For most of my life, I've carried around extra weight. I'm not talking about the kind of poundage that would, say, require a rented motorized three-wheeler to navigate around Disney or anything, but over the years I've generally been overweight. Plump. Husky. You can pick your word.
I've gone through thinner phases and heavier phases, lost some pounds - sometimes for years at a time - and then put them back on. When I say I have suits and other clothes in various weights I'm not talking about fabric thickness or the seasons. I haven't done a wide variety of exotic diets, mostly when I've trimmed down it's been a result of getting disgusted with myself, resolving to "watch it" in some relatively formal way, and committing to regular exercise.
I remember one particular health class in high school, the teacher stood at the front of the room and said he had a diet that was guaranteed to work. He played with us for a while, solicited guesses around what it might be, and then wrote these words on the blackboard in big bold letters, I can still see it in my head - YOU MUST RUN.
He was right, of course. I ran through college and beyond and they were some of my leanest years, but the dedication to getting out and pounding the pavement did not last. I experimented with the Atkins diet years ago, at the height of its popularity, and it worked, but for most of my life I have steered clear of red meat (a challenge on that plan) and generally could never get past how inherently unhealthy the mix of foods and fats that were "allowed" seemed. The amount of plaque a dental hygienist scraped off my teeth after eating like that for just a few months told me everything I needed to know about the bad things that had to have been happening on the inside, regardless of what the good doctor wanted to tell Larry King on TV. Ketosis and pork rinds were not going to be my yellow brick road to health and happiness.
Of all the various regimens and plans I've come across in my life, the South Beach Diet was the one that made the most sense to me, on many levels. Most of all how it made me feel when I was on it, how it didn't seem like a "trick" or a way to game reality. I don't believe there will ever be a pill that doesn't come with serious side effects, or an effortless, no-cost approach to getting your body into shape. There's no free lunch in this world. I think people with my metabolism - which naturally defaults to "puffy" - will only really be able to preserve leaner and meaner for the long haul by making fundamental and sustainable changes in the way they eat and live.
This has been my experience, in a life filled with upswings and downswings that always seem to settle a good 25-30 pounds north of where I'd ideally like to be. I'm currently in a downswing, a slow and steady downswing and one I hope and believe will endure. Here are some of the things that have worked for me, five key pillars of a successful weight loss program. There is no rank order here, for success all five elements need to be in play.
1. Portion control. This is so obvious it seems barely worth mentioning, but it's fundamental, has been one of my key issues from the beginning, and clearly plagues many others as well. You could talk about the expanding amount of food offered in dining out environments, the pervasive "Supersize" mentality, but in the end it's really about how much you put in your mouth, how reasonable you are in what you consume. There's a difference between a handful of potato chips and a bag, a healthy helping of pasta and a pound. I've never been big on measuring and weighing servings, it always seemed like too much work, although I think at times - especially at the start of a new way of life - it can be helpful for illustrative purposes. Another natural enemy on this front is an inalterable adherence to the three-square-meal approach. "Sure, it's 10:45 a.m. and I'm a little hungry right now, but I'm going to hold off and wait for lunch and then I'm really going to EAT."
We still plan around three main meals a day, but there's nothing wrong with a handful of pistachio nuts an hour before lunch to tide you over, or an apple or cup of lowfat yogurt at 4 p.m. to make you less ravenous when the feed bag gets strapped on at the dinner table. In general, the deny-to-reward dynamic is does not seem to be a good or sustainable way to operate. It also breeds rationalization and excess.
2. Physical activity. My high school teacher was on the right track with the running. Being active in a dedicated way is an essential part of being healthy and losing weight. We have a Precor machine in our basement, and if I can find the discipline to run on the thing for 30-45 minutes 3-4 times a week it makes a tremendous difference in how I look and feel. At work I take the stairs instead of the elevator, eschew the intercom in favor of getting up and walking around when possible. I saw Frank Bruni, who eats for a living, on the Charlie Rose show recently and he talked about exercise as making a "down payment" on the food you were going to eat. That makes a lot of sense to me, and - in addition to helping maintain a healthy weight - working out or just being active will help mitigate the damage when you decide to indulge, because we all do, and should, at times. I have never in my life regretted a decision to exercise at the end of a workout. But that doesn't make it any easier to lace up the sneakers. You just have to find a way to get there.
