I’ve spent a lot of time telling you about all the wonderful things I’ve discovered in my travels to a healthier me. What I haven’t done is filled in all the holes about my own journey.
I’m 5’4″. My all-time highest weight was 165 lbs. in 2013. Body Mass Index (BMI) scales, which are flawed at best, put my ideal weight somewhere between 110 and 144 lbs.
Now I’m a healthy weight at just below 140. My ultimate goal is 130. As you can see, I’m still very much a work in progress three years later.
But what motivated me in the first place to shed those pounds?
The Before: The C-Word
It was May, and my college graduation was just around the corner. At the time I was working part-time for a doctor and my co-worker and work mom encouraged me to see someone for my amenorrhea, a fancy way of saying a curious case of the missing periods. I had had the problem since adolescence, so I never really paid it much mind. In fact, it was actually a blessing in a way for me.
I wound up paying my first visit to my doctor/employer, who ran a hormone test on me. It turned out I had the estrogen levels of a post-menopausal woman. Why? I thought. My body certainly didn’t look like I was short on estrogen. She suggested I see a gynecologist, who could get any necessary follow-up testing approved. Darn these complex health care systems.
My gynecologist had since packed up shop and retired, taking my patient records with her. I paired myself up with the closest nearby OBGYN who took my healthcare plan and prepared to get the once-over. To my extreme dismay and ultimate fright she quickly labeled my condition Poly-cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a catch-all term for “your ovaries don’t work and we don’t know why,” hallmarked by amenorrhea, often cysts on the ovaries, hormone imbalance, and sometimes excess body hair growth.
The worst part is doctors don’t know why it happens.
Probably the scariest part of it all was she said all that left over waste product that the uterus typically voids each month was lingering there, increasing my risk of cervical cancer. In the short term, if I was looking to get pregnant- I wasn’t- fertility treatment was a very real thing, because everything was broken down there somehow. She recommended hormonal birth control just to get me to have cycles, and drop 50 lbs. because I was pretty much going to get cancer. It was just a matter of time to her.
So after bouts of anger, crying and frustration (because even if I didn’t have kids I wanted it to be my decision!) I decided to get a second opinion.
I went to the OBGYN my co-worker recommended, bringing my ultrasound and blood work with me. This practice’s nurse practitioner was a lot more practical.
“You can try losing just a few pounds. Maybe five or 10. Sometimes that’s just enough to get the body back into order,” she said, or at least something to that effect.
If it was too much of a struggle, she said, there are chemical weight loss options available. I could do birth control if I wanted, she added, but I wasn’t keen on adding artificial hormones. My co-worker who is also a cancer survivor said one of the first questions they asked her at the oncologist was if she had ever been on hormonal birth control, because apparently it appeared to increase cancer risk, she said.
Exercise was out of the question, so I guessed limiting the food I was going to stuff in my face was the only way.
The Early Months: The Agony
I decided to count calories and ugh, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Really.
USDA calorie guidelines note a 2,000 to 2,500 is sufficient to maintain weight in adults, generally. This is ignorant of various activity levels and other caloric needs, but that’s the baseline on all those nutritional labels. I started by thinking there was no way I was exceeding that amount, but I was way wrong.
By restricting my caloric intake, my body would be forced to make up the difference by liquidating the stores of fat it’d been saving up for a rainy day.
Well, it was pouring now.
A quick reality check here which I didn’t realize until much later: most chain restaurants have entrees which range from 800 to 1,200 calories and higher if you also have appetizers and desserts. If you eat at one of these restaurants twice a day, it’s easy to rack up 3,000 calories daily. That doesn’t even account for breakfast or snacks. Eating out became extremely hard on me very early on. My calorie counting app (I used Noom, then transitioned to Jawbone UP and finally to My Fitness Pal) never had good news for me when I visited these places.
What’s worse, my friends liked to eat out, so it was an active struggle to be social while still being nutritionally-minded.
