Trying to lose weight? I’ve learned these lessons the hard way so you don’t have to! I’m a former yo-yo dieter so I’ve tried many many different paths to weight loss, but now my path is maintaining a healthy and consistent life. Here are some things I’ve learned along the bumpy road to weight maintenance:
Mistake 1: Thinking you have to restrict food in order to lose weight.
If you choose to count calories in order to lose weight, cut back slowly. You probably don’t realize how many calories you’re currently eating, so don’t shock your body and make yourself feel miserable by dropping down to 1200 calories on day one. If you are like I was, over 200lbs and gaining weight all the time, you could eat 2,000 calories and still lose weight! Listen to your body, it’s not the enemy, you need to help it by giving it nutrients from fresh foods and stop abusing it by over-eating junk. Start by writing down what you eat right now so that you can get a baseline. You don’t need to count calories in order to lose weight, just start out by being mindful of what you’re eating and make a note about how you’re feeling when you eat. You may not realize how bad you feel until you start feeling good, so make those notes and you’ll start to see how great you feel when you have decreased your intake of processed foods and increased your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. It can be hard when your body is addicted to fake foods made in a lab, like sugary fruit drinks, sodas, chips, prepackaged meals, etc, there will be a period of withdrawal, so be patient with yourself, you will get through! Slow and steady wins the race, so even if you are simply cutting back on packaged foods and sodas, and adding in water and fresh vegetables, those small changes will add up! Don’t go into a new way of eating thinking that you have to be in it 100% perfect and it’s all or nothing. Life changes take time so be patient with yourself. Getting off the junk is hard but so worth it, it’s addictive for a reason (so Coke-a-Cola will have customers for life). At first, try adding before you subtract: add a serving of vegetables to 2 of your daily meals, and build on your healthy lifestyle from there. You don’t have to cut out everything right away.
Mistake 2: Cutting out entire food groups.
Stop cutting entire food groups: are you sure you’ll ever eat bread again? In the past I went “low carb” by cutting out all pasta and bread, but I always felt sick. I need some grains for energy! I refuse to cut any food groups out completely. Remember that you are creating a lifestyle of healthy eating here, its not a temporary change, but a forever one. Don’t cut out anything thinking it will be short term, because the second you go back to eating that food again you will gain weight. Just keep it in moderation, and pay attention to serving sizes.
We all know about the latest diet craze “gluten free”, but do you know what gluten is? Or why you are avoiding it? If you have celiac disease you find out the hard way that most restaurants’ gluten free menu items are actually NOT ok for you to eat. Stop eating gluten free if you are just doing the fad diet. When gluten free foods are packaged, they are often loaded with sugar to replace the flavor removed from taking out the gluten protein. So you may be going along with this fad of being gluten free when you don’t need to, and it could actually make you gain weight. I’ve noticed a shift in the way packaged foods are marketed lately since this gluten free thing has exploded, but it’s so silly the way they are tricking people into thinking every single thing might have gluten in it. Foods that never contained gluten in the first place are being labeled “gluten free”, so don’t fall for their marketing tricks!
*Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, spelt, rye and barley. Gliadin and glutenin are the two main gluten proteins. Gliadin is what most people are allergic to. Celiac disease effects about 1% of the population.
Mistake 3: Putting time limits on your weight loss.
Stop thinking that you need to do a “detox” or a “juice cleanse” to get started. Most of the time that type of program backfires because it is too restrictive. Stop putting time limits on yourself, you’re not on a reality show! Say I want to lose 20 lbs in a month. If I don’t make that goal, I have “failed”, so I give up and go back to eating whatever packaged crap food I want. Can anyone else relate? Why is it that we put these unrealistic time limits on ourselves? Maybe because we get caught up in those weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser. We all think: “if I could just be on that show I could lose weight”, but most of those people gain all or most of the weight back when they leave the show. They also mess up their metabolisms with the quick weight loss and restrictive eating and over-training they go through. You don’t need to go on a show, YOU CAN DO THIS at home! You have to make a change in your mind that you’re eating a new way forever. I was obese for about 9 years, so why would I expect to be able to reach a healthy weight in 3 months? It’s something in our brains, we feel like we NEED to see results right away for our program to be working, and we are not patient with the progress. It probably took a long time to gain the weight, so give yourself time to lose the weight. It’s great to have goals, something to work towards, so make goals that are less about the way you look and more about the way you feel! For example, getting off of soda in 30 days, eating a serving of fresh vegetables at every meal, drinking 1/2 of your body weight in ounces of water each day, doing 5 minutes of bodyweight exercises in the morning, getting your heart rate up every day, etc.
