Updated March 20, 2013
I have been heavy most of my life, but until I began this way of eating, I did not realize that I had been obese for almost all of my adult life. I had been in a certain amount of denial, during the last 35 years of being way heavier than my body should have to take. I did Weight Watchers twice, once in the 70s, when I reached my goal for a total of about 4 months. I began to eat “normally” again and almost immediately began to regain. In the 80s, I did Weight Watchers again and I got within 30 pounds of my goal, but I got no further and regained again, up to about 225 pounds. For several years when I was in my 50s, I had a relatively active job and I kept my weight in the high 180s, which for me was relatively slim. Despite my weight, I have always had relatively good health, low blood pressure, and few physical problems, so I managed to “keep the doctors away.”
I have always realized that eating whole foods in as close to their natural state as possible (the La Leche League food philosophy) was important for good health. I have gone through periods of being vegetarian; I read, “Diet for a Small Planet,” cooked from “Cooking More with Less” and “Whole Foods for the Whole Family.” I tried the “Fit for Life” diet of the mid-80s, which was not vegetarian, but more about the old-fashioned concept of food combining, and I found I preferred the meals with the grains and vegetables to the meals with meats and vegetables, so I stopped eating meat for a while, but never lost much weight. Of course, my ventures into vegetarianism always included sautéing those veggies in oil, topping them with butter or margarine, and baking lots of yummy cookies and brownies, and blue cheese dressing on my salad! In the 2000s, as a radical change for me, I tried the South Beach Diet (my only foray into low-carbing), lost 32 pounds, and stayed there for a year and a half. After losing no more for all that time, being very compliant, I gave up and regained up to 223 pounds.
To sum up, I had been struggling with being obese for 35 years of my adult life, denying/ignoring that I was obese, trying [sensible] diets, reading, learning, struggling, with none of it working or lasting for long. I have years of practice with vegetarian eating, and years of practice cooking lean meats and fish. In dieting I dealt with hunger, denial, feelings of deprivation, temptation, self-indulgence, guilt, remorse, self-disgust, and then new resolutions to be better next time, with each new resolve bringing on its own round of guilt, “I know better than to fail like that! I’m a smart, educated woman, what is the matter with me?”
In late 2009, I turned 60. I began to really suffer the effects of being nearly 100 pounds too heavy for my 5′ 3″ frame. My right hip and right knee began to hurt and give way at random times. At first I could relieve the pain when I sat in my desk chair at work, and in bed. Eventually, my leg hurt all the time—when I was lying down, sitting, or standing. I work on the second floor of a building with no elevator, and the trip up the stairs was getting more and more slow, and humiliating. To get up the single step that we have at the front door of our house, I had to put my hands on my knee to brace myself to bring my first leg up the step. It was hard to stand at the sink and wash dishes. I could not do cleaning that involved getting on the floor, and changing bed sheets was agony. I was not sleeping well, since the pain would wake me up or keep me awake. I stopped using lower cabinets and dresser drawers. If something dropped on the floor, it would very likely stay there, as there were only two ways to pick it up—bending straight from the waist, since I couldn’t bend my knees and hope to ever rise again, or getting down on my hands and knees, and getting up by grabbing a very sturdy piece of furniture to use to drag myself up. (Sometimes, if I had gotten down in the middle of a room, I had to crawl across the room to get to the suitable piece of furniture!) My adult children were coming home to visit for Christmas, and I felt bad that I couldn’t prepare a clean house for them.
I began to look at the rest of my life. My mother and her sister, both smokers, died of breast cancer before they turned 70. My father and his mother, and my mother’s brother, all lived beyond 90. Neither prospect looked good to me. I was old before my time. The thought of another 30 years of being unable to walk, stand, sit or lie down without pain; of being unable to move around freely, was horrendous! I have children, and grandchildren, and I want to see them grow up. I want to spend as much time with my husband as possible, not whining and dragging behind, but keeping up in all our activities. I knew I had to do something, but I felt that since I had tried so many times, been (let’s face it) obese for so long, and I was past menopause, there was no hope for me to lose all this weight. The best I could hope for was to “lose a few pounds” and “grow old gracefully,” but how graceful could I be at the weight I was, with the pain I had?
