By now, you’ve hopefully cut out most of your drinkable calories and replaced them with water, and you’ve started tracking your food, or at least what you’re currently eating. There’s probably been some weight loss over time, but it might not be what you hoped for. This put me in May 2012 and 249 lbs. That’s right, in my first month on SparkPeople, I “only” lost 3 lbs. But remember, I had barely made any changes so far and I still lost weight. So what next?
You may have already noticed that this is a bit of a numbers game. Unfortunately, weight loss isn’t addition and subtraction. It isn’t even algebra (I’m not 100% sure on this but I’m assuming it uses mostly Greek letters): it’s way more complicated than that. But the best part is that you don’t need to know all the factors to be successful, you just need to pay attention to yourself. Yes, you heard me, I’m giving you permission to be self-centered when it comes to weight loss! In fact, paying attention to your habits and your body may be the most important aspect of it all, particularly if you’re a woman.
As most people know, women’s hormones fluctuate throughout her menstrual cycle. This can lead to changes in levels of hunger, cravings, and dropping energy levels. It can also make the scale be your enemy, unless you know your body. Who better for me to use as an example but myself? (I mean, who else could I use that I know better than I know me, right?)
TMI WARNING: If you don’t like discussing female reproductive cycles then skip the section between the horizontal lines!
When I was severely overweight, I was seriously irregular. It was a big old mystery as to when TOM would arrive, and then I’d spend 2 or 3 days in a panic hoping my clothes didn’t get ruined from the sheer quantity of it all. I’d always been one of those lucky girls whose cramps were tolerable, but the whole event wiped me out with exhaustion. After a while I decided to go on birth control just to tame the beast. This helped for the most part, but came with a whole slew of side effects like enhanced mood swings and elevated blood pressure. YAY.
Once I started losing weight, things started to stabilize a bit, and I was able to go off birth control pills. (At this point my blood pressure dropped to low-normal!) It was at this point that I started really paying attention to how I felt during specific portions of the month. I tracked my cycle on MonthlyInfo.com (it’s FREE) and weighed myself daily. Lo and behold, a pattern emerged! Unlike what I’d always heard from discussions on family sitcoms, where the woman was always a raging bitch DURING her period and bloated like crazy, I bloat during OVULATION. (Oh hey, you mean all those jokes I heard growing up were WRONG!?) My weight is always highest the week surrounding ovulation, and I always hit my “low” weight a day or two before my period started. Since I tracked my weight on SparkPeople only when I had a drop, I could plainly see the pattern. No loss, no loss, no loss, drop, drop, drop, then next month the same thing, no loss, no loss, no loss, drop, drop, drop. This went on for more than a year! It helped me realize that I didn’t have to panic about a gain (or lack of loss) for most of the month, because the weight would come off when it was ready.
So back to the numbers game. You know how many calories you’re consuming, but you don’t know how many you need to eat to lose weight, right? Well this part is easy: if you want to lose a pound a week on average, you’ll need to cut back on 3,500 calories a week. Sounds like a lot when you put it down like that, but if you divide up into days, that’s 500 calories a day. This is called a ‘deficit’. You can achieve your deficit by cutting calories or exercising, or, better yet, by doing BOTH! Today, however, I’m just going to focus on eating at a deficit, since that’s what I did. Now, if you drop that 500 calories suddenly, your body is going to FREAK OUT! You’re going to want to gnaw your arm off with hunger, particularly if you haven’t yet changed from eating frozen french fries and fish sticks like I used to do. Start slow: cut 100 calories from your daily calorie allotment at a time, and when you’re comfortable with that amount, cut back a little more, until you reach your desired number.
SAFETY NOTE: Many websites out there will recommend women eat 1200 calories a day to lose weight. This is the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM your body needs to function, and unless you have a metabolic disorder, you shouldn’t ever need to eat this little to lose. I never ate below about 1500 calories, and that didn’t last long, because I was miserable. An easy rule of thumb is to take your goal weight (mine was 160) and multiply it by 10. If you use that general guideline you should be able to eat enough calories to get all your nutrients and you won’t ruin your metabolism by eating too little. But seriously, don’t go under 1200 for women and 1500 for men unless you are working with a doctor.
