How I Lost 20 Pounds Sustainably During Quarantine

Tips for Sustainable Weight Loss

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

At the start of 2020, I weighed 154lbs at 5’6". Within a few weeks of quarantine restrictions having started (around the end of February), I began gaining weight again. I overindulged on desserts because I thought, “Hey, it’s tough times, there’s nothing else to do, I deserve the treats.” I did not want to gain back the weight I had already lost (my highest weight was 180lbs; it took me about 2 years to get to 154lbs). When I saw the new higher number on the scale (157lbs), I decided to put a stop to it and seriously work on losing weight.

As of December 2020, I weigh 137 pounds, which is a 20-pound weight loss in less than a year, and I am still trying to lose a few more pounds. I am much closer to my ideal body size, and the 20-pound loss is very noticeable to me and others. Clothes that were tight now fit, and clothes that fit just right now are too big and baggy. I can see and feel that my body is smaller, and I have more energy and desire to exercise. Here I will share the strategies I follow for sustainable weight loss.

Set realistic and achievable goals

Depending on how heavy you are, you should aim to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week to do it sustainably. If you want to lose 20 pounds, give yourself 5 months to do so, don’t try to do it in a week or a month. I’d say that a 20-pound weight loss in a month or less is only realistic, achievable, and healthy if you are morbidly obese.

Instead of setting your goal post far away, set it closer. For example, instead of aiming for a 50-pound weight loss straight from the bat, aim for a 10-pound weight loss, which is achievable sooner, and once you reach that goal, you can set a new goal to lose an additional 10 pounds, and so on until you get to your desired weight.

It’s not just calories: the type of food you eat matters

You don’t necessarily have to eat less. Instead, change the kind of foods you eat.

Weight loss is basically calories in, calories out. If you are in a calorie deficit (as in, you use more calories than you consume), you will lose weight. If you are in a calorie excess (as in, you consume more calories than you use), you will gain weight. Thus, to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than you are currently eating or burn more calories than you are currently burning, or both.

Eating fewer calories doesn’t have to mean eating less food. You could even eat more and lose weight, but it depends on what you are eating. Some foods have a lot more calories than others for the same weight. For example, a pound of lettuce has 68 calories while a pound of ground beef (70% lean, 30% fat) has 1,506 calories! Regarding amounts, 68 calories of ground beef are almost nothing compared to 68 calories of lettuce. Can you imagine eating a pound of lettuce in one sitting?

This doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to eating lettuce and super low-calorie veggies for weight loss. It’d get boring fast. Taste and pleasure are an important part of eating for most of us, especially those looking to lose weight. It would help if you ate smartly. Prepare your meals so that most of the meal’s volume (e.g., half the plate) comes from low-calorie vegetables. This way, your plate has fewer calories, but it’s still a big portion of food, and you will feel full and satisfied by the end of the meal. Add more fruits and veggies to your meals; they are more filling and usually lower in calories.

Focus on eating high volume, low calorie foods.

I recommend you count calories at the beginning of your weight loss journey, so you learn the calories in foods (a food scale is useful for this), but I don’t think you should make it a permanent staple in your life. In my opinion, strict calorie counting can become obsessive, mentally taxing, and damaging.

Increasing protein and fiber in your meals can help you get full quicker and feel full longer.

Note that you don’t have to feel constantly hungry to lose weight. I’d say hunger is the enemy of weight loss because the longer you feel hungry, the more cravings and less control you’ll have. If you’re starving, you will choose high-calorie foods over healthier meals. Avoid becoming famished; eat well. I find it very sad that many people have the impression that you must starve to lose weight. That’s not the case at all.

Don’t go on a temporary diet; change your lifestyle instead

Once you lose weight, you need to maintain it. If you go back to your old ways, you will gain the weight back. You should create a meal plan that you enjoy so that you will have no issue continuing it after you have reached your goal.

Life is too short to hate your meals and workouts. Find recipes and exercises that you enjoy.

Willpower and self-discipline have their place, but most of us don’t want to force ourselves to do things we hate. Life is too short to hate your meals or your exercise routine. Find foods and workouts that you enjoy.

Pay attention to your hunger and satiety/fullness cues

Eat mindfully. Don’t eat until you want to puke; eat until you’re satiated.

Don’t eat without hunger; wait until you start feeling hungry to eat. Treat food as fuel, not entertainment or solace. Many of us have an emotional connection to food. We eat it when we’re hungry, sad, stressed, bored, happy, and so on. We need to address our emotions instead of drowning them out in delicious food. This part can be quite a struggle in the weight loss journey, but I digress.

