How I lost 14kg in one year: by practicing mindfulness

Update: I’ve significantly shifted my views on this experience and topic, which you can read here. While I still promote the approach of mindfulness, it’s using it for the purpose of weight loss that I find problematic. Some of the content in this post might still be useful, but I highly discourage obsessing on numbers as I have here.

In 2017, I lost 14kg (30lbs). It was a steady loss of 1-1.5kg/month, and 75% of the weight lost was fat. I’ve been as surprised as anyone else, because it didn't seem like I was doing anything big. So I started documenting what I’m doing differently and what’s worked. 

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I’ve always been against crazy diets and I’m a strong proponent for loving your body no matter what size it is. But when my knees started hurting after dancing, I decided I wanted to get lighter and do everything I could to keep dancing. I first needed to get clear that this was not a short-term weight loss project; whatever I did needed to be balanced and sustainable for the rest of my life. With the help of my mindfulness coach, Susan, I embarked on this journey. I could have never imagined that I’d be where I am a year later. 

Most people think they need to starve themselves or go all out on exercise, to lose a lot of weight. But doing this usually results in a loss of muscle and not fat, reduces metabolism and all the weight comes careening back. The assumption is that big weight loss goals require big changes. What I found though, is that there is no one magic formula. Its more about the small common-sense changes that add up over time, as well as adopting the right mindset to keep your motivation and intention alive.

So here are some things I learnt:

Eat when hungry, stop when full. Don't stuff and don't starve.

The one thing I've committed to is that no matter what I'm eating, its important I stop eating when I'm full. And as soon as I get hungry, I eat something. This means planning better, eating smaller portions and eating more often.

  • For example, if I know I'm going to be in meetings all day, I carry an energy bar or nuts and fruit with me so that I can eat at least something if not a full meal during that long period. I don't cook much, but I keep some basics at home so that I can have eggs w/ toast, or fruits and nuts, or cereal and milk if I get hungry at unexpected times.

  • Its hard to follow the hunger and satiation rule sometimes, so I started portioning my food to help myself set limits. Instead of going for multiple refills, I now serve myself one generous portion of food on my plate every meal and put away the rest in the fridge before I start eating. If I love the food, I know I can eat the rest as soon as I'm hungry later in the day. Of course, to estimate the right portions I've needed to continue observing when I get full. And since the ‘eat when hungry, stop when full’ mantra comes first - if I've mis-estimated my portion, I'll try to stop eating when full or get more if I'm still hungry.

Eat everything in moderation. Don't deprive yourself and don't get addicted.

I love dessert. I also eat out a lot since I don't cook. I needed to figure out a middle ground - it wouldn't be wise to cut these foods out completely because that wouldn't be sustainable. But eating them in large quantities everyday wasn't really helpful either. I needed to manage the quantity and frequency accordingly.  

  • I won’t deprive myself of dessert, but I remind myself that I don’t always need to eat ALL of it, especially if I've had a large or rich meal already. But sometimes I find it hard to not eat everything that’s in front of me. So if I’m eating alone at home, instead of skipping dessert, sometimes I make a deal with myself to throw away half of it (gasp!) before I start my meal, and proceed to happily eat the other half. I’m also more careful to eat a smaller meal to leave space for dessert if I plan to get it.

  • That said, I remind myself that I don’t have to have dessert every single time I want it. If I've had dessert on 2-3 consecutive days for example, it might be time to take a break for a few days even if I really want it. At such times, I make a deal with myself to have the same thing a few days later, and do my best to honor that promise if I still want it later. I don't want to be addicted to sugar and to be controlled by my sugar cravings.

  • When I eat out at restaurants, I try to make healthier choices when I’m not too fussed. But if I really want something I love on the menu, I go ahead and get it because I don’t want to create a sense of deprivation. What I can do is pay attention to when I feel full, because its often the case that I don’t need the entire portion when I’m eating something rich/dense.

Get to know your body. Start becoming aware of what you put in it and how it feels. 

