Will Power is Useless. You Need Strategy.

Around the holidays a lot of adults, just like their kids, start fantasizing. But we aren’t imagining we might get a pony or a new bike from Santa, we’re imagining that this will be the year we exercise will power throughout the season, the year we head into 2015 unscathed by liquor laden office parties, cookie exchange parties (that’s why I’m writing, I’m trying to avoid the tin in my kitchen), Christmas chocolates and general holiday revelry.  Well, to that line of fantastical thinking I have two words to say: GET REAL.

Will Power. We all want it but how many of us really have it in the moment? Sure there are a few Kate “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” Moss types out there who seem to find it easy to put a tiny waist over taste, but for most of us, having will power is just another fantasy, and this is the time of year that we become most aware of just how powerless our will can be around constant temptations in the form of gingerbread, egg nog, mincemeat pies, Rugelach, gooey Godiva or whatever scrumptious holiday food lures you off you health game.

Will power is about what happens in a moment between you and something you love. It’s unpredictable or fleeting at best. This is why you need to head into these next few weeks with health and weight management strategies.  Unlike sheer force of will, a weight management strategy is proactive, planned and can be exercised in advance (and when sober!). Will power is saying no thanks when the waiter walks by with the egg nog or chocolate cheesecake bites (it could happen), a weight management strategy is doing extra cardio that morning and eating a very healthy lunch because you know you probably won’t pass on the famous canapés at your neighbor’s annual holiday party.

Will power is walking by uninterested in the giant tin of cookies you brought home from the cookie-exchange party every day for a week (not gonna happen). A weight management strategy is baking a cookie you don’t particularly care for (something tasty of course but not your personal weakness) so you don’t eat a dozen prior to the party, taking a small tin and eating one of your favorites at the party but not bringing home the ones that you’re likely to overeat. You can also choose ones that freeze well and bring them out when guests come so it’s not just you against the tin. It’s easier to have will power in that minute before you’re leaving than it will be to have it every day until the cookies run out.

A weight management strategy is calculating how many guests you’re having and making the right amount of food. If you have eight guests, you don’t need 4 pies because that’s one pie for the guests and 3 to tempt you the next 7 days. A weight management strategy is telling your family members to please refrain from giving you sweets as part of a gift because you are watching your sugar intake.  And while you would probably not feel okay throwing away Grandma’s famous Christmas pudding, it’s okay to throw away candy and other processed sweets. You aren’t depriving a starving child of something he needs by throwing away candy. No one needs teeth-rotting empty calories so you don’t need to feel guilty about trashing trashy food on occasion.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking I’m suggesting you be a food Scrooge this season, but that’s not the case.  For me, maintaining my weight through the holidays is about knowing my weaknesses and budgeting for them. While some experts say to eat before parties so you’ll avoid the snack and sweets, I do the opposite. I went to a party at 7:30 last night and I knew the food would be great because it was last year so I did not have dinner before and had a very healthy lunch. My dinner was a lot of pita chips and an amazing sausage dip, some cocktail shrimp and a cookie. I’m okay with that because had I eaten before then gone in and had a few drinks I would likely still have had all those things AND dinner. I love trying new foods and sampling new tastes. This to me is part of the joy of a party so rather than deny myself throughout the season, I plan ahead, exercise as often as possible, and eat even healthier than normal when I’m not out and about.

Weight management strategies can be exercised year round. I always buy the Halloween candy I find the least appealing so I’m not stuck with bags of it afterwards. I try not to go to the grocery store hungry and make good choices in that 45 minutes because that’s a lot easier than exercising will power every day of the week in front of a sugar stocked pantry. There is no ice cream in my freezer but I’ll go out for ice cream some with the kids in the summer. There is no cookie jar in our house, but sometimes I get a cookie at Whole Foods if they are fresh out of the oven.  If I’m planning a social occasion, I choose restaurants with healthy options.  I don’t have perfect will power, but I do have practice at eating healthy. At this point in my life, I know I can’t teach an old dog new tricks or a food lover perfect will power, but I am committed to looking and feeling healthy so I use the tools and strategies above and in my book all the time.

It’s too much pressure to try to be good in the moment in a season full of moments. Plan for the moments but make sure they are just moments, not one endless food binge. Be realistic and budget your indulgences over the next few weeks. Remember how miserable it is to wake up January 2nd with 5-10 extra pounds on your frame and have to live like a monk for a month or more to recover. Remember how it seems to take three times as long to lose the weight as it did to gain it. Eat, drink and be merry but also be smart, be sensible and strategize.

Happy Holidays everyone!  Thank you for your support in 2014. I look forward to staying healthy with you for many years to come.


Yes, You Should Weigh Yourself

If it happened to me ...

I have decided to start weighing myself regularly again and I am now recommending my clients do the same thing. I no longer subscribe to the "you should just go by how your clothes fit" advice and here is why.

Despite earning money as a weight loss coach, this past summer I gained what should have been a noticeable amount of weight on my frame without realizing it.