“So Andrea,” you say, “I’m used to eating filling, hearty stuff. I love meatloaf and mashed potatoes and mac and cheese and stuff!” Well, I have good news: you don’t have to give that stuff up. In fact, you have three, count ‘em, THREE options. You could a) continue to eat the same recipes but eat a smaller portion, b) adjust your favorite recipe to make it lighter and healthier so you can still eat it, c) eat it the way you’ve always eaten it but make it a special occasion food only. For example: I love pasta. Do me a favor. Go to your kitchen right now and read the package of a box of pasta. Go ahead, I’ll wait. A serving size of pasta is 2 ounces, right? A box of pasta is 8 servings!
That is a RIDICULOUSLY TINY PORTION OF PASTA! It looks really sad in even a small bowl. (Seriously, even now, after almost 2 years of eating a single portion of pasta, just looking at it makes me a little sad.) How do I bulk my pasta so it feels satisfying? Veggies! (And maybe a little meat.) One of my favorite ways to eat pasta during the summer months is to brown the meat from two Italian sausage links, then cook chopped onions and asparagus in the fat, and toss in the pasta. The onions and asparagus bulk up the pasta and it looks like a normal sized meal, but the veggies don’t add a lot of calories.
Continue making little changes. If you only cook at home a few nights a week, cut back on eating out. Often times you’re paying triple the cost by eating out, and eating triple the calories!
Manage portion sizes. A portion of cooked lean meat is 3 oz. This is where that kitchen scale comes in handy! Note: just because you know the portion size doesn’t mean you have to EAT the portion size. A portion of cooked white rice is 1 cup, but I can never eat that much, so I eat a half cup. And I measure it out every time to make sure I’m getting the right amount. This may *seem* like extra work, but you have to spoon the rice out of the pot anyway, right? Just use a measuring cup to serve instead of a spoon. Problem solved, one less utensil to wash! (Want a great guide for eyeballing portion sizes? Check out http://blog.photocalorie.com/portion-sizes/ )
Measure. When cooking, measure the ingredients before adding them to the pot, particularly cooking fats. If a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of olive oil, measure one tablespoon of olive oil! It’s really easy to overdo it with cooking oil because it spreads out as soon as it hits the pan so it’s very hard to eyeball. Note: I used to go through olive oil like it’s going out of style. Now that I measure it, it lasts forever!
Adjust your recipes. If a soup recipe calls for ¼ cup of olive oil, cut it in half. If the soup tastes awful (it won’t) you can always make it the regular way next time (you won’t.) This doesn’t apply to baking, where the ratios of fats to dry ingredients is very important, but in soups, stews and stir frys you shouldn’t have any problem cutting back on fat. Just don’t try to make everything fat free, the fat free diet ship sailed many moons ago, young padawan. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?!)
Leave the leftovers in the kitchen. This is HUGE for me. I portion out my plate and a plate for The Hubs, and I pack the two lunch containers BEFORE sitting down to eat. That way the leftovers are out of sight out of mind. I eat what’s on my plate, and that’s it. I’m a bit of a grazer, so if there is food sitting in front of me, I’ll pick at it. This a danger for me, so I leave it in the kitchen.
Eat slower. This is a skill I have not yet learned. I’m working on it, though! Pay attention to the food as you put it in your mouth. Smell it, taste it, feel the texture. Can you taste the various ingredients as you chew? How full are you? Could you stop eating right now and be satisfied? On a positive note, if The Hubs finishes eating before me, I know he really liked the food.
Be mindful. If you think you want a snack, really think about. Are you hungry, or just craving something? Are you upset? Bored? Thirsty? Hormonal? I am, without a doubt, a boredom eater. If I’m upset, I have no appetite. If I’m angry, watch out, because I’ll clean circles around you! But leave me to my own devices on an evening with nothing to do? I’ll snack, and snack, and snack. Which one are you?
So, do you, my dear readers, have any awesome smart swaps to share?
Snacks are a really important part of my day. I try to keep a large number of healthy snacks available in my desk drawer in case I get a case of the hungries. Here are a few:
What are some of your favorite snacks to stash in case of need?
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat healthfully. Sure, you might *want* to subsist on sushi grade ahi tuna or the finest microgreens, or you may want to be lazy and order that fancy schmancy mail order diet food so you don’t have to think about what you put in your stomach more than how long it takes to microwave. (The idea of subsisting on frozen portion controlled meals that I pay way too much for is anathema to me.) If you truly wish to live that way, fine. Like I will repeat ad nauseum around here: do what works for you. Now I’m not “poor”. The Hubs and I make enough money to not qualify for public assistance. But we certainly don’t make a ton of money, either: we need to live on a budget so we can eventually buy a house. Financially we are moving in the right direction, and a lot of that is due to my affinity for planning. I may not be rich, but what I do have is time. Not tons, mind you: I work full time, do bookkeeping on the side for a few clients, and I come here and chat with you fine folk! The point is, I’m willing to spend a little time once or twice a week to save a lot of money. If you’re willing to put in the time and the thought, you can trim both your budget and your waistline!
A little bit of time spent once a week planning your weekly menu and perusing the sale papers can save you time and money later. The sale paper for our favorite grocery store comes out on Fridays, so that’s when my planning begins, usually over a cup of coffee after a strenuous workout! Here’s what works for me.
Before you set foot in the store:
1. Check the grocery store flyer for good sales. For me this mostly means meat. I never buy meat unless it’s on sale, except on very special occasions. I am, of course, on a budget! Spending as little money as I can on meat means buying very little red meat: I mostly purchase boneless skinless chicken breasts and pork chops. When they’re VERY cheap I will purchase chicken leg quarters in bulk for Frango Grelhado (“grilled” chicken rubbed with a Portuguese spice blend) or stew. Fish and seafood is, of course, special occasion food, mostly because The Hubs is not a huge fan. Salt cod, however, is always welcome in our household. But I digress. I write down all the sale items I will be purchasing on a list, along with the price. If I have a coupon, I note that also. See step 2 for more detail.
2. Check for coupons. Now I’m not one of those people who is so coupon crazy that I have a room full of baby wipes awaiting the day I someday have a baby. I am not an extreme couponer. But, there are times when coupons can make a good deal a better deal. My grocery store has digital coupons on their website that load onto our discount card and are deducted from the total when we swipe the card. Sometimes, these digital coupons correspond with printed or printable coupons you can find online, and guess what? Both the printed and the digital coupons work. It’s not often, but it happens. I would say I spend a maximum of ten minutes a week looking for coupons. (Websites you can use for legit printable coupons are places like Coupons.com or CouponSuzy.com.) Most of the coupons I see are for things I’d never ever use, like junk food, candy, or makeup. But occasionally I see something that I might want to try but wouldn’t pay full price for. Example: I kinda like Fiber One Chocolate Chip Cookies. They’re super processed but they’re individually wrapped and thus, portion controlled, have fiber, and they taste pretty good! At our grocery store they’re regularly $2.99 for 6. That’s 50 cents apiece. Not terrible, but not great, either. The grocery store had a 50 cent off digital coupon, and I printed a 50 cent off coupon that was eligible for doubling. So I had coupons for this one product that totaled $1.50 off. That’s HALF PRICE. Do I buy them at regular price? Hell no! It’s not a pantry staple, people. I do not NEED cookies. But I do buy them when I can get a good deal.
3. Be okay with going to 2 stores (or 3) if it will save you money. I buy produce at a produce market where the fruits and veggies are pretty cheap most of the time, but they’re pre-bagged and you need to buy in bulk. However, it’s WAY less expensive to buy there than to buy the amount I actually need at the regular grocery store. Example: On yesterday’s trip I got:
That’s $18 for all that stuff. And the squash? They’re HUGE. And winter squash lasts a long time uncut. So even though I only need ¼ of it for a recipe this week, I can save an entire one for weeks if I need to, and I can keep the rest of the cut one in the fridge, or cook it and freeze it for later use. Bonus!
4. Check the pantry. I have two freezers, a fridge, and six cabinets full of items I either a) have leftover from last week, or b) are pantry staples I always have on hand (more on pantry staples in a future blog). When I buy meat on sale, I often purchase bulk packages and divide them into 1 lb bags before freezing. About every other week I spend 10-15 minutes making a list of what I have “in stock” in the fridge, freezers and cabinets. Keep a running list in Google docs and this is even easier!
