I recently sat down with Amy, who just moved from Toronto to Vancouver Island seeking a west coast lifestyle that she couldn’t get in the hustle and bustle of Canada’s largest city. Amy’s dream was to start a small farm. She bought a parcel of land here with the aim of creating a business where she could sell nutritious plant based food at farmers markets. Her journey to a plant based diet and her involvement in the culture really caught my interest.
“I’ve lost count of how many times I have restarted.” Those are Amy’s words on the Dr. McDougall website where she volunteers as a facilitator. Her weight loss journal is posted on the forum and I encourage you to read it for revealing insight into the mind of someone struggling with their weight. Quotes that stuck out for me: “Last night, after posting, and watching TV, I ate a whole box of rice crackers. A whole box. The calorie count for that was 450…..I don’t know how to be or sound inspirational or motivational. I haven’t had much success with motivating myself….I will not be weighing myself this week……I have often wanted to remove this journal, and many of my struggling thoughts…..it pains me to read through it’s history…..Today my daughter had a friend over for a get-together; after I fed them dinner I made a fruit sorbet….very delicious and easy to overeat….and overeat it I did.”
I found myself scrolling through her words and identifying with the struggle despite not having an identical story. Sweets have always been my thing and when confronted with pie, candies or chocolate I’ll have internal battles even now. If you’re in the midst of a weight loss journey I think you’ll find her words familiar. She accompanies her posts with photos of everything she eats good or bad never glossing over the failures or over-selling the wins.
A big influence for Amy was the work of Jeff Novick RD who Amy credits with introducing her to the notion of calorie density, a concept from Dr Barbara Rolls at Penn State. The idea is that people tend to eat the same quantity of food each day, but we can adjust the amount of calories we consume by dominating that quantity with low calorie foods. You can watch a video that explains calorie density here.
Amy ultimately lost 100 pounds. One….Hundred….Pounds!!! Her BMI was 43 when she started and she was pre-diabetic. When I met with Amy this week I saw a vibrant healthy person, somewhat shy, but full of the energy you notice when someone has discovered something most don’t. Before you ask, I don’t really know what that “something” is. Amy and I talked about this, what we say when people ask us what the “secret” is to losing weight or getting healthy. It’s impossible to put into words, maybe because it isn’t the same for everyone. That secret that most people don’t seem to ever grasp is elusive. I can’t put my finger on it, neither can Amy. But we both agreed that when you have the courage to step outside of societal norms life just becomes….better. The key is overcoming resistance to change, and Amy did that, little by little, with lots of failure along the way and a struggle that continues even now. I sat with her as part of our little club, knowing that if I could do it, and she could do it, then everyone can. We just have to figure out how to convince you it's possible.
To be clear, weight-loss wasn’t an overnight journey for Amy. She became “plant curious” in 2006 when reading Eat to Live by Dr. Fuhrman but didn’t consistently make a change until 2014. You read that right, from contemplation to action there was a 9 year gap. Finally it wasn’t just her weight but blood sugars and frequent chest infections that were concerning her. She was exhausted all the time. Amy had reached her tipping point.
Amy's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and after some evidence was presented to her (articles by Dr Greger, Dr Fuhrman and Dr McDougall) she joined her daughter on her plant based journey. Together they went to a 10-day Dr McDougall intensive retreat. Today her mother is cancer free. It’s impossible to know what role her diet played in the cancer disappearing but I believe we create a terrain where our body can heal by reducing stress. Dietary stress (one created from the standard American diet) is created when we constantly bombard ourselves with nutrient deficient, foods. Her doctor's advice was for her mother to eat for fun, enjoy life and fill up on pleasurable foods. Mine would be to feed your body in a way that gives it the ammunition to fight back. We need to fight the myth that eating nutritious foods can’t be fun. Amy and I were in complete agreement that food is much more enjoyable for us now that we’ve embraced plant based eating. It’s more adventurous and frankly better tasting.
So did Amy exercise her way to losing 100 pounds? No. It’s sexy to think we can run/bike or crossfit our way to a thin body but in reality most people fail to stick to exercise plans beyond 3 months and even if they do develop an exercise habit it’s become commonly accepted that flat stomachs are made in the kitchen, not the ab-flex machine.
Amy now volunteers with the Dr McDougall weight loss group, has previously worked with Dr Greger’s research team for NutritionFacts.org and has plans to start her own plant based business. She helped run a plant based potluck in Toronto and hopes to bring it to Vancouver Island. If all that isn’t enough Amy was featured in a book telling her weight loss story.
I asked Amy for one piece of advice she could share with someone beginning a weight loss journey. In her words:
"The best advice that I have learned from my experiences is too try very hard not to put your weight loss goals within a particular timeframe, such as: I want to lose 2 pounds per week, or I want to be at goal weight by Christmas. This can set many people up to fail because they feel like they didn’t work hard enough which can lead to becoming discouraged and giving up or procrastinating. How fast you lose weight is not something you can really control. Your body is going to lose at the pace it’s going to lose. What you can control is what you choose to eat every week, every day and every meal. Set goals around adherence to the particular dietary pattern you choose to use. For example, I will eat an oil-free plant based diet when I’m at home for 18 of my 21 weekly meals. This way you have some wiggle room for errors as well as some space to exceed your own expectations!
Mostly I want everyone to know that this is difficult and many people who have not struggled in this way don’t understand. Keep doing your best and know that you are not alone."
I’d like to propose a challenge to you if you're contemplating a diet change right now. Do it now. Don’t wait until New Year’s. Don’t make it a resolution. I know what you’re thinking. I have Christmas parties, there will be treats and drinks. There will be overindulgence and I don’t want to be dieting when others are enjoying themselves. But that’s perfectionist thinking. You don’t have to be perfect, that should not be the goal. What if you did overindulge but each day you added something healthy? Maybe you ate one stalk of celery every day. Go ahead and scoff at such a tiny goal, but I say that’s 7 stalks of celery a week you’d never have eaten otherwise. The accumulation of those little steps do help. You can still indulge, but what you’re doing is making your New Years resolution a smaller step, not so Herculean in scale. After all you’re already eating celery. Maybe when you get to that Christmas party seek out the token veggie or fruit tray they always have and decide to eat from that tray before you try anything else. Develop strategies now that will help you this holiday season that won’t leave you starting from scratch on January 1st. If this appeals to you check out the Small Steppers program on Sid Garza-Hillman's website.
Diets don’t work. We all know that, you didn’t need to come here to discover that nugget of information. What you need is life long habit change. If the one thing you change is to include more vegetables in your life every day, then you’ll already have done more than most. And that’s it, that’s the secret Amy or I can’t put into words. It’s the little things every day that you can do that will create lasting change. They will mold you into a different person. You’ll be a person that eats asparagus. That eats apples and that has a bag of radishes on their desk at work. Little by little these tiny changes mold you into something new. And then, one day, maybe 55 pounds lighter like I am now someone will come up to you and ask you what the “secret” is. You’ll be dumbfounded. You won’t have an answer, but you will have celery.