This is a question people used to ask me really often. Then, when I became a mother, the question changed to, “How did you lose the baby weight?” Sometimes, these are just rhetorical questions, a way of saying, “I see you’re thinner than I am, and that bothers me.” (See Jessica’s article “Stop Telling Me I’m Too Skinny” and the comments.)
But if you really want to know what keeps me slender, I can tell you. Some of it is genetic, I’m sure, or luck in developing a healthy microbiome as a child. But my habits really do play a role, and so do the strategies I’ve developed for deciding what to eat and when.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or nutritionist. I’ve never been overweight, so I can’t guarantee that my advice will help an obese person reach a normal weight. This is my explanation of “eating like a thin person.” My particular habits may or may not work for any particular person.
I’ve never had an eating disorder. Although I certainly have favorite foods and associate certain foods with memories or feelings, I don’t really understand the emotional struggles that are associated with food for some people.
If my advice seems ridiculous and impossible to you, please seek more expert advice!
Let’s talk numbers: I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall, and here’s a brief history of my weight.
- From age 16 to 29, I was about 125 pounds most of the time–but if I skipped a few meals (because I was busy, sick, or saving money on food) I’d drop to 115.
- When I was 29, I purposely gained weight because I was trying to conceive and hoped that increased body fat would make me ovulate more frequently. (It didn’t.) Then I was about 135 pounds.
- I turned 31 during my first pregnancy. I gained 25 pounds while pregnant and lost 35 by the time Nicholas was 5 months old, so I was back to 125 and struggled to maintain that weight while breastfeeding. Every time I had a vomiting or sore-throat illness that kept me from eating for a few days (which happened over and over again, that winter) I’d lose 5-15 pounds, and it would take a month or so to regain that weight.
- Around 35 years old, I stabilized my weight at about 145 pounds. I purposely aimed for a higher default weight in hopes of being less vulnerable to sudden weight loss during illness (it worked!) and because I’d learned that a little more padding on the hips makes me more comfortable sitting on hard or cold surfaces.
- While pregnant with my second child at age 40, I gained 25 pounds. The most I’ve ever weighed in my life was 172 pounds when 9 months pregnant. I lost those 25 pounds by the time Lydia was 3 months old–but then I was able to stop losing weight!
- I’ve weighed about 145 pounds since then and still fit into the jeans I bought before conceiving Lydia. I’m 46 years old.
This chart of healthy weight by height shows that 125 is the rock-bottom normal weight for a 5’8″ person, so I was intermittently underweight as a young adult. For the past decade, I’ve been maintaining a healthy weight easily. So, how do I do it?
MOST IMPORTANT: Eat Only What You Need, When You Need It.
This is a simple concept that’s difficult to implement! We’ve all grown up eating the food that was available when the adults said it was mealtime. It’s hard to figure out what you’re eating because your body needs that much of that food at this time, vs. what you’re eating because you’re used to eating that food or it comes in that size serving or the clock says mealtime.
Thirty years ago this summer, I realized that I had been the same height for 4 years and had been gaining 10 pounds a year–that couldn’t go on; I wanted to stabilize my weight before I got fat. Looking back on it, I wish I’d aimed to stabilize at a slightly higher weight–I might have been healthier and more comfortable, and I probably would have been harassed less by women who seemed to think I’d chosen my body type just to hurt their feelings–but my success at maintaining my weight long-term without a lot of conscious effort suggests that my approach was effective. Considering my incompletely developed reasoning skills at age 16, I’m impressed that I did it so sensibly!
Read about how to identify the eating patterns that work for your body in my article at Kitchen Stewardship! You might be very different from me, but my 5 questions for recognizing your food needs may work for you, too.
Whatever your personal metabolism, here are a few specific ideas that may help you control your weight:
Take Small Bites and Chew Thoroughly.
My viola teacher used to say that as an analogy for learning music: Learn one part and practice it until you’ve really got it down; then go on to the next part. It works as an analogy for improving your habits, too! Make one easy change and just focus on that until you get used to it; then make another change.
But when it comes to eating habits, you can take this advice literally, too! Eat slowly so that you appreciate the flavor and texture of your food, absorb all the nutrients, and notice when you start to feel satisfied. When you’re eating with other people, small bites and thorough chewing may result in eating less because you want to finish your meal at about the same time as everyone else.
At some point in childhood, I started to chew my first bite of food using the molars on the left, second bite using the molars on the right, and then alternating, sort of budgeting the last bites so they’d come out even. I’ve done this ever since. I’m eating at about half the speed I would if I chewed on both sides at once!
When You’re Finished, Quit Eating.
That sounds simple, but when I scrutinized myself at 16 I discovered all kinds of cues unconsciously nudging me to eat more than I really needed!
Don’t take seconds. Put all the food you’re going to eat on your plate at once–it looks like more, so you’re more likely to feel satisfied by it.
