How I Went from 51 and Fat to 53 and Fabulous

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t overnight.

It was Dec 30, my birthday, and I would turn 51 at 3:45 pm. Up to this point, I thought of myself as a bit overweight but still healthy. After all, I could easily walk five miles, lead folks on international hiking trips, and fit into “regular” sized clothing. But just barely.

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As usual, with New Year’s looming, I was thinking typical New Year’s resolution thoughts. I took a look at my belly. Its muffin top spilled over my jeans. I couldn’t cross my legs. My chin doubled and tripled up under a smile hiding behind lost dimples.

First Goal: Lose Ten Pounds

My New Year’s resolutions weren’t much different than any year, and of course, they included a weight loss goal. It wasn’t a big goal. Ten pounds. I thought that if I dropped ten pounds, I wouldn’t be “overweight” anymore. Granted, I’d still clock in at obese according to BMI calculations. I just figured if I lost the ten pounds, I’d be all set because I would comfortably fit into the big end of regular-sized clothing. Somehow in my mind, if I fit in a size 14, I wasn’t fat.

At the same time though, I wanted to mix up my birthday thoughts and resolution goals. I also decided to create a theme for the year. I wanted a theme that was fun and light-hearted which reflected my overall optimistic demeanor.

From Ten Pounds to Amazing and Joyful

I picked “Amazing and Joyful.” The more I thought about my weight-loss resolution and that theme, they didn’t match. Losing ten pounds wouldn’t be amazing. And I wouldn’t feel very joyful about it because secretly I knew the number needed to be bigger. What would be amazing and joyful, I thought, would be a big, crazy weight-loss goal, and if I were to achieve it, I would feel amazing and joyful. Besides, after all, I had achieved every goal in my life I had ever set out. Why not accomplish the weight loss goal too?

Absolutely.

From Amazing and Joyful to 30 Pounds

So in a matter of a few seconds, I changed the ten-pound goal to a thirty-pound goal.

And then I knew I had some work to do. I knew how to lose 10 pounds–shoot, I had done it a million times. But I didn’t know how to lose 30 and to *keep it off.* I made two decisions in the next two minutes.

I Need Help; I Will Be Successful

First admission: I had to admit I needed help.
Second admission: I swore that when successful, I would *never* gain the weight back.

How would I succeed? Because, darn it, if I were going to start this journey, I refused to fail.

Like most people who had searched for weight loss programs, my Facebook feed and google streams filled with weight loss options. Weight Watchers, Keto, Whole 30, SlimFast. And, of course, I had done them all at some point in my life. And the truth is that all diets work–you follow their prescription down to every detail, and you’ll lose weight. The challenge is finding one that works for you (not you for it.)

Hand to Mouth Disease

I needed a program that addressed my disease. Hand to mouth disease. You know it. That disease that my hand can’t keep moving food to my mouth? I had to find a program that included behavior modification, held me accountable to my choices, and retrained my brain to think healthy thoughts about food. I needed a program that would help me dig deep into me. Without judgment. And with fortitude.

Because let’s face it, my food brain was a bit warped. I grew up in a house that was crazy food obsessed. I had a father who rewarded us based on how much we weighed and a mother who had me counting calories at age 8. I had terrible role models for body image. I didn’t blame my parents–I didn’t use them as excuses for my weight–but I simply needed better brain waves. I needed to learn healthy ways to think about food and its role in my life.

State of Slim Program

Before I tell you which program I found, I am not trying to sell you on buying into this program. You need to find what works for you. What I found that worked for me was the State of Slim Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz. For sixteen weeks, I learned how to reorganize my thoughts around food. I learned to reprogram my behavior. And I learned how to be honest with myself.

I also had to understand that I was investing in myself. I knew that the money I was putting into the program and spending on new foods as I overhauled my pantry was money that I wouldn’t have to spend on the future for my health.

Food Is Health

I had to recategorize food. Almonds moved from a protein to a fat. Spinach moved from a vegetable to a protein and calcium source. Non-fat Greek yogurt became a staple of my daily protein routine, not a dessert loaded with chocolate chips at the end of the day.

The program was simple.

Six proteins, three carbs, two fats.

And the weight started to come off.

Exercise Is the Motor that Drives the Body Engine

We added in exercise. I was already walking 15000 steps a day, but I wasn’t really *exercising.* Although they just wanted us to move, and walking was considered movement, I quickly learned that I had to step it up. Literally. First we started with ten minutes of movement a day, then we added ten minute each week until we were up to sixty minutes of movement each day. Thus, I walked 15000 steps a day and included biking, dancing, and swimming.

