Let’s take a Japanese break and talk about healthy lifestyle stuff. First, the diet aspect (exercise in another post). This is something that’s been on my mind a lot, as I spent early last fall losing about 10-ish pounds, and I’ve successfully kept it off since. It may not sound like a whole lot, but when you’re on the shorter side, it shows. I can fit into–and look good in–all my clothes again, including my size 4 stuff! Yay! Every day I think about how I can’t believe I let myself get to that point, and how I rationalized it and justified it for so long, all the while looking terrible in a lot of my clothes. My weight had fluctuated over the years–for example, I stayed pretty trim senior year of college riding my bike to school most days and taking an aerobics class one semester, despite a lot of social drinking–but I’d probably had pounds to spare since about 2006, maybe earlier. I was gaining slowly but steadily every year, unaware that I needed to stop eating and drinking whatever I wanted while rarely exercising. And it’s all gone now and I’m super healthy. I’m the slimmest I’ve been in years, maybe even since high school (which, by the way, I ate so much bad stuff as a teenager, like fries, burgers, and chocolate milk from the cafeteria every other day, and yet I could still stay thin. Getting old sucks). Crazy.
In the process, I learned so much about how the human body works and how diet is THE most important factor when it comes to weight/fat loss. Okay, I guess this entire post is going to sound pretty didactic and imperious, like I have all the answers and I think I’m so right, but my goal here is more to just talk about what works for me. I’m sorry if it comes off narcissistic, rambly, etc. (That’s gonna be pretty much this whole blog so if you don’t like it, might as well stop reading here.) Anyway… I’ve noticed so many people think they just have to go to the gym and go hard, but that’s not how it works if you’re going to come home and eat like a bowl of cheesy pasta or some chips and a soda (ugh, soda. That’s the first thing that’s gotta go for good. I never drink soda anymore). Earlier in the summer I had spent a little over a month going to the gym every single day (some days were yoga but I still went to the gym and moved), and while I feel like I ‘toned’ my body and redistributed the weight in a better way, I still wasn’t LOSING. It wasn’t until I made some crazy and drastic diet changes that I began to see the fat/weight just fall off. It was like magic–it was so easy. And I said I lost 10 pounds, but it’s really more about inches, since I’d welcome more weight as long as it was muscle. I lost two inches in my waist. That’s a lot. And it was easy, and still is easy to keep it off as long as I keep up with my diet changes, which are not the easiest but I’ve done a pretty good job.
What are these diet changes, you may ask? In a word… paleo. And I know that may not have the best perception–I recently heard it described as something “only white people do”–but it really, really works. It’s super effective. And you feel amazing. I feel like I’ve discovered the secret to life, like I’ve cracked the Official Human Being Manual and gotten to read the part about how to maintain a healthy body and what to eat.
I first heard about paleo from Dooce. I’m an ambivalent Dooce “fan” but I still keep up with her posts, and one day she mentioned having gone on this crazy paleo diet thing (and then answered questions in a follow-up post). Basically, paleo entails trying to eat like humans did before the agricultural revolution, which has been shown to have had detrimental effects on human development (we’re shorter now, etc). No grains, no dairy (well, some paleo people do still eat dairy), no legumes, no sugar. It’s all about the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (most people have way more omega-6 and it produces more fat), lectins, how grains actually do not want to be digested and irritate our digestive systems BUT they are addictive and function like opiates in the brain, etc. (No, even whole-wheat grains aren’t “good for you” like we’ve been told. Yes, this goes against all conventional wisdom–you have been lied to! If the conventional wisdom were right, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic and we wouldn’t be gaining weight and fat so easily. Think about it. Also, you are probably addicted to grains, so of course you don’t want to give them up). It may sound like a stretch, but I’m telling you, it works.
So when I read that in early August, I’d already been feeling annoyed with my weight loss efforts and how I just wasn’t seeing good results. I was already eating a “healthy” diet (whole-wheat bread/pasta, brown rice, Dijon mustard replacing mayo in my sandwiches, beans, hummus, etc) and it wasn’t really helping all that much. I kept thinking to myself, This is like pulling teeth. Let me recap: I was eating the recommended ‘healthy’ diet while working out regularly and no results. At that time my ostensible primary goal was looking good in a maid of honor dress for an October 2011 wedding, but this was after I’d already made efforts to lose weight to look good in a bridesmaid dress for an October 2010 wedding (and was moderately successful but let myself go immediately after the wedding), and I was just getting fed up with not having any significant, lasting results. (I’d also decided to begin personal training at my gym, but more on that in another post.) So Dooce’s endorsement came at the right time for me and made a lot of sense–plus it aroused my curiosity, more than anything–and I decided to begin trying it out. You can tell how desperate I was, because I was the biggest fan of grains and dairy. (Okay, I still am, and I still eat those things as a treat. More on that below.) I was the girl who would eat three rolls with dinner. I mean, baguettes with Boursin garlic cheese. Hummus and pita. Tortilla chips. Pasta. All of those were my favorite foods (and it took me a while to realize just how bad they were. In the words of Scott Pilgrim… “Bread makes you fat??”). But it sounded so promising, I just had to see.