When you constantly eat and don’t let your body feel hunger, you can forget how hunger even feels like. Here are some signs of hunger:

  • growling stomach
  • lightheadedness
  • irritability
  • lethargy
  • shakiness or weakness
  • void feeling in your stomach

Constantly overeating can leave you feeling exhausted. It’s taxing for the body to process so much food at one time. When you adjust your eating habits so you eat until you are satisfied, and not until you are stuffed, you may feel energized from meals instead of drained from them. Constant overeating can also increase the amount of food you’ll need to fulfill your hunger because it can cause your stomach to stretch and become bigger.

Here are some signs that you have overeaten by the end of a meal:

  • your stomach is uncomfortably full, maybe in pain
  • you feel that you couldn’t take another bite unless you want to risk puking
  • you feel nauseous
  • you feel drowsy after the meal, ready for a nap

Eating slowly, mindfully, and serving appropriate portions can help you avoid overeating. Flavor fatigue can also be helpful for recognizing when you have satisfied your hunger, and it’s time to stop eating. Flavor fatigue is when you get bored with the flavors of your food. Have you noticed how there’s always space for dessert after a meal? You can’t eat another bite of food, but bring on the cake! It’s because your palate is tired of the flavor of your meal, but the idea of changing up flavors with dessert wakes up your appetite again. If a meal tastes amazing on the first bite but by a much later bite, it’s “okay,” take it as a sign that you are satisfied and should save the rest for later. Another example of flavor fatigue’s influence on satiety cues is when you eat sweet treats and afterward start craving salty treats, or vice versa. In a sense, your palate gets bored of one flavor and gets woken up with a new distinct flavor.

Exercise

Everyone says it, you gotta exercise. Well, actually … you can lose weight without exercise, and just through a calorie deficit. But exercise will make weight loss much easier. Think about it… you could limit yourself to 1,500 a day and no more, or you could eat 1,800 a day because you burn 300 calories through exercises, so the body just takes in 1,500 calories that day. Exercise allows you to eat more calories and lose weight. This doesn’t mean that you can lose weight just with exercise and eat whatever and as much as you want. It is hard to lose a lot of calories in a day through exercise. The 300 calories I mentioned earlier can be lost with 1 hour of jogging or walking depending on your exertion, muscle build, and body weight. If you eat 1000 calories in excess, you’d have to jog/walk for more than 3 hours to burn those calories. That is pretty unrealistic and would be very exhausting.

Choose an exercise that you can be consistent with. To me, this is an exercise that I enjoy and isn’t very complicated to do, such as rollerskating or cycling. You don’t need a gym to exercise; there are many fun ways to build up a sweat, such as rock climbing, cycling, skating, surfing, jump rope, and so on. Find hobbies that make you move and excite you.

It’s recommended to do weight training in addition to cardio. If your muscles are larger, they will use more calories to be maintained, so the number of calories you burn at rest increases.

You don’t necessarily have to give up what you like

Find lower calorie alternatives to the foods you enjoy. For example, instead of eating Ben & Jerry’s chocolate ice cream, which has 210 calories in an 85 gram (2/3 cup) serving, eat Halo Top chocolate ice cream, which has 100 calories in the same serving size (half the calories!)

I use Walden Farms’ pancake syrup, which is 0 calories, in place of my previous favorite, Aunt Jemima syrup, which the original has 100 calories per 2 tablespoons and the lite version has 50 calories per 2 tablespoons. I like a lot of syrup on my pancakes and french toast, so using a 0 calorie syrup makes a big difference in the total calories of the meal.

Instead of using regular table sugar, use a calorie-free, sugar-free sweetener, such as Splenda, Stevia, monk fruit sweetener, a sugar alcohol such as erythritol or xylitol, and so on. If you prepare coffee often and use a lot of sugar in it, or you like baking, this replacement can cut down on many calories. I have started making my own lower-calorie strawberry yogurt by using plain fat-free Greek yogurt, powdered monk fruit sweetener, vanilla extract, and strawberries.

If you use butter often, which is 100 calories per tablespoon, you should try using light butter instead, which is 35 calories per tablespoon.

Cook at Home

You should cook most of your meals at home, where you control the ingredients and cooking methods. You can use little to no oil when cooking (since oils are very calorie-dense, it’s best to use them sparingly for weight loss), use lower calorie ingredients, bake instead of fry, use butter-flavored cooking spray for butter flavoring, and other ways of reducing calories.

