If you and I met today, you might think I was naturally lean. Born with a high metabolism. Able to eat whatever I want without gaining a pound. Not going to lie, that would be amazing. But the truth is, growing up, I was always the big kid.
By the time I was 13 years old, I weighed over 200 pounds and struggled with losing weight, emotional eating, and diets that didn’t work. While most kids dreamed of becoming movie stars or famous athletes, my early inspirations were the knowledgeable dietitians I met every summer at fat camp. I was never normal. I was never small. The pediatrician’s office constantly told my parents, “She’s obese. She’s over the 100th percentile, she’s not even on the chart!”
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At eight years old, I was sent to “fat camp.” Can you imagine how that felt? But the truth is, I loved it. I made lots of friends. I was surrounded by people who didn’t judge me. I lost 30 pounds. It was amazing. Then I came back to school…and gained it all back. This yo-yo-ing went on for years. Every summer, I’d lose 30 pounds. Every school year, I’d gain it all back—and more—until I peaked at 215 pounds (my highest weight) and a size 20, going on size 22—which meant I couldn’t even fit into Gap or Old Navy’s extended sizes, forcing me to shop in plus-size only stores. This was a particularly difficult thing to accept given that my friends were still shopping for single-digit sizes.
I loved myself, but I hated by body, and I had to finally realize that one was not separate from the other. If I was having a good, confident day, but then tried something on, my whole mood would dampen. And if I were having a bad day, my weight would only make me feel worse. I was the “fat,” “chubby” girl for as long as I could remember. I hated doctor visits, because my pediatrician would show me a graph of how much I kept gaining. I hated sleepovers, because my friends would share clothes and talk about the boys that flirt with them, and I couldn’t participate. I hated shopping and getting dressed, because nothing ever fit or looked the way it was supposed to. It was all so hard and such a drag. I was officially worn out from my weight.
I finally had the epiphany: “Ilana, you only have this one body, you might as well make it rock!”
I had to get real. I had to understand that just because some people stay thin ordering pizza and fries didn’t mean I could. These were the same people who could also eat one cookie, be satisfied, and stop, and I didn’t have that in me just yet. One cookie felt like permission to have more, and more, and more. I like to eat a lot, so I had to figure out a way to fill up and lose weight at the same time. I also couldn’t tell myself not to eat any dessert or junk foods, because that would only ever last a few days before I found myself eating them again. I grew up hearing about every diet because my parents tried them all and time and time again, but I knew there was a missing element.
I needed a more positive approach that felt more fun than force. By that time, I had taken over 100 hours of nutrition courses from dietitians at weight loss camp so I knew what to eat, I just needed to connect it to how I would get myself to want to eat it. I brought in forms of accountability that kept me aware and kept me learning what was working and what wasn’t.
At weight loss camp, food was restricted, so you couldn’t eat even if you wanted to. But at home, I had access to whatever I wanted, so I needed to understand how to eat well within a real lifestyle. I realized that I could microwave two frozen blocks of Birdseye broccoli with butter spray and salt and eat it in front of the tv like I used to eat popcorn, and the scale would still drop. I realized that if I made whole eggs in a pan, I would be tempted to soak up the yolk with a slice of bread, but if I made egg whites, I was more in control. I realized fruit wasn’t unlimited, so I had to figure out where fruit fit in. I realized I could actually weave in some desserts, and later, cocktails, and still see that scale drop.
Through college, I also joined a sorority and had to figure out how to lose weight and keep it off with all the drinking, partying and late-night eating, so I took the challenge and found more creative ways to make the most of it. I would skip the sugary mixers and stick to the straight stuff, and when everyone came back to pizza and bagels, I would raid the salad bar for artichokes and hearts of palm, and dip them in sesame miso dressing (you should try it!). I had to figure out how I could eat at Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Jimmy John’s with my friends, but still fill up and lose weight.I never skimped out on flavor or portion, but I had to get smarter about swaps and better control techniques throughout the day to set myself up for success.
This article originally appeared on Betches Lifestyle.