms went away.
"I had a tendency to do what I call all or nothing at all," says Maggie, a nurse. "I would either be very rigorous and almost not eat enough, and then I'd get really hungry and then I'd go binge on pizza or whatever other high-fat food I enjoyed at the time. There was a tendency to want to get the weight off fast, wanting quick results, but not really [be] able to stick with it because it was too austere.
"I finally realized it wasn't a time-limited thing. It wasn't like, 'Well, I'm going to be really good and stay on this food plan now until I get the weight off.' It was more a realization that, 'You know, if I want to weigh 130 to 135 pounds, then I have to do these things. I can't stop doing them just because I lose the weight.'
"So it became much more of a lifestyle change than a temporary diet. The idea that somehow I could go back to my old ways was just not there anymore."
Maggie knows how hard it is to make a lifestyle change. She also knows it may take some time to get ready to do it.
"Nothing anybody else said to me or suggested to me had any impact, until I decided for myself that I needed to do something about my weight, and that it was worth it," she says. "People aren't going to change until they see a reason to do it and are willing to do it. Some people want to lose weight, but they are not ready. It is a major deal. It was harder in many ways than stopping smoking was. It's because food's everywhere. It's a real commitment of time and energy. It's hard work, (but) it's one of the most fulfilling things I've done."
Maggie got started by joining a weight-loss program and setting some goals. The long-term goal was to lose 50 pounds. But rather than dwelling on that huge hurdle, she focused on losing 1 or 2 pounds a week. She did it by making choices one meal at a time. She also added more exercise to her life.
She has so changed the way she looks at food that "I don't feel good now if I don't eat right. And when I say 'right,' I mean 'healthy,' " she says.
Maggie's strategies for healthy eating
Maggie lost weight by focusing on one meal at a time.
"I don't eat the way I used to. It's a matter of making choices every day. One day I might decide to eat more than another day, and that's okay, as long as I'm paying attention," she says.
Here are some of the things that helped her pay attention to what she eats:
- Take it one meal at a time. "See it as a journey with a destination," Maggie says.
- Read labels so you can see how much sugar, fat, protein, and fiber are in foods.
- Cut out most refined sugar. Maggie stopped drinking soft drinks and bottled teas with sugar. "I used to really enjoy candy—a Hershey's bar or something like that. What I started to do was substitute that with chocolate pudding that had Splenda in it and no sugar, or the 70% dark chocolate with very little added sugar, and that only on rare occasions."
- Eat whole fruit when you crave something sweet.
- Eat 6 times a day. She eats small snacks 3 times a day, including fruit or whole-grain crackers.
- Eat breakfast.
- Keep track of how much you eat from each food group to make sure you balance meals.
- Make a list of foods that are "worth it" to you to spend the calories on.
Maggie also advises that you exercise a little more on days when you know that you are going out to eat or will have a treat at dinner.
Small changes lead to better health
When Maggie started gaining weight, she lost ground in her outdoor activities. She got more and more out of shape.
"I'm an old backpacker," she says. "I like to cross-country ski. I like to hike. And quite frankly, it was getting harder and harder. It was getting to the point where I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. I'd go out snow-shoeing on the side of a mountain, and I'd be out of breath and way far behind the people I went with."
She had other worries too. Her blood pressure and blood sugar levels were higher than she and her doctor wanted. The extra weight also didn't help her asthma. "The more weight I had on, the more difficult breathing was. It definitely impacted my activity level."
Her desire to enjoy her outdoors-Idaho lifestyle and concerns about her health gave her the motivation she needed to lose weight and keep it off.
As the pounds started to come off, she gained energy and felt stronger. "After I lost about 35 pounds, 40 pounds … I was, like, sprinting up that mountain and not even feeling it. It was just an unbelievable change in my ability to exercise and to enjoy being outside and doing things."
The biggest bonus? Her asthma symptoms went away.
"I noticed that I wasn't having problems when I went hiking or exercising," Maggie says. "I wasn't wheezing. I wasn't having any trouble breathing. It's just gotten progressively better. I haven't had any symptoms. I don't need those inhalers anymore."
Making room for "worth-it" foods
Changing the way you eat doesn't always mean you have to give up your favorite foods.
Maggie includes her beloved pizza and the occasional hamburger or filet mignon in her food plan. But she has them only about every 3 months. And she has small portions. "I have what I call my worth-it foods," says Maggie.
