I have high blood pressure to thank.
You see, I grew up lucky enough to be tall with a friendly metabolism, meaning that I could eat about anything I wanted in any amount, and not gain visible weight. I kept my natural shape, regardless, meaning that I was spoiled when it came to what I ate, when and how much, and exercise wasn't a necessity for maintaining my weight. I was healthy as a horse, to boot.
Then I turned 40.
Soon afterward, several elements came together to cause me to gain weight and deal with health issues for the first time in my life. As a southern woman, I don't talk about a lot of it out loud, but let's just say that hormonal stuff—and especially fibroids and anemia—can wreak havoc on a woman's energy, body, mood and ability to feel full after a meal.
Add to that my family history of heart disease and hypertension, and the fact that I traditionally have avoided doctors and even check-ups, and things got more interesting. I gradually gained nearly two sizes, and my natural shape disappeared. For a while, I was too busy getting this business going to notice or care much. But as my favorite clothes started not to fit, I started paying some attention. And when my doctor found pre-hypertension a year and a half ago, I took note. But I still didn't do much about it.
At first, I told myself it was "white coat syndrome"—basically what happens to doctor-shy folks like me in a doctor's office: Our blood pressure spikes in protest.
Soon after that discovery, I experienced a bad fall, which shattered my (writing) arm and took me out of my regular routine for a few months. When that happened, we chalked my pre-hypertension up to the injury and the meds. I happened to notice that my weight clocked about 20 pounds higher then than I expected. (I had probably been on a scale at home three times in my life.)
Healing my arm (and my livelihood) was my priority, so I didn't think a lot about either weight or blood pressure. I probably gained a bit more while I was recuperating and then lost a few pounds (my jeans were looser) while I was doing physical therapy at UMMC (which I adored, foreshadowing the need for a trainer).
Still, by the time I returned to work full-time about a year ago, I was certainly 20 pounds heavier than I wanted to be. I wasn't paying attention to my blood pressure—called the "silent killer" for a reason. Todd and I were going to the gym for cardio a couple times a week, and I was exercising my arm (some), but that was about it.
My diet was about the same as always. We'd been vegetarians for nearly two decades, which helps, but let's just say Todd liked to call us "cheesatarians," and we worked long days and ate too late.
In 2014, I started noticing that I could no longer wear two-thirds of my big, new closet. I started admiring friends who were working out and eating better and looking great. I was a bit jealous.
Still, it wasn't until about August that I decided to pay attention to my blood pressure. We'd lost some family members my age, and I decided it was time to plug in to my health. I discovered my blood pressure was nearing dangerous levels, at home and in the doctor's office.
I hate meds, so I started researching natural remedies for hypertension, talking to my new doctor (Nancy Campbell) and another doctor friend (Justin Turner). The words "DASH Diet" kept coming up, which my previous doctor had suggested years back. I even had a DASH book lying around at home that I'd never read.
I didn't know that the eating plan came from the "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension" clinical study, funded and conducted by various medical units of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s.
In other words, nothing to do with Beverly Hills, or body builders, or cavemen is anywhere near this thing. So I read it. In so doing, I discovered the coolest "diet" ever—actually an improved lifestyle—that I officially kicked off in August. The DASH book had me calculate my healthy body weight and wanted me to lose about 20 pounds (I'm aiming for 32 by April, though). It helped me calculate that I need to eat roughly 2,000 calories a day of the right stuff in appropriate serving sizes to lose about a pound a week safely.
And here's the kicker: I don't have to give up anything I love, including bread and pasta. They need to be whole-grain, which we already tried to do, and no pigging out on either. The diet is a healthy mix of vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy and whole grains. We already don't eat junk food, and I gave up the sodas I grew up drinking years ago and usually choose unsweet tea, although I put some natural sugar in my morning coffee.
At the office, I'll have a small sliver of birthday or King cake and fill up with a handful of carrots or apple slices. I've found that if it's on my desk, I'll snack on it, including cut-up fruit or walnuts. (Try the unsweetened dried mango at Rainbow Co-op for a perfect afternoon sweet, for instance).
Important for me: I don't have to count calories—seriously, life is too short. DASH helps you figure out how many servings of different groups you need—and a balance of all of it is needed; no fruit-only diet here. For the first couple weeks, I filled in a daily chart showing how many servings of each group I'd had. After that, I had it memorized and stopped using the chart.
On the no-frills DASH diet, I have given up nothing that matters to me; cutting back sodium has been the hardest, because it's in so much more than just the saltshaker. But our tastes—Todd is doing it, too, which is good because he cooks dinner—have adjusted to less salt. And I can have some salt.
Also, we're vegetarian—fine under DASH, which also works for meat eaters. The hardest part is when I travel and end up in places with salt-heavy and overly fatty food options. We also limit any alcohol consumption—beer for him and wine for me—to the weekends, which is great for daily happiness and our moods as well.
I bought a cool Chevron-patterned mirrored scale that measures by tenths of pounds and get on it as soon as I get up, and then log my weight in a little notebook (so I can watch the trends). I set mini-goals for the next day, which keeps me from eating a whole slice of King Cake. I now work out twice a week with trainer Lauren Smith at the Deville YMCA and try to do cardio two or three times a week with Todd.
I've lost 22 pounds since August—my exact goal by Jan. 14—and I feel better and more centered than I have in years.
Last weekend, I went through my closet, and nearly everything fits again, or is too big. I have no desire to ever change the way I'm now eating and living. There is nothing to "stop" and much more than weight to lose if I do.
Read "The Dash Diet for Weight Loss" by Thomas J. Moore, MD (Free Press, 2012, $26) for the how and the just-published "The DASH Diet Younger You" by Marla Heller (Grand Central, 2014, $26) for inspiration and more recipes.