Monday, December 14, 2009

What I did right: overall

I have almost reached the 1 year mark from the start date of my diet. I do feel like I've climbed a mountain (pictured above is a rock, but it's the best photo I could find for the analogy). I've been in maintenance mode for about 6 months, although for the first 3 months of that I was still losing as I had upped my exercise so much. Now I'm ready for a little reflection. The list of things I did right aren't necessarily things I advocate. They are things that worked well for my particular personality and lifestyle - so they were right for me. This will be in several parts with what I did wrong coming last.

List is not in order of importance.

I used the Weight Watchers (WW) framework - without joining. 
I decided to use the WW framework based on the loose sense I had that everyone I know who has lost lots of weight has done it through WW. I couldn't see paying $40/month, and was slightly turned off by some of their food recommendations, but I think they are spot on in terms of how much food to eat per day, and despite the calculations I like the POINTS system. Basically it's easier to count smaller numbers (1 slice bread=2 pts vs. 90 calories). I borrowed some materials from a friend, which were really helpful in getting my mindset in order - drinking the Kool-Aid so to speak - I read and reread them weekly for the first few months. I also read a lot of WW articles online, and read through the many many WW forums that exist. I used an old fashioned paper slider points calculator for the first few months, in addition to my iPhone. Unhappily for WW, there are lots of free tools which use their algorithms. I wonder if I could have been so gung-ho if I didn't know I was using a tried and true methodology. I like to think I did this entirely on my own, but the truth is I followed the WW points system with the religious devotion of a Scientologist.

But I'm glad I didn't join. I'm not saying I advocate not joining - The meetings are super-helpful for some people and they, by all means should join. But it was not right for me. First of all, I was immediately turned off by the price tag. I found $40/month ridiculous. But beyond that, I like to research and compile ideas, not pick one. I didn't find WW to be focused enough on whole un-processed foods. I mean the scientific part of the organization is, but then the merchandising arm promotes 1-pt splenda artificial strawberry-flavored WW brand yogurt instead of plain Greek yogurt with real sliced strawberries on top. And I decided to use my blog community as a substitute for the community aspect of the meetings. It's more my style - all my musings all the time - I could stay in communication with my very dispersed set of close friends, and it's the Internet for God's sake!!! I miss the being intimately involved with the Internet now that I'm not in the industry.

I didn't discuss my diet with family much
This is a funny one. I really took this on as my own thing. My family barely knew I was doing it until I was much much thinner. I made sure I saved my points for our (extremely limited) social events so that I could attend without making people crazy. I did kind of encourage us to eat at home more but that wasn't a super noticeable difference in lifestyle, and at the time it was an important move financially as well. I didn't discuss it with the kids for a long time. I didn't cook differently - I just ate less and used slightly less oil/cheese. This was more due to the fact that I cooked healthy vegetable-rich meals before hand. I did add more beans and cabbage in! By not discussing this with my family the endeavor stayed entirely mine. It would have been harder for me to blame external circumstances for my lapses. As the weight came off I discussed it more with Dave and as I got really noticeably thinner my kids picked up on all the conversations between me and Dave and everyone else making comments to me. But in terms of the rough starting weeks I really kept it to myself when I was at home. It was also a stressful time. Dave knew he needed to get a new job and that stress hanging over his head was horrible. Rather than be frustrated by the tedium of point-counting, I found solace in spending so much mental energy on counting points. It distracted me from thinking about far more serious issues and of course it was something in my control. Luckily he got a new job.

I immersed myself in nutrition reading/research
This one is very me. When I get into something I like to do a lot of research on the topic. This proved quite helpful as there are SO MANY CONFLICTING ideas in this field. I'm an extremely non-ideological person. I don't trust any ideology whether it be political, religious, child-rearing, weight-loss. Most ideas need to be taken with a grain of salt. Some are pretty solid but there's always another study about to be published. Somehow the more I read the better I felt - when in reality the opposite could easily happen. In some ways, reading a lot about nutrition could make a person want to throw up her hands with confusion.
Eat lean protein!
Eat grass-fed protein, lean or fatty!
Don't eat carbs! Eat whole carbs!
Eat low-fat!
Eat Mediterranean!
Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks a day!
Don't snack!
Exercise is irrelevant!
Exercise at high-intensity!
Exercise at least one hour per day!
A lot of things I read, after cutting through all the ideology and blather came to the following conclusion:
Don't eat very many calories.
When you take that as the premier goal, and then add the secondary goal of trying not to be starving, and couple those goals with some basic notion that it is good to eat a wide variety of foods, you end up making very good food choices without trying too hard. It's kind of like an actor who does her research and learns her character's back story. You can feel better about your choices knowing the factors that led you to them.

I had a WW support person and exercise support person at start
For the first few months of this endeavor I had two very helpful people in my life at work. Eventually I had enough knowledge and discipline to not need them as much, but at the start they were extremely supportive. One was my exercise partner, and the other a WW lifetime member and coach of sorts. My exercise partner got me to exercise every day in the staircase pretty much no matter what. She is Nigerian and has a very no-nonsense approach to getting things done. She was also very complimentary about my progress. She helped me get out of the habit of skipping exercise when a nice sunny outside activity wasn't possible. Prior to last winter, I had never exercised nearly as regularly in the winter as in the warmer months. By doing it every day all winter exercise became something I had to do or else I felt gross. Kind of like brushing my teeth. Now of course I love exercising.

