By Sara Reinke
As we head into the new year, armed with resolutions to lose weight, it seems there is no end to the wealth of information available to help us achieve our goals. Just turn on your television and you’ll find them—advertisements featuring workout DVDs promising cardiovascular “boot camps” to toughen you up, prepaid diet programs where food is delivered to your door in perfectly portioned servings, or any number of pills, supplements or energy drinks guaranteed to reprogram your metabolism, decrease your body’s fat absorption or reduce your hunger pangs.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with so many options coming at you so fast. And if you’re like me, instead of adding to my motivation to lose weight, all of these options only work to discourage me.
Let me give you an example. A friend of mine is trying to lose weight. She’s putting herself through her own personal hell, sweating through 80 minutes of cardio workouts daily, plus free weight training at her local gym. She’s lost 30 pounds, but man, she’s working at it.
I hate to sweat. I’m lazy by nature. I’m cheap. And I like to eat. There’s no way I’d endure some drill sergeant of a personal trainer screaming in my ear in so-called “motivation.” There’s no way I’d put my body through the torture of nearly an hour and a half of intense physical exercise. And there’s no way in hell I would shell out perfectly good money for a gym membership to be subjected to that kind of abuse. That’s just not something that suits my personality, my physical abilities.
Another friend lost more than 50 pounds doing Weight Watchers. She counted points religiously, attended meetings and inspired other friends to join her. She almost inspired me to join her, too, but then I went online and found out how much Weight Watchers costs. (See my note above about being cheap.) I was able to repeatedly talk myself out of even trying Weight Watchers just for the price of the program alone, never mind the commitment to a weekly meeting and weigh-in session. I work full time, in addition to my writing pursuits, and am a wife and mother, full-time jobs in and of themselves. So I discovered I’m commitment-shy, too, meaning I didn’t want to put forth the time, effort or energy demanded of a regimented program.
Nutrisystem? I’m too cheap to try it. Same thing with diet pills and weight-loss tonics. Fad diets? I like carbs too much to give them up, lettuce too little to eat nothing but and will bite you like a rabid dog if you try to take away my chocolate.
This probably means that as a food-lover with a penchant for carbs, chocolate and cheese, who is too cheap to commit to a gym or diet program and too lazy to sweat, I’m doomed to be overweight forever. Right?
This time last year, I’d have told you yes. But today, I know differently. Last spring, I took a little online health quiz and saw that my body mass index, which is an indicator of the percentage of fat in your body given your height, weight and gender. At the time, I would have admitted to being a little overweight. I would have admitted to hiding behind other people in photographs, or avoiding having my picture taken altogether. Had you asked, I would have said, no, I’m not happy now that my size 18 pants are getting too tight and my 1X shirts too snug, so I have to purchase size 20 and 2X. But it wasn’t until I saw that BMI result that I realized just how big the blinders I had been wearing were. I wasn’t overweight.
At 5’6” and 190 pounds, I was obese. I was at critical risk for developing adult onset diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, respiratory problems and other obesity-related health issues. I realized I had to do more than go on a diet. I had to find someway to change my life for the healthier.
But then I found myself overwhelmed by all of the options I described earlier. And by feeling overwhelmed, I was also able to postpone getting healthy and losing weight, because I was waiting for what I thought was a magic pill, an easy answer, the quick and simple solution that would melt my pounds away while requiring nothing more of me than I was already giving.
But there is no magic pill. Not really. By that, I mean there’s no one thing that works every time for every person. Everyone has to find out what works for them. That’s why those cardio boot camps DVDs have real-life people in their commercials on TV describing how much weight they’ve lost or how many inches have melted off their bodies from doing the exercises. For those folks, and plenty of others, those DVDs are their magic pill. Just like Weight Watchers was the magic pill for my friend and Jenny Craig was the magic pill for Valerie Bertinelli. But that didn’t make these methods right for me—and doesn’t make them right for you, either.
For me, what worked was counting calories and walking. I decided to do this after almost buying a little carton of Weight Watchers yogurt. I was buying it for the label alone, figuring if it said Weight Watchers on it, it had to be the healthiest. Right? But then I compared it to another brand of yogurt and realized it had 20 more calories for the same sized container. And thus, the idea for counting calories and reading nutrition labels was born.
I kept a food log, first in little spiral notebooks I carried in my purse, and now that I have technologically vaulted headlong into the 21st century, I keep track on a little app on my iPhone. I write down everything I eat, whether I want to admit it or not, and the calories in each and every item. When I was trying to lose weight, I limited myself to 1,500 calories a day. Once I’d hit my goal weight, I allowed myself 2,200. Because I ate too many sweets over the holidays in spite of this, I am back to 1,700 so I can get back to my goal weight.
