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Ursula K. Le Guin on Growing Old

The 21st Meal Weight Loss Plan

On Friday, in a couple of comments and even more emails, readers asked how I lost 40-odd pounds, what my weight loss plan was.

It's been more than five years since I wrote about that so maybe it's time for an update and/or additional information.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: But before I go one word farther, this must be said: what I will tell you today is one woman's successful effort to lose 25 percent of her body weight. Although it is based on well-known, widely-accepted fact within the nutrition, diet and medical professions, it is not a prescription for everyone.

How our individual bodies function differs. In addition, at our ages in particular, conditions, diseases and medications can have an effect along with food allergies and other considerations. So read this only as something that worked for one person; maybe there is a tip or two that might help you and always consult your physician before embarking on a major change in diet.

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The only way to lose weight is to eat fewer calories than your body uses. Period.

The best short(-ish) overview I've ever read about research into calorie restriction versus exercise for weight loss was published last June at Vox. The conclusion:

”...people who have had success losing weight share a few things in common: They weigh themselves at least once a week. They restrict their calorie intake, stay away from high-fat foods, and watch their portion sizes. They also exercise regularly.

“But note: These folks use physical activity in addition to calorie counting and other behavioral changes. Every reliable expert I've ever spoken to on weight loss says the most important thing a person can do is to limit calories in a way they like and can sustain, and focus on eating healthfully.”

I developed a 45-minute home exercise routine that I followed during the year of weight loss and have continued since then. I don't think it helped in taking off the pounds but it did, and does, help my overall health and strength.

FYI: There are about 3500 calories in a pound of fat so you need to burn 3500 calories to lose one pound.

An average woman needs to eat about 2000 calories per day to maintain, and 1500 calories to lose one pound of weight per week. An average man needs 2500 calories to maintain, and 2000 to lose one pound of weight per week.

Obviously this formula varies from person to person but it is equally obvious that you cannot, as some TV commercials promise, lose 10 or more pounds a week. Well, not without starving yourself.

There is no way to know how many times I lost the same, recurring 10 pounds over my adult life. This time I wanted to end that cycle so I spent a great deal of time planning a weight loss campaign that I could easily continue as a maintenance program. I came up with these four simple rules for myself:

⚫ It doesn't matter how long it takes to lose the 40-odd pounds just so long as the weight is declining week to week.

⚫ Weigh yourself every morning at the same time and keep a chart. Inevitably, weight will fluctuate up and down. That's normal as long as the overall trend is downward.

⚫ Keep a close watch on portion control; don't let it creep up.

⚫ Make sure every meal is wholesome, healthy, and never snack. (I found that if I was feeling hungry between meals, a short walk – as little as 15 minutes – could take care of that.)

At first I used the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid to balance the foods I ate:


But that graphic is way too complicated and apparently Harvard thought so too because they soon issued their Healthy Eating Plate. This is simple and easy to use:


BREAKFAST: I tried smoothies for awhile but I don't really like them. I do like oatmeal and that became my go-to morning meal: Stone-ground oatmeal with several fruits (bananas, peaches, berries, etc.) and home-made apple sauce (apples, water, lemon rind – nothing else) stirred into the oatmeal.

LUNCH AND DINNER: Three or four times a week, one of these meals was steamed or broiled fish with a pile of veggies over brown rice or whole wheat noodles, for example. Other times I substituted part of a chicken breast for the fish which I had poached in broth, garlic, white wine and honey.

Because a serving of commercial soups contains almost a day's supply of sodium, I kept a freezer full of home made pea soup, vegetable soup, chowder, etc. for filling meals especially on chilly days.

And then there is Gorilla Salad, named (and as far as I know invented) by my friend Joyce Wadler (who writes a terrific humor column at The New York Times).

It is huge - 10 or 15 different cut-up veggies, pre-cooked - usually roasted - when necessary, maybe some fruit like grapes or melon or some left over chicken breast all held together with homemade dressing.

Always homemade dressing. Commercial salad dressings can be gigantic calorie hogs and the low- and no-fat varieties have an awful, chemical taste. But if you make your own, you can control that. Use good oil, olive or canola, and you can vary the acid – balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, even Japanese mirin work plus any flavorings you prefer.

Keep the dressing portion small. A tablespoon of dressing is about 100 calories. You can use small amounts of dressing if you toss a salad for a long time.

