Friday, May 4, 2012

I am a horrible, traitorous person!

Well, maybe that's an over-statement.  Most days I'm a pretty nice person or at least I am able to intimidate people into saying that.

However, I have to announce a bit of a change.  I am changing blogging engines after three years, and I feel like a bit of a Benedict Arnold.  I started writing this blog on Blogger back in March 2009, and it's been my steady companion ever since.  However, for a variety of reasons I won't share for fearing of horribly boring you, I am making the switch to WordPress.  My technology and web colleagues at the company wanted me to do it, and I was malleable to the request.

To make the change worthwhile, they fancified the new blog a little bit and allowed me to put in all sorts of shameless self promotion for me and my book.  I found that part of the change VERY pleasing.

What does this mean for the people who are kind enough to check out my blog?  Not too much.  The main URL will still be:

However, it will now point to the following URL:

We tried to figure out a solution for those of you on Google Connect, and we couldn't.  That said, the new blog site has a convenient email signup (Feedburner) for getting updates.  If you were getting email updates already, that should port over to the new site without you having to do anything at all.

Many apologies in advance for any hiccups along the way!

To Blogger, I wish you a found farewell and the best of luck in all of your future endeavors!



Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Live and Die(t) in LA. This week's healthy travel plan

Big surprise for me:  I've got yet more travel in front of me.  It's a relatively longer trip that stretches over the weekend, so it's got my alert systems gearing up for a potential health wreck.  

With this in mind, I'm going to try a new(ish) practice:  actually writing down a plan and sharing it publicly.  The logic behind this is pretty straightforward, but for me, it's also pretty powerful.  Some time ago, I wrote about research around Hot States and Cold States.  As a refresher, here is what they are:
  • Hot state:  when we find ourselves tossed into a situation full of temptation right in front of us and having to make decisions in a vulnerable mental state.  For example, if I were to fall into a large vat of mixed nuts, that would likely put me into a hot state.  I would deal with the situation by eating my way out of said vat-of-nuts.  Not surprisingly, research shows that people are less likely to be make smart decisions in a hot state.  
  • Cold state:  This would be an instance in which we were developing a plan for which the subject of temptation was not immediately in front of us.  In a cold state, we can be much more calculating.  In this case, I might write a plan to ask for a life preserver when I get tossed into a large vat of nuts and have someone on hand to pull me out.  
The point is to make decisions when we are not feeling hot and bothered, so we can act responsibly.  Sometimes in life, we don't have a choice, and we unexpectedly end up in a so-called hot state situation.  I would argue that more often we can see the perilous waters long before we hit the water fall.  It's in times like these that we need to pre-arm ourselves and have a plan.  

I've known all of the above for a while, but sometimes my good intentions just seem to get misplaced somewhere in the fun house otherwise known as my brain.  This time, I am going to take a new approach by actually writing said plan down.  For many of you, this is probably not a big deal or revelation, but for me it is.  I am not wired for such activities.  I despise to-do lists and anything that generally resembles them.  I only do them out of duress.  In this case, I will do one to avoid later duress.  It's all a trade-off.  

So here's my new plan for this coming week (let's call it Dangerous Water Plan:  template 1.0)

Down and Out in Beverly Hills?
How bad could it really be?

I'm hopping on a plan on Wednesday morning, and I will be attending a bunch of different meetings and conferences over the coming six days.  I return on a red eye on Monday night.  There will be a lot of socializing-type functions, and the conferences will no doubt be littered with food stations.  I will be a little jet lagged due to the three hour time difference, so I expect to be slightly sleep deprived.  Finally, I'm stuck in LA over the weekend sans family so I will be feeling sorry for myself, eager to tend to my brittle emotions with the loving salve of bad food.  

