Healthy habits
Photo: Kang Kim
What would happen if instead of just thinking about taking better care of yourself (eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, floss, blah, blah, blah), you went ahead and—urk—did it? Would it be awful? Would you feel any better?

My habits weren't horrible, but they weren't great, either. No sodas, fast food, or cigarettes, and I ate my share of broccoli...but I also liked heavy cream in my coffee, butter with dinner, and fortifying spoonfuls of ice cream when afternoon hunger hit. If I was stuck on what to have for lunch, the solution invariably included melted cheese. I was too fond of my evening cocktail(s). I exercised hard, but sporadically, and I never stretched. I wore sunscreen...sometimes. I usually forgot to floss. Etc.

I'd always gotten by. Mostly because of dumb genetic luck, I'm thin, with low blood pressure and cholesterol (I know, you hate me already). But I couldn't deny seeing some changes as I hit my 50s: less energy, a growing pot belly, pain that I assumed was early arthritis in my neck whenever I looked over my shoulder. Caring for aged parents and in-laws offered a none-too-gentle reminder that this was just the beginning.

But could it be slowed if I were very, very good? If I really cleaned up my act? What if, for a month, I embraced every health dictate we all know we should follow but blithely ignore? Would I feel rejuvenated, young? Or just like the butt of that old joke: "Eating healthy doesn't make you live just feels that way"?

With the help of the Internet, I researched a plan for perfect living. I'd follow traditional USDA guidelines for diet: 2,000 weight-maintaining calories a day, no more than 67 grams of fat (only 22 of them saturated fat), and no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium. Exercise advice came from the government as well: a minimum of 30 minutes at "moderate intensity" most days of the week, though my goal was the more highly recommended 60 minutes of running, jogging, swimming, weight lifting, walking at 4.5 mph, or biking at more than 10 mph. Afterward I'd stretch my major muscle groups.

At some point during the day, I'd also do more personal exercise, aiming for increased sexual pleasure now and protection against urinary leakage later by strengthening my pelvic floor muscles with Kegels, something I've been meaning to do, oh, since I gave birth 14 years ago. I would sit and stand up straight. Because I'm an osteoporosis poster child (a thin white woman whose grandma had a hump), I'd take a calcium supplement to make sure I got the recommended 1,200 milligrams each and every day. After I learned that as many as 30 percent of adults over 50 may have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food, I decided to add a B supplement as well.

Although evidence on the benefits and risks of alcohol is mixed, to be safe I also decided to cut out cocktail hour. I'd get seven hours of shut-eye a night because a six-year, large-scale population study of sleep done at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine associated it with the lowest death rate among adults. I would floss every single day. And I would never, ever, ever venture out of the house without slathering on UVA/UVB sunscreen 30 minutes prior to exposure.

Sound uplifting? Frankly, the first two weeks were hell. I quickly realized that the peanut butter I always put on my morning toast (while healthy) along with the heavy cream in the coffee and my afternoon ice cream fixes (not so great) added up to about 45 grams of fat a day, almost half of it saturated. One tablespoon of the hot mango relish I use as a condiment was 94 percent of my daily salt allowance. And while I was getting too much fat, I wasn't getting nearly enough potassium, calcium, fiber, or variety. (Data from the Centers for Disease Control found that only about a third of Americans consumed fruits twice a day and only a quarter ate vegetables at least three times daily. Oy.)

Figuring out what I could and should eat, via "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," published jointly by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, meant three hours of slogging through an 84-page downloaded file. Put as simply as possible, it advocated eating from all food groups every day—two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables a day, including veggies both dark green (kale, broccoli) and orange (carrots, squash), starches (potatoes, corn), and "other" (artichokes, green beans). I also needed six-ounce equivalents daily of grain (at least half of it whole grain); about five and a half ounces of meat, fish, or poultry; and three cups of milk or yogurt. I would also include four to five servings a week of legumes (varying from a half cup for beans and peas, one ounce for nuts, and two tablespoons for seeds). I made copious notes, shopping lists, menus.

As I switched, perhaps too quickly, to whole grain rolls with less peanut butter and nonfat milk in my coffee; salads heavy with vegetables, four nutritious ounces of white beans, and virtually no dressing; and yummy snacks of plums and raw carrot sticks, my stomach went noxious with fiber overload. Let's just say it was a good thing I work at home, alone.

