Client Spotlight: Photoshoot Ready for Tuscan Wedding

How Jenna Got and Stayed Lean for Her Destination Wedding

When I get inquiries from brides-to-be who want to be photoshoot ready for one of the most important days of their lives, one of the things that I try to impart to these women is that preparing for a special event requires not just “special” workouts or dieting strategies for a limited period of time, but also a strong foundation of healthy habits.

Here’s why:

For women who are already a healthy weight and want to get leaner to really see defined and elegant shoulders, arms, and décolletage, there are special (and potentially frustrating) dynamics at play: 

  • Getting more “toned” (which is how the inquiries are often framed) really means getting more lean, in addition to some muscle building. Fat loss – which probably means weight loss – will be required.
  • For most lean women, workouts are necessary but not sufficient to instigate and maintain this process of fat loss. Diet – both smart nutrition and a reduction in calories – plays a huge role in fat loss. Most women who approach me don’t realize this. They think workouts alone will be enough to “tone” their appearance, and they’re not mentally prepared for the changes they may need to make to their eating to see the results they really want. 
  • However, if you’re already somewhat lean, your body is probably going to vigorously resist efforts to lose a lot of fat/weight, because most lean people’s bodies, without the cushion of extra fat that can be lost without consequence, can interpret fat loss as starvation.
  • On top of that, the smaller you are, the fewer calories your metabolism probably burns per day. This means that if you’re 120-150 pounds, you will probably not be able to eat like everyone else around you and still see the results you want to see. 
  • This introduces a tension into the process, because – for a lean woman – exercise and diet strategies must be sufficiently “aggressive” to get results, but very carefully managed to prevent burnout, maintain metabolic/hormonal health, and provide energy for day-to-day life performance.
  • This balancing act can become extremely frustrating for “lean dieters,” because plateaus are common and sometimes the results (losing a half pound per week, for example) seem disproportionately small compared to the amount of effort invested.

Without healthy exercise habits and solid nutritional routines already in place, women in this position often resort to risky, extreme strategies to get the extra pounds to move. They over-exercise. They skip meals. They obsessively count calories and restrict their intake. They often risk compromising their physical and mental health for the sake of 10-20 pounds.

But when you have a rock-solid foundation of daily (or almost-daily) exercise, sensible eating practices, and nutritional knowledge, you can “supercharge” your habits for a limited period of time to dial in more elite results for special events without rocking the boat of metabolic (and mental) health. 

I like to compare it to driving.

If you put a completely inexperienced driver (say, a 15-year-old) behind the wheel and ask them to navigate a busy highway at 80+ mph, the experience could be panic-inducing, and could result in an accident. Inexperienced drivers do not have stored memory of when/how to check mirrors and blindspots, or the muscle memory to react quickly enough to potential crises.

But if you are an experienced driver with years of habits, driving faster than usual requires laser focus, but isn’t necessarily dangerous. Skilled drivers with years of driving experience have superior reaction time, are intuitively aware of their surroundings, and are practiced at estimating distances and time. In other words, they have the internalized muscle memory and knowledge to apply their existing experience of driving at normal speeds to driving at higher speeds.

When it comes to nutrition, most people are like the 15-year-old driver. They just don’t have the stored experience of good eating habits that can be taken to the next level for periods of special focus. Their efforts end up being random and short-lived.

The clients who succeed the most at weight loss, however, are the ones who take the necessary time to build the foundation of skills and knowledge. They learn how to drive first, and then how to drive fast. 

My remote coaching client Jenna is an excellent example of this.

She is a high-level professional in a tech startup in New York City, and last February (2017) she decided to start getting ready for her destination wedding, which was planned at a villa in Tuscany. It’s also an important point that she qualifies as my smallest client ever – she is only 4’10”.

I will let Jenna speak in her own words in just a moment, but I want to take a moment to first say that Jenna is the epitome of the “experienced driver.” Before we started working together, she already had a habit of going to the gym daily or almost daily, and was overall invested in eating well. Because of her busy lifestyle that oriented around the tech industry, she had put on a little weight that she wanted to shift, but she approached the process not as a temporary diet, but as a long-term lifestyle change project. She came into the experience with a growth-oriented mindset, seeking to build habits that would help her maintain her weight loss.

The other smart thing that Jenna did was give herself time. Many women disastrously underestimate the amount of time that it will take to lose 10-20 pounds. I think this comes from a subconscious desire for the discomfort and deprivation of dieting to last for as short a duration as possible (hence the proliferation of 30-day and 90-day programs). However, Jenna did the right thing and gave herself an entire year not just to prepare for the wedding, but to get into a routine that fostered long-term maintenance of leanness. Then, it was really only in the few months leading up to the wedding that she had to gently accelerate on the gas pedal and raise her level of focus.

The result? Jenna started at 120 pounds, and on her wedding day, she was 102 pounds. Losing 18 pounds is an accomplishment for anyone, but it’s especially impressive for someone with such a small stature (and not to mention a hectic professional lifestyle).

