Diet and exercise? Make realistic lifestyle choices that stick!

A friend of mine had decided that she wanted to lose some weight – and so she joined a number of social media groups and checked out a whole collection of websites, dedicated to the very subject. And it all became very complicated and time-consuming. 

“Why are you doing all of this?” I asked her. “Why don’t you just eat less and exercise a bit more?” She became a little defensive and snapped back at me “aren’t you interested in healthy eating?” I said of course I am – but in a realistic way. And I knew her well enough to know that she was never going to stick with all of those dos-and-don’ts and fancy recipes. She worked full-time, had an impressive brood of children, and her life was chaotic and fast-paced. Plus, she loved her food and drink. This ‘research’ was a form of procrastination – the appearing to be doing something whilst not actually taking action. We’ve all done that, haven’t we?

Now, don’t get me wrong; if getting up at 5 a.m. to go for a long walk or run, followed by a cold shower, and a carefully thought-out breakfast of something green whipped up in the juice maker is your thing – and it works for you – then go for it. If strict rules about what your food contains or doesn’t contain, and making sure that you get absolutely the right amount of vitamin this and that naturally, rather than through supplements, is your bag, then hats off to you. But it probably isn’t going to work long-term for the ‘average’ person.

Do I eat healthily? Relatively so, I would say (although purists would disagree). Do I regularly over-eat? No, I don’t, not anymore – which is a conscious decision that requires conscious effort. Is it worth that effort? Absolutely, one hundred percent. Do I think about food fairly often? Oh yes. Do I eat sugar and drink alcohol? Yes – but not excessively so. If I didn’t, I’d probably go a bit mad and end up having periodic binges. Do I occasionally have a day on which I eat more than I normally do? Yes – but I don’t do it regularly, and I will explain why.

Now that my body has become accustomed to a more regulated food intake, when I do over-eat, particularly if it is sugar-laden food, I feel like c**p the next day. I feel hungover. And if I drink more alcohol than I normally do, I definitely feel hungover – and I don’t enjoy it. Plus, it causes me to feel sluggish and a bit negative – which is a very important observation. Over-eating and drinking affect our mental and emotional state as much as it does our body. So, knowing that, if I am tempted to over-indulge, I first ask myself if I am really willing to pay the price the following day? Occasionally, the answer might be “yes – to hell with it!” But usually, it encourages me to make different choices. If I am determined to eat something that I don’t really need, could I at least pick this option instead of that? And it is this kind of thinking that has really helped me to become more in control of my eating and drinking. 

However, sometimes an urge is not going to be pacified by an alternative – and I’ll give you an example. I love peanut butter. I mean, I really love it. I cannot allow myself to have it in the house, pretending that I’ll just have a couple of teaspoonsful on a rice cake. Because I know for sure that the time will come when I cave in and sneak downstairs in the night, with the sole intention of grabbing a spoon and tucking in. And then I’ll feel disgusted with myself, having not only been a first-class piggie-wig but also having added a zillion extra calories to my daily count. So, peanut butter has become a major treat. And, as Christmas is approaching, the shops are starting to stock chocolate-covered, peanut butter Christmas trees (how dare they do this to me?). I drool over them; I pick up a pack and then sadly put it back on the shelf (after wiping off the drool). But, last week, I thought “you know what, this is ridiculous! If you really want them then have the bloody things!” Tentatively, I checked the calories: approximately 340 for two trees. Not too bad, in the grand scheme of things. So, I bought them, took them home, made a cup of tea (I love tea with anything sweet), and sat down to savour the bliss! But that meant that something else had to go or at least be moderated – and it was worth every fabulous mouthful! The funny thing is, I no longer harbor the same burning desire when I am faced with a boxful of the beauties. I still love them – but my urge has been sated… if only temporarily. And they are definitely going on my Christmas wish list. Christmas eve, Christmas day, and boxing day are definitely guilt-free zones! (Knowing this keeps me from stuffing my face with all of the available high-fat, high-sugar goodies that surround us throughout December). 