Think about how you want to FEEL, because you will start feeling better on the inside before you look the way you want to in the mirror. HANG ON TO THAT FEELING because it will keep you going! It’s a progression from the inside to the outside. I remember the moment I realized what a “lifestyle change” really meant. It meant continuing to eat the healthy way I was eating, but forever. I actually remember feeling sad when that light bulb came on in my mind. I was sad because until that moment I realized that I had mentally been putting a time limit on myself, thinking that once I get to my goal weight I could eat Doritos and Taco Bell again…but the truth is that I can’t eat that way anymore. I don’t feel good when I eat fast food. It truly is a change in the way you eat forever, but I will tell you that I enjoy what I eat and I do allow myself to eat anything I want in moderation. The second that you say to yourself that you can’t have something, that’s all you want, so make peace in your mind with the idea that you CAN have anything you want, but for the most part you are CHOOSING to feed your body healthy nourishing foods. It’s about sustaining a healthy lifestyle for yourself forever.
Mistake 4: Letting one high-calorie meal destroy you.
Story of my life. Picture it: you’re on a weight loss plan, and you’ve cut your calories down to 1200 and you’re eating Lean Cuisines and Special K, because the commercials told you that would get you down a couple jean sizes in 2 weeks. But its now day 3 of this and you’re ready to eat your own shoes, because you’re not getting the nutrients your body needs from these processed foods. You get home at night and your husband is crunching away at some potato chips that you didn’t realize were in the house, and you begin to yell at him for this. Then you break, and eat the chips while standing over his corpse, and you decide that you’ve failed your plan and say “screw it I’ve already eaten chips so I might as well eat some ice cream” and that snowball becomes an avalanche. By the end of your binge you feel horrible because your stomach is overly full and you feel like a failure and that you’ll never be able to lose weight. This is self abuse, and it has to stop. When you are over-restricting calories all day you set yourself up for failure at night, and this has been my biggest struggle. Even if you had a high calorie lunch, even if you have already eaten 3000 calories that day, you still deserve to eat a meal if you are starving. It’s the selection of this meal that becomes important. When in doubt, eat a bag of broccoli! Keep that steam bag broccoli in your freezer for an occasion like this, it has saved me many times. The best plan though, is to make sure that you’re eating enough for breakfast, and you’re also eating a substantial lunch. This is different for everyone, but for most people, loading most of your calories into the early part of the day is a recipe for having energy and feeling good all day, and not feeling ravenous at night. I have found success with prepping my meals ahead of time, so that I have healthy food available to eat so that it’s convenient for me. Remember, even if you ate everything in the cabinets last night, start again at the next meal, move on! If you fall down 7 times, get up 8!
Mistake 5: Thinking that you’re cutting sugar, but it’s in everything.
It’s impossible to completely cut sugar, but we can cut DOWN. Your body doesn’t get a blood sugar spike if you consume 5 or less grams of sugar at a time, so use that information to your advantage. An apple has 5 grams of sugar, so you have an idea. Oreos have 14 grams of sugar per serving of 2 cookies. Has anyone ever had ONLY 2 Oreos in a sitting?! If so, they deserve a Nobel Prize for willpower. The FDA doesn’t put percentages on sugar servings, did you notice? It’s the only thing on our food labels without a recommended % daily value. That value is supposed to be UP TO 10% of our calories coming from sugar, but they don’t want to print that percentage on foods that are 140% of our daily intake, because it looks bad and you might not buy cereal anymore, so they just leave it off of everything. Tricky tricky. The American Heart Association states that the sugar intake for men should be limited to 37 grams a day and women should be limited to 25 grams a day. So read your labels! I buy spaghetti sauce with 5 or less grams of sugar, same with BBQ sauce, dressings, crackers, etc. Another trick is to pair your foods up so they can work together, like eating an apple with some peanut butter or a boiled egg, or some plain Greek yogurt with fresh strawberries in it. Combining protein with your sugars can help to reduce your blood sugar spikes during the day, and keep you in a happy mood!