I came up with only one trick that was useful to keep me on target. I happen to like vegetables as lot, and fruit and fish so this was a reasonable diet for me but I still wanted to stave off cravings that could derail my weight loss.

So I invented The 21st Meal Diet.

It goes like this: there are 21 meals in a week. It cannot possibly hurt the weight loss program if one meal is devoted to something you like but isn't on the agenda – in my case, usually ice cream or cheeses. So for one meal a week, I gave myself a favorite but disallowed food.

Sometimes it was two or three or even four reasonably-sized wedges of excellent cheeses I had bought especially for the meal. Other times it was ice cream. You do know, I assume, that whatever anyone tells you otherwise, a serving of ice cream is a pint. Right?

Even so, for the 20 other meals, portion size is an important issue. The experts tend to describe one portion as the size of a tennis ball, a small fist, a deck of cards, a bar of soap. All those are about right for one serving. Here's a page that might help further.

Weight loss is a giant topic online; type that phrase into Google and you'll get a quarter of a billion (with a B) returns. A lot of it is junk. Some of it is not.

Here are two website I think are useful: The USDA Food Tracker and the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. Both are packed with honest, straightforward, proven eating and weight loss information.

Looking back now after keeping off the weight I lost for five years, I think the two most useful pieces of advice to myself were these:

Don't rush it. It doesn't matter how long it takes to lose the weight as long as it is regular and steady.

The 21st meal. That became the big treat I looked forward to each week and helped keep me going.

(NOTE: We're all eager to hear your experience along with any tips that have kept you on pace to reach your weight loss goals in a healthy manner. Just remember, no medical advice and no recommendations of herbs, oils and magic potions "guaranteed" to take off excess weight.)


Thank you sharing your weight management plan, Ronni. Now that I see it all here, I do recall you having shared this before, or at least most of it. This seems a bit more extensive, especially with the links.

A few years ago I shared office space with a nutritionist. A few months ago our paths crossed again, after about five years. In her 60's now, she looks much healthier and more fit than when I saw her last. She attributes it to the Gorilla salad diet, too. I'm going to try to implement this plan, too, though it's a little more challenging with my insulin dependent husband. He has never been a salad enthusiast, and keeping his carbs and insulin delivery in balance for the past 30+ years has often been tough. You, and my former co-worker have inspired me, and I am hopeful that at some point in the not-too-distant future, I can report similar success in my household!

Excellent blog on weight loss. I will have to share this.

Ronni, I lost 40 lbs over several years starting being told I was pre-diabetic and already having the diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. I had a time of loss of appetite off an on, then with the thought of not staving off full-blown diabetes which runs in my family, I cut out all sweets, began to be aware of what kind of balance my meals had--needed to include enough protein.

My go-to breakfast is thick cut oatmeal (bought in bulk) with walnuts and blueberries, sometimes a half peach--I have used artificial sweetner for years.

I upped my coffee intake (I use a instant and never add anything--it is most likely too mild for the coffee crazed.)

Like you I have my times of wanting "something" and the want for sweets comes on strong sometimes--then at other times I can't abide the thought of something sweet. I drink a glass of water when I think "I want something" as a snack. AND, I keep steamed broccoli sprigs in my fridge--which are a snack I can grab and which are very healthy for the digestive system.

I eat sardines, and I have found canned solid yellowfin tuna in extra virgin olive oil is edible--I mix a can with a small can of mandarin orange segments (minus the light syrup) and broccoli sprigs.---Surprisingly good mix.

My go to meal when eating out is salmon--once a week or more.

Like you, I splurge on something, now and then---and am right now having to curb the urge to get a Tres Leche cake from my local grocery bakery. If it is in the house, I can't resist it and I can't eat just one small piece (it is a one layer cake).

I have another Endocrinology visit coming up —will the fear of reality keep me from the unnecessary sugar? (I have 2 aunts who lost legs and one died on the operating table---sugar can be deadly in persons with low or poor insulin production.)

