Weight Loss, Part 5: Discovering My Key

We are nearing the end of my Weight Loss series. If you haven’t already done so, may I suggest that you read this series in order, because today’s post will make a whole lot more sense in that context.


After completing my first Whole30 in February of 2014, I learned that I can, in fact, live without sugar.

The fact that Life without Sugar (capital L, capital S) was survivable came as somewhat of a shock to me.

And not just for all the emotional reasons that I loved sugar, but also because I had become wholly dependent on it – usually in the form of a fountain Coke – to get from 2 pm to 5 pm without falling into a bear-like slumber.

But I also learned, in the months that followed, that desire alone — to lose weight, to be “healthy” — is not enough. To “succeed”, I would need structure, reinforcements and distance – distance between me and the unhealthy habits that had worn a familiar groove in my mind.

I tried to stay away from sugar in those first few months after the Whole30, but I didn’t modify our structure enough to reinforce this change. Meaning, we still had mostly the same foods in our fridge and our pantry as before the Whole30.

Meaning, my family life was still busy and demanding and exhausting – and I didn’t have a plan in place for dealing with Life without Sugar.

Meaning, I hadn’t honestly accepted how much of a hold Sugar – and its best friend “simple carbs” – had on me.

Yes, I had learned that I could live without sugar (and bagels and pasta) in the short-term, but I hadn’t figured out how to integrate that change for the long-term.

All this was happening on the eve of our decision to move from Kansas City to Cleveland. Has anyone moved recently? It’s crazy stressful, right? Even when everything goes smoothly (which, for the record, it did not in our case).

While we were supposed to be packing up our house, my father in law, already not a well man, was hospitalized. It was clear that his prognosis was not good, so my husband traveled to New Jersey to be with him. I spent the last two weeks of July packing up my house, texting my husband for updates on his dad, and gorging on French fries and gummy candies.

Life without Sugar? Sure, but only when this “crisis” is over, I told myself. I need this now.

I think the adrenaline of that stressful time somehow ignited my aging metabolism, because at first the weight didn’t come back. But as we got settled into life in Cleveland, things started to slip – quickly.

In January, my father in law passed away. As we hurriedly packed the car to drive to New Jersey, I threw in a black skirt and a sweater for the funeral. The next morning, I discovered I couldn’t zip the skirt.

When we came home from the shiva, the busyness of life seemed to multiply exponentially. With my husband going to shul twice a day (he had not previously been a weekday shul-goer), I struggled to figure out how to handle all of the morning and evening “stuff” alone for our three kids.

Among other things, I didn’t have a plan for our eating – for my eating – so I defaulted to the familiar groove. “Things are stressful now,” I absent-mindedly told myself. “I’ll get back to more healthful eating in the spring.”

But spring came and went and by July I was pretty well disgusted with the state of things. So I did what I knew to do: I started another Whole30. This time it was me, my husband and my middle child (my older son was away at camp).

An interesting thing happened with this second Whole30: It was exponentially easier than the first one. I had a few faint headaches the first couple of days, but other than that, I experienced no “detox” symptoms. No horrific mood swings, no stomach explosions. We just transitioned from eating one way to another way.

I also spent far less time cooking – and worrying about cooking – than I had the first time around. I realized, thankfully, that we had worn a groove with that first Whole30, too – a groove that we slipped back into easily – blissfully – this second time around.

Another difference: I lost less weight. I dropped 10 pounds with the first Whole30, but the second time, I lost only 6. But my motivation was less about the scale (though I like to see the scale move, don’t get me wrong) than about getting control over myself. I decided to extend the Whole30 for another 30 days – a Whole60.

I wanted to figure this “eating thing” out – for good. And I knew that I needed more than “just” 30 days of clean eating to deepen that new groove.

By Rosh Hashana, I had dropped a little over 10 pounds in two months and I was feeling clear-headed and in control for the first time in nearly a year and a half. But I still didn’t have a plan: How would I eat when the Whole60 was over?