You might have noticed that I have mentioned calories a number of times – but don’t let that put you off. Calorie counting isn’t for everyone, but it definitely works for me. Even when I reached the weight at which I was satisfied, I continued to log my calories on a daily basis, because I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t consistently but unwittingly over-eating. And because I kind of enjoy it (call me weird, I don’t mind!). I love making lists, too. I always have a notebook in my coffee table drawer, with three daily columns per page, dated at the top, and everything I eat and drink is jotted down. Some people have said to me “oh, I couldn’t be bothered with all of that!”, but it’s important to me and doesn’t feel like a bother at all. You end up memorising how many calories are in this and that without having to check, and most packaging now provides all of the nutritional information of the product inside. It isn’t difficult. However, it still may not be for you, so, if you feel that you want to lose weight then adopt a method that works for you. Try a few things out. At the end of the day, it is still only about the balance of energy-in-energy-out. The important thing is not to guess! If you’ve ever watched Secret Eaters, you will know two things: 1) many people who are unhappy with their weight eat far more than they realise, and 2) guessing doesn’t work. We at least need some degree of knowledge, so that we don’t wrongly assume that things like mayonnaise, cheese, pasta, and olive oil can be eaten in vast amounts because they’re ‘healthy’. And that sticking a lettuce leaf and a tomato on the side doesn’t negate the damage done by whatever else is on the plate! Oh – and that drinks need to be included, too, unless they don’t contain any calories. 

You see, the secret is to create a way of eating that will work forever. A permanent lifestyle choice. Diets have a temporary feel – something to be gotten through. It’s a sad fact of life that most of us cannot eat and eat without an ounce of awareness and consideration and not experience repercussions. Which is fine, if we don’t mind and aren’t at all fazed by that. But if our body weight and our health do concern us, then we need to take active but realistic and workable control over the situation. Nothing and no one else can do it for us. And we need to genuinely enjoy the food that we are eating – otherwise, we won’t stick with it – whilst also making sure that we get a bit of everything we need. I genuinely enjoy salad and vegetables, and I like to have them with hot and cold food – and I like different textures, too. However, I have heard some people say “well, I don’t like salad or vegetables” whenever the subject of weight loss comes up, as if “that’s it then – that’s me having to accept that I’m stuck at my unhappy weight.” You know what, bite the bullet! Have a bit of backbone and resolve. Try different foods and different ways of preparing them. If you really can’t stand the taste or texture of something, then don’t eat it. But at least attempt to expand your food horizons – or don’t. No one has to do anything that they really don’t want to or isn’t important enough to them. But there are no free lunches in this world (low or high calorie), and if it is change that we desire then change has to occur. We can’t have our cake and eat it!

So, what do I typically eat? Well, stuff that I enjoy. Is it the healthiest diet in the world? Probably not, but neither is it the worst, and I generally have a lot of energy and have managed to keep my weight stable for almost two years. 

A usual breakfast comprises two rice cakes spread with either blue cheese (15g) or pate (22g) – I’m not vegan, as you can see! – topped by a thin piece of ham and a little low-fat coleslaw (50g), and a cup of tea without sugar and only a touch of milk (because that’s how I like it). Sometimes, I will have a large bowl of chopped up banana, apple, and grapes, with around 75mls of skimmed milk. Or a bowl of All Bran and banana with skimmed milk. 

Lunch might be a ham and cheese salad, or a brown bap with ham salad. I often include apple and grapes in the salad, along with all of the usual stuff like tomatoes, onion, cucumber, beetroot, raw carrot, and red pepper. Oh, and rocket. Or I might have a small tin of baked beans with several slices of ham, and some coleslaw on the side (there’s no accounting for taste!).

