How Not to Have a Gut-Busting Holiday… I Think

Two things:

1. I’ve been trying to maintain a weight loss for the last six months.

2. I adore holiday food.

I am a moderator, not an abstainer. Some people need to swear off sugar/meat/gluten in order to be healthy. That’s not my path; I just try to eat less. In the next month, there will be pralines made from my mother’s recipe. Coffee cake from the Cafe Beaujolais cookbook. Gingerbread cookies from Cooks Illustrated. Etc. So what’s a weight-conscious gal to do at Thanksgiving and Christmas?

I may have stumbled upon a bit of wisdom this weekend, and it was thanks to a tardy pecan pie.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but it’s tough. I love the side dishes, and I want to sample everything. But I hate that “I’m gonna pop” feeling. Besides, it doesn’t feel very mindful or grateful to eat the way I often have on Thanksgiving. (I know others who love the sense of overindulgence, of throwing moderation to the winds. Eh. Your mileage may vary.)

We were hosting friends with little kids on Thursday, so we didn’t get fancy with the feast. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts, storebought rolls, pumpkin pie. Fruit salad and cheese and crackers for the little ones. That’s a banquet by most of the world’s standards, but it’s a pretty low-key Thanksgiving meal for us.

And I’ll admit it: I missed the sweet potatoes. And the dressing. And some kind—any kind!—of casserole.

Meanwhile, I’d found out on Wednesday that the pecan pie my brother was sending me from Texas (I won a bet) wouldn’t arrive until Friday. I pouted for a few moments, then realized it gave me a perfect excuse to make one of those beloved side dishes I’d been missing. So on Friday I made a sweet potato dish, which we ate with our leftovers… and pecan pie for dessert, of course.

The success of Thanksgiving Part II made me wonder how long I could keep Thanksgiving going. I love a good squash casserole, so we roasted two acorn squash over the weekend which I will use to make this offbeat carbarrific beauty.

So here’s what I’m wondering. Instead of blowing the wad on a single gut-busting meal, why not make the feast last for a few days? Why not celebrate that thing you love to eat by making it the centerpiece of the meal?

That way each dish can be truly savored and enjoyed on its own terms, not relegated to a teeny corner of your plate. Remember, one of my approaches to weight maintenance is to “make friends with food.”

Now, will this approach keep the pounds off? Who knows? I just think it’s more satisfying (and I suspect, maybe healthier?) than a day of binging followed by several days of guilt and austerity.

So far so good with the bathroom scale. I sure felt better on Thursday evening. And I’ve had a ball each day since then, wondering “What can I make today to keep Thanksgiving going?” That’s a spiritual question in addition to a culinary one.

Would love to hear your tips for getting through the holidays without digging out your fat pants…

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Seven Tips for Weight Maintenance

With weight maintenance, there is none.

I am now in my fifth month of maintaining a significant weight loss. It’s going pretty well. There are ups and downs but so far I’ve been able to sustain.

I’ve posted weight loss tips a while back, but here are a few things that have worked for me these last 4+ months as I keep my weight at healthy levels:

1. Continue to weigh yourself every day. Or at least several times a week. Look at the forest and not the trees when you do this, but I don’t think a weekly weigh-in would be enough. At least not for me. I could see myself looking at a one-pound gain over a week and saying, “Eh, that’s an outlier.” And then repeating that for the next twenty-seven weeks.

2. Keep on tracking. Once I accepted that if I wanted to stay a healthy weight, I would have to be mindful about what I ate—for the rest of my life—things got much better. I still use MyFitnessPal faithfully. Yes, it’s a pain. So is brushing your teeth. Get over it.

That said, I do not log every last thing I eat. After a year of this, I know enough about portion sizes and nutrition info to be able to estimate a lot of things in my head. The key is finding a happy medium between writing everything down—which is boring and unsustainable, and probably unnecessary since maintainers have more calories to play with each day—and guesstimating too much, which can lead you to trick yourself into thinking a Panera orange scone is as virtuous as a pumpkin muffie, because hey, they’re sitting right next to each other in the bakery case!

3. Pretend you’re still losing weight. I have MyFitnessPal set for losing half a pound a week. This seems just about right, given that there are days I don’t keep track, and many days I go over. There’s also the mental aspect of this—yes, I celebrated when I reached my weight goal, but not too much because there’s no “arriving” with this stuff.

4. Your goal weight is your ceiling, not your average. I added this one because for me it’s an important thing that I kinda fell into. I lost my 40 pounds and hit my goal weight, and then I lost another pound or two. This means that even when my weight fluctuates, as it does each day, I don’t (usually) go above my goal. That’s a psychological benefit, for me at least. Even at my heaviest swing, I am still at my goal, and I don’t worry. Because in my house, worry can lead to anxiety, anxiety can lead to despair, and despair can lead to endless spoonfuls of marshmallow fluff. Can I get an Amen?

