Today is August 7th 2010. Since April 28th 2010 I’ve lost 30 pounds and lowered my total cholesterol by 100 points. Yes, 100 points! I couldn’t believe it myself, but my doctor insisted that was the number the labs showed! Though my story is nowhere near the magnitude of, for example, a Jared Fogle, I’m nevertheless hoping that the story of my “journey” (so to speak!) will inspire anyone else out there who’s been concerned about their health and/or appearance but perhaps didn’t think they had the self discipline to follow a diet plan.
I, for at least the past 7 years, have been the type who would just eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I ate when I wasn’t hungry just for the fun of it. I’d stuff myself when I got depressed, or stressed out, or bored.
I had no self-control to begin with, and my job made it even worse. I travel a lot. Most of the hotels at which I stay have free hot breakfast buffets, which meant EVERY MORNING I was pigging out on bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns and biscuits and gravy. On most projects, they give me a set per diem per day. If I didn’t spend it all I got to keep whatever I didn’t spend, so breakfast would be stuffing myself at the buffet, lunch would be McDonald’s or something else similarly cheap and supper would be pizza or something else inexpensive. It got worse when I’d be on a project where there was no per diem but rather the client paid for all of my food – I’d just order whatever I wanted and keep the receipts. This meant that if I was staying in a hotel with room service, I could pick up a phone and within half an hour a full rack of ribs and a plate of french fries would be delivered to my room and it didn’t cost me a penny.
Even when I was at home, I loved pizza buffets, plates of pasta, bags of Oreos (mmmmm Double Stuff!!!!), milkshakes. I loved fast-food breakfast sandwiches like Burger King’s croissanwich, Jack-in-the-Box’s extreme sausage sandwich, McDonald’s McGriddles and sausage-and-egg McMuffins, IHOP, doughnuts from the doughnut shop etc.
On top of all that, it wasn’t uncommon for me to suck down 6 to 8 cans of coke or Mountain Dew per day, and on the weekends when I was going to be out late partying I’d pile Amp, Full Throttle and Red Bull on top of all that.
And I NEVER exercised. Never. The most exercise I ever got was either typing or lifting my suitcase into the overhead compartment on the plane.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that it started to lead to health problems. The most common “health problem” was waking up at 3am with a stomach ache. It happened a lot. It got to the point where every time I’d pack for a business trip I had to make sure I packed Pepto pills and a box of Ex-Lax because I KNEW I was going to need them.
Back in November 2009 I literally ate myself into the hospital. I had an entire medium supreme pizza and half of a large calzone for supper. I woke up at 3:30am in so much pain I thought I was having an ulcer. I ended up having to call an ambulance. It turned out that I did no permanent damage to myself (luckily!) but still, it was a scary episode.
One would THINK that would have been enough to scare myself into actually improving my eating habits, and for about a month, it did! But by mid-January I was right back to my old self.
Finally, in April I agreed to “let” my doctor do blood work on me. When we got the results, my doctor basically said that if I don’t make a drastic change to my lifestyle I was going to have serious health problems, and possibly soon. She put it in a way that scared the living bleep out of me and even had me questioning whether or not I’d be able to see my 2-year-old daughter graduate from high school. She told me she wanted me to eliminate high-cholesterol foods from my diet and lose weight, saying that when you’re overweight it makes it harder for your body to regulate cholesterol.
(My doctor later admitted to me that my numbers really weren’t “that bad”, that she’s definitely had patients with worse numbers. I think my numbers were 36 good, 192 bad, 5.8 ratio, 228 total. It was the ratio that worried her the most, and my age – those numbers were high for someone as “young” as I am. She was still sure that I definitely needed the lifestyle change.)
I remember thinking to myself, I’m not surprised. I’m scared, but I’m not surprised. Every time I ordered pizza or went down to the buffet I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. All I could tell myself is, I HOPE this is the ONE diet and exercise program that I’ll actually stick to for a lifetime instead of being like the last 100 that lasted maybe two meals.
