On a recent Facebook status update, I commented that achieving true health is 80% diet (and only 20% exercise). The truth is, you can not out-train a poor diet. I know, I know — this is a tad ironic coming from a blog which originated as a baking blog full of recipes that would put an Olympic athlete’s caloric intake to shame. Moderation, folks. Moderation.
But I digress.
What was interesting was that I received a plethora of responses, ranging from “believers”, who have seen just how effective a healthy diet has worked for them, to a few “hold your horses” type responses from people not wanting to speak of the dreaded “four-letter-word”…diet. (Dunh, dunh, dunnnnnnnn!!!).
I wondered why we hate that word so much and realized, as some respondents pointed out, our society’s definition of “diet” typically offers up feelings of “going without” and deprivation. In my mind, the word “diet” means the food I intake. Whether it be good or bad, minimal or plenty. A diet is a direct sign of one’s lifestyle.
It got me reflecting on my own weight loss journey and how I dropped from fat to fit. My husband, bless his soul, has tried to tell me numerous times that I’ve never been “fat” and I was tempted to let him keep believing that but in digesting this post, I finally set the record straight. I’m not sure what kind of delusional baby-trance he was in after I had the twins but I assured him that the 60 pounds I was packing post-babies was indeed, all fat. I could blame it on the bed rest but ultimately, I made poor decisions and ended up in a whale suit.
At this point, I was wearing a size 12 pants and weighing in at 185 pounds on my 5’4″ frame. I had twin newborns at home and not a lot of time or energy to exercise. So I did what I could do and controlled what I put in my mouth. For the first time in my life, I counted calories. Using an online food journal (which is even easier now with the invention of smart phone apps!), I slowly learned about the realities of what I had been eating. And some of it was shocking! And there began my weight loss journey, broken into three phases and in what I believe is a successful plan for anyone looking to reclaim their health — or find it for the first time.
Phase 1: You Are What You Eat
In this beginning stage of weight loss, I believe in the age-old law of “a calorie is a calorie”. It’s the Weight Watcher’s theory of “sure, go ahead and have that chocolate cake — but you’re having nothing but celery and carrot sticks for dinner”. I believe that this type of calorie restriction is hugely successful for anyone needing to lose more than 20 pounds. Of course, eating chocolate cake every day is anything but healthy — and there will be consequences (bad skin, brittle nails, low energy, mood dives, oh the list goes on and on) — but if you stick to the calories in vs. calories out theory, you will lose weight. In my first six months of counting calories, but doing no exercise, I lost 25 pounds and 14% body fat. It was this successful calorie-counting that motivated me to take it to the next level.
Phase 2: Add the Burn
By logging my exercise in the same online food journal, I could suddenly see the tangible benefit a good sweat did for my daily caloric deficit. Lifting weights for an hour added an extra 300 calories of fat-burning (or perhaps the grace needed for that chocolate cake?) and over the next year, I hit the gym Monday – Friday for a strength conditioning routine, managing to lose another 20 pounds. I dropped to 140 lbs and a size 8 — my pre-pregnancy weight.
Now, this would be a comfortable place to stop…most moms get weak in the knees just thinking about being their pre-pregnancy weight (hollaaa!). But with all these great habits locked into place now, I wondered if my body was capable of even better.
With that in mind, I set out to reach even higher heights but soon realized that my former game plan was not working. A calorie was no longer a calorie. I thought my diet was great (because I was within my caloric guidelines) but after missing a period one month, realized that I wasn’t being mindful enough of exactly what I was eating to fuel my intense workouts and my body was getting the brunt of it. No wonder the scale wasn’t dropping and I felt sluggish.
To gain peak physical fitness, I now had to consider not just how many calories I was eating, but what calories I was eating. If I was going to convince my body that it could comfortably let go of that extra insulation, I needed to fuel it right. I needed to eat clean and focus on the right blends of carbs, proteins, and fats.
Phase 3: Premium Fuel Only
If we want to lose that last pesky 10-20 pounds, we need to get serious. There’s not a lot of forgiveness for junk food when your striving for peak physical health and most fitness buffs follow the rule of “eat clean 6 days out of 7”, allowing themselves 1 “cheat” day or meal each week.
The other important paradigm shift is recognizing that peak physical fitness does not come by diet alone — this is not Phase 1! The 20% exercise is a critical and necessary part of the equation because although a killer diet without any training might make you skinny, you’ll also become what we in the fitness world call “skinny fat“. Sure, you fit into a size 0 but honey, you look like a squishy toothpick.
No matter where you are in your physical fitness journey, let’s remember that when done right, it’s a slow process! Perhaps there are “those” people who can just skip right to Phase 3 and knock it out of the park on their first try but come on, neither of us actually know any of those chicks and if we’re honest here, who really wants to! For the rest of us, it takes time and consistent behavior changes to see the best success. I know that if I had tried to implement Phase 3 right from the beginning, I would have felt overwhelmed and quickly lost the interest and motivation to succeed. I probably would have settled with the “comfortable” instead of striving for more and I wouldn’t be where I am today. So write out your small goals and take one step at a time — remembering that the nasty four-letter-word just wants to be friends. Can’t we all just get along?