Monday, June 10, 2013

Weight Loss and Health

May 2005. Weight: 230lbs (Height: 5'5")

For awhile now, I have been asked to write about my recent weight loss. I understand these requests, but I held off for a couple reasons. For one, I wasn't done. (I'm still not done.) For another, I was waiting to take some followup medical tests.

When one loses weight, people want to know how and why. Especially how. I understand that because it can be so hard to find the right approach and then to stick with it, even if one has a lot of initial motivation. It can seem like an impossible task, fraught with failure.

Been there, done that.

I get that when someone succeeds, people want to know the gritty details, but it's a little intimidating to put it all out there, because it seems to invite judgement. Merely explaining one's eating plan can cause some people to react as if they are being judged. Food and eating can be a "sticky" issue with people.

I am going to tell you why I lost the weight, what approach I used, and point you towards resources so you can find more information, if you are so inclined. I am not a weight loss guru and don't want this to become a weight loss, or even a health, blog. I'm sure you don't want that, either.

Table of contents:


I have had issues with weight my entire life, and was identified, by some of my peers, as "the fat kid" even when I really wasn't fat (but that's how it was in the "old days" if you weren't as thin as your friends). My first "diet" experience was when my mother encouraged me to go on Weight Watchers when I was 16 and was maybe 20 pounds overweight. (My mother maintained a trim figure all her life.)

This was back when Weight Watchers was just a book that espoused a rather strict eating plan. There were no "WW groups" or any organized WW activity until much later. I followed the eating plan religiously (I remember measuring out my small bowls of Special K with skim milk and weighing everything) and I lost weight - down to 125lbs. I maintained it for awhile. Then I entered college and started gaining weight. When I left college I was around 192lbs. I slimmed down after college, got married, had kids, and gained weight with each pregnancy. This is hardly an unusual story.

May 2001.
Not sure of my weight, but it was about 18 months after my divorce.
My kids were 5 and 7 when this was taken.

Even before my divorce, I was dealing with depression. (Depression has been a frequent visitor to my life.) I also had a slow thyroid (half of my thyroid and parathyroid were removed when I was in my early 20s due to a tumor, and the remaining half doesn't work well), and I gained a lot of weight. After my divorce, I continued to gain weight. In 2005, I reached my highest weight of 230lbs.

Poor Health

In early 2006, I went to the doctor due to some troubling peri-menopausal symptoms I was having. They ran all the routine tests that they like to run. The results came in and I had full blown type 2 diabetes (my A1c was over 9), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

I admit it, the doctor managed to instill me with considerable fear. She gave me a stack of prescriptions, and I filled the one for the blood glucose meter, lancets, and strips. Oh joy. The idea of testing my own blood made me want to vomit. I recollect fainting at one point, but was finally able to get past my aversion. (Now I don't even think about it.)

A work lunch, Dec 2005, before starting ETL

I immediately started following Eat to Live (ETL) by Dr Joel Fuhrman. This eating plan includes loads of exercise (particularly crucial for diabetics), and I chose to walk, sometimes for miles, and often uphill. (San Francisco has plenty of stairs and hills.)

Within a few months, I had reversed all of these conditions, without the aid of any prescription medications, and stunned the doctor. I had also lost quite a bit of weight, but that was secondary to the health improvements.

The first time I'd been following ETL.
Weight: 154 lbs, sometime in late 2006.

For a year or two, I was a poster child for ETL - I embraced the eating and exercise plan. At this point my weight had stabilized at 154lbs and my blood glucose numbers were in the normal range. I continued in this path for some time but, slowly, I slid off plan (during an extended period of extreme personal stress), re-introducing the foods that cause problems for me, and exercising less and less. While I only regained about 10lbs on the scale, I regained all of my ill health, and then some.

Fast forward through several years of what was tantamount to extreme self abuse, eating unhealthy foods, too much of them, and not exercising. Even though I had only regained about 10lbs, my health was very poor. I avoided going to the doctor because I am stubborn that way. (Some might even say pigheaded.) When I finally did go, things were quite grim indeed. I suffered from:

  • Raging Type 2 Diabetes (my A1c was over 12 - this time they wanted me on insulin)
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Moderate-to-severe GERD
  • Rosacea
  • Osteo arthritis in my left hand
  • Severe peripheral neuropathy in both feet
  • My kidneys were stressed
  • My vision was affected
  • My digestion was a mess

I was 53. People do die of Type 2 diabetes in their 50s and I was headed down that track. And I wasn't sure that I cared.

