I have been asked several times, recently, for a post on how I maintain my shape. I’ve written about it before, tongue-in-cheek, in 11 Sneaky Tricks Of The High WASP Diet, and here, earnestly, in the Building Attractive series from last year. But maybe I haven’t yet answered the question usefully enough, so here’s another try.
In brief, I both count my lucky stars and work at it.
Water Under The Bridge, Or, What We Are Given
First of all, we’ve all got baseline genetics. Muscularity runs in my family. I think it’s easier to stay lean if you build muscle easily. (Downside is, I build muscle on my calves so well that running gives me terrible shin splints and if chased by wolves I will just have to hope for trees. Tall trees or small wolves.) In other genetic news, I’m long-waisted. I think that allows a lot of space for middle-aged chub to hide. Finally, I’m neither gluten nor dairy-intolerant, so I’ve got great choice in foodstuffs.
Then, of course, there’s privilege. I am sure that early diet has enormous effect on late-in-life weight, and I was extremely fortunate. My mother fed us lots of fish and vegetables, and fruit. She cooked our every meal, except when she and my father were out, leaving us TV dinners with the babysitter. (That I loved Salisbury Steak is only one more data point proving the theorem, Children Are Crazy.)
I am also sure that childhood activity levels have an impact. We always lived in places with room to move. While we didn’t have sports at school – Title IX hadn’t happened yet – we did have a mother whose primary strategy for dealing with 4 young children was to slide open the glass door and say, “Go outside!”
I am very grateful for all this healthy infrastructure. That said, I think that getting on track with nutrition and exercise is sort of like re-parenting ourselves, and much can be done by adult intent.
The Things To Which We Can All Pay Attention
There is nothing new here. No unknown diet, no secret exercise program. It’s just about finding a way to make what you already know work for you without taking up too much of your precious will power. I need my will power for virtue, writing responsibly, and paying bills. I do not want to use it up on calorie management. Onward.
A Relationship With Food & Its Consumption
- I don’t like fast food, so I don’t eat it. McDonald’s doesn’t have to be part of your life; for nomadic lunches a turkey sandwich will do. If delis crunch your budget, make a sandwich at home and carry it. Or turkey rolls – slices of roast turkey rolled around gherkins or cheese.
- I don’t like fat, so I don’t eat it in quantity. Fatty meat doesn’t appeal, and I banish potato chips and their sneaky buddies from the pantry, saving my fat indulgence for good cheeses, nut butters and an occasional pat of the dairy stuff. Oh, and the heaven that is an avocado.
- I like whole wheat. When you find the right product, in my case the La Brea Whole Grain bread sold at Whole Foods, whole grain is a joy, not a chore.
- I’ve internalized “sparse eating.” I don’t like the way stuffing myself feels. The only way to get here is practice. Practice eating slowly, and stopping exactly at satiation. Pay attention.
- Speaking of which, I’ve narrowed down the trigger to satiation for me. It is a BIG LUNCH, with protein, vegetables, fruit, chocolate, and carbs. If I don’t experience that click of satiation before about 12:30pm my entire day will spiral into snacking and crankiness. Your biological clock is your own, research it thoroughly.
- Turns out satiation is aided by psychology. Yet another reason to sort yours out.
- I’ve directed my splurges to reasonable foods, i.e. a whole wheat tortillas warmed in the microwave for 30 seconds, or two squares of dark chocolate paired with two of milk.
- I’ve even defined, and thus limited, debauchery – If I need the emotional charge of throwing all caution to the wind I will cut some of this chocolate cake, drink 3 glasses of red wine, and eat a lot of popcorn. But I throw the cake I don’t want in the trash. And the extra wine puts me to sleep. I can’t eat any more when I’m asleep, I’ve found.
- I love the food I eat, and I eat the food I love.
- In order to make the above statement true, I focus on the quality of my food purchases; i.e. grass-fed, free-range, wild-caught meats, poultry and fish, organic canned beans, mandarins in season, organic chocolate, etc.
- I also grow a teeny little patch of herbs and vegetables in my front yard. I like to plant from seeds, sow too thickly, and then thin the rows by eating the sprouts as they grow. It turns out radish sprouts are peppery and delicious.
- I cook, as well as I can, without using anything containing ingredients I don’t recognize.
- I bake chicken, not desserts. Why present myself with that untamed sensory input?
- To keep myself honest, I weigh often, and allow myself a 4 pound fluctuation. Over a certain weight and I eat very carefully for the next 3-4 days. Under a certain weight, I eat big.
- Finally, I do not suffer. Never do I feel that eating like this is a burden, a difficult No said to life. It feels instead like a Yes to my body, to purity, and to the savoring of foodstuffs.
Tricks To Eat Less When It’s Called For
On those days after I’ve hit my high point – let’s say after a wedding, for example, or the holidays, or a weekend trip to Napa – I have a few tricks to bump myself back down.
- Hot liquids. Drink tea or coffee, eat soup. You’ll feel fuller.
- Lean protein. Try to address your hunger head on. On lean days I will often eat a can of tuna with oil and vinegar dressing for lunch, atop a head of lettuce. Have a power bar if necessary. I never need more than 3 leans days in a row.
- Speaking of lettuce, consume fruit and vegetables by the bushel. Especially vegetables.
Exercise In Its Easy Incarnation
The secret is to incorporate exercise into your life. This thought is nothing new, but just in case you had any ideas I am an athlete, um, no. I am however a perpetual mover-arounder.
- I do some exercise now and I have always.
- I don’t do very much, or anything very hard.
- Over the years I’ve tried a variety of formal exercise – dance classes, gym workouts with weights, personal trainers, yoga.
- I’ve done even more informal exercise – walking, chasing children, walking, gardening, and walking again.
- Life is always sweetest and general creakiness best managed when I back up regular moderate cardio with strength training and stretching of one sort or another. Twice a week with some free weights, or a yoga class, either work for me.
- These days I go to my personal trainer, a true luxury, twice a week. We work on rehabilitating my shoulder – the rotator cuff strain has been reluctant to play nice – and on overall strength and flexibility. If budget doesn’t allow for a trainer, I cannot recommend resistance and weight training at home highly enough. A set of bands, or free weights, are easy to come by.
- I still do a fair amount of walking. To the gym, on city expeditions, and suburban errands whenever possible. We balked at carrying a large space heater in a backpack to UPS, but have become quite adept at schlepping home groceries, drugstore plunder, and shoes from Neiman Marcus, for that matter.
The primary goal of both nutrition and movement, now, in my mind, is building an infrastructure for aging. I used to work out once or twice a week, just to maintain a reasonable natural fitness. I think aging, and the 2 years in an office, has put me in a fitness hole. To feel the way I want to in the world I need to be fitter than my body is inclined, if that makes sense. This is not to say I don’t enjoy a slender appearance, but it’s not my current motivation.
Being female in America, and perhaps Europe and Australia, means both enormous pressure to be one shape, and too many opportunities to eat and sit oneself into another. There’s a lot of what we might call Myth For Pay out there, and we probably need to band together and fight back.
To that end I’m going to thank Mater for pointing me to this lentils recipe, and Miss Whistle for this incredible fish. (Note: I used halibut instead of cod.) Both Indian recipes, very high in flavor, and super easy to make. There are plenty of other things in life that demand effort and distress, eating and moving should use less willpower, and give more joy.