Because I love food, I wasn’t willing to go without anything I like, and by counting calories, I don’t have to. I can eat bread, rice, potatoes, French fries, cheese, fruit—anything I want. It’s the portion size that counts. I’ve learned how much I can eat and still remain within my daily caloric allotment.
I added a salad to my lunch every day, and for those first few months, ate Smart Ones or Lean Cuisine frozen entrees. The calories are already totaled for you, the portions already sized, so you don’t have to worry about it. And you can learn what 300 calories worth of salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese looks like, so you can later fix a plate for yourself and keep within that range. Today, I’m better about estimating by sight what a proper portion of food looks like. When I’m in doubt, I still pull out my food scale and make sure. (You can buy these cheap in your grocery store, less than $10. Money well, well spent.)
I read nutrition labels. I compared different products and bought the ones with the least calories. Spaghetti sauce, pasta, soups, rice cakes, puddings—you name it, I learned about it and went with the healthiest. I decided if it was more expensive, it would be worth it in the long run. And it was still less expensive than a paid-diet supplement or gym membership, so that kept my cheap self from grumbling too much.
I found little ways to keep my gluttonous self happy. For example, Jell-O sugar-free puddings help ease my craving for chocolate. Jell-O sugar-free gelatin is another indulgence, especially if topped with Redi Whip fat free (5 calories!) whipped topping. Rice cakes take away my urge to chomp on something salty and crunchy. Microwave low-fat popcorn works well, too. Partially skim milk cheeses have fewer calories per serving than regular cheese. Baked French fries are every bit as good as their fried counterparts, without all of the grease and added calories and fat.
I also discovered new indulgences I never would have otherwise tried. For example, I love the grilled chicken snack wraps at McDonald’s, ordered without any sauce. Most places put way too much sauce on sandwiches anyway, and the snack wrap comes with cheese, which, with the chicken, tastes delicious without drowning in ranch dressing.
When I go out to eat, if possible, I check the menu’s nutritional information online before going, or use my iPhone to check it out once I’m there. Then I can make healthy choices on the fly. I tried a grilled pork tenderloin at Olive Garden doing this—something I never would have picked had I not been calorie conscious. And it was incredibly delicious.
One thing I’ve seen stressed on Biggest Loser, and with which I have to agree whole-heartedly, is to not be afraid to order off the menu at a restaurant. I substitute healthy sides like a salad or grilled vegetables for French fries or not-so-healthy dishes. I always ask for sauces to be skipped or served on the side. Salad dressings, too. I don’t always get the least-caloric salad dressing, but even if I don’t, when it’s on the side, I use only a fraction of it by dipping each bite into it, instead of dumping it all over my food. Pull the skin off your chicken. Order a side of vegetables with your steak instead of a potato. Have salsa with your tortilla chips instead of queso dip. Order fish if they’ve got it—preferably white, like tilapia or mahi mahi. Keep all of your meat portions under 6 ounces and you won’t overdo it. Share a dessert with your husband or kids—or your husband and kids. These are just some of the rules of thumb I keep in mind anymore when dining out.
When I say I walked as part of my new diet/exercise changes, I don’t mean on a treadmill. I have one at home, and I’ll get on it if Biggest Loser is on, but ordinarily, it sits in my family room, collecting dust bunnies beneath it. I like to walk outside. I call it my daily dose of Zen. Whether it’s 98 degrees outside or 22, you’ll find me twice a day, Monday through Friday, hoofing a path around where I work. A group of my coworkers join me, and that helps keep me motivated, even on days when I’d rather stay inside and eat M&Ms. I probably average 3.5 or 4 miles an hour, which means for each 20-minute trek, I burn anywhere from 65 to 75 calories, or roughly 130-150 calories a day. Not bad.
I set realistic goals for myself. When I was 20-something years old, I could quit eating for a week and drop 10 pounds. I’m almost 40 now and have had two kids. My metabolism doesn’t work that way anymore. So I tried to be optimistic but realistic with my weight-loss expectations. One to two pounds a week is a healthy weight-loss range. And you’re more likely to keep the weight off if it’s lost gradually like this, through healthy methods.
Eating less and exercising more in a fashion that suited my activity level and personal preference. That’s all I did. That’s my magic pill. I’m not saying it’s going to work for you. But by doing this, I went from 190 pounds in April to 150 pounds in September and I’ve kept it off. With the exception of four pesky pounds I gained around the holidays, which I am now half-way to losing. I’m healthy and happy, no longer hiding in photographs. And my BMI is well within the normal range for my proportions.
My advice to anyone with a New Year’s resolution to lose weight is to go for it. Find what works for you—whatever that may be—and stick to it. Trust me—if I can do it, anyone can.
Sara Reinke is the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romances, including The Brethren series from Zebra Books. Visit her at her blog: http://sarareinkeauthor.blogspot.com/