A woman lost 50 pounds and has kept it off for 7 years by following the 80/20 principle and walking

  • Gen Cohen spent nearly a decade trying fad diets but only ended up gaining weight.

  • Aged 21, she decided to take a different, more sustainable approach.

  • Cohen decided to love herself towards healthy instead of hating herself towards skinny, she said.

Gen Cohen spent nearly a decade since the age of 12 trying different fad diets in an attempt to lose weight, but only ever ended up yo-yoing.

I struggled with my weight my entire life,” Cohen, now 29, told Business Insider.

After gaining weight in college, Cohen no longer recognized herself. She decided to make a change and go on a fitness journey, but wanted to do it differently this time.

Cohen, who is based in San Diego, ate a high-protein diet in 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.

Although Cohen didn’t lose any weight for three months, she stayed consistent and lost 50 pounds over a year. She has kept the weight off for seven years.

Gen Cohen lost 50 pounds over the course of a year.

Gen Cohen lost 50 pounds over the course of a year.Gen Cohen

Cohen went on her first diet aged 12

Cohen grew up in a small town in Connecticut where, she said, health wasn’t a priority. She was active and played sports, but she and her teammates would always go to McDonald’s afterwards.

Cohen remembers going on her first diet at the age of 12, which she now realizes contributed to her negative body image.

When she went to college in San Diego, 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 would lose 10 pounds then gain back 15, lose 20 then gain back 30, she said. Her experience 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

For Cohen’s 21st birthday, her mom flew out to visit her. They went to a beautiful view spot and took a bunch of photos, but when Cohen looked back at them afterwards, she was shocked by how she looked.

“I physically felt my heart just drop into my stomach because I genuinely didn’t recognize the girl looking back,” Cohen 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 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 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 said.

Cohen decided to ‘love herself towards healthy’

The next day, she and her mom went to the mall to buy workout clothes, protein powder, and a blender.

She knew she had to do things differently, so she started educating herself, 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 in a gentle calorie deficit

Gen Cohen before and after losing 50 pounds.

Gen Cohen before and after losing 50 pounds.Gen Cohen

Cohen 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 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, 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 tracked, weighed, and measured everything. Counting calories and weighing foods can be a useful educational tool and help you learn about what different foods provide and how much your body needs, however it’s not for everyone and isn’t the only way to lose fat.

Crucially, Cohen 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.

An injury meant Cohen wasn’t able to do any serious exercise, but she was consistent with her nutrition.

Cohen didn’t lose any weight for three months

For the first three months of her new lifestyle, Cohen didn’t lose a single pound.

“I was devastated, I was confused, I felt betrayed,” Cohen 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. Within seven days of having it removed, Cohen had lost 10 pounds.

Copper IUDs, also known as copper coils, are non-hormonal contraceptives and weight gain is not listed as a side-effect. While there is some anecdotal evidence from women who claim the device led to weight gain, scientific evidence is lacking.

Cohen doesn’t know if having her IUD removed played a role in her weight loss or whether it was a coincidence, because sometimes it can take time to see weight loss.

Cohen, who is now a certified nutrition coach, suspects that 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 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 said.

Cohen has maintained her weight loss for seven years

After losing all the weight she wanted to, Cohen moved to maintenance, which 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 take-out foods helped Cohen enjoy treats while keeping her weight in check, and she worked on her mindset and self-love, which helped her enjoy all foods and not feel guilty afterwards.

She enjoys 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 Red Bull vodka slushy, she said.

Since recovering from her injury a year or so after finishing her weight loss, Cohen has begun 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.”

Her most consistent form of exercise is simply walking.

“I walk every single day,” Cohen said. “It’s a huge part of my life.”

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