Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Year's Resolution: Keeping the Anvil Over My Head

On New Year's Eve day, I bought my first pair of "skinny" pants, size M, and a black sleeveless cocktail-type dress, size 10. Now for many many women, this isn't anything worth mentioning (except to your girlfriends), let alone relevant to a food blog. But for me, it was huge (pardon the pun) because neither purchase is something I could ever have considered a year ago when I weighed well, well over 200 pounds.

Before: a chunky monkey in 2007. At least Shayna was happy.
But, last March the inevitable happened. I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Yes, I say inevitable because a couple of years before I was told I was pre-diabetic. Clearly I was in denial because I made barely an effort to lose the weight that could have prevented the full and permanent onset of what I call my disease of self-indulgence.

The diagnosis in March, however, changed my life. In some ways it was, perversely, the best thing that could have happened to me because I stopped living my life as a slothful eating machine and made a hard right turn. If I was to have a future that didn't include loss of my feet, my vision, kidney functions, or having a stroke or heart attack--all ghastly physiological problems associated with diabetes--I had to take very good care of myself.

By the time I met with my doctor later that month to discuss the diagnosis I had already joined Weight Watchers online and had just begun to take working out as a serious daily endeavor. I think I'd lost about six pounds at that point. By June, I'd lost over 20 pounds and the A1C blood test that measures diabetes fell from extremely bad to just above normal. Nine months into my new life I've lost 60 pounds. To my mind I still have another 30 or so to go. Late next month I have my next A1C test and I'm hoping to hit a normal number.

And that's what I have to focus on this year. Yet, while I'm so tickled to have those new pants, the little black dress, and the hope of good health, with success comes the risk of complacency. I told my friends and family back in March that I felt like I had an anvil hovering over my head and that's what kept me in line, not the promise of smaller sized clothes. But you can't live indefinitely under the threat of imminent danger. Once the perceived threat begins to fade, it's all too easy to regress incrementally into bad habits. That's what I'm fighting now. My immediate goal is not to be thin as a rail; that'll never happen. It is, however, to be at a very healthy weight that leads to a normal A1C result so that my doctor will wean me off the metformin I take three times a day. My long-term goal is to manage my disease of self-indulgence with self control. In other words, commit to a lifetime of good diet and daily intense exercise. This is no mere New Year's resolution.

So, I have to remember things. I have to remember the mortification of sitting in a nutrition class with other newly diagnosed diabetics and of mortification turning into disbelief as participants, also in clear denial, asked the nutritionist if they could still go to McDonald's, still eat their favorite chicken pot pie frozen dinner, still drink Cokes. I have to remember the guy I sat next to at a brunch cooking class I was covering for San Diego Magazine. He downed hefty portions of a croissant bread pudding and stuffed French toast and whatever else was served. I wasn't eating or drinking anything; there wasn't a thing there for me to eat that wasn't full of fat and carbo-loaded and besides I had to measure my blood sugar within the hour. It was a small group and the instructor wouldn't let it go so I finally blurted out in exasperation that I had diabetes and couldn't have the bread pudding, the French toast, or even the proferred glass of orange juice. The guy next to me looked at me like I was a nut case, shrugged, and said, "Oh, I have diabetes, too. I just take my meds and I'm fine. I can eat anything."

Well, let's see if he still has all his toes in a few years. I'm counting on having mine. I need to remember him.

Biology is apparently against me. On Dec. 28, The New York Times published a health story on weight loss called The Fat Trap. According to research, at this point my body is going to do everything it can to try to sabotage my efforts to get rid of that last 30 pounds and try to regain the 60 I've already lost; it will act like I'm starving. My workout won't have as much impact on burning calories. Ghrelin, dubbed "the hunger hormone," will increase while peptide YY, a hormone that suppresses hunger, will decrease. It's why so many people regain weight and why we need to rethink our condescending attitudes toward them. It's not a lack of will power. There are very real biological dynamics going on.

So, I need that hovering anvil swinging over my head if I'm to stay focused, get off the metformin, and wear that new little black dress a year from now or, what I'm actually planning, have it altered to at least a size smaller.

I'm asked a lot how I've managed to take off the weight, especially as a food writer who's always in pretty challenging settings for a diabetic working to shed pounds. The answer is simple--reduce fats, keep portions small, weigh myself regularly (usually twice a week), and exercise. A lot. And, because of the diabetes, I have to drastically limit my carb intake. I'm a fool for carbs but am only allowed 35 grams per meal. I use Weight Watchers online as a tool for tracking diet, weight, and exercise, but it doesn't always help because much of the food I eat--particularly when I go out--isn't easy to measure. So I have to rely on just tasting things or saying no thank you. I also am not shy about explaining this to the people I'm with, including chefs. That way they both know my limitations and back off insisting that I consume everything they set in front of me.

Finally, nothing gets in the way of daily exercise. Not rain or heat. Not clients. Certainly not malaise. In that sense, fear keeps me going. I truly get anxious when there's even the possibility that I can't get on the treadmill in the morning and will do what I have to--get up earlier, reschedule client conference calls, eat breakfast later, whatever--to make sure I get at least half an hour and usually 45 minutes in after a long walk with my dogs. Allowing myself to skip a workout could lead to complacence and I'm petrified that I could easily slip back into my natural sloth mode. I can't afford that.