Dinner is often something like a portion of sweet and sour chicken or curry, both with rice, served on a large bed of rocket (I love rocket!). Or it could be lasagne and salad, or a piece of oven-baked battered cod and salad. Occasionally I will have oven-baked chips (200g) if I’m really in the mood, and I tend to use vinegar, low-sugar chilli sauce, low-fat mayonnaise (though you can’t beat full-fat mayo!), or brown sauce. And ‘pudding’ will be an ice cream cornet (I have found the most amazing brand, with cookie cones!) at 236 calories, and a small bottle of strong cider at 270 calories, or a large glass of white wine at 250 calories. Remember, this is my non-diet-permanent-diet. I have, over time, worked out the number of calories I can consume, at my usual level of activity, to keep my weight where I want it to be and provide enough energy to be able to get through the day. I try not to go over 2000 calories too often, and the usual is somewhere between 1700 and 1900, though some days it may be a bit less. All of this means that I can have the odd days of over-eating, say for a bbq or a weekend bike rally, without worrying too much. 

One of the plus points for me, of adopting a non-diet-permanent-diet lifestyle choice, is being able to open my wardrobe and know that I can fit into 95% of what is in there. At times in the past, I’ve been unable to fit into most of my clothes, refusing to invest in bigger sizes – and it was depressing, especially when I didn’t have anything nice to fit into for a special occasion. So yes, vanity is a bit of a motivator for me, which I should probably be embarrassed to admit. But it was also the realisation that my post-menopausal belly was leaving me susceptible to a number of health conditions, that worried me the most. And being unfit in older age. I really didn’t relish that. However, don’t get me wrong – I still have some post-menopausal wobble hanging around my midsection – and I’ll never be able to get rid of it. I could reduce my overall weight even further and shrink it a little… but then I’d have no boobs at all and an even scraggier neck! So, without resorting to liposuction, I’m left with accepting it and tucking it into my Bridget Jones-style knickers! 

As for exercise, the more we get into it, the more we appreciate its benefits. I’d say that it gets easier but that probably isn’t exactly true – because we tend to push ourselves a bit further and a bit further. If we haven’t engaged in much exercise for quite some time (apart from being on our feet a lot), it can be daunting – and I have seen a fair number of people give up quickly because it’s hard work. Also, when in a class environment, and there are others who are obviously not struggling as much as we are, it can be disheartening. The trick is to find something that we actually enjoy, and then it becomes genuinely worth gritting our teeth and persevering. With consistency, we will become fitter and we will feel better – over time! For me, it is kickboxing and rapid walking, and I quite enjoy jumping up and down on my mini trampoline whilst waving a couple of weights around! Always accompanied by music… can’t do it without. We don’t even have to spend money to become fitter, because we can dance and leap around in our living room, using two cans of baked beans from the kitchen cupboard as weights. We can follow YouTube videos, on a whole variety of activities. We can create our own routine. However, I would guard against flinging ourselves in wholeheartedly if we’re not quite as fit and flexible as we’d like to be. Starting off gently and being consistent are important. And the very least that we can do for ourselves is to learn how to stretch properly and increase our flexibility. Body stiffness is horribly debilitating, painful, and aging. If in doubt, check with your doctor and ask for advice and suggestions, because the last thing any of us want is to unnecessarily injure ourselves, adding to our problems rather than improving them.

I will finish by saying that where weight loss and fitness are concerned, there are three important P’s: patience, perseverance, and positivity. If we’re going to go to the trouble of getting up in the morning, moving about, and eating, we might as well try to make it work for us. Time will move on whether we do anything about it or not. A month will pass and we could be the same, or heavier and stiffer, or we could be a little lighter and a bit less stiff. We’ll be a year older next birthday, regardless – again, we could be a year older and feeling exactly the way we did twelve months earlier, or we could feel even worse than we did – or we could feel better than we did. And we have a much greater chance of becoming healthier and more energetic, in the long term, if we adopt a realistic approach that works for us on a daily basis. We’ve got to enjoy what we’re eating… and we’ve got to see it as a way of life – not a ‘diet’!             

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An intuitive consultant, blogger and writer; a lover of motorbikes, Formula 1 motor racing, music, reading, walking, camping and ongoing self - improvement!

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