I was ‘the fat kid' my entire childhood. I remember being 11 years old and going on a skiing trip and they needed to know your weight. I told them I was 140 pounds, but I was really 155 pounds. That's what I'm ‘supposed‘ to weigh as an adult now…
I grew up in a fat family. My grandmother died at 66 after 3 heart attacks. She had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. I lived with my grandmother half the time, and half the time with my mother. My mother was and still is obese, she also has diabetes and high blood pressure. All 5 of my aunts and uncles are obese and they all now have diabetes too.
I am a genetic predisposition in a nutshell…
When I was 19, I went to college. I met a guy, Dave, who was a great friend but ‘never liked me in that way'. That broke my heart and I decided I needed to change. I remember in highschool one of my friends telling me “If you lost weight, you would be so pretty!”. Thanks… “friend“. But you know what? She was 100% right.
So, in college I realized I had the opportunity to be who I wanted to be for the first time ever. I did my own grocery shopping, my own cooking, and there was a free gym on campus. A couple of girls were walking past us on the way to class one day and said they were on their way to the gym. That sparked a thought in me, I was going to go! That night, I went to the gym and worked out for the first time in my life. It was intimidating, it was all full of ‘meat head' guys, and then there was fat, out of shape, female me. Whatever, I'm doing this. I kept going. I couldn't bear to weigh myself until a couple of weeks in. I was 265 pounds and probably had lost a bit by then. The next time I weighed myself I was a couple of pounds down. Then I thought, “If I change my diet, I can take this even further!”. Not knowing what I was doing, I started eating less, and eating less junk too.
Between October and December, I lost 85 pounds. Fast, I know. Once I started losing weight though, I got excited and ate less and pushed harder at the gym. I felt ok for the most part. But towards the end of my weight loss, I started feeling the effects of what the deficit had done to my body. I was eating less than a thousand calories per day sometimes, which I now know is so very bad. I kept trying to live like this, determined to get down to my BMI (145-165lbs), but plateaued at 183 and couldn't get anywhere.
I simply couldn't eat less.
I remember when it all came to a head… I had to drive back to school to write an exam. I hadn't eaten that morning, and I got in my car to head back. I was driving and I started feeling light headed. Then I felt my vision narrowing and knew I could feel myself slipping. I pulled over and tried to stay with it. When I was able, I pulled into a gas station and bought a candy bar and ate it. I felt no better. But was conscious at least. I went home, called my teacher and said I couldn't make it back. I promptly went to the doctor for a note to postpone my exam.
My doctor sent me for testing on my blood sugar, he was suspecting diabetes due to my family history. The tests came back fine, I was ok. The next time I had a similar black-out episode, I used my mom's blood glucose monitor out of curiosity. My blood sugar was about a 1 when normal was around 5 or 6. I did this test every time I had another episode and the same results showed. I was having hypoglycemic attacks and my blood sugar would drop to insanely dangerous levels.
I realized then, that I had lost weight but I had damaged myself in a big way.
I began researching healthy eating habits and learned a lot. Eating several small meals, eating protein, eating complex carbs, fruits and veggies. All of this was foreign to me. I grew up eating whatever I wanted, and deep fried food, huge portions, tons of simple carbs and few vegetables. (I also got sick a lot as a child, and when I did it was violently sick. I rarely get sick anymore and when I do, it's so mild). I kept learning and kept improving my life and I felt better and better. Eventually, the hypoglycemia became a distant memory and I have never had it since.
Looking back, I am pretty sure I was prediabetic. Something I was trying to avoid sent me straight to where I didn't want to be. Go figure…
I adopted his lifestyle, eating habits and a fairly sedentary life. He was so lean and never gained weight. I gained back 65 pounds over the next 5 years and never weighed myself, so I always deceived myself into thinking I wasn't gaining ‘that much'. One day, I weighed myself and I was mortified. I had regained almost all my weight.
I joined a gym and lasted two weeks. I worked out at home and that didn't last either. I tried to eat better, and I failed that too. I struggled big time. I wasn't happy anymore. The relationship was toxic and I had no support. He was anti-supportive and actually held me back. I was super stressed all the time and depressed out of my mind.
I stayed in that relationship for another couple of years, and in a massive blowout, I walked away in an instant. August 2nd 2009, I took back MY life and my happiness, cold turkey.
This time, I was determined to lose the weight the right way. I employed all the lessons of health and fitness I had learned in the past and kept reading and researching to learn more. I had two goals in life: Happy, and healthy. That was it. Numbers were not my focus, merely guidelines.
