Well here I am, a full month into this losing weight while having a chronic illness thing, and I have to say that if I hadn’t been so well prepared there is no way I would still be doing this. No freaking way. Chronic illness on its own is like living inside a hurricane. Losing weight with chronic illness is like trying to plant a garden inside that hurricane and expecting it not to get destroyed.
The first week I lost weight quickly – ten pounds to be exact. That kind of excitement can carry you for a while, but eventually you hit bumps and roadblocks and if you are not prepared for those difficulties then that waning excitement will not be enough to keep you on track. Add a flare-up or two, back to back no less, and you certainly will quit – and who could blame you? That’s a ridiculous set of circumstances. I repeat: This is not easy. So if you are reading this and feeling badly because you have tried and failed, please go back and read the previous sentence one more time and then give yourself a hug from me.
I knew if I was going to succeed I could not do any of the things I had done before – working out at my maximum ability, counting on the fact that I will be cooking amazing food for every single meal, and setting goals that are more fitting for my old self, before chronic illness entered my life. All of those things are a perfect recipe for burnout and bringing on a flare. Then I’m down for the count for nearly a month wondering why I can’t just stick to my newly created routine. What’s that thing they say about insantity… it’s doing the same thing and expecting different results… right?
It’s hard in this world full of gym promotions, diet ads, and fitspiration posts to not feel pressured to approach weight loss in this way. I have to remind myself over and over again that I am not normal, and that even if some spoonies can manage those conditions I cannot, and that is ok. I am where I am no matter where others happen to be or where I thin I should be, and to expect myself to be anywhere else is nuts. If I wanted to succeed I had to meet myself right where I am at this very moment – not able to physically do much of anything.
SO I approached things in a very different manner this time. I created my entire routine and plan around my worst days. What can I do when I feel crappy? Pretty much nothing. How can I lose weight while doing pretty much nothing? By eating about 1500 calories a day and making sure a good portion of those calories come from protein, that about half my plate is filled with veggies at most meals, by reducing sugar and processed carbs intake whenever possible, and by watching my sodium intake. It sounds fairly easy, right?
It actually is.
I thought I needed to meal prep and so I spent my very first Sunday of this weight loss adventure roasting baking sheets upon baking sheets of veggies to keep in the fridge. I figured if I’m going to eat veggies I might as well enjoy them, and I think roasted veggies are amazing. And they were amazing. Until about Thursday of that week. By then I just couldn’t enjoy it anymore as I couldn’t stand eating the same damn thing every single day. Lesson learned. Meal prep is not for me. But being prepared is.
Instead of meal prep I simply gather super easy staples and keep them in the house at all times. Frozen veggies that can be steamed in the bag, or even fresh ones that can be steamed in the bag, are cheap and quick. I can have different veggies nearly every day if I wanted to – cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, zucchini. Ok, zucchini doesn’t come in a steamable bag. But I purchased a spiralizer and let me tell you that those zucchini noodles are quick and delicious! I also bought a few GOOD salad dressings. By good I mean that they are made from quality oils and have all real ingredients, Aldi’s always has a few and their House Vinaigrette is my absolute favorite, for use on different bagged salads. There. Problem one solved.
From there I stocked up on frozen turkey burgers and chicken breast tenderloins that can be cooked on my Foreman grill in under 4 minutes, 100 calorie greek yogurts cups, eggs, protein powder, peanut butter, frozen precooked shrimp, and now turkey bacon. Protein handled.
From there I just thought of meals I love and found ways to increase the protein and veggies in them. When we make spaghetti, we now use zucchini noodles instead of pasta and always add meat of some kind. Tacos are made into a taco bowl or put inside romaine lettuce leafs. I love shrimp so putting six on a plate with a pile of quickly sautéed snap peas or a pile of zucchini noodles with oil and seasoning is an amazing meal for me.
I also organized my refrigerator so that finding and grabbing the healthy foods was easier. Due to pain I often have problems bending down and reaching way back in the fridge, so I put a big cooking sheet on my lower shelf and filled it with the things that usually get lost in the way back – yogurt and guacamole cups, rogue hardboiled eggs, hummus. I also put extra bins in the fridge for dinner leftovers that will become my lunch, and for fresh veggies. It really helped! There were no wasted yogurt cups this month, and that has never ever happened before!
Then I began following people on Instagram who are on the same journey I am, and copying their meals. I’m so serious right now. Thank you to everyone who has come up with meal ideas for me!
I knew that any kind of exercise I was able to do on good days would only be for strength/endurance purposes and not for burning extra calories, so that took all the pressure off. I made a few different HIIT programs for myself of varying levels for the elliptical and hopped on whenever I felt like I could – sometimes even twice a day, sometimes not once in 4 days. I also found a great HIIT upper body strength routine that only takes 4 minutes. I don’t work out longer, I simply add weight to make the workout harder. This keeps me from overdoing it and bringing on a flare, and it keeps me coming back to the workout because who can honestly avoid 4 minutes?
And now for the difficulties. At first the elliptical brought on a severe amount of mid back pain. I have serious problems with my rib cage and using my arms, and the motion of the elliptical handles was enough to irritate it all. So I kept my workouts short, rested when I needed to, used my massage chair, and in under a week the issue resolved itself. I did have one big flareup since, but it was a whole body flare that also affected that area. I’m still very, very careful, though. Just because things have gone well so far doesn’t mean I can be reckless.
