50 Years at the Same Healthy Weight: My Secrets

Pleasure—yes, pleasure—was a key ingredient to my weight loss recipe.

Posted Aug 09, 2020

Image by pikist, free photo.
Source: Image by pikist, free photo.

“The Freshman 15.” This phrase has come to denote what the typical college student gains during their freshman year of college. Funny thing: I actually did gain 15 pounds my freshman year. Not so funny: I was still 15 pounds overweight in my mid-20s.

I had not only gained weight; I had gained a dress size, too. I had slowed down a step and felt unhappy with my appearance.

So in 1970, I made a vow to lose the extra weight and maintain that weight loss for a lifetime.

This decision to change propelled me into a 50-year pattern of (mostly) healthy eating. From age 25 to age 75, my height (5’6”) and weight (125) have remained almost the same. With 50 years at the same weight, I feel I’ve earned the street cred to share my secrets.

Why Worry About Weight?

My weight loss of 10-15 pounds may seem trivial. But even minor weight loss can lead to health benefits for a person who is overweight. The Center for Disease Control tells us: “Even a modest weight loss of 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight is likely to produce health benefits, such as improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars.”

On the other hand, being overweight or obese is linked to a higher risk of numerous health problems, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer, and, yes, even COVID-19. (That said, many people can be overweight without developing health problems. For details, see your doc.)

Of course, I didn’t know this information in 1970. I only knew that I wanted to feel better and look better.

This post will describe why I gained weight, what I did to shed it, and alternative paths to a healthy weight.

Why Do College Students Gain Weight?

Seventy percent of college students gain 13-47 pounds in college, so I was not the only one. Why? Late-night snacking, high-calorie dorm meals, and lack of exercise all take their toll, according to a 2012 study. The study showed that "The Freshman 15” was not a myth and could have lifelong health consequences.

My Motivators and Plan

My weight-loss method could be summed up as four "Ms" and one "P:" motivators, mindfulness, monitoring, moderation, and pleasure.

The first step toward change is to know your motivators. Mine were health, longevity, and looking better. Shallow though it may be, vanity can be a powerful motivator, especially when you are seeking a romantic partner, as I was.

Now I needed a plan. Since I desired lifelong weight control, I knew I had to avoid those two Dreadful Ds: Diet and Deprivation. The research is clear: Diets don't work! While I didn't know the data, I knew myself and realized that any eating plan based on self-denial was not going to work for me. So I set about to create my own healthy eating plan.

I decided that one pillar of my plan would be pleasure. I would make every meal as healthy and pleasurable as possible, not denying myself any foods, just limiting the quantity. Plus, I would allow myself one sweet treat every day.   

Fifty years ago, the word “mindfulness” had not yet come into currency. Though I didn’t have the words for it, my goal was, in fact, mindful eating. I wanted to eat with awareness, enjoying my food, not gobbling it down. I made a pact with myself to refrain from what’s now called “automatic eating,” mindlessly munching one potato chip after another while watching TV, for example.  

Armed with these ideas, vague though they were, I sallied forth to lose my extra 15 pounds.

The First Five Pounds

The first five pounds were a cinch. A friend once told me, “I’d rather eat my calories than drink them.” That was an “aha” moment. My simple and painless plan: Stop drinking soda. I substituted water and sparkling water. And bingo! Five pounds gone within one month. (Other possibilities: Substitute fruit for high-calorie fruit juices. Limit alcoholic drinks.)

The Next Five Pounds

Losing the rest of the weight was much more of a challenge. I experimented with various helpful ideas. Here’s a list of the most useful ones gleaned from 50 years of learning about food and health:

  1. Predictable eating times. I never miss a meal, and I eat pretty much at the same time every day: breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at noon, dinner at 6 p.m., dessert at 7 p.m. Knowing when I will next eat helps me avoid the hunger panic that leads to snacking.
  2. Eat with comfort. Sit down. Eat slowly. Savor your food. It’s all about pleasure.
  3. Know your daily calorie goal. Most women should aim for a 2000-calorie/day diet. That means about 600 calories per meal, plus a 200-calorie treat. (For men, it’s 2500 calories.) Chain restaurants must now provide calorie counts, helping all of us target that 600-calorie meal.
  4. Learn about serving sizes. I learned that a serving of nuts should be about ¼ cup, for example. My first reaction: “That small!?” But now it seems generous. (For an easy way to remember serving sizes, click here.) There's no need to memorize calorie counts. Just read the nutrition label on a few favorite foods, and you'll get a sense of how many calories you are consuming each day.
  5. Avoid automatic eating. Eat the table, not in front of the TV. Don't eat standing up. Think "pleasure."
  6. Limit snacking. I stopped buying snack foods such as potato chips and pretzels, allowing myself to eat them only on special occasions. I reminded myself that meals were more enjoyable when I was hungry for them. Or, as my mother used to say, “Don’t spoil your appetite!” And speaking of special occasions...
  7. Make some foods “special occasion foods."  With the exception of soda, I didn’t eliminate any foods from my diet. Certain fattening foods, like mashed potatoes, biscuits, and rolls, became “special occasion” foods only, however.
  8. Ask yourself, “Is it worth the calories?” I asked myself this question constantly to curb my intake of any foods that were just so-so. I learned to stop eating anything that wasn’t tasty and resigned my membership in the Clean Plate Club.
  9. Follow the 20-minute rule. The rule: It takes 10-20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it’s full. Can’t decide whether to have seconds on something? Just wait a few minutes and see how you feel. 
  10. Follow the 80% rule. The rule: Aim to be 80% full, not 100% full. I love this rule! It reminds me that I do not need to stuff myself to feel satisfied. 
  11. Monitor yourself. I weighed myself regularly, reducing my food intake when I became 2-5 pounds over my goal weight (which happened often). (Note: Some people may find that frequent weighing can trigger unhealthy eating patterns or even eating disorders. More here. If you think you might fall into this category, try another method of self-monitoring like keeping a food journal.)
  12. Eat more fruits and veggies.  Mediterranean-style eating plans, which emphasize grains, fruits, and veggies, are beneficial for your health.
  13. Enjoy regular exercise. Exercise offers a smorgasbord of benefits, including these. I aim for the World Health Organization standard of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
  14. Shrug off slips. The ability to bounce back from short-term failures may be the most significant predictor of long-term weight-loss success, according to cognitive therapist Judith Beck.

As time went on, I became savvier about choosing “whole foods” that were organic, lacked preservatives, and were free of strange chemicals with unknown health consequences. I’ve adopted food writer Michael Pollan’s famous motto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Other People, Other Plans

Many people who tell me they have an unhealthy relationship with food may not be able to benefit from a self-directed, moderate eating plan. The more addiction-like your habit, the more you may need structure and support. Helpful support groups for weight loss and healthy eating include Weight Watchers (now WW), TOPS (Take off Pounds Sensibly), and Overeaters Anonymous. Many people have benefited from the support and guidance of a therapist, health coach, or hospital-based weight-loss group.

Remember that weight loss is not necessarily the path to fulfillment. I lost weight in part to find a romantic partner, but in retrospect, I see that being heavier would not have derailed my marriage.

The Last Five Pounds

And what did I do to work off that last five pounds? Nothing. Reader, I accepted it. I decided to be satisfied with my weight of 125, stop my nitpicking, and enjoy life. My motto for this and other health changes: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

© Meg Selig, 2020

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