Anxiety and feelings of inadequacy brought on by an invitation to her 20th high school reunion spurred Liz Ash, a 40-year-old attorney from Illinois, to make permanent changes in her life.  

By Krystal Hagan

What made you decide to finally commit to losing the weight for good?

In the fall of 2015, the inevitable “save the date!” notice popped up for my 20th high school reunion. As I scrolled through the list of names on Facebook—people I hadn’t seen or thought much about for a couple of decades—I remember feeling a hot wave of anxiety rising through my chest. I started to question whether I would even go to the reunion. After all these years, I was surprised to find that I still had these feelings of inadequacy. By all other objective measures, I shouldn’t have felt that way. In the years since high school, I’ve graduated college with honors and made Law Review at a Top 10 law school. I’ve been married for a decade to a wonderful man. I’ve been practicing law in Chicago for more than a decade. But as I saw all those familiar names from the past, it all felt as if none of my achievements would be noticed or acknowledged because, despite everything I’d done to become the woman I am, I was afraid all anyone would see was fat. Because I felt like that’s all anyone had ever seen. 

I chewed on this notion for a few weeks as I toyed whether to RSVP in the affirmative. I ultimately decided that my insecurity over the whole thing was less about THEM and more about ME, and it wasn’t in my nature to back down or slink away in shame and hide.

That’s the day I started my weight-loss journey. The day I realized I was all out of excuses–the day I decided that the better course than not showing up to the reunion would be to change what I felt was still holding me back after all those years.

How much weight have you lost and how did you do it? When did you start?

January 21, 2016, is the day I got honest with myself about what it was going to take to make this change. I weighed myself for the first time in several years, wrote down a weight-loss goal (50 pounds by the end of July), and created a calendar to track my progress. I signed up for Lose It!, which my mother-in-law had used to lose about 50 pounds. I set an expectation to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least four days per week and to limit myself to two meals out per week. Once I had the goal and process written out, I went for a walk—two laps around my building at work, or about a mile.

Over time, I adjusted my ultimate weight-loss goal. I reached my first goal of losing 50 pounds a little later than I had hoped, but I got there. And while part of me wanted to stop, I decided to keep going, so I set another goal to get to 80 pounds down. Once I got there in March 2017, I decided that the best thing for my overall health would be to go for 20 pounds more—100 lbs down had a nice ring to it. I hit that goal on February 1, 2018.

What is your goal weight? Have you reached it? If so, how long did it take you?

For the time being, my “goal weight” is around 155 pounds. I’ve been at that point, give or take a couple of pounds, for over a year now. I may adjust that goal weight going forward because I want to tie my goals more to how I feel about myself than a strict number on a scale. And if I hit some sort of health issue in the future, I may have to drop more weight to maintain good health.  I don’t want to get pulled into the trap of, “well, my weight hasn’t changed, so everything must be okay.”

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What other diets/routines have you tried in the past?

My husband and I had tried premade food programs in the past—Seattle Sutton for a few months leading up to our wedding, and more recently, we had NutriSystem for a few years on and off. We both lost a little weight, but we were never really invested. We would still let loose on the weekends, while traveling or when I was working late and under stress, etc. Truthfully, we were using those plans as a quick fix, and because of that, we never learned anything from them. The phrase “lifestyle change” may be a cliché, but it’s nonetheless an accurate description of what it takes.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Maintenance. Losing weight was the fun part. I’d wake up on my weigh-in days and darn near leap onto the scale excited to see more progress, even if it was only a pound. While I was losing weight, every day felt like a new adventure and a new “first”—the first time I exercised in public without feeling judged, the day I purged my closet of anything with an “X” on the tag (I’d been wearing at least an XL T-shirt since high school), the first time I went for a run.  

But now those adventures are just business as usual. I still do a weekly weigh-in, but now I just hope to see the same number, instead of an increase. I fear getting restless will mean reverting to old habits, so every day is a constant reminder to keep on track and not let myself off the hook.

Who/what inspires you to keep going?

I’ve struggled with motivation, especially now that I’m in “maintenance mode.” I sometimes use upcoming events as motivation to stay on track, but I’m constantly working to find motivation within me that’s not reliant on some kind of external source. I think the key to long-term success in weight loss is to internalize the “why” and keep on track for my own sake and not for anybody else’s. For that reason, I’ve started writing about my experience in hopes that by sharing some of the things I’ve learned, the challenges I’ve faced, and the surprises that I’ve experienced throughout this journey, other people can learn from them too. I started a blog to document my musings about my new life and reconcile aspects of the old, called Lawyer at Lunch.  And I started an Instagram account called Lightened-Up Recipes where I can share the healthy meals I've learned to cook and love. I figure if I’m as honest and authentic as I can possibly be about my journey, it will help keep me accountable over the long term.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m an attorney, so my days are long, stressful and generally spent sitting at my desk behind a computer or on the phone. It can be hard to remember to move around, and stress is a major trigger for me to want to ditch healthy habits in favor of mindless eating and self-soothing. Finding a few minutes to take a brisk walk and making sure that I plan meals on the weekends, so I can avoid making impulsive decisions, are critical to making sure I’m continuously setting myself up for success.

I start most mornings with Greek yogurt and coffee. Lunch is usually either leftovers from dinner the night before or a prepared salad kit. I plan dinners for the week the weekend before and I like to try new recipes. Dinner is usually heavy on lean protein (ground chicken, turkey, sometimes pork) and vegetables. Cauliflower rice, spaghetti squash and portobello mushroom caps are my favorite vehicles for replacing high-carb foods with fiber-rich alternatives that are still delicious and filling. 