My enemy list of foods with hidden sugar: milk, fruit yogurt, cereal, gluten free packaged products, fat free packaged products, diet drinks, bottled smoothies that appear to be healthy (ex: Naked brand, Bolthouse Farms–these contain genetically modified ingredients and TONS of sugar).
If you’re trying to drink your fruits and veggies, get cold pressed juice. It’s not going to taste super sweet, most of the really nutritious ones taste like grass, but you can chug it to get those vegetables in. Don’t get tricked into drinking a bunch of sugar calories by seeing the word “smoothie” and thinking that it means “healthy”!
Another really important part of lowering your sugar intake, is to cut out fake sugars, like the ones in diet drinks. They say that people who drink diet sodas drink more of them because they see the drinks as “free”. So the best advice I have other than to quit soda altogether, is to drink one regular soda once in a while, and drink the ones with real sugar. Your body doesn’t know what artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are, so it stores them as fat, and it confuses our hormones.
Mistake 6: Not sleeping enough.
Sleep is the key to weight loss, and it’s the first thing we tend to cut. Most people are tired, overworked, over-scheduled, and we end up going to bed late and waking up earlier to fit things into our lives, but it really backfires on us. If you’re making a goal list, put sleep at the top! If we’re not sleeping enough, we are not going to burn the fat we need to burn in order to lose weight. There is so much research on sleep, and I recommend everyone read Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson which has helped me to understand how to get more restful and regenerative sleep. I’m not going to go through the entire book, because everyone should read it, but a couple of things I’m incorporating into my life now are:
-Getting at least 10 minutes of direct sunlight each day, without wearing sunglasses outside (we absorb most of our vitamin D through our eyes). If it’s really sunny I wear a hat.
-Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, or at least within an hour.
-Making bedtime a ritual, instead of just falling into bed at night and passing out.
-Putting down electronic devices 90 minutes before bed (which is the hardest to break). The gist of this one is that the blue light that is emitted from our TV, computers and phones keeps us awake by triggering our bodies to produce cortisol at a time when it needs to produce melatonin for us to go to sleep. Cortisol is the stress hormone that makes us store fat, so I don’t have to tell you that’s not what we’re looking for at night. Instead of looking at that phone or TV before bed, read a paper book or magazine, read to your kids, talk to your partner or roommate etc.
*Cortisol isn’t all bad, when you wake up and drink your morning coffee, your body is producing cortisol to get you to wake up and be ready for the day. You can also do yourself a favor by drinking your coffee outside (if the sun is up) and getting some sunlight on your skin which will then help you sleep more at night. Little changes.
Mistake 7: Rewarding yourself with food, and considering workouts a license to eat anything.
This is a really common mistake, mostly because you might not be burning as many calories as you think you are during your workout. The best way to actually know how many calories you’re burning is to get a heart rate monitor. I used to use a Polar FT60 with the chest strap and I loved it because I actually knew how much effort it took to get the calorie burns I was looking for. I am also an avid hiker and I go on long strenuous day hikes, but it’s so easy to feel like I’ve earned some huge platter of food at the end of it, when that isn’t the case. It’s important to re-feed your body the nutrients it has lost, but that doesn’t mean a slab of ribs and macaroni and cheese with a volcano brownie sundae. I’m all for a reward after you’ve reached a goal, but don’t reward yourself with food! Food is supposed to be fuel, and if you start making it a special reward, that can become a bad relationship. It’s very easy to eat back all the calories burned during your workout, so just keep in mind that you should practice portion control no matter what activity you’ve done that day. The weight loss process is mostly food, and less about exercise than most people realize, so keeping your food in check is going to be your best way to success. Think about some other ways to reward yourself: a new haircut, new shoes, new pajamas, a pedicure, a subscription to a monthly box, a new tattoo, a new water bottle, etc. There are so many ways to reward ourselves without using food, think about some things you want!
Mistake 8: Avoiding weights because you don’t want to “get big”.
