We’ve all seen those dramatic before and after weight loss photos of people in magazines.  I used to think they were fake or some diet scam.  I thought that until I lost my own huge belly through hard work and planning.

The reality is:  my weight loss came mostly through changing what and when I ate.  I really was able to use my fork to lose my belly.  I have kept it off for nearly 4 years.

It was the summer of 2011.  I was turning 40.  I looked in the mirror and realized that I was a perfect candidate for type II diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack.  That’s because, like so many Americans, I over ate everyday, did not workout and was more than fifty pounds overweight.  My belly would not allow me to look down and see anything below my waist.  This was an ego-deflating reality (fellas, you know why).  I immediately decided to make changes to avoid having a heart attack by age 50.  So, for the 21 days preceding my birthday, I lost 24 pounds.  Seven months later, I had lost a total of 60.

Here’s what I did to lose the weight, and continue to do to keep it off.

My first change was not my eating habits, nor my physical activity.  It was my mentality.  I had to change the way I thought about eating, nutrition and fitness before I could embark on a sustainable, life-changing weight loss journey.

The second change was an important realization that I had to focus on weight maintenance after my weight loss.  During my late 20’s and early 30’s, I had already lost more than 50 pounds twice.  I finally figured out after gaining all those pounds back each time that I had to do more than lose weight.  I had to change my lifestyle, and learn how to keep the weight off.  I realized that food was not really for my hunger — it was actually for my health.  It wasn’t just about eliminating bad things.  It was also about adding good things — layers of vitamins and nutrients like spinach, blueberries, apples, green tea, oatmeal, turkey, water, greek yogurt, garlic, cinnamon, eggs and other super foods.

The third thing I did was research what actually makes us fat.  For the life of me, I could not figure out how I was eating “healthy”, but could not lose weight.  I was doing things like skipping breakfast, having baked potatoes instead of fries or having OJ instead of soda.  I was shocked by what I discovered.  I found out that those things I just mentioned were actually the very things making me fat.  That baked potato was digesting and turning right into sugar.  No one had ever told me that.  I was trying to be healthy and making myself fat at the same time.

I also learned that white flour, white sugar, white rice and white potatoes — the foundation of my daily meals — were the main things putting weight on me every, single day.  I couldn’t believe it.  These items were staples of the American diet:  pancakes, hash browns, mashed potatoes, cereal, Chinese take out, french fries, hamburger buns, pasta.  I thought I was doomed to being portly and miserable.  I learned to replace those things with healthier versions like sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, honey instead of sugar, brown or black rice instead of white and whole wheat flour to replace white flour.

I also learned that skipping breakfast was huge problem.  Many of us make this mistake everyday.  We don’t realize that skipping breakfast is one of the main reasons we cannot lose weight, or, sadly, why we keep gaining weight.
That first meal in the morning is what jumpstarts our metabolism.  Your metabolism is an important weapon to fight weight gain.  It is your body’s built-in fat burner.  That’s why so many doctors and nutritionists say in order to lose weight, we should eat a bunch of small meals throughout the day.  It sounds illogical, but it works.  If we want to lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight, we should be eating about five or six times a day.

Here’s an example of what eating six times a day should look like:

1. huge breakfast
2. small, protein-packed snack (2 hours after breakfast)
3. medium-sized lunch
4. another protein-packed snack (2 hours after lunch)
5. small dinner (before 8 pm)
6. small protein-packed snack (2 hours after dinner)

Someone brilliant once said: We should eat like a King at breakfast, a Prince at lunch and a Pauper at dinner.
That’s a smart way to consume most of our calories before the afternoon (while we are most active).  It works.  I’m living proof.

