When the Fit Gain Weight: My Personal Story
Early this past summer I started to pack on a few pounds just around my waist. I first noticed it when I bent over and felt uncomfortable — like something was in my way (and something was — my pot belly!). When riding the subway I felt myself jiggle for the first time ever. “Jiggle,” I thought in horror, “I have never jiggled before.”
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. “You have a lot of padding around the middle now, huh?” said my mom when we went swimming. My skin was also breaking out on the lower half of my face, a sign of hormonal changes.
What happened? Eating right and exercise is my whole life, it’s my job. What was going on?
As it turns out, there were several things going on. One was the “A” word (age); the other was the “G” word (genetics). Then, there was the “D” word: I had to “deal” with this new increased body fat if my clients were going to take me seriously. Not that making it a priority was hard. I just did not feel like myself carrying the extra weight.
Taking a Hard Look at My Weight Gain
First, I needed to get to the bottom of this excess weight: What happened and why? I had to do some thinking and get some help from my doctor.
My physician reminded me that I am in my late 40s and several body changes were going on with me. One was the loss of muscle mass. We all lose 10% of mass per decade and I am approaching my fifth decade.
Also, two hormones were to blame for this new middle I was getting: insulin and estrogen.
Plus, any trauma to the body can make it easier to accumulate body fat. I had two traumas: surgery for benign tumors about a year and a half ago. I also had some awful cold that lasted all summer.
In other words, my body had changed although my caloric intake and exercise regime had not.
Let’s take a closer look at the culprits for my situation:
- Estrogen: For women in their late 40s, the ovaries just do not produce as much estrogen as they produced in a woman’s 20s or 30s. This is the start of menopause. As you age, your body starts to add more belly fat, which produces estrogen instead to make up for what the ovaries can no longer produce. While I will not over-exert myself to have a perfect belly so I can hang on to some of my natural estrogen, I have been tying to have sweet potatoes every week, a mildly estrogenic food.
- Muscle loss: A natural part of the aging process. Muscle uses a lot of energy (calories). So my caloric baseline (the amount of calories you need to exist per day) had gone down. Therefore, I had to change the way I was eating to consume fewer calories.
- Trauma: Surgery, although not major, can affect the body by contributing to the release of stress hormones. In other words, surgery can contribute to your body retaining fat. I guess the surgery had caused me to put on a little weight.
- The common cold: When your immune system is in a weakened state, it’s harder to fight off colds and fat gain. My cold was a long-lasting one or possibly even one of several colds, according to my doctor.
But while I did not have bronchitis, after my checkup I got more bad news regarding aging and genetics. My blood work had shown that I was almost pre- diabetic or danger of getting diabetes eventually. I stammered at the news! Diabetes? Me? I am in such good shape! I can’t even remember the last time I had a doughnut, and I never drink soda. I was really shocked.
“You?” One of my friends exclaimed when I told her the news, “Diabetes?! How is that even possible?”
Then I called my dad to inquire about my family health history. He reminded me that my grandfather and other family members had diabetes, so it was in my genetic makeup. Then I remembered my Grandpa, always pricking his fingers and talking about his carbohydrates.
At a second doctor’s visit for the cold, which had by then cleared up, he told me it was just all bad luck. He said I had just had a bad cold and that the bad test results for my insulin levels were genetic.
Finding a Solution
After I figured out what was going on, I was able to deal with my new weight gain and my health before things got out of hand. Having a great love of exercise, healthy eating, and cooking, I was ready to take on this new challenge.
I chose to go on a low-carb diet. In doing so, I took a closer look at my eating behavior and realized I was grabbing too many high-carb and sugary snacks because I’d be starving after a hard day at work. This wasn’t the first time I decided to go on a strict eating plan. I cut out sugar entirely for 6 months once, and did a yeast-free diet a few years later.Although eating according to these rules changed my health and eating style for the better the strictness of them drove me crazy. I found eating such strict diets too hard to stick to and overwhelming.
Then, I thought of my mother’s excellent figure at 65-plus. After all, she is the one who ingrained good eating habits in me in the first place. She always gardened and had us eat plenty of vegetables. She has the figure of a 45-year-old. The lack of skin on the back of her arms often makes me very jealous. But she earned her figure through strict eating: Her diet is free of refined carbs such as bread and pasta, and even other natural, insulin-spiking carbs such as rice.
While her discipline is admirable, cutting out all carbs, especially whole grain carbs, is not for me — I am way too active! Whole grains provide glycogen, which is food for muscles. I use my muscles all day. Without whole grains I could face glycogen depletion, which can make you tired. That’s the last thing I need with my active job.
What I decided to do is eat 2 cups of carbs (not including vegetables, which have minimal carbohydrates in them) per day. It does not matter what kind of carbs — pasta, potato chips, or whatever — as long as I limit my portion of carbs to 2 cups per day. Being into healthy eating I am not choosing to have 2 cups of chips per day! Instead, I’m eating some whole grain breads, brown rice, red rice, quinoa, and other whole grain products.
