Everything I know about weight loss I learned after 50.

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“Bony Joanie”

Dear friends,

The headline is not exactly true; on some level I succumbed to the allure of so-called “click bait.” But it is true that I’ve had a lifelong struggle with feeling okay about my body/managing my weight. And the struggle is — mercifully at age 54 — virtually over.

As a young person, I was known as “Bony Joanie.” The photo above makes the reason for my nickname abundantly clear (knock knees much?). But despite how angular I was — a good thing by modeling standards — I felt bad about my appearance. Being buck-toothed and freckled didn’t help a girl who desperately wanted to look like Malibu Barbie. But mostly I was a head (or more) taller than my peers and in my mind, height equated to being “big.” My senior year in high school I was crowned Football Queen and I was taller than my escort. My adolescent psyche found this humiliating. (Let’s think about this: I was voted “Queen” by a group of male contemporaries and yet failed to accept it as an affirmation because of a single physical attribute. What can you say about the mind of a young girl?) So even though I was 5’10” and 130 pounds, I still felt BIG.

I was in my late 20s before I owned my stature. Marrying a man who is 6’6″ and broad-shouldered probably had a lot to do with that. The good news was that I no longer felt too big to be around others. I even started wearing heels regularly. It was a real breakthrough.

Still my weight fluctuated a lot. By 25 I was no longer bony. I gained the Freshman 10, then packed on another 10 post-college. My weight went up and down with the vicissitudes of my life, including pregnancy and job stress. I lost 30 pounds before my wedding; gained 52 with my first pregnancy; lost 18 in preparation for my 20th high school reunion; and lost 10 pounds too many times to count when discontent surged as a result of tight clothing. Through it all, I pinballed between 1) careful eating and regular exercise, and 2) sloth and eating with abandon. It’s a pretty typical story for many of the women I know.

But a couple of years ago, I started eating better. Like, really better. And it’s made a difference in my weight maintenance. I fluctuate between being vegan and vegetarian, but I’m not a nut about it. I eat the occasional chicken wing or hamburger when the cravings are strong. But 18 out of  20 meals are plant-based and involve a predominance of whole foods. I rarely eat desserts or sweets. My biggest vice is diet soda. (Sometimes I swear it off for months at a time. Other times, I indulge regularly. Such is the continuing saga of human cravings for comfort and familiarity.)

And I run regularly. I’ve been a runner for 31 years. I’ve taken off for long periods (especially in the baby years), but I’ve never entirely stopped. In the last decade, I haven’t laid off for more than a few weeks at a time. And it’s made a difference in my fitness level.

A couple of years ago I read an article that said weight management is 9 parts eating right and 1 part exercise. It’s proven so true in my life that I think the two ought not to be talked about in the same breath. Because here’s the deal: you can be a healthy weight but a long way from fit. And you can be overweight and demonstrably fit. I’ve been both combinations so I know fitness and weight are not inextricably linked. So here are my two truths:

If you want to be fit, or strong, or have improved stamina and endurance, EXERCISE to achieve those results. Fitness is a health and lifestyle goal in and of itself. If you exercise only to lose weight, you likely aren’t enjoying it (meaning there’s a good chance it won’t “stick” as a lifelong habit). Besides, I know plenty of people who have lost a lot of weight while doing nothing more strenuous than walking. So the goal of losing weight doesn’t have to “condemn (you) to the gym.”

If you want to lose or maintain your weight, EAT to achieve those results. Weight management is a goal in and of itself. It’s true that adding a little exercise to your routine jump starts your metabolism. And regular exercise allows you to eat more than if you were sedentary. But it’s not necessary to your weight management goals.

Ten months ago I saw a photo of myself that I didn’t like. Even though I had been eating healthy, I had been consuming more calories than was necessary for my age, metabolism and activity level — and my weight had crept up over time. I decided to cut back on my portions and it made an immediate difference. I lost 10 pounds quickly and felt measurably, physically better. A few weeks later, I realized I had let my fitness slip considerably, too, so I amped up my running program. I lost another 10 pounds. Eventually I lost six more pounds and realized I weighed less than I had in a decade. I was tempted to say “Holy cow, that was easy.”

It wasn’t, of course, easy. What I mean is that it wasn’t fraught with panic, self-loathing, guilt, deprivation or any of those other emotions I know so intimately.

It was, however, rooted in awareness. “This is what I’m choosing to eat today.”

It was rooted in discipline. “I’m keeping track and monitoring the result.”

It was rooted in patience. “I allowed myself to lose track of my weight and fitness goals for a while now. It’s not realistic to turn this ship around in two weeks. (Or two months.)”

It was rooted in equanimity. “All things come. And all things go. Accept the seasons of your life for the lessons and gifts each bring.” (Let me tell you . . . of all the gifts being over 50 have brought me, equanimity is surely at the top of the list.)

Interestingly, I had an overly indulgent February. Two business trips and plenty of good food and alcohol later, I noticed my weight had crept up a bit. Not a lot. Five pounds. I didn’t panic. Nor did I beat myself up. I became aware. And a couple of weeks after becoming aware, 2 of those 5 pounds vanished. It was another breakthrough, of sorts — the kind that makes me ponder the long trajectory of wisdom and my intersection with it.

By the way, I feel compelled to point out I’m no expert on health and fitness beyond the impacts both have had on my own well-being and what I’ve learned, mostly informally, through an awful lot of research, reading and reflection. The diet and exercise industries are a combined $40+ billion enterprise so there’s plenty of expertise right at your fingertips. You know you better than anyone else, so read up and ask yourself how it applies to you (if it applies to you). Ask a knowledgeable friend or professional source for additional resources. Trust your body intuition. Become aware.