The exercise regimen was only slightly better. Since I've worked out in the past, I know that a first-thing-in-the-morning session of lifting weights followed by a stationary bike ride in the later afternoon are the two things I'll do on a regular basis. I even own the equipment—I wasted money maintaining a gym membership for five years after I became a mother before admitting I'd never again find time to use it. Plus, when you work out at home, you can freely sweat, curse, and look like hell. But starting exercise after a lull is never pleasant. The only way to get through it was the fitness equivalent of "lie back and think of England": outline what to do—today, work on triceps, chest, shoulders—do it, and don't even think about having fun. Listening to music with a driving beat made the time endurable. I also did a late afternoon dog walk, but as a workout it was utterly useless given my dog's stop, sniff, and pee habits. I missed my enormous yellow Lab; Haskell, may he rest in peace, demanded a daily death march at breakneck speed. Now there was a personal trainer.

As the days went by, the combination of workout and diet left me both charley-horsed and starving, longing for the satiation that only sugar and grease provide. The irony: Normally I'm one of maybe ten women in America who aren't obsessed with food, but I became fixated on portions, grams, what I had eaten that day, and what I could consume next. "You see what it does to you," said my friend Cathy, who has struggled with weight and diets for decades. "You get to where it's all you think about, and your whole approach to eating becomes distorted."

Other friends became positively indignant when I complained. "If you have trouble maintaining this diet, what use is it?" demanded one, her subtext transparent: "Oh, goody. I don't even have to try."

By the end of the second week, hunger had become a constant companion, and I was in a foul mood about how little fun it was to eat, especially out of the house. I went to a Chinese restaurant with family on my birthday and sat, fuming, while everyone gorged on fried/salty/fatty delights and I got the broccoli garnishes. At my favorite Mexican joint, I exchanged my customary cheese-filled chile relleno for a bowl of sopa con pollo. I baked my daughter a birthday cake and watched others wolf it down.

It didn't help that my regimen was a time-consuming royal pain. Shopping became a two-hour ordeal because I constantly had to read labels to check nutritional content; only a tiny percentage of the grocery store bread marked "wheat" is actually whole wheat. I always put off flossing until right before bed, sometimes forgot, then had to get back up to do it. Remembering to stop whatever I was doing to tighten my pubic region several dozen times a day was distracting. The temptation to say, "Oh, the hell with it!" hit daily when I craved something sweet and gooey or a drink to ease my way into evening (actually, realizing just how much I missed alcohol was...sobering). But instead I had to worry about meeting my daily quota of orange vegetables. Butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes—I hated them all.

On the other hand, some things were becoming easier. Taking calcium and B vitamins and putting on sunscreen every day wasn't hard. I had more energy after dinner now that I wasn't sucking back cocktails. I could realistically get seven hours of sleep a night by just saying no to Law & Order reruns. It was possible for me to work at the computer without slouching—and when I listened to the little voice insisting that I "sit up!" my back didn't hurt at the end of the day. My exercise routine was getting easier (and if the music was particularly raucous, even enjoyable). Just ten minutes of stretching afterward—I followed a basic plan from the Mayo Clinic Web site—was loosening me up dramatically; in the car one afternoon, I looked over my shoulder to change lanes, and my neck didn't hurt. What I'd thought was arthritis and something I had to accept as part of getting older had simply been unstretched muscles. And given the pounds of roughage I was consuming, my normally recalcitrant bowels were working properly for the first time in decades. I realized that I'd grown accustomed to a constant feeling of bloat, which had disappeared.

By the end of the third week, something astonishing happened: The hunger went away. I missed the taste of chocolate, but I no longer fixated on it. I found a thick, Greek-style low-fat yogurt that was pretty satisfying if I packed it with fruit. (Okay, I also added some maple syrup.) I ate new vegetables, like Swiss chard and turnip greens. I tried recipes from an Indian cookbook that were high on spice, low on grease, and involved healthy combinations of potatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, and lentils. Even my 14-year-old daughter liked them.

During the fourth week, I went to the dentist and for once was complimented on my "good oral care." I felt a little internal tightening from the Kegels, though I'd read that measurable results—like a husband shouting "Wow!"—could take months. My skin was rosy, and my thighs and upper arms looked sculpted, in a middle-aged kind of way. And my pants were way loose. Not only had I lost weight, but the roll around my gut was gone.

When my month of perfect living ended, I drank a double Scotch on the rocks, slept in instead of rising to pump iron, enjoyed ice cream and a chile relleno burrito that oozed grease. It was lovely not to have to worry about putting on sunscreen just to walk the dog, to let the flossing go (just for tonight), not to have to down a pile of squash. 

But I never bought a replacement pint of cream for my morning coffee, so who was I kidding? Clean living hadn't made me young, but I felt and looked pretty freakin' terrific. My refrigerator is filled again with whole wheat muffins, fruit, and vegetables—orange ones, too. I'm giving myself a little leeway, like special occasion permission to indulge. But I'm back on the program. One month down; can't wait to see what happens in six.

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As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.


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