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”

Heartbreak in the grocery aisle.

Dear friends,

I think it’s obvious that food has been on my mind lately. A lot.

Clearly, food being on my mind is what led to the cleanse. And now that I’m a full five weeks into the cleanse, food is on my mind for a different set of reasons. Some of the conclusions I’ve drawn are what I expected; others have surprised me. I thought I would share these thoughts with you — and the easiest way to do so is with a list. Er, two lists actually.

What I miss:

  1. Cheese: Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! I miss cheese so much I can’t describe the feeling. I knew I would, and I was right. And the craving for cheese and the enjoyment of cheese hasn’t diminished one bite. Er, bit. I haven’t cut cheese out entirely, but I estimate I’m eating about 20% of the volume of cheese I used to eat. I no longer eat cheese every day. And a typical serving is now 1 oz. In case I haven’t said it, I love cheese. I miss cheese. Cheese broke my heart. And is there anything more tragic than heartbreak in the grocery aisle?
  2. Wine: I haven’t given up wine entirely, but I’ve really limited my intake. As much as I enjoy it, I remind myself it’s liquid (empty) calories. And it’s hard to drink wine without craving cheese. They’re the devil’s duo in my life.
  3. Crunchy, packaged snack foods: Cheetos, Doritos, Pita Chips, Pretzels, Fritos, Triscuits, Pork Rinds, Saltines . . . you name it, if it crunches and comes in a package, I miss it. I crave it. Whereas I have managed to moderate my cheese intake, I can’t be trusted around the salty, crunchy stuff. I don’t go near it. Can’t. I know you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy comfort and it comes in a Pringles can.

What I don’t miss:

  1. Butter: I can’t believe I’m saying this. I love butter, always have. But giving it up has been one of the easiest transitions to healthier eating I’ve ever made. Haven’t missed it for a single second.
  2. Sugar and sweets: Just like butter. I simply don’t need sugar and never find myself craving it. Once you give it up, you realize how naturally sweet many vegetables and legumes are. Or, maybe I was born with a cheese tooth instead of a sweet tooth. Whatever it is, I’m doing fine without sugar. I miss baking. Actually, I miss baking a lot. But sugar? Not at all.
  3. Salad dressings: There are so many hidden calories and weird ingredients in most commercial salad dressings. I gave it up immediately in favor of a teaspoon each of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Now, I don’t even need the oil. A sprinkle of vinegar allows the texture and flavor of salad greens to really shine and it’s amazing how much flavor exists in a salad if it’s not drowning in dressing. I’ll never go back.
  4. White rice and bread and pasta: This one really surprised me. I thought I would die without bread. And pasta. Guess what . . . I’m doing just fine. In five weeks, I’ve eaten one slice of bread and two small servings of pasta. And there have been no nervous breakdowns. Who knew?
  5. Huge portions of meat: I like to call myself a “flexitarian” because although I enjoy meat, I’ve never been a devoted carnivore. Four ounces a day has been easy breezy. And surprisingly, on the two occasions I’ve exceeded my daily limit, my gut has made sure I realized the error of my ways. Earlier this week I ate lunch at a nice cafe, where pan fried chicken livers were the daily special. In spite of the fact I knew they’d be breaded in white flour, I ordered them. And I really enjoyed every single bite. But you know what? Two ounces were all I needed to feel entirely satisfied.
  6. Huge portions of anything: I’ve been weighing all my food at home even though I’ve gotten really good at judging by eye. I’m truly surprised how satisfied I can be with four ounces of just about everything.
  7. 13 pounds: I can’t believe I’ve lost 13 pounds in five weeks. I’m astounded. And now I realize how much crap I was eating and what it does to my body.

I’m wondering if you find it interesting that there’s only three things I miss and seven things I don’t miss. I never made it past Algebra II, but I think the math is working in my favor on this one. Although, have I mentioned I miss cheese?

I’m also not missing a rigid adherence to arbitrary rules. I told you I’ve always had trouble with moderation. So I’m trying to do better about not sweating the small stuff. Last night, Mr. Mom and I went out for dinner at a very nice restaurant. I had salmon and risotto. The risotto was loaded with cheese and butter, but instead of fastidiously avoiding it, I ate a few bites. It was pretty good, I have to say. And since the salmon filet was huge — probably a good eight ounces — Mr. Mom got a second entrée with half of my salmon and most of my risotto. He thoroughly enjoyed it (in addition to his Italian sampler). By the way, I took two bites of his stuffed veal Florentine. It was oh-my-god good and I didn’t feel guilty for one second. That’s real progress, folks.