This, of course, is the time of year for making resolutions, particularly when it comes to weight loss and exercise. So, here are some food-related lessons I've learned that might help you if this is your challenge:
  • Eat mindfully. Only eat what really tastes delicious to you. If you're going to eat pizza, it should be terrific, not crap. It's amazing how much food we consume indiscriminately that we really don't even much like. I found myself easily saying no to things once I got that in my head.
  • Stop eating once you just begin to feel full. I learned this lesson once I started having to prick my fingers three times daily to measure my blood sugar. If I overate--even so-called healthy foods--my blood sugar rose dramatically. I pay attention to how I feel when I'm eating and put down my fork once I just start feeling full. The side benefits are that it leaves me with leftovers and I sleep better now, too, as a result.
  • Enjoy small tastes of favorite foods if you truly can limit them to just small tastes. I can easily have just a small piece or bite of chocolate and I'm good. Same with ice cream. I enjoy sweets but they're not a weakness. A taste is all I need. However, I stay far away from potato chips and other salty/fatty/crispy treats. As the old Lays slogan goes, I can't eat just one. I'm an addict and they're my crack.
  • When you go out to eat, ask if the chef can make a dish for you that is aligned with your needs. Last spring I told chef/owner Matt Gordon of Urban Solace that I was having a hard time eating off his comfort food menu and he told me he'd just gotten some fresh trout--would I like grilled trout on a bed of greens and sliced apples? Why yes! Okay, sure he'd do that for a friend and food writer, but he made a point of telling me he'd do that for any customer and that most chefs should. He emphasized that chefs have the ingredients in the kitchen; there's no excuse for them not to help if the request is within reason. And, by the way, you have no idea how many food issues many chefs have. They get it. Just ask without being too demanding.
  • Look for naturally small portions of favorite foods. I'm so tickled when I can find a little five-ounce russet potato. That means I can enjoy a whole baked potato and for some reason psychologically that's important to me. I look for small chicken pieces, like thighs so I can eat the whole thing. I buy small apples and bananas for the same reason (carbs are carbs and most fruits are full of them so I have to limit my intake of them, too, not just pasta, breads, or sweets).
  • Try easing away from white rice and check out the brown versions. I have come to love the earthy flavors of brown basmati and brown jasmine rice. I also eat whole wheat pasta--but not much of it because even in limited amounts it still makes my blood sugar go up. 
  • Try out various whole grains as a pasta and rice substitute. I love farro, barley, millet, quinoa, and wheat berries. I use them for side dishes; I create salads with them. They have great flavors and textures--they just happen to also be healthy.
  • Vary your diet and experiment with new ingredients, new ethnic foods, new types of produce. Try new recipes and cooking techniques. Fennel bulbs, for instance, can be sliced into salad, but they're also delicious cut in half lengthwise, topped with olive oil and grated parmesan and then roasted.
There are so many truly delicious foods out there that are also healthy that I really don't find myself feeling too deprived most of the time. Yes, there are times I desperately yearn for pizza, tamales, a banh mi sandwich, or a big bowl of pasta but they pass. And I guess that's where the diabetes advantage, if there is one, comes into play. If I were just trying to lose weight to fit into clothes it would be easier to make excuses and indulge big. Knowing I have to measure my blood sugar, knowing that indulgence carries tremendous ramifications for my health, usually keeps me in line. And, when I do indulge, it's still pretty restrained--as in a big bowl of popcorn as opposed to a big bag of chips. Periodically I have a burger or something else I otherwise avoid, but it's infrequent. And many things I used to love--barbecued beef ribs, roasted turkey wings--I no longer have a taste for. (I have to admit to having had a minor meltdown at Trader Joe's in the beginning when, after reading nutrition labels, it looked like everything I loved was out of range for me, but I've since figured out how to shop there; they haven't missed me at all.) In short, I eat well and make the occasional accommodation. After all, this is for life.

The other thing I've learned in this process is that what works for me may not work for you. (And, vice versa; there are a lot of well-meaning people who offer me lots of unsolicited advice. Oh, and, for the record, diabetes doesn't go away; it can be managed without drugs, but it's a chronic disease. Once diagnosed, you always have it.) You should also always consult your doctor before following anyone's advice or suggestions--including the tips I just mentioned.

And--this is very important--nothing you or I say will change what someone else will do, just as no one ever changed my behavior (and, oh, did they try). I have a relative who is suffering from weight problems and another wants me to counsel that person. I said no. Clearly this person is aware of the excess weight and knows that it has to be dealt with. I grew up with well-meaning people trying to "enlighten" me. Having said their peace, they felt better but it would only cause me embarrassment and shame--and send me off to a Costco-size bag of Hawaiian-style potato chips. It would have the same effect on that relative to have me, uh, weigh in. When that person is ready to make a change and wants to talk, I'm there, anytime. But only then. The drive to do it has to come from within. That's the only thing that powers success.

So, on that note, I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year! I hope you wish me luck as I keep moving forward on this journey. And please share any favorite tips you have for leading a healthier life. We can all use them!

At Rancho La Puerta this past October. Much lighter, healthier, and clearly happier.


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