By December, I had lost every single pound I had gained in the last 6 years. I felt amazing! I found my happiness again, and I found who I was underneath all of the depression, all of the anger, the resentment and the negativity.
It is now August of 2012, and to date, I have never reached my ‘goal weight'. I had always set little goals for myself, and my ‘goal weight' was always 177 pounds. I got to 183 and always got stuck. I researched ‘set points' and ‘plateaus' and everything I could, and everything out there always said, “To lose weight, eat less and exercise more.” So, that's what I did. “Don't eat less than 1200 calories ever.” So, I didn't. I rarely went under 1400 actually. “Exercise more, focus on cardio to burn calories.” So, I did.
I would eat less, exercise more, and nothing would change. For THREE YEARS, nothing changed!
I had been living with a caloric deficit for three years, in the land of constant plateau. None of my efforts were enough and that is hard not to take personally. It got hard not to feel like a failure because I wasn't where I wanted to be, yet I had lost, regained, and lost a ton of weight and was healthier than ever. It was hard not to give up and I had some slips but stuck with it, I always came back, afraid to gain it all back again. I thought to myself eventually, “Is it me? Or am I missing something?” I needed clarity, no more estimated numbers and relentless math guessing games.
I was hitting the gym 5-6 days a week, doing second workouts in the evening, eating less if I could. I pushed and pushed and my weight wouldn't change even 0.1 pounds day to day. I don't know how I never gave up for three years, but I was determined to find a way. Realistically, I have batted the bulge for 30 years now, so I think I've gotten used to the constant struggle. I consoled myself that at least I wasn't gaining weight and that was a success in its own right. I was healthy and happy (little did I know, I was only healthy-er and happy-er than when I was sickly), which is success to me. But in the back of my mind, I know what I look like naked and I know what I want to look like, and I felt like I was settling because of this plateau and my feelings of helplessness to get past it.
What worked for me in the past, to lose 85 pounds, and then 65 pounds, just didn't work anymore and I thought persistence would pay off. After three years, I realized that persistence and patience weren't doing anything for me. My body had changed, now I needed to change my mind.
Disaster struck in November 2011 with a work injury. My life was turned upside down. I was in severe pain, and an MRI showed I had severe damage in my spine. I had stenosis in my spine in two places (a narrowing of the spinal column crushing my spinal cord), foraminal stenosis where the nerves get crushed between your vertebrae in two places. I had 3 herniated discs and severe osteoarthritis in my spine, hips and right knee. By April 2012, my body gave out. I could no longer walk, I was so much agony I could not sleep. I barely ate. I rotted for two weeks laying down, doped up on narcotics and sleeping pills that kept me asleep almost always. I saw specialists, neurologists, surgeons who all told me this was one of the worst cases they had seen in someone so young. I was a perfect candidate for surgery and I was terrified of that. My doctor told me surgery was my only option to live normally. My nerves were already being crushed to death and my right leg and foot were partially paralyzed. I felt like my life as I knew it was slipping away.
The surgery could leave me even more paralyzed, and it wasn't a permanent solution, I would be in and out of surgery the rest of my life. I didn't want that, so I decided to try something, anything. I took tiny little walks in agony, and I took a few more steps every day. Eventually, I could lay on the floor and I would lift dumbbells every way I could think of. Down the road, I did squats. And after a couple of months, I weaned myself off my medications and I stepped foot in the gym! For… 10 minutes, but I loved those 10 minutes! I never thought I would see the gym again. Level 1, elliptical at a crawl, best workout of my life! I didn't think I would be able to walk without pain, and now I'm on an elliptical in pain? Yes! It's progress, and that's all I ever aimed for. If I do 10 steps today, I do 12 tomorrow and 14 the next day. I progressed, much to everyone's surprise.
I spent much of my free time reading about stenosis, arthritis and herniated discs, along with health and diet and natural remedies. I now have the best diet of anyone I know. So much of our strength comes from our food, and I don't mean just calories. I read somewhere that 80% of your immune system is in your digestive tract. We are what we eat, right? I eat to support healthy joints, a strong immune system, to fend off stress and to be as strong as I can. I have been weaker than I ever want to be and I NEVER want to feel that way again. I take nothing for granted anymore, walking is a privilege to me now. Anything beyond that is a miracle that I am immensely grateful for.
I learned that a calorie is not just a calorie. Numerically, yes, but in terms of quality, no. You can reduce your calories, lose weight and still be unhealthy. Food is the best medicine. It can cure much of what ails you, and it can prevent many more problems down the road.
