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Her Story: I Lost 36 Pounds in College



I stared at the number in horror, not quite able to understand, willing it to change. But it remained on the screen, glaring up at me.

“183 pounds,” the scale glowered at me.

In shock, I realized that I was 17 pounds away from being 200 pounds. And if I had gained that much weight that quickly, when would I get to 200? 215? 240?

At 5’5” and wearing snugly-fitting size-12 jeans, I knew I was a bigger girl. But I didn’t think I weighed that much. Only really big people weighed almost 200 pounds, right?

I grabbed my iPhone and did a quick Google search for “BMI chart.” I had heard that BMI wasn’t a great indicator of health because it didn’t account for muscle mass, but let’s be real—it wasn’t muscle that was weighing me down.

Shocked, I discovered that at my BMI of 30.4. I wasn’t just overweight—I was obese.

Something needed to change. I had been unhappy with my weight all my life—even when I was a size four and six in high school, my self-perception twisted by all my size-zero friends. But I had never actually been scared for my health until now.

A couple weeks ago, my mom had gone to the doctor and discovered that she was dangerously close to being diabetic. My mom, who ran half-marathons. If she was at risk of diabetes, I was sure to be, too.

My eating habits had never been good in college. I didn’t know what portion sizes were appropriate. I never looked at nutrition labels, and I had no idea what food was good for my body. I was an emotional eater. I would eat when I was bored, sad, or stressed (which happens a lot in college!). I would eat when I was happy because like so many people, I celebrated accomplishments with junk food. I ate because food was there, not because I was actually hungry. Occasionally I would hit up the gym, but my read-a-magazine-while-riding-the-bike workout barely made me break a sweat. Add a semester abroad where I indulged in the four French food groups (baguettes, pastries, cheese, and wine) far too often, and I had gained about 40 pounds since my freshman year.

I strongly believe that people can be beautiful at any size. There are a lot of women who wear sizes even larger than a 12 who I admire and look up to. But what I wasn’t at my size was healthy. And I definitely wasn’t happy. Shopping, which I used to love, just depressed me as nothing looked good on me, and I always had to ask for the next size up. Wearing dresses was uncomfortable unless I wore shorts underneath them because my thighs would rub together. And, worst of all, I had lost my confidence.

That day, I told myself that I wasn’t going to be this girl anymore. I was going to take control of my health and finally treat my body right.

I decided to take up running because it was free and seemed like a great way to get fit. I have a complicated relationship with running: I’ve tried it several times in my life, but each time has ended up with me injuring myself from starting off too hard. My sophomore year of high school, I joined the track team as a total amateur, only to find myself sidelined a few weeks later from stress fractures caused by daily four-mile runs my body wasn’t ready for. But I was determined to stick with it and be safe this time, so I decided to start the Couch to 5k program. C25K is a nine-week run/walk program designed to get you from a beginner level to be able to run 30 minutes without stopping. The program is very gradual, so I figured it would be a good fit for me to avoid injury.

I started C25K the first week of January, thinking the first run (alternate running 60 seconds with walking 90 seconds for 20 minutes total) would be a piece of (low-cal!) cake. About halfway through, I was already exhausted. It was clear that I was totally out of shape, but I finished the workout and tried to keep a positive attitude instead of the negative one I used to always have after a bad run. It didn’t matter that I was slow—I did it.

Meanwhile, figuring out what to eat was a nightmare. I had no idea how to eat well, let alone how to eat to lose weight. Okay, so I should eat more fruits and vegetables and stop eating junk food. But how much bread could I eat? What if I kept eating food that I thought was healthy but it actually wasn’t, and I gained weight? Is peanut butter good or bad for you?

Clearly, I needed help.

“You should go see a dietician,” my mom urged me.

I was hesitant to make an appointment. I didn’t want to be that person who was so overweight that she needed medical help to get better. But I obviously needed guidance, so I went, even though I felt ashamed.

But the dietician made me feel proud that I had decided to make a healthy change. She was really encouraging, congratulating me when I told her about starting C25K. She explained to me how to read nutrition labels and what food was good for you. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, so it keeps you fuller longer. Fiber also takes longer to digest. Sugary drinks are useless because they don’t fill you up, but they cost you calories. It’s better to eat 4-6 smaller meals than three big ones because it curbs hunger.

The biggest point she made was that I shouldn’t eat just to eat—food is fuel for my body, not a cure for boredom. “Think of your body as a car,” she said. “If you’re driving around and your tank is full, you wouldn’t stop for gas, right?” Hmm, that makes sense.

“I want you to start eating 1,200 calories* a day,” she said. Wow, that seems small. But you’re the expert, I trust you.