My WW coach was instrumental in helping me understand the WW principals, see my bad food choices (nuts, cheese, dried fruit, all great foods but must be eaten in extreme moderation when trying to lose). She helped me see the forest through the trees where WW is concerned. She told me the point calculating would start to come naturally, and get less oppressive. This is a major hurdle for many people. The amount of tracking WW asks for can easily put off a person before they even get started. She promised me it would work. This was my first experience using and trusting a corporate weight-loss methodology and accepting that was a big challenge for me.

I started just after holiday season
My timing was perfect, although mainly serendipitous, not planned. I started just after the orgy of temptation known as the holiday season, I didn't get sick all winter, while it may seem stressful that I started after learning of my husband's lay-off it actually made it easier to not go out - no one was in the mood to socialize and we didn't have money for restaurants. Usually my trip up in the winter is illness and lack of willingness to exercise indoors but I got lucky with the former and more realistic about the latter.

I used the "George Costanza" method of letting go of all pre-conceived ideas
I sort of blogged about this before, but not any time recently. Admitting that I couldn't do this through my own common sense was a major admission of failure for me and absolutely essential. Basically I took the attitude, expressed by George in a Seinfeld episode once that, "Every instinct I've ever had in my whole life had been wrong and I am going to do the opposite from now on." This is what allowed me to a) use a methodology like WW, b) count points, c) measure portions with a food scale and measuring cups (I don't need to do this anymore). But making those leaps was essential to me and something I had really always looked down upon. The only time I really lost weight before I did it entirely on my own. I ate smaller portions and exercised more. But I was pushed to make those changes by external forces. I had gall bladder disease and couldn't eat much - and had 3 surgical procedures Additionally I moved to a part of the city where public transport was inconvenient so I ended up walking everywhere. And I was only 25! In the back of my head I always thought that if I did it then I could do it again and I didn't need no stinkin' program! But this was not true and when I finally admitted that I started losing weight.

I counted points every day and thought of 22 as my permanent number
This could go in the "right" and "wrong" category. At about 168 or something I looked into the future and figured I'd probably get to 159 at least, and I'd knew in the summer I'd turn 38* - with each event earning (punishing) a point drop. Anticipating these point drops scared me and I couldn't stand having those point drops over my head. I could barely manage the 24 points I was eating at the time. So I decided to drop them at that time and if I ever got below 150 I wasn't dropping any more. And, I said to myself - this is what I'm eating from now on - wherever I stopped losing is where I'd stay and when I got to that weight I wasn't increasing points again. This way of thinking is very un-Weight Watchers. The system is designed to ease people into losing and then maintenance without traumatic changes. But I really don't like anticipating things, I was in the swing of things, and I just wanted to find my way and stay there. I really did need to think of it as a lifestyle not a diet - which is the WW tag line. This is one way I was able to lose so much. I didn't have a goal weight in mind, and I somehow didn't plateau, I just kept losing, probably because I increased my exercise a lot as time went on and added in weight-bearing exercises, thus building muscle. I also didn't eat many of my exercise points if I could help it and I didn't use all my floater points. I did actually drop a point and go down to 21 for a while, but by then I was so used to being strict at dinner that it was ok. I think now I eat about 23-26, which is actually kind of a big range. I really don't know how I did 21. I did figure out that I could eat a couple more points in maintenance, and I have a lot more muscle which makes me hungrier.
*You are supposed to drop a point for every 10 lbs you lose and you drop points as you age, but in 7 year increments - I was just 4 months away from one of those 7 year category switches (it's 38, not 40 where you drop a point).

Blog! And other internet/iPhone tools
This was fun and super-helpful. The iPhone tools are conveninent and kind of video-game like so they're fun. I have really taken to blogging, which in retrospect is obvious for someone as massively opinionated as me. I kind of wish I had started a blog on Sparkpeople or Livestrong or one of the other national dieting sites. I love my core group of readers but I wouldn't have minded some extra strangers reading as well - especially as I was so successful. I guess the idea of all those strangers reading what I write used to creep me out, but now I wouldn't mind. And as noted before, the blog was both my version of the weekly WW meetings (support) and my tracking system (accountability), which are two well-known essential factors in successful weight loss. I did a review of online tools in February, but they change all the time. My faves are, and a simple iPhone points calculator.

I didn't weigh myself very often and I didn't buy a scale.
I know this goes against all conventional weight loss wisdom, but this one really worked for me. I think it worked because I wasn't cheating and I knew it. The weekly weigh-ins are great for people who are not tracking as closely and need an honesty check as to how hard they are really trying. I kind of took the attitude that I was following all the rules, and so I wouldn't learn anything by weighing myself so often as the weekly number wasn't going to change my behavior. I was already eating a very small amount and exercising regularly, so what would I do differently? The other problems I have with the weigh-in are that people tend to try and game the system by not eating in the morning before the meeting, wearing light clothes, etc. I also think that weight takes about 3-4 days to really show up so I think weigh-ins don't measure the past 7 days but rather 10 to 3 days previous. Personally, my favorite accountability tool is a pair of form-fitting jeans. All that being said, I know most reputable programs advocate weekly weigh-ins so I'm ready to concede that for most people they are a worthwhile practice. I purposely didn't buy a scale as I knew that would lead to neurotic, constant checking. I did use the many scales at Bed Bath and Beyond every few weeks or so.

Next up - What I did right: eating/food

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