I stayed up late for two nights finishing Reamde and now I'm paying for it. There is not enough coffee in this pot.
+ + +
I just went back to my archives from May of this year and read through the "Maintenance Blues" post. (It's number four of a short series on "accepting your body:" First post. Second post. Third post. Fourth post (maintenance blues). Fifth post. Sixth post. Seventh.)
I wrote then:
It's three years this week since my successful weight loss began. And lately? Weight maintenance has been hard.
I feel as though I'm slipping, right on the edge. I weigh myself every day and faithfully plot each point on a chart. The paper charts stack up in a drawer in my bathroom, one for every month since I reached my weight loss goal in November 2008. The zigzag lines rise up through my pregnancy and back down again after the birth of #4, not quite as low as I was pre-pregnancy but back to where I decided to be.
And lately I don't like what I see. It's not that I'm not still at a healthy weight. I am. But after reaching my postpartum target, my weight crept back up, and I've been on the high side of it for months now.
Worse, I can't seem to bring it back down. Several times since just before the baby's first birthday, I have tried to lose just one pound. Not because I needed to but because I wanted to see if I could still do it.
I haven't done it. I haven't sustained the effort for more than a few days. After about three days of sticking to my habits, I start feeling hungry and cold all the time, and shortly thereafter I find myself helping myself to a third plate of dinner, or eating all the kids' sandwich crusts. I recognize this as classic "body defending its fat stores." Still, it's frustrating -- I managed to overcome it once, what's wrong with me now? Have I lost my hard-earned habits for good?
I thought maybe it was worth highlighting that now, a few months later, I seem to have finally gotten a handle on it. Seriously, it took almost four months of false starts.
Weight maintenance is not easy. It is difficult. It was especially difficult over this past summer, mainly (I think) because my husband had a lot of business travel. That generally makes it harder for me to run the household, and I don't have much energy left over either for willpower or for necessary tasks like meal planning. Also I tend to rely on packaged food and carryout more when he's gone, and those foods tend to be less satisfying in smaller portions. And it makes it marginally more difficult (though more appealing) to get to the gym.
So a lot of my strategies that require advance planning were not as helpful as they have been in the past. I was seeing my weight stay about three pounds higher than I wanted it to be. At the same time, I was waking up every morning and recommitting to following my good habits, then only marginally managing to follow them. Would I be gaining weight, if I wasn't trying? Maybe.
Back when I was losing the 40 pounds, there came a point when I sort of got into a groove with it. It was still physically uncomfortable to resist gluttonous behaviors. I felt hungry, I felt cravings, and it didn't feel good to resist them; but it felt mentally easy to resist them. I had bought into the idea that I had already made my choices. "I don't do that anymore" was all it took -- I didn't like the experience of self-control, but I could do it and I did do it.
But back in May, the groove just refused to come. I kept "forgetting" that I was trying to practice good habits and self-control. I would sit down in front of, say, a plate of pasta at a restaurant, and it would suddenly and quite literally seem not at all important that I was trying to reboot my good habits. I wouldn't exactly make a fully conscious decision to abandon the habits -- it was really like I was forgetting what I was trying to do. And I wouldn't remember until afterwards, when I felt the overfull sensation. And then I would feel awful.
+ + +
I kept plugging away at the attempts, though. (Like ChristyP says: It's a new day every day.) I tried some different strategies, because it was plain that many of my old reliable ones were not working in the particular family dynamic that we had going at the time.
And I think I finally hit my stride. We'll have to see if it lasts, but I think I have gotten a mental handle on myself again. I have stopped "forgetting."
+ + +
The new strategy that has been most helpful in this season has been a radically simplified calorie-counting technique.
If you are a longtime reader, you may remember that periodically counting and journaling my daily calories (I used SparkPeople) was a very helpful strategy for me during my 40-pound loss. I didn't do it every day, but doing so once every few days helped me maintain realistic expectations of appropriate portion size and of reasonable tradeoffs (an egg or a blueberry muffin, or half of each?). I do think that having this realistic understanding of my body's needs helped me understand the line between gluttonous behaviors and non-gluttonous variations. And, of course, on days I did it, following the plan literally controlled the calories. I tended to count the calories the night before and make a plan that I would try to stick to, rather than counting things after I ate them.
But even occasionally performing the calorie-count was too time-consuming for me in this season. It takes about half an hour to sit down and make a calorie-controlled plan for a full day. I just could not scrape together the time to make it stick. Other things were higher on my priority list. I worked on other important behaviors (not taking seconds, for example) but I couldn't shake the feeling that the calorie counting was a missing piece of the puzzle. On the few days when I managed to squeeze it in, I found it much easier to keep my intentions in mind.
Finally I found a technique that worked, because it eliminated the need to sit down and plan the whole day. Essentially, I went from "It's a new day every day" to "It's a new meal every meal." Here's what I did.
1 - I identified a maintenance calorie target.
For me, the target that maintains weight reliably is about 1600 calories per day. Probably I actually eat more calories than that (my guess is something like 1700-1900), but I have found that if I pretend that I'm trying to eat 1600 calories a day, I stay the same. I guess you could say that a buffer of a couple hundred calories -- the nibbles off the kids' sandwich crusts, the tasting the soup to check the seasoning, the "just one more" potato chip -- must be built into that number.
Please remember that the 1600 calories is me-specific. I am not a large person, and as I said, that number is probably lower than my "real" maintenance intake. If you don't know what your maintenance level is, start with an online calorie needs estimator -- don't just use mine.
2 - I subtracted some calories.
