Note: I've gotta confess that it feels pretty vulnerable posting a story about my own weight loss and body image issues, and I've been blogging long enough to know that not everyone will agree with or appreciate my experience that I've shared below. To those readers, I wish you the best, and I hope you'll do the same for me. xo Emily
Like many modern women I know, I inherited a dysfunctional relationship to body image and food. I always aspired to be thin, even when I was thin. I related to food as a reward and punishment, as in, I was good, so ‘I'm having this cake' or ‘I'm going to be bad and have this cake'.
Blame the media. Blame our mothers. But at some point, it's time to stop blaming and start healing.
How my body got messed up in the first place
There are many things that contributed to my metabolism going awry. I started dieting at the age of 13 when I didn't have an ounce of body fat to spare. Then as a competitive swimmer, intense training was a minimum of 2 hours per day, and this was often fueled with a small smattering of junk food throughout the day and followed with the largest bowls of spaghetti I could find followed by ice cream drowning in Hersey's syrup.
Then in college in the early 90's, there was my fat-free phase that was abundant in Entenmann's pound cake, nonfat frozen yogurt, Swedish fish candies, fat-free pretzels, and plenty of watery beer. During my freshman year, my total consumption of fat was under 10g per day. Not surprisingly, I tanked out at swim practice, did not have the brain power for late night cramming, and gained almost as much weight as I did during my first pregnancy.
In my 20's I thought I had it figured out. I was a pescatarian, eating tons of seitan, tofu, canned beans, and whole grains. Then when I moved to California and started Chinese medicine school, I decided that a healthy diet should involve meat. Through all this I maintained a fairly healthy body weight with lots and lots of fitness thrown in.
The baby body yo-yo
After Baby #1, my body bounced back rather quickly. Sort of. Due to sleep deprivation and the associated nausea, and to a lesser degree, breastfeeding, I lost all of the baby weight and more, though I felt weak, tired, and cranky most days. But I was thin, at least. (Dysfunction, noted).
With baby #2, I gained more weight and after my little one was born, the extra pounds seemed to stick around. Thanks to my improved sleep (see my post on Why I Ditched Attachment Parenting), I was no longer feeling awful, but I was also carrying a good 15-20 pounds more than my pre-pregnancy body; I was out of shape (who's got time to work out with two small kids?), and could certainly have used more energy.
Though I had considered myself a healthy eater for most of my adult life (we're talking store-bought almond milk, organic meat, lots of veggies, and whole grains), I didn't fully embrace a true-nutrient dense diet until after my second baby.
These days, I'm happy to say that I've ‘got my body back'. Nearly every mama who's had a couple of kids or more (barring those with simply miraculous genes) can understand that this is actually not my pre-baby body, but I can ignore a bit of sag here and there in exchange for having great energy, looking decent clothed or not, and feeling pretty darn good in my own skin.
Since I know that so many women struggle with postpartum weight loss and body image, I want to share the essential steps I found along the way.
I fell in love with real food
When my daughter was a newborn, I watched a video series called ‘Nourishing Our Children'. For the few years prior, I had been exploring Nourishing Traditions, the cookbook and real food bible by Sally Fallon Morel. I was obsessed with making food from scratch including bone broths and sauerkraut, but I didn't grasp the full concepts of the Weston Price Foundation until I saw Nourishing Our Children.
Suddenly, I understood the nourishing benefits of saturated fats from healthy, grass-fed animals. I had a new-found respect for formerly strange foods such as raw milk, liver, and bone marrow. I learned that grains, beans and nuts needed to be properly prepared for proper nutrition. And it became distinctly clear that nearly all modern processed foods (even organic ‘health' foods) were doing nothing positive for my health.
When I finally ditched the junk (buh-bye frozen pizzas), I began to truly nourish myself with the best quality ingredients I could find. Sure, I was eating way more fat than ever – eggs with bright orange yolks, liver blended in with grass-fed ground beef, raw cream, and coconut oil and butter everywhere – but despite the radical shift, I was feeling better than ever.
