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“They were so unbelievable when I look back at them now,” says McPhail, 31, an operating room nurse from Arizona. “I would easily consume thousands of calories in a sitting by having a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips. I always ‘knew’ those were foods that should be eaten in moderation. I would talk to patients about heart-healthy diets after they had heart attacks. I just didn’t follow my own advice.”
McPhail didn’t have a dramatic wake-up-call moment that jumpstarted her weight loss. Growing up, she was always the tallest and the heaviest in school and in her family (as an adult, she stands 6'1"). And her family was very active—they would spend weekends skiing, hiking, and exploring.
In early 2010, something just clicked. McPhail knew she needed to make a change. But she had seen coworkers go on formal diet programs, then regain the weight. She didn’t want to make that same mistake. “I knew that if I was going to be successful, then I needed to make some permanent changes,” she says. “I didn’t gain the weight overnight and knew that a cleanse or short-term ‘fix’ wasn’t going to be the answer. I needed something that I could stick to forever.”
So she started making a series of small but permanent changes. She started reading food labels, paying attention to serving sizes, and eating smaller servings at meals. She focused on eating whole foods; snacking on dried fruit, small packs of nuts, and air-popped popcorn; and stocking the fridge with fruits and vegetables.
She cleared her kitchen of junk and processed foods. “I knew that if I was going to give this a try, having the cookies, chips, etc., around wasn’t going to help,” she says. “I knew it would be too easy to eat six cookies instead of one or two.”
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As a nurse, she understood food nutrients, and she knew what a balanced diet looked like. She experimented a lot and found healthier items that packed a lot of flavor into foods so she wouldn’t miss her old meals. She made sure to consume each food group at every meal. And one by one, she started swapping junk foods for high-quality ingredients, starting with whole-grain bread instead of white bagels. “I never decided to eat x amount of calories—I just started to make smarter food choices,” she says. “Instead of sleeves of cookies I would make some homemade healthy versions.” And she tried to shop smarter. At the supermarket, instead of buying granola bars with calorie counts rivaling candy bars, she bought the more natural and minimally processed versions. Instead of a big bag of trail mix, she bought the unsalted and raw version without the candy, then packaged it into small, single-serving bags. At the constant potlucks at work, she would partake but be selective about what she ate, or bring her own healthy dish that she knew she could eat. And eventually the siren song of the old treats just faded away.
“I didn’t look at good or bad foods, but really found that the old foods just didn’t appeal to me any longer,” she says. “I felt better and had more energy with them out of my diet.”
And starting to see the results she wanted on the scale motivated her to keep up the hard work. Of course, there were slip-ups early on. “I would revert back and go back to my old ways for a meal,” she says. “But I found my body felt terrible, bloated, and sluggish, and that was proof to me that I needed to focus on the changes I was making.”
Along the way, she started running. Though the first day she ran for just 15 seconds, eventually she was able to progress to a mile and started entering races to stay motivated to eat well and keep going to the gym. In February 2012, after having lost 150 pounds, she entered her first half-marathon.
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To be sure, the journey was much more emotional than she could have expected. There were the tears of joy she shed as she crossed the finish line of her first half-marathon; there was the deeper pain in seeing, as her body changed, how people treat overweight and obese people. “It makes me sad to acknowledge the differences,” she says. “I am treated a lot differently by strangers now than when I was at my heaviest and at times throughout the transformation. I am offered help in stores, and people interact with me . . . something that was a rare occurrence before. I realize that part of it may be due to me being more outgoing, but it is definitely something I have noticed.”
Even now, she is amazed by how different her life is from the way it used to be.
“I have so much more energy both physically and mentally than I did before,” she says. “My self-confidence has grown tremendously. Many day-to-day things were so difficult when I was heavier compared to now. I remember wondering and worrying if I would fit in chairs or airplane seats or if seat belts would fit. Now every time I fly and just sit with ease and buckle up with many inches to spare on the belt, it is a reminder of how far I have come. Sitting in theaters or stadiums comfortably may seem insignificant, but having these reminders of the progress I made is very motivating.
“When I look back at pictures of me in 2010, I find it hard to recognize that person,” she says. “I thought my life was complete, but I am so much happier than I was back then.”
Excerpted from Runner's World Run to Lose