Imagine waking up one morning and being thin. Wait, let’s back up a minute. First, imagine having a lifelong history of weight problems, dating back to childhood, spending decades agonizing over what to eat and how much you weigh, struggling like hell to lose even an ounce, and being ninety pounds overweight. Now imagine waking up one morning and being thin. Sound impossible? Well, it happened to me.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly like that, but I wanted to get your attention. What actually happened is that I started making small, incremental changes in my life, things that in some ways were almost imperceptible. Once I got used to one, I’d make another. All the while, I went on about my life. I wasn’t agonizing. I didn’t spend every meal adding up a different set of numbers, from calories, to carbs, to points. I just lived.
Some of the changes involved food. Some involved exercise. Some had nothing to do with either one of those things, but contributed to my overall happiness. I spent a lot of time focusing on my happiness. How great is that?
I’m not a completely clueless dope, so of course I noticed changes. My clothes started fitting better. I’d step on the scale and go “ooh,” instead of “ugh.” When I would give myself a break and indulge in some of my old favorite snacks, they’d kind of make me nauseous, which is never the feeling you want from your comfort food. So, yes, I knew something was afoot. But I had no clue to what degree.
success story How I Lost 90 Pounds -- My Plan for Lasting Weight Loss and Self-Acceptance
Stumbling Upon Success
Before giving birth to my daughter, I had grand plans for losing the baby weight. I set up a little workout area in the basement and made an arrangement with my husband. He agreed to watch the as yet born baby for half an hour every morning before he went to work so that I could exercise. I wanted to work out first thing in the morning, as a way to kick off each day of my maternity leave. In fact, I had an orderly and wellorganized schedule for the entire day. If you’re a parent, please stop laughing. I had no clue.
When the baby came it was like a tornado hit my house. I have never been so bewildered in my entire life, from the moment they put that gray, squirmy, gooey bundle of joy directly into my arms just seconds after birth (You mean they don’t clean her off first?! I thought to myself). Having a newborn turned everything upside down. The house was a disaster, from dishes stacked in the sink to piles of laundry. Most days I would almost completely forget to shower or feed the dog. I was also breastfeeding, and my entire day revolved around creating food for my baby.
I was literally feeding or pumping every ninety minutes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. My life was reduced to one simple goal: make milk. Needless to say, every single one of our plans went right out the window. Before my daughter was born, we decided not to use a pacifier. No binky for our baby! But within two hours of coming home from the hospital, that restriction went out the window, as we shoved bottle nipples into our daughter’s mouth to keep her from screaming, until we could get to the store in the morning and raid the pacifier section.
We’d decided against having her sleep in the bed; she needed to be in the bassinet. Well, she didn’t end up in the bed, but she didn’t sleep in the bassinet, either. Where, you might ask, did our precious baby girl slumber? In the only place where she would actually sleep: the car seat. That’s right, the car seat, in the house, anytime she closed her eyes.
We would just strap her in and carry it from room to room. We joked that she probably thought we traveled an awful lot, though we never actually left the house. And as for my well-laid fitness plans? Well, I exercised in the basement exactly once.
The problem was, I still needed to lose the baby weight. I’d gained forty pounds during my pregnancy, mostly due to an insatiable desire for salt. I ate macaroni and cheese like it was going out of style. I devoured ramen noodles several times a week. I put table salt on already salted potato chips. Extra salt on potato chips! Keep in mind, the forty pounds of baby weight were on top of the fact that I was already forty-five pounds overweight before my pregnancy. So after having the baby, I was the heaviest I’d ever been by far, and I didn’t want to stay that way.
But I also quickly realized that when it came to my life at that moment in time, there was no way I could do anything but tread water. Trying to get to the gym was simply too much, let alone summoning the energy to actually exercise. I was tethered to my baby via the boob. So I did theonly thing I could. I focused solely on what I was eating. Right from the beginning, I made sure I was eating healthy foods in reasonable portions that I would prepare myself at home. (I’ll detail specifically what dietary changes I made in the next few chapters.)
