The author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl: How to Drop Two, Four — or More! —Dress Sizes and Find Yourself Along the Way, Lisa has spent the majority of her 20-year journalism career covering diet, fitness, nutrition, and health for women’s consumer magazines. Currently the Editor-in-Chief of Spry magazine, Lisa shares her passion for and professional expertise in living a healthy lifestyle with millions of readers across the country each month. Her weekly column, Secrets of a Former Fat Girl, is carried in 50-plus newspapers nationwide, and her email newsletter, The Big Weigh-In, is published bi-weekly (Click here for details).
Previously the Executive Editor of Health magazine, Lisa has also held positions at Cooking Light and Prevention magazines, and has written for titles such as Vogue, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, and Readers’ Digest. A dedicated runner for over 15 years, Lisa has completed 10 marathons and too many shorter road races and triathlons to count. She continues to live the Former Fat Girl life in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Rick, and son, Johnny.
Name: Lisa Delaney
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Diet Detective: What was your trigger that helped you to finally lose weight?
Lisa: I had what you could call the quintessential hitting bottom moment. I had pigged out on a half-gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream and got physically sick. I’m not the type to get sick like that — I kind of have a stomach of steel — so maybe the fact that I threw up was a signal to me; my body was saying, “Hey, wake up here.” I remember that moment very well. I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. But it wasn’t about my body. I was looking at my face, how pale and weak I looked, seeing someone who wasn’t where she wanted to be with her life.
I knew I had to do something. I don’t know if anyone can explain how to flip that switch, how to “hit bottom”. It just happens. And I think we all get there differently.
Diet Detective: What was the biggest change in your life after you lost the weight?
Lisa: The biggest change had to be my level of confidence. I was the type who always daydreamed about adventures — about traveling, about trying new things. I had great, wild, creative ideas. I had funny, poignant, thoughtful stories inside me. And I held all that in. But during my weight-loss journey, I began letting loose a bit. I started little by little living more like I wanted to live, letting who I really was inside show. I started taking the kind of risks I was too scared to take for fear of failure, rejection, whatever. I’m not saying that you have to be thin to be self-confident. But breaking out of that fat-girl role and getting rid of the fat-girl image I had of myself helped me work through my insecurities. It was the process of setting boundaries, giving myself permission to take care of myself, and learning what it meant to love who I was inside that helped me become the person I am today. I just so happened to also lose 70 pounds in the process. But that’s really the least important outcome.
Diet Detective: Were you ever ridiculed or embarrassed by someone else about your weight? Was it painful for you to write or talk about a time when you were overweight? I know that being previously overweight myself, that just hearing or referring to myself as formerly “fat” can be painful.
Lisa: I still remember little things, like the girl in third grade who said her mother thought I was the fattest girl in the class. And the time I slipped and fell on my butt when I was tap dancing for my family — my brothers got a real kick out of that one. It’s still painful, even shameful, to remember how it felt when I got caught with my finger in the cake, or teased about the candy wrappers discovered in my bedroom where I hid my emergency stash. But I am glad I’ve shared those painful times. I know now from the response to the book and comments on my website that it’s helping other women know that they aren’t the only ones, and helping them to believe in themselves a bit more.
Diet Detective: What was your main motivation to write the book (and keep up your blog) Secrets of a Former Fat Girl?
Lisa: Frankly, I used to hate people like me — people who seemed to love working out, who seemed to be able to eat anything they want and not gain weight, or who seemed to be able to pass up a piece of cake or a second piece of pizza without breaking a sweat — when for me, it took a major internal struggle. I want other women to see that you don’t have to be one of “those people” to build a healthy life you actually enjoy. That they can change, they can be successful. That there are people out there, like me, who know where they’re coming from and who can help them along the way, even if it’s just by cheering them on.
Diet Detective: You say on your blog “I thought like a fat girl, acted like a fat girl.” Can you explain what you mean by that, and how and what you changed to adjust that thinking? Is adjusting your thinking part of the weight control process?
Lisa: It’s really the biggest part. If losing weight was really just a matter of calories in, calories out, it wouldn’t be such a struggle, right? We all know what we should be doing to lose weight. So what stops us, if not ourselves?