Today’s big meal is also about progress. I’m just betting you I can be happy with one small piece of fried chicken and no cake. Not that long ago, I wouldn’t have cooked such a meal in the midst of a cleanse mindset. Feast or famine, you know. But I enjoy cooking so very much (and my family enjoys my cooking so very much) that it seemed ridiculous not to do something we all love. And like I said, boiling brown rice and making vegetable soup just isn’t all that interesting.

So today I shall cook. And I shall eat. With joy and without guilt.

With gratitude {for moderation, blessed moderation},

Joan, who wants to make certain you know she misses cheese and always will

The cleanse.

Dear friends,

I mentioned in this post last week that I was going to use my vacation to get myself back on track, nutritionally speaking.

I showed you the photographic evidence that my pantry is stocked with junk.  And, dismayed by its effect on my figure, I wrote an ode to the ripening pear I have become. So starting a week ago yesterday, I vowed to turn over a new leaf — and I embarked on a “spring cleaning” of my diet.

Here’s what I’ve consumed for the last eight days:

  • fresh vegetables of many kinds
  • fresh fruit
  • brown rice and oatmeal
  • beans
  • and no more than 4 ounces of lean protein (including egg whites) a day

By the way, I’m not anti-meat. But by limiting myself to 4 ounces a day, I was enforcing a wider zone on my plate for vegetables and whole grains. It’s so tempting and so easy to fill up on meat (even lean meat) and I didn’t want to go the Atkins route.

I reduced my dairy intake dramatically by cutting out cheese and butter last week (I’ve been eating way too much for way too long).  I did put a teaspoon of cream in my morning cup of coffee and a tablespoon or two of milk in my oatmeal, but I’ve been a dairy hog for a long time so this has been a significant change.

Of course the biggest change has been 8 straight days of eating nothing out of a package, which — without intentionally trying — means I also eliminated all processed sugar. Plus, I banned the table salt because I wanted to remind myself what fresh food actually tastes like.

And what do I think?

Holy schmoley!

First off, I had a wicked headache for almost five straight days. I’m talking headaches that verged on migraines (without the vision disturbances) and that would not be tempered by over-the-counter pain killers. I went to bed with a headache, I woke up with a headache, I painted and cleaned with a headache. Finally, about mid-day on Thursday, it broke. I’m no physiologist, but I’m pretty sure my system was reacting violently to the  sudden and total elimination of processed sugar (and perhaps refined grains) from my diet.

Second, I lost 5 1/2 pounds, which is not the chief reason I did it, but boy — what a benefit!

Third, I immediately extinguished all heartburn, which had become a new and growing problem.

Finally, I just flat out feel better. I can’t explain it except to say my mind is clear (once I got past the crushing headache) and my digestive system has calmed and receded to the background (where it belongs) rather than being an omnipresent, roiling reminder of my excess.

I feel so good, I’m going to keep it up — though I’m not sure what that means. I’m sticking to the daily 4-ounce limit on protein because it encourages other good eating habits. And I’m going to stick to my low-dairy guns for at least a while longer. I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t revolve around cheese — or at least convince myself its proper place is as a condiment, not a food group. And I want to stay away from sugar and packaged foods as long as humanly possible. In my life, “humanly possible” has never been longer than about six months. So we’ll see.

The big unknown for me is bread and pasta. I know there are all sorts of healthier, whole-grain varieties out there. Heck, I have a grain mill and several buckets of whole grains in my basement and I can bake a loaf of whole wheat bread like nobody’s business. But bread and pasta are a slippery slope in my life. I have trouble controlling portions with these two foods, and I haven’t learned to consume them without drenching them in all sorts of unhealthy fats. So, I’m taking it slow in this area to see if I can moderate my gluttonous tendencies.

I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this and she said “Ouch. Sounds painful. I have absolutely no self-control. Good luck.”

If you’ve known me very long, you know I have self-control as secure as a bank vault. As long as it’s for a specified period of time. I have often said I have a self-control switch and I’m either on or off. I have struggled with moderation my entire life and I’d love to break my feast-or-famine mentality. (Ask my friends — I have yet to ease into anything in life.)

I started with a “cleanse,” which is clearly a famine strategy. Let’s see if I can turn my cleanse into cleaner living all around rather than a one-off laundering.

What say ye, dear readers? Any words of advice for this recovering foodaholic?

With gratitude {for so many wonderful culinary choices in life and a growing ability to select healthier ones},

Joan, who watched the “sugar is toxic” story on 60 Minutes Sunday night as a member of the Amen corner because if the five-day headache isn’t proof she doesn’t know what is