I ignored the first warning sign. It happens to everyone, I thought. Your body just changes as it gets older. I slid the dress back down below my hips, the unclosable zipper hanging open like a gaping wound.
The second warning was harder to ignore. During my yearly check-up, the nurse put me on a scale. I blinked twice when I saw the result. I was 32 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, 9st 11.0lb and in the worst shape of my life.
My doctor gave me a lecture. Ten more pounds, she said, and I would be classified as overweight according to the Body Mass Index scale. Your BMI, she explained, is a statistical comparison of your height and weight to those of the general public; it classifies you as normal, overweight or obese. My number, 23.5, was at the high end of “normal” and she ordered me to do something about it.
When I got home, I took a hard look at myself in the mirror. Who was this tired woman with rolls around her midsection and thighs that bore the seam imprints of her pants? I thought about the magazines and television programs geared toward weight loss. I’d never felt they were talking to me. I wasn’t obese. I didn’t eat fast food every day. I went for the occasional jog or bike ride. It’s not enough, a voice inside me said. You feel terrible. You have no energy. You can’t zip up your favourite dress. It’s time to make a change.
“Yes,” I said softly. “But how?”
I didn’t allow myself to look at the scale until the end of that week, but when I did, it was worth it
The enemy in plain sight
Salt. It’s on every table, in every restaurant and in almost everything you purchase at the supermarket. According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, our daily intake shouldn’t exceed 2,300 mg or, if you have high blood pressure, 1,500 mg per day. I never thought about how much sodium I consumed until I looked for ways to eat healthier. Out of curiosity, I began keeping a food log.
My sodium intake ranged from 3,000 mg to a whopping 5,000 mg per day, found mostly in instant, canned or processed foods – the trifecta of sodium overdose. On an average day, I ate cereal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich on white bread for lunch, and canned soup, a box of macaroni and cheese, or a frozen entrée for dinner. As normal as these choices seem, many were filled with bloat-inducing salt that left me feeling puffy and sluggish afterward.
In her book “Making the Cut,” fitness expert Jillian Michaels warns that too much salt can slow down your metabolism and keep your body from burning fat. The diet she proposes in her book caps sodium intake at 1,000 mg daily. With this in mind, I gritted my teeth and headed for my pantry. What I found made me cringe.
The can of Chef Boyardee Mini Bites Beef Ravioli contained a total of 1,400 mg of sodium. The package of Nissin Top Ramen Chicken Flavor Noodles prepared with the seasoning packet contained 1,820 mg. The DiGiorno Cheese Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Pizza contained a mind-numbing total of 5,150 mg. I realised my pantry was designed to feed a house of students, not a working woman in her early 30s. My refrigerator hadn’t seen a fresh vegetable since my parents last visit and my fruit basket held a bag of crisps. I needed a food makeover – and fast.
I set myself an initial limit of 1,000 mg of sodium per day: 250 mg each for breakfast and lunch, with 500 mg for dinner. Once I accustomed my body to eating healthy food, I planned to slowly raise my consumption to no more than 1,500 mg per day to allow for occasional indulgences.
My first trip to the supermarket in a low-sodium state of mind was disappointing in the extreme. Everything, it seemed, contained more sodium than I could allow. My beloved loaf of sourdough bread? Not at 200 mg per slice. Canned soup? Not with 1,800 mg per can. Turkey lunchmeat? I couldn’t afford the 460 mg, nor the 350 mg for an ounce of sweet pickle relish.
I trudged through the store, dejected. It would have been easier to broker peace in the Middle East, I thought. Still, I had to fill the cart with something. I grabbed quick-cooking oats, broccoli, carrots, grapes, tomatoes, low-sodium crackers, low-sodium rice crisps, couscous, feta cheese, whole-wheat pasta, rice, basil and olive oil. As I left the store, I crossed my fingers and hoped I had the willpower to eat it all instead of rushing through the Burger King drive-through.
A new world
During the first week of my low-sodium diet, I expected to feel hungry, grumpy and unfulfilled. Without my creamy macaroni and cheese, how would I get through a bad day? The answer was simple: plain couscous with basil, a hint of feta and a pinch of red pepper flakes – all with approximately 200 mg of sodium. Instead of a turkey sandwich, I spread peanut butter on Saltine’s “Hint of Salt” crackers, just 30 mg of sodium for nine crackers. I swapped hot dogs for StarKist Very Low Sodium Chunk White Albacore Tuna, just 35 mg of sodium for half a can. For dinners, I ate steamed veggies and white rice seasoned with salt-free Mrs. Dash blends. Surprisingly, these light, fresh dishes left me feeling satisfied but not stuffed.
The second week, I felt energetic enough to start jogging. Since I didn’t feel bloated or sluggish after dinner, I no longer dreaded putting on my elastic-waist jogging pants. I jogged for 20 minutes on three days that week. I didn’t allow myself to look at the scale until the end of that week, but when I did, it was worth it – I’d lost 5 lb. I looked in the mirror and smiled. “There’s no turning back now,” I said.
Waist not, want not
I kept up the 1,000 mg diet for two months then adjusted my intake to no more than 1,500 mg per day. One year later, I’ve lost 19 pounds and dropped two dress sizes. I don’t count calories or fat; I’ve found that low-sodium foods are generally low in calories and saturated or trans fat. On occasions like Thanksgiving, it’s simply not possible to ingest less than 3,000 mg of sodium per day. But those days don’t come often and when they do, I can let it go and enjoy being with loved ones instead. After all, a diet should be your tool, not your master.
Do I miss macaroni and cheese? Of course. Have I fallen off the wagon? Yes, I’ve licked my fingers clean after indulging in a few buffalo wings. But every time I feel bloated and my belly presses against the waistband of my jeans, I remember why I made the decision to go low-sodium. And I think of that dress I couldn’t zip up – the one I wore yesterday.