So the real issue is changing the way you think about yourself, carving out a new role for yourself in your life and in the lives of the people around you. For instance, I really had to work through my tendency to be a people pleaser — something that many “fat girls” struggle with. I got my value from making people happy. It was so hard to say “No” to people, because on some level I thought that others wouldn’t love me if I said no. That has implications in all areas of your life — but when it comes to your weight, it makes it difficult to set boundaries, to say “no” when Mom’s offering you another serving of macaroni and cheese, or when you’re trying to create time to exercise.
The other thing is we “fat girls” tend to have this all-or-nothing thinking, this perfectionism that leads us to say if we can’t do it perfectly, why try? If we slip up and eat the brownie we said we were going to skip, well, then, we might as well eat the whole pan! Or we miss one workout, and boom — we’re failures. It’s all over. It’s that stuff that makes it difficult for women to lose weight. It’s not so much what foods to eat or which workout to do. The hard stuff is working on what goes on in your head, but it’s the thing that’s going to make you successful.
Diet Detective: What’s the most surprising and interesting fact or study that you’ve heard or discovered about dieting/weight control, which most of us have not heard about?
Lisa: This is a hard one. There’s so much research out there about weight, and so much attention paid to every new finding, that it’s hard to know what people have heard. But one thing is that a pretty well-respected scientist has discovered what he says is a virus that causes people to be fat (or at least some people). He has some interesting proof to back it up, but the problem is that the solution is the same as it is for all of us: diet and exercise. I don’t really know how I feel about that research. It’s pretty controversial and I think there’s a large body of pretty good evidence that points at other causes of obesity (like lack of physical activity and huge restaurant portions). Apparently, this guy hopes to create a vaccine for this virus — which is great, but it won’t get at the behavioral reasons why people gain weight. And it also, I think, might rob people of the opportunity for the real emotional transformation you go through on a weight loss journey.
Diet Detective: If you could eat one forbidden or unhealthy food whenever you wanted without gaining weight, what would it be?
Lisa: Probably ice cream. I almost said chocolate, but I think ice cream is a more sensual experience (and, thinking practically, I could have ice cream with chocolate in it, to double my pleasure!).
Diet Detective: If there were one healthy food item that you had to eat every day, what would it be?
Lisa: I love great salads with lots of fresh veggies. Even though it sounds so boring, I would pick a big salad because I also like to eat big portions. I love whole-wheat bread and whole grain cereal, but they’re more dense with calories, so you can’t eat as much.
Diet Detective: What do you think is the single most important thing that makes or breaks a diet for someone?
Lisa: I’m going to say exercise. It’s probably not what people want to hear, but one of the things I believe most strongly in is the benefit of starting a weight-loss journey by focusing on building an exercise habit. First of all, it’s impossible for most women to maintain a weight loss without it (and there are studies that support this). Second, it’s a way of beginning to see yourself as a different kind of person — the kind of person who exercises, who is active, who belongs at the gym or at the track. It starts that inner transformation — focusing only on food does not. And third, it feeds you positive messages. Every time you finish a workout, no matter how long or short it is, you get a little dose of “I Can.” Traditional diets that focus only on food are all about “I Can’t” — “I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that.” No, no, no. And lastly, one of the typical “fat girl” issues is putting everyone else’s needs before her own. But when you’re building an exercise habit, you have to set aside a little piece of time for “me”, there’s no other way to do it. A workout isn’t just physical exercise. It’s an exercise in setting boundaries for those of us who have trouble with them.
Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?
Lisa: Another hard one! I’m going to say salmon sushi roll. It’s provides a combination of protein, good fats, carbs (simple ones, unfortunately), and greens (the seaweed). That’s a pretty good little package. And sushi is one of those naturally “slow” foods. There’s a rhythm to eating it — the chopping, the dipping, the nibbling. It forces you to slow down and enjoy each bite.
Diet Detective: I know you’re a runner. How did that happen/start? Did that help you lose the weight? What was it like to run your first marathon?
Lisa: I was going to a Jazzercise class, which really eased me into exercise, and helped me get used to the whole idea that I could sweat and that it might not be so horrible. It also helped me build a base level of fitness that prepared me for something more physically challenging. I had actually ran for awhile when I was in high school, and was at a more reasonable weight. The confidence I built in Jazzercise gave me the courage to just try to run a lap around the track near my apartment. One lap led to another, and I worked up to running several miles on that quarter-mile track. The track was great for me because every lap I finished was like an instant success. Running really helped me knock my weight down — I went from a size 16 to about an 8 on just exercise alone.
