By Joyce Hendley, M.S.
When Pam Adams shed nearly 50 pounds four years ago, it wasn’t the first time—but, she’s convinced, it’s the last. “I finally reached the point where I was ready to make a lifelong change,” she says firmly, “and I did.”
The conviction in her voice is hard-won. A decade ago, the 49-year-old Minneapolis-based writer was a stressed-out new mother with a colicky baby girl and a demanding job in the communications department of a health-care company where looming deadlines, all-day meetings and overtime hours were all too common. Chronically sleep-deprived and overcommitted, she had no time for the running, biking and swimming that used to be a regular part of her life. Instead, she found herself turning to comfort foods—especially chocolate-chip cookies—for solace. “If I wanted a treat, I’d tell myself I deserved it. Besides,” she shrugs, “as a mother who’d had a child late in life, I figured I’d never have a flat stomach again anyway.” Within a year, she had put on 50 pounds.
The irony of the health-draining lifestyle she led isn’t lost on Adams. “Here I was, writing advice on how to stay healthy, when my own health was always the last thing I thought about.” She felt like an impostor of sorts, literally uncomfortable in her own skin. “I looked at photographs of me with my daughter and I didn’t even recognize myself.”
Adams’s anxieties increased as she entered her forties. She knew from her health-care writing that women approaching menopause tend to gain weight as their metabolisms slow. “I knew I had to do something soon, because it was only going to get harder and harder to lose the weight,” she recalls. She signed up for an online diet program and, following it obsessively, lost 30 pounds in a few months. But the pounds quickly came back once she “went off” the program, and she was back to square one. “Looking back at it now, I just wasn’t ready. When you’re in crisis, it’s not the time to start a diet.”
Ironically, it was a crisis—the death of her father in 1999—that started Adams on the path to improving her health. She was forced to take time away from her daily routine to be with him in his last weeks, to help her mother with the funeral arrangements and, finally, just to grieve. Her life became a little calmer as she transitioned to a freelance career and her daughter started first grade. She read several books about embracing change, and started feeling that the time was finally right. “My motivation used to be ‘I hate the way I look,’” she explains. “But this time, I was motivated by the desire to be healthy—so that I could be around for my daughter for a good long time.”
Adams began to cobble together her own plan for eating and exercising moderately, based on nutrition and exercise principles she’d learned in the course of researching health issues at work. Her core focus: getting some activity every day, eating more vegetables and fruits, watching portion sizes and steering toward “good carbs and good fats” and away from processed foods and red meat as much as possible.
Within a year, the pounds had come off. But more important, she regained the energy and resilience that come with being physically fit. “I look like my old self again, but now I’m a lot stronger.” The weight loss, she feels, was “just icing on the cake.”
“What Worked for Me”
Here are some of the guiding principles Pam Adams swears by:
* Carve out inviolate exercise time most days of the week. Following the principles of the Strong Women exercise books by Tufts researcher Miriam Nelson, Adams alternates weight training with aerobic exercise, aiming for 45-minute sessions daily. “If I can’t do it all at once, I break it up into little pieces—15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes after lunch, 15 minutes later in the day.”
* Focus on eating more good stuff, not less bad stuff. “If you try to eat what experts recommend—6 to 11 servings of vegetables and fruits each day—there really isn’t room for junk foods.”
* Don’t deny yourself treats, just be conscious of them. “I don’t say ‘I’ll never eat this again,’” says Adams. “Instead, I’ll have some of what I’m craving, and just make room for it by eating less later on.” If she finishes dinner with a bowl of ice cream one night, she’ll make fruit the dessert another night. A favorite: frozen organic peach slices, straight from the freezer. “They’re like sorbet.”
* Start your day with filling fiber. Breakfast is an easy opportunity, with all the fiber-rich cereals now on grocery shelves. Adams starts most days with a bowl of shredded wheat and bran cereal—along with a piece of whole fruit (not juice).
* Nibble on nuts to stave off hunger. Adams likes to eat a small handful of nuts before a meal, washed down with a glass of water. “It really fills me up, and helps keep me from overeating.” She favors phytochemical-rich almonds and walnuts.
* Use smaller plates. Adams found realistic portions of food looked skimpy on her household’s hubcap-sized dinner plates—so she switched to dessert plates instead. “If anyone wants more, they can help themselves to seconds.”
* Pair carbohydrates with protein. Rather than rule out the pleasure of an occasional bowl of regular pasta or white rice, Adams makes sure to eat them with a protein food, such as chicken or fish. This helps slow down the digestion of those normally quick-burning carbohydrates, she explains. “I’ll take a bite of pasta, then a bite of the protein, and just keep alternating bites,” she adds. “When I’ve eaten a reasonable amount of the protein—usually an amount the size of a deck of cards—I stop eating.”
* Make a water bottle an accessory. Focusing on drinking more water “helps keep me hydrated—and it stops me from putting other things, like food, in my mouth,” says Adams, who takes a water bottle with her everywhere. She doesn’t aim for a number of glasses daily, just lets thirst be her guide as experts recommend. “I just try to drink some water every time I think about it.”