5. Don’t track food at all on days you work out. That’s my little reward for continuing to run and bike—well, that and feeling much better mentally and physically.

6. Be friends with food. Some people are abstainers when it comes to sweets or alcohol or whatever—they give the thing up entirely because once they start they can’t stop. I’m more of a moderator. Barring something medical going on, any fitness regimen that requires me never to eat [insert bad ingredient du jour here] isn’t going to work for me.

But whether you’re a abstainer or a moderator, you can’t see food as the enemy. Food is fuel, but it’s also a source of delight and sensual pleasure. I ate a brownie last night. And then I ate two more because they were soooooo good. And I’m super OK with that.

7. Continue to reward yourself, but make the rewards modest. When I hit my weight goal I bought a bunch of new clothes, because I had to, but also as a celebration. I have continued to buy one small thing a month. This is still a necessity as I build up a decent wardrobe, but it’s also a carrot for keeping the weight off.

I would love to hear your tips for losing weight, maintaining a healthy weight, or reaching other fitness goals you have.

Top Weight Loss Tips

People often ask me how I went about losing weight over these last several months. I feel very sheepish because I don’t have a good answer, and the stuff I do is in no way original. It’s a very unromantic combination of diet and exercise. No meal replacement. No expensive powders or weird smoothies. Just eating good food in the right proportions and running or walking 4-5 times a week.

That said, here are some tips that have been most useful for me.

  • Log everything you eat. I use MyFitnessPal, which tracks food and exercise. I’ve also heard good things about LoseIt. The bar code scanner makes it fun. Over time I’ve gotten less anal about logging absolutely everything, but that’s because I’ve got an intuitive sense of where I am. Is that a pain? Yes. Are there days I get sick of logging everything? Absolutely. Would I rather deal with the hassle of logging than backsliding? Yes.
  • Weigh yourself every day. Studies show that regular feedback is key to achieving goals. I think the conventional wisdom used to be a weekly weigh-in, but that’s not enough input to keep me going. That said, expect ups and downs. Look at the forest, not the trees. But look everyday.
  • Invest in a kitchen scale and measuring cups. Portion size is everything. It’s amazing how much I can fudge my portions if I try to eyeball it.
  • Be around people who will support, not sabotage.
  • This is a lifestyle, not a short-term goal. Which means I eat delicious things that are “bad” for me, and I do it with some regularity. My friend Jay, who’s done a great job with weight loss, put it well: “Be sensible more often than not and you’ll go in the right direction.”
  • Then again, I’m a moderator, not an abstainer. Figure out which one you are and be that.
  • Another tip from Jay: when you’re at a restaurant and are starting to pick at your meal after you’re full, sprinkle water from your water glass all over the food. Weird but it works. I’ve done similar things, including (gasp!) throwing away the rest of something that just needed to be out of my house and my life. (See: leftover tubs of frosting after a kid’s birthday.) Sorry, starving children of the world.
  • Dessert, alcoholic beverage, or a day off from exercise: pick two on any given day. You’ll likely stay in range, but you can still enjoy life and be flexible to the needs and desires of the moment.

Do you have any tips you use? Share in the comments.

Image comes from this post, which I featured recently on Link Love

Breaking in Interesting Ways

Katherine Willis Pershey is hosting Any “May” a Beautiful Change, a blog carnival to celebrate the launch of Any Day a Beautiful Change through Chalice Press, which is also my publisher for Sabbath in the Suburbs.

This month, Katherine’s friends and colleagues are writing about a beautiful change they have experienced. Here is mine:

~

Just so we’re clear: that’s not me.

My friend Keith Snyder, a music geek, recently tweeted a line from Brian Eno: “Analog synthesizers break in interesting ways. Digital synthesizers just break.”

Keith has made that line into a prayer:

May I continue to break in interesting ways.

That may be a strange place to start talking about a beautiful change, but stick with me.

I hit two personal milestones recently. First, I ran a 10K race. That was big for me. Until a year ago I had never run for more than a few minutes at a time. Ever. I was the smart one, you see, and the musical one, but never the athletic one. My body was the thing that carried my brain around. Aside from the occasional mountain hike while on vacation, and an intermittent practice of walking to stay in basic shape, I was a sedentary type.

But at 40, with a father who dropped dead from cardiac stuff at age 56, getting in better shape felt non-negotiable—the reasonable thing to do from an actuarial standpoint. That’s how the running started. Of course, it’s become something deeper than that.