Our scale's batteries died sometime in early 2014 and neither my husband or I bothered to replace them. We work out most days of the week, eat healthfully 80-90% of the time and figured we would know if we were gaining weight. Apparently not. About 4 months ago I was rummaging through a utility closet and stumbled upon the kind of batteries we needed to fix the scale. Even though I had mentally freed myself from the addiction to weighing, we had just come back from a rather indulgent vacation (note to self: don't rent a house less than a mile from Marion's Famous Pie Shop ever again!) and I thought the timing might be serendipitous. If I had gained a pound or two, seeing it digitally would motivate me to get back on my game a bit quicker.

Well, I hadn't gained a pound or two but EIGHT.  Even though I know there are far greater tragedies than weight gain, I was horrified and embarrassed. I couldn't help but wonder if others, particularly friends and other moms who look to me for nutrition advice, had been wondering when and how I fell off my own "get real diet." Fortunately, after a few days of clean eating and drinking a lot of water that first shocking # decreased enough that it looked like I had actually gained about five real pounds (as women, we all know you can gain and lose 2-3 fake lbs based on where you are in your cycle). Still, as a not so tall woman, this is almost a dress size on me so how had I not noticed? I've come up with a few reasons.

The modern thinking on scales is that they are unnecessary and you should go by how your clothes fit. For example, if your jeans are tight, you have gained weight and need to up the cardio and cut the sweets for a few days and you'll get back on track. Well, I've realized that while scales don't lie, it's very easy to choose clothing that does lie to you. This is especially easy to do if you had children and befriended stretchy, oversized styles during your post pregnancy phase and then just kept on favoring those styles because they are cute, comfy and easy. I'm not talking about sweatpants, I'm talking about cute blousy tops, stretchy denim and any dress or skirt made by Athleta, XCVI or Patagonia. Fashionable, yet very forgiving.

These days it's easy to hide your sins and look pretty good doing it. I realized that over the course of about six months I had only worn and bought clothing in these styles. I live in HOTlanta so I don't wear jeans from about April through October, and because my legs are tanned and toned from exercise, I felt fit in my tennis outfit and my "mom outfit": blousy top, stretchy long or short skirt and shiny ballet flats, c) going out outfit (exactly same as mom outfit but with wedges instead of flats, obvi). I'm sure I'm not the only woman who has practiced this form of denial. It's easy to listen to the irrational voices in your head and ignore the rational ones when you don't want to face the truth (or the hard work of losing weight).

It's also true that while the amount of calories the average person eats has increased by at least 10% over the past few decades, clothing sizes have also increased by at least 10%, meaning someone who eats 10% more than she did in the nineties and weighs 10% more than she did in the nineties can likely wear the same size in 2014 as she did in 1994. It's quite easy to think to yourself "My weight can't have changed that much because I'm still a size 4" or "I can't be overweight because I'm a size 8."  Well, because of an industry-wide practice know as "vanity sizing," at most popular clothing chains, including high end retailers, a size 8 these days is the equivalent of a size 10 or even 12 a decade or two ago. I can still buy small sounding sizes, but when I try on old clothes in these sizes, they fit very differently!

Last but not least, as we age our bodies store and lose fat in different places.  As a woman loses estrogen, her body will store more fat around the midsection and organs and less in the hips, butt and thighs. It's important to know this and to accept it to a degree - don't be that woman who diets obsessively to maintain the elusive flat stomach of youth and ends up looking gaunt in the face and ten years older as a result - but it's also important to realize that weight gain may show up in different places than it used to so a scale really is your best truth teller when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight as you age.

I have since lost the weight by following my plan outlined in The Get Real Diet in addition to cutting portion sizes of some of my favorite high fat healthy foods - nuts and avocado. But a trip last week to a retailer I hadn't visited in awhile and fitting into the same size I fit into in my early twenties when I was almost a little too thin for a period affirmed my thinking and led me to writing this post. To maintain a healthy weight, you really should check in with the scale at least once a month. Scales don't lie, but your clothing might.

Make 2015 the Year of No More Magical Thinking (about Weight Loss)

A beautiful book about grief called The Year of Magical Thinking won a lot of awards about a decade ago. It's a great title that still resonates with me. However, this year, I ask you to join me in making 2015 the year we end magical thinking about dieting and weight loss. What do I mean by this? "Magical Thinking" characterizes nearly every diet and weight loss narrative we follow in this country and, clearly, it does not help most of us lose weight. Magical thinking can be helpful for people recovering from a loss, but it has no place in the world of weight loss. Here are some of the magical thoughts that peeve me most and new 2015 thoughts to replace them.

Magical thought: A healthy diet means everything in moderation.  This term is massively overused and clearly an ineffective means of weight control given our national obesity rates. I love this quote from Lauren Slayton of Foodtrainers upon being asked if her advice to break up with certain foods for good was too strict: "No. I think 'moderation' has left many people feeling moderately well at best." The moderation mantra allows people to snack on empty calories without guilt as long as they eat healthy most of the time (although I find people who trust in the moderation mantra only eat well half the time at best), but many of the foods and beverages people believe they can enjoy in moderation and still be healthy contain inflammatory, possibly carcinogenic and neurotoxic artificial ingredients that we really shouldn't consume at all if possible.