Biggest misconception by women is that you’ll gain tons of muscle anytime you pick up a weight over 5 lbs. It’s crazy, because women who are bodybuilders and who are looking to gain lots of muscle mass have to work REALLY HARD to gain that muscle. They are eating hundreds of grams of protein, they are eating 2500+ calories a day, and they are lifting hundreds of pounds of weights every day for many many many days in a row. So stop letting people tell you that they don’t like women with muscles, because 1. they are just intimidated and 2. it takes hard work and dedication to build big muscles and it’s just not going to happen to a regular person. Weights are so essential to burning fat and keeping weight off. Muscle burns more calories in your body than fat does so the more muscle you have, the more your body will help you. Also in women, we develop a lean look when we have muscle definition and not a huge bulky look like you might be imagining. Our arms become slim looking when we get the fat off and have some muscle definition (See: Jennifer Aniston). Muscle also helps increase your bone density, which is so important for women! Did you know that you can build muscle up to age 75? That’s really exciting news, especially for those of us looking to lose body fat and decrease our chances of osteoporosis. If all you do is the elliptical machines and cardio workouts you will end up losing muscle mass along with your body fat which will make you appear more flabby than firm. Strength training has also been proven to help improve our sleep quality, AND we get an amazing “afterburn” which means we burn more calories after our workout is over, than cardio alone. I could go on and on. Mostly, I like to lift weights as heavy as I possibly can because it makes me feel powerful, confident and strong. Who doesn’t want that?!
Mistake 9: Going fat free.
Another diet fad! I remember thinking that fat free was the way to be, but I had no clue how much SUGAR I was eating in place of the fat. That’s how companies manufacture these weird fake foods like Snack Wells cookies, and Reduced Fat Oreos. You have to eat fat in order to lose fat, what a concept! Your body gets energy from 2 sources: carbohydrates and fats. With respect to macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) you want to figure out which energy source works best for you and adjust accordingly. I’ve tried high fat, moderate protein, low carb and personally I didn’t enjoy eating such rich high fat foods and cutting out my precious pasta, but many people have found food freedom with a high fat eating lifestyle. The other way to go is higher carbs, higher protein and lower fats. That’s the way I personally prefer to eat. You can also change your ratios based on your activity level, which is called carb cycling. Find what you like best and run with it! Just remember that whatever method you choose to lose the weight is the method you choose to maintain your lifestyle. Regardless of your macro ratios, everyone needs to eat some fats, so choose healthy ones like avocados, salmon, eggs, nut butters, olives, etc. And please remember to avoid the chemicals disguised as healthy fats like margarine, and “I can’t believe its not butter” (aka I can’t believe we made this in a lab and people actually think it’s ok to eat!). Always eat real food so your body knows what to do with it.
Mistake 10: Not having a plan for maintenance.
I do consider myself and expert on weight loss, because I have proven over and over that I CAN lose weight. I’ve lost over 50lbs twice now. I feel connected to Oprah in that way, why can’t the woman with seemingly unlimited resources maintain a healthy weight? I ask myself why is it that I have HAD to keep losing that weight? Because I had no idea how to keep it off. I have never considered a plan for maintaining weight loss…until now. Why is it so hard to maintain a weight loss? For me I think it is mostly because I put time limits on my progress, and once I reach a goal weight I assume I can eat whatever I want because I am at my goal. And that’s why I always gained weight back. I also run into the problem of people around me. People love to tell me what I can eat. “Oh you can eat this pizza, you look good now.” Yeah, thanks. I wonder what those same people were thinking when I was obese and eating the pizza at will. That’s the thing I hate the most I think, people telling me that I look “so skinny” now, and giving me permission to stop losing weight. I only look skinny to them because they knew me as a larger person. This is the part of the weight loss path that I didn’t expect. I never realized that people see others bettering themselves, and they want to tear them down. Whatever you do, whatever people say to you, keep doing what is right for you. Keep living a healthy life. Stay on your own path, because no one else is walking in your shoes, no one else is in your head. Only you can do what is right for you, so tune out the crowd noise. Maintaining is the most valuable part of weight loss, and also the hardest. Remember that even if you are stuck in a plateau, maintaining weight is better than gaining!