I went on my first weight loss diet when I was thirteen. I was horrified by my curves, especially those thighs, but photos show I wasn’t overweight. I don’t remember how much weight I lost, but I do remember my mother’s praise. She honored me for joining her in her unending battle against body.
I was a girl with a healthy appetite for vegetables, fruit, lean protein, even whole grain breads. I also went through periods of emotional overeating. It wasn’t quite an eating disorder, but it was disordered eating. I dieted strenuously with great discipline, but when I got upset about something—my dad’s death when I was fourteen, for example—my will weakened and I gained weight. I must have been on ten diets by the time I was twenty years old and ten more by the age of thirty. Then ten more before I turned fifty. Each time I lost weight, I gained it back more easily.
I found harmony with my body in 2000 when I was fifty-five. The war had ended. I was sure. But that was before my husband got sick in 2006 and died in 2008. The desire to overeat returned to haunt me. I’ve wrestled with this issue since.
I’m not alone.
By the time women are fifty, over half are overweight. As we age, it gets worse. We torture ourselves with severely restrictive weight loss diets. After the weight comes off, it often goes back on. When we severely limit calories, we lose muscle, no matter how much we exercise. Our body interprets severe calorie restriction as famine and tries to conserve every ounce of flesh. The starvation effect can lower our metabolism by 30%, so we eat less and gain more.
To change this pattern, we need patience and we need to be smart.
Weight Loss and Exercise
By the 1970s, aerobic exercise was linked to successful weight loss. I walked 45 minutes a day and suggested aerobic exercise for my nutrition clients.
My focus on aerobics didn’t work for me, and later studies showed it didn’t work well for anyone. I continued gaining and losing, unaware that, despite aerobic exercise, I was losing metabolically active lean muscle each time I lost weight.
In 2000, with a forty-year history of dieting disaster, my plan changed. I began lifting weights and eventually became a personal trainer to teach other women how to get the most strength and muscle in the least amount of time. I ate 1700 calories a day and lost 30 pounds in six months. I slowly added more healthy food and ate around 2250 calories a day in three meals and one or two snacks. I was healthy, strong, and lean.
What happened next?
My husband Vic was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. What did I do? I took care of him, I wept, and I ate. After he made it through the first round of challenging treatment in 2007, I turned to my own health. My exercise was still in place, but I ate too many treats–partly because I cooked them for Vic to keep his weight up but more because I was sedating my anxiety.
With the help of a close friend, I got back on track. We reported our food intake to each other each day. I returned to what Vic called “my fighting weight” with the same plan I used in 2000. I felt fit again, but then my mother died, Vic’s cancer returned, and I became a full-time caregiver until Vic died, too.
My sane plan quietly waited for me to find my way back to life. Meanwhile I walked to heal my wounds and ate healthy food even when I ate too much.
Still, it became easy to say, “I don’t have time to take care of myself; I’ll do it later; I’m too overwhelmed today. My health doesn’t matter as much as ____ (you fill in the blank).”
It wasn’t true. Taking care of my body matters. It lifts me out of depression. I’m back on track at the moment, but I know it’s a tenuous truce. I’m fifteen pounds heavier and much weaker than I was when Vic died. Yes, I’m older, but it’s not just about age.
Begin With Mental Changes
- Drop the women’s magazine promises of quick solutions to a long-term problem. You know they’re not true. Work toward slow, lasting transformation.
- Look in a mirror and say something positive about your body every day. Does that make you uncomfortable? We’re OK with attacking our bodies for every flaw and sending ourselves critical, demeaning messages, but it makes us squirm to say one nice thing to ourselves. Try it. “I have healthy skin. I like the shape of my big toe.” Watch the negative messages you send your body. No wonder it’s behaving like your enemy.
- Look at the women in advertising with a wise eye. They’re frail and easy to push around. Is that what we want? Besides, those “perfect” bodies are air brushed and photo-shopped.
Exercise Is Your Ally—Physically and Psychologically
- Lift weights twice a week, progressively and with moderate intensity. Being overweight does not prevent you from excelling at strength training. See articles at my website for become stronger in two thirty minute sessions a week. You’ll love the vitality and the long-term effect on your metabolism.
- Be physically active every day. The general exercise section of my website offers aerobic exercise guidelines, balance, and simple stretches. Meet a friend for a hike or a yoga class. Bike or swim with your family. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Dance in the living room with your dog or your kids or yourself. Play.
Reach Your Goals with Good Nutrition
- Nurture your body with healthy real food—fresh vegetables, lean protein, fruits, low fat dairy, healthy vegetable oils, and moderate amounts of whole grains. Be aware of junk food porn and constant enticement at every store. Read the articles at my web site for good nutrition ideas and delicious easy recipes.
- Lose no more than 4-5 pounds a month by eating at least 1,500 calories a day. I hear you howling in protest. How many times have you said, “I have to lose this weight fast, right now, this week?” How many times have you read magazine articles that promised a miraculous change in ten days? How many times have you lost weight and gained it back along with extra fat? If you reach a good weight slowly, it won’t interfere with what you really need to do—be strong and energetic and repair your busted metabolism.
- Don’t ignore your body when it’s hungry. Respond with a high protein snack. Real hunger is honest communication, your body’s wisdom speaking to you. Listen to your body.
I’m cheering for you. I wish I could tell you I have it all together, but I can only write from where I am, so please cheer for me, too.
“Do what you know how to do,” I tell myself. “Be gentle and loving. Take care of this precious body. Love and nurture yourself.”
Chances are, you also know just what to do.
Most photos were taken by my husband Vic in 2007. The photo of Vic and me was taken in 2002. The photo of me scowling as I pretend to lift a rock Strong Man style was taken by my son Anthony in 2013.
Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications) won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss. Elaine writes about bereavement, family, marriage, and the environment. She facilitates bereavement workshops, gives presentations, and volunteers at Hospicare in Ithaca, NY. She was a nutritionist, exercise trainer, and women’s health care counselor for thirty years. She has been a student of nature, philosophy, Jungian psychology, mythology, and meditation for forty years and writes a weekly blog about life and loss. You can read more about Elaine and her work at her website.
Images courtesy of the author.