I have never had a weight problem and eat like you do.
Morning after 25 minutes of stretches on the mat (and I have severe arthritis)is whole milk yogurt with 1/2 banana, couple of slices of peaches and sometimes some blueberries, small glass of Kefir, 2 cups of green tea with small piece of my homemade pumpkin or blueberry bread, Alternate with oats and scrambled egg and turkey sausage,
I snack on cut up grapes and apples, love Mango's when available
Next meal about 2:00
salmon with mixed cut up veggies or veggie burger (with cheese, greens and slice of tomato if on hand) My fresh tea and slice of homemade bread
sometime grilled cheese sandwich with greens
I do drink 2 Ensures a day, at night I watch the weather and read and have small piece of dark chocolate
I try and walk all I can even if I have to use the walker.
Always weighted about 115 but now trying to move past 108.
I am much older then probably all of you
today 83.....

Being a vegetarian brings another twist into the diet plans, especially with regard to iron and protein, - those crucial nutrients our body needs. Those two are available via vegetation sources, however they aren't the same make-up as they are from meats. The plus side is that you must eat a massive amount of dark greens to get enough iron. I'm talking handfuls for every meal. And this helps with filling up.

It took me some time to adhere to a diet and deny what my body wanted, like the snacks, sauces, breads and sweets. It took a form of mentally leaving behind a lifetime of luscious, rich foods and adopting the unknown. It was tough at first since the rewards are waaaaay ahead of the beginning.

And then you begin to notice.

The use of the 21st meal really helps, especially in the beginning.

Also, set aside time the same day every week to prep fruits and vegetables for the week. I also freeze grapes, blueberries, etc. for winter breakfast use. Ease of ready-to-use without adding more clean-up every day helps me choose healthier snacks.

I also snack on hummus with greens and vegetables in place of chips or bread and often add some oil, balsamic vinegar, touch of chutney for flavor. Roasting squash til carmalized, along with garlic cloves and eating both with Greek yogurt is another good make-ahead( 4 squashes/ea week).

Eliminating all snacks from the house, and drinking lots of water always help.

And then there's stress to deal with, to which exercising helps a great deal.

Great advice Ronni. It took me a while to catch the illogic in the term 'go on a diet'.
If one goes on a diet, it presupposes 'going off the diet' once the desired weight loss is reached. Soon the weight comes back. One has to do what you did, change your way of eating permanently. Easy to say, hard to do.

My personal problem is bread, I love it. If I don't have some with a meal, I might have some for dessert. So I keep Thomas' thin bagels or Trader Joe's slim buns on hand to make sandwiches. You get a top and bottom that's only one slice of bread thick. I do slip. I live near a terrific bakery and drop in occasionally. I seldom buy prepared foods, too salty for my tastes and reading the list of ingredients on the packages is a turn off.

I also weigh everyday and use the tape measure on my waist. But I have a ways to go to
be as diligent in good habits as you are.

Excellent and very timely for me. I too have kept my weight in check for a few years by finding foods I like that are healthy and a regular exercise routine. Staying strong as we age is vital to independence. I changed a medication recently and gained a couple of pounds so it is time for an adjustment to diet lest two pounds turns into five. Thanks!

Sugar, white starchy foods (rice, potatoes, flour), and full fat dairy will always send my weight up. A serving of rice (white or brown) will add a pound, white potatoes will do the same. And we cannot even discuss my big addiction, pasta. Whole grain bread in small quantities is ok. After losing 35 pounds for the 4th time at 65 I realized that even eating a little sugar and white starchy foods sets off my cravings. Then the weight creep starts.

My daily meals are really healthy and my weight is usually with in a 3 pound range. The problem is vacations, eating out with friends, and holidays. It is so easy to start off with one cookie,or a small taste of a high fat casserole, or a small portion of a special pasta dish. I find myself craving more, giving in and then the weight goes up. After I turned 60 it is hard to get off the extra weight.

I limit the places I eat out, limit my choices at events and try to find grocery stores and farmers markets when I travel. I really hate giving up the foods I love but at 70 being healthy is more important.

Regular moderate exercise does not keep the weight off but it does help eliminate the cravings.

Thank you so much, Ronni, for this post...so much useful info.

Years ago, when inquiring with a health professional about jogging, he said moving X pounds of weight over Y distance will burn the same number of calories...if you run or walk. I believe it, but do not personally know the science.

I really needed this post today, so thank you. I find that I do better if I commit to a routine of eating the same thing every day, at least for breakfast and lunch. Anyway, I'm feeling inspired by this post to try harder.