Much to my surprise, by doing that alone, I lost all of the baby weight by the time I went back to work three months later. I’m not someone who has ever dropped weight effortlessly. In the past, every single ounce I’ve lost has been hard won. Yet there I was, forty pounds lighter from one simple and seemingly effortless modification to my lifestyle. This was a major breakthrough.
I could have stopped there, but I’d already changed my eating habits, so I thought, Why not just keep going? Four months later—seven months after my daughter was born—I was down another ten pounds for a grand total of fifty, all without ever stepping foot inside the gym. That’s when I had my first and most important epiphany: It’s all about the food. As my daughter got older, my life settled into a routine, and I wanted to start exercising.
I asked my friend Jenna Bush Hager about a Spinning class that she loved, called SoulCycle. She encouraged me to try it. So, one sunny Saturday in July I stepped into their Spin studio and clipped my feet into the bike. Let’s just say the workout kicked my butt. The class is what you’d get if a regular Spin class had a baby with a wild night at the club, and then that baby drank a case of Red Bull. It is extremely intense cardio with great music, and some strength training and dancing thrown in. I left soaked in sweat. I mean, absolutely drenched. But it was a ton of fun. It didn’t feel like a chore, the way most exercise always had for me.
It felt like a party and went by in a flash. What’s better than a fun workout? So instead of going to the gym, I became a SoulCycle junkie. I went as often as possible, up to four times a week. You know how you have those times where you’ll totally fall off track with your eating and exercise, and it just spirals down, getting worse andworse? One day off the wagon turns into a week, which turns into a month, and before you know it, your jeans no longer fit. It’s a cycle many of us know all too well, especially me.
But the good news, which I started to realize as I changed my life for the better, is that momentum works just as easily the other way. Once you get going, it starts to feel like rolling downhill, and that’s exactly what began happening with me. The more I exercised, the more I wanted to exercise. As I started to get fit, I wanted to be more fit. It was a cycle of positive feedback. That’s when I decided to start strength training and began going to another killer workout in New York called Barry’s Bootcamp. Barry’s is a combination of high-intensity sprints and incline runs on the treadmill and strength training with free weights.
It’s a lot like cross training, which is offered at many gyms. I thought I was in pretty good shape with all of the Spin I was doing, but this workout definitely humbled me! I barely made it through the first class, taking breaks repeatedly just to catch my breath. Lucky for me, also in the class were two fitness angels. Sascha Shutkind looks like she stepped out of a health magazine. The day I met Sascha she was wearing what she always does in class, nothing but a sports bra and biking shorts, and simply put, she was shredded.
Arms, abs, legs, from head to toe, this woman was cut. Fortunately, she was as encouraging as she was fit. Even though we were complete strangers, she cheered me on the entire class. She pushed me to keep going. She congratulated me after every tough interval.
The other angel was the instructor. Noah Neiman looks like an action movie star: young, handsome, and ridiculously cut. Go do yourself a favor and Google “Noah Neiman shirtless.” You’re welcome. Anyway, underneath Noah’s granitelike exterior is a big ol’ soft heart. Sure, he did his best to kill me during the class, but he did it with love, finding the perfect balance between pushing me to do better, and praisingwhat I’d already done. Thanks to the two of them, I made it through, which goes to show just how important it is to surround yourself with the right people. That first class was grueling.
I would even go so far as to call it torturous. But I left feeling ten feet tall, and just like with SoulCycle, I wanted to go back. I felt challenged, as though I’d just been presented with a new mountain to climb. Sure, feeling good was great and all, but it didn’t hurt that I started to notice results, beyond weight loss. I’d lost weight before, so getting smaller, while nice, wasn’t novel. But for the first time in my entire life, I was becoming defined. You mean there were actually muscles under there? I would stand in front of my full-length mirror and flex like a bodybuilder, mouth open, stunned that I could actually see them.