Soon, I was spending almost three hours a day walking and exercising in some way. It was a lot (and keep reading!!! Don’t get discouraged!) How did I rearrange my day to make that amount of movement happen? I had to be very intentional. I’d wake up and first think about what exercise I’d do that day. If it were biking, how could I ride my bike to do an errand or ride to a meeting instead of drive? As for my steps, they’d add up a couple of hundred at a time. I’d park further away, walk to the mailbox, take my dog out more, etc. I wasn’t actually exercising from, say, 4-7 pm. I was incorporating it in spits and spurts throughout the day to get it all in.

I lost 34 pounds during the 16-week program.

Reconciling my Social/Ethical Issues with the Ends

Then the hard work really started. Prior to the program, I had been eating as a vegetarian for almost a decade. Prior to that, I barely ate meat. I could never, and I still can’t, justify the amount of environmental impact and social justice it takes to eat a pound of meat over a pound of grain. For me, not eating meat is a social issue.

Truly, though, I was more a cheese-tarian. Although I didn’t eat meat, I surely ate lots of cheese, lots of pasta, lots of butter. And nuts. Give me a pounds of chocolate-covered almonds and I could eat the whole bag in one sitting. I was vegetarian after all! At least it wasn’t bacon, I figured.

Throughout the State of Slim program, it was next to impossible to eat a vegetarian diet. With a six-protein requirement where the Program counted rice/bean combos as carbs and not proteins, it was next to impossible to get the protein I needed while trying to eat as a vegetarian within the guidelines of the program. This was the one major criticism of the program.

Hello Charlie the Tuna and All His Friends

So I ate fish. My ethical/social/environmental self screamed each time, but my weight-losing self jumped for joy. Fish worked for weightloss. The ends would justify the means in my mind. I’d return to vegetarianism when I could. I bought fish by the frozen pound and the canned tin. Holding my nose, I ate it.

The Hard Part Was Just Starting

With the summer upon me, the weightloss portion of the program behind me, and weight maintenance ahead of me, I had no idea what to do. How would I eat when I didn’t have a list or a tracker to keep me accountable? I’d been very successful at losing weight many times in my life, but I had certainly failed at keeping the weight off more. The University of Colorado had a weight-loss maintenance research project starting right as I finished the State of Slim.

I signed up.

Studying Weight Loss Maintenance

In the research study, they wanted to track how many calories I ate each day and whether I would keep off the weight based on the calorie intake. They did all kinds of body scans and evaluations to determine how many calories I would be able to eat each day based on BMI, bone density, activity, and other factors. They originally said I could eat almost 2700 calories a day based on my activity levels. After all, I have an active life style where I was still walking 15000 steps, exercising an hour a day, and moving throughout the day.

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I told them no way. No way could I ever eat 2700 calories a day. On the State of Slim Program, I’d been eating about 1500-1800 calories a day. If I jumped up to 2700, I’d be as big as an elephant in no time. We settled on 2300.

But I didn’t trust that number either. Without a list of foods to eat and a desire to get back to vegetarianism, I was a bit lost. I tracked my calories to about 2000 a day by just eating larger portions of the food on the State of Slim eating list. I was terrified to move off the list. The world is full of scary foods that make you fat.

I feared that if I started eating “real food” I would get fat again. I wanted to be “normal.” My weightloss coach advised me that “normal” is what is causing the nationwide obesity epidemic in the first place. She encouraged me that I would figure it out. She suggested I start trying one or two foods off the list at a time, such as bananas and low-fat yogurt. I could start subbing in my favorite vegetarian protein sources, such as rice and beans, one meal at a time. I would slowly move off fish. See how my body reacted. She said I would eventually relax. I would learn to really listen to my body.

I Got Brave

Slowly over the fall, I moved away from “the list” and started eating with a more relaxed approach. Yet, I still followed the rules of the State of Slim. Eat in the first hour of the morning, eat six times a day, plan your meals, and have healthy snacks on hand.

I weighed myself every day. If my weight got up by more than two pounds, I’d jump back into State of Slim mode and eat right off the list for a few days until my weight got back to my 2-4 pound zone. It worked, but it was exhausting.

Pick Your Hard

Fortunately, I kept going back to one of the days in the State of Slim training that has stuck with me for two years. It was this concept called “Pick Your Hard.”

Pick your hard. What is hard about being fat? What is hard about being thin?

Fat: It’s hard to walk, run, fit in clothes, keep up with kids, be comfortable on planes…

Thin: Work out, measure food, handle new-found attention, monitor weight…

I would frequently review this list in my mind, always coming back to the “Thin Hard.” Because at least with the Thin Hard, I felt good.

