As I wrote in August, I allowed myself a “blowout” for my final visit during my husband’s assignment in Brussels. Besides bike riding and healthy seafood and vegetables, I enjoyed plenty of sourdough bread with butter, Belgian chocolate, Belgian waffles, and Belgian fries, and I even bought a beer guidebook and had great fun sampling multiple varieties each day and logging them like a birdwatcher checking off species. The non-surprising result was a gain of six pounds during about three weeks, putting me at the heaviest I’d been since originally losing weight in 2014.
I allowed this to happen because from what I’ve learned about my own body and losing excess fat, I knew I could get rid of those pounds afterward. Was this a great idea? No. Putting on six pounds of pure fat added stress and inflammation to my body, and yo-yo dieting can be a trap — we can easily lose muscle each time we lose fat, and it’s easy to gain back even more fat in the next round. A better choice would have been to allow one or two “treats” each day (about 400 calories worth), not all of them, as I had done successfully during earlier visits.
But this was the path I chose, to fully enjoy the “Belgian things” with abandon this time, and I gladly took on the long-term challenge that came afterward, a bit like the way Lent follows Carnival/Mardi Gras.
I returned from Brussels on August 16, and I immediately started logging my food (including calories and grams of protein). Of course I continued my beneficial habits of exercising about an hour a day and keeping an overnight fast of 12 or 13 hours. Then for the 30 days of September, I took on a more rigorous challenge (I also invited a group of clients to participate in their own challenges during September, which was great fun and a success for all of them). During September I had no alcohol at all, tracked 1700 calories and 100 grams of protein a day, and focused my meals around a variety of proteins, vegetables and fruits. I also meditated for 10 minutes twice a day (with a few skipped sessions, I’m still working on this).
Six pounds of fat, is that so bad? Is losing weight so important?
No, and no! I could have gained 16 pounds (or lost 23!) and still have a BMI in the healthy range. I’m apple-shaped (accumulating fat around the belly rather than the hips), and extra abdominal fat certainly isn’t great for me. But a thousand other things people do (and I do) also have health risks, like driving cars, riding bikes, and breathing city air. I’m just on a personal quest to make my body composition (fat vs. lean mass) truly optimal. And as a health coach, I love experimenting on myself and feeling the power of being in control of various aspects of my health (and helping others do the same if they choose). The good news: what is really important for health and longevity is not losing weight, but being active and improving our fitness at any size and any age.
Logging food and counting calories, ugh! Is that really necessary?
From my experience with myself and my clients, I do think that a food log, app or journal is a key tool in becoming more intentional and taking control of our energy balance. I logged my food in a notebook when I originally lost weight in 2014, but I was not counting calories. (Looking back, I wish I had tracked my protein grams, to avoid losing lean mass along with fat.) Most of my clients who are losing weight at a sustainable pace are not tracking calories; they are using a wide variety of methods such as intermittent fasting, increasing vegetable servings, limiting or avoiding flour and/or added sugar, tracking carbohydrate grams, avoiding alcohol, limiting snacking, and others. It’s about finding habits that you can live with over the long term and that produce the results you want (feeling better and healthier), and making sure that exercise is one of those habits. It’s my aim as a coach to help people find and implement their own successful mix of healthy habits, and this is so exciting and satisfying when it happens. Sometimes this includes calorie counting, but often it’s not necessary.
In my case, I’m dealing with the last 10 pounds, which I think deserve their reputation for being stubborn (but not impossible!). And I’m trying not only to have a healthy body composition (which I already do) but to truly be an example of what an older woman can do with her body.
Speaking of what an older woman can do with her body, look at one of my heroes, Ernestine Shepherd, age 85, the world’s oldest bodybuilder. She’s also a personal trainer and leads fitness classes. She reports that she was out of shape at middle age and didn’t start exercising seriously until age 56. That’s the kind of journey I want, and I want to take others with me, are you in??
So tracking calories is definitely not necessary for everyone, but it’s a habit that works for me right now, and I can live with it. I use MyMacros+ (there are many other good apps), and it really isn’t so hard, because it has a large database of foods (plus the ones I add are stored). If a food isn’t in the database, an internet search brings up its nutrition facts quickly and I can add them.
My daily goals are 1700 calories and at least 100 grams of protein; I’ve found that these work great for my body and activity level.
Why 100 grams of protein? That sounds like a lot.
Protein has two key qualities that can make it a kind of “secret weapon“for us:
- It helps preserve our muscle and lean mass with age and as we lose weight, helping us stay strong, lean and fit instead of becoming skinny and frail. Protein is generally used by the body for repair and regeneration rather than being stored as fat.
- Protein is more filling and satisfying, per calorie, than either fats or carbs. Thus it helps prevent hunger when we are in a slight calorie deficit, as we need to be in order to gradually lose excess fat.
What is the minimum daily protein requirement for a sedentary person? Start with your goal or ideal weight in pounds (we don’t need protein to maintain extra stored fat). Multiply that number by 0.36. That gives the minimum number of protein grams per day, according to official nutrition guidelines. In my case, my ideal weight is about 130 (I’m close to that now, but ideally I’d be at that same weight with more muscle and less fat on my body; right now, based on my BodPod readings, I’m pretty “marbled” with fat on the inside). Thus my absolute minimum, according to this, is 46.8 grams to stay healthy and not start down the road to becoming frail (and you know I’m not sedentary, so I clearly need more).
The numbers for “optimal” protein intake are not as well-defined, but the picture is gradually becoming clearer.