I aslo struggled with sodium. I knew I needed some precooked/processed meat things in my life because I can’t always make it myself. So I had to learn how to balance a salty meal with what I ate the rest of the day. In the beginning I bought frozen grilled salmon and whatever brand it was really packed in the sodium. Now I get Gorton’s grilled salmon and no longer have that problem. Even the turkey burgers have a higher amount of salt than if I simply made them at home, but the convenience is worth it for me provided I pay attention to what else I eat that day.
Another difficulty I had was not wanting to eat while in a flare. Sometimes it’s the fatigue that gets me, and that’s where things like yogurt, smoothies, and even broth come in handy. But other times it’s nausea or a complete loss of appetite that makes me not want to eat at all. This has been an ongoing theme in my life, and I know from experience that not eating enough is just as bad as eating too much when it comes to my body. At first I thought I could just find higher calorie bars and use those as meal replacements, but the carbs and sugar were often REALLY high. Grabbing whatever I could choke down from the fridge wasn’t getting me enough calories or protein. But then just yesterday I found an amazing recipe for peanut butter protein balls and it pretty much solved my problem!
2 TBS peanut butter – it’s supposed to be “natural” so you don’t get all the extra sugar but I just use what I have.
2 TBSP honey – it’s supposed to be magical unicorn tear infused, but I just use the stuff I get from Aldi’s
A serving of protein powder – I used chocolate.
You guys. It’s like eating cookie dough. I’m going to make another batch so my son can try them. I know he will love them. These help me get my calories and protein in on days where I don’t want to eat or on days that I want something sweet.
And the very last difficulty I have had to overcome is the scale. Yes, the scale. I have lost 18 lbs in a month so you would think the scale and I would be friends, but you would be wrong. We probably would be friends if I didn’t step on it every single morning. But I do. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m terrified that I will get off course if I don’t keep a careful eye on my daily weight. But here’s the thing about your daily weight – it fluctuates. So I lost 10 pounds and went up 4. I almost quit right then and there, and that was my second week. I kept going and lost an additional 2 pounds by the end of that week bringing my total loss to 12 pounds. And then I kept stepping on that scale every morning, and the same thing kept happening over and over again. I’d lose and then go up about 4 pounds only to finally lose an additional 2 to 3 pounds at the very end of the week. And each time the scale went up I would have a mini freak out and think about quitting.
I mean I laid in bed and cried the first time, and the second and third time I just stared listlessly out my window as a single tear rolled down my cheek while some emo indie pop music magically started to play. The fourth time I stopped giving a shit because I had been through it three times already and finally understood that this is a) the way it works and b) the price you pay for getting on the scale every damn day.
However, I did do something really awesome each time I thought I was going to quit. I went back and reviewed my food diary on My Fitness Pal just to be sure I was doing things correctly. And each time I discovered that I was, and that I hadn’t done anything different than the week before, so I knew I was on track
Yet… in my mind…
“…omg I gained 4 lbs… but that happened last week..and I lost weight last week…so I should lose weight this week…but right now I’m up 4 pounds…but I was up 3 pounds last week and still lost weight by Sunday…so I should just chill the fuck out and drink some water and listen to some mus – NO. MUST FREAK OUT FIRST. Ok. Fine. AHHHHHH FREAK OUT.”
Do that three times and still succeed in the end and see if the freak out is really worth it. Now I just drink some water and listen to music until the panic passes.
And so here I am – nowhere near burnt out, many days spent in bed, on purpose exercise between 0 and 10 minutes a day, and I’m still down 18 pounds. I also survived Christmas and New Years without gaining weight – I actually LOST weight – and my 40th birthday is tomorrow and I still plan on hitting that 20 pound goal on Sunday. I’ve had two bags of cotton candy, tried sugar free strawberry licorice for the movies (it was AMAZING), fallen in love with Coke Zero, had brownie thins with whipped cream on top and actually screamed at how good they were (it was like a beautiful sugar explosion in my mouf), and had one fast food meal that I could barely even eat half of. But best of all my son has come along for the ride and loves ALL of the new ways I’m making our meals.
I wrote out each pound of the first 20 I wanted to lose, from 305 to 286, on a piece of paper and hung it on my bedroom wall. I cross each one off as I go. I have two more to cross off before my first 20 lbs is gone, and then I will hang up a new 20 lb goal on my wall. I figure I’ll just keep doing that until I’m where I need to be. I see what I am doing right now as totally sustainable. It’s taken me through flares and the holidays, so I think it has proven itself as an excellent plan.
I don’t think I could have designed this plan without having made all the previous mistakes, though, or without learning to value rest and working under my ability. Most importantly I don’t think I could have done this without being finally treated for my RA. My RA treatment has definitely improved my life, but that little bit of what it gives back to me pretty much all goes in to this plan with just enough left over to do extra stuff with my son. There’s no way I could have done it any sooner. No freaking way. So if you have read this and are getting down on yourself for not being able to do something similar, I need you to know that I wasn’t able to do it either because there was something more wrong with me that needed to be treated. Chronic illnesses can hide behind other chronic illnesses for quite a while. Thankfully I finally have excellent doctors that not only love crazy patients like me, but are good at treating them. It took me over 20 years to find this team! So I suppose I also could not do this without them.
If you don’t have a good team or if you know you have something else going on that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet, please remember to be kind to yourself and that even I wasn’t able to accomplish these goals without these things being taken care of. Please be kind to yourself!
PS, I also did something kind of crazy. I joined a Diet Bet. I put down $30 saying I could lose 11 lbs in one month. Crazy, right? I’m down 3 pounds since joining, so I’ve only got 8 more to go. Can’t wait to check in next month and let you know if I made it or not.
If you’d like to watch my journey as it happens, you can follow me on Instagram @Still_Smihlen.