One Year Down, then 5 Months of Travel

2018 concluded, I turned 52, and my weight stayed right at where I had finished the State of Slim Program. I was successfully keeping within my 2-4 pound window, but I found that I was more on the 4 pound end than the 2 pound end of the range. I then left the US for a five-month adventure through South America that would challenge the best of my weight loss goals.

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Fortunately, I felt strong in the skill sets that I had developed. I knew that I would have to keep up the work outs, the meal planning, the food prepping, and the monitoring. I wasn’t sure how I’d do it traveling from country to country, but I’d have to tackle these goals on a daily basis.

Rethinking How to Do a Cruise

The first part of my Latin America Adventure was a cruise. Leaving out of Santiago, Chile, I cruised for 21 days through French Polynesia, stopping at Easter Island, Pitcairn, Bora Bora and Tahiti. When I entered the boat, they handed me a box of chocolates and a champagne. How was I going to enjoy the cruise, yet, have a few food splurges, and not gain weight? I would have to rethink the traditional thoughts about cruising. I’d have to focus on the activities and not on the eating.

My first stop after dropping my bags on the boat was the gym. I picked up the gym schedule and signed up for at least one fitness class a day. Next, I found the walking track and determined that 8 boat laps equaled one mile. I’d need to do 64 a day to get my steps in. Finally, I signed up for all the ping pong tournaments, the historical lectures, and the trivia games so that I’d keep busy and wouldn’t be tempted to graze the snack bars and ice cream stands.

Next, I stopped by all the restaurants and previewed the menus. I decided that once a week I’d indulge, just like I’d been doing at home. But the rest of the week, I’d go the buffets and pick wisely, starting at the well-stocked salad bars. I returned to eating fish–honestly, how could I pass up prawns, lobster, sushi and crab?

When going through the buffet, I started with the small plate rather than the large. I loaded it with fresh veggies first. It was actually easy to navigate the buffets to fresh, whole foods. I purposely did not walk past the dessert bars. I sat as far from the buffet as possible. I made sure I had everything I needed on the first pass so I wasn’t tempted to go back “for a fork” and get a breakfast burrito. It took discipline. It was very hard. I wasn’t perfect, but my self-imposed rules helped.

Avoid the Food, Engage in the Activities

The hardest part of the cruise was that I was by myself. I had to force myself to join people and get invited to groups. I found a secret trick. Most of the lecturers who delivered the educational sessions were traveling alone. I’d approach them, make friends, and instead of inviting them to a meal like many of the other cruisers did, I invited them to walk the deck. They loved it. And the 64 laps passed quickly.

On the cruise, I refused to sit and get bored. With food oozing out of every corner, I learned to walk around the ship without passing the food. I’d arrive right on time to events so I wasn’t tempted by the snacks offered ahead of time. Not being a big drinker, I limited myself to one umbrella-drink a week. I didn’t want to be austere on the cruise, but I didn’t want to be glutinous either. The plan worked. I had a superb time and got off the boat weighing the same amount I weighed when I got on, according to the scale in the boat’s gym.

This would be the last time I’d weigh myself for four months.

From a Cruise to a Hike to a Life of Digital Nomading

The cruise ended in Tahiti. I dashed to New Zealand to hike for a week and then returned to Santiago to start my four-month, land-based Latin America adventure. With a group called Remote Year, I’d live in four countries over four months, working at co-working spaces, living in Airbnbs, and enjoying the local culture.

After Remote Year orientation in Santiago and settling into my Airbnb, I headed to the farmers market. Now that I’d have a kitchen for the month, I knew it was time to get back to cooking. Exotic and bizarre sizes greeted me at the market. I picked out some crazy greens, wild-shaped squashes, and colorful fruits. I learned to ask for grains and nuts by the kilo. Spices and herbs came in bunches. Eggs of all kinds appeared in the fresh air sections, not the refrigerated. I feared buying a giant fish with a name I didn’t know and a head attached. So I passed. I would return to vegetarian cooking, tasting the local fish via the cafes and street food options. Back at the kitchen, I made giant pots of bean/veggie combos with local ingredients, and I spiced them with the local flavors.

I walked every where.

Friends and Role Models Showed Me Their “Healthy”

I made younger friends who also wanted to work out, and we tried out different gyms, buying one-month memberships at the ones we liked. Most of the group were millennials. They introduced me to crossfit, ultimate frisbee, and trinity workouts. We took advantage of the outdoor gym equipment in the public parks. I learned to surf! Whenever I got invited to move, I tried it out.