I’m going to admit one more thing that I haven’t told a lot of people, because it’s still difficult and embarrassing for me to talk about. I’d been having mental problems too. I was picked on and bullied a lot through school, and I never really got over it. Even as a successful adult those horrible memories invaded my consciousness and truly interfered with my ability to enjoy time with my family and do my job. In addition to flashbacks I was experiencing depression and anxiety. My therapist literally diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt like that was a little harsh, but I got a second opinion from another therapist who agreed, and my family doctor went as far as to say that unresolved mental issues can lead to physical issues. Right before I got the news from my doctor about my cholestrol level, one of the things my therapist told me was to get out and EXERCISE. Exercise releases endorphins which can help to fight back depresssion and anxiety.
(A side note to all of the parents out there: If you find out your child has been bullying other kids, please, correct their behavior immediately. Bullies have absolutely no clue as to the extensive psychological damage they do to other kids. And if you explained it to them, they’d probably just say, “AWESOME!!!! I’m going to go do it some more!!!!”. One other note to parents: If your child is BEING bullied, he or she probably won’t tell you. First of all, it’s humiliating. The feeling of being weak and helpless and alone can be overwhelming. Also, it’s not uncommon for bullies to threaten their “target”, i.e. you tell on me and I’ll not only kick the bleep out of you, all of my friends will too. It happened to me. Look for signs like their pretending to “prefer” to be alone, acting like they prefer not to attend school activities, etc. TRY to get them to talk, but don’t push them too hard – they’re going through an extremely difficult experience. Try to get them to understand that they need to get it to stop – once somebody identifies him or herself as “easy to push around”, all of the OTHER bullies in school come flocking.
And another side note, I’m very pleased to report that in addition to the weight loss, the flashbacks, anxiety and depression have also been dramatically reduced.)
So, getting back to the topic at hand, within about a WEEK of each other I had a psychologist telling me to exercise to improve my MENTAL health, AND I had my doctor telling me to exercise to improve my PHYSICAL health. The chips were falling into place. I remember thinking to myself, “If THIS is not the motivation that finally gets me to STICK to something, I’m beyond hope.”
So anyway, the doctor gave me some advice and I combined with advice my mom gave me, plus things I’d heard around the grapevine, and formulated a plan that worked for ME.
Here is an outline of how I have lost 30 pounds (and God willing I’m not done YET!):
1. Make a PERSONAL lifestyle change. My advice is, do NOT attempt ANY diet you don’t think you can stick for the rest of your life. It just doesn’t work. You’ll make yourself miserable, and you’ll eventually end up cheating your way right back to where you were when you started. Whatever advice you get from anyone, temper it to something you can actually do.
2. Zocor. Since high cholestrol can be caused by heredity as well as by diet, the doctor put me on medicine since my count was so high. After the re-test, she’s now telling me to get off the medicine to see if my new lifestyle will KEEP my cholesterol count down.
3. Eliminate sugar. I could go on all day about the “evils” of sugar. It’s very easy to digest and IMMEDIATELY gets stored as fat. It also induces hunger pangs, in the form of your body saying “Hey, I already digested all that sugar now there’s nothing in me – put more in me! Now! Now! Now!” making you want to eat more and more. This was a tough one for me because of my Mountain Dew addiction, but I did it. I personally like Diet Rite and Diet Big Red when I absolutely have to have a coke. I’ve heard that Splenda is better for you than Nutrasweet but I don’t know any of the science behind it. When I’m out at a movie theater, sporting event or restaurant I do drink Diet Coke. I also really like V8 – especially Spicy Hot V8. V8 is VERY healthy. Iced tea is a good soft drink substitute as well.
I knew I’d miss Oreos, twinkies and doughnuts, but honestly I’ve never really been a huge sweets guy, so other than the cokes and Mountain Dews, this one wasn’t so bad for me.