Before I ran the 10K (6.2 miles for the metrically challenged), I’d never run farther than 5 miles in training. When I reached mile 5 at the race, I thought, This is as far as I’ve ever gone. Beyond this point, it’s all new. That’s a wonderful thing.

Indeed, my whole life feels that way in this, my fifth decade. I’m not a rookie in ministry anymore; I’m not the mother of little ones anymore; as of this fall I will be a published writer. Lauren Winner talks in her latest book about reinventing oneself every ten years. That’s happening, through my own volition and beyond it.

Among other things, running for me means embracing a blessed mediocrity. I’m not a fast runner; Robert has described my gait as “a bit loping.” I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I like races because the crowd and the music provide a boost that my body chemistry seems unwilling to muster. I love the feeling of having run, but running itself is frequently a chore. At last month’s race, I was second to last in my age group, and way down in the bottom third overall.

Yet I do it. And there’s something liberating about doing something badly by most objective standards. I’m a perfectionist, you know. I like setting a goal and reaching for the top, and if I’m not good at something, eh…easy come, easy go. With so many luscious possibilities in this life, more than I could ever undertake, such a standard may not be the best way to discern what’s mine to do, but it’s what works.

Or has worked in the past. Something in me had to “break in an interesting way” for me to start running—to do this thing that’s never been part of my self-understanding. Something shattered in my brittle, do-it-well-or-don’t-do-it exoskeleton.

And thank heaven it did. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, in more ways than one.

I now ask myself: What else could I do badly for the sheer satisfaction of it?

~

The second health-related milestone happened a few days ago. I hit my weight-loss goal of 40 pounds.

I’m no numerologist, but there is significance in the numbers. James weighs about 40 pounds, so every time I pick up his stocky four-year-old frame I think to myself, This is the weight I carried around all the time nine months ago. It seems fitting somehow: in another year, James will be in kindergarten. There are no babies or toddlers in my house anymore. It feels right that as I move into another phase as a mother, my body would look different.

Also, it took me nine months to lose the weight. Is it an exaggeration to say that a new person has been born? Perhaps. But as with the running, something in me had to break in order for this change to occur. Caring for myself—I mean really caring, not punishing myself until I shrink down into some “acceptable” size—requires a certain vulnerability. I can do all the right things, as many people do, but there will always be aspects of our health that are beyond our control. Life is a genetic and environmental crap shoot. That’s an uncomfortable truth to face. Denial feels easier sometimes.

Another thing that had to break: a rigid expectation of what I would look like as a 40 year old with a normal BMI.

Hint: it’s not like a 20 year old.

Don’t get me wrong, I look different than I did when I was a new mother, with all my ample post-pregnancy curves. But as I’ve left 40 pounds behind on so many jogging trails and city streets, I’ve been amazed at the parts of me that haven’t been magically transformed. There is still…a thickness. A settledness. This body will never be that of a college student. Or a newlywed. Or a non-mother. As that great philosopher Indiana Jones says, “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”

And I’m grateful for every one of those miles.

That’s the beautiful change.

On (Not) Being a Runner

This is a re-post from several months ago on the RunRevRun website. It’s been on my mind lately, because my thinking is shifting on this topic. Being and doing, doing and being…

– – – – – – – –

I began the Couch to 5K program a few months ago. I wasn’t exactly starting from “couch”—I’ve been doing brisk walking several times a week for more than a year—and my fitness goal is not really to run a 5K, but to hike Mount Washington in New Hampshire this summer. I’ve hiked big mountains before, in various states of fitness, but it’s so much more enjoyable when you’re not wheezing your way up and stopping every ten yards to massage your charley horses. And since there’s no “couch to Mt. Washington” program, Couch to 5K is getting the job done.

Although I started this program to get myself up the mountain, I can see myself continuing it indefinitely, maybe even graduating to the 10k version. I’ve been an evangelist for this program on Twitter, Facebook and in real life. I’m grateful for the impact it’s had on my health and want to share it, but there’s also a selfish motive: I’m telling people far and wide to keep me accountable to continue. Along the way I have been very insistent with folks: “I run, but I’m not a runner.” This has been an oft-repeated refrain:

Oh, MaryAnn’s a runner now.
Actually, no I’m not.
But aren’t you in this running program?
Yes. But I’m not a runner.

What’s that about?

Why am I so reluctant to call myself a runner?

First off, I wonder what it means to be a runner. What exactly is a runner? Isn’t it simply “one who runs”? I think I have an image in my mind of a perfectly toned body, or a person obsessed with getting the right shoes, entering races, and reading Runner’s World, a magazine I wouldn’t even know existed were it not for the cover photo of Sarah Palin that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. I’m not really interested in running as a hobby. But is that really what it means to be a runner? Or is that just stereotypical stuff that’s not real?