Being allotted a paltry 1,200 calories a day, I was starving constantly because of my tiny servings of macaroni and cheese, that snack size bag of potato chips I ate, and that glass of juice. Just with that alone I had eaten 1/3 of my daily calorie intake. God forbid I should eat a donut or a pierogi. It seemed hopeless.
Unless, I totally revamped how I ate.
Diets weren’t going to work. I needed to make a lifestyle change, I realized. A permanent lifestyle change. It was the only way to get the weight off and keep it off, because forget it if I would ever go through this agony again.
I had some hard and fast rules: no artificial sugars, no GMOs and no heat-and-eat foods. I was on my own separate health kick with GMOs at the time which also wound up staying with me.
But how would I give up Chinese take-out? My beloved Doritos? The Chipotle I had just grown to love?
A lot of that rested on actively looking for new alternatives that were more health conscious, as well as spending a good deal of money on fresh produce and eating my own cooking at every opportunity. I was blessed with having a year to do that. After graduation, I was lucky enough to take a year off which served this purpose perfectly.
I traded my mac ‘n cheese, frozen entrees, red meat and pastas for broccoli with cheese, fresh vegetables, fish and chicken and soy and yam alternatives.
This is not to say it’s an impossible transition if you’re employed while trying making this change. I spent a lot of time researching perfect foods and how to get enough macro-nutrients from alternative sources, which was kind of overkill honestly. I also wrote a novel in that time, became a mommy to two rats, played homemaker and traveled on weekends back home, so I was busy.
Here are some photos of healthy lunches and dinners I cooked up in that first year:
The changes were slow at first. Too slow. A new scale was one of the first purchases I made for my apartment to keep track of my progress. I’d drop 0.2 lbs. by morning and by the same time the next day I’d have it back. But after the first two months, I saw the beginnings of change.
It was still a struggle to get my stomach used to the change in foods and well as portions. Portions were a big thing. My stomach wanted a lot of food, but I was within tight 1,200 a day calorie constraints. (For some reference, most if not all people cannot safely subsist on fewer than 1,000 calories a day.) So I piled on the lettuce, the kale, the non-starchy veggies. I learned which dressings has little to no calories and that spices were the cheapest (calorie-wise) flavorings for dishes.
In time, my body adjusted and my stomach shrunk, allowing me to eat smaller portions without still feeling empty inside.
Then and only then could I reincorporate some of my pre-“diet” foods. I was conscious of the calories in everything because I had worked at it for so long. I could have that burrito bowl, but I would have to exchange my crackers and cheese for carrots and hummus later. It wasn’t a huge sacrifice, because I really liked to eat all of my options. When I went out for sushi, which was often, I’d get sashimi or chirashi, so I could more easily control my rice intake.
I did develop one weird craving: peanut butter and jelly. I enjoyed mine on rice cakes with raspberry preserves and Better’n Peanut Butter.
As far as exercise, I did hit the elliptical a few times a month when I felt particularly plateaued. I took the stairs whenever I could (and usually had to since I lived on the third floor and there was no elevator.) and tried to make it my business to go for evening walks. I stress though that this was not me having an exercise routine. I just did these things when I felt moved to do them. Which wasn’t often.
In my first year I dropped 20 lbs. (Less than 0.5 lb. a week) and about half-way through my body decided to work again. I was having regular periods and felt better than I ever thought I could. But I couldn’t stop then because I was loving the results.
I had healed myself naturally by giving my body the food it needed and no more. No less.
And through the same principles that led me to shed the weight in the first place, I went on to lose and additional 5 lbs. and have kept all that weight off ever since. Now my focus is to tone up my body which will hopefully lead to a bit more weight loss. Or muscle gain. At this point, I’m content going either way.
The best part of it all might be that satisfying feeling when I slipped into my juniors size 7 skinny jeans, a hold over from my high school days.
I wish you all the best of luck on your own weight loss journey.
Remember to take it one day at a time.
Starvation is never the answer.