I went slowly, eliminating more and more former diet staples each week (plain nonfat Greek yogurt, granola, sandwiches, whole-wheat pasta, peanut butter, hummus, legumes…). Dairy made the biggest difference. I should mention though that I was lactose intolerant as a kid, so maybe that’s no surprise. Immediately I wasn’t so bloated and my digestive system ran better and rarely gave me any trouble. I still think humans weren’t really meant to consume dairy–while it’s tasty, it’s designed for baby cows, not us! I know this is an unpopular opinion; at least I can agree with vegans on one point. And it could have been my lactose intolerance, though I think it applies to anyone as well: I just started to feel better, leaner, streamlined all over. I purchased Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and devoured it, learning so much in the process (I don’t want to sound like I got totally brainwashed and I believe everything paleo without question, but you can’t deny that this stuff really works. By the way, a portion of the book is excerpted here). I also want to clarify that paleo is not gluten-free so much as grain-free. You can’t try to still eat “gluten-free” grains–you have to cut out everything grainy, including noodles, rice, etc. Or at the very least, you have to minimize that stuff and save it for very occasional treats. That’s what I do–I’m not crazy strict 100% or even 99% paleo. More on that in a bit.
The book also mentioned the need for humans to sleep in total darkness to get full rest at night, so I got blackout curtains and hung them in my room. Another instant difference. I love my blackout curtains and I sleep so much better at night. Before this I’d been having sleep problems, I’d even gone to see a sleep specialist and done a home sleep study, but they couldn’t find anything wrong. I’ve always seemed to need more sleep than other people–like 10 hours instead of 8. Blackout curtains were immediately super beneficial to me; I felt like I could sleep LESS but wake up MORE well rested than I had ever been before. And before the blackout curtains I’d had a sleep mask, and it helped, but it wasn’t ever as effective as the curtains.
I try recommending blackout curtains to people who complain about sleep issues but I always hear “I need my natural light to wake me up or I’ll never get out of bed!” People, a good night’s sleep will be the thing that naturally wakes you up! So far I have not been able to convert anyone, including my boyfriend, which makes it very frustrating when I sleep over and don’t get to sleep as well (I need to start keeping a sleep mask there to at least do something)… but I still know I’m right. Haha.
As for the diet, yes, it’s difficult to reconstruct your eating habits and meals to pretty much only be vegetables and a protein source (supplemented by occasional fruits and nuts). But I’ve adjusted pretty well, and it’s getting more effortless. One downside I did discover is that, of course, eating mainly vegetables and meat/protein is more expensive. Grains are cheap. There’s a reason why poor people are fatter. Everything produced in the breadbasket of America is subsidized by the government (who also makes the food pyramid telling us to eat mainly grains–hmm, coincidence?!) so it costs less. And here I am, trying to save as much money as I can. But… it’s worth it. Getting and staying healthy is worth the slightly extra cost.
It’s also funny that I chose to do this because I am suuuuuuuuch a picky eater. There are many things, including a lot of veggies, that I won’t eat. But I love meat and that’s a big part of paleo. It’s hard to be paleo as a vegetarian, and paleo tries to be sensitive to that while gently pointing out that eating the way humans were meant to eat involves eating meat. Not eating meat means you rely on things like grains, which is not exactly good. I also don’t think it results in people who are naturally healthy and fit overall–and I think it should if it’s truly the right way to eat. I know my vegan and vegetarian friends will probably not look favorably on me saying this (and I’m sorry–I respect your right to choose, but I also still have the right to think you are wrong, the same way you think I am wrong. Please remember that–the same way you think I am wrong, because you have to if you made that dietary choice that’s different from mine). If my righteous vegetarian former coworker can feel entitled to tell the office, “You all should be [vegetarian]!” then I should be able to say, “Humans in general should not be, when it comes to overall health.” Although let me say that I know from an ecological standpoint, and I really do try to be eco-friendly/green, eating meat is not good for the environment. So there is that, but I still feel it’s something the human body was designed to consume and should consume. If you disagree, I respect your right to, and I hope we can agree to disagree without great offense.