Don’t save room for dessert! Make nutritious food your whole meal. If you really can’t resist having something sweet, keep it tiny, like one jellybean that you hold in your mouth until you’ve extracted every speck of flavor.
Don’t linger at the table after eating. To break that habit, for a little while I got up as soon as I’d put the last bite in my mouth and rinsed my plate by the time I finished chewing! Of course, when eating with other people, it’s rude to jump up and run away–so give yourself other cues to stop eating, like taking your napkin out of your lap, putting your utensils on the far side of your plate, or putting a piece of sugarless gum in your mouth.
Don’t eat out of the package. Serve your portion, close the package, and put it away! If it’s a really tempting food, store it out of sight.
If you start feeling full, stop eating. Pack up the rest of your food immediately, and save it for later.
Mustard, Not Mayo.
Disliking mayonnaise is one of the lucky coincidences that has helped me stay slim in an ever-expanding America! I hated mayo as a child. Although I eventually learned to appreciate dishes like coleslaw and chicken salad, those aren’t things I eat regularly, and if I make them myself I use some other creamy ingredient that tastes better than mayo! (Here’s my coleslaw recipe using yogurt.) I’m now willing to eat a sandwich with mayo on it, but if I’m making my own sandwich, I’ll use mustard because it tastes better to me–and, coincidentally, it has zero calories, zero fat, zero cholesterol!
The larger point here is to enhance your food with seasonings, not calories. Many spices have health benefits as well as tasting great!
I don’t mean that I eat a low-fat diet. It’s important to eat enough fat to absorb nutrients from vegetables and maintain your brain! Because I don’t eat much meat or breaded-and-fried stuff, there’s plenty of calorie-space in my diet for olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, fish, avocados, and eggs.
Those fats (especially olive oil) are great at developing and distributing the flavor of onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. Adding interesting flavors makes food taste good with less salt and sugar. Try my 4 easy homemade sauces to perk up your meals!
Make Exercise Inevitable.
I don’t “work out” or “go to the gym” or “have a fitness routine” or any such structured self-care practice that would be easily undermined by being busy with work or kids. Instead, my daily life includes enough physical activity that (according to a diet workshop thingy my health insurance forced me to do a few years ago) I burn 2,500 calories a day.
Daniel and I consciously chose to live in a walkable neighborhood with access to public transit so that we’d be motivated to walk a lot–it’s good for the environment as well as for us! I didn’t always live in such a pedestrian paradise, though, so I shared tips for working in more walking in my article Get Out of the Car! You could get around by bike, scooter, or running instead–I don’t have the knees for any of those, myself, but arthritis in my feet is under control with CBD, and I’ve learned from experience that walking doesn’t make the pain worse.
We also chose a home with stairs so that we climb stairs many times a day without having to find time to get to a stair-climbing machine! In most of the multi-story buildings where I’ve worked, I’ve been able to use the stairs at least some of the time; climbing up more than 2 flights in a row can hurt my knees, but going down is fun!
When the kids were little, I mostly carried them in a sling instead of using a stroller. Traveling longer distances, there are lots of advantages to taking kids on public transit, and you get some exercise walking to and from transit stops.
Our home has no off-street parking. That means that sometimes, when I drive home from Costco with 80 pounds of food in the car, I have to park 1/8 mile away, down the steep hill on our street. That doesn’t sound like a long distance, but if you make 4 round trips lugging 20 pounds of groceries each time, suddenly you’ve walked a mile, and half of it was carrying weights uphill!
Parking on the street also gives us occasional workouts scraping ice off the car! I just wish I could learn to remember to allow time for that when I’m planning to drive somewhere in the winter….
Having the washing machine 2 floors below the bedrooms and line-drying all my laundry builds some lifting, bending, and stretching into my life, too! A lot of home cleaning and maintenance tasks work your muscles, so DIY can be good for your body as well as your budget.
Daniel built an amazingly compact home gym into our hallway! We also exercise at home by stretching to music or dancing–even a few minutes can improve your muscle tone and/or raise your heart rate. Putting on some music and dancing through a household task can make it more fun; I’d like to point out that the Genesis song “Abacab” is exactly the right length for unloading the dishwasher! 🙂
Both at home and in the office, I like to sit on an exercise ball at my desk to tone my waist and thighs, improve core strength, and prevent backaches. Just a few minutes a day balancing on the ball with your feet off the floor can make a big difference! It is the thing that pulled my waist back into shape after pregnancy–losing weight wasn’t difficult for me, but those stretched-out muscles were really stubborn.
Wherever I go, my general tendency to fidget actually burns calories equivalent to about a bagel a day! If you’re naturally inclined to sit very still, maybe you could learn to fidget? I’m curious about how that would work–for me, fidgeting has always been something I’ve had to suppress to avoid annoying other people, so I’m not sure how a person without an inborn fidgeting instinct could get started….
In general, I’d love to hear if the habits that have kept me slim are effective for people taking them up later in life! Please leave a comment if these tips are useful to you.