I wished for years that I could be “naturally thin” like Sarah, until I changed my mind about what that means. You’ll soon see why.
I met the woman who would become one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had in a painfully loud play area at a local mall. Despite the din of our young children shrieking, Sarah had a warmth and nurturing calm about her. We soon bonded over our babies, knitting projects, a mutual warped sense of humor, and most of all, a love of cooking and eating phenomenal food.
Over the years, Sarah and I have spent hours upon hours together – whether lifting weights in the gym or knitting at a coffee shop, we compare notes about favorite recipes, the new best restaurant in town, or the steamy appeal of chef Eric Ripert.
But in the early days, when Sarah would wax poetically about a loaf of brioche, I would look at her standing there. She’s a tall, lean blonde with legs that go on for days. And I’d wonder: how the hell could she eat all this stuff and stay slim? I knew that she’d never been on a diet. Meanwhile, I was pregnant with my third kid and was reaching an all time high point in my own weight. After my son was born I was over 100 pounds heavier than I am today.
I started paying attention to my health and actively began a slow but sustainable fat loss process that would span several years. And most critically, I began noticing things that Sarah did that were different from how I managed my own life. I’d attributed her lean build to good genes and great luck. But mostly I was off base. We can control so much more about our body composition than we believe.
Genetics certainly must play at least a bit of a role in weight management. We all know people who seem to be able to stay slim effortlessly. But do they?
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say for sure. I think there’s probably some truth to the idea that it’s harder for some people to stay lean than others, just like it’s difficult for some people to gain weight. However, I think we attribute too much to passive genetics and not enough to what we can do to actively manage our weight.
The more I saw what Sarah did on a daily basis, the more I was able to link her successful weight management to habits instead of her family history. Here are the biggest “light bulb” moments I discovered through spending time with Sarah – and changes that I would make over time that ended up being the same things I do now to successfully manage my weight as well as help my clients with their own fat loss programs. Take a look at these tips:
1. Learn how to handle food-focused gatherings.
Sarah hosted a large potluck dinner one night for our mom’s group. What I remember most strikingly, because I was just starting to diet, was that I felt like I was missing out. I saw loads of decadent food around me that, at the time, I felt was forbidden. Most people around me were loading up their plates. Many went for seconds.
But then I peeked at Sarah’s plate. She had very small portions of several things, including the items I’d labeled “naughty” in my head. Hmm. Could she be on to something? She never went back for seconds. But she got to taste everything she wanted.
She also sometimes left a little bit on her plate, stopping when she was full. Even with dessert. Imagine that!
2. Make a meal plan.
My friends and I share our meal plans in a private Facebook group. We post our week’s worth of dinners along with links to recipes when available. It gives us ideas for future meals, accountability for staying organized, as well as a place to talk about great recipes. And perhaps Eric Ripert from time to time.
Here’s an example of one of my own:
Sarah realized a few weeks ago that she’d posted a menu every single week for an entire year. When we have meals planned, we’re less likely to hit the drive through at the last minute or call for pizza delivery. If we want to have pizza or leftovers, we just write it on the menu plan.
And yes, a few times we’ve penciled in “Friday: I can’t even. So make your own damn dinner, family.” But having everything laid out really relieves stress and keeps us on track for eating well.
3. Learn to love to cook.
We both love a good restaurant but dining out is a special treat, not a regular part of our routine. Cooking at home not only saves money – it allows us to control portions, ingredients, and methods of cooking. We also learn to appreciate just how delicious nutrient-rich foods can be when we learn to prepare them correctly and with creativity.
4. Eat mostly nutritious, whole foods.
I have spent enough time with Sarah to know that she always has really good chocolate in her pantry, but most of the time, she fills her plate with nutrient dense foods like plenty of lean protein, vegetables, and fruits.
5. Snack smarter.
Sarah once shared with me that every day at about 3 p.m. she got a serious hankering for a snack. Instead of mindlessly grabbing nibbles of things, she was usually prepared with Greek yogurt to keep her satisfied until dinner, which her family often ate at around 7 or 7:30 at night.
6. Be realistic.
Sarah is an amazing cook. But she also has three kids to haul around to soccer practice, choir rehearsals, and piano lessons. Her menu plans purposefully include very minimalist meals like a sandwich for dinner on busy evenings. Toss those at the kids, load everyone up into the car, and go.
7. Ditch the moral value that you attach to food.
One of the funniest and truest things that Sarah ever told me was “we have multiple pleasure holes. Our mouth is one of those holes, and it’s okay to want to fill it with pleasurable food.”
She’s right! Food isn’t just fuel. It connects us to one another at the dinner table and across cultures. It gives us pleasure. If she enjoys a decadent dessert, she smiles at her good fortune and goes back to normal life the next day. There’s no guilt when you don’t label a food as “bad”. There’s no shame spiral of saying “I ate this terrible thing and I’m bad and screwed up so screw it.” It becomes a lot less stressful to strip away that kind of power from food. Eat it less frequently and in smaller quantities if it’s really high in calories and not all that nutritious.
8. Work out with consistency.
There’s no way that exercise will make up for poor eating habits. However, the more we move and the more muscle we have, the better our metabolism hums along and we burn some extra calories each day. We also have better energy to do all that stuff like meal plan, cook, and feel in control of our days. In short, regular exercise isn’t just about the calorie burn. It is a critical component in helping us have a positive mental outlook toward our bodies, our health, and our overall lives.
Sarah has awakened nearly every day each week at 5 a.m. to exercise: for years. She doesn’t work out like a lunatic. She doesn’t care even a little bit about “beast mode” or winning a race. She just wants to move. Sarah lifts weights because she wants to be strong for life. She cycles because it feels good. Sometimes we even bike to restaurants.
9. Know when you need to make a change – then be a problem solver.
Sarah notices when she’s gained a few pounds. She observed the other day that she’d been hitting the jelly beans a little too hard and said she didn’t even find them very satisfying to eat. So she stopped buying them as frequently. She evaluated a potential problem and solved it.
10. Develop an Active Mindset
Within our group of friends, Sarah has earned the nicknames “Mama” and “Macguyver”. She’s the one we turn to when we have a household emergency and need to know how to fix something ourselves. She can repair a toilet, tell us when we need to actually go to the doctor, and brings us soup when we’re sick. She is always the one who will have band-aids (and maybe a wrench) in her handbag. We’ve already designated her property as our compound in the event of a zombie apocalypse, because when the shit hits the fan, Sarah offers us the best chance of making it.
Sarah has had really tough stuff of her own to wade through. Everyone does. But she always makes it through with grace and a mindset that allows her to take control of situations and make the best of them. This same frame of mind is crucial in tackling any challenge, whether it’s with our careers, our families, or our fitness.
I’m so grateful to have Sarah as my resourceful, generous, big-hearted friend. When I shared a draft of this article she replied “I don’t know about this, I feel like I have life 0% figured out”. If that’s true, then we’re all screwed. She is humble but one of a kind. And if you’re lucky to know someone like her, follow closely and take some notes. I guarantee you’ll learn something.
So all in all, does it really matter if someone is “naturally thin”? Nah. We can only control our actions – but look at how many there are that can impact our health. That’s great news in my book.
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