The Self-Love Diet: A Healthy, Hearty and Happy Approach to Weight Loss

For years, she obsessed over her weight. It was when she stopped worrying and changed her approach that she started losing.

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“I learned to take care of my body, not starve it,” Mary Lou says.

“Let’s get your weight first,” the nurse said at my six-month cardiology checkup. I slipped off my shoes, stepped on the scale, listened to the metallic counterweights sliding back and forth. No need to look. I already knew what I weighed—too much. For several years, my cholesterol had been borderline, but I was already on two blood pressure medications and didn’t want to add another pill for cholesterol. So I convinced myself I could get my numbers down with diet and exercise. Whenever I would lose some pounds, for a class reunion or a beach trip—usually with some quick-fix fad diet—the weight always came back.

My cardiologist sat down in front of me, flipping through my chart. “Well, you’re the only patient today who has lost weight. Three pounds,” he said. “It’s a start.”

Right. Losing 10 times that amount still wouldn’t put me at my “ideal weight,” the dreaded number that had stared at me accusingly from charts in waiting rooms for years.

I couldn’t remember the first time I went on a diet. I had always been chubby. “Pleasingly plump,” my grandma would say. I was aware, even at a young age, that other girls were smaller than I was. I noticed it in pictures, when my middle was wider than my friends’. I noticed it when we dressed for gym and my thighs were not sleek beneath my shorts.

“Do you think you could lose five more pounds?” my cardiologist asked. “Most people don’t realize what an impact extra weight has on their overall health.”

Though my husband, Gary, loved me just the way I was, I already knew those extra pounds were hard on my body. My hip had been giving me trouble. I couldn’t walk in sand anymore, which ended my beloved beach walks along the shores of Lake Michigan. Climbing the bleachers at my grandson’s basketball games had become almost impossible. Even lying on my hip in bed at night was painful. I’d tried physical therapy. Pain pills. But it wasn’t enough. My orthopedist had advised hip replacement surgery. Then my left knee had started acting up and I had to be fitted for a brace right before a dream trip to Italy. I’d needed a cane to navigate the stairs at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Much as I loved traveling, I couldn’t imagine doing more of it when my body was slowly but surely breaking down.

“Sure,” I told my cardiologist. “Five pounds.”

He closed my chart with a satisfied slap. “Great. See you in six months, five pounds lighter.”

I drove home, mentally flipping through my repertoire of diets. Which one this time? High-protein? Low-fat? South Beach? Scarsdale? I had tried pretty much everything: Eat this—don’t eat that. Eat these foods together. Weigh your food. Count points for your food. Exercise like crazy to burn off extra calories.

My family had what I called fat genes. Almost everyone in my family was overweight. And dieting was something we didn’t discuss when we got together, which was almost always to share a big, home-cooked meal. What we did talk about was food.

Old recipes. Grandma’s famous dumplings. An aunt’s delicious chocolate pie. Momma’s melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, topped with the sweetest pear preserves in Indiana. How could those things be so harmful? Food was how we celebrated and how we consoled each other. “Eat something—you’ll feel better,” I’d heard dozens of times as a child. So I ate. And, it was true, I almost always felt better. Until, of course, I didn’t. Those eating habits had given me a lifetime of weight problems.

Eventually, I convinced myself that my body was the weight it wanted to be. It must be how God wants me, I told myself. I learned how to dress to camouflage my weight issues: lovely flowing clothes, lots of layers, dramatic jewelry and saucy hats. But I couldn’t camouflage the strain the extra weight was putting on my health or the limitations it was adding to my lifestyle. And really, did God want me to be so unhealthy?

This time, things had to be different. My motivation was different, and my strategies would need to be too. I went straight from the doctor’s office to the grocery. Instead of the fat-free and low-calorie foods I would normally buy to start a diet, I shopped in the “fresh” aisles. Lots of fruits and veggies. I skipped the cereal aisle. Ditto with the low-fat chips and cookies, the frozen meals and nutrition bars. Those foods were more like a punishment than good nutrition. This effort had to be more about taking care of the body God gave me than about just losing weight.

I spent more time in the kitchen. I pushed my can opener to the back of the counter and prepared fresh green beans. Shucked corn. Sliced tomatoes. I made thin cornbread, crunchy and hot from a black skillet. And I made salads—lots and lots of salads, topped with pickled beets and black beans and chunks of cheese. I cut out fried foods. I discovered that organic steel-cut oats cooked all night in the slow cooker were nothing like those packets I used to open and dump in hot water. I bought local honey to use as sweetener. Gary and I ate out less often. He seemed to be enjoying the meals I was creating. I trolled the Internet for muffin recipes, tweaking ones I liked to make them hearty and healthy. I started making my own tea bags, filled with black tea and cardamom pods and cinnamon. I even gave myself permission to drink it with half-and-half—something I never would have done in my rigid dieting days. I began to look forward to these new foods. It had been three months since my cardiologist visit, and I was already down 15 pounds. Yet this didn’t feel like a diet. In fact, it felt as if I was eating better than I ever had.

I decided to buy a new fancy digital scale. I brought it home and set it up in the bathroom.

I had prayed about losing weight before—weighing myself several times a day, obsessing over every pound, ashamed to say I was hungry because I thought people would think I shouldn’t be eating. I didn’t want to go back there. I took a deep breath, tapped my toe on the edge of the scale, gazed down at the glowing zeros. I heard a voice encourage me. This is your chance—not just to look good but to feel good. I will help you with this.

I stepped up on the scale and waited for the results. I hope I’m still in the ballpark of 15 pounds.…

I was down 20 pounds! But it wasn’t the pounds that mattered so much. Twenty was just a number. That number didn’t define me. What mattered was I’d finally gotten it right. I’d learned to take care of my body, not starve it.

Soon, it was time for my six-month checkup. I’d promised my cardiologist five pounds. He was in for a surprise.

“Twenty pounds!” the doctor said. “This is fantastic!”

It was. The pain in my knee was better. My hip issues weren’t as debilitating. Even my feet complained less when I took long walks.

Now, a year after the three-pound loss, I’m down 50. I dropped from size 16 jeans to size 8. My hip pain is completely gone. My knee discomfort has diminished to an occasional twinge. My orthopedist is no longer talking hip replacement. My knee brace and cane are buried in a dark corner of the spare closet. I have discontinued one of my blood pressure meds and was able to cut the dosage of the other one in half. My cholesterol numbers are all in normal range—something I haven’t seen in 30 years!

“The more time you spend in the kitchen, the skinnier you get,” Gary teases me. This new lifestyle has been good for both of us—even he is down 15 pounds.

All my life, I wanted to be thin. God wanted me to be healthy and whole. His, of course, was the better idea. One that allows me to do what I love—travel with friends, walk the shores of Lake Michigan with my husband, climb the bleachers at my grandson’s basketball games. And live the way I was meant to live.

Try Mary Lou's Hearty Banana Muffins at home!

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