For several weeks, we've been publishing feature articles on diets, eating plans, lifestyle food plans. ... whatever you choose to call them, it's pretty obvious that the options are plentiful. There are diets that restrict carbs, diets that suggest you eat all the carbs you want, sugar detox diets, shake diets - I could be here all day just rattling off the varieties of eating plans. But it's likely that all of us, at some point in time, put ourselves on a diet in order to lose a few pounds.
Personally, I really dislike referring to any type of eating plan as a "diet." The word has a negative connotation. Just say the word diet to someone and what sort of things come to mind? Restrictions. Hunger. Dissatisfaction. I don't recall anyone ever uttering the phrase, "I love dieting!"
And the most frustrating thing about diets? One size does not fit all. And even diets that you may have found successful before don't work for you now. That's because your body changes as you age. You probably notice a change in your overall shape due to the way your body stores fat, and your perception that you're a bit shorter is not just a figment of your imagination. In addition, we also lose muscle mass as we age - an article on about.com stated that some researchers estimate a one percent loss of muscle mass every year after the age of 30. And because muscles burn fat, a lack of muscle means more fat accumulating in our bodies.
Well that's slightly depressing.
But you don't have to be a slave to nature. You can - and should - do whatever you can to be the healthiest that you can possibly be.
About 10 years ago, I grew extremely frustrated with the way I looked and felt. For me, it was never a vanity thing - I didn't have to look like a swimsuit model. I just wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. A friend was having great success on Weight Watchers, so I decided to join. The resulting change in my diet made me feel better - I had more energy, I lost 25 pounds and most importantly, I felt good about myself. And I was able to carry on this lifestyle for several years.
My cancer diagnosis was somewhat of a brick wall to my healthy eating lifestyle. After years of non-structured eating while dealing with several relapses, about a year or so into my current remission, I decided to give Weight Watchers another try. This time, it wasn't as easy as it was the first time. The pounds didn't come off like they did before, and I found myself hungry all the time.
For almost a year or more before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, I was a semi-vegetarian. However, about three months into treatment, I started craving red meat. I couldn't get enough. That was my body's way of saying, "Hey, lady! I need protein! Pronto!" I liked steak and chicken and burgers - but those things took up a lot of points on my Weight Watchers plan, and the lower point stuff, like carb-heavy foods, weren't satisfying because I was starving again two hours after eating. The plan in and of itself was good, but even though it worked for me in the past, it wasn't working now and it didn't excite me anymore. I needed a change.
I started seeing a health coach, someone who not only helped me adjust my eating habits, but also provided guidelines to balance all other aspects of my life to become truly healthy, inside and out. It was during this time that I learned about the Paleo diet.
In its most basic definition, eating Paleo means eating foods in their natural form, foods that our ancestors probably ate 10,000 years ago - meats, shellfish and fish, vegetables, eggs, nuts, fruits and berries. Paleo followers also avoid processed foods, sugar, starch and alcohol, as well as dairy, grains and legumes. The first four restrictions make sense, but the last three - things we are programmed to think are beneficial - are thought to cause inflammation at the cellular level, which can lead to disease. About a year ago, I wrote a column on the book "Anticancer: A New Way of Life" by David Servan-Schreiber. In this book, Servan-Schreiber, a cancer survivor, suggested that the standard Western diet is full of foods that cause inflammation, which can eventually promote cancerous growth. Having this information in the back of my mind and having already taken steps to eliminate some of these bad foods, the Paleo diet intrigued me.
I admit, I did not totally give up dairy. I still eat some cheese, but it's always the full-fat versions that are less processed than fat-free. Full-fat versions are also more filling, so you'll eat less to feel satisfied. As a dairy milk lover from childhood, I found that transitioning over to almond milk was much easier than I thought. In addition, it has much more calcium than overly-processed, store bought dairy milk.
I also consume grains from time to time, but I find that when I avoid grains and carbs (like bread and pasta), I feel a lot better. I recall having gone several weeks without grains or bread, and at lunch one day, I decided to eat a sandwich. I was sick for the rest of the afternoon. I find that when I cut back or eliminate grains and carbs, my stomach feels better.
The other aspect of this diet that sucked me in was its exercise component. Having lifted weights years ago, I'd been trying for years to get back into it. I found a program through Beach Body called Chalean Extreme, which consists of three phases of muscle-building weight lifting programs. Each phase lasts one month and consists of three different weekly weight lifting workouts. Cardio is also a part of the program, but since I get my cardio at Jazzercise, I only followed the weight lifting program. After three months, I lost several inches all around and felt more toned and energetic. And because I was building muscle, eating foods high in protein helped repair and build those muscles - it was a perfect fit for me, and my body reaped the rewards. I worked too long and too hard to get myself into remission from cancer to not take care of myself.
The Paleo diet, or even an adaptation of it like I follow, is definitely not for everyone. I like meat and I like weight lifting, so the combination of diet and exercise works well for me. For me, it's not about a number on a scale. I care more about how I feel in my clothes and in my body, regardless of what the scale says. If I'm toned and full of energy, that's a success for me, and that's what I strive to maintain.
However, I must warn you, if you don't plan to do any type of strength training as a part of your exercise program, then the Paleo diet is probably not for you. I also understand that some of the restrictions are enough to drive people away. Just because I like it doesn't mean you have to like it too. The key is, find an eating plan that fits your lifestyle, your goals and your body. It may take some experimentation, but it's worth it to your health in the end.
If you find the right balance and maintain that for the long haul, you won't ever have to worry about that dreaded "diet" word again.
Hershberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org