I also chose two dietary cheat days: Wednesdays and Saturdays. Those days I am allowed to eat sweets or treats (though I don’t go overboard) This way if I have a party or social engagement like dinner with friends I can enjoy whatever food I want.
While I moderated my intake of carbohydrates, fat never was a part of my weight gain. As usual I keep my fat intake to 30% of my calories; everyone should. Saturated fat is part of that (but only a few tablespoons a day). But eating too much of anything, even fat, will make you heavier. And in America, we’re accustomed outrageous over-consumption of fats, especially trans fats, but even good oils like avocados and nut oils.
Obstacles to Losing Weight: Identified
It hasn’t always been easy to keep up with my new healthy eating routine.
Once, on a desperate-for-breakfast morning when I had overslept and had a 6:30 a.m. session, I was forced to grab breakfast and eat it on the train. The local bakery was just about the only place in my neighborhood open at 5 a.m., and I chose to have a quick whole wheat roll with butter. They put about seven tablespoons of butter on my roll! I took all but about one tablespoon off the roll and threw it out. I was able to get through a session and a workout without starving due to the fiber and small amount of saturated fat in my quickie breakfast. All of the 250 calories in the breakfast were burned off by my active morning. Also the roll was just baked and warm … yummy.
One day after work, I had not packed my usual snack in my bag. These days it is walnuts with dried chick pea snacks. I was insanely hungry after work, as I often am. I went to a corner store and got upset at my lack of choices for low-carb and low-sugar snacking.
But then I thought “imagine if this food will put you into a coma or cause you to get your feet cut off, or go blind” (while extreme, this can happen when diabetics eat too much sugar). Given that perspective, I ate my low-carb, over-priced, pressed-together whey protein and almond butter bar that stuck to my teeth in appreciation.
Why did I just skip the snack and wait until I got home to eat?
I had been hungry for two hours at that time. Being hungry for too long can cause weight gain, especially for the middle aged. The body goes into starvation mode if left without nutrients for too long. How long that is varies from person to person. When someone does eat after being hungry for extended periods of time, the body tends to do two things: overeat and convert the food into body fat.
I also need to keep my blood sugar as even as possible, and being hungry is a sign that blood sugar is low and you need to eat.
What I’m Eating Now: A Recipe Idea
I eat a lot of this wonderful kale salad. It is loaded with fiber, protein, and other nutrients and keeps you full for hours.
Kale & Cashew salad (serves two)
5 cups thinly sliced kale
1/2 cup cashews
1/8 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp mayonnaise
½ tsp olive oil
1 tsp Bragg Apple Cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste*
Mix and eat.
Calories: About 250 per serving
Sometimes I add homemade roasted organic Turkey chunks. In addition to the fiber, the small amount of saturated fat keeps me feeling full. The nuts, oils, and diverse flavors make this salad a tasty lunch or dinner.
Upping my Exercise
In terms of exercise, I added just a little more cardio to my routine. Even if I was tired, even if I really did not want to run, I made myself run. Even if it is only 10 minutes it is better than nothing.
The Results of All This Effort
After about three weeks, I felt great. My energy levels had increased, my skin cleared up, and I do not feel that burning hunger after work I used to feel. I lost an inch off my waist and the padding on the sides is starting to disappear.
Then several articles came out about two months after I changed my eating style, touting the benefits of a high-fiber diet coupled with a reasonable amount of fat. The first was a New York Times piece on the latest research on low-carb eating.
Then, I read another one on a major study that shed light on the benefits of eating fewer carbohydrates and more healthy fats.
On one of my dietary cheat days, I was all excited about having my treats. As I went shopping I looked at some cake.
I thought, “You know what, I don’t even want to eat this today, I have been so good for so long. I will have some sweets another day.” My tolerance for sweets has gone down. So much so that I could not even finish a small portion of Italian ices yesterday.
Looking back at the last few months, there were a few things I might have done differently. The biggest thing: having sweet treats in the house. I got a box of cookies and had one serving on a cheat day. I was planning on giving the rest to my son, but ended up eating more than I should have the rest of the week. I did not put myself down or feel guilty, I just learned from it and no longer have any sweets at all in my cabinet. Here we go again with the rice cakes and popcorn!
I go back to my doctor in December, so I am hoping to reverse the bad test results I got. The best part is how good I feel. This new eating style is easy to follow, and I do not feel deprived or overly restricted in what I eat. I seemed to pick the right eating style for my body and age.
I will keep you posted as to the results.
Here I am at my son’s Culinary School Graduation. I am looking a little thick around the middle. This is when I was really not feeling well.
Here I am with my 2 cup of carbohydrate allowance per day. It looks like a ton of food! Pictured here is 1 cup of plain brown rice and 1 cup of Thia Style basil quinoa with summer squash. Note: this carbohydrate allowance is for the very active person.