Writing your own personal story is not an easy task, especially when you are sharing it with the world, but I wanted to be able to share with you my journey to health because I have been where you are and I know the challenges people face when trying to overcome poor eating habits.
Most of my adult life I have struggled with my weight. Not just struggled, down right let myself get to a point where I was unhappy with myself and wearing a size 32 and eating my way into possible diabetes in the future.
I like to think that my journey to health started when I was younger, and that might be true, but it did not really hit home that the eating habits I was modeling could possibly be affecting my family.
In February of 2013, my youngest son had his first seizure and a month later I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, I knew it was time that we as a family needed to change our eating habits. I started researching what I could do for my family that would not only help us learn about how to improve our eating habits, but also help us better understand how we could use food to improve our health. As I was researching the internet, I came across some You Tube videos by Natalie Butler. What I learned from her videos really drove my passion to change to our families eating habits to clean, non-processed, real foods.
Over the years my family and I have had our ups and downs with regards to living a healthy lifestyle. I think I took the word “in moderation” literally or maybe I took it a little further and went off the beaten path a few times. I can honestly say there were days, weeks, and even months when we struggled and then there were times, I felt like we were crushing it.
By the end of 2015 I had lost 140 lbs and was feeling great. I finally fit into a size 14 pants and for the first time in I do not know how long I remember; I could fit into an XL shirt. Knowing that I finally could wear a size that did not require me to shop at a specialty store gave me hope.
I remember the end of December 2015 I was cleaning the house we were moving out of so we could move into our new home and there were days I had worked hours scrubbing bathrooms (moms with boys will be able to relate to this), but I remember thinking to myself that a few years ago my stomach would have just gotten in my way and I would not have been able to do those impossible moves and stretches that cleaning a bathroom requires.
I was feeling more confident in myself, something I honestly had not felt in a lot of years. I think I even walked with confidence. I didn’t feel like an outcast in the grocery store, I even struck up conversations with strangers, because I didn’t feel I had to fear they would laugh at me. I wore clothes that made me feel good, I even changed my hair color. Okay that was mostly due to the gray that would not stop coming in, but changing my hair color made me feel better about myself and was in a way leaving the old me behind. I can remember looking at pictures of myself at my heaviest, my dark curly hair had adorned the photo, it also hid the large round face that I had left behind. I was now a dark blonde, the gray didn’t show up so much, it matched my skin tone better, but it also made me feel more confident. I didn’t do this for anyone but me. I have always loved my hair, as I was blessed with some awesome natural curly hair, but no matter how much I loved my hair I always saw the big girl hiding behind it. This new look was something I needed to do for myself, something that said I could take on the world. Ladies, do not ever be ashamed for changing your hair style or color. You do what make you feel good, not because someone else tells you to. No one asked me to change my hair color, I did that for me. It took me and my family a while to get used to it, but over the years it has grown on me and I think I should had done that years ago, but looking back, I think it was meant to be. The old me was a brunette, with long dark natural curly hair, a size 30-32, and weighed 356 pounds, the new me had medium-blonde natural curly shoulder length hair and was down 140 pounds. I think it went well with the new me, but most of all it helped me feel more confident in myself.
I had planned that next year to continue eating clean and losing even more weight. While I felt so much better than I had in years in my own skin, I knew that wasn’t my final stopping weight. Just a six-weeks earlier I was at the doctor’s office discussing getting a panniculectomy for those that do not know a panniculectomy is removing excess skin and tissue from the lower abdomen, unlike a tummy-tuck, it is not a cosmetic procedure and most insurances cover it because people like myself can get infections in the area and can help with future problems one might have. See, besides the weight loss, I had two c-sections and a robotic hysterectomy, and so my lower abdomen well it was not looking like it did in my 20’s. I think I surprised the doctor when I told him that I lost all my weight by just eating real foods. I think he was looking for me to tell him that I had done it through weight-loss surgery or some magic pill. He was very confident that I would be approved by my insurance to get the surgery and I went home and told my husband who reminded me that if this was something, I wanted to do then I should do it, but do not do it for anyone else. I knew it would be something that would not only help, but also solidify all the work I had done and help me gain the extra confidence I was missing, so the doctor said as soon as he heard back from the insurance, we would get me on the books for the end of the year. A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail that was denying my surgery, a punch in the gut, but I have been through worse. I was not going to let this get me down. I mean it was just some extra skin right?
