…Continued from Part 1.
I am writing this article on Sunday January 24th, 2016. As I sit here reflecting on my journey to feeling well, I realize what a difference a year can make. Before I delve into the nitty gritty of meal plans, doctors appointments, workouts, and more I wanted to share a few thoughts.
On a typical Sunday one year ago, I would have moseyed out of bed at 10am, probably feeling not so great from whatever fun we had the night before. I would take a Zyrtec for allergies and Ibuprofen for joint pain/headache. Dan and I would have gone to brunch around noon. I would have ordered a coffee, added cream and two sugar packets, and I would have ordered whatever version of chicken and waffles–shake my head–that existed at our restaurant of choice. While Dan wasn’t looking, I would have taken two bites of his brunch item and fries. We then would have sat around the rest of the day, watching TV while snacking on our leftovers. Sometimes we would partake in Sunday Funday, and I would drink a Bloody Mary and/or Mimosa(s), lamenting the fact that the workweek was soon starting again.
Basically, I would waste hours and hours being sluggish, gluttonous, unproductive and anxious, and workouts were never a priority. I wanted to be different, but my brain would never give me the signal I needed to just get up and go.
Flash forward to today, literally…and here is how I’m living. By choice.
8:30am-wake up (this is now my sleep-in time)
9:00am-make my breakfast shake with an entire blender full of spinach, water, my medical food (you’ll learn more about this below), and 5 ice cubes. Take all of my daily vitamins with it (no more Zyrtec and no more Ibuprofen), and my probiotics. [*I did this while on the phone with my grandmother Mimi, because taking 30 minutes to call her often is a high priority of mine, and now my brain can handle way more multi-tasking.]
9:45am-go down to the gym with Dan. Run three miles in 30 minutes. Hit a new record of 8.0mph for .5 of those miles.
10:30am-drink 1L of water while writing two wedding shower gift thank you notes
11:00am-cook brunch for both of us: 1 egg each—seasoned with cilantro, pepper, and a pinch of sea salt; 2 slices of uncured turkey bacon each, 1 cup of spinach each, ½ a bowl of mixed berries each, 1 slice of Ezekiel toast with a light spread of whipped cream cheese each, 1 lactose-free latte for me (without any added sugar) and orange juice for Dan.
11:50am-leave for 1 hour of power yoga
12pm-1pm (ish): Power Yoga; drink 1 more liter of water during class
1:15pm-run an errand, happy and feeling amazing.
2:00pm-back home, eating a Kind bar (one with only 5g of sugar), an apple, one more liter of water (WOOT! Well over my 2 liters per day goal!), and another cup of coffee–with a splash of organic lactose-free whole milk, no sugar.
2:30pm-shower, spritz some eucalyptus relief mist and breathe it in (ahhhh), moisturize post-steam shower with my favorite Santa Maria Novella Idrasol Cream (this stuff is like putting a cloud on your skin that smells of fresh flowers. It is worth every penny because it makes me feel as pampered as a Queen.)
3:00pm-writing and addressing wedding shower gift thank you notes….for 2 hours (omg.) but hey—check that off the list!
4:00pm-eat a medical food meal bar (again…more about this below)
5:00pm-done with thank you notes, starting on blog post.
5:24pm-here I am…and at 6 or 6:30pm I will break to make dinner, which will consist of homemade sweet potato fries, cauliflower, and a citrus kale salad with lentils. We already had our protein at brunch today (ehhh…probably should have made Dan 2 eggs instead of 1), so no more meat needed.
Is it apparent how much more I accomplish in one day? How much more attention to detail I notice? How much more joy I can find in the mundane? My lifestyle, my brain, and my body have all literally transformed. In the process, I also happened to lose 20 pounds; 2 inches off my bust, 4 inches off my waist, and 4 inches off my hips. But the weight loss was just a sweet side effect to the real wins I’ve made. Here is how I did it.
Part 2: The First Line Therapy Experience-Cleaning My Body and Clearing My Mind
I walked into my first appointment at Dr. Michelle Harden’s office apprehensive but excited. I was greeted by the nice staff and was taken back to be weighed and photographed (they do this to log before and after progress). They took my vitals, and then I laid on a table while they hooked electrode stim wires to my hands and took my biometric tests. I felt like I was in a Sci-Fi movie, terrified of what they might find wrong with me.
I remember feeling like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone 2 when he’s about to throw the brick at Mr. Duncan’s Toy Chest. He does it to break the window that will set the alarm off, and hopefully catch the Wet/Sticky Bandits hiding inside of a dollhouse waiting to rob the store in the middle of the night (Hap-py Hanukkahhh Maarv). “This is it. No looking back…another Christmas in the trenches.” *Toss…SHATTER. I knew that I was about to throw the brick that would shatter my little bubble of comfort. I knew I was about to hear things about my habits and my health that pushed me and would make me feel uncomfortable. I was ready though, because I was hopeful that the results would be so worth it that I would forget the hard part.