She often changes those foods to make them more healthy. No more bacon cheeseburgers at the fast food restaurant. "I eat hamburgers, with lean meat, and I make them at home on the grill."
She loves pizza, but she no longer eats the kind with mounds of cheese and pepperoni.
"The pizza I'm eating now is more European style—thin crust, with a lot of nice seasonings, tomato or a marinara sort of thing, with basil and a little bit of the mozzarella or provolone," she says. "I just love the wood-fired crusts with less cheese. I thought I would hate that. What I've discovered is that I taste flavors so much more now than I did when I ate my high-fat diet."
When she craves something sweet, she will have a small portion of premium ice cream once in a while. But she's more likely to reach for a fat-free fudge bar.
Plan ahead when you eat out
Maggie still eats a little birthday cake now and then. And she doesn't shy away from restaurants, because she loves to eat out. She just makes sure to allow for it in her eating plan.
Maggie says she knows that to deprive herself of any treats or other high-fat foods would just make her want them more.
"To say I would never have cake again would be a very dangerous thing," she says. "The minute I say that to myself, the opposition starts up. 'Oh, yes I am. I'm going to have one.' If I know I'm going to a birthday party and there's going to be cake there, I decide ahead of time if I'm going to have a piece of cake or not. I don't have other (treats) that day. If I get there and it's a kind of cake I don't like, then I don't have it."
If she does eat some cake, "I have half a slice."
When she goes out to restaurants, she often asks the server to bag half the dinner before it's brought to the table, so she can take it home for another meal the next day. She also takes care when ordering. She'll order grilled fish with no oil or butter. "You stay away from the fried foods and heavy sauces."
She also orders vegetables without butter or sauces. Her taste buds now prefer unadorned veggies. "I used to put globs of mayonnaise on stuff, globs of butter. Now I'll eat fresh vegetables with no butter on them, just steamed. And they're delicious. But it takes a while. It takes maybe 1 to 3 months to really begin to notice that."
Exercise helps her maintain
Exercise plays a big role in helping Maggie stay in good shape. She got more active along with making healthier food choices.
Her regular routine includes 45 minutes of exercise 3 or 4 days a week. She usually uses a recumbent bike or a NordicTrack, which mimics the cross-country skiing that she loves. And she hits the cross-country ski trails in the winter and the hiking trails at other times of year.
She increased her exercise slowly. She started on the bike for 10 minutes at a time. Then she worked up to 15 and then 30 minutes.
She also tried something new: yoga.
"I find it's very calming," Maggie says. She also likes the stretching involved in yoga.
Support from others helps
Maggie did the hard work of losing weight on her own. But pats on the back from other people gave her support and a sense of community during her journey to get healthier. She hired a life coach who works with people who are trying to lose weight. She also joined a weight-loss group.
The life coach helped her look at why she overate, such as when she was under stress. And Maggie learned to watch out for times when she was at risk of eating too much. "We explored my attitudes about eating, how I felt about my body," Maggie says. "We looked at psychological factors—when did I tend to eat more, what kind of feeling states led me to eat."
The weight-loss group gave her the support of others who are trying to change their lifestyles.
"When you go to a group setting and there's that kind of recognition from other people and enthusiasm from other people when you've been successful, it becomes very important. You get lots of tips from other people. You get lots of encouragement to continue working on it. It's just amazingly helpful. Everybody there is in the same boat. Everybody there at least is motivated to lose weight. There are people that have had 100 pounds or 50 pounds off for 10 years. There are people who have lost no weight at all, and there are people there that have lost and gained.
"If someone in the room had a bad week and ate something they maybe shouldn't have, everybody in that room can relate to that issue. I didn't think those meetings would affect me as much as they do. I'm finding that I learn more even now than I did earlier from other people."
Maggie says she's thrilled when friends, coworkers, or her students notice she has lost weight.
"One of the (motivators) for me was all the praise and comments people have made to me. My students will comment, 'Gee, you really eat healthy.' They notice that I get the salads and the fruits and the vegetables. I don't eat junk. That feels good. Other people will say, 'How did you do that, Maggie?' "
Maggie's story reflects her experiences as told in an interview. The photograph is not of Maggie, to protect her privacy.
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Current as of: March 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator