Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How do you eat an elephant?

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Hi, I am Kelli Drenner, a 2009 graduate of the UT School of Public Health and former employ of the MSD Center. I am so glad to be back in Texas after doing a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University Institute for Community Health Promotion in Providence, Rhode Island. I really missed Texas – my family, friends, and of course, the FOOD.

Since coming back to Texas, I am greeted with a few phrases that I will talk a little about - “Welcome back… Oh my God, you look GREAT… what did you do?” Did I mention that I have lost 50 pounds? Those who haven’t seen me in 2 years tend to notice that right away.

I have always struggled with my weight. Not that I was always overweight – just never satisfied with the fact that I wasn’t one of those “thin” girls. You know the ones. I was always a little “athletic.” Or as the mother of one of my exes said, “You have a matronly figure.” Yes, she really said that – and I was a size 8 at the time. You know how it goes, you think back to a time when you weighed x pounds and wish you would have appreciated it now that you are x + 25.

In 2001, I discovered that I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Ouch. I was an avid exerciser and thought the pain was just about getting older so I slowed down until I just couldn’t go any more. By the time I got diagnosed, I could hardly walk or write. So when the going got tough, I decided to go back to school to get my doctorate. I know, it sounds a little crazy.

The initial treatment for RA included corticosteroids to control the inflammation. They made me ravenously hungry. I gained about 30 pounds in no time flat. It seemed like overnight. Once I began grad school, what good eating habits I had were replaced with trips to fast food joints. I was too tired and too busy to cook. I gained another 20 pounds.

In 2006, I started working for the MSD Center. It was a fabulous time (except for the dissertation part). Surrounded by people who advocated good nutrition, physical activity and less time in front of screens (outside of work) was inspiring. And humbling. Here I was, advocating all of these healthy behaviors and doing many of the not-so-healthy behaviors. Something had to change. By this time, I had started some amazing treatments for RA that had stopped the damage. I could walk and write again. That also meant that I could exercise – as long as my body agreed. I couldn’t be a runner, but I found that I could do strength training and walk for exercise as long as my joints weren’t swollen. No more excuses.

Change. Is. HARD. I, like many others, had been on a diet FOREVER. It didn’t work. Over a lifetime, I had mostly gained, rarely lost, and regained again. I knew from experience that if I focused on losing weight that I would be easily discouraged. This was the time for lifestyle changes. It felt like I had to change everything, NOW.

So, how do you eat an elephant? One. Bite. At a time. I started with ONE step.

Step 1: For Lent, I gave up sodas. I never liked artificial sweeteners and am still a little suspect about their effects on the body. Now, I limit my intake of those to special occasions. They are a treat instead of a staple in my diet. I drink WATER.

Step 2: I joined the YMCA close to work. My focus was on strength and health. I had learned those who had more lean muscle burned calories faster. The strength training was also great stress management while working on the dissertation.

Step 3: Eat when hungry and eat until satisfied – not full. I know, this sounds so… simple. It does sound simple, but not necessarily easy. I had this idea that I had to eat 3 times a day. Never one to snack, I had a tendency to overeat at lunch and dinner thinking that I had to eat enough to last until the next meal. Once I came to the realization that I could stop before FULL and eat a little bit more later if I was hungry, I felt so free. In the past, I had shrugged off the idea of an apple knowing that it wouldn’t fill me up. Since the goal was now just to get fuel, I was free to eat smaller portions.

Step 4: Smaller portions. Most restaurants want you to think they are a good value so they pile way more food on a plate than we really need. That means way too many calories for a meal. Now, as a habit, I automatically divide my plate into half or thirds and ask for a doggie bag. Voila, lunch for the next day (or lunch and dinner).

Step 5: I focused on ADDING healthy fruits and vegetables to my diet – a piece of fruit at breakfast, fruit at lunch, at least 2 veggies at dinner. I grew up eating lots of fresh veggies so I tried to get out of my rut and add some veggies that were not a part of my usual weekly diet – carrots, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, and asparagus. I replaced my usual lunch with a low-calorie fruit smoothie with protein powder. This added fruit and felt like a treat especially on the hot Texas spring, summer and fall days.

By the time I graduated I had lost about 9 pounds.

Step 6: When I moved to Rhode Island, I limited fast food to no more than one time per week.

Step 7: I cooked meals at home and took my lunch to work. That isn’t to say my food wasn’t tasty. Did I mention that I actually like to cook? I challenged myself to try one new recipe each week. While I confess that I still use real butter to flavor some foods, limiting the quantity is a big part of my health plan. If I like the flavor of these dishes that are prepared in a healthier way, I am more likely to keep eating them. A life of eating cardboard-flavored food does not inspire me to keep up the healthy changes.

Step 8: MOVE. When it is nice outside (often in Texas) and my joints aren’t screaming at me, I walk. In fact, just the other day, I did something very unHouston-like. I WALKED the 2 blocks to the Starbucks. Yes, there were a few stares – I live in Houston after all – but I was proud of me.

After 3 years of lifestyle changes that are very doable and eating whole foods that are tasty but mostly prepared at home, I have now lost 50 pounds.

How do you eat an elephant? ONE. BITE. AT A TIME. All of those little bites add up to a lot of change. Pick up your fork, take a step and get started!

What ONE step are you taking toward lifestyle change?


Written by
Kelli Drenner, PhD

Kelli is a consultant withBrown University working on pediatric obesity prevention. When she's not doing research, she's cooking up yummy foods, reading books and playing as much as possible.