Here’s what a typical weekday’s meals look like for me. (On the weekends things get a little more lax…)
Breakfast (every weekday): baby carrots, homemade guacamole (just avocado and lime juice because I don’t like onions/tomatoes), and deli-sliced no-nitrate chicken breast. Sometimes coffee with coconut milk (French vanilla-flavored) creamer
Lunch (every weekday): Salad of 50/50 spinach and field greens, bacon bits, sliced hardboiled egg, chopped baked chicken tenderloin, and a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s delicious. I do have to spend every Sunday night making the hardboiled eggs, frying the bacon, and baking the chicken, then chopping everything up. But it’s worth it.
Dinner (I mix this up more): Things like… curry with coconut milk and curry powder and meat and vegetables, or a turkey burger and squash, or a steamed veggie bag and sliced sausage… sometimes pork loin and squash in the crock pot with tomato sauce…
Snacks: Raw nuts, berries, sunflower seed butter (sooooo good–peanuts are legumes, so regular PB is out, but sunflower seed butter is even better)
Treats: Very dark chocolate, red wine (a lot of alcohol is not allowed, but I don’t drink all that often so I consider a cocktail a treat and just try to stay away from beer. Tequila is the best liquor for paleo, since it’s not grain based)
I’m not the kind of person who gets bored eating the same thing, or same type of thing, every day, so once I found something good that worked, I stuck with it. I also like how paleo encourages you to eat “bad” stuff like bacon and sausage, while my old “healthy” diet did not, but which one was more effective? (Guess what, fats are good!). I still experiment with new paleo recipes from time to time but I really focus more on resisting the completely anti-paleo things my parents stock the pantry, fridge, and freezer with. (My dad is the classic example of someone who gets a lot of exercise but has a gut because his diet is basically terrible.) And while I read some paleo blogs like Mark’s Daily Apple while I was first getting into this, I don’t so much anymore, mostly because I have it down and don’t need help and also because… I try to reserve the majority of my spare energy for Japanese study. Of course.
Now, do I cheat? Absolutely. I cheat a little bit almost every day, but with little things (like a piece of milk chocolate), not entire meals. Sometimes though, I will cheat for a meal (usually some form of pasta, or a roll). Or if I’m out at a restaurant with really good food it would be a crime to resist, like Japanese/Asian with its rice, or French with its bread and cheese, I’ll eat that but try to keep it limited. I don’t deny myself completely but I still try to keep it in check, like I don’t eat out that often so when I do it’s a treat and I can splurge diet-wise a little. The thing is, I still see the benefits–easily losing weight or keeping it off–even if I just do this for, say, 85% of what I eat. So I give myself a little leeway or I know I’d get sulky and just go on a pasta binge. Sugar has actually been the hardest part–I love chocolate and sweets. If someone brings something good into work, it’s VERY hard for me to resist (I usually don’t, but try to just get a tiny piece). As for chocolate, I gradually worked my way up to 85% dark chocolate–something my boyfriend didn’t think I could do, but I showed him! Even that, I try only to eat one week a month as a special indulgent treat (maybe you can guess what week that is). After getting a lot of sweets and chocolate for Christmas that I’m still working through, I’m not being as good about 85%-dark-one-week-a-month-only as I was, but once that’s all gone I won’t buy more and I’ll go back to my routine.
In conclusion, paleo might sound crazy but it’s so worth it. It also probably helps prevent diseases like cancer and diabetes, and as a health-anxious person that’s reassuring to me, to know that I’m decreasing my chances of developing something like that. I know it’s a hard sell but I still think everyone would be better off eating this way. I amazed my trainer with how fast the inches came off from August to October (by the way, I made my October wedding goal! And then I ate whatever I wanted at the reception. But I didn’t let myself go after). And I did gain a couple pounds over the holidays as most people do, but it’s already off again. I do plan to talk about the exercise/gym aspect of my weight/fat loss journey in another post, but paleo really played the most important role. (Also, I know paleo and crossfit often go hand in hand, but I do not do crossfit. I’ve never tried, it’s not easily accessible for me, and it might be too intense? Mostly it’s that I’m happy with my current exercise routine and don’t need to make it super hardcore for no reason). But yeah. Diet really does make all the difference. I’m telling you, it’s magical. But, at the same time, I don’t care if I convert anyone, I just wanted to explain that I found something that works for me and I’m happy about it.