Unfortunately, I didn’t take the time to figure it out because I was busy with yomtov and travel and my husband being out of town. And so three weeks of holiday eating became the default plan.

Which led into October and November – the “busy season” for my blog. My focus on healthy eating had slipped and I was too distracted to redirect.

I made it through the end of the year, up about 5 or 6 pounds from September, but still clinging to this idea that it was possible to make “real” change. If only I could figure out the key to long-term commitment.

In January of this year, planning for my son’s July Bar Mitzvah was in full force and I kept thinking: My “baby” is about to turn 13, and I’d really like to lose that baby weight, for once and for all. It seemed like a reasonable goal: To weigh at my child’s Bar Mitzvah what I weighed when I got pregnant with him.

Feeling pressured and maybe a little panicky by the deadline I had set for myself, I defaulted to traditional dieting advice: Calories in, calories out.

I logged back into My Fitness Pal for the first time in a long time, and joined a Boot Camp gym. After that first class, I was so sore – in places I didn’t even know muscles existed — that it took me five days to return. Five days to be able to sit down on the toilet without yelping in pain.

But I persevered, mainly because I had signed up for a one-month membership with a Groupon, and I was going to get my money’s worth.

I went five, sometimes six, days a week. And I worked out hard.

Too hard, as it turns out.

Within two weeks, my muscles had gotten used to boot camp, but my back hadn’t. I winced every time I lifted a weighted ball over my head. But I stubbornly ignored the pain and pushed through it.

By February, I was hobbling around, but still slinging 15 pound dumbbells.

Strangely enough, no matter how punishing the workout, the scale wasn’t moving. All the other Boot Campers were dropping weight with ease; why wasn’t the scale budging for me?

In early March, I started to despair. I was only down four pounds – despite daily (painful) workouts and a four-week run of perfect 1400-calorie days on My Fitness Pal.

What was happening? Why wasn’t I losing weight???

The only thing that distracted me from this vexing riddle was the intensifying pain in my lower back. I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down comfortably. Driving in the car was agonizing.

I finally gave up on “pushing through it” and went to see a chiropractor. She adjusted me, recommended supplements and gave me exercises to do at home.

But after two weeks, the pain was worse than ever. I called the chiropractor in tears one morning and she said, “I think you need to have an MRI.”

Long story, short: I had a herniated disc in my lower spine. She recommended a week’s course of steroids, but it did almost nothing for the pain. Her next recommendation was a pain management doctor, but I kept saying, “No – I don’t want to manage the pain. I want to fix the problem.”

So I called a friend, who is a physical therapist, and she recommended that I see someone in her practice. Thankfully, she was able to fit me in that day (someone had cancelled!). The PT was optimistic and encouraging, but offered two warnings at that first appointment:

1) It would probably get worse before it gets better (great), and

2) I would need to stop working out entirely for the first few months of treatment – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to heal fully.

As bad as that pain was in my back, the thought of stopping my workouts was terrifying. I was barely losing any weight with working out – how on earth was I going to lose without it.

That’s when I decided that I had to go back to Whole30-style eating. Counting calories and tracking micronutrients wasn’t getting me there. Maybe tossing out the apps and focusing instead on the food on my plate was the way to go.

After all, it had worked before….

I stopped working out entirely – no walking, no swimming, no weight lifting; nothing other than the stretching and strengthening exercises my PT assigned – and started eating a modified Whole30-type diet.

“Modified” because I chose to avoid even otherwise healthy, whole food like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and any fruit other than berries, since they have a higher glycemic index. (This decision was prompted by an appointment I had with a functional nutritionist, after being diagnosed with a candida overgrowth.) And also “modified” because I gave myself permission from the outset to make exceptions for Shabbat.

I decided that this wasn’t going to be a “challenge” – i.e. a short-term burst of sustained energy – but rather a change – i.e. a life-long commitment to eating in a different way.