When I got back into my normal routine last spring/summer after months of lethargy and atrophy, I was bummed that I had fallen apart so much, but I was happy that I was back! I picked up right where I left off and was more excited than ever to be pain free and improving every day. Back to the grind, full throttle…
I thought (through using mobile apps and HR monitors, and BMR and TDEE calculators, etc..) that I was burning about 2400 calories per day. I was eating a consistent 1600 calories per day. So, the deficit I thought I had should give me results, right? No, so I tried to eat 1400 calories and after a few weeks of that I began to feel really bad. I had stalled at the gym and was not able to increase my weights or my intensity with cardio. I would get out of the gym and experience the most foul mood of my life for about half an hour, like I literally wanted to kill someone. I researched to find out what was going on. First, I thought it was not enough sleep. I slept more and nothing improved. I still thought I was doing everything right…
My birthday was coming, and I wanted answers to my problems. I needed insight. Someone on MFP was talking about their BodyMedia Fit Armband and how she burned 3000 calories that day, I thought to myself “Yeah, right!”. I asked her about the armband, she pointed me to their site and I was sold. It shipped the next week and… My – world – opened – up!
I was shocked to find out that I was burning between 3000 and 3200 calories every day between my job, workouts, dogwalks and life in general. I was eating 1400 calories! I had learned how bad it is to eat below your BMR, and I definitely was! I learned it was bad to have a deficit over 1000, I definitely did!
One of the reasons I never thought I was overdoing it, is that I was never hungry. I never, ever had hunger pangs. I would pretty much snack all day, and if I went more than 4 hours without eating something, I would just get really weak and cranky, so I always had food with me because I knew I had to constantly fuel myself. I actually thought this was because I had developed a fast metabolism with all my working out and eating so many small meals (like they tell you to).
Realizing that I was eating half of what I required just to fuel my everyday activities really opened my eyes. I suddenly felt horrible that I had lived so long with a deficit and pushed it so much further than I should have. But I just didn't know. I was following conventional wisdom and commonly accepted knowledge that “to lose weight, eat less, exercise more”. I never ate less than 1200 calories, like they say and I took my multivitamins. I was mortified when I realized that living with a plateau and a huge (and increasing) calorie deficit had probably damaged me more than I knew. Was it reversible? What do I do now?
I started researching again, knowledge is power. I researched ‘huge calorie deficits' and ‘plateaus'. I read about our metabolism in general. I learned that living with a calorie deficit long term is in no way sustainable. It is unnatural. When our bodies are able to predict patterns, they adapt. My body had adapted to a low calorie environment, and it was suggested in many articles that in calorie restricted environments, long term, our bodies protect our fat for when the food disappears entirely. My body was waiting for the famine to hit full force and ‘saving' my fat to keep me alive when it happened. I needed to convince my body that that was never going to happen. I wanted to feel normal again, to know what that was, and I just plain wanted to BE normal for the first time in my life. No more struggling.
While trying to educate myself, I learned the two best ways to get your metabolism fired up is, a) eat more, and b) put on some muscle.
I had struggled for over a decade to lose WEIGHT. I was no longer losing weight with the biggest deficit you could have next to not eating, so I decided that losing weight was no longer my goal. I never wanted to ‘lose weight' in the first place! I wanted to lose fat.
At this point, I hated the scale. It only showed me how much gravity was weighing me down, not how much fat I lost, or water I gained or muscle I put on. It just told me I wasn't losing weight, and for the longest time, that was my goal. Silly me.
I decided my new goals would have nothing to do with numbers (for the first time in over a decade).
I had a really hard time accepting that I was going to eat more. I had spent so many years depending on what I had learned about eating less. It was so hard to think that if I had a calorie deficit of 1600, then how was I not going to gain weight eating 3200 calories?
I consoled myself with the building muscle aspect and with ‘zigzag dieting‘. If I was going to give my body more calories, I needed to guide it in the right direction as to how those calories would be used. I wanted those calories to be used to build muscle, not fat.
Like I said before, I had plateaued at the gym for months, no improvement anywhere. Within a few weeks of increasing my calories (gradually, about 400 every couple of weeks), I started taking off like a rocket at the gym! Within the first month, I increased my weight stacks twice! I took my HIIT cardio up 4 levels! I couldn't believe the turnaround. I really couldn't. Years of struggling on the scale, in the gym, with my diet… And in a matter of a month I was improving in one facet of my lifestyle. FINALLY…!