My plan:

  • Once and for all, I am going to attempt to summon every ounce of will power to ask the flight attendant not to offer me nuts.  In fact, I may ask her not to even offer before she offers.  
  • I will order whatever seems the less unhealthy as part of the meal service
  • No mini-bar food excursions!  
  • For the weekend, I might hit a local grocery story and stock up on some fruit in the room so I have alternatives
  • Oatmeal 'n fruit 'n yogurt.  Pretty easy.
  • Whatever healthy thing is available.  At the conference, look to use smaller plates.
  • Order healthy and try to leave 1/3 of the food on my plate.
  • Skip dessert
Snacking at conferences
  • Only fruit
  • Try to stick to coffee
  • This one is easy.  Both hotels have good gyms, and one is close to the gym I belong to (Equinox)
Selectively letting go
  • Give myself two dinners where I will take the shackles off a little.  I'm thinking Friday and Saturday night.  Get back on plan by Sunday night.  
So that's the plan.  What is interesting about this post is that I really did write it 98% for myself.  Should you get anything out of it, that's great!  



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tales of travel and eating... testing myself at the extremes

I'm taking a break from flogging my upcoming book release this week, but don't worry!  More flogging to come!

I knew this was going to be a pretty brutal stretch of travel, and it hasn't disappointed.  Since March 25th...

  1. Fly to Shanghai and spend the week there
  2. Fly to London for weekend
  3. Fly from there to Amsterdam on a Sunday night
  4. Fly back to London
  5. Fly back to NY on a Thursday
  6. Good Friday and weekend to recuperate
  7. Take train to Washington, DC on a Tuesday
  8. Return to NY on a Friday
  9. Weekend to recuperate
  10. Fly to St. Louis last night
  11. Fly back to NY (as I type --  love me some GoGo)
  12. Have THREE whole days in the office
  13. Weekend
  14. Monday and Tuesday in NY (dinners in the city both nights)
  15. Fly to California on Wednesday
  16. Take red eye back six days later on a Monday night/Tuesday morning
  17. Then I'm finally back in NY for seven contiguous days.  Yay!  
Will the airplane eat me or will I eat the airplane?
I've always had a goofy travel schedule, but this is much goofier than average.  I'm not at all looking for sympathy.  I've got a great job, and I'm grateful for it.  I love being places, but I hate travelling (flying) and I despise jet lag even more.  I'm incredibly fortunate to have the luxury to spend time with lots of different and incredibly interesting people, but I also miss my family terribly.  It's all part of life's many, many tradeoffs.  

Beyond all of the above, I was fully reacquainted with the way that travel taxes our efforts to stay healthy.  I've written about this many times before, but I wanted to again reprise the topic.  I like the travel topic because the extremes of it show how I get tested and how I (try to) navigate my path toward healthy life.  Over the past month, I've generally done pretty well, but I've also had a few amusing wipeouts.  

On the plus side...
  • Stupid mini bar.  This has historically been a weak point for me, so I re-doubled my efforts to keep this bad habit in check.  For about a week (China to Europe), I made it a point to Tweet each day whether I had managed to avoid raiding the mini bar for snacks.  Result:  it totally worked.  This was not a small feat for me, so I was pretty pleased.

    Learning:  Always have a plan when I am facing a known trouble spot.  Pre-committing to the plan helped tremendously.  Disclosing my results helped even more.  BTW, I could have done exactly the same thing in a WW meeting with the same effect.
  • Work the workouts.  I worked out like a nut, regardless of how little sleep I had each night.  My strategy here was my old standby to stay in hotels that either had great gyms (Shanghai) or hotels that were close to free-standing gyms (London, Amsterdam and Washington DC).  One perk to waking up every morning at 3 AM in China was that I had all my work done by 6 AM so I could jam a 90 minute workout each of those days.  Seems like a sad thing to be happy about, but it worked for me!  I think this is the first time that I had this many days traveling overseas without missing a single day in the gym.

    Learning:  Have access to decent facilities and make room for the gym on my schedule (in this case by not sleeping -- not by choice mind you)
  • (Most) meals:  I stuck to standard breakfasts and lunches.  For dinners, I worked pretty hard to make a conscious decision not to polish my plate and try to leave about 1/3 of it.

    Learning:  For predictable meals (breakfast and lunch), stick to the routine.  For dinners, try to mentally rehearse a plan for how I would handle each meal.  
On the not-so-plus side...
  • Room service = Satan's imp.  After not really sleeping at all for two straight nights in Amsterdam (for no fun reason whatsoever), I arrived in London a bit of a wreck.  I made the decision to have room service, and I promptly ate half the hotel.  Nero would have been proud.