Over the next few months, we finished moving into our new home, celebrated our open house, and things were moving along well. I had maintained my weight loss, was still feeling confident and proud of myself. Fast-forward a few months later, it was March of 2016 and I was working on my thesis paper for graduate school and as you can imagine was a stressful time in my life. On top of being a full-time mom, running a household, homeschooling full-time, and going to graduate school full-time, I was now preparing for my largest educational undertaking. Even though I had prepared for this for the last year and a half, no matter how much we as moms try to keep on top of things, as you know there will always be something that comes up that we need to take care of, whether its fixing a boo-boo, helping kids with their projects, or just simply cuddling with them when they do not feel well. That March was brutal.
Thinking back, I cannot remember every detail, but I can tell you that I was stressed. Not necessarily bad stress but just stressed trying to be all for everyone and everything. And maybe you could have guessed where I was going with this, but yes, my old eating habits didn’t just come creeping back up on me, they came back full-force. A late-night snack while I was working on my paper’s hypothesis, or quickly grabbing something at the fast food drive-thru so I could get back to studying, was just the start of what would be a spiral downhill with my health journey.
A couple months later, I graduated from graduate school.
An accomplishment that I am so proud of, but was not so proud of the extra twenty pounds I carried across the stage to accept my degree. Even though I walked across that stage confidently, I didn’t feel so confident in my own body. The last year I had gotten rid of all my big girl clothes. I mean when something that reminds you of when you didn’t feel so good about yourself stares at you in your closet every day, it has to go. I know many people who lose a great amount of weight like to keep their clothes as a reminder, but for me it was more of a hinderance. I looked at those clothes as the old me, not that I changed so much that I was unrecognizable, but the old me that felt she was defined by the size of her body not by the woman, mom, person I wanted myself to be known for. They couldn’t stay. I didn’t even want to take a picture in them to show how much weight I had lost over the last couple of years, I just wanted to donate them to Goodwill and be done with them. What I didn’t know was how soon, I would be needing them back. Sure, I didn’t go out and find the exact clothes, but as the year progressed, I started gaining more weight and it would have been nice to have something to wear that actually fit my unreluctantly growing body.
By the beginning of October 2016, I was up about 65 pounds and the confidence I had back at the end of the last year was starting to dwindle. I mean who makes such a large transformation like I had made over the last couple of years, just to start heading in the direction I had fought so hard to get away from? Just a few short months earlier, I had decided that it was time to break out of my mom shell and use my newly acquired Organizational Leadership degree to create a legacy for my boys. I joined a network marketing company that allowed me to continue being at home with my boys, time for homeschooling them, and time to build a career of my own. I stepped further out of my comfort zone and joined a few different local networking groups and met some wonderful people I still call friends today.
By the middle of October, I was about two months into my new venture when my friend introduced me to a company that at the time, I thought would change my life and get my health back on track. Yes, it was a company that focused its nutrition on drinking two shakes a day, and eating a real food dinner. What did I have to lose? At this time, I also joined a few non-profit organizations to give back to my community. During this time, I also started on the shake program and within a few months had lost 50 pounds, but there was still something missing. While I loved their shakes, I did not feel like I was being truthful to myself and my body. Just a year earlier I professed my love of clean eating and that the true way to find health was to eat real foods, ALL THE TIME. Not just for dinner. A few short months later, I found myself cutting back on the program, limiting my shakes, and then eventually not ordering them at all. I started putting back on the weight, I started feeling less confident in myself, and I felt like I was headed on a downward spiral.
That was June of 2017. Just a few short months earlier I was enjoying the sun on the beautiful shores of Puerto Rico, visiting with my in-laws and extended family there, and trying to create a new business venture that would share health and wealth with those that I love. What I didn’t know was that wasn’t me. No, not the wanting to share health and wealth with those I love, but the person that the company wanted me to be.
Over the next few months, I backed down from some of the networking I was doing, and focused my time on my family and volunteering for the non-profit organizations I had joined the year prior. Even though I was feeling like I was heading towards a downward spiral, I still managed to be there for my family and for the non-profits, but I took a step back from putting clean eating at the forefront of my life. Looking back, I cannot answer why, I just knew that my inner critic, the one that told me I was destined to be a big person all my life or the inner critic that told me I was not pretty or good enough, was sitting in the driver’s seat. It was never my intention to let it drive, but for those that know how powerful inner critics can be, mine was overpowering my confidence.