All of a sudden, ready or not, there was Dr. Harden. We exchanged niceties, but I could tell she was looking at me wondering why I was in her office. She handed me a packet of papers and asked me to fill the forms out. The questions didn’t seem too complicated. I was thinking to myself “I mean I’m not that bad. I totally could be worse.” LOL, ELLIE. LOL. Because looking back at that day, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
I heard Amy Schumer once joke in an interview, “When the doctor asks me how many drinks I have in a week, I always lie.” After living this whole experience and coming out the other end changed, I can definitely say that when the doctor asked me how many things I ate and drank in a week that were bad for me, I absolutely lied. The issue was, I thought I was telling her the truth. I was lying to myself. I was so addicted to the foods I was eating and the sugar I was consuming that I didn’t realize what was actually wrong with me: inflammation. Dan now makes fun of me and claims this is my new favorite word…because it is literally the root of everything bad.
Anyway, Dr. Harden read my charts, read my forms, and quickly realized why I was in her hot seat. She looked me straight in the eye with her glasses on the bridge of her nose and said, “Wow. You must be feeling pretty bad.” YES. I FELT HORRIBLE. That statement alone made me want to crumble into a ball of hysterical tears, because it indirectly meant she had the answers to all of my problems. She could fix me with food education, tough love and discipline, and a heart open to hearing my baggage surrounding body image and my unhealthy relationship with food. This program worked because it gave me all of the tools I couldn’t give myself. Here are the five things that helped me the most:
1. This “therapy” was as much educational and psychological as it was about eating and exercise.
I was yearning for the mental tools to overcome my own hang-ups related to the food culture in which I was raised. There is nothing more comforting than a bowl of buttery pasta sprinkled with grated Asiago cheese from John’s Imports in Torrington, CT (yes…my mother asks my grandparents to ship her cheese to TX) but it turns out that wasn’t so great for my health. Two words: “I’m Italian.” Luckily, I had to say no more than those two words before Dr. Harden, who is also Italian, knew exactly what a carb, dairy, and sugar-pumped victim she was dealing with. She also understood the “I made this for you out of love, so eat it” issues that we formerly chubby Italian children face, and the guilt-ridden wrath you receive when you try to deny that extra-stuffed Manicotti, an extra spoonful of rigatoni and meatballs, or those perfectly sweetened Pizzelles. Pile all of that on top of growing up in the land of the breakfast taco, and poof: you have a body riddled with inflammatory issues.
Dr. Harden also taught me that life is about choices, and if you learn to have a conversation in your mind before you sit down to Christmas Eggplant Parmesan, and actually decide what means most to you in order to create that memory, then you have chosen your consequences. Everything is about knowing that you have the power to choose, not the food. As a result, its amazing what you cut out because you want to, not because your diet plan says you have to.
2. Mental Tools: Food Meditation
Mindful eating. Something Americans don’t do very well. As a culture, we tend to mindlessly inhale our food as if it were the last time food was available on Earth…rather than savor each bite slowly, in smaller portions, and allow culinary experiences to be special. There was a whole exercise we worked on that practiced how to mindfully eat a blueberry. It is amazing how powerful our five senses are when we allow the time to engage them.
3. Food Hacks: Knowledge that debunks typical food marketing myths–the devil is in the details.
I learned so much “eat this not that” information from this program. I could go on forever, but the biggest wow factor I get from people now is when I tell them I learned to drink whole milk instead of skim (GASP!). Why? 1%, 2%, skim…chemicals are used to thin milk. Now I drink lactose-free whole milk, or coconut milk.
I now “dress” my cups of coffee with the milk options mentioned above, and no. added. sugar. No honey, no sugar in the raw, nothing. I learned that espresso based drinks (when nothing but organic good milk is added to them) are better for your blood sugar than a regular cup with junk added. Lattes are now my comfort treat, but never on an empty stomach.
I also learned that flavored coffee creamers often have a chemical in them called carrageenan. Which, from the way I understood it, disguises calories to your stomach lining so it doesn’t notice how many calories are actually in what you are consuming. And even if what I remember isn’t accurate, the point is it’s just not good for you. Chemicals = bad.
Another adjustment I’ve made is that I now cook with olive oil or with ghee, which is refined butter that is lactose-free. If it isn’t obvious by now that I discovered I am sensitive to lactose, this is why I always err on the side of lactose-free.
There are so many more little things like this, especially regarding how to read nutrition labels and what you really should be looking for. Rule of thumb: if you pick up a nutrition label, including organic items, if you cannot pronounce ingredients and there is a list longer than just a few natural things on the package, don’t buy it. Regardless of how healthily the product is being marketed.
4. When you understand the science behind what certain foods do in your body, it makes it a lot easier to avoid them and/or manage your intake levels.