Is that a bicep? Are those abs? I couldn’t believe my body was actually changing. I also noticed that I was growing in other ways. I could run faster, for longer. I could lift heavier weights. I could Spin at a higher resistance. Working out started to become the best part of my day. I didn’t feel complete without it. My husband had to convince me to take one day off each week so my body could rest. It was then that I realized how futile my workouts had been in my previous life, going through the motions and barely breaking a sweat. The exercise changed me as a person more than anything else. It changed my body’s tone and definition.
It vastly improved my mood, overall happiness, and general energy level. I never saw any of those benefits from my prior halfhearted days at the gym. Epiphany number two: Train hard or stay home. As I began exercising more, I wanted to eat in a way that supported my fitness goals. I no longer wanted to be thin; I wanted to be fit. There’s a huge difference. I began reading everything I could find about fitness and nutrition. What should I eat before a workout for the most energy? What should I eat afterward? What should I eat to build muscle? How muchprotein did I need? I wanted to be smart. If I was going to work my butt off at Barry’s Bootcamp and SoulCycle, I didn’t want to blow it all on breakfast later.
So I made some major dietary changes, cutting out pretty much all flour, dairy, and grains. I’m not saying that’s for everyone, but it was something I wanted to try and when I did, I felt liberated. Okay, to be totally honest, the sense of liberation came after six weeks of whiteknuckle suffering. I won’t lie to you about that. Anyone who doubts the addictive properties of certain foods need only try to kick the habit to realize how real that is. Ditching flour was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the single most important. Don’t worry, I’ll detail just how I did it in the rest of the book.
With all of the nutritional changes, though, my life was suddenly much more complicated. I had a very restrictive diet, on top of working out six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Remember, I’m not some independently wealthy socialite with a chef and a trainer. I’m a working mom with a very demanding career. For me to make everything work, I had to have a plan. Every single day. So that’s exactly what I did. I started planning. Each and every single day I’d ask myself two questions: What am I going to eat? When am I going to exercise? Every Sunday I’d go online and order my groceries for the week (I’m a New Yorker, that’s normal here).
I’d plan my workout schedule for the week and sign up for classes days in advance. Every night I’d look in the fridge and mentally plan out what I would eat the following day, as well as when I’d cook it. I’d pack my exercise clothes for the next day, and often my work clothes, too, including my entire makeup kit, several brushes, combs, and a flatiron. When you work in television, there’s no such thing as rolling into work. You must be camera-ready from the moment you hit the door. That meant packing a lot of stuff for the gym. Then there was laundry.
I waswashing sweaty sports bras and running tights and socks around the clock. This probably sounds like a lot of work. The bad news is that yes, it absolutely is a ton of work. The good news? It’s become completely routine. While it took some thought and effort initially, now I don’t even think about it. Packing my gym bag is a ritual, like brushing my teeth. Figuring out what I’m going to eat involves a ten-second scan of the refrigerator, and sometimes a pop into the freezer to pull something out for defrosting. Like I said, momentum works both ways.
But I learned that when I didn’t have a plan, everything would fall apart. I’d end up with a fried chicken wing in one hand and a powdered doughnut in the other, watching Oprah’s Next Chapter on the couch after having skipped my SoulCycle class, thinking, “Wait a minute, how did this happen?!” Epiphany number three: Planning is key. The last piece of the equation is my favorite. In doing my research on fitness and nutrition, I kept coming across guidance on the importance of sleep.
I continued to discount it, because it’s something we all hear all the time, and who doesn’t want more sleep? It’s not like anyone says, “I’d really like to be exhausted all the time.” But we do the best we can, right? Yet again, and again, fitness experts all said the same thing. Adequate sleep is crucial. So I decided to give it a shot and sleep as much as possible, guilt-free. When my daughter napped, I’d nap, dirty dishes be damned. If I had to be up for work insanely early (which in the television world is really, truly insanely early),
I’d go to bed insanely early the night before, which in the summer often meant turning in while it was still daylight. I’d even duck out of social engagements so I could go home and sleep. Yes, I became that girl, even though I’d always been the one to shut down the joint. I’ve never met a party I didn’t like! But I made rest a priority.