“And 60-80 grams of protein.” Uh, okay.

“And around 120 grams of carbohydrate, 35 grams of sugar, and 40 grams of fat.” Whoa, slow down, lady. How the heck am I supposed to keep track of all of that?!

“There are a lot of apps and websites you can use to track all of this,” she said. “Track everything that you eat, even the small things.”

As soon as I got home, I downloaded the Livestrong MyPlate app. I was really nervous that this new lifestyle change wouldn’t work, that it would be too hard for me to keep up with, that I couldn’t do it—but I started anyways.

The first week was really hard. Not only did I have to find time in my crazy schedule to run and cook healthy dinners (I rarely used to cook), I was so used to eating horrible food all the time when I didn’t need it that it was hard for me to differentiate between boredom and hunger. My family and I all have a bad late-night snacking habit, which I knew I had to kick. Now that I was measuring my portion sizes, my meals seemed really small, but I discovered that after eating them, I felt satisfied—not overly full. I wasn’t starving throughout the day because I was snacking on protein-filled foods instead of chips and cookies filled with empty calories. And it turns out I actually really liked cooking, particularly since it was a productive way for me to procrastinate on homework.

After the first week, I had lost five pounds. I panicked at first—wasn’t that a lot to lose in seven days? But I was following the dietician’s advice to a T and definitely not starving myself. I called my mom, who is a nurse, and she assured me that it was normal; sometimes when really overweight people make a drastic, healthy change to their diet, they lose weight really quickly in the first few weeks, but it slows down. The next week, I lost another five pounds. It was as if my body was so relieved to be working off those unneeded pounds that it couldn’t wait to be rid of them. Eventually, my weight loss slowed down to about 1-3 pounds a week.

I kept running three times a week, still following the C25K plan, and I kept tracking my calories and nutrients religiously. Temptation to cheat was everywhere. Why is it that college campuses are full of people giving out free candy and cookies? My friends seemed impressed when I would pass on junk food at hangouts and club meetings, and that encouraged me to keep making healthy choices. Some mornings it sounded way more appealing to sleep in rather than get up early to run, but I did it anyways. If I slipped up with my diet or slacked on exercise, I didn’t beat myself up over it, and I started again the next day.

But it was hard for me to tell if my body was actually changing. I knew I was doing a great job eating well and exercising, but in my mind, I was still a size 12 and weighed 183 pounds.

In late February, I realized that my jeans were fitting loosely. I was getting sick of pulling them up all the time, so I went to the mall to get a new in-between pair, thinking that maybe I was now a comfortable size 10. In a hopeful moment, I tried on a pair of size eight jeans. They fit perfectly.

I almost cried in the dressing room out of happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever had to buy new jeans because my old ones were too big before; it was always because I had gone up a size. In my excitement, I bought two pairs.

The following months, I kept up with my food tracking and running three times a week, but the more weight I lost, the harder it became to keep the pounds coming off. I couldn’t lower my calorie consumption and remain healthy, so I started going to group fitness classes on days I didn’t run. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t just getting thinner, I was starting to look fit. I was getting muscle! I started to discover what kinds of awesome things my body could accomplish. When I first had to run five minutes without stopping, it seemed impossible; I had to try it three separate days before I could do it. The first time I ran 20 minutes without stopping, I couldn’t believe it. The best part about exercising is that it started to be fun. Elle Woods wasn’t lying when she said endorphins make you happy.

As of today, I have lost about 36 pounds, and I can run 30 minutes without stopping. At 147 pounds, I am finally at a healthy weight and I couldn’t be happier with what I’ve accomplished—it seems crazy that I was actually able to do it! The best thing is that I feel healthy. I’m so much more energized now that I’ve made exercise a priority, and I’m feeding my body nutritious food instead of junk.

A few weeks ago, I wore a brand new dress (size six!) to a formal meeting for my music fraternity. My friend Anna came up to me after a meeting to compliment me on it.

“Michelle, I just want to tell you, you look really good!” she said. “Thanks,” I replied, beaming.

“And I know you’ve lost weight, but it’s not just that,” she continued. “You just seem so much happier and so much more confident, and I just love seeing that in you.”

Anna’s comment really stuck out to me. I realized that yes, I was thinner, but the best part about losing weight was that I was so much more confident and happy with myself. I was proud of myself for setting a really daunting goal and sticking to it, and I was proud of myself for finally treating my body right after 21 years.

* The nutrition guidelines I followed were given to me specifically by a dietician but aren’t appropriate for everyone. Please don’t attempt to follow them yourself if you want to lose weight; see a dietician so he/she can recommend what is best for you!

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