My nickname growing up was Meatball. That's what the other kids at the park would call me, because I was kind of cute and short… and round.
In my Cuban American family, I was taught certain ways to eat and live. That included large helpings of Cuban comfort foods, like panfried picadillo steak with rice and beans and starchy yucca. Of course, you can be beautiful at any size — but as I gained weight, I just wasn't comfortable at mine. I'm a very outgoing person, and there came a point when I was beginning to hold back from my social life because I wasn't at ease in my skin.
I was so consumed with their health that I let mine go, and it was evident on the scale: My weight climbed to more than 200 pounds.
Sitting on the couch wasn't going to help, I realized. So in between college and grad school, I dove into ballet, something I'd loved as a teenager. I also took up Pilates, and eventually got certified to teach yoga. I've never been one to jump on the scale regularly, but my clothes told the story: The more active I was, the better things fit.
Exercise is the glue that seems to hold everything together — my confidence and my weight. But seven years ago, it all came unglued. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and my dad was already showing signs of dementia. I lived next door to them, and I took on their care. It was my new full-time job being a mom to my mom, changing her adult diapers, and giving sponge baths. Not to mention the cooking I did for my parents — stews, spaghetti, and rice-based meals that were soft enough for my parents to chew. I usually ate what I prepared for them, and when I didn't, I picked up fast food. I wasn't turning to food for comfort but for survival. The thinking was: What can I grab quickly so I can rush back to my parents? I was so consumed with their health that I let mine go, and it was evident on the scale: My weight climbed to more than 200 pounds.
Eventually, the role of full-time nurse was too much for me to handle on my own. My parents were both placed in an assisted-living facility, with me as their watchdog/advocate. Then, a year and a half ago, my mom died.
The grief and the stress took a major toll on me. Months after my mom passed away, I got a wake-up call: My body gave out, and I ended up in the hospital for a week, suffering from exhaustion and burnout. I learned that this happens to a lot of people after they become caregivers to parents. My whole identity had been wrapped up in tending to others, and I fell to the bottom of my list of priorities.
That summer, I had an opportunity to house-sit at a friend's place by the beach. I took it as a chance to regroup and lock in healthy habits. I told myself: Maria, You're a block from the water; you'd have to be crazy not to go walking. And I knew I could keep that up when I left my friend's home. My goal was an hour a day — I didn't care how fast I went, as long as I did it.
My diet also needed a good, hard look. When you are caregiving, it's like, OK, forget breakfast, I'm busy. But clearly, skipping meals hadn't helped me maintain a healthy size, so I tried to get on a regular eating schedule. I cut out processed foods a little at a time. I'd wake up and think about just two foods that I was willing not to eat that day, and replaced them with things that were as close to whole and natural as possible. Instead of that panfried steak, for example, I'd make a chickpea stew with a side dish of boiled yucca and a citrus garlic sauce. It was never about deprivation — I still enjoyed my meals, and I never ate in a hurry. Sometimes you look around and it seems like everyone is on the Jurassic Park diet: They eat as if their food is going to run away! I found that if I slowed down and took my time, I got full faster.
I kept my expectations realistic too. Rather than obsessing about getting down to a certain size in the future, I focused on the progress I could feel good about in the moment, like seeing more of the cheekbones I had missed.
I love making exercise the first thing I do in the A.M. so I have the rest of the day to not think about it.
It took about a year to lose the weight; the last of those pounds came off when a friend introduced me to the world of online workout videos. I signed up for a subscription to Daily Burn for $13 a month. (That's less than two trips to a fast-food joint!) I started with a program called True Beginner and now do the live fitness classes every day at 9 A.M. You can work your entire body in a half hour; by 9:30, I've done 20 burpees and I don't know how many planks. I have never felt stronger or more toned.
Today, I weigh about 125. I still walk like the dickens, including hoofing it to the grocery store and to the closest bus stop, two miles away. And whenever I can, I take the stairs. All those little things help me maintain.
My dad is in a nursing home, and I still have to be on top of things. But the difference now is that I do it from a place of balance and love both for him and for me. This entire journey — learning how to be a parent to myself and losing the weight — has all been a process. But hey, it's like giving birth to a new you, and something that profound can't happen overnight.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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