Tag Archives: weight

10 Surprising Secrets I Learned from a “Naturally Thin” Friend

question mark fruit

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.

French silver fox, am I right?

French silver fox, am I right?

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:
picmonkeymealplan

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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6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Lower Your Calorie Target

caloriescounting

If you track your calories and/or macronutrients, you will probably arrive at a point where it feels like your progress has stalled, either while cutting body fat or trying to pack on muscle. I’m going to talk about fat loss in particular today, because that’s what the majority of my online training clients are after when they track their calories.

Imagine this scenario:

You see barely a change on the scale in a week’s time. Then two weeks go by. It might go up a bit, and then down. And then just hang out in one spot, taunting you. Believe me, I know this feeling. It’s annoying as hell while you’re cutting fat. We want fat loss and we want it NOW! (Then I stomp my feet a bit, like Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

veruca
Without a doubt a stall is going to happen. The big question is “well what do I do now?”

The answer depends on both your behavior and your body. My clients (and hell, myself at times) have an initial urge to further reduce calories. Have you been here too? Ask yourself a few questions before you start slashing.

1. How accurate is my diary? Don’t get your feathers ruffled, I’m not saying you’re secretly gorging on treats. Although that happens too, especially if you’re restricting too severely. Most of us aren’t terribly accurate about tracking, as I wrote about in this piece.  Even nutrition pros can be off in their estimates by a few hundred calories each day. 1 

Even if you’re tracking relatively diligently, forgetting things here and there is human nature. If you don’t measure and weigh your food or track nibbles, it’s even more likely that your diary’s data is more of a “guesstimate”. Don’t feel bad about this – it’s really common.

Be honest with yourself. If I hear from clients that they miss tracking regularly, I’m less likely to recommend that they cut their target down even further. Instead, it could be extremely helpful to commit to tracking absolutely everything for a few weeks. This is a long term process, after all, and accurate data is useful.

Alternatively, if you’re someone who truly struggles with tracking or just dislikes it, consider strategies based on portions, honing hunger cues, and learning to compose meals with foods that support your goals. These skills are important to develop for the long run anyway, as you likely won’t track your food forever.

So perhaps you’re certain that you are indeed tracking your calories accurately. Yet you’re sure you’re stalled. But are you?

progressing

 

2. How do I measure my progress? If you’re only looking at the scale, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The scale is only one tool among many for gauging fat loss. Pictures and measurements can tell you much more about your changing body composition.

3. How did I calculate my target? Calorie guidelines are just estimates. It is possible that calculations for key variables are not quite accurate. Your RMR (resting metabolic rate) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure, i.e. how many calories you estimate that you burn each day through doing stuff) may actually be a bit lower than you were given via the formula you used. Some calculations are broad to begin with, like multiplying your weight x 10 to get a daily calorie target if you want to lose weight yet aren’t active.

For the long haul, moderate deficits that are anywhere from 300-500 kcal below your weight maintenance will make less of a hormonal impact on your body than more drastic cuts. If you decide to lower your target, do it slowly. Sure, this paves a slower road but is a quick fix worth not getting to eat much? In my opinion it isn’t for most people. They’re more likely to adhere to a less fun-sucking nutrition plan –whether or not you count calories, don’t you want to eat as much as you can while still losing fat? Probably so, because food is delicious.

Workout

4. Am I factoring in calories burned from workouts? Another red flag is hearing from someone who is stuck mention that they base their daily intake from what tracking apps like Myfitnesspal. These apps often advise them to “eat back calories” from exercise. Calorie burn from activity is tough to estimate, and a number is usually wildly inaccurate unless you have some fancy equipment to aid you. Plus, the idea of trying to earn more food by exercising sets many up for having a more negative relationship with exercise.

5. Have I been dieting for a long while on low calories? Especially if you’re already quite lean, being on a diet for a long while can impact your hormonal signals. In essence, hormones such as ghrelin, insulin, peptide YY and others send signals to your brain that inform it about your energy stores and how much energy you’re taking in from food. When these hormonal levels change, other neurochemical changes happen as well, impacting our metabolic rate, hunger, and many other processes that impact our efforts at regulating our weight. 2

Leptin in particular is a more scarce resource among those who are lean. If you’ve been spinning your wheels in one spot, consider taking a diet break. Nutrition experts like Lyle McDonald and Martin Berkhan have both advocated “refeeds”, extended periods of time when calorie intake and carbohydrate in particular increases. The purpose of a refeed is to make your hormone signaling more favorable to fat loss once again. 

There doesn’t seem to be hard data regarding exactly how long a refeed needs to be, but McDonald theorized that it’s likely longer than the typical increase of calories in a 5-24 hour window that traditional cyclical dieting uses. 

Cyclical dieting is a strategy where you eat lower calories on some days of the week and higher calories on others.

I’m grossly oversimplifying McDonald’s strategies here, and his game plan is most applicable to those who are already very lean and want to diet down for either aesthetic or performance purposes. But extended dieting can and does impact our bodies.

I used cyclical dieting during my last fat loss period and found it to be extremely useful in terms of energy needs, effectiveness, and social happiness – I could plan a dinner out on a day when my calorie goal was higher. However, I’ve now entered a stall in my own progress after months of dieting and am doing an extended refeed myself. I’ll let you know how it goes in a few months and maybe post pics of carbs on Instagram.

6. Have I been to the doctor lately? I’m throwing this one in as a “Hail Mary”. Most people don’t have a medical issue – they just eat more than they think they do. But hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism are very real and can really screw with your body composition efforts; certain medications can also pack on pounds. So if you answered all the above questions and are still flummoxed, a trip to the doc may be in order.

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Notes:

  1. Champagne, C.M., et al.  Energy intake and energy expenditure:  a controlled study comparing dietitians and non-dietitians.  J. Am. Diet. Assoc.  102(10:1428-1432, 2001.
  2. McDonald, L. (2003). The ultimate diet 2.0. Austin, TX: L. McDonald.