A couple of days ago I had a conversation with my mum on Skype, and she went on and on about how thin she was when she was young. She was unbelievably thin, that’s true. When she got pregnant at 22, her weight was 42 kg – mine at leaving school was 48 kg, for comparison. And I am the same height, just 1 cm taller. Everything has changed during the pregnancy, when she gained 24 kg, ending up weighing 66 kg before she gave birth. But then she lost most of the baby weight, and up to her 30’s I remember her being slim. Then she gradually became bigger and heavier and reached size 16. “Where’s the time gone?” she asks now, sighing. She even recalls how my father’s sister used to tell him ‘If you want to know how your wife will look at old age, look and her mother’. And my grandmother, of course, is a large woman, a mother of three, a victim of Type 2 diabetes and many other health complications. Quite a sad example. And here I refuse – I refuse to listen and believe that it’s true. No matter how big your mother, father, grandparents are, it doesn’t mean that you would be the same! They can give you genetically large body (large skeletal structure, wide bones, more muscle mass, whatever), but it doesn’t make you heavy, meaning fat. Even the way you store fat, which is thought by many to be a genetic predisposition, in reality might be as far from your genetics as the Moon, because everything revolves around your hormones. I’m not saying that I’m an expert and can swear for hormones, it’s the job of scientists who are still trying to figure it all out. But we shouldn’t underestimate the role of hormones, which are, by the way, hugely affected by what we eat.
Why do we get fat then? For some it’s obviously bad eating habits and lack of exercise. You don’t have a second thought about a 100 kg person exiting McDonalds. But what about people like my mum? Lack of exercise – yes. Bad food? Not really. Well, to some extent she eats fairly well and not much, she doesn’t overeat like many people do. When I talk to her, she is surprised that I (who must have been starving for years the way I ate before) eat a lot more than her. And I am size 8, while she is 16. Growing up, I don’t remember ever having fried food in the house, maybe except for a few times when we had traditional egg and scallions pierogis. We never ate fried fish, because my mum can’t stand a smell of it. If we ever had fish, it was baked. We never fried steaks – it’s just not in the Russian tradition to eat steaks. Maybe occasionally we had beef or pork diced and fried with onions and fried potato to accompany it, but it was never deep fried. My mom was never a fan of eating out. She would cook a goulash with mashed potatoes or pasta, or pilaf, or bake some chicken in the oven, and she would expect us to eat it. Desserts were quite rare, except for cookies. We never finished a loaf of bread in an entire week. My mum still doesn’t eat bread. Where’s the problem then?
When I started analysing, first thing that came to my mind was fat from the meat. I never ate it because I couldn’t stand the taste of it. I still can’t. If I ever felt a piece of fat in my mouth, I wouldn’t be able to swallow it. And most probably I wouldn’t be able to finish my meat at all (too afraid of encountering another piece of fat). But my parents used to tell me that it’s very tasty. I never understood them. What springs to mind next is the abundance of simple carbohydrates – potato, white pasta, white rice, white bread, sugar in tea. And one more mistake is the lack of fresh whole foods, like fruit and vegetables. Although, we had some fruit like bananas and I still don’t like them because I’ve once had too many. I remember mum trying to feed me apples and I still don’t really like them. Strawberries and raspberries, and blackcurrant we had only in summer from our own vegetable garden. It was too expensive to buy it on a market. Of vegetables, we had only the simplest ones to get – tomatoes, cucumbers, rarely cabbage, and sometimes radishes from our own garden and scallions. That is why I grew up not knowing the taste of spinach or lettuce. So you see, even if you cook yourself and don’t eat fried and sugary food, it’s still so easy to fall into the trap of not so healthy foods that pretend to be healthy.
And now, thousand miles away from family I have finally learned a thing or two about nutrition and I’m ready to bring it to them, so they make better choices. I managed to make mum and dad try broccoli and cauliflower, I managed to make them eat oat porridge, not an instant one, but a real one, I managed to make my grandma try chickpeas because they are good for diabetics. But it’s still not enough. I asked mum what she eats on a typical day. Her answer was:
Breakfast: Lemon water and oat porridge OR a few cookies. – Porridge is a good choice, but cookies? They’re not enough to fill anyone up on their own, but they have loads of sugar and fat. I offered her to substitute rich tea biscuits or multigrain crackers for her regular cookies, as they will have much less fat and sugar and be lower in calories. She could also eat boiled eggs, cooked the night before, so she doesn’t spend much time cooking breakfast.
Lunch: Whatever leftover she has from yesterday’s dinner – the same old goulash, pilaf, sautéed cabbage with pork, etc. OR a salad from a café and juice. Salads are definitely not the best choice (too much real mayonnaise), but since it only happens occasionally it’s ok. Home cooked food is okay too, as long as it’s not too fatty. But here goes the problem. Since she doesn’t eat bread, these foods are not enough to fill her up, and she also adds a few cookies on top. So more sugar and fat follows.
Tea break: Juice and cookies. Do I really need to tell what’s wrong with that?
Dinner: around 10 o’clock, once she’s back from work – whatever is cooked at home + cookies to fill her up.
One or two cookies a day are fine for most people, even those who are losing weight (not everyone needs or wants to look like IFBB Bikini Pro). If you can keep your hands off them at other times. But a few cookies after every meal – that is too much, considering that a regular cookie she eats has about 100 calories, about 7 grams sugar and 5 or more grams fat. Eat 3 or 4 of them and they will give you half if not more of what you should eat for a normal meal. Eat that amount after every meal and your sugar intake is sky high. And if your glycogen (energy from sugar) reservoirs are full – they will be because of the lack of activity – the excess sugar converts into fat.
So there are a lot of things that matter when trying to lose weight. But the thing that matters the most (and which the most of us don’t have) is commitment. So many people I hear tell that they desperately want to lose weight. And what do they do to lose it? Nothing. That’s the saddest thing. People only want to lose weight, but they don’t want to work for it, it’s too much for them. My mum knows deep inside what she needs to do to shed some fat, but it’s the laziness that prevents her. Because it takes some work to change the habits, it takes work to shop for healthier products, it takes work to cook in a healthier way. It is so much easier to do what you’re used to do and be what you’re used to be, even if it bothers you. Some people take it a step higher, they look for fad diets, because on these diets you don’t need to work hard for a long time, you work for a week or two, have the result you like and go back to your favourite food to gain that weight back before you know it. It’s a loop we keep living in, too much afraid to change something. But if we commit, if we take a step to make a change, if we fight our laziness and summon all the strength we have, it will pay out in a healthier, happier body and mind. It’s worth it, it really is. And it’s only hard to take a first step. Once you’re settled into a new routine, it becomes your new habit and you do like you do it now, only you feel much better. Don’t be afraid to make a change!