My story: Starting in 2012, I went from 274 lbs to under 15o. It took me a bit over two years. Then came the hard part -- keeping it off. I have for the most part succeeded: my weight now hovers in the 160-165 range, which, considering that I am still carrying around most of those extra fat cells, just empty instead of full... and that I have a strong tendency to retain fluids... and that I've recently had other health issues that made it hard to exercise.. and that I am now on prednisone which is known to trigger weight gain... is not too bad.

I'd say the most important thing I did was to do some serious introspection about what motivates me and what doesn't.

For me, guilt is counter-productive. Nothing but a recipe for disaster. So I decided that no food would be forbidden. I would give myself permission to eat anything I wanted. The only rule was, I had to THINK about it beforehand. I had to be aware. It had to be a conscious choice, every time, between this food and... that other one which I also liked, which was going to be better for me.

Ensuring that I did think, that I didn't just eat on impulse, was a solvable problem. One thing that helped was accountability. Like you, Ronni, I weighed myself every morning and recorded the number in a spreadsheet. While I was losing the weight initially, I also made myself record everything I ate, the quantity, and the number of calories. Accuracy was not the point; an estimate would do fine. The point was awareness. Knowing that I would have to enter it made me ask myself, "Do I really want to put that into my log and read it tomorrow?" If the answer was yes, that was all right, I was allowed... but often the answer was no.

After I reached my goal, I thought, "Well, but I don't want to do this food-logging for the rest of my life. Let me see if I can manage with just the morning weigh-in as feedback." For the most part, I did. Then came predisone, and I was damned if I was going to let that drug undo all my hard work! So I've gone back to complete logging.

I lost 106 pounds as of a few years back. I did it over several years and found a simple thing like changing diets kept it fresh for me. I used healthy diets, but with different recipes and combinations from each other. One focused on varying color of foods for meals and another with good nutrition spelled out with wonderful recipes to follow for three different steps and more.
I now have MDS cancer and a failing transplanted kidney so at times my goal now is to try and hold on to or put on weight. It's a very different thing than when I worked so hard to get my weight off. LOL

I unfortunately was a chubby child with a mother who owned a restaurant and who believed food couldn't be bad for you and more was better. I went on my first diet when I was in 7th grade. Dieting pretty much wrecked my body image, my self-esteem and my relationship to food. I quit dieting when I was 31. I quit weighing myself. I quit looking at foods as bad. My weight yo-yo'd because I'm an emotional eater. Since I retired, I exercise regularly and eat regularly. I eat whatever I want but I lost weight because I reduced sugar. Sugar is not good for me. I love exercising. It makes me feel great!

Let me add... A discovery I made later is that the number of calories is not really the whole story.

The problem is that a human body needs certain quantities of certain nutrients, and as I aged and began various medications, my ability to absorb some of those nutrients from food deteriorated. To control my weight, I was cutting back on the quantity of food I ate. My margin of error became much narrower.

I am learning that the body is an ecology. The first rule of ecology is: You can't change just one thing. Diet alters metabolism. Supplements affect how medications work. Symptoms of a deficiency are really hard to tell apart from the general process of aging. This is hard.

The takeaway, I suppose, is that I now have another measure for food besides taste and calories. I ask myself, what am I getting for those calories? Wow, this one is a real bargain! Oh, that one might taste good, but hey, honestly? it's a total waste of calories that I'd rather spend on something more valuable. Yeah, okay, this one time, it's a social occasion, I'll take a little bit and enjoy it a lot, but when I get to choose I'd rather pick something better.

...The key is that I am not choosing stuff that's good for me as an unpleasant duty. I'm doing it because I get a little positive kick of pleasure every time the calories I eat are a good bargain.

I put on weight during the menopause but now I'm back to the weight I was when I was 20. I haven't dieted as such but gradually changed my diet to more vegetables and smaller amounts of protein, cooked with olive oil or coconut oil. I eat lots of nuts and seeds and kefir/yoghurt. But I've cut out sugar, except occasionally as a "treat", although the more I cut it down the less I want to eat cake or biscuits because they're all too sweet. I mostly avoid wheat as it gives me indigestion. A mediterranean diet

A friend of mine went on a keto diet and lost a lot of weight (she was rather plump!) and has loads more energy. She has arthritis and it seems to have helped with that too. She is in much better health than she was so that could work well for some people.

Seems you're doing well Ronni, so congratulations - I'm sure your diet is helping you.

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