4. Drink lots and lots of water. I could go on just as long about the benefits of drinking water. It makes you “feel full” so you won’t eat so much. It hydrates you (especially after a workout). It helps your body “flush out” the results of burning fat. Most doctors recommend 8 8oz glasses of water per day. Water is an important component of any diet – don’t overlook it!
5. Replace simple carbs with complex carbs. The frustrating yet irrefutable truth is that when it comes to weight loss, the simple carbs in foods like white rice, pasta, potatoes, white bread, flour tortillas, and even fruit juice (yes, FRUIT JUICE! Orange juice, apple juice, grape juice etc. is full of simple sugar!) aren’t any better for you than table sugar. They’re digested just as quickly and instigate the exact same hunger pangs.
I knew this would be a VERY difficult change for me. I used to eat BUCKETS of french fries. PLATES of mac and cheese. Entire Pizzas. Being married to a Mexican, I loved tortillas, enchiladas, chilaquiles and the bowls of unlimited free chips and salsa they bring to your table at Mexican restaurants. Cheetos. Pasta. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head!
But I can honestly say, it was tough at first but I made the change.
Honestly, almost everything I used to crave has a suitable whole-grain alternative. I like brown rice. When I want toast or a sandwich I just use whole-wheat bread. When I want a burger I buy 93/7 ground beef from the grocery store, grill it, and serve it on a whole-wheat bun, with a side salad or steamed vegetables instead of fries (and, of course, diet rite instead of coke!). Most grocery stores sell tortillas in a multigrain or carb-balance variety, and to me they taste just as good as the real thing. Instead of potato chips, I eat Sun Chips. Whole-Grain crackers area good snack too. Even pizza has a reasonable substitute – just go to Target and buy a whole-grain thin crust, and put just enough cheese on the pizza to make a decent pizza and whoomp – there it is! I personally like LeanPockets with the wholegrain crust as well.
I’ve never been a big fan of fruits and vegetables either, but if you’re trying to lose weight they can be your best friend. For example, an entire POUND of steamed broccoli is only about 200 calories. That’s the same amount of calories in about a quarter of a cup of ranch dressing! Stuff yourself on a plate of steamed broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zuchini or green beans and you’ll feel a LOT better the next day than if you’d stuffed yourself on pizza!
Fresh fruits like apples, oranges, pears, and to a slightly lesser extent grapes, watermelon, peaches, nectarines and cherries are so high in fiber and complex carbs that they’re actually negative-calorie foods: Your body burns more calories trying to digest them than what you get out of them. Berries are a great snack too: I LOVE strawberries and cream with a little bit of Splenda sprinkled on top – mmm!!! It’s just as good with blueberries, blackberries or raspberries as well.
In my case, the BEST thing that complex carbs did for me was MAKE ME FEEL FULL. After a breakfast of an egg-white omelet, a couple pieces of whole wheat toast with “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and a plate of fruit, I’m just not hungry again until lunchtime. And then after a foot-long turkey sub at Subway with a large Iced Tea, I’m not hungry again until supper. And then a steak with a plate of steamed vegetables for dinner and I’m good to go until morning!
6. Eliminate high-cholesterol foods. This meant, for me, to permanently say goodbye to bacon, sausage, egg yolks and ribs. There are some low-fat varieties of sausage that are okay. There are low-fat and fat-free hot dogs that are okay (served, of course, on a whole-wheat hot dog bun). Bacon and ribs though are pretty much gone. I am fortunate enough to be staying in a hotel whose restaurant makes made-to-order eggwhite omelets – mmmmmmmmm. I like Canadian Bacon as a decent substitution for bacon.
