How a Lifestyle Change — Not a Diet — Helped Me Lose 20 Pounds

I still remember the first time my weight was ever an issue for me. I was 13 and at a regular check-up with my doctor when he mentioned that I should watch what I ate because I was gaining weight faster than usual. My pants instantly felt tighter at that moment.

From then on, my relationships with food and my body packed their bags and moved from the back of my mind to the very forefront. I would go up two sizes, down one size, and then up three more sizes, only to put myself down wishing I had enough drive to make a change. I would complain that I just wasn't strong enough to have self-control, especially with the kind of appetite I was "cursed" with at birth.

Natalie Rivera

Before my lifestyle journey vs. seven months later into it.

Between my many years of complaining were episodes of me dieting — or at least trying to diet. Whether it was my five-day attempt at juicing or my month-long commitment to only eating Subway in high school (cookies included), I was always misinformed, pessimistic, and unexcited.

It wasn't until I was 26 that it occurred to me that if I wanted my body to change, I needed to make a lifestyle change. I know what you're thinking. "Lifestyle change" sounds like something a hipster coined while explaining juicing to a bunch of friends over mimosas during a Sunday brunch. But it really is that: a lifestyle change.

Instead of going into my weight-loss journey with the goal of getting slimmer, I went into it with the goal of making my body happier and healthier. I replaced diets with healthier daily habits and reminded myself that the guilt I put myself through was in no way better than taking the extra time to make these positive changes. As a result, I lost 20 pounds in seven months and am hoping to lose more along the way.

While not every lifestyle is one size fits all, here's what worked for me:

Cut Down On All the Goods

And I mean all of them: refined carbs, fast food, fried foods, and, yes, alcohol. We've been told most of our lives that certain foods are bad for you, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that cupcakes won't give you abs. While half of the job is recognizing this, the other half of is actually making it happen.

Fast food was a difficult one for me to overcome, personally. I grew up eating fast food almost every week and carried that well into my adult years. I cut it entirely from diet when I started this journey and never looked back, but I also made sure to cut out unhealthy and processed foods that didn't come from a drive-through window. That meant no fries as my side and saying no tots at pubs.

Replacing Small Things Can Make a Huge Difference

Remember those fries I'd opt out of as a side? Well, I made a mission to replace greasy carbs like fries and homestyle potatoes with fruit and vegetables. Yes, at some restaurants, that meant $1 more to my check, but I didn't allow that to discourage me. While healthy swaps do come with a financial cost, it definitely won't feel like that when you later realize these small changes saved you from medical bills. You'll also save in other ways you'd never have guessed. Instead of buying $7 worth of buttery popcorn at the movie theater, I'd prepack sea salt popcorn and dark chocolate as a snack.

Recognize the Foods That Make You Feel Good and the Ones That Don't

While fast food and dairy left my taste buds feeling great, they had the opposite effect on the rest of my body. From bloating to fatigue, I knew that the weird noises my stomach was making had to do with the foods I consumed. Swapping foods for healthier alternatives allowed me to recognize what foods my body liked and what foods my body was telling me to stay away from. Fruits and vegetables gave me more energy, while cheese and salty foods just weren't doing it for me. This also played as a reminder that I was doing this for more than weight loss: I was also doing this to make my body happier. I was rewarding my body and treating it with care instead of ignoring what it's been telling me for years.

Don't Have Guilty Pleasures

We want what we can't have — or rather, we want what we think we can't have. Cutting out foods that make your body feel terrible shouldn't be seen as a punishment, nor should indulging be seen as a reward. Changing the way I looked at food was a huge obstacle for me. I always viewed pizza as bad, therefore making it more desirable, and vegetables as good, therefore making them bland and tasteless. The Rugrats were always trying to reach the cookie jar, not a plate of steamed broccoli. Eliminating the words "guilty pleasure" from your vocabulary will help you understand whether you really want something because you genuinely crave it or because you've been told all your life you should.

Be a Planner

And I don't just mean planning life in general, but I mean with your meals. Maybe go for some grilled fish and veggies during lunch if you know you're going out for a big Italian dinner with friends later. Check the online menu for healthier options when deciding on a restaurant with your SO ahead of time, or decide to eat healthier the few days leading into that brunch where you plan to order two mimosas and a stack of pancakes. If I know I'm going to have pizza on a Friday night, I'll make sure that my meals leading up to that are lighter. Or better yet, I'll make sure to see if the restaurant has a cauliflower crust option. You'll thank yourself later for taking that extra time or making that quick Google search.