Dr. John McDougall and Lani Muelrath

Excerpted and adapted from Fit Quickies;  5 Minute Targeted Body Shaping Workouts, by Lani Muelrath, Penguin/Alpha, 2013.

What? The Plant-Based Fitness Expert Advisor for the McDougall Health and Medical Center Discussion Boards is putting the words ‘failure’ and ‘McDougall Diet’ in the same sentence?

Settle down.  And now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. Because what I’m about to tell you may well change your life.

I now weigh 50 lbs less  than I did 13 years ago at my top weight of 189.5.  Yes, I know – “.5”.  It’s been a journey perhaps not unlike your own.  My story has a few interesting twists and I tell it in full transparency to offer hope.


Note:  I could have just talked about the food and diet here and it would be of deep value, and perhaps all the information you need.  Yet it wouldn’t be true to the full story of my success.  So I color in the big picture for you if you, like me, have the experience that there is more than simply “Here’s the food problem:  Here’s the food solution”.  I hope that this is helpful to you.

The trail of my long and colorful diet history is littered with dog-eared diet books, stacks of journals, plenty of excess poundage and as those of us with a ‘weight’ problem well know, lots of white-knuckle hunger, tears, and hair-tearing.

I’ve been eating vegetarian for 38 years.  Despite multiple attempts and a variety of vegetarian eating schemes for weight loss that gave me intermittent short – term success and frequent long-term failure,  I kept trying.  I dare you to top my listing of attempts.  Important to the story, but beside the point.

Through all those years of hit and miss, there prevailed within me 2 underlying convictions:

#1)  My hunger signals couldn’t be wrong or faulty.

I figured that something is wrong with the system – not my body – if I needed to count, weigh or measure everything.

Something’s wrong with the system if I have to addle my brain with counting 1.73 grams of protein to 2.426 grams of carbohydrate, or any other living-your-life-as-a-lab system.  Wrong with the system – not my body.

#2)  There must be a way to eat that would allow me to use hunger and fullness signals as my guide. 

I’d see the squirrels and deer grazing in the woods outside our door and they weren’t counting or measuring anything.  And they weren’t fat, either.  And it’s not because they didn’t have enough to eat.  Obesity is unknown in the wild.  What had they figured out, without thinking, that I hadn’t?  Sure, I knew about calories and most of my diet incarnations had some sort of calorie counting component.  I could manage my weight with portions and counting.  For awhile.  But it was hard and I was hungry.

Major turn of events

Finally, my frustrating search brought me to an eating coach who helped me make a big leap forward in my quest.  By this point in time, years of frustration had me wanting, more than anything, a healthy, happy relationship with food, eating and my body.  What appealed to me about this coach’s work – she was also an RN and obesity specialist – was that the central theme to her approach dovetailed with my convictions about hunger, fullness, and appetite guides.  All we had to do was tune in, listen to our fuel signals, and eat quality food until we had enough, she said.  You can see why this appealed to me.

I threw all my eggs into this basket. The only rules were be sure to eat every time you get hungry and eat until full on quality, real food. It made sense, it satisfied hunger, and it broke me from the enervating cycle of dieting.

Eating this way was both a relief and very anxiety producing.  Letting go of all of the ‘controls’ around food was a scary ride.  Plus, at first, I gained weight.  A LOT of weight.  40 lbs. This was not without its challenges since as a college professor, fitness trainer and physical educator I was in front of people teaching exercise classes and lecturing all the time.  Once an aerobics student even asked if I was pregnant.  Yikes. What kept me going?  Intuitively I knew I was on the right track.  Refer to “underlying convictions”  #1 and #2 above.

Redefining ‘quality’ food

Yet knowing what I know now, all of that gain was not necessary.  I know because I have coached thousands of others in eating according to appetite to steadily lose weight and become leaner with the same principles (and underlying convictions #1 and #2 above)  as I implemented.