5. Check the schedule. I do an hour long workout three days a week. On these three days, I try to plan protein rich recipes, leaving the vegetarian or lower protein recipes to other days. If there’s a day I know I’m going to be busy, I try to plan a crock pot recipe or something quick like summer rolls. My days off are Sundays and Mondays, so those are the days I plan more elaborate recipes or do batch cooking.
6. Write a menu. I use a Google Sheets spreadsheet for this, so I have access to it everywhere, even on my phone. That way, you don’t have an excuse if you forget your list! Plan out each meal for the week based on the ingredients you have on hand or those you will be purchasing. If you need additional ingredients, write them on your shopping list. If it’s something I know will cost less at a big box store, I write it on that section of the list. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a discount produce store like I do, buy your fruits and vegetables there if they are decent quality. Here’s an example of my weekly menu plan:
Pro Tip: if you’re lucky enough, like myself and The Hubs, to have access to a microwave at your place of work, plan on making enough servings of dinner to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. (UNLESS IT IS FISH! NEVER REHEAT FISH IN A WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT, IT’S JUST RUDE!) Not only does this save you time and effort in planning lunches, it will save you money since you won’t have to purchase additional items like bread and lunchmeat. Plus, in my humble opinion, a hot lunch is the best lunch. As you serve dinner, simply portion out the rest of the food into microwave-safe containers and allow to cool before refrigerating.
7. Write your grocery list by aisle if you know your store aisles pretty well. This will save you time and will keep your eyes from browsing all the junk you might see while looking for something. I generally group my list into stores, and then by section as opposed to aisle. But only because my grocery store moves stuff all the time, and some things are in some aisles but related things are in unrelated aisles and it can be confusing and irritating. So section for me: produce, dairy, grocery, misc stuff, meat and frozen foods.
8. Be flexible. Brand loyalty can hurt you. If you must be loyal to certain brands, only buy them when they’re on sale, and stock up. Example: I love Melitta coffee (this is like heaven in my mug – I think it’s the finer grind), but Melitta coffee is $4.99 for an 11 oz. can at regular price. However, every couple of months, it goes on sale for $2.99 a can. At this time, I buy 6 cans. If I use 1 can a week for six weeks, and buy one can a week, I’m spending $4.99 a week on coffee for the first 5 weeks, and $2.99 for the last week. That’s an average of $4.66 a week. If I buy six cans at the sale price, the math is easier: $2.99 a week. You spend more money up front, but save in the long run. Now Andrea, you might say, That’s only $1.67 a week, that’s not much money at all. I could save that by skipping ONE latte (if you buy really, really cheap lattes)! Well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much. But for 52 weeks? That’s $86.84 a year. JUST ON COFFEE. And you know what? If I run out of Melitta before it goes on sale again, I BUY SOMETHING ELSE.
Pro Tip: I really love the flavor of Melitta’s Hazelnut Creme coffee, but it can be a little strong. Often I will buy Folgers and use half of each when I make a pot of coffee. Lighter flavor and it stretches the more expensive coffee, saving you money.
9. Check unit prices. Just because an item is in a larger package doesn’t mean it’s cheaper per unit. The larger can of tuna on the right is $4.12 per pound, while the smaller cans on the left are $3.58 per pound. Again, it might be more convenient for you to purchase a larger can of tuna, particular if you’re making a large batch of tuna salad or tuna noodle casserole (mmmm, tuna noodle casserole), but it might be more expensive!
10. Double check your grocery list. Make sure everything you’re going to need is on that list! If you miss something, you’re just going to have to haul your butt out in the rain or snow to pay a premium for it later. Pro Tip: NEVER buy standard groceries from a convenience store, even milk. Convenience comes at a premium. Example: pre-cut onions in the produce section. Onions are DIRT CHEAP (I buy them 5 lbs. for $2 at my produce market) and don’t take long to cut up. Do it yourself! (Also, you can save the cleaner bits of onion trimmings and other vegetable trimmings in your freezer and make veggie stock when you have enough.)
Phew! Now you’re FINALLY ready to put your coat on and head out to the grocery store(s). Stay tuned for Part II! (PS – It took me longer to write this post than it does to make my grocery list every week.)