I started paying more attention to my body - When did I feel hungry? What did hunger feel like? When did I start feeling full? How did different foods make me feel? I started keeping a daily food log to note down what I ate and when. This has helped me become aware of my patterns and needs, which allows me to make more informed choices in the future. 

  • The food log helps me make more balanced, nutritious choices. For example, if I didn't have protein in my lunch, I try to include that in my dinner plans. If I notice I haven't eaten any veggies all day, I try to at least have a fruit as a snack.

  • I also make note of my hunger and satiation levels for certain meals. For example, I note if I was really hungry before a meal, since this indicates that I need to plan better to eat sooner. Or if I felt too full at the end of certain meals, it helps me understand my appetite better so that I could reduce the portion next time. I started noticing how I felt in my body after overeating. I try to ask myself, do I really want to feel this way? Or do I want to enjoy food and stop before I feel that way?

  • Keeping a food log has helped me understand what works best for me, rather than depending on others to tell me that. This is important because everyone is different, and there is no one right or wrong answer for whats best for you. For example, I noticed that eating an all-carb meal doesn't feel as good or satiating for me as a meal with protein or fat in it. But for my friend, an all-carb meal leaves her feeling satisfied while a meal rich in fat weighs her down.

Focus on having an active lifestyle. Frequent exercise is more important than long or intense workouts. 

I didn’t make any drastic changes in how much I exercise to lose weight. I had been exercising regularly before my weight loss started, and doing much more wouldn’t be sustainable. I was definitely not spending hours at the gym on the treadmill/elliptical, which most people assume is the case.

  • Start moving more: I make sure I’m doing some kind of movement based activity at least a few times a week. This involves keeping an eye on my daily # of steps and incorporating walking and dancing as and when I can. This could include a 30-minute walk in the process of running errands or a 15 minute dance session at home. I haven’t spent much time on high intensity cardio, the kind that first comes to mind when you think of weight loss. At most, I do 10-15 minutes on the treadmill before my main workout.

  • Strength training: My main workout involves strength related exercises like pilates, yoga or strength training. Currently, I’m scheduled for pilates 2x/week and strength training 2x/week, and end up doing either of these 3x/week depending on my plans. My physiotherapist is more like a personal trainer, and his workouts are not only harder than anything else I do but also account for my different injuries and needs. This is the one thing I’m most committed to, and I make every effort to shift my plans accordingly. I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful for weight loss – it helps me build muscle (and lose more fat on a relative basis) and increases my metabolic rate. And it feels really great when you get stronger.

Exercise smartly. Listen to your body.

I found that there is much more to exercise than just going to the gym. I choose from a variety of activities based on what I feel like doing that week. I pay attention to how my body feels, so that I can adjust the timings, frequency and length of my workouts. Exercise doesn’t feel like something I ‘should’ do anymore, its something I enjoy and want to do because I make sure to give myself the space and choices for that.

  • Don't overdo it: At some point, I was doing pilates (2x/week), yoga (2x/week) and physical therapy (2x/week). It was total overkill on strength and flexibility related exercises. Even though my trainer thought it wasn't too much, I realized I needed to listen to my body as I was feeling exhausted all the time. So I scaled back on these exercises to max 4x/week. Doing too much didn't give my muscles enough time to recover, which would only prevent me from gaining muscle or getting stronger. 'No pain, no gain' is bullshit if taken too seriously.

  • Balance planning with flexibility: I got a fitbit so that I could become more conscious of my activity patterns. I’ll often plan ahead for the next week, by looking at my plans and identifying times when I can incorporate exercise. I leave space for flexibility – some workouts are scheduled and at other times I can mix it up and do what I feel like doing, whether that’s a walk or yoga at home or a dance class.

  • Stay fuelled: In the beginning, I was working out a lot but feeling exhausted all the time and not seeing results. I did some research and realized that exercise nutrition made a huge difference. Since then, I make sure I have a fruit or toast before I work out as well as something small if not a meal after my work out. I also try to eat more protein and drink more water, especially in weeks of hard-core strength training to help my body recover and build muscle.