My knees suffered. Pain developed in both of them, and even my daily walking was a struggle. When I got to Patagonia and couldn’t hike a coveted 9-mile adventure due to knee pain, I knew I had been over doing it. Although I continued to accept all active invites, I modified the activities to be non-impact. Even though I couldn’t jump, I could still participate at my level.

Exotic Flavors Can’t Be Passed Up

As I passed vegetarian street food, I tried the local offerings. Ice cream shops beckoned from every corner–I limited my cravings by researching them and limiting my sampling to flavors that were new to me. Passion fruit? Mexican chocolate? Pitaya?  Occasionally I would eat out and try the local fish option or indigenous-cooked foods. Like my “cruise rules,” I didn’t want to be too restrictive–after all, these were foods I’d probably never see again–but I didn’t want to be over-indulgent. Two bites were okay, thirty were not!

Since buying and preparing food was an adventure and a challenge, I really had to listen to what I wanted. My safe and convenient stables weren’t readily available. There was no non-fat Greek yogurt anywhere. Occasionally I could find almond milk. I paid attention to the local ingredients and tried them all.

No Scales Anywhere

Even in the gyms, I could not find a scale. I didn’t weigh myself for four months. I had to let go of persistent weight tracking while at the same time, pay attention to any extra rolls or rubs that would appear on my body. Without a scale, I couldn’t monitor my weight by numbers. I had to monitor it by feel and fit. The minute my legs rubbed together a bit too much or my shorts felt a bit too snug, I lowered food consumption and increased exercise until I could get back to what “felt” right. I constantly monitored my body for fear that it would balloon.

I repeated this lifestyle in all four countries from Chile to Colombia to Peru to Mexico. When I got back to the US in May, the bathroom scale loomed large. I gave myself a few days before weighing. I know that after I fly, I retain water and bloat. I also live at a high altitude which affects weight as well. Finally, I stepped on the scale. I weighed in right at what I had weighed when I left the ship, and I hadn’t missed a single meal, taste, or flavor.

Readjusting to My Life

Reentry into the US was tough. Although I was thrilled to be back with my husband, my home and my dog, I had the re-entry blues. Soon, my teen returned from a year in Brazil. This uplifted me for a bit, but then reality set in. Whereas I thought we’d have a summer of fun, travel, and discovery, we soon learned that my daughter had some school work to catch up on with tutors, and our summer plans dissipated.

Thus began three months of sitting. Waiting. As a parent, I learned my teen needed some discipline and structure. Her year of freewheeling her high school sophomore year in Brazil had backfired. Unless she passed an online English class and aced her Algebra tutoring, she’d have to repeat tenth grade.

Mom Camp

I set up “Mom Camp” in the house. I enforced a rigid 8 am start that continued throughout the day until her assignments were done. It was brutal. On both of us.

While she studied, I got bored. Boredom lead to eating. Eating lead to weight gain. Although I kept up the 16000 steps a day, the daily exercise started to drop off. I lied to myself that a bike ride around the neighborhood was enough. Five pounds crept back on. I succumbed to my daughter’s request for the foods she had missed while in Brazil. Mac n cheese. Scalloped potatoes. Ice cream.

Panicking at Mom Camp

I panicked. Instead of retreating back to the State of Slim skills that had been so successfully, I secretly signed up for Weight Watchers. I was hoping that something new might be the incentive to get off the five pounds, which was really more like seven pounds.

I didn’t want my daughter to see that I “was back on a diet.” After all, my “why” for losing the weight and adopting this new lifestyle was to be a role model for my daughter. How could I be a role model if I was yet, again, back on another diet?

When I tried to combine the vegetarianism on the Weight Watchers point plan, a a modified “cheese-tarian” returned. I was hungry. But mostly I was bored. Sitting and waiting for my daughter to finish her work (because I learned that if I left the house, she would flake) allowed old habits to kick back in.

Weight Watchers worked to lose a few pounds, but I didn’t like how it relied so much on processed foods and quick-food short cuts. I didn’t feel I was eating healthy. I probably could have done better if I’d signed up for the classes. Yet I felt that I knew how to manage my behavior due to the skill set I had picked up on State of Slim, so I only purchased on the app and attempted to get the extra five pounds off on my own.

I floundered.

Time to Be Honest, Again

In the fall, my daughter went off to boarding school. After some emotional eating of feeling her leave for another time, I cracked the whip on myself. I was wallowing and my self-image was faltering. I had to do something more proactive and healthy. I knew that exercise was my key to a healthy weight. Fortunately, a new gym had opened nearby, and they were offering a six-week challenge.

I signed up.

