Susan has struggled to control her weight since she was a teenager. The early messages she received from her parents about food, exercise and how to cope with emotions created a “blueprint” that led to years of unhappiness and health problems. But all that has changed for the sixty-four year-old Pennsylvania resident during the past year.
“As a child growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I really wanted to participate in sports and other activities like ice skating,” Susan recalled. “But my parents discouraged me from being physically active because I had asthma and they thought if I exercised, it would make it worse.” Susan’s parents were not physically active either and she always knew them as being overweight. “They had terrible eating habits,” Susan reflected. “We had a lot of junk food in the house such as cookies, chips and chocolate.”
Family dinners were stressful in Susan’s home. “On Saturdays and Sundays my mother would spend a better part of the day preparing a pot roast or chicken. When we were all seated at the table, my father would start criticizing her cooking, telling her the pot roast was dry. There was always a lot of yelling.”
Susan was very thin as a child and out of concern, her mother fed her large bowls of mashed potatoes sprinkled with wheat germ to help her gain weight. When Susan reached puberty, suddenly she started gaining weight. “Being overweight so unexpectedly, felt uncomfortable to me,” Susan shared. “I would go shopping with mother to buy clothes and she picked out shapeless tent-like dresses. I remember thinking, ‘This is what she wears,’ and I did not want to be like her.”
Susan felt determined to lose weight, so she went on a high protein diet with her father. “We both lost a lot of weight very quickly,” she recalled. “But it was so restrictive that I couldn’t stay on it. I remember one day my father even fainted on the subway.”
For the next several years, Susan went on and off various commercial diet plans. She always lost weight initially, but when she got down to her goal weight, she would start gaining the weight back. At one point she went to see a nutritionist. “I remember eating quinoa and artichoke pasta, but I couldn’t maintain this either. My eating habits were really ingrained.”
Thinking back on this experience, Susan believes that these programs promoted weight loss exclusively and did not teach her how to eat nutritiously. Additionally, until recently she never learned how to cook. “My mother never really learned how to cook either,” Susan explained. “Vegetables in my house were overcooked and salads were just iceberg lettuce and maybe a slice of tomato.” To make matters worse, Susan’s mother loved chocolate and would eat it for emotional comfort. “If I felt sad, she would offer me chocolate as comfort,” shared Susan. “This association between chocolate and comfort has stayed with me to this day.”
These early family imprints led to a vicious cycle that Susan became stuck in for years. She would go on a restrictive diet and lose some weight, but inevitably she would revert to old habits like eating chocolate when she felt sad or anxious. “After eating the chocolate, the self- berating would start. ‘You really can’t do this,’ or ‘I have failed again,’” were some of the typical thoughts that would run through her mind like tape. “I saw only two choices,” shared Susan. “Being on a restrictive diet and being in control or being off a diet and being totally out of control.”
Susan had a successful and fulfilling career as a litigation attorney for twenty-eight years. But the stress and long hours of her practice took a huge toll on her health. “I would stay late at work and end up skipping dinner. By the time I got home, I felt starved. I would eat a frozen Lean Cuisine meal, which did not fill me at all. Then I would start overeating unhealthy food. I never made time to shop so there was no food around to prepare healthy meals.”
Over the years, Susan started to develop health problems. Her weight continued to rise along with her blood sugar levels and she developed joint disease that required she receive a hip replacement. “When my blood sugar level reached 6.4 my doctor told me that if it goes any higher, I will be a diabetic.” Additionally, physical movement had become increasingly difficult for her. Susan remembers thinking, “I am getting older and I cannot continue like this. I already had one hip replacement, if I don’t take better care of myself, I will need another one.” Susan tried to resign herself to what she thought was inevitable as you age, but she did not feel satisfied. “I started to realize that if I want to live longer, I will have to find a reasonable way to approach my health.”
Susan’s first step toward her journey of improved health was making the decision to change careers and take a part-time position with a small local company that develops solar projects. She also decided to pursue her long held desire to become a lay minister. Now professional life is more fulfilling, less stressful and she has more time to take care of herself. But ironically, it was the pandemic that really pivoted Susan to a path of serious change. “Initially, when we locked down, I was eating a lot of junk food and I didn’t feel well at all,” Susan recalls. She heard about Noom, a weight management program, on the radio and decided to sign up. “I always become excited when I learn about something new,” Susan mused. “Although the program is not that different from other plans that I had been on, I felt that I could do this on my own. Also appealing, is there are no foods that are not allowed, so I get to decide what I should eat.” Being locked in provided even more time for Susan to focus on herself. “We couldn’t eat out anymore and we didn’t feel comfortable getting take-away, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my eating under control.”
Around the same time, she joined the Spring Health Transformation, a weekly group that that meets virtually that started in May of this year. “Fay’s group is extremely helpful because it explores health in a holistic way. We do not just talk about weight. We explore other issues such as emotional and spiritual nourishment, how to manage energy, stress, and ways to incorporate more movement into our lives. We also learn how to prepare nutritious meals.” Team members share resources which Susan has also found helpful. “I learned about HASfit, a series of exercise classes on YouTube,” shared Susan. “I finally discovered some classes that felt doable. I even enjoy them.” Susan began to feel more encouraged. “Before the hip surgery, it was so painful to take a step that I had gotten to a point where I felt afraid to walk. I had developed an association between pain and movement which made me fearful of any movement.” Now Susan has a variety of classes she does at home, and she is able to walk outside for two miles.
Susan has made many other important changes as well. “I am much more mindful about what I eat. I take time to enjoy my meals and nourish myself with nutritious food. I do this out of kindness for myself,” she shared proudly. Susan has learned how to prepare vegetables in ways she enjoys, so she now incorporates lots of them into her eating plan. For lunch and/or dinner she prepares a delicious salad of romaine lettuce, sliced carrots, peppers, and cucumbers. Fish, chicken and vegetables like asparagus and broccoli comprise most of her meals, but she will treat herself to a steak occasionally when she is in the mood for one.
The weekly connection with the other members of the wellness group has been extremely helpful for Susan. “Talking with others who have similar concerns about sleep habits, food preparation and how to manage stress is really beneficial. I can share that I had difficulty one day and everyone is very encouraging. The approach is holistic. I have learned that wellness involves so much more than what you eat. The physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of my life are important as well.”
However, the biggest paradigm shift occurred for Susan when she realized that she needed to stop striving for perfection. “I was so hard on myself. I was a perfectionist in everything I did. I believed that if I did not follow a meal plan perfectly, I was a bad person and that would make me want to overeat even more.”
Susan has lost 28 pounds since starting her journey in May. Her blood sugar and blood pressure are now in the normal range. “I feel so encouraged and now am in the habit of living this way. I have a different relationship with food. I know I can have a small dessert at the end of the day and not end up eating a whole box of cookies. I feel more confident that I will continue to work on my health and less afraid of suddenly losing control. Being more physically active has improved my mental outlook and I feel less depressed. I realize that it is not going to be perfection. I have embraced the attitude that I am doing my best.”
For Susan, living a healthy lifestyle is now a choice and she has a whole new mindset:
“It just feels better to live this way.”
A new Spring Health Transformation Group is starting on Tuesday, February 16 from 5-6pm. For more information or to sign up email Fay at firstname.lastname@example.org or click the button below: