The question I’ve been asked most since losing 3½ stone is: “How did you do it?”
I have taken advice from people with different backgrounds in health, fitness, nutrition and body goals, and since writing my first column about my eating issues, readers' feedback has been both inspirational and motivating. Some advice has worked for me, some hasn't, but I've enjoyed learning as I progress.
It was just over a year ago I weighed myself and I was 5st (32kg) overweight. My heart sank as I stared at the weighing scales. It was like someone had punched me in my stomach as I realised this was the biggest I’d ever been. I was angry at myself and deeply ashamed. But I decided I would take a positive outlook on this miserable moment and use this as the sign I’d been waiting for that now it was the right time to lose weight. I started off the day feeling motivated, eating a small breakfast, not eating much during the day (fuelled by guilt and regret about overeating) and then arriving home that night starving. My willpower soon gave way and I was binge eating as much sugary and junk foods my body could fit in. I ended the day disgusted with myself once again.
I was now officially 5st 6lb (34.5kg) overweight
As I went to bed with a bloated and painful stomach, and palpitations from all the sugar, I consoled myself I would make that fresh start tomorrow. But the cycle continued and about 10 days later, I’d put on almost another half stone.
I was now officially 5st 6lb (34.5kg) overweight. (I’m measuring what my healthy weight should be by the BMI index).
‘Shocked and embarrassed’
I’d written on my phone calendar “I’m shocked and embarrassed. This is my highest ever weight (again). What am I doing to myself?”
But this time, I didn’t even start a “tomorrow plan” of extreme clean eating or exercise – I felt defeated.
It was a couple of days later when I struggled to breathe properly going up a flight of stairs I realised I felt trapped by the excess fat in my own body and I needed to make a change. My weight was not staying the same, my eating habits were worsening and my cravings for sugar were growing more insatiable. Exercising was also getting harder.
I knew I needed to change my unhealthy eating and exercise habits, but my biggest issue I needed to tackle was my mindset and that was going to take time.
Looking back, I would have never expected that it would be at my heaviest weight that I would make peace with my body and appreciate it for its resilience in the punishments I had put it through. It was time for me to face how unhappy I was with how I was treating my body and my habits, and be brutally honest with myself about what actions had brought me to this weight and how I could do things differently in the future.
Each time I thought about the total amount of weight I wanted to lose it was overwhelming
The temptation to return to my previous “all or nothing approach” type diet was always there, but I reminded myself my previous end results were feelings of failure. This time it had to be permanent and I needed to figure out the right eating plan and fitness regimes that would work for me, so they become my new “normal” habits.
Listen to my body
I want to emphasise I am not a nutritionist or expert in food or exercise – my goal was to find was worked for me and learn to listen to my body when it was telling me it was hungry, satisfied, to rest and to move. That might sound like a ridiculous thing to say but I had got to a point where my stomach would be bloating and aching with fullness, but my mind was telling me “you’ve blown it already, one more bar of chocolate won’t make a difference”. I felt very disassociated with my own body.
Each time I thought about the total amount of weight I wanted to lose it was overwhelming, as was the huge choice of information on nutrition available, which was sometimes conflicting. So I decided to make my plan as simple as possible to start and build on it step by step. There was a lot of trial and error, much error, but I made the effort to recognise each small bit of progress. It was difficult at times, but it got easier, and even enjoyable. I began to realise small choices mattered over time
I recorded the calories I ate for a few weeks. I’m not an advocate of consistently doing this but it was useful for me at the start to understand how many or few calories I was eating. Sometimes breakfast was only 100 calories and evening meal more than 2,000 calories. One takeaway meal I used to eat, which I thought wasn’t too unhealthy because it was chicken, was 1,550 calories. Knowing this made making alternative choices easier. I didn’t want to obsess about every bite of food I took but writing it down helped me look at what I was doing objectively and search for solutions that may work for me.
My journal highlighted binge eating and overeating at night was a problem for me, so I cut out the specific foods that triggered me to do that. I didn’t ban any food categories, because that’s what I believe contributed to my unhealthy eating habits in the first place, but I did reduce the quantity. For the first couple of months I didn’t focus too much on food quality, more on the overall reduction of calories for the day. I did my best to choose foods as wholesome and as close to their natural state as possible. So, for example instead of a stuffed breaded chicken, I had a chicken fillet with some sort of seasoning on the outside or oven-baked salmon instead of fish cakes. I increased my vegetable intake where I could. My favourite breakfasts became eggs and toast or porridge and banana. For particularly busy weeks I would try bulk-cook food on a day off like casserole that was ready to heat up.
I didn't think I'd find myself looking forward to green and mint tea with dark chocolate during my break, but I do
I found eating smaller meals every three to four hours worked better for me. It stopped me from feeling starving and grabbing something sugary. I’ve always drank a lot of water, but I cut fizzy drinks and I started to drink more herbal teas. Most of these things, which I changed gradually, I didn’t like the taste of in the beginning, but my taste buds changed over time. I didn’t think I’d find myself looking forward to green and mint tea with dark chocolate during my break, but I do. The initial headaches and irritability I had when I made changes went away and I felt more energetic. I noticed I tended to try and self-sabotage every so often but being aware of that made it easier to deal with. Weeks that involved a load of plastic containers to wash normally meant a good weight loss week.
I avoided using the word diet as it instantly makes me feel deprived. This was because after my first “strict diet” was when I started categorising food into “good” and “bad”.
My negative self-talk and lack of patience with myself was difficult problem to confront. Exercise was the key for me in tackling this. Anything from a short walk, a weights session or movement of any kind always made me feel better.
I’ve also started measuring my progress a few different ways, including exercise goals, so I didn’t get too disheartened if the scales were not moving.
Over the months it became easier to recognise the difference between cravings and genuine hunger. I gained confidence in listening to my own body. Not all my new choices have been healthy, but they are better than what they used to be. My weight loss is slow and fluctuates but it has stayed off and I’m excited about challenging myself further and learning even better habits.
Part 1: I lost three stone and I'm stronger now
Part 2: I'm stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: A friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but it has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It's time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!