Some interesting considerations:
- Our bodies lose some of the ability to metabolize protein as we age, so it’s likely we need more, and it’s also a good idea to spread it out among our meals, because we can’t handle a whole steak at once while eating toast and cereal the rest of the day.
- It is possible and reasonable to gain muscle and lean mass as we age, with the proper training (as Ernestine shows!), to maintain our health and abilities. But we need to support this process with the needed protein building blocks.
Here’s a general calculator for optimal protein needs, based on the latest findings.
Start again with your goal weight in pounds. Multiply that number by 0.7. Then write the original number of your goal weight in pounds again. These two numbers provide a range, in grams, for the optimal amount of protein that is likely to help you feel great, stay strong or even get stronger, and gradually lose excess fat without hunger.
For me (based on 130 pounds), this range is 91 to 130 grams per day. Almost a year ago, I started tracking my protein grams, with an initial goal of at least 90, and I have definitely felt the benefits. I gained 3 pounds of muscle in my last visit to the BodPod, and I can lose weight without feeling hungry.
Another official guideline for protein is 10% to 30% of daily calories. Starting with my 1700 calories per day, that range would give me 170 to 510 calories from protein, or 42.5 to 127.5 grams per day (since pure protein has 4 calories per gram).
There is no evidence of negative effects from protein consumption on the upper end of this range (except maybe if it all comes from factory-farmed red meat, but then it isn’t actually the protein itself that is the problem ). And there is mounting evidence that hitting the target of 30% of calories is beneficial, especially as we age. Significantly exceeding this range doesn’t seem to provide extra benefits, and could cause harm (even just by crowding out other healthy foods), so there’s no need to go beyond this.
According to interviews with Ernestine, she takes in 1,700 calories a day (like me) and about 120 grams of lean protein: mainly boiled egg whites, chicken, vegetables and a liquid egg white drink. Wow! I like to vary my protein sources more than that (and I also include processed plant-based protein sources like tofu, seitan, tempeh and pea protein powder), but maybe I will follow her and bump up to 120 grams with even more weight training!
So I wasn’t hungry — but did I feel deprived or tempted?
Of course we eat (and drink) for all sorts of reasons besides hunger, and I had to manage those urges. The hardest part for me was abstaining from alcohol around 5 pm when I had a strong desire to use it to “relax”. I resorted to other solutions such as taking a bath while watching a heartwarming Netflix show on my laptop. It gradually got easier, especially as I started noticing benefits from abstaining, such as feeling more alert later in the evening, and seeing improvements in my heart rate variability (an indicator of balance in my internal stress management system, as measured by my new Apple Watch).
A portrait of me at 7:30 p.m.
I’ve hit my protein and calorie targets. I’m not physically hungry. But I can feel the urges rising. I’ve got delicious dates in the fridge. So sweet and chewy! A big bowl of stove-popped popcorn and a movie would be nice. And a shot of Diplomatico rum, tasty AND relaxing. How about all three? I calculate the objects of my desire, using my food logging app. They add up to 643 calories. Or I could just stop eating. That’s the difference between losing a little excess fat today, or gaining some. My September challenge holds me back, and I open a can of fizzy hops water instead. But now my husband wants to make popcorn! I don’t want to ask him to do without it, but it would be hard to sit next to it. So I decide to read upstairs instead of joining him on the couch.
In the few cases that I went to restaurants or gathered with friends and family, I made careful protein-and-vegetable choices, but I also allowed a few food exceptions (no alcohol exceptions, I was strict with that), including a serving of sweet potato casserole with pecans and brown sugar at a picnic with my mom, and a gingerbread heart that my son brought me from an Oktoberfest event. I logged them and worked around them for my 1700-calorie days, and that was fine.
Vegetables are free!
While logging my calories, I noticed once again that vegetables are essentially “free”. In the Weight Watchers system, vegetables have zero points (except for a few really starchy ones). According to my food log, yesterday I had 2 cups of spaghetti squash (62 calories) with tomato sauce (50 calories), half a cup of green peppers (15 calories), a cup of roasted winter squash (49 calories), half an onion (32 calories), a quarter cup of sauerkraut (11 calories). a handful of fresh basil (6 calories), a beet (44 calories), half a cup of broccoli (15 calories), half a cucumber (8 calories), and 2 cups of lettuce (15 calories). That’s a big pile of satisfying and healthy food, rounded out with my proteins, spices and a reasonable amount of olive oil. I love eating this way, and I can feel the benefits in lowered inflammation, clearer skin, and of course gradual fat loss without hunger.
What did my weight loss progress look like?
Messy. Bumpy. Zig-zaggy. I weighed myself every day (which I don’t usually do) and I found that my weight could go down, but then five days later be back up exactly where I’d been. I could definitely have become discouraged, especially since I was putting in plenty of work logging, tracking and resisting urges. But I knew from experience that the long-term trend would go in the direction I wanted, and I was right.
Where do I go from here?
Now that my September challenge is finished, my new plan is allow alcohol once a week (craft beer at Dominion or Caboose with my husband or with friends), and I’ll also build in space for one “blowout” food a week, like pizza from The Italian Store, breaded fried fish and shrimp from HotnJuicy, a raclette night where it’s all about the cheese, or an Ethiopian vegetarian feast with a big pile of injera.
But I’m going to keep logging 1700 calories and at least 100 grams of protein, maybe even 120. I’ll keep chipping away at my excess abdominal fat and training my body to add muscle. I’m determined to enter new territory, with more lean mass to keep me going like the amazing Ernestine, to age 85 and beyond. What are your goals, and what’s your next challenge? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!