The scale went up a couple of pounds. Then down. Then up, and down… But for the most part stayed the same. It is normal to fluctuate, and I never did at all anymore. It took me about 6 weeks to get up to my maintenance levels, eating about 3000 calories per day. Zigzag dieting is the principle of outsmarting your body so it doesn't predict your patterns and adapt to be more ‘efficient' which counteracts our goals. Our body is trying to keep us alive, and we are trying to keep it healthy, it's a civil war in here! By ‘zigzagging' my calories, I was able to avoid my body from using precisely the same number of calories every day in the same way. For example, one day I will eat 3000 caloires, the next 2700, the day after I will eat 3200 calories and the next day I will eat 3000 again. I aim for a ‘weekly' calorie target, not daily.
When I lost 85 pounds 11 year ago, I never took photos and I wish I had. So, when I lost 65 pounds years later, I took photos every 10 pounds and those photos were one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life! The first photo was embarrassing to look at, but by the end I wished I hadn't sucked in my tummy so the difference would look even better! I unfortunately lost all of those photos with a crashed hard drive.
When I started on the next chapter of my healthy lifestyle, eating more and gaining muscle, I took photos. That was July 10th, 2012. The scale didn't budge, and my measurements didn't change. I ordered body fat calipers a month ago and they still haven't arrived… I was progressing in the gym and my mood had increased immensely. My energy levels were/are through the roof and I feel better than I ever have. Despite this, I wasn't sure there was a physical change, least of all after 45 days. Then, last week, a couple of girls at work told me they noticed how much weight I had lost. I laughed and said “I haven't lost a single pound.” They said that I had toned or something then because my legs were looking amazing! I was really flattered and thought that maybe that's what they were going for too, flattery.
I considered taking my ‘next' photos, but I didn't want to be disappointed quite yet after dealing with years of disappointment, so I decided to be patient.
August 24th, I woke up and I was feeling good. I had a day where I felt thin (I still have days where I feel fat, don't we all?) and I decided to take my ‘next' photos.
To my amazement, there was a significant difference! OH MY GOODNESS!!! I had waited years for this, and there it was! Totally unexpected! I think I had spend so many years frustrated and doubting myself that I couldn't have believed the changes were happening unless I saw me before and after right next to each other. I couldn't believe it. Only 45 days in to doubling my caloric intake, and there it was… Success.
The ‘next' photo was 45 days later, I look like I'd lost maybe 15 pounds or so and yet I was actually 0.4kg (0.88lbs) more! I was so very happy.
Nothing in life can make you happier than succeeding at something you have struggled with for a lifetime. I saw just one photograph of myself and my new mindset was cemented in my future. Still not 177 pounds or ‘skinny' or anything I used to want to be, but I had triumphed over everything that held me back. I never gave up, I kept trying. I did what I was ‘supposed to do' to hit my BMI (which as invented in the 1800's people, let's get rid of it!) for a decade and I felt like a failure for just as long. One photograph took every principle I had learned about ‘weight loss' and turned it upside down.
Health is important. Being strong, mentally and physically, is important. Being happy, is the most important and these things are all tied together. Every ‘standard' rule I had learned and preached for years for ‘weight loss' was never what I wanted. I never wanted ‘weight loss', I wanted ‘fat loss'. I became unhealthy and all the while thought I was healthy because I was doing what I was ‘supposed to do' and what was considered the ‘weight loss gospel'. Forget it. I'm not a cookie cutter girl. I'm not your ‘standard' human being. I don't fit into a chart. I don't need to be labeled as overweight or obese anymore, thanks, I'm healthier than most skinny people I know.
I know how I want to live my life, and I eat and work to support THAT version of me. If I live for that girl, then eventually I will become her. I've learned that you need to act like who you want to be before you can believe you are that person. It's a risk, and it's scary. It's a leap of faith that you can actually be the way you want before you believe it, but actions speak louder than words and we can tell ourselves anything to justify our inactions.
We have to learn, and adapt and grow, before our body does. This journey has been more about learning than anything. In order to keep trying, I had to keep learning. Knowledge is power and that was the only empowerment I felt when things were tough – just knowing that there was something else to try.
We all struggle and we all fail. Someone who has succeeded had just as many or more set backs as you. The only difference is that they kept going. Without mistakes, we wouldn't learn life's most valuable lessons.
You will change every day, and your mindset directs your actions. As long as you keep thinking about health and fitness, the numbers don't matter. You will get somewhere as long as you keep trying and keep learning and doing. The best way to learn is to fail, because then you know what doesn't work and all you have to do is try something else.
“There is no road to success that isn't paved with failure”. Believe it.
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