    Learning:  Avoid room service always.  Period.  I simply cannot be trusted in my own room.  Frankly room service depresses me anyway.  I'm getting much more into the habit of going to a local restaurant at night and eating by myself at the bar, iPad in hand.  It's more social, and I'm much more restrained.
  • Airplane food:  I did what I wanted.  I've pretty much given up trying to be a saint on flights over 8 hours.  On balance, I will go for dishes that seem less bad, but I simply cannot (and do not) say no to cheese and crackers when I'm strapped to a seat.

    Learning:  These events aren't that big of a deal for me, so I'm not losing sleep over this.
One side story that I found amusing.  I arrived in Amsterdam on a Sunday night, and the local team wanted to give me a nice little welcome.  They arranged for a big tray of food to be in my room when I arrived along with a map to the local gym.  The try was mostly fruit (good), but also had a bunch of seemingly healthy nut bars and a big bowl of mixed nuts (bad -- for me, anyway).  I stared at the nuts on and off for about two hours on Sunday night until finally I broke down and started grabbing some.  It was like water torture trying to resist the temptation.  I then did what I normally do by self-flagellating myself for my weakness, and I then hid the nuts and bars underneath my TV stand.  For the next two days, I didn't touch any of them.  

I have a few observations about the above:
  1. Am I a four year old?  Who hides food so he won't eat it?  Me.  That's who.  
  2. Why not just throw the food away?  I really don't know.  I felt guilty about doing that even though I knew that someone else threw them away.  I'm weird that way.  
  3. I knew that if I put them outside of my sight lines that I would be much less tempted to eat them.  Out of sight, out of mind.  That worked.  I'm smart that way.  
I've got more travel in front of me.  The trick will be to keep planning for each trip, and importantly planning for each occasion/event that will be a trouble spot.  

Game on.



Saturday, April 7, 2012

Learning to practice safe food love

This series this month on “Why I wrote a book” has forced me to try to distill some of the hard fought lessons that have had the biggest impact on my unending efforts to achieve health and balance.  You can’t talk about weight management without talking about food, but I wanted to talk about a different theme:  learning to not be miserable.

Reason #3 (for the book):  Long-term weight loss isn’t easy, but it need not be a life of deprivation

I recently had my annual physical memorializing the completion of my third year at goal weight.  It’s a fact that I’m pretty proud of.  Suffice to say, I’m extremely happy about the fact that I’m healthier today than I was when I was in my 30’s.  Good blood work, low blood pressure, low resting heart rate, etc.  But wait!  There’s more!  I’m also not too proud to admit a SLIGHT bit of pride over being able to wear clothing intended for thinner people.  It almost makes me forget the impending age lines wrapping around my eyes and my rapidly greying hair.

So what horrible price did I have to pay for this treasure trove of benefits?  Do I now have to live a loveless life without any joy for eating any more or ever again?  Do I wander the earth like one of those ghosts from A Christmas Carol dragging a huge cinder block & chain, moaning my eternal life of deprivation and hunger?


Just not unrequited love...
I love food as much as I ever did.  I just try to love the food that loves me back.  I’m done with the bad girlfriends of food.  You know the type.  Fast and loose, a little psychotic and ultimately bad for you.  They give you cheap thrills and then torture you.  I finally learned to settle down with great food I can live with that makes me happy, is good for me, and is still sexy as all get out.

All of the most important lessons I have learned about food have been about how to not live in deprivation.  The simple truth is that some food will fill you up while others will leave you wanting for more.  The beautiful and incredibly convenient truth is that there are no shortages of good foods that have a crazy combination of 1) being filling, 2) being full of nutritional awesomeness and 3) being low in energy (calories).

Everything I have learned about my current “diet” has been about cheating the devil.  I grew up liking to eat a lot of food, and I still like to eat a lot of food.  I’ve just learned to do it without the collateral damage to my gut.