7. DON’T count calories. My doctor wanted me to keep my calorie count under 2400 calories per day. I’m sure that’s perfectly good advice, but being realistic, counting calories is just too hard for two reasons: 1. You CAN’T always count calories. Not all restaurants have a calorie count on the menu, and even when all of that information is available it’s just too much of a pain to be doing all of that frickin’ math all day every day. 2. Counting calories leads to HUNGER. If you’ve hit your 2400-calorie limit at 5pm, you’re probably going to be HUNGRY at 10pm. HUNGER is the #1 diet killer – hands down. NOBODY (well, except maybe Jared Fogle!) can stick to a PERMANENT LIFESTYLE CHANGE that forces them to go hungry every day.
What I did was combine the advice of the late Dr. Atkins (he of the Atkins diet) and Dr. Phil. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop eating when you’re full. DON’T “stuff yourself”. DON’T eat for entertainment or to be social. DON’T eat because you’re stressed out, depressed, bored, trying to “cope” or for any other reason. Eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you feel satisfied.
If it’s between meals and you’re hungry and want a snack, snack. Have an apple. Have half a turkey sandwich. A handful of peanuts. If you’re hungry, eat, just don’t “stuff yourself”.
I personally found that if I was eating a lot of whole wheat bread and vegetables, that I was getting QUITE full on SIGNIFICANTLY less than 2400 calories. Other days it would be more, of course, but the “eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” mentality is something I believe I can actually STICK TO for the rest of my life.
8. No more than 25% of calories from fat, more calories from protein than carbs. This was another piece of advice from the doctor, but quite frankly, I just found it too complicated to always be doing all that math. I just try to make sure everything I eat has SOME protein in it.
9. Exercise. My personal experience has been, if you’re going to diet, you lose weight DRAMATICALLY faster if you also exercise. I’m talking a HUGE difference. Also, my personal experience is that 20 minutes 3 times a week is a bunch of baloney. Look at everyone who tells you that. What do they have in common? THEY’RE SELLING SOMETHING. The more you exercise the more weight you’ll lose, it’s as simple as that. I know people who ride exercise bikes for an hour in the morning and an hour at night five days a week. I run. I try to run between 10 and 15 miles every week. I worked up to that: I started out running 1 mile and walking 2, 5 times a week. Worked up to a mile and a half, mile and a half, then 2 running 1 walking, you get the idea. The nice thing about exercise is the more you do it, the faster you can burn calories. I can run 3 miles in half an hour now – took me over an hour to cover that distance in the beginning. You can burn the same calories without cutting into your day quite as much.
10. Stretch out. Do what I SAY – not what I DO. I stretched out religiously for about the first 3 weeks and then just got lazy and stopped. No excuses. Flexibility is the single most underrated, underappreciated and overlooked aspect of fitness. Flexibility prevents injuries. Flexibility helps to prevent back problems later in life. Flexibility increases range of motion which helps you run faster and burn the same calories in less time. If you decide to add weight training to your regimen later on, the increased range of motion allows you to attack more muscle cells with each repetition which helps you get stronger faster, and increases the MAXIMUM strength you can attain.
11. STAY AWAY FROM THE SCALE. If hunger is the #1 killer of diets, overreliance on the scale is #2. There’s nothing more discouraging than stepping on the scale on a Saturday morning, seeing it read 250, dieting perfectly and exercising your butt off for a week, stepping on the scale the FOLLOWING Saturday morning, and seeing it read 251. (In case you didn’t guess, yes, that happened to me! J ). The OPPOSITE of that is true as well: There’s nothing more DECEIVING than stepping on the scale on a Saturday morning, seeing it read 247, NOT exercising for a week and cheating on your diet several times, stepping on it again the FOLLOWING Saturday morning, and seeing it read 245! You’re like, allllllllll RIGHT my hard work has resulted in an increased metabolism woohooooo! *NOT*.
Here’s the mentality I took on: Take care of your HEALTH, and let the scale take care of itself. If you used to have burgers on a white bun with fries and a coke, and now you’re regularly having them on a whole wheat bun with a side salad and an iced tea, YOU HAVE IMPROVED YOUR HEALTH NO MATTER WHAT THE SCALE SAYS. If you used to drink tons of sugared cokes and eat tons of cookies and ice cream, and now you don’t, YOU HAVE IMPROVED YOUR HEALTH NO MATTER WHAT THE SCALE SAYS. I promise, if you make healthy changes including exercise and STICK TO THEM, the scale WILL eventually move. It did for me.