Now, I have a different view of what ‘quality’ food is.  At the time, though a vegetarian and processed foods were not considered ‘quality’ according to the approach, dairy products, eggs and smaller amounts of oils were.  Moderate fat intake at about 20% of daily calories was advised.  Still, I gained that weight.  I was eating according to hunger and fullness signals, true to my ideal.  My coach said that even though I would gain initially, that eventually my weight would plateau and then slowly start to drop.  This actually did happen to some extent.

Before going on, I do want to underscore that I am deeply grateful to this coach because she taught me a lot about listening to my body and that my body was not the enemy.  That something is wrong with the food and the eating, not your body.  The fact that my body stored fat more readily than someone else’s was not a design flaw, it was a genetic survival plus.  I ‘got a good one’ she’d say.  And the experience with this coach, though somewhat off the mark in these early stages, eventually resulted in my realizing that ideal that I was seeking in being well fed, slim and healthy and  with a healthy, happy relationship with food, eating, and my body.

Eventually, though,  I still found I was heavier than I wanted to be and began to implement some controls that would assist with weight loss.  I tweaked down the calories with portions and was careful not to cut too dramatically because I knew too well the consequences associated with doing so – that I would become hungry, which would hook my survival instinct, and restart the terrible ordeal of hunger management. I was thus able to nudge my weight down a little bit more, yet without the serious dietary implementations or rebound hunger of the years when I was really cutting my dieting teeth.  Still, I had faith that I would eventually find the solution that met my highest ideal of not having to ‘count’.

Critical to success:  Assembling mindset tools

It was also during this time and through this process that I developed and deeply utilized the tools for that you now find in Woman’s Fitness Blueprint:  An Action Plan for Success and Boot Camp Mind:  My Top 10 Motivational Tools for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness Success.   When one goes through the tremendous transformation such as I am sharing with you, it is not without just as much attention to mindset and mastery of psychology as to food plan and exercise.  Without the inner shifts the other 2 legs of what I call the 3 Pillars of Transformation – mindset, diet, and exercise – are temporary and at best superficial.  You have to keep in mind what you are looking for.   Yes, a slim and energetic, healthy body, yet also productivity, fulfillment, and happiness.

Our fitness and energy are a part of the bigger picture of our lives. Our bodies are the tools through which we experience our lives in fulfilling our passion of purpose, contribution, livelihood, avocations, and just plain joy of existence. We can all easily create a list of activities, contributions, and obligations, for which we are best equipped to fulfill when fit, healthy and energetic.  Don’t discount the value of this, or excuse it away.  ~ from Lani Muelrath’s Woman’s Fitness Blueprint, Module One

So where does the McDougall Plan part fit in?

Prior to this change of events those 13 years ago, I had purchased a copy of the McDougall Plan.  This was at about the same time that it came out in 1983.  It had appealed to my ‘eat when hungry until you’re not’ vision and I eagerly jumped in.

I lasted a few days, got hungry, and abandoned it.  I tried the McDougall approach again a few years later, drawn by the sense and promise of it – eat according to appetite and be your natural thin weight – and ‘lasted’ only a few days once more.

[To fit this into the timeline, it was following these initial forays into the McDougall waters that I had the life-changing experience with my food and eating coach.]

What finally made it all come together for me was actually meeting and spending a day with Dr. McDougall.

Turning point:  My day with Dr. John McDougall

I had been invited to attend an all-day physician’s seminar where Dr. McDougall took the stage for hours on end, presenting documentation, graphs, slides, images – you name it – in front of a roomful of cardiologists.  Dr. McDougall’s patience, clarity, and ability to make everything seem so common sense had a disarming affect on the cardiologist crowd.  And it drove home to me points I’d heard before.  Yet I realized I hadn’t quite gotten the full message until that day.

I left that seminar with a deeper understanding of how oils and dairy were no doubt in the way of my progress.  Yet the biggest moments of enlightenment had to do with the importance of starches.