Forever giving up challah and dessert, and the ability to eat at friends’ homes, made me want to quit before I started. But committing to eat this way – a way I knew I could handle thanks to my Whole30 and Whole60 experiences – on Sunday through Friday felt doable. Realistic even.

I immediately recognized that eating this way all but eliminated my struggles with moderation. Eating a specific number of calories each day required constant, vigilant mindfulness to moderate and control my intake.

When I failed, which I inevitably did, I felt guilty – which sent me straight into the arms of a sugar craving. The “everything in moderation” approach was not working for me.

I figured out that no matter how hard it was for me to say no to the first bite, it was far easier than saying no to the second one. The moderation approach tells you, gleefully, “Everything in moderation, even Oreos!” But my well-worn groove said, “Eating two Oreos is tantamount to falling face-first into a pit of Oreos.”

There is no “just two Oreos” for me.

Not having the first Oreo is difficult; limiting it to “just two” is impossible.

Somehow having “none” days and “no holds barred” days (i.e. Sunday thru Friday vs. Shabbat) eliminated all that stress. Interestingly, without the self-imposed pressure to be “good”, Saturdays were far less “bad” than in the past.

And on the Saturdays when I ate three slices of challah instead of one – or four cookie bars instead of two — I didn’t have guilt. I just woke up Sunday morning and made myself scrambled eggs. Never before had I experienced this ability to not get swept down the hill.

Almost immediately, I felt better. Less hungry – more healthy. The scale responded in kind. It was as if my body – so used to hobbling around with that back pain – was saying, ‘Thank you for resting!’. And in return, it agreed to comply with my weight loss goals.

When I decided at the beginning of April to focus solely on my eating, while letting my body rest so that my back could recover, I weighed 159 pounds. My goal for the July Bar Mitzvah was 142 pounds, but truthfully, the thought of losing 17 pounds in three and a half months seemed inconceivable under my previous regiment. From January to March, I hadn’t even lost lost five.

But with my new “80-20” Whole30 approach, my metabolism woke up and the weight started to melt off.  I wasn’t counting calories, I wasn’t measuring my food. I was eating to satiation and feeling great.

By May, I started thinking “Maybe I could even get under 140 by July”. And by June, I had set a new goal of 135 pounds – which I reached comfortably.

At my son’s Bar Mitzvah – that magical deadline I had set back in January – I weighed 134 pounds. When I got pregnant with him, I had weighed 142. I had done it! It took me 13 years, but I had finally lost the baby weight – and then some!

Even more astonishing, the weight loss was 100% the result of my nutrition. In three months of intensive exercising while adhering to “traditional” diet advice, I only lost four pounds.

Over the next three and a half months of intensive nutrition but zero exercise, I lost 24 pounds. And more significantly, for the first time in my LIFE, I felt like “I’ve got this – for real.” The key, I discovered, was not intense workouts, but intense focus on my nutrition. (And apparently I’m not the only one who’s come to this conclusion.)

I’m not telling you this because I think exercise doesn’t matter at all. It does matter – a lot. It has innumerable benefits, particularly for heart health and mental health.

But if I want “weight health”, then I need to focus on what I put in my mouth, not how many miles I log.

I’ve been nearly pain-free for about 6 weeks now and with my PT’s blessing, I have started to walk a few times a week. I plan to integrate some (gentle) weight lifting, but haven’t gotten there yet. The main focus of my maintenance plan, however, is and will remain the food that I eat.


Speaking of maintenance, each time I sit down to write one of these weight loss posts, I think “ok, this will be the final one”. And then 2500+ words spill out, and I realize I still have more to say.

With my weight loss goal achieved, I feel like this series has come to a natural conclusion. But I need to write one last post: My plan for maintenance. Next week, I will share with you the strategies I am using to keep focused, stay healthy, and be in control.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Have you lost weight and kept it off. What strategies work for your maintenance? How do you manage the emotional and physiological triggers? What have you learned about yourself and your health in the process?


