y childhood memories are full of laughter and good food. Growing up in a Chinese family meant that our family meals on the weekends went on for hours, attended by my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and our neighbors. It felt like a feast for the village. The women cooking in the kitchen, the elderly sitting amongst themselves, the men playing mah-jong in the living room.
My parents were both healthcare professionals who considered themselves “health-conscious” and nutrition savvy. Every day, our meals generally consisted of meats or fish, stir-fried vegetables, and rice or noodles. I grew up eating what was served on the table without questioning, and getting extra food was always welcomed by our culture, which embraces carrying a little extra weight as a sign of youth and wealth. We did not understand concepts like complex carbs, cooking oil and polyunsaturated fats, portion sizes, fiber contents in fruits and vegetables, and what’s the health benefits of eating lean meats vs. fatty meats.
By the time I was in 6th grade, I was overweight. When I was in middle school, something big happened: Chinese buffets. Within a few months, Chinese buffet restaurants were opening all over Houston, each offering over 70 selections of food and one token price for as much as you can eat. This deal, to a first-generation Chinese, was a no-brainer, jaw-dropping bargain. I would eat at the buffets with my parents, my friends, and for any reason I can think of, sometimes up to a couple times within a week. For the first time, it felt weird that my clothes fit tightly on me, and kids at school would comment that the popular kids didn’t look like me. Well, well, we all know that middle schoolers are, by all means, ruthless and opinionated to call someone out, but that was the first time I became self-conscious of my body and self-image.
Up to that time, never in my life have my parents ever asked me to exercise deliberately. We took walks, played badminton, went for a swim for fun and family time. From school, however, I learned from PE class that physical exercise is good for you and you should break a sweat even if it means getting a little uncomfortable. So in the summer before 7th grade, I decided to try working out to lose weight. In the prime of the 90’s, TaeBo was hugely popular and it quickly became a huge hit for me at home. For the whole summer, I didn’t have to leave the house, I could stay indoors and follow a group of fitness fanatics on TV to pump out round-house kicks. Thank you Billy Banks! TaeBo was fun, and it gave me a surge of energy and wellbeing. I lost over 10 pounds that summer.
In college, I worked out 2-3 times a week at the Student Center on campus, but I still gained 15 pounds in my freshman year thanks to the late-night food deliveries to accompany the late-night studying sessions. But for the first time in my life, I was living on campus and away from home where I had control in what I could eat. I became obsessed with the idea that if I started exercising every day and ate a restricted “healthy” diet, I could avoid the toxic by-products that would cause serious chronic conditions. By sophomore year, I was down to 95 pounds the thinnest I have ever been. I ran 3 miles every day even late at night if I didn’t get a chance to run earlier during the day. I ate as little as I could to feel satisfied and went to bed hungry every night.
You can’t overwork a bad diet
Things started to unravel in medical school, when spending hours studying and intensely focusing was impossible when you are starving. So, I picked up a new habit—stress eating and snacking. In medical school, I also started training for half marathons and full marathons, and with each long run or workout I would reward myself with food. This kind of thought pattern quickly became a cycle where I would spend hours at the gym working off what I overate the day before. I thought that, if I ate the whole cake, I would just make up for it by running 8-10 miles. Overtime, I noticed that it gave me a lot of anxiety and guilt over food. I felt that I was always having to punish myself for what I ate, I thought of what to eat excessively and turned to exercise as a way to remedy eating “junk food” or eating out.
Over the next few years, through the rest of my medical training, I had less and less time to exercise and work off excess calories. Working 60-80 hours a week as a resident and fellow forced me to plan for my meals because I did not have time to cook on most days and it was expensive ordering out. I started cooking on the weekends, learning from cookbooks, ways to cook delicious meals on a time and money budget. I found that when I had cooked food at home, I was less tempted to eat out or snack mindlessly. In turn, I had more time to spend at home and at leisure because I wasn’t running around trying to get food. I researched old cookbooks, magazines, and online resources for healthier twists on my favorite dishes—like chicken piccata, vegan lasagna, baked sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash and chicken meatballs. The more I cooked, I more enjoyed the food I was making and entertaining good friends and family. It reminded me of how much of the happiest memories of my childhood revolved around food and sharing food with my loved ones.
The power of balancing your macros
To take it one step farther, there is one final piece of insight that I discovered about maintaining a healthy diet and physique: the importance of balancing the macros in your diet like carbs, proteins and fats. In 2018, I decided to train for a bikini fitness competition to see how much my body can transform through extreme cutting and training.
By now, I had already established habits of healthy portions and regular physical activity, but I had never closely tracked what I ate: how much fat was in my diet, how much carbs, how much proteins. For the longest time, I was undereating carbohydrates thinking that eating carbohydrates would surely make me gain weight. My fitness coach, Byron Ross, taught me that in order to build muscles, I could not stay in a deficit. I had to eat more and get out of my deficit mindset.
“You cannot gain muscles in a deficit.” This was very hard for someone like me to take in. Would I gain all my weight back if I ate more carbs? I nervously followed the macro targets for each week. I was eating double the amount of carbs and proteins than I used to, continuing to lift 4x a week, and my weight stayed the same. However, my fat percentage dropped. I was the strongest I have ever been, lifting heavier weights, doing less cardio throughout the week, and at my leanest and never hungry.
This taught me that what you eat, the composition of your food, matters on generating results that affect your performance and body composition. To say that I have come far in my health and fitness journey is putting it succinctly. In this journey, I have had many ups and downs, I have been overweight, I have been underweight, I have experienced extremes of body guilt and deprivation, overindulging and over-restricting, small successes and large setbacks. I know this is not easy and it will take time for perspectives to shift and new habits to stick.
As a physician, I know the demands of a busy career and demanding profession. There are so many seemingly easy ways to “cheat” but that is why you are here. I am here to help you pivot in small ways and big ways. To do that, I ask that you trust me. There is no judgment because I have already made the mistakes that are keeping you back. There will be some challenges and setbacks, but you deserve every effort it takes to reach your health goals. My programs are tailor-made to fit your dietary needs, lifestyle, and fitness capacity. There is no food off-limit, also no goal out of reach.