Emily Martens is a busy woman. As a working single mom of two, putting herself first was a skill she had to learn over time. Now that she’s lost over 120 pounds and is living her healthiest life ever, she loves to share her ups and downs to help inspire others.
“I never want to go back to that overweight girl. I’m determined to eat clean and healthy, and raise my kids that way too so that I can be around them for a long time.”
Growing up in a loving West Michigan family, food was a comfort and a reward for Emily. “My mom showed us love by cooking our favorite birthday meals. Grandma’s house was all about sweets and treats.” When she hit puberty, Emily began gaining weight and was never able to take it off throughout adulthood. It was after having two kids and going through a divorce that she reached a breaking point, with her weight approaching 300 pounds. “Going through my divorce, I really turned to food as comfort. But I was so unhappy with my weight. I had just had enough. Not only was I not happy with my numbers, I just wasn’t feeling good.”
Over the years, Emily tried many diet programs including a medical weight loss program, and never found her groove when it came to an exercise program. She would lose weight then just gain it back, and then some. She finally decided on weight loss surgery in 2012, and even that wasn’t the end-all for her. “Even post-surgery at 195 pounds, which was still quite an accomplishment, I was getting calls about pre-diabetes classes. I was still overweight and had more work to do.” That’s when she shifted her focus to clean eating, consistent exercising and making sure to also focus on her mental health. For Emily, it was truly about making herself a priority. After having her surgery in August 2012, she worked hard until she reached her goal weight in April 2016, losing over 120 pounds total. It took time, but she wouldn’t change a thing, and she’s never looking back. “I never want to go back to that overweight girl. I’m determined to eat clean and healthy, and raise my kids that way too so that I can be around them for a long time.”
Emily’s journey was long and full of ups and downs, but she learned a lot along the way. Here are her top tips:
1.Find your network.
For Emily, it wasn’t a fitness group or co-workers. She found her network online thanks to the power of social media. YouTube and Instagram are her top favorites where she found support and a way to “keep me in that inspired mindset, seeing and sharing progress photos. With the pic collages you can see how far you’ve come. It’s so different in your face and it’s amazing what even 10 pounds lost can do.”
Emily loves social media so much, she started her own Instagram channel to document her journey to inspire others and share tips for anyone looking to live healthier. “I’ll share that I’m feeling guilty about having some candy and people immediately respond with ‘Amen, thank you for sharing, me too!’—it’s very real to them.”
In addition to finding your network, Emily says to remember not everyone will be part of it and that’s ok. “People won’t always understand when you want to make healthy choices. It can make them feel bad—like if you’re at a party and you choose to eat healthy, or if you don’t order dessert when they want to. I used to feel like I needed to accommodate them, but I have to do what’s best for myself and my children long term.”
2. Clean house, and eat clean.
Post weight loss surgery, Emily realized she was focusing on eating less food instead of eating good food. Now, she focuses on completely clean eating, which she admits takes more time and effort, but does save money because she cooks almost all of her own meals. “Fast food just isn’t satisfying anymore.” Clean eating has impacted her whole family. “We’ve really detoxed our house. It’s very rare to have ice cream and sugar snacks. We stay away from corn syrup—I do not allow that in my house.” Instead, she makes sure to stock high protein granola bars and other whole food snacks, as well as healthy carbs such as rice or grains (low glycemic carbs).
3. You need a go-to tool.
MyFitnessPal is Emily’s favorite tool for tracking food and exercise, and just for overall weight accountability. She also loves the app on her phone for sharing before/after progress pics on social media.
4. Find the workout that works for you.
For Emily, that also meant knowing what DOESN’T work for you and for her—that was running. “I felt like everyone who is fit is a runner, so I started running, but I hated it. So I would stop and gain even more weight back. If you don’t like to run there are a million other workouts you can do. Once I learned that, there was no going back. It’s super important to just do what you like. Bike or swim or whatever makes you happy.” Her favorites are strength training and lifting, and HIIT (high intensity interval training) cardio.
5. Use another reward for food.
In Emily’s house food is not a reward as she works to change how she grew up. With her two children, daughter Lily, 13, and son, Dylan, 11, she rewards them instead with activities or small trinkets. “My kids and I love to travel and go on weekend adventures. For rewarding myself, I love to try new things like take voice lessons and paint.”
6. Make self-care a priority.
Like the instructions we hear on airplanes—“in the event of an emergency: put on your oxygen mask before you help others” is a favorite analogy Emily likes to use. For her, working out is a priority, but so are other kinds of self-care. “I’ll get my nails done for that mental break and having someone else care for me, or I’ll schedule in my calendar a half hour to take a bath and read a book, telling my kids mom is not available unless it’s an emergency.”
7. Mental health matters.
As part of her journey, Emily realized changes she wanted to make weren’t all physical and that dedicating time to exploring those mental issues would help with her weight loss as well. “It helped me to trust myself and become more confident. I learned that making mistakes doesn’t make me a bad person and that my people-pleasing tendencies were not healthy.” It also helped her recognize that struggling with ADHD meant she was very visual and stimuli-oriented. That meant having a lot of visuals of food around her was making healthy eating tough, so she stopped following restaurants on social media and made sure to instead follow healthy eating channels.
8. It’s ok to fluctuate.
Once you reach your goal weight, it can be hard to maintain perfection and that’s why Emily reminds herself to be flexible because some leeway is ok. “Holidays are still hard for me and after summer as the weather gets colder, I turn to comfort food. I gain a bit here and there but knowing that I can lose it, that it’s not impossible, is so empowering. I will never get back to where I was, close to 300 pounds, so a six month fluctuation is ok with me.”
9. Be kind to yourself, no matter what.
With pressures from society on her daughter Lily, especially at 13, and for her own self value, Emily is careful about always being positive when it comes to body image. “Anytime I’ve struggled with gaining, I never called myself fat in front of her—even when I was close to 300 pounds. I know the impact and the detriment that can have on her as she grows up.” So she focuses on healthy eating and exercise instead of numbers on a scale or clothing size.
10. Above all, don’t go big or go home. Small consistent changes are key.
Emily learned that it’s all about consistent little changes. “The biggest thing to do to fail is say it has to be all or nothing, and there is no way to do that. Pick something small to do every single day. That will give your results and get you kicked off and motivated to do more. Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight.” She recognizes that weight loss surgery is not the answer for everyone, although it ended up being an important tool for her. She recommends talking to your doctor about options if you’re not able to make progress on your own and to not forget about the mental aspect, too.
Emily knows that the journey will never end completely for her, as she sets new goals for this year. For her, Nutrition Month is not just in March, but every month. “This summer I would love to get into a high waisted bikini, that’s a goal. I’ll be never be able to not work at this, it’s a complete lifestyle change. You can’t go back to not eating healthy. I want to set an example for my kids.”