It wasn't the least bit shocking to me that I'd gained weight over the past few years. My "garbage human" food intake wasn't what you'd classify as "clean": frequent after-work drinks, excess snacking, going rogue on an entire box of Dominos pizza… And so, I'd reach a point where I'd deem it time to cut back and hit the gym, which entered me into a vexing cycle. During this period, I'd go to extremes and decide to cut out all bread products and pasta for a week, which only gave me pounding headaches from carb flu and maybe moved the scale down a pound. I'd also commit myself to the gym and run on the treadmill or do a rotation of weight machines, but that momentum would quickly fizzle out and I wouldn't set foot back in for weeks thereafter. I'd return to my poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, and the cycle would continue. My weight generally stayed the same, but my frustration swiftly rose.
The problem was my approach: I was cutting out carbs and logging miles because I'd heard of other people who had success with these tactics or read that a fit celebrity doesn't eat bread. There was no science to back up my methods, only perceived notions. At long last, I decided to get serious and research tried-and-true methods for burning fat and gaining muscle. I became obsessed with following fitness influencers and reading articles from personal trainers and nutritionists about the most effective meal plans and diets. What I discovered repeatedly was that the key to toning up is actually simplicity: eat clean and exercise consistently. No fad diets, no deprivation, no two-hour-long gym sessions, just maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Seriously.
For meals, I kept seeing the same recommended food groups: whole grains, vegetables, healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, and protein. Let's start with the grains: It turns out I was completely wrong about nixing carbs, as according to Michelle Hauser, MD, 40 to 60% of your diet should come from unprocessed, low-sodium, low-glycemic carbs (lentils, whole grains, quinoa, brown rice, low-sugar whole fruits like apples, and nutrient-dense vegetables like sweet potatoes), so carbs are not the enemy. Now on to vegetables: Non-starchy, fiber-rich veggies can practically be eaten with abandon (think of variations like cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, leafy greens, cauliflower, and broccoli). Healthy fats derived from fish, nuts, seeds, and plants that are liquid at room temperature help you feel full. They're also amazing for your body and help curb heart disease and memory loss. Lastly, protein: Healthy sources of protein like lean meat, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts make you feel fuller longer and are essential for building muscle and repairing cells.
Now, for the foods you should cut back on: processed foods (cookies, cakes, chips, white flour), sugars, sodium, and alcohol. Foods high in these components aren't filling, leading to a high intake of calories to reach satiety, and if the excess sugar and fats from these foods are not being used for energy, it's then stored in the body as fat, thus tipping the scale. Also, be wary of foods with hidden sugars, like some fruits (mangoes, bananas), condiments, sauces, and fruity yogurt.
On to the workout: Another consistency in my findings was that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is the absolute best fat-burning workout. I started out doing self-led HIIT workouts at the gym after watching Kayla Itsines's videos and the like, but I'll admit that I hate the cardio component; it's just not my thing. Eventually, I found my way to barre and fell in love with it. Barre classes are crazy expensive in Manhattan, though, so instead of forking over my paycheck to a trendy studio, I queue up some YouTube videos and do them from my living room. I also love Pilates, so I'll grab my mat and get to work while following along on my screen. Here's the thing though: As much as I enjoy these workouts, I don't enjoy doing them for long, and I know if I force myself to work out for an hour or so at a time, I'll fall off the wagon again. So instead, I find videos that last no more than 30 to 45 minutes, work up a sweat, and stretch out.
After about six months of eating whole, nourishing foods and doing 30 to 45 minutes of exercise four to five days a week, I'm currently in the best shape of my life. I'm able to see the outlines of muscles I didn't even know existed, and my weight has finally dipped (though this certainly isn't the most important change—it's the fact that I feel stronger and more confident despite what the numbers on the scale flash back at me). Admittedly, I have days where I indulge (we all deserve it) and busy weeks where I only work out once or twice, but eating well and committing to fitness has become so ingrained in my psyche that I yearn to get back on track after falling off. Finally, committing to health isn't a short-standing period for me—it's become a lifestyle.