I was feeling like a sausage, the new layer of fat that had recently yo-yo’d on top of my old layers yearned to burst out of the pork gut casing that was my own skin. One of my closest friends who is a personal trainer was honest enough to flat out tell me that I was hiding under my loose clothing and my body language. At that point, I had only a few casual pieces that still fit – poorly – and even fewer pieces among my suits and work dresses. Granted, most if not all of my friends and colleagues would have protested that I was perfect, beautiful as is, blah, blah, and I’m sure that their perceptions were just right at the time. After all, we are all perfect and beautiful at any given moment: we are who we are.
But I felt like crap. Like a crappy sausage. A crappy sausage version of me. Since junior high I’ve struggled with wanting to be a leaner version of myself because my genetics didn’t quite allow for the classic ballerina body that I had trained for since kindergarten. But I’ve never been obese either. Non-pregnant and non-post-partum, I’ve never topped 165 pounds. At 5’ 5”, that probably doesn’t sound so bad for either the Freshman Fifteen woman or the average middle-aged woman.
But when I was teaching and performing flamenco dance full time in my 30s, after my 2nd pregnancy until my 3rd at 40, I had known what it felt like to be a not-average, lean-machine, approaching-middle-aged woman. I was holding steady at what seemed to be my ideal performance weight – 142 pounds. I was eating basically whatever I wanted – spaghetti and meatballs, nachos with beef, steaks, fruits and veggies, lattes and chocolate, definitely lavender Taos Cow ice cream – and I burned any excess off during classes, rehearsals, and shows. I had a not-average lifestyle. I felt pretty great.
“Pretty great” hints at my dark bulimic adolescence that lingered into adulthood in the form of a poor body image, occasional regressions into laxative purges, and a lot of comfort food binges – what I call “emo eating.” My eventual full emotional victory over bulimia has come only with my current lifestyle overhaul, and that’s a whole series of upcoming blog posts. The point here is that even when I felt “pretty great” about my body image, I still wavered between feeling like a goddess and feeling like a sausage, depending on my mood that day, the “time o’ the month,” if I saw a Skinny Minnie walk by, if I hadn’t pooped in a couple of days…
Fast forward to the fall of 2017, bobbing between about 142 and 145 for a few years, grateful to perform about once a year, and three years into a job that is demanding, stressful, and much more sedentary than I was ever, ever accustomed to. I drive an hour-and-a-half each way, including school drop-offs and pick-ups. I hadn’t been working my own dance technique much, not exercising much in general, using the excuses that I was busy and that I was still recovering from the repair of a retinal tear that summer and should continue to take it easy. Halloween happened, and as usual I traded from the bag of Skittles that I had bought ahead of time in exchange for my favorite candy bars that my sons didn’t like. As usual, I could feel a bit of a weight gain because, you know, those peanuts in those Baby Ruth bars actually are not a legit protein source.
By Thanksgiving – less than a month – “a bit” had turned into a full 10 pounds. Cue sausage feelings. Never fear, I thought; getting back to some running should do the trick, it always does. I started on the treadmill instead of pavement so my eye surgery wouldn’t fall apart, included some stationary bike, added the new rowing machine in our building’s gym.
Nothing worked. Yikes, I thought; stop the Baby Ruth bars and cut out other junky carbs, that’ll do it, I’ll be fine.
Sausage panic! Why weren’t my usual non-bulimic solutions working? I knew I could not revisit the pathologic bulimia path as a 52-year-old who had retained at least some kernel of wisdom. I also knew that I was at least pre-menopausal. Was this it then? Pre-menopausal weight gain? Pre-menopausal metabolism slow down? Was I now locked into this “average middle-aged woman” sausage body that didn’t feel like my own, now that my hormones were almost certainly shifting? Was this weight gain and my body’s resistance to its loss by my usual healthy tactics a sign of becoming a “woman of a certain age”? Was I sentenced to buying a whole new “big” wardrobe that would drape over the bulges that I would now have to get used to as a part of the menopausal package? For an example, take a look at this photo of me at the holiday party at work that December:
This is a stretch velvet dress that I performed in WHEN I WAS HIGHLY PREGNANT FOR THE THIRD TIME, REPURPOSED TWELVE YEARS LATER AS A “FORGIVING” PARTY DRESS. Was this really my destiny – to hide in my sausage clothing to the end of my days?
Meanwhile I had a brief and intriguing conversation with a former student whom I had run into on campus and almost not recognized because she looked half the size that I remembered her being when she was in my classes. She had been on the slightly heavy side while I was teaching her, and she told me she had been obese before she came to this school. What in the world was her secret? If it was anything beyond cutting junk food and increasing exercise, I wanted to know so I could try it.
She was living a ketogenic lifestyle.
This young woman was the first female that I had personally known to have gone ketogenic. Teaching in the health sciences, I was fully aware of the history and current popularity of the ketogenic diet, and I knew all of the biochemistry behind it. I also knew many young men who had at least tried and perhaps stuck to the ketogenic lifestyle, but they had all been fairly fit to begin with. In my experience, this was a regimen for guys who were trying to get more cut.
But this woman was living it and loving it, not for muscle definition but for her general health, and it was showing. She was not only lean, but she looked… happier, relaxed, confident. But she’s half my age. Would this work for me at my stage in life?
