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 foods I had been trying to avoid. 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 strict."
"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."
Hard to make changes
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.
- Limit foods and drinks with added sugar. Maggie stopped drinking soft drinks and bottled teas with sugar.
- Eat whole fruit when you crave something sweet.
- 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.
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 outdoor 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 in her food plan. But she has them less often. And she has small portions. "I have what I call my worth-it foods," says Maggie.
She often changes those foods to make them healthier. 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 three or four slices at a time. Now she enjoys one slice and then has a large salad to complete her meal.
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 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. "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 her weight
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. 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 during her journey to get healthier.
"One of the (motivators) for me was all the praise and comments people have made to me. My friends 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.
Current as of: December 17, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
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