Now, in her own words…

The Starting Point

I was starting from 120 pounds, which was the heaviest that I had ever been in my whole life. It was the summer, and I was struggling to choose between making care of myself (and feeling good about myself) and also having a social life. In New York – or in New York City, at least – the social activities  often revolve around going out to eat… and alcohol. So I was going out with my girlfriends, I was going out with my boyfriend, I was involved in weddings and bachelorette parties, and I found myself constantly battling – “Do I really want this?”

The Main Habits That Made a Difference

A big part of it was having a regimented meal plan, and not eating out for breakfast and lunch. What I started doing for work was bringing in yogurt for breakfast. I would also make eggs and pack them for lunch. Protein shakes, which you really taught me about, and protein bars also really helped me as I was – as I said – super busy. Even before going out to eat, just having a protein bar so that I could have a light meal really helped me.

Also, I was formerly in the habit of having a bigger dinner or snacking a ton after dinner, or having wine with my husband. The biggest lever that I found to my change was having a very, very, very light dinner – like a smoothie. It really helped me shed weight.

On Favorite Food Ideas

Anything quick!

I’m a big fan of eggs, and I am a big fan of Trader Joe’s. I love a good lean turkey taco salad. I can’t remember if you helped me with this, or if I figured out this hack on my own and then excitedly told you about it, but Trader Joe’s sells prepared salads. I would buy a prepared salad, and then I would buy prepared pre-cooked organic chicken, and I would put the chicken on the salad. And that would be my lunch, and I literally didn’t have to make a thing.

On Food Environment, Snacking, And Tech Companies

The snack environment was… excessive. (laughs) Pantries upon pantries full of snacks, and “greenwashing” is a real thing. The snacks are made to look “healthy,” like dried mangos. You can have a dried mango – it’s not like it’s going to be exceptionally bad for you. But there are things that are very high in calories and are very high in sugar that you think are healthy. Oftentimes start-ups will purchase those snacks, and you’re hungry, and you can’t leave the office because you’re in meetings all day, so what do you grab? You grab trail mix, and you grab mangos, and you grab fruit snacks. You think, “This isn’t that bad!” And all of a sudden you’ve got a 600-700 calorie lunch with no protein in it, which is a lot for 4’10” Jenna.

When I switched tech companies in February 2018 [to an office without a pantry], within two weeks, I noticed that I lost four pounds. I don’t feel like I did anything that drastically different. I would bring breakfast every day, but I was quite busy at that time with the new job, so I would go out and get soup for lunch or eggs for lunch. I was keeping it healthy with the wedding super close, but within two weeks I lost four more pounds without trying.

On Balance (and Pulling the Plug on Dieting Techniques)

I tried carb cycling. I got through half a day, and I immediately e-mailed you and said, “Rachel, this isn’t going to work.” I immediately knew. I love my body, and I do feel like I’m pretty in tune with my body, and I know when I don’t feel good. The things that I did, like having a more regimented breakfast and lunch and preparing those in advance, and also having a lighter dinner with snacks throughout the day – it is maintainable. I didn’t say “no” to anything. If you look at my Instagram the days leading up to my wedding, the night before my wedding I had spaghetti and spring rolls and wine and steak. But I was trying to watch my carbs a little bit more leading up to the wedding day – just the portions. But I wasn’t saying “no” to anything.

A Final Note on Petite Stature and Calories

photoshoot ready

With the rock-solid foundation of habits and meal planning that she built, Jenna looked picture-perfect, radiant, and toned in her wedding photos in Italy. I was so pleased with her dedication and balance, and her year of fine-tuning her eating and exercise habits paid off beautifully. Even better, the habits that she picked up over that year are sustainable and applicable to weight maintenance, not just weight loss.

But before I close this Client Spotlight, I want to make a special note about calories, and return to the fact that Jenna is 4’10”.

When you read the beginning of Jenna’s interview, you may have thought to yourself: “120 pounds? Why would she want to lose weight?”

Or, you may be thinking something like this: “Wow. 102 pounds seems dangerously unhealthy.”

Something important to keep in mind about weight, calories, and stature is that everything is relative. For someone as petite as Jenna, 120 pounds is healthy, but so is 102. 120 is at the top end of the healthy BMI range, but 102 isn’t even at the bottom.

This is why it is so important that we do not police other people’s weight, food choices, and exercise habits, whether we perceive someone to be overweight, underweight, eating too much, or not eating enough. Even as a professional working directly with Jenna on losing weight, I offered guidance and perspective, but she was still ultimately in the driver’s seat of what she was comfortable doing, and everything she did was filled with respect, love, and trust for her body – including rejecting carb cycling!

Are you also a very small woman who struggles to know the “right” amount to eat for your ideal physique, and how to fit that into a busy schedule and a social life? Do you relate to Jenna’s story?  Shoot me a message to find out more about what could work for you, or join my closed Facebook support group, Habits First, to take my free 6-week habit change challenge.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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