Typical healthy meal:

I love to cook; I just had to train myself how to do it better. I posted a picture on Facebook of a weeknight dinner I made in 2014, and when it popped up in my memories, I remember thinking, “no wonder I had 100 pounds to lose!” I had made three slices of battered and fried zucchini parmesan, topped with tomato sauce and cheese. I served the slices over about two cups of calorie-dense penne pasta with a side of butter sweet corn. I look at that picture now, and I know thanks to Lose It!, that meal was probably more than 1,800 calories.

For me, modifying my diet has never been about “portion control,” at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s been about making better choices about ingredients and proportions, so that I can still eat real food and feel full at a fraction of the calorie load. If I were to redo that zucchini parmesan today, I’d coat the slices with bread crumbs and bake them in a high-heat oven to get them crispy. I’d serve them over a big bowl of roasted spaghetti squash with low-sodium marinara and reduced-fat mozzarella, omitting the side of corn. My 2019 version would come in somewhere around 450 calories instead of the 1,800-calorie bomb from 2014—not to mention that it would be delicious and filling!

Go-to snacks:

People who can live in a house with an opened bag of Doritos and not eat the whole thing in one sitting are a special kind of evil, so I’m a big fan of single-serving snacks that I can grab without being tempted to overindulge. Roasted chickpeas, turkey jerky and granola bites are common for me to keep on-hand, especially when I’m traveling for work and healthy options can be hard to find. I always try to have fresh fruit of some kind in the house like apples, pineapple chunks or oranges. Frozen Greek yogurt bars are also great to satisfy a sweet tooth for around 100 calories.

Cheat meals/cheat snacks:

I never view eating something I like as “cheating.” Every decision I make about food is a purposeful evaluation of whether the thing I want to eat is worth the calories. That’s why Lose It! has been such a great tool for me—it’s taught me how to view calories in the context of my overall day and judge accordingly. That, in turn, has empowered me to make meaningful, mindful decisions about what I eat. As a result, I never tell myself that I can’t have certain things because I’m on a “diet.” Usually, the ice cream, pizza or French fries aren’t worth the calories, but sometimes they are. I try to keep that ratio at about 90:10. 

“Go-to” tool:

I still use the Lose It! app to track food and exercise every day. It keeps me accountable to myself and the process that changed my life.

Do you find yourself focusing more on diet or exercise? Or do you try to find a balance?

Modifying my diet has been at least 85% of my success story. I don’t have the time to spend hours and hours every day at the gym. A normal 30 to 45 minutes workout for me will burn anywhere from 200 to 400 calories, so that would never be enough to offset a bad diet.  That said, exercise is still a critical element for my overall fitness. Building lean muscle mass helps increase metabolism, and I like having the ability to do lots of different physical activities that I never imagined I’d be able to do.

What is your favorite way to work out? How do you motivate yourself on the days you don’t want to exercise?

Variety is the key to keeping me interested in exercise. If I try to stick to a “routine,” I’ll just get bored and not want to do it. My favorite exercise is swimming, which, in the upper Midwest, is strictly a summertime activity. Otherwise, I mix things up with walking, running, elliptical, yoga, step aerobics, HIIT and kettlebells. I find it hard to schedule work and life around fitness classes, so I find videos on YouTube that I can try in my home gym.

How has your weight-loss journey affected your family?

My weight-loss has affected everything about my life, including my family, because it’s changed me. I’m now free of a lot of baggage that I carried for a long, long time—and I didn’t even realize I was carrying it until it was gone. Because I was bullied as an overweight kid, I learned how to convert hurt into fuel to achieve. Because I’ve felt ignored, judged and rejected throughout my life, I learned to laugh easily and to win people over by being funny. I learned to speak clearly and decisively in order to demonstrate my competence so there would be no presumption to the contrary based on my appearance. But I’ve also realized just how effectively I learned how to seek out and surround myself with good people who accept me for me.

It’s both a little distressing and deeply humbling to realize that so many things about myself that I’m really proud of, that have enabled me to build a life that I love, sprouted in some pretty dark places. But because I’ve never known anything other than being overweight, it never occurred to me that I’d have to spend so much time figuring out who I am without it.

What advice do you have for others, especially other women, who are struggling with weight loss?

The key is to trust the process for as long as it’s working and make adjustments where the process is no longer yielding results. To do that, you’ve got to educate yourself about food and empower yourself to make good, mindful decisions about what you’re putting into your body.   

Sustained weight loss takes time, patience and consistency. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to your goal as long as your process is sustainable over the long run. It took me two years to lose 100 pounds. I probably could have lost it more quickly if I’d done something more dramatic, but I wouldn’t have learned as much, and I don’t think it would’ve been sustainable.   

The biggest challenges you’ll face will be in your own head, whether those challenges are complacency, stress-eating, fear of failure or any other mental roadblock standing between you and your best life.  

The truth is that weight is way more than just a number on a scale. There are physical, emotional, psychological and behavioral byproducts of being overweight that you have to sort out once the number on the scale tells you that’s not who you are anymore. For that reason, losing the weight—physically and metaphorically—is not a battle from which one can just declare victory and walk away. It’s an existential change; a renaissance, of sorts, that requires a lot of time, reflection, retraining and reprocessing. I think most people aren’t prepared for that aspect of the journey, but refusing to acknowledge or deal with those things is a path to failure.

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