At a Christmas party, we saw a friend we hadn’t seen for a year. She told us she had lost 74 pounds in that year. I asked her what she had done, and she told me she had had classes learning how to cook an “anti-cancer” diet: whole foods, no animal products, and so on. Something clicked for me; she was my age, and if she could lose weight, then so could I. I began to research that kind of eating on the Internet. After a few false starts, I eventually found the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) website, looking for a weight loss program there. Somehow, I was lucky enough to find a link to some testimonials about Dr. McDougall. It was a very exciting, tempting and weird concept that we could lose weight eating potatoes and rice! I checked out Dr. M pretty carefully, since I had already found some oddball diet and health ideas on the web. Everything he said sounded credible, but I had never in my life seriously considered the concept of eating non-meat foods without oil. Even the weight-loss diet on the PCRM site had me sautéing in oil, and using oil in salad dressings. But I decided to be honest with myself and face the fact that I had probably had enough oil in my life, and it wouldn’t hurt to try to learn to cook without it.
Correction: PCRM advocates for an oil-free, low-fat, plant-based dietary pattern with around 10 percent of its calories from fat.
During the first shopping trip for a new supply of groceries, I was in an agony of pain. I had to give up after half an hour—that was as long as I could stand up, before the pain got too great, and I had to leave the store without several items from the list. It was enough to begin, though. I started out on the 12-day free program; I printed out every page of every day of the plan, and started that weekend, cooking the meals to see how they were. I didn’t like some—they went to the back of the pile. But I have to say that the first bite of brown rice, after 5 years of eschewing “carbs,” brought tears to my eyes! It was like welcoming back an old friend!
Since this way of eating was partly old-fashioned to me, and partly revolutionary, I really dove into it head-first, reading and learning everything I could, gathering recipes, reading the newsletters, and eventually discovering the discussion board with its wealth of resources, including Jeff Novick’s fantastic insights, eating plans, and pragmatic advice on reading labels, and being skeptical of food label claims. I read all the Star McDougaller stories, which really gave me motivation and hope, and a desire to one day be a person who could have a story to tell, too.
My husband was very supportive, although he didn’t join me 100% on this journey, and he was my champion at restaurants, insisting that my food have “absolutely NO OIL!” (He’s big & tall, & waiters listen to him!) He has rooted for me every step of the way.
Since my husband didn’t join me, I could not clear my house of all foods that I wouldn’t be eating, and I had to develop an attitude that would keep me from eating foods not on plan. There were two habits that I found valuable. The first was to always be prepared. Every weekend, I would make a general food plan that I shopped and cooked for, making enough food for the week’s lunches and dinners. I did this to keep myself from “poor me syndrome”—the condition of feeling that I am hungry and it will be so long until I can get to food, I had better eat whatever is at hand. I instead developed “enough syndrome”—I have had enough and there is food already prepared for me at home. I also tried to have an emergency set of food at work in case I found we wouldn’t be going home at the regular time—microwaveable brown rice bowls and canned tomatoes & green beans are a life saver! Second, I developed an attitude towards non-plan food that told me that it is “not food.” The chocolates in the jar in the office, the cheese in the drawer at home, the fried calamari on the table at the restaurant, were no longer food to me—no more than the table linens or the candles were food. I knew what I was going to eat, and it would be available soon, and I was not about to start gnawing on “not-food” while I waited. These two habits helped me a lot in getting with the program and finding a way to make it work for life, not just for a temporary weight loss.
