Change 1: The Low-Fat Regimen

I decided to write this and create a permanent page under the header ‘Getting a Food Education’ to show how my food choices have evolved since I started my lifestyle change on January 21, 2001. It’s kinda long, so I’m going to post it in 4 parts. I hope it will help you to understand where I started, what I learned along the way, and how I got to where I am now. As I’ve mentioned many times, committing to a lifestyle change is a life-long commitment, not just a one-off diet.

In my lifestyle change, I went through four major changes: the low-fat weight-loss regimen, the South Beach Diet experience, adopting a plant-based diet, and moving to a low-carbohydrate–not paleo–regimen. Since I married a meat-eater during this time, another change I made was learning to cook for both of us without having to make separate meals every day. I plan to share a lot more about that in future posts, and make suggestions in recipes. I grew up as a meat-eater, so I have experience cooking with meat, but I gave up meat in 1991.

Change 1: The Low-Fat Regimen

In the late 1980s, I tried a pre-packaged weight loss plan, dedicated to sticking with it–even going to group support–which I loathed. I lost around 20 pounds within a few weeks, but was absolutely starving all the time. In hindsight, I realized it was because the program was designed for quick, but not sustainable weight loss. One of the biggest issues is that the diet industry needs to promise quick results. They sell promises of losing 10 pounds in a week or dropping a dress size without giving up bread, but these are just ploys to hook people into buying their products.

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This is me, circa 2000. I was really reluctant to post this, since most of the people who I see today didn’t know me as the morbidly obese person I was. I realized that it was important, though, to be brave to show that it is possible to successfully make a long-lasting lifestyle change.

When I started my lifestyle change about 10 years later, I was determined not to fall into that same trap, but realized I did need to learn portion control. I signed up for that same pre-packaged weight loss program, but only for a few months as a way to have portioned out meals and snacks. Their plan had been revised since the ‘80s to be a bit more sensible. Instead of the 1,200 calorie meal plan, my daily calorie allowance was 1,800, which was much more reasonable.

Still, the plan expected me to do unsustainable things like only eat lettuce for a salad. I mean, who eats just lettuce and calls it salad? Like many overweight people, I was self-taught and well-versed on nutrition. I knew calories, fat, sodium–you name it– in order to know what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So from the start, I adapted the plan a bit to account for the fact that if a salad was going to be appealing to me, I would add non-starchy vegetables like tomatoes and carrots. I also discovered that Jelly Bellys were 4 calories each and could be combined to make different flavors. I figured that an extra 16–or even 32 calories a day was better than depriving myself of a sweet hit after dinner, since I had to save my evening snack until as late as possible to make it until bedtime.

In 2001, a low-fat diet was the prescription for weight loss, advocated by the government and major medical researchers. I opted to follow this plan. My daily caloric intake of 1,800 calories was based on 60% coming from carbohydrates, with fat and protein at 20% each. (Note that one gram of fat contains 9 calories, while carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories.)

I would recommend a low-fat diet to my previous self, even knowing what I know now.  Before I started my lifestyle change, the bulk of my calories came from carbohydrates. A regimen centered around protein or fat would have set me up for failure. The great thing about carbohydrates is that the digest more quickly, making us feel fuller and more satisfied in less time than it takes to process proteins and fats. This is helpful when limiting calories and getting that hit almost immediately when you do eat.

Another reason is due to volume. Because carbohydrates are usually bulkier than fats, if you’re used to having a full stomach, you’d have to eat a lot more nuts to feel satisfied than eating the equivalent calories in bread, for example. Unless you can trade in the spaghetti for spaghetti squash, potatoes for cauliflower, and rice for shirataki, it’d be a rough road.

Consider how you eat now. What does your average daily intake look like? If breakfast is yogurt and granola, lunch is a sandwich with a side of potato chips, dinner is spaghetti with meatballs, and treats range from Doritos to Lara Bars, you would struggle to stick to a plan where the majority of your calories come from proteins or fats. And believe me–fats are not nearly as appealing when they’re not paired with carbohydrates. Peanut butter on toast is much tastier than peanut butter on carrots for breakfast.

I also realized that exercise had to become a regular part of my life. I always felt like the outside of me didn’t reflect the inside because I wasn’t a lazy person. I didn’t start right away, though, because the dietary change required a lot of time and commitment, so I waited until I adjusted to incorporate more changes. About three months later, I started walking. At first it was only 15 or 20 minutes, a few days a week.

As I lost more weight from my dietary change, I increased my exercise until I was walking about 5 miles a day, 5 days a week. I also started to add in some other activities I enjoyed on a more regular basis, but walking was my main thing. It’s important to keep in mind, as I’ll write in a later post, that exercise alone will not result in sustainable weight loss, but it is good for you in so many ways.

After learning portion control from the pre-packaged meals, I shifted to eating real food. I’d planned this from the start and did it because the plan was expensive, but also because changing my lifestyle meant learning to prepare healthful food in sustainable portions. I broke down the calories and fat for each meal and snack and over time substituted grocery stores items in place of the pre-packaged food. I discuss this more thoroughly in my Choosing a Plan post.

Despite the changes I’ve made over the years and knowing everything I now know, I would still opt for the low-fat regimen if I had to start all over again. Getting to the ratio I eat now (50% fat, 30% proteins, and 20% carbohydrates), was a process that took years to implement, built on the changes I describe below.

I’d had a typical American (though vegetarian) diet. I learned how to eat a lot less, but I was still eating a lot of processed foods. Had I attempted to suddenly go from the way I was eating to the vegetable-based low-carbohydrate, high fat diet I live on today, I never would have made it. If you continue reading below, you’ll see exactly what I mean when my spouse, Michael, and I attempted the South Beach Diet (it involves dog biscuits…).

The transition would have been far too radical and I would have quit, only to have wasted another valiant weight-loss effort to one more diet defeat. A lifestyle change must be a process in order to succeed, which is why I recommend choosing a plan as similar to what you regularly eat now. Despite their claims, after some preliminary research and calculations, it’s fair to say that the major diet plans out there (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem) are still low-fat, carbohydrate-centric programs, so I would start with one of them.

Stay tuned next time for “What I Learned from my South Beach Diet Experience (or, Kicking the Refined Stuff out of My Diet)”

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