Here’s what your meals should look like on any given day:

Breakfast: 3 eggs, turkey sausage, multigrain toast, real fruit spread, bowl of oatmeal with blueberries (add honey, real butter and 2 % milk), greek yogurt with fruit, green tea and a tall glass of water

Snack 1 should come two hours after breakfast:  a large apple and a tall glass of water

Lunch:  Greek salad with grilled chicken breast and a tall glass of water

Snack 2 should come 2 hours after lunch:  sliced turkey breast with hummus and a tall glass of water

Dinner:  a 6 oz piece of Alaskan salmon, steamed broccoli, a glass of red wine and a tall glass of water

Snack 3 should come two hours after dinner:  a handful of almonds and a tall glass of water

Another huge change I had to make was not starting my day with sugar.  Does this breakfast sound familiar: pancakes with syrup, hash browns and a tall glass of OJ?  That’s literally sugar, sugar and more sugar.  I have had this plate of sugar, and washed it down with a glass of sugar regularly.

Sugar is one of our major addictions here in America.  I had to learn to ween myself off.  It was a challenge, but I forced myself to do it.  The first step in breaking my addiction was to cut out soda, then I stopped drinking juice.  The soda was a no-brainer, but the juice was a tough choice.  I learned that it is healthier to actually eat the fruit, instead of drinking it’s juice.  Here’s why: sugar occurs naturally in fruit.  It’s called fructose.  Squeezing the juice from fruit means you’re extracting its liquid sugar.  Then we pour that liquid sugar from 8 oranges into a glass and drink it.  That’s a lot of sugar to drink at once.  Even if it is from oranges — it’s still a glass of sugar.  Health professionals will tell you that it’s much better for us to simply eat the orange.  The fruit has fiber and other nutrients we don’t get when we drink juice.  We should not be quenching our thirst with juice.  Drink water instead.  If you must have a glass of fresh squeezed juice, it should be a really small glass.  Just a few ounces.

Overeating was another problem I had to fix.  My portions were enough food for two people, especially when I ate at restaurants.

The next thing I changed was eating late.  Sometimes I would eat “dinner” at 10 pm or later.  To make matters worse, it usually was the biggest meal of my day.  That meant I was going to bed on a full stomach — with no way to burn off any of those calories.  The truth is, the way I used to eat, my belly was full of things that were turning right into sugar as soon as they digested (like pizza, mashed potatoes, white pasta and soda).

That old adage “you are what you eat” is really true.  This means your weight loss (and getting rid of that big belly) is going to happen mostly from changing what you eat, how much you eat and when.  The smallest part of your weight loss will come from working out.  But physical activity is still very important to overall health.

Because of the importance, I began by adding small physical activity like taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator.  I started walking instead of driving whenever possible.  Then I added bigger things like running a few miles.  Any physical activity will do: bike riding, jogging, rollerblading,  skateboarding, swimming, dancing, pilates, aerobics, etc.  Consulting your doctor before any changes to your diet or physical activity is required to maintain good health.

Joining a gym is not necessary.  However, doing so helped me get inspired by others at the gym trying to get in shape.  It could inspire you, too, especially if you’re not a self-starter.  Plus, there are so many workout options that you don’t have at home: jump ropes, treadmills, free weights, punching bags, and so much more.

During my years of studying fitness and good health, I have learned that building lean muscle actually burns more fat than running on the treadmill (or any other cardiovascular activity).  Fitness trainers say this is because you continue to burn fat days after weightlifting as your muscles repair.  However, building lean muscle and doing cardio is even better for you.

Friendly reminder: doing crunches will not get rid of your belly.  Eating a right will.  That’s why they say, “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.”  It is true.

Please know that losing excess weight is not about your abs, it’s really about your heart.  Heart disease remains the number killer of Americans.  So, losing that belly is more about health than it is about how good you look in your clothes.  Nice fitting jeans is the by-product.  The main goal should be a healthy body.

Be patient.  It takes time and effort to lose weight.  It takes discipline and a lifestyle change to keep it off.  Good luck on your journey.  You really can lose that belly one forkful at a time.  If I can do it, trust me, you can, too.  Now, go pick up that fork, eat right, exercise and watch that belly disappear.