Several years later, I was running with a woman who said she was going to train for the New York Marathon. I knew we were pretty compatible as runners, but it didn’t occur to me that I could do it. She and her boyfriend said, “Nonsense! Of course you can.” I decided to try the training, which turned out to be very hard. Despite the hard work, discovering you can do something you never thought possible (not unlike losing 70 pounds!) was an amazing process. I was almost giddy during the race — I loved the crowds, the New York streets, everything. The finish was very emotional — a friend and veteran marathoner was waiting at the finish line, and I just collapsed in her arms, crying. I was so high from the whole thing that I couldn’t sleep that night.
Diet Detective: What other physical activity do you do to keep yourself in shape?
Lisa: I try to lift weights a couple of days a week. I have a really busy job and life, so sometimes that doesn’t happen. On the weekends, we’re pretty active as a family. We typically take our son and dog to play baseball or soccer at the park, go for a hike or a walk in the neighborhood, and basically move around as much as we can. I love cycling — it’s great alone-time and friend-time — but I don’t ride nearly as much as I wish I could.
Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient? What’s the one thing you’d suggest people keep in their kitchen if they want to cook healthy meals?
Lisa: I can’t just say one thing here! I would say low-fat cheeses (not fat-free! It’s just not as good), and frozen lean proteins (i.e., individually frozen chicken breasts, frozen peeled shrimp, etc.). I always have bags of pre-washed greens and shredded cabbage for slaws, apples, fat-free milk, and a mix of whole grain cereals (so we don’t get bored).
Diet Detective: What’s the one kitchen utensil or tool that you can’t live without?
Lisa: I’m not a big appliance person. I would say a good knife for chopping all those veggies for stir-fries. I also like my grill pan for chicken breasts and fish.
Diet Detective: What’s the easiest healthy meal you know how to make?
Lisa: I can do a pretty good, quick stir fry. I put the rice in the rice cooker (I know I just said I wasn’t an appliance person, but this was a gift! And it makes sticky rice just like you get at restaurants). Then, I sauté garlic and a bit of onion in some canola oil, toss in veggies (carrots and broccoli are staples, sometimes I buy them pre-cut to speed things up), and add some water chestnuts (my six-year-old loves them). Then, I’ll stir in a couple of handfuls of frozen peeled, de-veined shrimp, and stir that around till you can’t see them anymore. I pull the pan off the heat and mix up soy sauce, water or chicken broth, and a bit of cornstarch. That goes into the pan to make the sauce. I put it back on the heat and stir until the sauce is thick.
I also use leftover chicken breasts to make chicken tacos. To make these, I use whole wheat tortillas, fat-free refried beans, a dab of guacamole (you can buy the prepared kind that’s only avocados, salt, and garlic — no mayo or anything), a sprinkle of low-fat cheddar, and a side of shredded cabbage in light balsamic vinaigrette or cut up fruit.
Diet Detective: Do you have a Calorie Bargain?
Lisa: Mine is York Peppermint Patties. I eat three of the mini ones every night. That helps me pass up just about anything during the day — the cake someone brought in to the office, or whatever. I always ask myself, would I rather eat this, or my Yorks? I love the taste of them, but I think another factor is that I eat them when I’m finally alone at night, my son’s in bed (and my husband usually is too!), and I finally have a chance to read the paper.
Diet Detective: Define failure.
Lisa: Failure, I think, is not doing the scary thing. I have learned that the things that scare me most are the things I need to do to really feel satisfied and happy. Keeping my mouth shut when I really need to speak up, avoiding people or situations that need to be addressed, saying yes when I should say no — not standing up for myself or for the people around me who need an advocate. Taking the easy way out, that’s failure to me.
Diet Detective: What’s the most bodacious chance you’ve ever taken?
Lisa: I wrote a book that exposed the most personal things about me — things my parents and husband didn’t even know. And I would say it turned out pretty well.
Diet Detective: What was your worst summer job?
Lisa: I have to say I had pretty good ones. It would have been working checkout at a Kmart, but the day before I started, my dad found me a job at one of his customers’ businesses. Nothing against Kmart (I actually shop there quite often now) — but I’m just not cut out to work retail!