By February 2019 I was up to the same weight I was in 2013.
That was my stopping point. I was bound and determined not to let my weight get any higher and I sat my family down and said we are going to step up our clean eating game again. I mean we never really left clean eating as it has always been a part of our life since 2013 but as processed foods were reintroduced, they became more and more prevalent in our daily lives. Since February of 2019, my focus has been on health and getting my family back on track.
I knew this time would be different, maybe it was remembering what it felt like to be in a smaller size of clothing or maybe it was the fact that I was getting older and was turning 45 that year that I knew this time would be different.
The first thing though I had to do that I did not the first time around on this journey, was to deal with the things that were holding me back and the reasons behind why I had developed a lifetime of bad eating habits. This time I told myself I deserved it, and my family deserved a mom that was going to be a leader in this journey. As a mom I feel I have a big responsibility of modeling good eating habits and I knew that I had to get it right this time. I was so committed to this lifestyle that a few months later we went on our annual road trip and I spent the day before meal prepping for that trip. I am not much of an itinerary planner, but planning out how we would be able to tackle the obstacles that a road trip might cause when you are focused on eating healthy, I did that. Not only did I prepare our meals ahead of time for the first couple of days, I loaded the car up with healthy snacks and made sure our hotel rooms had a kitchenette in them so we could buy food at the grocery store and cook it in our hotel room.
I was that committed. I was also committed to undertaking getting a life coach to help me through what I call my inner critic challenges. This opened my eyes to learn that I am a perfectionist. What, are you kidding me? I remember back in 2002 when I was pregnant with my oldest son hearing my OBGYN say that I am a perfectionist, but I shrugged it off and was sure that she did not know me well enough to say I was a perfectionist. How could I be someone that thought everyone had to be perfect, that was not me. I always thought of myself as a caring and loving person that would be alongside you as your cheerleader. What I did not know was that a perfectionist was not what I thought it was. It had to do more with me than with other people. It was what I was expecting of myself and understanding that being a perfectionist was not expecting everyone else to be perfect, it was the expectations I had for myself. I mean such high expectations that I made the bar so high I could never achieve it. Well that is what I used to think. Since coming to terms with my perfectionism, I have since learned that no one is perfect, especially me. In learning more about this I also learned that it was a huge factor in why I felt like I had failed on my health journey, when it was not necessarily failure it was not allowing myself to spiral downward but instead pick myself back up and try again. What I did in the past was let that failure overwhelm me and since food was my addiction, it was reverting back to my old eating habits and thinking I was so far away from where I wanted to be why not just keep spiraling out of control. There are many times I would tell myself that I did not deserve to be a smaller person. I didn’t deserve to be a healthy person. I didn’t deserve to be happy and I didn’t deserve to be proud of myself for my accomplishments.
Coming to terms with my perfectionist ways is another work in progress. One does not simply go from being a perfectionist to not having it at least affect some areas of their life especially since I most likely have been that way a majority of my adult life. But being aware of my triggers and at times recognizing when that part of my inner critic was coming out to play and not letting it win, has been a huge part of why I have been successful in my health journey this past year.
In January of 2020, I was sitting with my husband at his doctor’s appointment and he was given the diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes. It was at that appointment that his doctor suggested that he try a whole foods plant-based diet. I am telling you that I know he sat there and listened to everything the doctor was telling him, but I also know my husband and giving up meat and dairy was not in his vocabulary. Looking back at that appointment, one thing I remembered was thinking to myself, how did he develop diabetes if we were so focused on eating clean as a family? I know personally I was down about 100 pounds since going back to clean eating, and I know he had shed some weight as well.