So how did it work out? Wow! Those fitness folks are really onto something. I noticed a difference immediately. I mean, it was instant. Besides all the science-y stuff your body does when you sleep, like rebuild and repair muscles (blah, blah, blah), the benefits were much simpler than that. When I was well rested, my workouts were better. I had tons more energy. I made better food choices. I had fewer cravings for carb and sugar-heavy foods.
Most important, I was better able to cope with all of life’s stresses, which would normally send me to the nearest pizza joint. Anxiety, irritation, long hours, someone’s dumb remarks, none of that bothered me nearly as much. The best part? When something did really bother me, I’d handle it by going to sleep! What’s better than that?! I knew that a nap would make me feel better. At this point you probably think I’m a nut; the idea of napping during the day is crazy. Normal people don’t have time to nap on a regular basis. I get it. Most days I couldn’t, either.
I’d do my best to soldier through until I could get to the nearest bed and collapse into it. But I knew that if I could just make it to bedtime, everything would be okay, and just knowing that sleep was the solution to whatever problem I was facing was a huge plus. In the past, I’d almost always turned to food for whatever was bothering me, often because I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Now I know exactly what it is. Most of the time, I’m simply tired. I began having the kind of internal conversations with myself that one would have with a child. “I know you’re cranky. It’s time for your nap.
Are you ready for your nap?” Believe it or not, that self-talk really worked, precisely because I was tired. I was speaking to my true needs. The other thing I realized about sleep is that when you look for the time and really make it a priority, you’ll find it. It’s amazing how much more time is in the day when you turn off the TV, log off Facebook, put off chores for another day, and go to sleep. A lot of us live by the “I’llsleep when I’m dead” mentality. We consider it a virtue to slog through the day with a minimal amount of rest, as though life is some test of exhaustion endurance.
Many of us also feel guilty about sleeping too much, equating it with laziness. But that makes no more sense than thinking of breathing too much as being greedy. There’s no such thing as breathing too much. You take what you need. Sleep should be no different. Epiphany number four: Sleep is a necessity, not an indulgence. So that, my friends, is how I stumbled upon what I now affectionately refer to as “the formula,” knowledge that led to my losing ninety pounds, dropping six dress sizes, and being able to lift something heavier than a can of soup while working out.
I never planned on changing my whole lifestyle, and even if I had, I certainly would have gone about it a different way. As I’ve mentioned, I’d spent years working hard to lose weight, but not being smart. I wanted to do the right thing but I didn’t know how. I was putting my efforts into the wrong things, often giving 50 percent to food, 50 percent to exercise (and not doing either very well, incidentally), and 0 percent to planning or sleep. But now, armed with the right numbers, I was ready to change my lifestyle in ways I’d never dreamed possible, all thanks to the formula.
Mara’s Magic Formula
+ 70% Food
+ 10% Exercise
+ 10% Planning
+ 10% Sleep
100% Weight Loss and Fabulosity
I’m not anti-exercise at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. No one believes more strongly in the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits of a good workout than me. Plus, you’ll never get those Michelle Obama arms without some time in the gym. But I think exercise needs to be put in the proper perspective, and most of us don’t do that. We hear that for sustained weight loss, we should focus on diet and exercise, so we equalize them. But it’s not DIET & EXERCISE; it’s more like DIET & EXERCISE. Food is by far the bigger factor. So, let’s start there.
More about how to lose 90 pounds - my plan for continuing weight loss and self acceptance
Chapter 2: Memory Lane
Chapter 3: It’s All About the Food
Chapter 4: Eat Outside the Box
Chapter 5: Food Addiction
Chapter 6: Sleep
Chapter 7: Fitness
Chapter 8: Planning
Chapter 9: Feeding the Spirit
Chapter 10: Overcoming a Stall
Chapter 11: For My Sistas
Chapter 12: Parting Wisdom