12. Cheat, but WATCH THE CHEATING. In my experience, the #3 killer of diets is this mentality: “I’ve already cheated a little bit today. It won’t make ANY difference if I cheat a little bit more.” WRONG. EVERY CALORIE COUNTS. Cheating twice leads to cheating three times, then four times etc. BREAK THE CYCLE.
It’s okay to reward yourself. As a matter of fact, having that one trip to the pizza buffet or the steakhouse to “look forward to” in 3 weeks time can not only be a big emotional motivator, it can be the difference between your diet program being one you can actually stick to vs. being one you can’t.
What I did was set dates and say, “I’m going to be perfect until that day, and IF I’m perfect until that day (and ONLY if I’m PERFECT until that day), I’m going to cheat like crazy that day”. My first “cheat day” was a father’s day brunch. The next was the Wimbledon final. The next one I have to look forward to is the anniversary of the day I proposed to Lucy later this month!
Another fun “cheating point” is when you reach a first. I weighed 263 when I started. I “celebrated” the first time the scale read 250, and again the first time it read 240. I’m at 233 now, but I’ve already “celebrated” my cholestrol dropping 100 points so I’ll probably wait awhile to “celebrate” again J.
But seriously, once you’re doing rewarding yourself, STOP. Don’t over-cheat. It’s a diet KILLER.
13. Be prepared for disappointments, frustrations and setbacks. Another frustrating yet irrefutable reality is that it’s a LOT easier to gain weight than to lose it. There WILL be weeks where job and/or family obligations interfere with your exercise cycle. There WILL be weeks where you’ll falter and cheat a bit. And if that cycle lasts a few weeks, you may find that you gained back 6 pounds in those 2 weeks. It’s frustrating, but you’ve GOT to discipline yourself to just dust it off and get right back on the horse. DO NOT let yourself fall into the trap of thinking, “What’s the point? 90% perfect and I gain weight, I’m not capable of giving 100%, why even try? Why even bother?”. It’s NOT TRUE. EVERY CALORIE COUNTS, EVERY MINUTE OF EXERCISE COUNTS. I’m living proof!
THANK YOU to those who actually read this far (I’m impressed!), and if you didn’t find my story inspiring I hope you at least found it entertaining!
Here are some of my favorite healthy dishes:
Chili at Wendy’s
Chipotle: Just get beans and beans instead of beans and rice, in the bowl (no tortilla).
Subway: almost any sandwich on wheat bread
Fuddrucker’s: Get the grilled chicken on a whole-wheat bun and put so much lettuce, tomato, pickle and other toppings on it that it’s for all practical purposes a big salad.
Souper Salad’s salad bar and Texas-Style Chili
Cottage cheese with fruit
Quaker’s weight control oatmeal
Whole-grain cereal with 1% milk
“Burritos a la Joe”: heat up 1 can of El Paso Spicy Fat-Free refried beans. Sprinkle some cheddar cheese on a whole-wheat or low-carb burrito-size tortilla. Pour the beans on the cheese to melt it and “weld” it to the tortilla. Spread some sour cream on it, put Ro-Tel Hot tomatoes over that, then olives. Wrap it up. Makes about 5 burritos. MMMMMM.
Chicken and rice a la joe: Take 2 cans of cream of chicken, 2 cans of cream of mushroom, 3 cans of Minute Rice Brown Rice and mix that up in a glass baking dish. Steam about a pound of vegetables – I recommend broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower or corn and THEN mix it in (important to steam the vegetables first or they come out too dry). Bake it in a pre-heated 350F oven for about an hour.
Lean Pockets with the whole-grain crust
Salmon with brown rice
Black bean soup