I happened to be a couple of pounds heavier than I would like to be; my bad habits had caused my weight to creep up. So my new target (temporarily) became 1450 calories per day. This was roughly the target during my 2008 weight loss, by the way.
3 - I divided the calories among the meals and snacks that I would like to eat.
I thought about the "meal" and "snack" habits that I would like to reinforce. I do better if I have a couple of snacks; I find that I am going to eat between meals anyway, so "no-snacking" is not a realistic goal. But I would prefer to be in the habit of keeping those snacks small. I have also found that I do nicely on a fairly light breakfast, a medium lunch, and a heartier dinner. So that's how I split things up.
I made a little text file called "A Default Day" and wrote this in it:
- Breakfast -- About 250 calories
- Lunch -- About 400 calories
- Dinner -- About 600 calories
- Two snacks -- About 100 calories each
4 - I started to try to stick to those targets one meal at a time.
I didn't bother with trying to make up at dinner for overshooting at lunch. (Just like during my weight loss I didn't try to starve myself on one day to make up for overshooting on the previous day).
This really is easier than trying to do the whole day at once, especially with years of calorie-counting under my belt. I can use various rules of thumb plus the nutrition labels to estimate calorie counts while I'm preparing food. I can tell you off the top of my head that one piece of toast with a little bit of butter, coffee, and a boiled egg will come in at about 250 calories for breakfast, for example.
(quick fact check using SparkPeople: 1 egg = 70 calories, 1 slice whole wheat bread = 128 calories, 5 cups coffee = 12 calories, 1 pat salted butter = 36 calories, total = 246 calories. CHA CHING.)
5 - When I had time, I thought about the sorts of meals I like to eat, and I calculated the portion sizes necessary to hit the targets.
So, for example, I often have eggs and toast for breakfast, or a fried egg on top of leftover rice pilaf. I sometimes make biscuits for the family and usually have bacon with them. I like cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit. If I'm in a hurry, I might have peanut butter on an apple or on toast. I make pancakes and waffles from time to time. And, let's face it, once in a while I have to hit a drive-through.
So I made this list of 250-calorie breakfasts -- it's almost like a list you might find in a magazine diet plan, except that it only has stuff I actually make and eat regularly (plus an emergency drive-through option). No mini frittatas here, nor breakfast cereal (since I don't much like it at breakfast and tend to eat it for dessert instead), nor prepackaged items (another thing I don't rely on much at breakfast time). But if you eat those things, then they could be on your list.
- boiled egg, tomato juice, one slice toast, half a tablespoon butter OR jam
- egg fried in 1 tsp butter, plus 100 calories of bread or leftover grains
- 2 small biscuits and 1-1/2 strips bacon
- Mix and match: 2/3 cup cottage cheese or 3/4 cup yogurt or 1 cup oatmeal, plus 1-1/4 cup blueberries or 1 cup applesauce or 1 sliced banana or 2 cups sliced strawberries.
- 1-1/2 tablespoons peanut butter on either 1 apple or 1 slice toast.
- Two pancakes (1/4 cup batter each) or half a waffle, topped with either one pat butter and one tablespoon syrup, or 2/3 cup berries.
- McDonald's oatmeal without the extra brown sugar, or an egg McMuffin with no cheese.
I made a similar list for 400-calorie lunches. Two examples:
- Pile of veggies, 100 to 150 calories of bread or crackers, and one can of sardines.
- Drive-through option: One or two side salads with one packet of vinaigrette dressing and six chicken nuggets or a grilled chicken sandwich.
And another one for 600-calorie dinners. One example:
- 3.5 ounces of pizza, plus a bowl of homemade salad.
You see that I got less precise about the portions as I went later in the day. I didn't specify the sort of pizza, or how big a pile of vegetables. This kind of meshes with how I roll in calorie counting anyway. In 2008, I had success even though I often would count the breakfast and lunch very precisely, and then (assuming I followed my plan) reward myself by eating whatever at dinner, just not more than one plate.
And I didn't bother making a list of 100-calorie snacks. It is not so hard to figure that out, especially since many of the snacks I have are prepackaged with labels. Like ice cream. (1/3 of a cup is roughly 100 calories for most of the flavors we buy). And I can always get one of the six billion "100-Calorie Portions" that are out there now. I have become particularly fond of 100-calorie ice cream bars, which we keep around anyway to give to the baby instead of the big ones his siblings are eating.
+ + +
Anyway, this technique, for some reason, seems to have done the trick: I am back to not being as much of an idiot at the dinner table (mostly). And my weight has come back down within the bounds it is supposed to be. I think the reason it's working, where large-scale whole-day calorie counting did not, is simply because the effort fits into my day better right now. It also makes the "yes! I did it!" reward of having stuck to my plan just a little bit more immediate. And when I don't stick to my plan -- when I eat four peanut butter sandwich crusts for dessert after lunch -- it isn't too disheartening because the chance to try again is very soon.
One caveat: I decided not to bother counting alcoholic beverages in the calories as long as I waited to have them until after dinner. I just had this vague idea that it would create a better incentive structure for me, since the biggest problem I have with alcohol is that I tend to overeat while I am consuming it. This seems to have worked pretty well. I tend to drink beer about three ounces at a time, though (I split beers with Mark), so maybe it just wasn't enough volume to make a difference.
Key to the whole structure is something I learned in 2008: I refuse to carry my failures over. Not from day to day, and not from meal to meal. My dinner goal is still 650 even if my lunch was 700 calories. Because it is ultimately not about the calories, but the habit of moderation. And alternately stuffing and starving is not moderation.