Make lifestyle choices that are sustainable and aligned with your goals.

There has clearly been a lifestyle change. I don't drink as much alcohol or eat out as much. I take my workout schedule seriously and don't skip. I try to sleep better. I still indulge in having fun when I’m excited about it, but I’ve realized there are many ways to have fun and indulgences don’t need to be a weekly affair.

  • Drinking: I realized I don't care about drinking that much. To me, it seems like empty calories that I don't even enjoy. I'd much rather have yummy food or dessert than drink. That doesn't mean I deprive myself of drinking when I want it, for example at a friends wedding. But instead of having shot after shot and drinking indiscriminately, I have fewer drinks and pace myself more. I definitely don't miss the hangovers.

  • Eating out/Ordering in: I stopped eating heavy, restaurant food as frequently as I was before. I used to order in my dinner almost every night, based on whatever my taste buds wanted. I continue to order in because I'm still too lazy to cook, but I just make better choices. I made a list of all the possible choices that are healthier and which I actually enjoy (grilled chicken, salads, lighter foods). I also manage leftovers and basic options at home better (eggs/toast, muesli/milk etc) so that I don't need to order a full meal if I’m not that hungry.

  • Sleeping: I'm pretty sure sleeping enough is key to my body being in balance and health, and this is something I've struggled with the most. I started tracking sleep on my fitbit, which has made it fun and habitual. Every morning, the first thing I do is to sync my fitbit so that I can see how many hours of sleep I got and how much of that was deep sleep and REM sleep (just because its fun to know). It doesn't matter if its not accurate, the point is that it makes me more conscious of my sleep habits.

Develop the right mindset. Focus on what you can do, not on what you want or what you just did.

Changing how I think about mindful eating and weight loss was the key ingredient to the behavioural changes. And it continues to take everyday practice. I’m still learning to not pressure or judge myself, and to stop worrying about the outcome and focus more on my actions and intentions. 

  • No judging: I learnt to not beat myself up for meals where I struggled to be mindful, where I overate significantly or if I’ve been eating a ton of dessert (and these things regularly happen several times a week). Its impossible to be mindful all the time and perfectly. Being mindful calls for becoming more aware of everything, and if that’s accompanied by judgment every time, I’m just going to be miserable.

  • Staying grounded in my intention: So when I find myself focusing on my past choices or worrying, I come back to focusing on my intention to take care of myself and to eat well, to both love my body AND enjoy my food. I focus on what I can do differently in the present moment (for example, planning better for the next meal) and commit to keep trying my best.

  • Reminding myself of my biggest motivator: I first set an intention to lose weight when I got worried about not being able to dance when I’m older. Dancing makes me so happy. So I regularly recall the image of myself dancing happily, well into my 60s and 70s. I’ve found that the most motivating reason always has a deeper meaning attached to it. Changing your appearance doesn’t usually have that kind of meaning, unless you’re an athlete or an actor who needs to lose/gain weight for your career.

  • Don’t obsess over numbers: I naturally got quite excited by the weight loss, and the excitement and wonder only grew every month when I checked my weight. But the more attached I got to losing the weight, the more anxious I got about gaining it back. I started worrying that I was going to psych myself out of this and crash. So I limited myself to checking my weight to max once a month, and now try to focus my mind towards listening to my body and treating it right.

This is how I currently understand what happened over the past year. With my health goals in mind, I’ve been extremely focused on staying mindful, every day, as often as I can. It’s led to a fundamental shift in how I live, without feeling like I’m doing something big. I’m not an expert on this subject and I know I have a lot to learn and am happy to keep adapting my mindset and actions as I learn. I don’t know whether I’ll really be able to sustain these changes or if I’ll gain the weight back, only time will tell. But I don’t want to get caught up in the trap of constantly worrying about whether I’m sustaining the changes either. I’d just like to find greater ease and trust in myself to take care of my body to the best of my ability. That’s my intention for 2018.