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Stop rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

I have tried various diets over the years. Sometimes I managed to lose a few pounds here and there, but like so many other dieters, I would find myself right back where I started. Or worse.

An impartial observer would say I had a pretty healthy diet. It was nowhere near the horrific Standard American Diet, which is full of fast food, processed junk, candy, chips, deep fried grease, and sugary beverages. That is totally not what I was eating. I love fruits and veggies. I eat a lot of them. Junk foods were rare. Mostly rare. Certainly not daily!

Whatever my diet was, it was keeping me about 30 pounds over what is considered healthy for my height, despite working out for almost an hour a day, every day. No, it wasn’t all that muscle I have been building up by lifting weights. This wasn’t funny anymore. I recognized my health was at stake. So I decided to take a completely evidence-based approach to losing weight.

It worked. Here is what I did.

The first thing I did was to clearly define the problem I was trying to solve. The term “weight loss” always invokes some kind of judgment about my appearance, about wanting to look good in a bikini or whatever. That never was much of a motivator, and now that I am 52, I’m so over it. I stopped thinking about weight loss and started focusing on being in the best possible physical and mental condition throughout the rest of my life.

The second thing I did was to learn about the science of nutrition. While confusion is rampant among the general public, I learned that all reputable nutrition scientists make two recommendations:

1. We should get the majority of our calories from unprocessed plants: fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes. These foods contain lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which are compounds found in plants that have beneficial effects on health (maybe you’ve heard of resveratrol and anthocyanin).

2. We need to greatly reduce our consumption of animal products and processed stuff. These foods are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor compared to whole, unprocessed plants. If it comes in a package that has a list of ingredients, it contains plants that have been stripped of their fiber and processed into pure sugar and/or fat. Animal products contain cholesterol and saturated fat, which we should have less of, and they contain no fiber, which we need more of.

The research is unequivocal: People who follow these general guidelines live longer, healthier lives than those who do not. They have much lower rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia (the leading killers of Americans). If you’re not following those two recommendations, but you are counting calories and worrying about carbs, protein, keto, B12, protein, lectins, or whatever, you’re just rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

This does not mean that you must now become totally vegan, or that you can never have Grandma’s homemade cookies ever again, or that you are not allowed to have turkey on Thanksgiving, or that you must never again enjoy a beer and nachos at happy hour. You can have those things. But if your typical day is based on that type of food, you need to reconsider.

The third thing I did was to be completely honest with myself about what I typically ate in a day. While I love fruit, veggies, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and legumes, I still managed to get the vast majority of my calories from processed foods and animal products. I didn’t have to count calories or track my foods to know that. At the end of the day when I would reflect on what I ate, I would realize that I had only a few servings of fruits and veggies.

The fourth thing I did was to focus on adding in these whole plant foods, and stop obsessing about resisting meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods. Simply removing things doesn’t work for me, or anyone else for that matter. If it were that easy, we would not be having this conversation. I mean, really: “Have carrot sticks instead of a donut for an afternoon snack!” Come on, now.

I started incorporating more plants into my diet by having them for breakfast. I never was good about breakfast. Most of the time, I’d dash out the door with a cup of coffee, only to succumb to the donut shop when I got to work. But then I learned that you are allowed to have things like lentil soup for breakfast. The cops won’t break your door down if you don’t have eggs or cereal or toast for breakfast.

I batch prep my soup on Sunday, and then make time to heat up a big bowl of it in the morning throughout the week. Even better, I throw a couple handfuls of those pre-washed baby greens into my soup. We aren’t talking about a little cereal bowlful. I am eating out of a serving bowl. With the greens, it is almost a quart, depending on the consistency of the soup. I want to emphasize that I am eating a huge amount of food. While it fills me up, it doesn’t make me feel over-full or go into a food coma.

Another breakfast favorite of mine is to make a 1-liter smoothie of kale, chia seeds, banana, chick peas, and soymilk for breakfast. This would be a better option for days that I don’t feel like eating first thing in the morning. I would prepare it ahead of time and then sip it later in the morning when I would normally have a hankering for a donut. I estimate these breakfasts to be around 600-700 calories.

In the interest of wrapping up this blog post before it gets too long, let’s just say that I have been slowly but steadily losing weight for over a year. I am never hungry. I have particularly noticed the loss of fat around my middle, which is notable considering I am at the age where most women find that they gain it there when they’ve never had it there before. I still have an occasional donut, dairy product, meat, slice of pizza, or glass of wine, but these are once-a-week foods instead of several times a day. I don’t crave them anymore. It’s easy to pass them up if I already have a belly full of fruit and vegetables.

The advice I have for someone just starting out is this: Find your own way to gradually incorporate unprocessed plant-based foods into your daily plan. Don’t try to overhaul your entire diet all at once, because then you’ll be focused on avoiding slip-ups instead of accumulating wins. If you focus on adding good foods into your diet, rather than denying yourself of your favorite treats, then you will change your mindset from beating yourself up to feeling really good about yourself.

And that is the key to making these changes last a lifetime. The whole point of doing this is to make positive changes that you can sustain.

- By Monika Kress

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