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”

My Sunday soup ritual.

Dear friends,

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I’ve gotten into a routine lately where I make a big pot of vegetable soup on Sundays. I had fallen into a bad habit of eating lunch out (which is both expensive and fattening), so about a month ago, I pulled out my favorite soup recipe from blogger Phoo-D and solved my problem.

Every week, I make my soup a little differently depending on what’s in my fridge. This week I had a beautiful red pepper, some broccoli that needed to be used, three not-quite-limp carrots, and a purple onion. I normally use celery but I was all out. I always have canned corn and green beans in my pantry, so I typically throw those in. Occasionally, I’ll use cabbage or potatoes, but this week I used a can of navy beans. (I was out of black beans, which is another favorite.) Sometimes I add a handful of barley, but this week I threw in some wild rice. My favorite is when I’ve got a couple of over-ripe tomatoes and/or zucchini setting around but, alas, I had none of those this week.

In addition to the soup, I always cook a whole grain — typically brown rice, but last week I made whole-wheat couscous. Then for the next five days, I pack a lunch that consists of 1/2 cup of grains topped with two cups of vegetable soup. It averages about 275 calories and is chock full of healthy nutrients and fiber. Best of all, it’s very filling and keeps me going without a thought of snacking until dinnertime.

In addition to varying the vegetables each week, I also vary the spices. I have a simple Italian version (fresh rosemary because I have a huge bush right outside my door, plus dried marjoram, oregano, parsley, basil, and occasionally some herbs de Provence). I have a Mexican version (cumin, chili powder, and cayenne). And I have an Indian version (turmeric and garam masala). While Phoo-D’s recipe doesn’t call for it, I usually also add about a half-cup of whatever wine I have on hand, as well as a cube or two of bouillon.

I find that when I eat my standard breakfast (a hard-boiled egg and piece of fruit) along with this lunch and a reasonable dinner, I feel so much better. I’m prone to heartburn and bloating if I eat too much dairy and processed wheat, so limiting those items to dinner (and then only in modest portions) helps me feel so much better and manage my weight.

By the way, if you’re at all tempted to skip the apple cider vinegar in this recipe, don’t. Because the recipe relies on water instead of broth and uses very little oil, the vinegar gives this soup a depth of flavor that it needs. Of course, I just mentioned that I often throw in a bouillon cube or two, but it doesn’t really need it. I do it because I find that if the soup has a hint of beef or chicken flavor, my kids are more likely to eat it.

This recipe makes a hearty amount of soup — enough for everyone in my family to eat it for lunch on Sunday and then for me to pack lunches with it all week. And it keeps well in the refrigerator for a full seven days. I’ve even frozen this soup after a week when I had leftovers I couldn’t bear to throw out.

Bon apetit!

With gratitude {for lunch alternatives that make life a little healthier and a lot more flavorful, as well as a mother-in-law who recently gave me a 7-quart cast iron Dutch Oven — perfect for big batches of Sunday soup — after hearing me lament the constraints of my 4-quart pot, which she also purchased},

Joan, who wishes to send love and hugs to her friend Phoo-D on the birth of her second daughter, Sarah Jane