by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
Yet, some do defy the odds.
Like Sandie Leonard, whose extraordinary journey I chronicled earlier this year. At that time, she and I had been working together for six months and she’d hit memorable milestones. Now, looking back over a full year, there are many new lessons to share and high points to reflect on at we celebrate this special anniversary. Perhaps there are some pearls of wisdom you can take to heart and apply to your own journey. Let’s first look at what a difference a year can make.
One year ago, as I began my work with Sandie, she:
- Weighed 344 pounds
- Was crippled with anxiety, panic attacks, worries, and ruminations about life’s stresses
- Was taking medications to treat her full-blown metabolic syndrome, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and elevated cholesterol
- Was dependent upon high doses of anti-anxiety medication
- Continuously ate sugary foods, day and night
- Was diagnosed with Stage 0 ductal carcinoma of the breast.
Flash-forward 12 months, and in that time Sandie:
- Removed 124 pounds, reaching a current weight of 220. Her next milestone is to shed another 21 pounds and transition out of the 200s, then continue to practice her healthy lifestyle habits as she improves her health and wellness
- Had worked hard with her psychologist and psychiatrist to learn more productive ways to reframe past traumas and cope with daily stress. Recently, both medical professionals graduated her from their practices, as she is now doing so well
- Was able to go off all medications for her medical problems; she is now noted to have normal cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugars
- Was able to discontinue her anxiety medications over the first three months of therapy
- Stopped consuming refined sugars and any processed food products
- Completed her full course of radiation therapy and was placed on a medication that caused her to enter menopause, all of which she endured without dietary relapse.
So, you may be asking, what has kept Sandie on her path, despite the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as the ongoing challenges of being a teacher, mother, spouse, and daughter? Why not keep caving to the cravings and self-soothing with food when anxiety hits?
The answers lie in her following these 8 critical pieces of advice:
1. Don’t go it alone. There are a variety of support systems that may be integral to your success. If you have medical and/or mental health issues, it’s important to assemble an “A team” of professionals who will support your therapy and recovery. Look to family and friends, too. They’re not there to police or monitor you. Instead, they can provide the love and support you need to stay on track. And don’t forget that pets are “family,” too.
You can connect online, as well. There are a host of great social media communities with sites and boards where you can find people who may share your common experience with a spectrum of issues, from anxiety to breast cancer.
Don’t forget: From Smiling Mind and iMood Journal to Happify, there’s an app for that. Apps may be helpful to remind you to stop and take a breath, check your mood, and keep you thinking more positively.
2. Be clear about your WHY. Neither Sandie’s journey nor yours is about a “diet.” Instead, Sandie realized that her self-destructive behaviors were deep-rooted and she needed to confront and do work to redefine the tough issues that were the fires that stoked her cravings. Dealing only with her diet was an exercise in futility. The WHY that has powered her through her journey centered on Sandie getting the help she needed to reframe her stresses and then learn more productive coping behaviors. Accomplishing this made it easier to manage her food choices and lifestyle behaviors.
3. Write it down. This is a powerful centering activity that keeps you accountable to yourself. Every single day, Sandie has written a brief note describing highlights of her day, what she’s eaten, her physical activity, and her blood sugar levels.
4. Find a mindful path. Sandie happens to be a devout Christian. Her faith is another centering tool because it involves both external (church and its members) and internal (prayer, inward reflection) elements. You don’t need an organized religion, but you do need to have some regular practice of inner reflection. This could be prayer and/or meditation. It’s an effective way of self-calming, and it lays down the foundation for being present, staying vigilant, paying attention, and practicing a mindful lifestyle.
5. Problem-solve instead of self-soothe. Prior to our work together, if a challenge came her way, Sandie’s anxieties would kick into high gear and she’d knee-jerk into a pack of Little Debbie’s. Flash-forward to now, and when an onslaught of stress occurs, Sandie takes a breath and focuses on solutions. Observing her over the past year, I’ve noted that Sandie has transformed problem solving into a concerted and often fun personal challenge. It’s as though she’s showing herself that she’s smart enough to figure out whatever puzzle is presented. Self-soothing has become a moot point.
6. Cook and enjoy whole foods. Sandie has been a vegetarian most of her life and, luckily, likes to cook. Using the recipes and menu selections in The Hunger Fix, she expanded her food plan options to include a wide range of whole foods for meals and snacks. She was surprised to find that stomping out cravings and feeling satisfied were easier than she had anticipated.
Every now and again, Sandie would feel a craving for a fast food from her past. She seemed mystified and concerned until we dug deeper to find that indeed, the craving was the result of an anxiety that was bothering her. Once she confronted the stress and thought it through, the anxiety began to dissipate, along with her craving. Making that anxiety-craving connection was key to Sandie’s staying the course.
7. Moving is soothing. Never having been athletic or active, getting up and moving her body was foreign to Sandie at first. Over time, she began to realize that she felt more energized and mentally calm after her walks. Zumba was her next discovery—she gleefully enjoyed every salsa. Once she’d lost 100 pounds, Sandie teamed with a trainer who introduced her to strength training and cross training. This helped her realize a dream, walking her first 5K—a huge achievement. Now, as Sandie would say, staying physically active is like breathing. It’s become a piece of her.
8. See one…do one…teach one. As a schoolteacher, Sandie mentors her students in healthy nutrition and physical activity. She has become an inspiration to others in her community, and was the focus of a featured story in her hometown newspaper. This school semester, she’s mentoring Kelly, a young teacher who wants to adopt a healthier lifestyle and get into better shape for her upcoming nuptials. The two have teamed together for a royal win-win: Sandie stays on track to be a great mentor, and Kelly can learn from an “expert” who is walking the talk.
Let’s be clear: Sandie’s journey has not been easy. If you want to succeed at improving any part of your health and wellness, you have to be willing to do the work. But here’s a little secret: The stronger your baseline determination and the more powerful the inspiration that fuels your new lifestyle behaviors, the less work you’ll feel like you’re doing. One more golden nugget: There is no destination. Instead, it’s a marvelous journey chock-full of countless challenges, adventures, and milestones.
So, from Sandie to you, enjoy the ride!
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, fellow of the American College of Physicians, and an expert in integrative and preventive medicine. A Senior Olympic triathlete, Dr. Peeke is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” and is a medical expert and commentator for the national news networks. Dr. Peeke is the best-selling author of many books, including Fight Fat after Forty and Body-for-Life for Women. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.