Maybe I feel like I haven’t been doing it long enough to claim the identity of runner. I’m OK with the verb form—I run—but not with the noun—runner.

Am I giving myself an easy out by being Not a Runner? We are stuck with so many identities that we can’t shed in this life. I will be the daughter of my parents and the mother of my children forever. Maybe I resist calling myself a runner because I need to be free to have something in my life that I can quit without angst. Or that I can do badly. Intermittently.

Maybe I’m reluctant to call myself a runner because I’m playing old tapes about myself that aren’t helpful anymore. I was the slow kid on the softball team, the one the coach (my dad) would position at second base. It was a good fit for me because I had decent eye-hand coordination but couldn’t run very long without tiring. The best hit of my life would’ve been a home run with anyone else rounding the bases, but instead I was tagged out at home. By my best friend.

So, no. Not a runner.

My teams in school were theater/speech and Academic Decathlon.

But maybe that kind of baggage isn’t healthy. Over the last nine weeks I’ve been getting faster (slightly) and stronger (definitely). My endurance is increasing. Our bodies are for much more than brain housing and transport. Our bodies are built to dance, kneel, eat, love. Some of our bodies are built to grow other bodies and to push them out into the world. I get that in ways I didn’t understand when I was a kid.

As a pastor, I wonder about all this. I sometimes meet people who want to find a new term for “Christian.” They feel that the “brand” is fundamentally corrupted by people they see as judgmental, rancorous, loudmouthed. I’m not sure I agree that the word is irredeemable, but I sympathize with their struggle to find a label that fits.

I also know plenty of people who don’t identify themselves as Christian but whose behavior sure looks Christ-like to me. And I know Christians who are Christians in name only. I like it when people say they are seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. I can relate; it sounds like “I run but I’m not a runner.” And yet, belonging to Christ isn’t just what we do. It’s who we are; it is an identity.

I don’t know where all of these questions will lead me. Maybe someday I will consider myself a runner. Maybe I will continue to run and never take on that label. Maybe I will stop running and move on to some other physical activity. I expect that whatever I do, it will be in that strange space where action and identity intersect, where doing and being reside together.

Meanwhile, I pound the pavement.

– – –

Image: Map of the 10K I ran last weekend. Funny, it looks a lot flatter on paper.

Friday Link Love: Fitness Edition

It’s been a big week here—first week of school, back to a routine after the summer, and I have a major deadline next week (not the book—that’s due in November).

And the 9/11 coverage is ramping up. Maybe I should share some wise thoughts about this milestone, but I don’t have any.

So in the spirit of something completely different, in the spirit of “life moves on in profound and quotidian ways”… I decided to share a few health-related links that I am currently obsessed with.

Be good to your body. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. There, that’s profound enough.

~

MyFitnessPal is a website and smartphone app that lets you track your food and exercise. You set a basic lifestyle/activity level (from sedentary on up), a weight goal, and the app tells you how many calories to eat a day. Exercise, of course, bumps up the calories you can consume.

The barcode scanner is fun, and after a few weeks of use we have only found a small handful of items that aren’t listed. The database even includes recipes from the Six O’Clock Scramble and Cooks Illustrated, our two most relied-upon recipe sources.

Side comment: I gushed about this app on Facebook this week, and a few friends chimed in: is it better than (random other app)? I actually don’t know. Robert chose it and liked it so I jumped on board. This makes me a “satisficer,” by the way. Satisficers look for something that meets their criteria, then they stop. This is in contrast to maximizers, who look at all the options to make sure they’ve found the very best item for their needs. So I have no idea whether it’s the best app, just that it meets my needs.

Your random glimpse into human psychology…

~

I started using one of the Couch to 5K apps in March, but once I ‘graduated’ (and made it up Mt. Washington) my motivation flagged. I’m planning another modest hike and will be running my first 5K in December, but I needed a new training buddy. RunKeeper has been around a while and I’ve found it easy and fun to use. I’ve already noticed my times and distances improving.

Oh! And here’s one quirk about RunKeeper. For some reason, the RK app doesn’t track weight, but the website does. The first time I finished and logged a run on my phone, it said I burned a certain number of calories. That seemed low to me compared to the C25K app and the treadmill, but whatever. I’m a slow runner. But later, after the run had been synced with the website, I happened to notice that the number of calories burned was much higher.

For some reason this tickled me. I imagined the little gremlins on the Internet going, “Oh wait, she’s fat. Better bump up the calorie count!”

~

And finally, for you runners of the cloth, the RunRevRun website has a lot of great info and inspiration. Also T-shirts!