Nov 2010. Approx 165lbs
You can really see where I carry my weight in this pic.
June 2011
Aug 2011. Oh dear.

Even with the discomfort from poor health, I was having trouble getting back to healthy living. For maybe a year I tried, repeatedly, and I would succeed maybe for a few days, if that. Then I'd slide right back off. I wasn't making any real headway with weight loss or my health and was frustrated and depressed.

With my health issues, I needed some drastic intervention. A program that took a mild approach wasn't going to cut it for me and bring my blood glucose down from the rafters. The post, Peace with Food, on the Engine2Diet blog, sums up my own experience pretty well.

Finding the Motivation

Last fall, Oct 2012, I attended the Design Outside the Lines retreat with Marcy Tilton and Diane Ericson in Taos, New Mexico. On the first day of the retreat, Marcy gave us an exercise called Cultivating Creative Courage. This exercise is structured around a daily ritual that includes warming up the body and meditating, or merely sitting quietly. I talked to my roommate, Gwen, about giving it a try when we returned home.

But I didn't.

A couple weeks after the retreat, I received an email from Gwen. She had been practicing the exercise and was finding it useful. She wanted to compare notes. I felt badly that I hadn't done it even once, so I resolved to try it. I performed the daily exercise for a week or so and something unexpected happened. I started finding the motivation to take care of myself - to eat right, to get exercise. Something had finally clicked after all those months of trying-but-failing over and over.

I already had the tools I needed at my disposal - I knew how to eat, what to eat, how to move. I even owned a high powered Vitamix blender and a useful (though unused) vegetable steamer, but I had lacked the motivation and follow through. So when I found that drive, I was able to fall into my healthy habits almost overnight. (This was not the case the first time I started ETL, when I was figuring it out as I went along, and saving up for that Vitamix.)

Gwen and I, Oct 2012, at DOL in Taos, New Mexico
With Marcy Tilton, also at DOL, Oct 2012.
Weight: 165 lbs.
Summer 2012, with Jillian

Return to Health

Since last fall, I have lost 36 pounds, but since 2005, I have lost over 100 pounds. (I was 230lbs in 2005 before I started ETL the first time and, as of today, I am 129lbs.) More importantly, I have reversed virtually all of the health conditions in my "poor health" list.

I repeated the blood tests last week and received the results today. My A1c is 5.8 (5.6 and under is considered normal). My cholesterol is 176 (normal). My blood pressure is normal. My kidneys are now functioning normally. The GERD/reflux is gone. My rosacea has cleared up, and the arthritis in my left hand is gone. Even my vision has improved.

The doctor said to me today, as she related the improved numbers, "Just keep doing what you're doing!"

The only prescription medication I take is Synthroid, so these improvements are due to eating and exercise - not from modern meds.

The one condition on my list that I have not fully reversed is the peripheral neuropathy in my feet, but even that has dramatically improved. No longer do I suffer from frequent, sharp shooting pains down my legs into my feet. No longer does the pain from the weight of the bedding against my feet keep me awake at night. No longer, if I step on a power cord, does the pain reverberate so badly that I have to freeze and wait for the waves to pass. No longer is it excruciatingly painful to have the skin on my big toes touched, even lightly. I still have some numbness and tingling in both feet that may never go away entirely, but I am hopeful.

May 2013. Weight: 134 lbs

Not Done Yet

I am not done losing weight. People often volunteer that I should stop losing weight, but this is about health. I still have a belly. That belly fuels the diabetes. Yes, I still have diabetes, even though my A1c is close to normal. I can see the effect that even the healthiest meal has on my blood glucose and my pancreas still struggles. In order to avoid the possibility of diabetes-related complications down the road, I need to lose the belly and reduce the load on my exhausted pancreas. But, at this point, I work hard to lose every pound. It is a very.slow.process and I just have to be patient and persistent.

And maybe whine a bit to my tolerant friends. ;)

What IS Eat to Live?

Eat to Live, developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, is a plant-based eating program. The primary concept is that you eat foods that are the most nutritionally dense in order to flood your body with nutrients. You avoid processed foods, oil, salt, and animal products. Dr Fuhrman has written several books (see the resources section), and has recorded two programs for PBS. He has a website, with an online forum (not free), but there are also blogs, Facebook groups, and yahoo groups that provide free information and support.