I was completely shocked to learn how many foods actually process as sugar in your body. I knew to avoid carbs, but I didn’t understand why. I knew too much fruit wasn’t the best, but I didn’t understand why. I thought that because quinoa was a “superfood” it meant I could eat it with every meal. Not. I thought oatmeal was one of those things you can reach for and grab in the depths of your desk if you are in need of snacks and lunch at work. Negatory. I thought that eating 0% fat greek yogurt everyday was giving me the probiotics I needed. Well…that yogurt was giving me a lot more than probiotics. Who knows if those things are even alive by the time you eat the yogurt. I learned that there are better ways to get my ‘probies’ (like powder) that are a much better alternative than stopping up my entire system by lodging it with yogurt every day. (Remember…lactose sensitivity.)
News flash: “grains” include a lot of things that don’t seem like grains. Your glass of wine? Grain. Your favorite “guilt-free corn tortilla chips?” Grain. Your favorite organic kettle corn bag that’s really 75% air? Grain. “Healthy” corn tortilla alternative to flour tortilla wrapped around your migas taco? Grain. Extra fiber crunchy healthy granola cereal that you buy instead of Lucky Charms because you think you’re doing the healthy thing? Grain. Why have I turned into the Grain police? Because on this food diary that is the backbone to your entire treatment (picture of it below), you are only allowed ONE GRAIN PER DAY. I found out that all of the things I liked to eat most in life were grains. Second most limited category on the plan? Dairy. Third most limited category? Category 2 vegetables. AKA sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, and any other veggie that is more appetizing than greens. Why? Because these veggies have sugar in them.
You get the idea…it’s a whole new world when you stick the food diary. At first I wanted to cry and flip my desk all day everyday, because my body was weening itself off of its addiction to grains (sugar, corn, bread, and more), but when I made it past one month without all of that added junk in my diet, I would taste a bite or two of something I used to love, like a mini Snickers, and immediately want to spit it out. My body was clean enough to tell me, “NO M’AM. REJECT THAT NOW.”
I hardly drink alcohol anymore either. Because chances are, I want a piece of bread with my dinner, or a little sweet treat for dessert, more than a glass of wine. Not everyone is like this, but it’s about choices. Hence the reason why this whole exercise is actually liberating instead of limiting.
5. A lifestyle change does not have to mean deprivation and denial—conversely, it can actually mean indulgence.
Prior to this program, I never ate consistently throughout the day. One of the pieces of reading material in the First Line Therapy resource binder is all about how important is to not go more than 3 hours without eating. Contrary to what my social acquaintances think when they see me, I am now eating more than I used to. They say “you look amazing, are you even eating?”
[I could write a whole post just about the ridiculous things people say to you when you start taking care of yourself.]
The answer is yes. Per Dr. Harden’s instruction, I have trained myself to eat every two hours; I’m always eating. I eat big portions of my salads, because spinach has so few calories. It’s what I’m putting in the salad that I count carefully, but I load up on the greens. Greens are the only category on the food diary marked “unlimited,” so I eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner.
During the work day I bring my food and eat very routinely. My days are often crazy, so I’ve managed to make food the part of my schedule that is predictable and consistent. I never eat the office birthday cakes…don’t do it!
Most importantly, this program forces you to want to treat your body right, not to deprive it and/or poison it. At first it isn’t easy to make the proper choices in social settings, but if you’re committed you figure it out. Eventually people stop making comments about what you’re ordering or not ordering.
Here are some photos of the tools and resources I used most during this 12 week program that kept me on track, and evidence of some of my proudest moments:
The point of all of this is to say, that this knowledge and these tweaks in my daily habits are for a lifetime, not just for our wedding. I continued to lose weight after the 12 week program because my body was still just wringing itself out.
In addition to these dietary changes, I exercise as often as I possibly can, and I really enjoy it. Some days I work out twice with a 3 mile run and Power Yoga; some days I just can’t make it to the gym; other days I spin; sometimes I still go to boot camp. Lately I’ve been obsessed with my run and power yoga combo, because running gives me my extra cardio and yoga does wonders for me both mentally and physically. It also makes me really strong. My muscles are cut, my mind is less busy, and I’m generally much happier when I practice daily. Nobody is perfect, so I do what I can because I want to, and I don’t beat myself up when my day is so packed that I just can’t do it all.
I took a dance class the other night for the first time in a while. I was wearing my usual exercise clothes, but with little dance shorts instead of leggings. Growing up a dancer, I spent countless hours in front of full-length mirrors, and I was extra hard on myself and my imperfections. The other day I was dancing, having a great time, and I thought *for the first time in my whole life* “there is nothing on me that I hate anymore.” It was a pretty cool moment.
I hope my story will inspire others to commit to making changes to feel well, and I hope to encourage those who are in the process of finding their wellness to keep on going. On this journey I learned to stop obsessing over pounds, size, and the day to day grind of “fit life” minutia. Commit to enjoying new habits and be open to a new outlook on life, and the results might just shock you.
P.S. – A very special thank you to Dan for his support this past year. Everything is just a little easier when you have a cheerleader.