Most of all, tell yourself the truth about the choices you make, the motivations inherent in those choices, and the predictable results. Because that’s where the real breakthrough — at any age — comes from.

With gratitude {for, what else, the awareness and equanimity that seems to come with age in Mother Nature’s ironic trade-off},

Joan, who nobody calls bony anymore but whose dear friend recently called skinny and lit up the pre-frontal cortex of Joan-Marie’s brain in a Pavolovian response tied to her Barbie-worship days

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“Skinny Joan”

More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

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I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

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Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.

Booty camp.

Dear friends,

Three weeks ago, one of my running buddies admitted to me and another friend that she had been two-timing us. As in — pursuing another fitness regimen on our “off” days.

Rather than being miffed, I was intrigued when she said she had attended “boot camp,” an aptly named exercise torture device that I have heard of, but had never experienced.

It’s free, she said. At a local church, she said. Come along, she said.

So I went. And LORD HAVE MERCY did I experience it.

For the uninitiated, boot camp is an hour long, high-intensity, old-school workout not for the faint of heart. It involves jumping jacks and push ups and sit ups (the old-fashioned kind, not wussy crunches) and sprinting and lunges.

And burpees.

Never heard of a burpee? I hadn’t either until three weeks ago, when I immediately recognized 1) I AM OLD, 2) I AM TRAGICALLY UNFIT, 3) I AM FEARFUL.

Here’s sort of what a burpee looks like:

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Thing is, you don’t do it slow. You do it fast. And bouncy. See that squat in position two? From there you BOUNCE to position three. Then you BOUNCE from position three to position four. Then you bounce STRAIGHT UP IN THE AIR.

Then you immediately repeat it. Over and over and over again for 45 seconds.

If you can do a burpee, it will make you want to kill yourself. If you can’t do a burpee, which I couldn’t, it will make you laugh maniacally while you try, then cry bitterly from humiliation when you fail, then make you want to kill yourself. (But in a way far less painful than a burpee, of course.)

I had no idea that a thing that looks so simple could be so hard, where hard equals a feeling approximately equivalent to sucking the flames of a blow torch into your lungs while simultaneously crushing your upper arms and legs in a vise.

Yeah, it’s that awesome.

Anyway, after my excursion to boot camp, I couldn’t walk upright or sit without moaning for three days. I ate Advil like Pez. And, curiously, I went back to boot camp four days later, determined not to let the burpee break me like when Sgt. Foley screams at Mayo for his D-O-R!

I even practiced burpees at home under the tutelage of Mr. Mom, who said my technique was wrong (NOT TRUE), and Parker, who said my upper body is too weak (BINGO!). By the way, “practice at home” equals one or two tries because after that, I’m too tired to try again until the next day. BURPEES ARE THAT HARD.

Anyway, today I finished my 7th boot camp workout and I did all the burpees I should have done except one. In the last three seconds of my final 45-second rotation, I lost all strength in my body and failed to do the final burpee. Instead, I rolled over into the fetal position and — unlike the shame of my first day at boot camp — felt nothing but honor for having given the &%$# burpee everything I had.

Did I mention we do burpees at 5:30 in the morning?

Yeah, so I’m just saying . . . well, I’m just saying I’m awesome for even showing up. (By the way, if you haven’t heard of Kid President, Google him. Or watch this short video. In the words of Kid President: “Being a human is hard. Some days, you ought to get a high-five for getting out of bed.” Amen, brother!)

After arriving back home following today’s victory, Mr. Mom asked me how “booty camp” went. (He calls it booty camp as a nod to the improving shape of my backside. He’s sweet that way.)

I said it was awesome. I said I did burpees. I said I claimed victory even though I fell one short of a boot camp’s worth of burpees.

And in the immortal words of “Lynette” in the final scene of the greatest boot camp story in cinematic history: “Way to go, Joan! Way to go!”

With gratitude {for good friends, good medicine, and a cracker jack drill sergeant},

Joan, but you can call me GI Joan

Whatever it takes.

Dear friends,

Mr. Mom and Kate and I were having lunch yesterday (we were out test driving more cars!) when Kate just happened to bring up the topic of her quest to get fit.

She’s known all summer that college tennis would be a step up for her. And she’s been working out regularly. But she got an email from her college coach this week telling her to report for duty on August 9 and to “come back fit,” and there’s nothing like a direct order from your coach to light a fire under your tail. Suddenly, she’s worried her cardio isn’t up to snuff.

Mr. Mom responded that she ought to interval train and suggested a running regimen that he I and used years ago with great results. Kate actually acted interested for the first time ever (her father has only been giving her fitness advice her whole life) and even asked “What time does the sun come up?”

Let me just say . . . any mother worth her salt knows that’s an open door if ever she saw one.

Joan: 6:00 am. Actually a little before that. Hey, I have a great idea! How about if I get up and interval train with you? It’s a little tricky the first time you do it, so you might appreciate having a partner who’s done it before.

Kate: Um . . .

Joan: Really, Kate. This would be great for me, too. I haven’t been running and interval training would be a great way to help me get back on track. It’ll be good for both of us and we won’t have to do it alone.

Kate: Um . . . I guess that would be fine.

Joan: So it’s a deal! We’re getting up at 6:00 am tomorrow morning to run! This is great! I’m excited!

I know . . . it’s tragic. Only a desperate mother whose daughter is leaving in three weeks would be excited about getting up at 6:00 am in July to interval train. But, hey, whatever it takes, you know?

With gratitude {for 21 more days},

Joan, who has only one word for you after this morning’s training: oy!