3. Emphasize fresh foods (vegetables and fruits) and whole grains, the "good" carbohydrates, and avoid white flour, processed foods and refined sugars. This is the piece I got from South Beach and it works. It's also not absolute - we still eat pasta from time to time (although Barilla Plus carries the day much more often than our "old" favorite, De Cecco) and I still bring home pizza for the family on most Friday nights, I just have two slices instead of four, or five. The bread in our house that we use for toast in the morning is sprouted wheat from Alvarado Street Bakery or Ezekiel, when we make pizza dough we go heavy on the wheat flour and sparingly, if at all, on the white. It is easier than ever today to choose whole grains and fresh/minimally-processed foods, and I firmly believe that's helpful on multiple fronts. If it comes in a bag or a box with any kind of significant shelf life, it probably should not be eaten in volume. We eat potatoes rarely and sparingly. Same thing with white rice.
4. Plan ahead. This goes hand in hand with #3, because in a pinch it's easy to make bad choices, when you haven't taken the time to stock supplies that allow for smarter ones. A helping of raw almonds out of a bag you keep in your desk is a much better mid-afternoon snack than a trip to the vending machine. A pomegranate or some sliced strawberries a better antidote to a nighttime sweets craving than a chocolate bar or scoop of ice cream.
5. Focus on the big picture, changes and habits that can endure. Keep your perspective on living, instead of losing or maintaining. I think that's the problem with most diets - they force people into phases that determine how they act. You have a start weight, and a "goal" weight, you work to reach your goal and - if you are lucky enough and determined enough to get there - you shift into some new mode in order to "maintain" that weight. Ease up about it. This isn't a Band-Aid you put on and expect to take off at some point, it's the way you are going to live, the mix of foods you are going to eat and a level of physical activity you are going to expect and demand of yourself. Forever.
If these five guiding principles are followed to a reasonable degree, the pounds will come off and your general level of healthiness - I believe - will increase. At least that's been my experience. The other thing I think is really problematic about the "phases" approach is that it leads to a rigidity and an obsession with the scale that is very difficult to maintain. If you can't take a bite out of a brownie some co-worker made, or a slice of birthday cake at a family function without feeling like it's going to set you back a week in your weight-loss regimen you're ultimately going to have a problem. At home we choose sprouted wheat bread, buns and tortillas, but that doesn't mean if we stop off for a ball of fresh mozzarella on a Saturday afternoon we don't buy a loaf of crusty Ciabbata to go along with it, because everyone knows leaving a pool of olive oil and balsamic on the plate is a sin. If forced deprivation is an underpinning of your weight loss program, it's probably not going to last very long. Build reasonableness and healthy offsets up around your indulgences, and enjoy them when they happen.
This is in no way complete, but here are some of the foods we focus on keeping in stock around the house as part of our healthy eating regimen, our staples.
Fresh vegetables and fruits, notably green and red peppers, celery, cucumbers, leafy greens (arugula, romaine, spinach), small cherry tomatoes, avocados, apples, strawberries, melon, blueberries, pomegranates, raspberries.
Beans - mainly black beans
Onions, garlic, shallots
Salsa, we like Herdez, also any kind of canned tomatoes, amazing flavor-to-calorie ratio here, on the good side
Olives, pickles - especially these
Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt
Feta, Romano, sharp cheddar, fresh mozzarella
Lean proteins, especially chicken, also like soy-based products like Tempeh in a stir-fry
Wasa - I like these fiber-rich crispbreads, (full disclosure) Madison and Ava call them "rabbit food."
Water - drink a lot of it
But the key is not to constrict yourself to any limited set of foods, these are just the ones that work for us, and the list is ever changing. I do think the South Beach books are helpful reference guides, the Glycemic Index is something I believe in. A banana, for example, is not the same as an apple, it's closer to Wonder Bread than to an apple. Beer is a problem, in a way that wine is not - and I'm not talking about the alcohol. Anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows that we love food, and we love to cook, and this can all coexist with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
If you are like me, you inherently know when you are overdoing it, indulging yourself beyond the point you should, and there are times when you will want to make that decision - but do so sparingly, and recognize those moments for what they are. The easiest way to backslide, I've found, is to get sloppy and suddenly five extra pounds turns into 10, then 15 or 20. "It's OK," you'll tell yourself. "As soon as these holiday parties are over, or after all the summer BBQs, I'm going to 'start' again." That's the problem, the idea of having to start.
Never stop. Just live. The rest will take care of itself.