  1. I’ve been trying…there’s a weight I cannot get below. I gave up, and of course I went above that weight. I’ve lost about 10 lbs (did the 21 day fix, modified) and I’m back to that weight. I need to lose another 30 or so and I have no idea how!

    • I have a friend who swears by the 21 Day Fix. I think just about “anything” can work – as long as you “work it”. Does that make sense? Have you tried eliminating the carbs and sugar?

  2. I weaned my youngest 3 months ago. Two days after I joined a gym. Worked myself out like a dog and my diet was very clean. Lost nothing in almost 2 months. After much research and talking to my chiropractor I figured out that, like you, I was over working my body for no reason! It wasn’t until I went on vacation (still ate fairly healthy and only worked out three times in a 10 day period) that I finally lost 3 pounds! That’s when I finally got it. Working out like a dog is NOT what your body requires to lose weight. I’ve lost 12 pounds since (3 month period) by working out less and simply eating clean, real foods. Thank you for sharing your experience! It feels great to hear that I’m not alone.

    • Wow, that’s amazing – and yes, definitely good to know it’s not just me. I still think exercise is important, but not as critical for weight loss as we are led to believe!

  3. You have inspired a friend and I. She’s on Whole30 day 5, and I’m on Whole30 day 3. Looking forward to the next blog about this!

    • Fantastic! Have you read my Whole30 posts? Especially for your first one, those might be kinda fun to read as you’re going thru it!

  4. Rivki locker says

    Such a great series! I’m thinking of doing a Whole30 and have read all your posts on your experiences. My biggest concern at this point is all the prep that seems to be required to follow the diet. I am extremely busy (aren’t we all?). I work very full time and I’m really concerned about the lack of “grab and go” foods. Especially for breakfast and lunch. I tend to have a little bit more time to prepare dinner. Any advice on quicker meals? How did you deal with all the prep required? Would love your advice…. thx

    • Mara Strom says

      Yes, the grab-and-go is critical. The prep is overwhelming at first, but the longer you do, the easier it gets. I made “egg muffins” — sauteed veggies and put them in muffin tins, then scrambled eggs and pour over them veggies. A dozen eggs filled a 12-cup tin. You can even put in some crumbled ground turkey or Whole30 sausage if you have. I also make some “turkey sausage” and would take one of those in the morning, too. I don’t mind eating pretty must the same thing every day, but if you need more variety this may not work for you.

      For lunch, I almost always have salads with some kind of protein – shredded chicken, ground beef, tuna (I don’t like tuna, but it’s quick and easy), left-over salmon, etc. I also add to my salads any leftover veggies from dinner. If you can use Sunday to prep all your salads (and your protein), I think it should make getting your lunches together pretty quick and easy.

      For dinner, I know you said you have more time, but you might want to think about using your slow cooker for a few meals a week. Pinterest is replete with Whole30 Slow Cooker recipes (or you can look at Paleo recipes – and just omit any sugar substitute). When you’re meal prepping on Sunday, you may want to roast up some trays of veggies, too. I think they keep at least 3 or 4 days in the fridge.

      I hope that helps a bit!

  5. galileegirl says

    I went to an alternative medicine practitioner in May for some treatments after 2 months of not feeling good. She took me off of sugar, dairy, wheat and some other foods to “cleanse my kidneys”. I ate as much as I wanted of foods I was allowed and weight started dropping off and my “funny tummy” issues went away. That is the reason I’ve continued with the diet. Life is a lot more pleasant without gas and bloating. I’m not as strict as I was when I first started but I’ve mostly kept it up and lost about 10 lbs effortlessly. I’m not quite at first pre-pregnancy weight but I’m closer than I’ve been in about 10 years and that feels great too.

  6. galileegirl says

    PS You look great!

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