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A New Gym, A New Challenge

I committed to a 15-pound weight-loss challenge at the new gym. If I lost the 15 pounds in 6 weeks, I’d get my sign-up fee back. They handed me a diet. They told me to workout three days a week on a weight-lifting program. Each week I could expect to lose two pounds. I’d progressively get stronger by coming to the gym and doing a “crossfit type” workout.

The diet plan duplicated that of State of Slim. 6 proteins, 3 carbs, 2 fats. Back onto fish I went. Again, I figured the ends would justify the means. The weight began to come off, but not as quickly. I did the program exactly as they said, including the six weeks of weight lifting. By the end of the six weeks, I had lost 8 pounds, and I was back into my 2-4 pound range that I felt comfortable with.

At the end of the challenge, the coach pitched me to continue the journey at his gym. Although I was back to a weight where I felt comfortable, he asked me how much more I wanted to lose? What was going to be my next goal? More, more, more!

Fit but Feeling Fat

He pissed me off. I left the gym. When is good, good enough?

Honestly, though, I wasn’t feeling good and I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I’d still look down at my muffin top. Granted it had gone from several inches thick to just a few, but I couldn’t see myself as a thin person. After the summer of sitting around and being bored, my brain had gotten “fat.” Although my clothes fit well, I didn’t feel well.

Then one day, my husband and I went on a hike with our dog. The hubs snapped a picture of my dog and me on top of a mountain and posted it. When I saw the picture on line, I did a double take. I couldn’t believe it. Was that me? I looked good. I looked great! I looked fit and trim. The “likes” on the picture were through the roof.

Getting to Fabulous

Here was the problem. Although I looked great, I didn’t feel fabulous. I simply couldn’t reconcile what I was eating with how I was feeling. Right there, I decided that the final change from my 51 and fat to my 53 and fabulous transition had to come back to two things: the food I was eating, and my own perception of myself.

In order for me to feel whole, for my social/environmental/climate change soul to feel fabulous, I had to drop the meat products entirely and go fully plant-based. I dreaded picking up the vegan label, but once I made the decision to leave the meat, dairy and eggs behind I seriously heard my soul jump for glee. It was like a ray of light beamed out of my head and sang hallelujah.

Don’t Call Me a Vegan

So, on my 53rd birthday, two years into this transition journey, I made another life-changing decision. I’d adopt the plant-based, whole food meal plan (some say, “vegan”) as my lifestyle. And, like two years ago, I knew I’d need help doing it right. I couldn’t “do vegan” on my own. I’d need to learn how to cook, buy new foods, and drop some of the preconceived notions I had about tofu, tempeh, cashew cheese, and vegan sauces. Where could I find what I needed?

I walked into Tattered Cover, a local bookstore in Denver. I talked with the bookbuyer about what I needed. She pointed me to the book that has helped me complete this journey I didn’t know I had started two year ago. I picked up a copy of Vegan Meal Prep (see below.)

This book laid it all out. It has complete grocery lists and recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for five weeks. But the best part is that it’s got a detailed meal prep plan for every week. It literally starts with “turn the oven on 400 and roast potatoes. While roasting, chop….make….steam…” until you’ve got a week of food prepped for successful eating.

But It’s More than Food

And, now I listen to how my body wants to exercise. It wants to get aerobic and sweat. My body wants to lift weights too, but it wants to be active with music, steps, weights, coaching, and fun. Lots of fun. I joined the F45 gym in my neighborhood and workout three times a week. I still keep up my daily step goal, now at 15000 steps, in order to meet my annual step goal to walk the year number in miles. (For 2020, I’ll walk 2020 miles.)

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And Finally, the Soul

Two months into my third year of this journey, I finally feel like I know where the balance is for my body, my mind, and my soul. I know several things:

Everything I do is exactly what I need to do.
Food feeds my soul; when it’s bad food my soul whines.
Exercise is the key to happiness; when I don’t do the exercise that is right for me, my body balloons.
When my body balloons, my soul cries.
When my soul cries, my self-esteem crashes.
When my self-esteem crashes, I feel fat and ugly.

The only way to move from fat and ugly (despite the number on the scale) is to eat the foods my body loves and exercise the way it wants to move.

Finally, I feel like I’m exactly balanced and where I want to be. My coach, two years ago, was right. I’d learn to trust myself and listen. My weight is still in its range, I’m 53 and fabulous.

But I’m Not Done

I know I’m not done with this journey yet. There are a few things I need to work on.

How to be still

How to embrace variations on the scale

How to respond to people’s comments about this journey

Maybe in this third year of the journey, I’ll find the ultimate zen and balance on food, mind, body, soul. And then I’ll be a Buddha. On the top of a mountain.

Until then, I’m Chris.

I’m 53 and fabulous.

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How is your journey going?

~Chris