I healed my gut
As a kid and teen, I wasn't a stranger to antibiotics, which did my gut flora no favors. (If you're new here, I'm referring to the healthy balance of good bacteria in the digestive tract).
In Chinese medicine we know that a healthy digestion is at the core of good health. Symptoms of weak digestion are not limited to poor appetite, upset tummies, acid reflux, constipation, or diarrhea, either. When your digestive “qi” (life force) is weak you may have low energy, depression, anxiety, unhealthy weight (both too heavy or too light), sleep problems, poor stress management, skin conditions, and much, much more.
So, in adopting a real food lifestyle, probiotics have become part of my daily regime. Raw milk, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha – even fermented ketchup and salsa make their way into my diet on a daily basis. In addition, I take a high potency probiotic on occasion, to give my system a boost of healthy micro-flora.
I also take care to eat plenty of soup make with homemade bone broth. Not only is the broth extremely nourishing, and healing, but from a Chinese medicine perspective, cold and raw foods further damage digestion (in other words: go easy on the smoothies and salads).
I gave up giving things up
Probably my single most important step that helped me lose the baby weight was to first heal my poor relationship to food. There's a term that all healthy eaters and aspiring healthy eaters should become acquainted with: orthorexia.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by obsessive behavior to eat and be healthy and a preoccupation with avoiding unhealthy foods.
Take a minute to consider this. Orthorexia is everywhere in our fat-free, vegan-loving, sugar-fearing, gluten-avoiding, juice cleansing culture. While sometimes, certain foods need to be avoided for true health conditions, in most cases the latest foods you are avoiding may be a symptom of your unhealthy obsession with being healthy.
So, in an effort to recover from my obsessive, reward-and-punishment relationship to food, I vowed to stop giving things up. No more grain-free diets. No candida cleanse. No more limiting my cookie consumption. No restrictions of any kind.
I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Period.
Next, I bought some flattering dresses
As you might imagine, my figure did not magically become svelte with my new free-for-all diet. I continued to exercise three times per week, but my already ill-fitting jeans were feeling more snug than ever. The muffin-top was not working for my self-esteem.
So, rather than give up on my mission, I decided it was time to go shopping. I bought a collection of new, flattering dresses from my favorite shop in Los Angeles,. For an entire year, the only pants I wore were stretchy yoga pants around the house, and a sole pair of little black shorts that highlighted my genetically-more-gifted bottom half.
Without the ill-fitting clothes, I didn't feel so gross. I even began to look at myself in the mirror with admiration for my own strength and beauty – as is – a new and novel concept that only took a few decades to discover.
I got moving
After about a year of eating ‘all the things' and wearing flattering dresses, I felt like I was finally ready to be proactive in changing my body without going back into a cycle of self-punishment.
I got a FitBit, a fantastic tool that helped me to see clearly that my formerly fit self was sitting on the sofa blogging and not moving nearly enough. You can read about my love of my FitBit here. I spent a few months getting my fitness level up simply by accomplishing 10K steps per day.
My rewards: more energy, a bit more muscle tone, and a much better attitude.
My other key to exercise was finding something I LOVE to do. While I'd been spinning twice a week (off and on) for about 9 years, I recently discovered a spinning studio that rocks my world, and I love to get there as often as possible. Making exercise fun certainly ups the chances of getting it done.
I got accountable
After months of walking or spinning 10K steps per day, it became evident that my scale and jean size wasn't about to budge with my current strategy. So I decided to – ever so gently and lovingly – take it to the next level.
FitBit has a handy-dandy calorie counting feature that, given my disdain for dieting, was something that I initially had no interest in using. But then I considered my journey thus far – my metabolism was being nourished with nutrient dense foods, I was exercising regularly and moderately, and I was doing my best with managing stress and getting enough sleep. All things considered, if I wanted to lose some body fat, it was going to have to come from a calories-in-calories-out tally.