A homemade dessert can have fewer calories than a store/restaurant bought dessert based on the recipe and ingredients you use! If you are a fan of desserts, you can bake them at home and make them lower-calorie by replacing real butter (100cal per TBSP) with light butter (35cal per TBSP) and real sugar (48cal per TBSP) with a sugar-free sweetener (0cal per TBSP). There are many sugar-free, calorie-free sweeteners available (Splenda, Monkfruit Sweetener, sugar alcohols, etc.)

Here’s an example of how these replacements can substantially reduce the calories of a dessert. I baked chocolate cupcakes following this recipe (minus frosting) and for my altered version. The original recipe is about 2240 calories for the whole batch (using buttermilk prepared with 2% fat milk and vinegar, and medium eggs, which are about 70 calories each), which is 160 calories per cupcake if you make 14 cupcakes. When replacing the sugar in the recipe with a sugar-free, calorie-free alternative sweetener and the oil with light butter, the whole batch amounts to 970 calories, which is 70 calories per cupcake if you make 14 cupcakes. These cupcakes are less than half the original recipe's calories, but you get the same delicious cupcakes. You can eat 2 cupcakes for the calories of 1.

Save leftovers when you eat out

When you do eat out, I recommend you separate an appropriate portion and take the rest home as leftovers. Most restaurants serve way too much food. When it’s all on one plate, you’ll be tempted to eat as much as you can, and you may end up overeating. For me, when I eat out, I usually overeat. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. I avoid this by separating an appropriate portion for the meal and saving the rest for later. Some people can find leftovers to be a hassle (my husband is one of these people). If you don’t want to carry around with leftovers, try to share the meal with a friend, partner, or family member who also wants a smaller portion. Ask the waiter to bring an extra plate or more, then divide and conquer.

Stay hydrated, drink water!

Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger. It happens to me too much. You just feel like you want to chew on something, like an anxious feeling. But it can be your body trying to get you to get some hydration into you. Foods can provide some hydration (such as fruits, vegetables, soups, etc.). Try to stay hydrated, and if you feel anxious to eat, drink a glass of water or tea, and see how you feel afterward. If you are feeling signs of hunger (lightheaded, growling stomach, etc.), it’s time to eat. Water can only do so much.

I recommend drinking water with your meals; it can help you feel full sooner. Personally, if I don’t drink water during a meal, I will eat until I am satisfied, then feel parched, drink a lot of water, and then feel super full.

Drinking more water also means drinking fewer non-water beverages. Sodas, milk, lattes, etc., can become a big source of calories throughout the day, and those calories don’t fill you up like a meal of the same amount of calories. Calorie laden beverages such as Coca-Cola are often treated as replacements for water, but they should be treated as treats or snacks. Their calories need to be accounted for. Soda will never be a good replacement for water. If you want some flavor in your beverages, you can add fruits, sugar-free sweeteners, and calorie-free flavorings to water, tea, or black coffee.

Don’t obsess, be flexible

Don’t try to motivate yourself with self-hatred; approach this journey with a positive mindset. Try not to talk or think negatively about yourself, avoid thoughts such as: “I’m fat and ugly. I need to lose weight to find love, be respected, be beautiful, and be worth something”. We work better with positive reinforcement and praise than with insults and punishments. Try to have a positive body image (I know, easier said than done, but you have to try), and think of the ways weight loss will empower you. You already are worthwhile; weight loss is just a tool to help you get healthier and feel better.

As I mentioned earlier, we need to enjoy the process and feel good to stay consistent and not give up. I’ve noticed that my best motivation is positive thinking of myself and my progress, instead of negative thoughts about my body. Instead of thinking, “I ate too much, I lack self-control, I need to exercise today no matter what, or I’ll gain weight!” think, “I want to exercise because I feel happy doing it. My appetite was larger than usual today, and that is okay. I ate until I was satisfied. I am fueling my body. I will not lose my progress from one day.”

Don’t give up!

There will be good days and bad days. Some days you won’t follow the diet. It’s normal, it’s fine, just get back on track the next meal or day. It took you a while to gain the weight; it will take you a while to lose it. Don’t expect quick results. Slow and steady wins the race.

Take it easy, one step at a time. There may be setbacks along the way, but just keep trying, and eventually, it will become second nature. It gets easier.

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Musings on the road to a healthier life

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Maria Ramos

Maria Ramos

Puerto Rican computer scientist who enjoys writing helpful articles and contributing to the vast content of the internet.

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