Gen Cohen said she spent nearly a decade trying fad diets but only ended up gaining weight.
At 21, she said, she decided to take a different, more sustainable approach.
She decided to love herself toward healthy instead of hating herself toward skinny, she said.
"I struggled with my weight my entire life," Cohen, now 29, told Business Insider.
She said that after gaining weight in college, she no longer recognized herself. She decided to make a change and go on a fitness journey but wanted to do it differently this time, she said.
Cohen, who lives in San Diego, told BI she ate a high-protein diet with a gentle calorie deficit and followed the 80/20 principle, meaning she didn't cut anything out of her diet and enjoyed treats and alcohol in moderation.
Though Cohen didn't lose any weight for three months, she said, she stayed consistent and lost 50 pounds over a year, keeping the weight off for seven years.
Cohen went on her first diet age 12
Cohen grew up in a small town in Connecticut where, she said, health wasn't a priority. She told BI that she was active and played sports but that she and her teammates would always go to McDonald's afterward.
Cohen recalled going on her first diet at the age of 12, which she later realized had contributed to a negative body image.
When she went to college in San Diego, she said, being able to eat out for every meal was a novelty — so she did, and she stopped playing sports, too.
"I wound up gaining about 30 pounds and just could not for the life of me figure out how to get it off," Cohen said. "I felt frustrated, I felt sad, and I felt really deceived by media and the weight-loss industry because everything I read was 'Eat 1,200 calories, cut out carbs, don't eat fats, buy these protein shakes or supplements,' but it seemed like the more products and quick fixes I tried, the more damage I was doing."
She said she would lose 10 pounds, then gain back 15, lose 20, then gain back 30. This reflects what research shows about how unsustainable weight loss methods can put the body under stress, leading to weight regain.
"I would eat very large amounts of food and feel physically terrible afterwards because I lacked a certain amount of self-love," Cohen said.
Cohen's 21st birthday was a turning point
Cohen said that for her 21st birthday, her mom flew out to visit her. They went to a beautiful viewing spot and took a bunch of photos, but when Cohen looked back at them afterward she was shocked by the way she looked, she said.
"I physically felt my heart just drop into my stomach because I genuinely didn't recognize the girl looking back," Cohen added.
She said she went home and stood on the scale for the first time in a while and saw her weight had crept up to 205 pounds.
Instead of going out to bars as many Americans do to celebrate turning 21, Cohen said, she spent the rest of the night on her bathroom floor crying and feeling upset, disappointed, confused, lost, and scared.
"I felt like, if the weight could creep on so quickly without me really being aware of it, when would it stop?" she said. "Because I had tried to lose weight so many times before, I just kind of assumed that I was a lost cause."
But Cohen said she realized she had a choice: "I could sit on the bathroom floor for the rest of my life and just accept my fate, or I could try once more."
Cohen decided to 'love myself towards healthy'
The next day, she said, she and her mom went to the mall to buy workout clothes, protein powder, and a blender.
She said she knew she had to do things differently, so she started educating herself and devouring information about nutrition, fitness, and mindset. This time, there would be no quick fixes, gimmicks, or cutting corners.
"I made a promise to myself that rather than hating myself towards skinny, I was going to love myself towards healthy," Cohen said. "Every other time I had tried to lose weight, I tried to do it for a guy, for a vacation, for a special event, for New Year's, and this was the first time that I was really doing it for me."
Cohen meal-prepped and ate at a gentle calorie deficit
Cohen said she knew she would need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight but unlike many of her previous attempts she decided not to drop her calories too low because she wanted it to be sustainable (which is what dietitians and nutritionists generally recommend).
Instead of cutting out carbs or fats, as she had tried previously, Cohen said, she aimed for a healthy balance. She also focused on protein, ensuring she got a good hit at every meal — protein helps you hold on to muscle and keeps you feeling full — and began meal-prepping.
Cohen had never even cooked a chicken breast before, she said, so she learned about cooking and nutrition at the same time.
Every Sunday morning, Cohen would write out a meal plan for the week, go to the grocery store, then come home and prepare the food.
She said she tracked, weighed, and measured everything. Counting calories and weighing foods can be useful educational tools to help you learn about what different foods provide and how much your body needs, but it's not for everyone and isn't the only way to lose fat.
Crucially, Cohen said she wasn't overly strict with her diet, aiming to follow the "80/20" principle. This meant that 80% of what Cohen was eating was nutritious and balanced, and 20% was whatever she fancied. Dietitians recommend this approach because it means you don't feel deprived of what you enjoy, and again, it's more sustainable.
Cohen said that an injury meant she wasn't able to do any serious exercise but that she was consistent with her nutrition.
Cohen didn't lose any weight for 3 months
Cohen said that for the first three months of her new lifestyle, she didn't lose a single pound.
"I was devastated, I was confused, I felt betrayed," she said. "I was getting blood work done, I was having my thyroid tested, I was exploring all these different avenues and options."
Cohen made the decision to have her birth control — a copper IUD — removed even though her doctor had told her it wouldn't affect her weight, she said, adding that within seven days of having it removed, she had lost 10 pounds.
Copper IUDs, also known as copper coils, are nonhormonal contraceptives, and weight gain is not listed as a side effect. While there is some anecdotal evidence from women who have said the device led to weight gain, scientific evidence is lacking.
Cohen said she didn't know whether having her IUD removed played a role in her weight loss or whether it was a coincidence.
Cohen, who is now a certified nutrition coach, said she suspected her body was in a high-stress state after years of yo-yo dieting, so it took a while for it to recover.
Over the next nine months, Cohen said, she lost another 40 pounds. "I still say it took me 12 months to lose the weight because I was putting in the work months in advance," she added.
Cohen has maintained her weight loss for 7 years
After losing all the weight she wanted to, Cohen moved to maintenance, which she said wasn't easy. It took a little trial and error to find out how much to fuel her body well and keep her weight stable, she said.
Learning how to make healthier versions of her favorite takeout foods helped Cohen enjoy treats while keeping her weight in check, she told BI, adding that she worked on her mindset and self-love, which helped her enjoy all foods and not feel guilty afterward.
She said she was enjoying alcohol in moderation but learned to make lighter choices while losing weight. For example, a shot of tequila instead of a margarita or a vodka soda instead of a vodka-Red Bull slushy.
Since recovering from her injury a year or so after finishing her weight loss, Cohen said, she began strength training two to three times a week and walking.
"I'm not your typical fitness girly that has to go to the gym six or seven days a week," Cohen said. "Gym is not my therapy. Gym is my insurance policy."
She said her most consistent form of exercise was simply walking.
"I walk every single day," Cohen said. "It's a huge part of my life."
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