It’s very easy to become complacent, to deceive yourself into thinking that you’re doing everything correctly, when in reality you’re not.
For me, this reality hit home after a blood test. Borderline high cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose. But why? I knew I was overweight at 200 pounds, but I had been trying to improve my diet: oatmeal for breakfast, a Slim-Fast shake for lunch, a snack in the afternoon, and then a normal dinner. But obviously something was wrong if I wasn’t losing weight, and my blood test had room for improvement.
So I did what I always do: I researched, analyzed, and researched some more. What was I doing wrong? What did I need to do to improve? And, most importantly, what could I do that was sustainable, so I didn’t end up back at square one in a year?
I can’t claim that I’m doing everything perfectly, but I’ve lost almost 20 pounds, and my weight is much more stable now — so I must be doing something right. This is what I’ve learned.
I think more than anything else, the problem with my diet was that I was overeating. Like I mentioned earlier, I had oatmeal for breakfast, a Slim-Fast shake for lunch, and then a normal dinner. But what is “normal”? Without any sort of parameters to associate with the term, I would basically eat whatever sounded good. After all, if I was good with oatmeal and a shake for the whole day, surely I wouldn’t need to be too picky for dinner.
But that’s where I was trapping myself. And it wasn’t always with food either: beer was a large problem. I’m a fan of big, strong beers with a lot of flavor, a lot of body, and usually a lot of alcohol (by beer standards). So most nights I would end up with a large plate of food along with one or maybe two beers — at best I was breaking even for a normal number of calories, but at worst I was going over and gaining weight. Either way, I wasn’t losing anything. I was just maintaining a weight that wasn’t healthy.
It is hard for me to resist good food. This is especially true when cooking for only one or two people, as it is difficult to get the food quantities right. Most of the time, I end up with a tiny bit of leftovers that aren’t worth saving for another night — so I just eat them.
But I’ve made the effort to cut down on portion sizes before. It’s really not a huge deal, it just takes a bit more focus: plan the quantities before cooking, and know in advance what you will be eating and what you will be putting away as leftovers. If you’re going to have alcohol, only have one drink and try not to get carried away with something strong. There are a lot of great, flavorful, lower alcohol options for everyday drinking.
So, that’s an obvious first step. But I’ve done the portion size thing before, and it’s difficult for me to stick with it. There must have been something else, some other key bit of information that made my willpower crumble.
Slim-Fast was Destroying My Health
Part of the reason that I didn’t care about what I ate for dinner was because of my Slim-Fast lunch. Ultimately, there were two reasons for this: the first is that it was low in calories. It gave me a false sense of complacency, thinking that I had so few calories earlier in the day that I had free-reign to do what I wanted in the evening. The sad thing is that I knew this was wrong: Slim-Fast itself recommends a 500 calorie dinner, which I knew I wasn’t adhering to if I was being honest. The second reason is because Slim-Fast for lunch was leaving me voraciously hungry at dinner. Even with a mid-afternoon snack, by the time dinner rolled around I was too hungry to care about what my portion size was, and what constituted 500 calories. And if I went to the gym as well? By the time dinner was made, I wanted as much food as I could get. It was clear that I had no self-control, but surely I wasn’t the only one with this kind of struggle?
An interesting stat in my blood test was that both my triglycerides and glucose were borderline high. What causes that? Well, glucose is easy: it’s sugar. But triglycerides? Turns out that carbs are the smoking gun for high triglycerides. And let me tell you, if I was a superhero, my weakness would be carbs — especially beer and bread. Sugar is also a carb: a simple, quick burning carb.
Why do I bring this up? Because Slim-Fast is perfectly engineered to deliver a ton of sugar really fast. A single bottle of Slim-Fast has 18 grams of sugar, which comes from the milk (lactose) and added sugar (it’s the third ingredient on the label). That’s a lot of sugar; but, it may not have been so bad if it were consumed with a lot of fiber. And sure, Slim Fast does have some fiber because it tries to satisfy your hunger. But most of it is milk, and if you have an empty stomach — which you most likely do if you’re dieting with Slim-Fast — then your body doesn’t have to do much work to get to this simple source of sugar. And once that sugar is burned up, you crash. By mid-afternoon, I didn’t just want a snack, I needed a snack, or I’d feel sick. Same when it came time for dinner.
To be fair to Slim-Fast, it might work well for some people. If your diet is already restricted, and you’re not as sensitive to carbs or sugar, you might be able to handle it better. But for me, someone who already had a lot of carbs in their diet, it was a bad addition to my lifestyle.
Whole Grains & Vegetables
I knew I needed to cut Slim-Fast out of my diet. But what could I have instead? It had to be low on calories so that I could lose weight, but it also needed to be satisfying, to the point where I’d only need a small snack to carry me until dinner.
The answer, after a bit of research, was whole grains. It’s a carb, sure, but it’s a complex carb, with fiber, requiring the body to expend more effort in breaking it down, and get a more stable source of sugar. The whole grain I started with was wheat berries — and I haven’t looked back.
Wheat berries are awesome. They’re tasty, with a nutty flavor and a firm, pleasantly chewy texture. They’re filling: a cup with lunch does more to satisfy my hunger than Slim-Fast ever did. They’re also healthy, providing the nutritional fiber and wheat germ that processed carbs lack.
They’re pretty easy to cook too. It takes a while, but if you cook a batch on Sunday, then they’ll last the whole week. A cup of wheat berries are boiled for 45 minutes until tender; mixed with veggies like kale and asparagus, it’s a simple but satisfying lunch. A lemon juice vinaigrette helps tie it together and keep it interesting.
After a lunch like this, I really can’t overstate how much better I feel during the afternoon — and I’m not ravenously hungry at dinner, which really helps to keep me sane with portion sizes.
As a footnote to this, I heard recently about a “Vegan Before 6” plan, which sounds remarkably similar to what I started to do. The basic idea is that before 6pm, you eat like a vegan. The only time you have meat or animal products is for dinner. While I’m not doing that exactly — sometimes I’ll have a sprinkle of feta with my wheat berries, for example — it’s a good frame of mind to get into if you’re trying to eat healthier.
Exercise Isn’t Magic
While Slim-Fast helped me to fool myself into thinking that I was eating healthy, it wasn’t the only deception up my sleeve: exercise was a close second. Of course, exercise isn’t a bad thing. But if you use it as an excuse to eat whatever you want, then it essentially becomes useless.
For me — someone who does cardio three times a week for half an hour — exercise isn’t a weight loss plan. Sure, it can burn up some extra calories, but it’s not something I consider anymore when figuring out what I should eat. Instead, I use exercise as a way to stay healthy from a cardio and strength-training standpoint. It’s part of my overall fitness plan, but when it comes to weight management, I stick to portion control.
The final thing I wanted to put in here was something just as important as portion control and eating the right types of food: continual motivation for doing so. Being healthy and getting better blood test results is one thing; but for me, it’s not enough to motivate me to keep going with it.
I recently started looking at updating my wardrobe to something a bit more stylish. Most of what I looked at was designed for a closer fit. I decided that this would be my motivation: nice clothes that fit well, and were less baggy.
It truly remains to be seen as to whether I can keep up these changes, even though I tried to build it in a way that is easy to maintain. The truth, though, is that I feel better than I did a few months ago, and it has been immensely satisfying to wear clothes that just seem to fit better. I’m going to do my best to stay motivated and stay healthy — at least now, I feel better equipped to meet that goal.