I stockpiled keto Kindle books to read during my Christmas trip to San Francisco. I picked out recipes for keto-friendly ice creams and baked treats, and I prepped my Amazon cart with coconut flour and powdered Swerve in anticipation of cravings. I psyched myself up for having to eat bacon fat and chicken skin, both of which I had thought taboo my whole life. I relished what I thought would be my final BBQ pork siu bao and white sugar rice cake of my life in Chinatown. When we returned from San Francisco, I informed my husband that I was starting This New Thing, and I was going to stick with it no matter what he might bring home from the grocery store. FYI he and my two youngest boys are fantastic high-carb eaters, and lucky to be able to burn that off somehow. This was going to be the consummate challenge with all of their temptations lurking in our cupboards.
I started after the New Year – how cliché – and made a surprisingly smooth and quick transition into ketosis. More details on the ketogenic diet itself in other blog post series here. For now, I want to emphasize that having a solid support system is one of the most significant keys to success. I feel like I have to say that again: surround yourself with strong, honest, supportive, like-minded people, and you will have a much, much greater chance of success. Remember my personal trainer friend who told me I was hiding? He offered to moderate a small keto support group that would also help him to learn about the ketogenic lifestyle as he went for his nutrition degree. A middle-aged male client of his and my 25-year-old daughter went keto about a week after I did and joined the group. We are still each other’s biggest cheerleaders during our body composition scale-and-app weigh-ins every Sunday, and we’re there for each other on any day in between if someone needs to be talked off a ledge of chocolate chip cookies.
Funny thing about the cookie ledge: it goes away.
As our little group coached each other through our literal ups and downs during the first three-and-a-half months, my daughter and I reaped particularly stunning benefits: weight loss and fat loss at a reasonable, consistent pace; not feeling hungry; not having to commit to a grueling exercise program in order to see results. The most mind-blowing changes, though, were both unforeseen and astonishing – our palates changed so thoroughly and so quickly that we found ourselves not craving our usual comfort food triggers. At all. And this meant no more emo eating. A game changer, a brain changer – no, a life changer – for the barely-recovering bulimic I have been since college. Food was now a fuel source for my machine, and I was making choices based on my fuel needs and weekly body composition goals rather than my emotions.
At the three-and-a-half month mark, I happened to get my annual bloodwork done. I was so curious. My brother and his wife had been secretly ketogenic for almost a year, had lost significant amounts of weight, and their unhealthy cholesterol levels were plummeting. Unfortunately, my cholesterol spiked. And my good and bad cholesterols flip flopped in the wrong directions. On top of that, my lymphocytes dropped to dangerously low levels, which, in the absence of HIV, points to a protein deficiency.
I freaked out, but only momentarily. I knew I would have to give up my keto lifestyle right away, but since our little team had learned so much about fueling our machines, I also knew it should simply be a matter of adjusting my macros – my proportions of carbs, fats, and proteins – in order to quickly get my body chemistry back to normal.
No more bacon fat or chicken skin, no more creamy dressings, much less cheese, and I switched from full fat Greek yogurt and cottage cheese to low or no fat versions. I boosted my protein intake in my smoothies, packing those with hemp, flax, and chia seeds, egg white powder, and soy and whey powders. I switched from almond and coconut milks to soy milk because my personal trainer friend found good research on soy as a quick cholesterol reducer. I added a very high fiber muffin for breakfast to also help knock that cholesterol down. I had always craved fruits in the ketogenic lifestyle, as they are generally high in carbs and, therefore, not very keto-friendly. I granted myself the freedom to eat more fruits while still watching my carbs. I became slightly more lenient with the dark chocolate and glass of red wine, things that I simply enjoy some days, both of which are keto-friendly and heart healthy (and de riguer while watching intense episodes of Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale). My labs two months later came back all normal.
The big surprise was that I had continued to steadily lose weight and fat without so much as a hiccup.
I have lost a grand total of 26 pounds and 5 percentage points of body fat to date. Here is the photo that I posted on facebook after an Independence Day trip to San Francisco:
When this picture appeared as my new profile picture, the response was so strong that I felt compelled to write this very blog post and get this very blog up and running. Friends were asking for “my secret” – and it’s no secret at all. I lived a ketogenic lifestyle for three-and-a-half months, and I adjusted into what I have coined “post-keto” for another four months. I was happy in ketosis, and I’m even happier post-keto because I’m able to be freer in my food choices. But due to the permanent palate and mindset changes that happened in ketosis, my post-keto choices still align with the notion of fueling this machine in a non-emo eating way.
The most important thing is that I feel strong, healthy, joyful, and free. Free from bulimia. Joyful in my heart. Healthy of body. Strong of mind.
BTW that kimono picture was taken on my second San Francisco trip this year. Remember how I thought during my Christmas trip that I would never eat siu bao and white sugar rice cake again? I freely and joyfully ate my BBQ pork siu bao and white sugar rice cake in July, knowing how to savor one of each on our Chinatown day, knowing how to balance the rest of the day with enough walking and yoga and proteins and veggies, and, most importantly, knowing that I was eating them with a non-emo attitude. My support group check in that week included this photo in front of Good Mong Kok Bakery plus the body composition scale screenshot documenting that I had lost a pound and additional body fat on that vacation:
I have much more to say about my keto/post-keto journey so far and what lies ahead. Stay tuned as I analyze what I have learned and explore uncharted territory. For now, I share with you these successes for your inspiration:
sausage feelings – dissolved;
cookie ledge – crumbled;
emo eating – eliminated;
bulimia – conquered.
A midlife oasis from the vantage point of this Quinquagen.