A friend of mine recently decided to lose weight and eat healthier, and like most of us, she’s a little lost. She knows what her goal is: being a healthier weight and healthier in general, but as to how to get there? It’s all a little vague. Most of us begin in the same situation. The goal is usually pretty clear, but the path to take is like finding our way through a maze. Which route do we take and how do we know if we are making progress?
I think she has made a good start: she knows where she wants to go and she has an idea of how she wants to get there. Although she wants to lose weight, her goal is to be healthier overall, so she began by making some realistic changes. Instead of changing several habits all at once, she began by trying to eat more fruits and vegetables. She said growing up, her family didn’t eat a lot of those, so she is making an effort to eat more of them. She also joined My Fitness Pal and is logging her meals and exercise. Although she’s just started changing her eating habits, she’s been exercising regularly for about a year now (I met her at the gym) so that habit is already firmly established!
As far as “choosing a diet plan,” she hasn’t really opted for a ‘packaged plan,’ which I think is a good thing. Too often, I hear people trying to fit their lives and eating habits around the Rules for a diet. This is how people end up malnourished or becoming ill after following Rules carved in stone by someone they’ve never met. (My all-time favorite is the college student who ‘went vegan’ and ended up almost dying in the emergency room because of B12 deficiency.) I don’t have anything against vegans (my cardio trainers are both vegan) but when we opt for following a way of eating, we need to make sure that it fits our nutritional needs and our own preferences. I really love grapefruit and cabbage, but I’m sure not opting for the Grapefruit Diet or the Cabbage Soup Diet!
When people ask me if I have a diet, I usually tell them that I do a ‘version of Paleo/ Primal,’ because my ‘rules’ are going to be different from anyone else who also does Paleo/ Primal. There are even disagreements over how to define Paleo and Primal, so following the rules is a little bit like choosing a religion! This is why I’ve opted to make my own rules and follow my own version. What I do may not work for my friend or for anyone else, so while it’s great to ask for advice, if it doesn’t work for you, then what’s the point?
As I mentioned above, my cardio trainers are both vegan and they are big fans of promoting veganism. It really works for them: they are both healthy and fit 70 year olds (not a typo- they’re both in their 70s!) Personally, I like eating animal products and I know I wouldn’t be very happy ‘eating vegan’ or even vegetarian! At the same time, there are a few of my fitness and gym friends who eat keto, which is usually heavy on fat, mainly from animal products. As much as I love things like butter, bacon, meat and dairy, the few times I’ve tried eating keto, it has not been very satisfying, even discounting carb withdrawal. I hear repeatedly how healthy vegan/ vegetariansim/ keto are and I don’t doubt they work for a lot of people. My sister was a happy vegetarian for several years before she opted to change her eating habit again. None of those really made me feel good, so they’re off my list of eating plans!
My own version of Paleo means mainly whole natural foods as unprocessed as possible. It also includes dairy (most hardcare Paleo followers insist that Paleo + dairy = Primal). It does not include starchy vegetables, grains/ grain products, cane sugar and some legumes. Essentially, I started with a basic Paleo framework and adapted it to suit my metabolism and preferences. In fact, when I started, my diet did not include dairy for many months. Eventually, I opted to include it again although I do think I need to limit it more than I do now. The point is that the way I eat now makes me feel my best and I am getting the results that I want.
That is how we find the answers to those earlier questions: which route do we take to our goal and how do we know if we are making progress? If you are feeling your best with your current eating plan and you are getting the results that you want, then that is the route to YOUR goal. Most of us go into dieting with the general goal of ‘losing weight.’ Weight loss isn’t always healthy! In fact, when I started losing weight, because I was so extremely obese, I lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time. When I saw my doctor, her first reaction wasn’t “finally!”; it was “are you feeling alright? are you having health problems?” Rapid weight loss is an indicator of cancer, hormonal imbalance and intestinal/ digestive problems. It also leads to malnutrition, i.e. the vegan college student with B12 deficiency. What most of us really want is ‘fat loss,’ not just ‘weight loss,’ and while the distinction is lost on most people, it is an important distinction. Losing weight can mean losing water weight (and becoming dehydrated) or it can mean losing lean body mass, i.e. losing muscle, among other things. When the number goes down on the scale, most of us are really happy about it and keep doing what we are doing to keep the number going down. But if we are doing something unhealthy, then we are only becoming thinner instead of healthier. My friend made the observation that while most of her family was obese, all the people she knew who were diabetic were thin. Just as being clinically obese doesn’t equal ‘unhealthy,’ being thin does not equal being ‘healthy.’
Getting the results you want, whether losing fat, building muscle or being fitter, is one way of knowing you are on the right path, but we must also not discount the ‘how am feeling’ part of the answer. If you are getting the results that you want, like fat loss, but you hate the way you are feeling or eating, then that is NOT the right path for you! If you hate the way you feel or you hate the way that you are eating, you are not going to sustain it for long. I tried both vegetarianism and keto a few times, and frankly, I hated both ways of eating. I felt horrible, had terrible cravings and did not enjoy what I was eating. Although I’ve since learned that the cravings and the ‘keto flu will go away, I didn’t like what I was eating and overall, I didn’t like the way that felt. There are days when I eat more to a keto or veggie plan than other days, but those are the exception rather than the rule. When I opted to include dairy again in my diet, one of the things I watched for was simply “how does it make me feel?” If it made me feel awful or kept me from making my goals, then I would have kicked it back out again, but the truth is I like cream, butter and cheese and it doesn’t keep me from my goals.
We’ve all done diets where we strictly limit our foods, either the types or the amounts and yes, most of us have lost weight on those diets, but once we stop the limiting, we gain back fat and usually a bit more. This is why it’s so important that we must enjoy the way that we are eating in order to be successful, otherwise any fat loss is going to be temporary! Also, what is the point of looking great if we feel miserable? Remember the last time you lost weight and showed up at a function like a holiday party where everyone commented on how great you look? That felt awesome…. until we reached the buffet table! There was all that food that either wasn’t on our diet or was simply too much! Instead of thinking, yum! what looks good to eat?, we were crying inside because it was all foods we were denying ourselves! I know from experience that situation is no fun at all! I know I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘looking great and feeling miserable!’ Even though there are a lot of foods that aren’t on my list, there are a lot of foods that are, and the last time I was at a buffet, there were still a lot of yummy foods that I could and did eat! It was easy to choose those foods over the foods not on my list because I knew I felt better eating them and I knew I was going to keep making progress!
My friend is still in the early stages of her getting-healthier journey, but as I said, I think she is off to a great start. She is building good habits on a reasonable time line and she is asking herself the right questions. She mentioned it to me because even though she was enjoying her lunchtime salad with leafy greens and chicken, she was still getting hungry before dinner, so she was asking me about options for fixing that. We discussed adding in some healthy fats (avocado, olives or more cheese) or more fibrous veggies (broccoli, cabbage or kale). Obviously, what works for me won’t always work for her, but the important points are that you have to eat what you like eating and still get the results you want, because unless you do both, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much weight you lose.