If you need an extra kick in the pants to get motivated to work out and eat healthy this year, Andie Mitchell’s new memoir “It Was Me All Along,” might just do the trick.
Like many people struggling with obesity, Mitchell grew up turning to food for comfort — and can’t remember a time when she was considered slim. “Food was never simply fuel,” she writes in her book. “It was never just about hunger, and it certainly didn’t stop at fullness.” Eating became even more of an emotional crutch after the death of her father, who struggled with substance abuse, when she was just 12 years old.
But don’t worry — this isn’t a sob story. Mitchell never let her weight keep her down: She had plenty of friends, got crowned prom queen and had a party-filled college experience. But, one day, when she was 20 years old, she realized the numbers on the scale would never stop climbing if she didn’t do something about it. “I couldn’t even imagine…what would happen if I didn’t stop what I was doing,” Mitchell says.
In 13 months, Mitchell took control and lost 135 pounds. And she did it the old-fashioned way: paying attention to portion sizes, counting calories and exercising. But even when she reached her goal weight of 133 pounds, Mitchell’s body issues didn’t just disappear. She suffered from depression, got obsessed with eating healthy to maintain her new frame and even struggled with over-exercising. And, this year, with the stress from the release of her book just months away, she regained 40 pounds.
Yet, through all her ups and downs, Mitchell has remained optimistic. Now, she’s made a career developing healthy recipes on her blog, Can You Stay for Dinner. DailyBurn caught up with Mitchell to hear how she lost the weight — and what she thinks it’ll take for you to slim down, too.
Love Weight Loss Success Stories? Meet Andie Mitchell
What would you say was your weight loss wake up call?
It was my sophomore year of college and I knew that I was very big. I was wearing a size 22 pants at that time, and Old Navy didn’t even carry that in the store. I had just come home for the summer and my best friend and I decided to join the YMCA to lose some weight. We walked into the locker room and I stepped on the scale and looked at the number. I expected it to be high — but I had never seen it at this number. It was 268.
It was absolutely terrifying, because it was so close to 300. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d gotten to that point, or what would happen if I didn’t stop what I was doing. From birth, I was always [gaining weight] and it seemed to me like, ‘Wow, if I don’t do something right this minute, right now, my weight is going to continue to climb.’ I feel like I broke out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t 268, it was knowing that there was 300, knowing that there was 315 and 330 and 350. And I think it just scared me. I was ready; I was so ready to just not let those numbers come.
Which diets have you tried over the years?
I’ve tried so many diets. I’ve tried medically supervised diets in hospitals, I’ve tried liquid diets like Slim Fast, I’ve tried Atkins, I’ve tried fasting. The best ones I’ve found are the ones that are more moderate. I personally have always really liked calorie counting. I’ve tried Weight Watchers and I thought that was really great because it gave me an idea about portion sizes. As someone who was very big, I really had no idea what a proper serving was, or what I should be paying attention to in terms of fiber, protein and fat.
“I was hardwired to turn to food when I felt any emotion that was uncomfortable to me.”
I like calorie counting because for 250 calories, yes you could have whole-grain crackers and hummus, or you could have a chocolate chip cookie. Every food is created equal and it removes the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ halo. You have the freedom to choose whatever you want, as long as you set your own healthy quota for the day. It opened up a world of paying attention to what I was eating.
How did you change your diet when you finally committed to losing weight?
In the first five months of losing weight, I just tried to do my best to cut out the soda and the fast food I was eating. Then, I joined Weight Watchers for a little while and I really liked it. I found a lot of comfort in the structure of counting points, learning to really pay attention to what I was eating and portion sizes. Then, I started just transitioning to counting calories. It took 13 months overall to lose all 135 pounds.
I had also started running maybe six or seven months in, so I would jog five or six days a week. That breeds a lot more motivation to keep going. You feel really empowered when you’re exercising and you don’t want to eat back the calories you’ve burned!
What was the hardest part of dieting while you were in college?
Drinking is so hard! And once you drink, you’re hungry for late night snacks, and it’s really challenging to balance that. People are not eating healthy snacks at the end of the night — they’re eating pizza! You don’t want to fall off the rails on the weekends, but you have to have the college experience, too. Maybe know that on Friday night, you’ll want to have a healthier snack set up when you get home. But then, one night per weekend, just be aware that you’re going to order a slice of pizza.
What’s the unhealthy habit that’s been hardest for you to shake?