I found Eat to Live, many years ago, via a vegan food blog. I sat up and paid attention when the blogger said that, due to following this way of eating, she finally kicked her addiction to sugar. When it came to sugar, I felt completely helpless and out of control.

Dr Fuhrman has seen many patients turn their health around by following his program. He is no stranger to patients who have experienced dramatic improvements in their health. He has newsletters on his website that include protocols for those dealing with specific health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune conditions like fibromyalgia or lupus.

What Do I Eat?

I eat 2 or 3 meals a day.

Usually one meal is a green smoothie, such as a kale or spinach smoothie, and includes water, juice of a Meyer lemon, flax seed, frozen fruit, and whatever else I want to throw in, such as zucchini, apple, bok choy, microgreens, avocado. (My smoothie is more of a formula than a recipe.) I pour it into a bowl, sprinkle with some nuts and seeds, and maybe some fresh berries, and eat it with a spoon. Yum.

One of my kale smoothies

My second meal is generally a large (mixing-bowl-sized) salad with some beans, or maybe a smaller salad with a steamed, water sauteed, or baked veggie. Or, instead of the veggie, maybe some homemade vegetable soup. This is what works for me, as I am not much into cooking and like to keep it simple.

If I am hungry and want a third meal, it is similar to the second meal. So, if one meal is a large salad with beans, the other meal will be (for example) a smaller salad along with a steamed vegetable.

The Secret to Success

The secret to my success is pretty simple. Once I passed through detox, and was eating plenty of greens, I lost my cravings for highly processed, nutritionally deficient, addictive foods. By that I mean, I do not sit around and think about food all of the time. I do not crave foods that I used to crave, like pizza, chocolate, or ice cream. (I used to call those my food groups. I remember my kids sometimes complaining, "Not pizza again, mom!!)

Now, this is not to say that I never slip up. I have slipped up plenty, especially if I was feeling weak and was presented with the foods in which I used to overindulge. But I always always get right back on plan. I have to. This has to be a permanent lifestyle for me if I want to keep using my eyeballs and my feet, and I am rather fond of both. I want to be wearing my Trippens for years to come. Having fallen off the plan several years ago has taught me that I really can't allow myself to go down that path again. I don't know that my pancreas could survive a third round of extended self abuse.

What About Exercise?

Exercise is also an important part of ETL. Particularly for diabetics, who are advised to exercise before each meal, 7 days a week. I definitely do not achieve this lofty goal, but when I do, my blood glucose numbers are better. I aim for daily exercise and am very happy if I can get in two sessions a day. This time around, I joined a local YMCA and I use both the cardio equipment and the weight training machines. Occasionally, I take classes such as yoga or pilates. I have an extensive playlist on my iPhone and I do enjoy working out to my tunes.

Walking one of the steepest hills in SF, rocking out to tunes

I will say that consistent exercise can be my biggest challenge.


If you want more information or support, here are some resources for you.

First up, I am listing some the books by Dr Fuhrman - there are others. (The pics are clickable.)

Dr Fuhrman has also recorded two specials for PBS. You might want to look out for these during pledge drives.

  • 3 Steps to Incredible Health
  • Immunity Solution

Dr Fuhrman has a website, which includes testimonials, newsletters, recipes, and a forum. You have to pay for some of these services, though you can get one free newsletter (of your choice) if you sign up for his email. I am also listing some groups that are free, though they are not hosted by Dr Fuhrman, but by followers/fans:

There are lots of blogs and recipe sites, but here are a couple of interest:

  • Fat Free Vegan is the best resource for recipes for this way of eating. Susan Voisin, founder of Fat Free Vegan, also manages the Eat to Live Yahoo group.
  • One of the blogs I follow is Fifty Not Frumpy. It was a surprise when I learned that she also lost weight, and regained her health, via Eat to Live! She has written a post about it, How I lost 40 lbs and healed my body.

There are also other doctors, and experts, with similar programs to Dr Fuhrman's. They vary in some details, but are also a good source for information and recipes. There are the Esselstyn's (father and son), Dr Dean Ornish, Dr Gabriel Cousens, Dr Neal Barnard, John Robbins, Dr McDougall, to name a few. I may come back later and add some more links, if that seems useful.

Other books that are helpful. (The pics are click-able.)

There are videos to watch:

There are other resources, but this list feels so long already, that I will stop here. If you want more information, and can't find it, let me know and I'll see what I can dig up.

Here's to health!