At the beginning of my planning for our [“LA Weekly”] biggest food issue of the year, I sat down with a calendar and a list of restaurants.
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That issue’s cover story — “99 Essential Restaurants in Los Angeles” — requires me to eat at every restaurant I’m writing about. I realized that I’d have to eat more than seven restaurant meals a week for three months.
This kind of eating requires very careful planning. Many nights I will double or triple up, eating two or three meals in a row in order to snag a precious evening at home with my family another night.
There’s just no avoiding some weight gain leading up to a big food issue. But if I want to only gain five pounds and not 20, I have to plan my calorie burning just as fastidiously as I plan my calorie consumption.
Even when a big project isn’t in the works, eating for a living makes staying in shape difficult.
As a restaurant critic, my work revolves around dinner in restaurants, cocktails before or after, days of driving around seeking out fun sandwiches to blog about and new wines to try.
It’s a dream job in many ways, but it comes with its downsides, the biggest of which are related to health. Many food critics are overweight and many of us struggle with managing our cholesterol. There are even quite a few of us who suffer from gout and other diseases that can be blamed on diet.
These days, I mostly have my weight and health under control. But it wasn’t always that way, and it hasn’t been easy. It’s something I constantly have to monitor and think about.
It’s a dream job in many ways, but it comes with its downsides, the biggest of which are related to health. Many food critics are overweight, and many of us struggle with managing our cholesterol.
I started writing about food professionally just a few months after giving birth to my son. The timing couldn’t have been better in many ways: Just as I started a family, I found a rewarding career that would end up supporting us.
But it also couldn’t have been worse.
Like many women, my pregnancy weight didn’t go away when the pregnancy was over. And while I was pregnant, we moved from New York City to the South, where walking was not nearly as much a part of my life.
Everything that had kept me in shape — my youth, my diet and my city — disappeared all at once.
I’d love to tell you that I got my weight and health under control as soon as I realized it was a problem, but that isn’t the case.
For about six years I pretty much ignored it, hoping a walk or a feeble attempt to eat well when I wasn’t working would chip away at the problem. But real weight loss isn’t like that. Unfortunately, to get big results you have to make big changes.
My doctor told me that my cholesterol was too high — especially for a woman in her 30s — and that I needed to lose weight. I realized that not only had my vanity been suffering for too long, but my health was starting to suffer as well. I signed up with a personal trainer.
Personal trainers are the fantasy many overweight people have, and many of us never do anything about it because we can’t afford to hire one.
We know a personal trainer might be the only way to really lose weight (an appointment you’re paying for is a great motivator), but we don’t do it because it’s not in our budget. So instead we don’t do anything. But I recommend a session or two with a trainer even if you can’t sustain it financially in the long term.
A trainer can give you a push — as well as a regimen that will work for you. No exercise class or workout video can be that personalized. Plus, I know many gym newbies who are intimidated by all those machines. Which machines should you use? And how? And why? A trainer can teach you all that information, which you can then use even if you have to continue on your own.
I picked a guy with almost too much energy: an MMA fighter who had kicked a drug habit by turning to extreme fitness. I had looked at trainers who specialized in helping women lose baby weight and who had much more calm, yoga-based language on their websites. It wasn’t what I needed at the time. I wanted someone aggressive, someone who would kick my ass into gear. That’s exactly what I got.
Mike and I met twice a week for three months. On the days we didn’t work out together, he had me running on a treadmill doing a combination of jogging and sprints.
He also gave me guidelines for my diet when I wasn’t working. Among them, a strict regimen of oatmeal every morning.
“Can’t I eat wheat toast?” I whined.
"No. Oatmeal," he said."
Six months later when I went back to my doctor, she was shocked. I had lost 20 pounds. But perhaps even more shocking was that my cholesterol had completely reversed itself. My bad cholesterol was way down, my good cholesterol up. The exercise certainly helped with that, but I also blame the oatmeal.
That wasn’t the end of the story. Even while working out my hardest, I would hit plateaus in my weight loss. Once I gave up drinking alcohol for as long as I could (for work-related reasons, that was two weeks), which kick-started my metabolism again. Then my hips began giving me problems, making running difficult. After floundering for a month or two and gaining a bit of weight in the process, I took up swimming. It’s not quite as good as running for losing weight, but it helps me maintain.
What makes maintaining health the hardest for many of us isn’t the day-to-day routine — if you’re motivated, it’s not that hard to get an exercise regimen that works — it’s the disruptions that life throws your way. Pregnancy, vacation, moving. Once you’ve veered off on that detour, it can be so hard to get back on track.
In the years since I first got my weight under control, by far the biggest bump in the road was moving from Atlanta to Los Angeles. In Atlanta I had a routine. The pool where I swam was on the way to my office. I went every day.
In Los Angeles I was even more car-bound than before, and the pool I found near my house was crowded and unpleasant. Here’s something I’ve learned about exercise: If you’re ambivalent about it in any way (beyond the initial push of getting used to it), you will not stick with it. I tried to get to the pool, but I made excuses because I wasn’t enjoying it. After three months in Los Angeles, I was almost back up to my pre-trainer weight. It was immensely dispiriting.
Eventually I found a pool I love, but swimming alone wasn’t going to get me back in the shape I’d been in. I found a circuit in my neighborhood where I could walk, with a healthy dose of stairs to run up in the middle of the walk. And I began taking classes at The Bar Method, an exercise studio that combines dance philosophies with core strengthening and targeted muscle training.
On days when I’m just too busy to get in a full hour of some sort of exercise, I do a quick 7-minute workout. I also used a calorie tracking app for a few months to track my eating and exercise, which was incredibly helpful for understanding how much I had to work out to burn all those calories I consume while eating out so often for my work as a food critic.
Keeping in shape isn’t easy — not for those of us who love to eat, and particularly not for those of us who eat for a living. But the good news is that if I can stay in shape (while eating seven restaurant meals a week!), then you can do it too!