Yes, it's calorie counting. Stigma-ladened, dieter's territory. But done properly, a calorie really is a calorie. Plus, since the FitBit is also monitoring my movement and exercise, the more I moved the more I could eat.
I decided to set my target at a 700 calorie per day deficit. Based on my activity level, that typically put me in the range of 1600-2200 calories per day. I continued not to restrict what I ate, I just began to moderate the quantity.
Here's an example of a typical day…
Breakfast: A piece of sourdough toast with grass-fed butter and a scrambled egg (with cultured salsa if we had some). A black tea with raw milk and a spoonful of raw honey.
Lunch: A pint of hearty stew from my meal plans.
Dinner: Rice (cooked in bone broth), steamed veggies with butter, and salmon.
Snacks: Naturally fermented sauerkraut or pickles, dried seaweed with a bit of goat cheese, popcorn drizzled with butter. Herbal tea in the evening to warm my tummy and the occasional stevia soda as a treat.
I keep orthorexia and body dysmorphia in check
In the beginning this method worked pretty well; I was only occasionally hungry, and would typically just go ahead and give myself a pass to eat what I wanted on those days. Rather than seeing these as ‘cheat' days, it worked better for me to think of it as honoring my body's needs.
As time went on, there were certainly moments where I could hear the Over-achiever, the Chronic Dieter, or the Self-Judgement Department trying to take over, and then I would gently step back and have a few days or weeks when I paid no attention to calories until I was once again driving my own ship.
Over the course of about 6 months I have slowly dropped 15 pounds, gotten much stronger, and feel confident in my own skin.
While it was fun to put on the ridiculous pink dress below (no, I did not wear it outside my house) this experience hasn't been about ‘achieving' a weight loss goal or a smaller dress size, but rather a journey of introspection, self-love, and gentle respect for my body.
In summary, here are…
My top 5 strategies for losing baby weight
#1 – Eat real food
This is both a simple and confounding concept in our modern world. If you're a newbie, check out this starter guide and be sure to scroll down and subscribe to my newsletter so you can receive helpful information and recipes in your inbox.
#2 – Heal your metabolism
Aside from eating real food, this includes having healthy gut flora, recovering from restrictive diets, and getting your digestive fire burning again. If your metabolism is broken, you will continue to struggle and struggle with your weight and health. Far and away the BEST resource for learning how to get your metabolism thriving is this ebook: Nourished Metabolism by Elizabeth Walling.
#3 – Learn to love your body (and your whole self)
You would never speak to a small child the way you speak to yourself in your own head. Don't you think it's time to be NICE to yourself? For me, this started with wearing clothes that didn't feel like a punishment, eating food that I was craving, and appreciating my own beauty and strength.
How can you be good to yourself today?
#4 – Move!
Everyone has different needs when it comes to exercise. I'm the type that feels great with short bursts of aerobic exertion, but since I'm super bendy, I also need isolated strengthening to maintain integrity in my joints. Things like running and yoga aren't great for me, but I know plenty of folks who thrive off of these activities and wouldn't be caught dead on a spin bike or pilates reformer.
Point is, you need to find exercise that 1) works best for your body and 2) you actually enjoy. If you don't think you like exercising, then you just haven't tried the right thing yet. In the meantime: walk, walk, walk and simply get your heart pumping and your blood and energy flowing.
#5 – Be honest
If you sit on your bottom and eat a bag of cookies daily, it's no wonder your body isn't behaving the way you'd like it to. Likewise, if you've been chronically over-exercising or dieting, you can't expect your metabolism to be operating at its best. Like me, you may be in denial about your lack of sleep or your overwhelming daily stresses – not a recipe for health.
Healthy weight loss never comes in a magic pill or shake. A healthy body will settle at an equilibrium weight, given the right foods and amounts (not too much or too little), enough movement, and honor and respect.
If your metabolism is functioning optimally (check out the chart in this post), and you've got a healthy relationship with food and your body, you may be able to start looking at calorie intake vs. output from a healthy perspective.
Go slow, and above all, take love with you.