Just like every health journey I have taken; it usually has involved my family and this journey was going to be no different, but I was concerned as I was thinking this was one journey I might have to take alone. Well boy was I wrong, just four short months later, we were sitting in our house getting ready to order some groceries. We were out of meat and I figured this would be a good time to start eating more plant-based foods. Surprisingly enough, I did not get an opposition from my husband or my boys. So, I quickly went online and set up my grocery shopping order and this time, unlike it had been most of my adult life, I did not buy any meat, dairy, or egg products. At first it felt strange, I mean what were our meals going to be like now that meat was not our main dish? That week I started taking all of our clean eating recipes I had made over time and switched up some ingredients and made some amazing dishes, but this time, they were more plant-based. I mean dishes that had flavor, and dishes that were so delicious even my boys commented how good they were.
For the next few weeks, I researched all I could about plant-based eating. Watched every documentary I could and started to really learn more about the health benefits of adopting a plant-based lifestyle. I ordered books and even enrolled in my first nutrition education program to help understand more how food can help impact our health. I was feeling great. I mean I was getting more creative in the kitchen and my family was completely on board. Even though we were in the middle of a pandemic, I was so laser focused on maintaining our health through what would be one of the most difficult times of our lives, or at least I thought it would be.
A few weeks later, I would lose my father to cancer. Something that we knew was coming, but still something that you can never prepare yourself for. This would be a time if any that I would spiral downhill with regards to my eating habits. I mean even though I had been working on the reasons why I had poor eating habits, I still struggle with overcoming them. If you remember back earlier in my story that stress was a huge factor in the reasons that I spiraled downhill in 2016, but this time I couldn’t let that happen this time. I had a husband that was needing me to be his support though his diabetes diagnosis and while I needed support too after the loss of my father, I knew I did not need the added extra weight that spiraling out of control with regards to my eating habits would do. I knew that my dad struggled over the years with his cancer and also with having Type 2 Diabetes, and I knew even after his diagnosis he did not put nutrition at the forefront.
About two weeks after he passed, I was going through some old photos of him and some of me when I was younger. Reminiscing of my childhood and looking back through those photos and then thinking back to my dad’s 10-year battle with cancer, I knew then and there, my mission was to continue helping get my family healthy and hopefully in the process inspiring others. I was not going to let what happened with my dad be my husbands, my boys’, or my story. I knew that while I could not control the outcome, I could do my best to ensure that they had a fighting chance.
At the time I posted my journey on the blog, it had been six months since we moved towards a more plant-based lifestyle. It has been something that has been instrumental in not only helping me get my health back on track, it has been a key factor in helping me shed additional weight.
As of November 2020, I have shed over 130 pounds and over 100 inches since February 2019. I am and always will be a work in progress, but today I am one day closer to my health goals.
In the fall of 2020, I enrolled in the Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate at eCornell so I could further my education and learn more about the health benefits of eating plant-based and to be able to share those resources with each of you.
Back in 2016 I wrote a research paper for my master’s program titled “Family Eating Habits and its effect on children’s health.” Some of the work I am doing in my current nutrition class, had me looking back over that paper last night. I could feel the passion in my voice of how much my own personal eating habits had negatively affected my children’s relationship to food. When I started learning about clean eating, it made so much sense to dive head first into that lifestyle. We desperately needed a change back then. What I didn’t know was how much positive impact it would have on my mine and my family’s life. I have struggled with my weight my whole entire adult life. I have tried almost every diet out there before deciding that to take that term out of the equation. I not only stopped self-sabotaging my own health journey, I started learning how food can be used to fuel my own body and how important it was to model good eating habits so my boys would have a chance to develop a healthy relationship with food. Do we still struggle with weight issues, yes! Do we still struggle to want to eat the foods advertised on TV that we know will not fuel our body, absolutely! Do we have disagreements about what is considered real foods vs not so real foods, you bet we do! Do my husband and I have our own rooted issues as to why we had poor eating habits, no question. Do I still struggle with my relationship to food? Yes, I do, but I also know that I am and will always be a work in progress. What we have done though is come a long way from where we were 7 years ago. We will always be a work in progress and that is okay. I am determined not to give up on what I started back in 2013.
I want this blog to be a place that you can gain access to real food recipes for your whole family, nutrition and clean food resources, and a place where you can follow along in my health journey and hopefully in the process inspire you in yours. I look forward to having you join me and wish you all the best in your journey.
Stephanie Collazo, MS, CHC is the founder of Clean Food Mama, to help you get more plants into your diet. She shed 165 lbs by incorporating a whole foods plant-based diet and loves empowering other women to create healthy habits for themselves and their families.