Within a month, the pains had begun to recede from my hip and knee. I began exercising gently, using the Wii Fit and doing beginner’s yoga. I have exercised almost every day since beginning this program, but very gently and briefly compared to some folks. This is revolutionary for me. I have always hated exercise—I hated gym as a kid. My favorite hobbies and habits—reading, writing, watching movies—do not lend themselves to activity, and I didn’t want something too intense and artificial that I couldn’t keep up. I began with 10 minutes and have worked myself up to about 30-40 minutes; depending on how much time I have before getting ready for work each morning. After reading “Senior Fitness,” by Dr. Ruth Heidrich, I even started to run indoors with my Wii Fit, something I had never, ever, considered, and I have worked up to running 20 minutes some days. That may not sound like much, but for a woman who had never even run for a bus, that’s an accomplishment!
I discovered, in my exploration of the discussion board, the Maximum Weight Loss (MWL) program, and started eating that way in April 2010. MWL felt even better. The weight felt as if it were coming off even more easily. The MWL principles make sense to me and I will be following them with few exceptions for the rest of my life. I had bought lots of acceptable sauces, sweeteners, and mustards, to help make the food more palatable at first, and now I had begun cutting back on the additions and appreciating the taste of the actual foods, plain. That is something I did not believe I would like when I first read about it, but you do regain your taste for real food, once you have weaned yourself from all the additions!
My weight loss has been very steady, averaging 2 pounds a week in the first few months, 1 ½ a week for most of the rest. If someone had told me that it would take me over a year to lose the 92 pounds, I would have been very discouraged! But I didn’t take into account that while I was getting there, I would be getting thinner, and feeling better, in the meantime—not staying at the big weight until I was at the small weight!
I am now at about 130 pounds, and I have lost more than 92 pounds. I had set a lower goal than my current one of 132, which is my old Weight Watchers goal from 1975. However, in June, I hit 132, and my body has been contentedly staying in this 129-132 area for three months, and I think it is happy here for now. I have not changed the way I am eating, nor do I plan to. I have gone from a size 26 in jeans, to a size 4 (not Levis, I readily admit)! I have gone from a 3X to an XS. Buying new clothes has been the biggest expense on this journey! The only clothes I have left from December of 2009 are my hats, shoes and socks! Remarkably, I have a pair of shoes that I hadn’t worn much because they hurt my feet, and they now fit fine.
I went from being someone in denial about being obese, convincing myself that I was quite healthy simply because I didn’t have a lot of reasons to visit the doctor, to someone who is actually vibrant with health. I don’t get sick when all are sneezing and coughing around me; I now run up the stairs several times a day at work; I can crawl on the floor to get iPhone pictures of my baby granddaughter in action, and then get back up again; I have brought down my cholesterol and blood sugars; I can run without tiring for 20 minutes. I went from being old before my time to a woman who is looking forward to all the years to come.
I wanted to say something about being able to do this way of eating while living in Alaska. I love it here, but I am always cold. Always have been! So many times when I tried to eat a healthy diet of whole foods, with the emphasis on fresh vegetables, I had two problems. First of all, the quantity and selection of fresh vegetables here is extremely limited, and often the quality is, to put it delicately, spotty. Secondly, let’s face it—it’s cold here a lot. To me, it’s cold here about 11 months out of 12! I felt so sorry for myself, eating my sad little green salad with its squirt of lemon juice, while I shivered and watched everyone else eat their mac and cheese, steaks, and chili con carne! The first glimpse I had at Mary’s recipes that included chilis, soups, stews, casseroles, baked potatoes and roasted vegetables was my first hint that this whole foods, starch-based diet was one that would keep me all warm inside, and still get me fit, healthy and much younger than I felt before I started.
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to John McDougall for providing this website, information and forum for free. I had already dropped a bundle to be a member of the South Beach website, with feeble results. I am so grateful to Mary McDougall for the massive amount of recipes, the variety and inspiration contained in all of them. I am incredibly thankful for Jeff Novick’s nutritional information and insight, and especially for his humor, which makes learning new ideas all that much easier.
And, most importantly, I want to thank all of you people on this forum. I have experienced an incredible amount of support, warmth, hard-edged commentary, advice, recipes and ideas on this board! Thank you all for being here and being so much help!