I realized that as much as I was intellectually convinced about the wisdom of the McDougall Plan and what a good match it was for my ideals, the reason I failed initially is because I was holding back on the potatoes, yams, and brown rice in a way that was sabotaging my success.  Though I professed to have given up carbophobia long before, there was still some residual influence that was hampering my progress.

I was doing great with the vegetables.  Mountains of them.  Belly full.  But the persistent hunger that drove me to abandon the McDougall diet in my earlier attempts occurred because I wasn’t respecting enough the dietary bulk factor that would be necessary to realize my goal.   Bulk is a huge part of satiety, and is  a function of weight and fiber in the gut.  It’s one of the big reasons that most diets fail.

In my previous McDougall diet incarnations, I did fine on the fiber with all the high water content vegetables. But that wasn’t giving my stretch and fullness receptors the right message to switch off the ‘hunger’ signal and switch on the ‘full’ switch.  That takes a higher amount of calorie density teamed with bulk. That’s what the potatoes, brown rice, etc do.  They affect the amount of calorie concentration, teamed with bulk and fiber, in any given food.  Potatoes just happen to be the perfect combination of fiber, water, and calorie density to bring you into the ‘just right’ satiety zone. Starchy vegetables.  Intact whole grains do it too.  Paired up with the high water content vegetables and fruits, you have the recipe for weight-loss-without-hunger success.

My McDougall diet success: Freely eating creates eating freedom

With my very next meal after leaving that physician’s seminar, I piled on the brown rice and potatoes with my vegetables, and eliminated oils and dairy.  The fanciest I got with portions was to fill half my dinner plate with rice or potatoes and the other half with steamed vegetables using the eyeball method. This allowed me to eat according to appetite.

My rules of eating, as had been my ideal, now allowed me to stay slim:  Eat when hungry, ’til you’re not.   I call it just being a good animal.

Every day, I am thrilled to walk into my kitchen with the happy knowledge that I have mountains of beautiful, delicious foods to choose from, and  which I can eat to my heart’s content until I am full.   I know now from years of experience now that this will keep me trim.

The confident joy of staying slim while eating this way never diminishes.  I never get tired of being able to buy cartfuls of whole foods wherever we happen to be in the world on adventure and cook in the same way with the same result.

I never get tired of the fact that when you get the food right, the fitness is so much simpler, and I can easily keep my shape with the simple tools of Fit Quickies, hiking and walking, and other elements of play that are all part of being a good animal.

It is a wonderful way to live.

People ask me how they should eat to lose weight so I tell them exactly how I eat.

Usually they ask me more than once, because I don’t think they quite believe me.  I look at it this way.  By day’s end, if I were to take all of the food I ate that day and put it on a big tray, half of it would be piled with starchy veggies and whole grains and the other half with high water-content vegetables.  There would be about a cup of beans and a couple of pieces of fruit on top.  A sprinkling of seeds.  Over the course of weeks, there would be some festive feast meals thrown in. It’s a good summation of my food each day, give or take.  A no-brainer  forks over knives.  It’s not a religion, it’s a guiding set of simple principles.

Breakfast is usually whole grains and fruits with seeds or nuts.  Lunch is a big bowl of soup with starchy vegetables, legumes, and dark greens or a salad, or both, often with a sandwich on wholegrain bread.  Dinner is a mountain of rice or potatoes or pasta with another big pile of steamed veggies and or salad.  I call it my big plate trick for staying trim.   Somewhere along the course of the day I’ll have another fruit or two.  If some days I’m hungrier, I  don’t think twice about eating an extra big bowl of rice, second serving of potatoes, or grabbing a couple of chunks good grainy bread.  That’s not what makes us fat  But until we really get it about being well fed on those foods with the ability to ring our happy satiety bells, we’ll struggle with our hunger and quite likely our weight.

It’s that simple.


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