2015 thought: A truly healthy diet is one mindful of quantity and quality, and moderation is too broad of a term to be of any use. I try to eat veggies in abundance and foods like rice and beans in moderation because of their carbohydrate content.  I would only have an empty calorie food if I was ravenous and nothing else was available. However, most people think if something is good for you, more of it must be better (we have only gotten fatter since we replaced fat calories with loads of "whole grain" calories) and they use the moderation excuse to eat empty calorie foods like cakes and sodas. Healthy vegetarians and Paleos (you can be an unhealthy versions of these as well)  have different foods they avoid or consume in abundance but they certainly don't follow the "everything in moderation" strategy, and you better believe the athlete, actress or random person at the gym whose body you envy doesn't either. A truly healthy diet is heavy on nutrient-dense foods and very, very light on empty calories. Instead of everything in moderation, I use a traffic light image with my clients. If it's a whole, fresh food that is also low in calories, fat and carbs, GO for it. If it's a whole food that is relatively high in fat, calories or carbs (cheese, nut butters, quinoa), use CAUTION – eat it, but don't overdo it; and if it's an empty calorie food (bread, pasta, soda) STOP  and decide if it's really worth it. Occasionally it is, but most of the time it's not.

Magical thought: If a diet helps me lose weight, it's a healthy diet.  The media and the food industry continually perpetuate this line of magical thinking. I am dumbfounded by a "sample day in her diet" feature I saw in the new Us Weekly about a celebrity who has lost 35 lbs following Nutrisystem (I know, my NY resolution should be to stop reading crap like US Weekly, but I was reading it on the treadmill). By my estimation her diet was 80% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 5% fruits and veggies. The celebrity and the magazine referred to her diet as "healthy" because it was low in calories and she had lost weight. Never mind that it was high in sugar and gluten, which contribute to inflammation and increase risk factors for health issues ranging from diabetes and heart disease to arthritis and auto-immune disease. Magazine articles, blog posts, Twitter feeds and news stories often feature great advice about nutrition, but unfortunately it gets buried among the stories that promote poor and outdated advice. Americans love quick fixes (you can lose weight on a low-quality, low cal diet but your health will suffer) and the food industry and media know this. Crap, whether it's a tabloid or a bad diet, sells. You have to wade through the junk and choose weight loss plans that make sense for the long-term and boost your health. My rule: if you wouldn't feel comfortable recommending the diet to someone you love (a child, an aging parent), don't follow it.

2015 thought: My diet is not healthy unless it is full of nutrients. Your diet needs to be full of good things, not just free of bad ones (who knows what will be bad from one minute to the next anyway). Nutrient dense foods include vegetables, fruit (particularly berries and avocado), nuts and seeds, wild fish and animal protein from pastured animals fed their natural diet (eggs and chicken from cage-free birds, grass-fed beef), low-fat and full-fat Greek yogurt and olive oil among others. Other than vegetables, you don't have to eat every single one of the above to be healthy  (you can be a healthy vegetarian or a healthy meat eater), but a healthy diet contains a range of nutrient-dense foods. Green vegetables top the list so try to eat at least one cup daily (in raw or lightly cooked form or in a fresh juice or smoothie that does not contain a lot of sugar).

Magical thought: I can have the perfect body I dream of if I just find and follow the right plan and don't cheat. I just got back from  a beach vacation in Puerto Rico where I was surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes and nationalities in swimwear. I was reminded that their are 100 different types of thin bodies and 100 different types of overweight bodies and thousands between the two. Someone repeated something their trainer said to me recently "Genetics loads the gun; lifestyle pulls the trigger," and this excellent quote brings us to the most important new thought of 2015.

2015 thought: If I eat nutrient dense-foods that give me energy, I will become the best version of myself and that will be real and beautiful. Eating a nutrient dense, plant-rich diet like the one I recommend in The Get Real Diet and is recommended by health experts from Dr. Oz to Michael Pollan, will lower inflammation, improve your skin and give you a ton of energy. If you are mindful of portion size and/or limit inflammatory and bloating foods like gluten, sugar and dairy, it will also lead to achieving a healthy weight for your body, perhaps even a fabulous figure. However, a healthy weight for a 5'4 woman can be anywhere from about 115 to 145 depending on muscle mass, bone size, breast size and other factors. You might still be slightly pear shaped or have arms that flap when you wave. You might still have jiggly skin around your tummy or weight that accumulates around your chin; however, you will have less of whatever it is that genetics "cursed" you with than you would if you followed a poor diet. Dressing right for your body type and exercise can do wonders for the rest, but chances are you still won't be mistaken for Giselle from behind. The "Get Real" in the title of my book has dual meaning. The first is about focusing on real foods, the second is about clearing the white noise created by the media and the food industry and getting real by striving to be the best version of you, not some airbrushed or genetically blessed (or borderline obsessive) "ideal."

Here's to being your best, more real self in 2015!