From the time I was very little, I was hardwired to turn to food when I felt any emotion that was uncomfortable to me. Even now, whenever I feel any measure of discomfort I have a split second where I say, ‘Am I hungry?’ and I have to say, ‘No, no, that’s just your programming.’ It’s just how I’ve soothed myself my whole life. Once I lost the weight and couldn’t turn to food [to fix] every single uncomfortable feeling, I really went through a grieving process. It was a really difficult time for a year, two years even. I really had to create new things to do in place of eating.
What did you turn to in place of food to help you manage your emotions?
I really like to take walks. Getting outside of my own environment and getting outside in general is really helpful. I will try to call a friend. Sometimes I’ll read, I’ll watch a movie, I’ll go to the movies. If I feel like I want to binge eat, or eat everything in the world, I’ll try to really sit with the emotion and say to myself, “It will pass.” It eventually dissipates, you can ride it out — it’s like a wave of emotion.
After your weight loss, you say you became obsessive about eating healthy — you were scared to eat in restaurants, and overwhelmed by food choices. Do you think you developed a form of orthorexia?
At the time I think I did. I wanted everything to be perfect. And the obsession extended in so many directions, everything overwhelmed me. Going to the grocery store, not being able to make a decision about what to eat, it just became this really hard journey. At some point it becomes not even about the weight, but the control of it. It wasn’t about never feeling like I was thin enough. It was more a fear of returning to my former weight, and not really knowing how to handle the new body I was in. Now, I really like healthy foods — but I’m never too good for an Oreo.
You also struggled with over-exercising. How did you break that pattern and what are your habits like now?
I’m so passionate now about only doing what you love. I would never do something that I didn’t like now. If anything makes you feel like you dread it, then why bother? Life is too short.
It’s been almost 10 years since I lost the weight and I’ve gone through periods of doing various exercises. I maintained my weight for a long time just walking. You don’t have to be taking classes every day to maintain or to lose weight. It’s all about finding something you’re happy to do day in and day out.
Is it hard to have an entire career based around food, as someone who once struggled with binge eating?
I think it’s really great actually. There’s a really good quote and I don’t know who said it, but it’s something like, “It’s really great if you can grow up and make a career out of what made you weird as a kid.” I’m able to write about my life in terms of weight and food and it’s real and candid and it’s really, really not perfect, but I guess there are a lot of things in there that people can relate to.
“I’d say spend a month measuring your portions and paying attention to servings sizes.”
But it took me until this year to realize that other people don’t need me to be perfect. I don’t always need to be a weight loss success story for people to understand me and for [my story] to resonate. If I can write about it and people get it, and even when I’m devastated about what I’m going through, even writing about my own depression, I have to kind of think that’s meaningful.
In your blog, you recently wrote about regaining 40 pounds this year. Was it difficult to go through that — and go back to dieting again?
Yes, in the past year and a half or so I had gained 40-ish pounds. I just lost 35 of them. It was terrible. If I gain weight, a lot of the time it’s because I’m struggling with depression. It was really hard because I also didn’t want to share that on the blog because I didn’t want to be a failure, so the shame that came with that was massive.
When I did share that, people were really, really freaking kind about it, and really accepting. I think people get that this is life. Losing it was harder this time though, because I knew what maintenance was like. The first time I lost it, it seemed like I just had to get to the finish line and I was done!
There was a lot more of an emotional journey. I think the pressure of my career at this point in my life, in terms of the book and things like that made it messier. It took me at least seven or eight months to lose those 40 pounds — and 13 months to lose 135 pounds before! The lessons that I learned this time about moderation and being kind to yourself were so hard, but so valuable.
Do you have any advice for other people trying to lose weight?
If you don’t know anything about calories or portion sizes, I’d say spend a month measuring your portions and paying attention to servings sizes. That is enlightening. If you’re just starting out and have never done that, learn what a cup of pasta or oatmeal looks like. That really will change your life.
I also really believe in taking every day literally one day at a time. When I started and knew that I had to lose well over 100 pounds it was very overwhelming. When you have a lot of weight to lose, it’s easy to say, ‘That number is just so astronomical…I’ll start tomorrow or next week.’ But if you just focus on doing your best today, it’s somewhat more manageable. That really, really helps me, especially at nighttime. I think for a lot of people who struggle with chronic weight issues, night can be a particularly challenging time to want to eat for emotional reasons. But think: Can you just get through just this one day and not screw it up? That’s helpful.