Alright. So we are 3 days into 2017 and it’s been a bit rough and tumble over here. Between a sick baby, a 9.5 hour drive, crummy weather, and rushing to get things sorted at home (groceries, laundry, etc.) after a week away, I need a vacation from my vacation. Do ya feel me? Also, since I spent the last 6 days stuffing my face with my mom’s home cooking plus a few other treats (I’m looking at you, carrot cake/pumpkin pie/donuts), my body is screaming for me to get back on track. I think my intestines have ghosted me, whatever that means. Or they’re doing the opposite because I don’t feel so hot! I’m happy to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to eating healthy and working out. I had a giant salad for lunch and made this yummy ancho turkey chili (minus the grains) for dinner, and I am feeling better already. This leads me to today’s topic: my journey with health and fitness.
A major change that occurred last year was my outlook on health and fitness. I was always a skinny kid and teenager but then intentionally put on 20 pounds in college because everyone kept telling my I was too skinny. However, I went about it the totally wrong way and gained it in fat. I was still within the normal BMI range, but I was by no means in shape or healthy. I never did any regular exercise unless I was on summer vacation when I would bike or jog in the park. I also danced, but dance practices were only for a few months each year when we prepared for our college’s annual cultural shows. The gym wasn’t a regular part of my week. It was not until the end of college that I began to notice that my clothes were not fitting well, and I just felt overall sluggish and unhealthy.
When I started medical school, a typical day involved 4 hours of class followed by 8+ hours in the library studying. Every. Day. This clearly took a toll on my well-being, physically and mentally speaking. Luckily, I made friends in my class who were very much into working out and who motivated me to go to the school gym regularly. (Oh, how I miss the days of free gym access!) Over time, I was working out 4-5 times per week, 1-2 hours per session. Needless to say I lost a few pounds, gained strength, and felt great! My self-confidence significantly improved through this process as I did not have to worry about how I looked in my clothes. For the first time, I was comfortable in my skin.
I maintained an active lifestyle throughout medical school. Looking back, it gave me so much energy to exercise consistently. For example, during the toughest rotations when I would wake up around 4:30am, commute 45 minutes, work 10-12 hours, and commute back home, I would still make it a priority (actually by that point it was a physical need) to get to the gym. Rain or shine, in the brutal cold, whenever. After the gym I would have dinner and study, sleep, and then repeat the next day. It also helped that I lived at home for the last 1.5 years of school, so I always had healthy home cooking!
As far as nutrition, I could always eat whatever I wanted, and I ate huge portions all the time. To be fair, my appetite was large due to all the physical activity, plus being on my feet most of the day during rotations. If only I had a fitbit then, ha! Anyway, this was probably my downfall when I moved on to residency. I moved to New Orleans where the food is rich, fatty, abundant, and delicious. I also love trying new foods, and everything I tried there was pretty much amazing. Except grits — I still don’t like grits. Anyhow, my eating habits coupled with very high stress levels and very low sleep levels for three consecutive years took a toll on my health and body. I put on some weight, and although it wasn’t alot of weight, I found it nearly impossible to shed it.
I continued to exercise, and at one point I was severely restricting my calorie intake and tracking every bite of food. This was not healthy for me, nor did it help my goals. My struggles continued after moving to Charlotte. The first year that we lived here, we lived in the center of uptown and could walk everywhere. On my weeks off, I would work out, walk the half mile to and from the grocery store, wander all over the city by foot, and cooked at home. We did eat out a fair amount too, so I’m sure this did not help. Despite all my activity and efforts, I still could not shed more than 2 or 3 pounds. My thyroid levels and other labs were all normal.
Throughout this time, my husband kept suggesting going “low-carb.” I always resisted that because I felt it was not sustainable. I did not want a diet or a temporary fix that would ultimately fail. I wanted something lasting and effective. I also was convinced that the body cannot survive without grains and carbs. It wasn’t until 2014 or so that I learned that our body really only needs 70g of carbs per day. That is not alot! I started mulling over trying the low carb thing. I finally started it at the end of 2014 and pretty quickly began seeing results. Then I got pregnant, so my goals shifted to gaining weight intentionally.
During pregnancy, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I was surprised since my levels had been normal about a year and a half prior, but I did not know if it had been brewing already or was a result of pregnancy. I confirmed this year via blood work that it is in fact Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease. Anyhow, about four months after delivering I tried the low-carb option again. I cut out all grains, starches, etc. I began eating protein, healthy fats (avocados, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, etc.), and tons of greens and veggies. I ate some fruit, but not a ton. I was essentially following a paleo-ish diet (I still ate legumes at times). I also started Kayla Itsines’ 12 week BBG program which kicked my butt, but I loved it. I would be drenched in sweat after 28 minutes, whereas I could be on an elliptical for an hour and not break a major sweat. More importantly, BBG made me physically stronger. It incorporates alot of plyometrics (jumping, etc.) and body weight movements to force you to use your own strength instead of lifting 10 pound dumbbells all day. It also incorporates low intensity days scattered between the high intensity workout days.
With this lifestyle change, I lost all of my baby weight over the course of 7-8 months. On average, I lost a pound a week which is the normal rate. My goal is to get to my med school weight, so I have about 6-7 pounds to go, but I am not fixated on the scale. I also know I have some more muscle mass, so this adds to my weight. I am focused now on how I feel and fit in my clothes to guide me.
