My journey to ditch the fad diets and lower my stress — this is what worked

"The root cause of most of my health hiccups, from expanding waistline to rising cholesterol levels, was stress," says Jenn Folsom. "And without taming that beast, I would never have the energy I desired to keep up with my busy working mom life."
Jennifer Folsom focuses on preparing healthy meals with lots of veggies and protein.
Jennifer Folsom focuses on preparing healthy meals with lots of veggies and protein.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

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By Jennifer Folsom

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably gone through phases in your life where — despite a reasonably healthy lifestyle — you become frustrated with the diminishing returns on your diet and exercise plan.

For years, I was checking what I thought were all the appropriate boxes. I had eggs and fruit after my morning workout. I toted a packed salad to work. I ate a balanced dinner with my family at a reasonable hour. I regularly worked out, running four or five days per week. And if I noticed the number on the scale starting to creep up, for a day or two I would go cold turkey on all carbs, including fruit and vegetables, to stop the upward trend.

Looking back, however, I wasn’t sleeping well. I was hungry (OK, hangry) most of the time. And I was discouraged about the number on the scale continuing to increase despite my best-laid plans. Through my network, I came to know Leslie Ann Quillen, a Durham-based personal trainer, nutrition coach for women and founder of FatLossLifestyleSchool.com.

Leslie Ann Quillen, a Charlotte-based personal trainer, nutrition coach for women and founder of FatLossLifestyleSchool.com.Jenna Jordan

While most would call her a gym nut, Quillen learned that there’s more to changing bodies than pumping iron.

It has been six months since Quillen helped me switch up my workouts and meal plans. And I’m happy to say, I’m fuller, happier and less stressed. In fact, at my last physical, my cholesterol was down 60 points, my blood pressure at a steady rate, and the scale is at a steady spot I’m happy with.

Her approach is to do what you need to do for you. Don’t listen to the noise. Ignore trendy diets. Reduce stress, eat well and move your body so you can kill it both at home and at the office.

Stress and the gut

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Quillen believes that chronic stress is what’s driving most of the problems that women face. By ignoring stress, it manifests in other ways. “So many women come to me saying, ‘I’m bloated all the time. I think I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome or a food allergy,’" said Quillen. “That may be the case, but let's rule out the obvious stuff first, like stress. If you get your stress levels down and you are still dealing with digestive issues or other health concerns, then absolutely see a doctor.”

As I learned from Quillen, or LAQ as her fans call her, in a sympathetic state, your autonomic nervous system prepares the body to react to stresses such as threat or injury. It causes muscles to contract and heart rate to increase, and digestion is not a priority if your body thinks it’s in danger. Instead, blood flow goes to big muscles like your arms and legs so you can run from tigers, your cranky two-year-old or a demanding boss.

Meanwhile, your lunch is just sitting in the gut, not moving and you feel bloated. Slowing down and learning to manage stress is the key to a happy gut, she told me.

It’s all about the protein

“The No. 1 thing women tend to struggle with most is eating enough protein,” said Quillen. “They don’t want to hear it, but it’s true. Granola bars and fruit smoothies aren’t the solution. They are cute packaging marketed to women.”

Quillen credited a regimen of simple but tasty high-protein meals with a cup of vegetables at every meal (yes, even breakfast!) to help her clients achieve a “fat loss lifestyle.”

She added, “It's not about going no carb or counting macros or intermittent fasting, it's about finding the right amount and type for you based on your goals. About what works for your body.”

But what about counting calories?

“If your goal is fat loss, you must be in a slight caloric deficit to lose fat, and it's not as much as most people think,” said Quillen. She advised that eating real, whole nutrient-dense foods that you love will help you feel full and not be hungry. “I don’t count calories or macros and I don't teach my clients to either. We eat real food. We move our bodies. We stay consistent with the big rocks — nutrition, movement and stress management — and the results come in waves.”

No longer hangry

With Quillen’s help, I’ve switched up my diet and roll my eyes at the ladies in my office kitchen talking about their fasting intervals. I usually put a runny egg or two on reheated roasted vegetables from the previous night’s dinner for breakfast, a salad with a LOT of protein for lunch, and a flavorful dinner comprised of meat and produce. My favorite late afternoon snack, the one that prevents my 4 p.m. meltdowns at the office and my 5:30 p.m. meltdown at home, is a half a can of tuna mashed with half an avocado and sprinkled with Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Seasoning. Simple, flavor-forward whole foods to keep me happy, healthy and wise.

Exercise change up

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Quillen is that I needed to change up my approach to exercise. Sure, an hour-long slow jog is great for clearing the head occasionally, but all that was doing was revving up my appetite. Instead, she helped me create a workout plan five days per week for about 30 to 40 minutes a session.

No time for an hour-long gym session? No problem. A few days per week I lift heavy weights. The others I run sprints or do run-walk intervals. I dig in to the HIIT (high intensity interval training) videos for free on YouTube and Amazon Prime. And the real secret sauce? Adding a 30 minute leisure walk every single day, whether it’s a rest or a workout day, to move my body and lower my stress level.

The big takeaway for me was that the root cause of most of my health hiccups, from my expanding waistline to rising cholesterol levels, was stress. And without taming that beast, I would never have the energy I desired to keep up with my busy working mom life. And while well-intentioned, my daily static runs were leaving me starving. And, my “four small meals a day” were the wrong composition to grow lean muscle. I’m down about 10 pounds, my clothes fit better, and I have hanger-free energy to get me through my entire day.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood, "The Ringmaster," will be out Jan. 7, 2020