I remember the exact moment I gave up dieting. My husband and I were in our guest room at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, chatting with his mom, brothers, and their families. We were winding down our Christmas gathering, and my niece was taking photos of the family relaxing around the tiny tree the Inn staff had placed in our room. She carefully avoided pointing the lenses at me, knowing I always shied away when cameras came out. Not this time.
“Go ahead and take one of me too,” I said as I took a sip of wine and dragged a cracker through cheese sauce before popping it into my mouth. “I’m done worrying about weight. This is how I am. Period. I'm done fighting it.”
No one could say I hadn’t tried. Name the diet, name the exercise, and I had tried it — and I had never succeeded. Stress, exhaustion, even hurt feelings were enough to drive me straight to the chocolate chip cookies. Candidly, I was sure I looked OK. Who really cared if I was carrying some extra pounds, right?
Get the Picture
As it turned out, I did. A few days later I scrolled through the photos from that night as my husband powered our Nissan Xterra around winding roads leading us out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and toward our Virginia home.
I was shocked.
Wow — I was 50 years old, but I looked much older. A massive tire around my stomach threatened to bulge out of my jeans. My chin tripled when I laughed. No wonder a young boy had innocently called me “grandma” at a neighborhood event the previous summer, much to the blushing embarrassment of his mother, who was only a few years younger than me.
“He’s just confused,” she said, after shooing him off to play with friends. “My mom has light hair and he probably just saw that.” Clearly, that wasn’t true.
I stared out the car window and began to hatch a plan. By the time my husband pulled into our driveway, I was filled with excitement.
“I can do this, and everyone will be surprised,” I thought. “The next time we see the family, I’ll be thin.”
The next day I pulled out my laptop computer and renewed my membership to a well-known weight loss program.
One More Stumble
A few months later, my husband was reconciling our bank statement when he asked me about the charge for the program.
“Listen, if paying for this service helps you, it’s fine,” my husband said one Sunday afternoon the following spring as he reconciled our bank statement. “But, well….”
He didn’t have to say it: This diet didn’t work. Again. In fact, I was at least 12 pounds heavier than I’d been on the day when I’d renewed my membership.
I told him to cancel the membership and walked downstairs, defeated. How did my mom, who loved food as much as I did, always stay thin?
Then it hit me — she tracked calories. Not fat intake. Not points. Not carbs. Not how many low-calorie drinks she could consume in one day. It was all about calories; the original way of dieting. I could do that too, of course, and it’d be easier — but how could I start? I didn’t have the little books she always used to track her intake.
Everything Old Is New Again
Once again, it was the internet to the rescue, once again. In looking at ways to easily track calories, I came across the free weight loss website SparkPeople. Chris Downie, the founder, built the program based on the same system my mom had used — tracking foods to ensure nutritious meals, and burning calories through exercise.
On the plan, I made my own daily eating plans, so there weren’t any restrictions. (If I’d wanted something more tailored, I could've used Spark's pre-designed plan.) I could even eat bread, cheese, even candy — but I had to track what I ate and stay within a certain calorie range. The SparkPeople program allowed me to easily plug in what I ate and calculate my calories and nutrients.
The first week, I lost two pounds.
That’s when I decided to adopt more basic healthy eating patterns, in large part so I could fill up but not go over my calorie limit. In doing so, I rediscovered foods I hadn’t eaten in years: Grapefruit. Kohlrabi. Poached eggs. Concord grapes.
I felt like a kid who discovered a new toy store. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about so many tasty, healthy foods.
SparkPeople also has a free database of recipes, many of which are submitted by members. I asked my husband if he wanted to stop eating out for a while and have home-cooked meals. He eagerly agreed.
Soon we were eating tuna casserole, eggplant Parmesan, grilled shrimp and pasta, and other classic meals right at home. And soon we were both losing weight — and my husband was on SparkPeople too.
I think what really jump-started us is that the meals we had were tasty and satisfying, but we still lost weight.
That’s not to say we didn’t eat out. One anniversary we were traveling and wanted to eat steak. Before we went, we calculated how many calories we could eat. Then we used the online nutrition information to pre-plan what we’d order. In fact, one of the major bonuses I found with SparkPeople was that I could pre-plan my meals so I could eat what I wanted but stay within my target calorie range.
In the Swim and Beyond
That summer was unbearably hot. Even though I’d lost more than 20 pounds, I still felt bloated and miserable. One afternoon as I sat in my living room, the air conditioner on full blast, I remembered how my mom spent summers swimming. But my parents had a pool; my husband and I didn’t.
I called some of the planned communities in my area and found there were private neighborhood pools that sold a certain number of guest spot memberships. I enrolled.
I loved jumping into the cold water on a boiling hot day, feeling the water stream between my toes as I swam laps. This sure didn’t feel like exercise; it felt like play.
When fall started to creep in, I was worried. Once the pool closed, what would I do for my daily exercise? I never liked indoor pools. They reminded me of embarrassing high school gym classes. I knew I could join an aerobics class, but my past experiences made me pause. Would I pay and then find excuses not to go?
About that time I read an article on SparkPeople about kettlebells. I thought I could use them at home when the pool closed for the season and burn as many calories as I did swimming.
Of course, I didn’t want to hurt myself, so I read instructions, watched videos and started with very light (5-pound) weights. I quickly found I loved them. In 30 minutes I had a terrific cardio and strength work out. The weight started to fall off.
Within a year my husband and I had each lost 100 pounds — and we’ve kept it off for almost seven years.
The program isn’t perfect, of course. For instance, significant component of SparkPeople is a team spirit. You can connect online with other members and share tips, encouragement, and wins in a variety of specialized forums (such as for those with diabetes or those that want to start running). Some participants, though, could be hurtful, just as they are on other social media sites. One member looked at my food tracking — I hadn’t closed the privacy settings — and berated me about the processed foods I ate. Another member criticized me for not using heavier kettlebells. When that happened, it hurt.
But I had read The Spark: The 28-Day Breakthrough Plan for Losing Weight, Getting Fit, and Transforming Your Life ($16.95, Amazon) by SparkPeople’s founder. As corny as it sounds, it’s based on positives as you move ahead slowly but steadily, making small changes that equal big wins.
Beyond that, you do have to track what you eat and how much you exercise. I found that easy, but others say they struggle with it. Many people say they need a considerable loss – say 10 pounds the first week – to motivate them, and you won’t find that with SparkPeople. But what my husband and I did find is much more valuable.
After years of crazy diets and eating, we rediscovered how to eat, how to exercise, and how to live. And we found that made us feel better than we had in many years.
Seven years later, we are still living our best lives.
This post was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.