I started eating carbs again very sparingly, especially around the holidays (with the last being a free for all). I definitely notice an immediate impact when I do indulge — my energy levels go WAY down, and my gut feels terrible. I learned this year how bad gluten is for everyone, not just people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten is inflammatory and can lead to leaky gut. As we are starting to find out, gut health and the microbiome are being touted as majorly impacting the rest of your health, including mental health. There is also a possible link between gluten and autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s. I am interested to see whether adhering to a gluten-free diet will help me control my thyroid disease.
Lord knows we don’t learn enough about nutrition in school, and so much of it is ever-changing. For instance, fats were demonized for so long. Everything became “low fat” in the grocery stores. However, the downside was that they added more sugar to make it taste better. Now, fats are making a comeback, and sugar is the demon. I think we definitely need a good balance and not eat deep fried everything or slather all our veggies in butter. However, healthy fats are good for the brain and necessary for alot of hormonal activities in our bodies. I aim to consume a good amount of healthy fats daily including olive oil (uncooked, drizzled on salads), avocado, fish, nuts, seeds, and coconut oil (for cooking).
On the other hand, it seems like nothing good ever came from consuming sugar. Sugar is basically the new cigarette, except the resultant diseases include metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes instead of lung cancer. Take a guess at which one has a greater impact on our society, not to mention our economy as our struggling health care system is pushed to the limits trying to treat all of the ailments caused by sugar.
I learned ALOT about nutrition and health this year, much of which contradicts what we have been taught all our lives. Social media also helped me greatly (shockingly). If you’re interested in nutrition, exercise, getting healthier, losing weight, or just plain feeling better, there are so many resources out there. Below are the people/accounts/books/resources that really motivated and helped me along the way.
Kayla Itsines (BBG)
Gracies Journey — also onYouTube
EricaFitLove — also on YouTube
Sarahs_Day — also on YouTube
Rachel Aust — also on YouTube
BrownGirlLifts (Indian!) — also on YouTube
Another YouTuber I recently learned about via my husband is Casey Neistat. He makes fantastic videos, has an incredible work ethic, is super creative, is a husband and father, lives in NYC, travels all over the world, and is extremely fit. Check out these videos for a glimpse into his typical day and his fitness. And then binge watch all his other videos which are awesome. Here’s a recent Christmas video of him flying a drone.
I absolutely love Juli of PaleOMG! Her blog is the perfect culmination of amazing healthy recipes, fitness, fashion, and travel. Check out her website and IG. Also, Juli has recently come out with a podcast! She’s about 15 episodes in, but it provides a great background of how she turned her blog into a successful business. I also love her exuberant cussing, humor, honesty, and straight up hatred of McDonalds and soda.
Two books I listened to this year were Grain Brain and The Dirt Cure. I wrote about them before, so check out that post for my views on both of those.
“FedUp” – documentary on sugar, and the evil, evil food industry. It’s available on Netflix. If you only ever watch one food documentary in your life, this should be it.
In retrospect, I am truly glad I had difficulty losing weight because it opened my eyes to a whole new way of eating and living. Of course I sometimes miss being able to eat anything and everything I want without worrying about my external appearance. I don’t call my food choices a “diet” since that word has inherently temporary and negative connotations. I don’t care about calories. I feel best when I eat mostly Paleo, and I’m also all about intuitive eating and listening to my natural hunger and fullness cues. I am much more cognizant of how food and exercise affect internal health, and that is far more important in the long run. The resulting improvement in external appearance is an added perk, not the end goal.
So do you feel overwhelmed? I certainly did at the start of my efforts. Here are some tips and suggestions to start leading a healthier lifestyle.
- A clean food has one ingredient. Examples: Carrots. Fish. Cashews. Mangos. So cupcakes are not clean, even if they are labeled with “healthy” terms like “gluten free,” “vegan,” etc.
- Read labels! Look at sugar content and carbohydrate content. The more fiber something has, the better. The less sugar something has, the better.
- Read ingredients lists. The few items, the better. The more words you recognize, the better. Or, choose clean foods and you know that each food has one ingredient — itself. Compare the ingredients in a jar of natural peanut butter (peanuts, salt) to the ingredients in a jar of Skippy.
- Use spices to season and flavor food.
- Shop around the perimeter of the supermarket and avoid the aisles where most of the processed foods are found. Around the perimeter is mostly everything you need: veggies, fruits, meats, fish, eggs, dairy (if you want).
- Don’t drink juice. It’s just a bottle of sugar.
- Don’t drink soda. It’s just a bottle of sugar. Plus, it has no nutrients. Seriously, what is the point of soda???
- Avoid diet drinks and energy drinks.
- Drink boat loads of water.
- Find what motivates you. People on social media. A FitBit or other fitness tracker. A vision board. Pick something and make it part of your daily life so you are constantly motivated.
- Choose exercises that you enjoy doing. If you like it, you will work harder rather than wondering when it will be over already (ahem, me and running). If you enjoy something and don’t dread it, it will be easier to keep going.
- Get outside, even if you think it is too cold. Fresh air and sunlight do wonders for your body and mood.
- Listen to your body. Eat if you feel hungry, and stop when you are not hungry. Have you heard about Hara Hachi Bu? It means eating until you are 80% full and has been linked to long life spans of Okinawans.
Do you have any fitness and nutrition goals? It is never too late to get started and educate yourself! Don’t start tomorrow or next week. Start now, and bombard your daily life with motivation.