This is one of the key messages I wanted to share in the book:  if you live in deprivation and hunger, you will almost certainly fly off the wagon.  The trick is to find a predictable set of foods, meals and strategies that you can live with.  Forever.  And happily.

Important announcement redux redux

Don’t forget.  Your book purchase helps a kid get a square meal.  All of my proceeds go to Share Our Strength.  They deserve your money more than I do.

Click to giant book picture in the upper right hand corner to learn more...



Saturday, March 31, 2012

Don't try to fight the Death Star -- Willpower is Over-Rated

Following up on last week’s post, I ponder the question:  so I wrote a book, but why???

Reason #2:  I’m pretty sick of hearing about will power

I wrote this book for every person who has ever had to listen to the sanctimonious admonition:  “Get some discipline, eat less and move more.  It’s simple!”

My response to this admonition:  put a sock in it.

It makes me more than a little crazy the way obesity is over-simplified.  Let’s start with some basic logic:  very few people struggling with obesity are particularly happy about that fact.  I know I wasn’t.  The notion that it’s easy if we were all just a little bit less lazy is a bad combination of being 1) wrong and 2) incredibly harmful.  If it was easy and straight forward, I think we can all reasonably expect that we would not have an obesity epidemic on our hands.

Fact #1:  obesity levels are much higher today than they were 30 years ago.
Fact #2:  the availability to food anywhere, anytime has expanded just as fast as our waistlines.
Fact #3:  We live in an environment that conspires to encourage us over-eat.
Fact #4:  our brains aren’t really helping the matter.

So if the answer is complicated, what can we do about it?

Most of what is written about dealing with weight is in the form of nutritional theory, usually in the form of regimented meal plans that are frankly hard to live with.  There is no shortage of diet books constantly streaming into the marketplace focusing on the finer points of nutritional theory.  Cut out fat.  No wait, cut out carbs.  Eat nuts.

Don't fight the Tractor Beam.  Find your
inner Obi Wan and shut the bad boy down.
This begs the question of why I bothered to write a book on the topic of weight.  My answer is that it’s not a diet book.  It’s a change your lifestyle/habits/brain book.  I would argue that the most interesting research happening in the field of weight management is much more in the territory of behavior and neurological science than it is in nutritional science.  Said differently, we eat for a thousand reasons that have nothing to do with actually being hungry.  We eat because we want a reward.  We eat because it’s an ingrained habit.  We eat, and we aren’t even fully aware that we’re eating.  When we get in the tractor beam of a trigger food, we find ourselves being yanked into the Death Star of eating mistakes.  What all of this research points to is a simple truth:  if we try to rely on willpower to stare down temptation, we will almost certainly fail.

Over the past few years, I’ve been pretty heavily influenced by a lot of different writers and researchers in this topic.  Some of them are the writers:  Tara Parker Pope, Mark Bittman, Michael Polan, and more recently, Charles Duhigg.  Many of them are behavioral economists and psychologists such as Brian Wansink, Richard Thaler, Kevin Volpp, B.J. Fogg and many others.

When it comes to what we really need to know about nutrition, I would argue that much of what we need to know is pretty uncomplicated.  The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (aka MyPlate) got it pretty right:  fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables and the rest with lean proteins and whole grains.  Have low-fat dairy.  Minimize junk food.  Watch portion size.  Exercise daily.  Repeat.

If knowing what we should ultimately eat is straight forward, knowing how to make it happen in life is a lot trickier.  It’s not easy to make those noble decisions when we are staring down our most dreaded food temptation.

This brings me back to the book.  I started writing the blog when I became a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers (i.e., reached my goal weight).  Everything I’ve talked about or thought about over the past three years has had to do with learning to live with my new lifestyle.  It wasn’t until I got to maintenance that I really began to understand what was necessary to try to change my life patterns for good (and better).  In fact, if I knew what I’ve learned in the last three years of maintenance when I started Weight Watchers, it would not have taken me nine years to reach my goal weight.

Therefore, in this book, expect to hear a lot more about changing habits, managing our personal environments and establishing new healthy routines.  The promise is to make healthy decisions easier, and ideally automatic.

Important announcement redux

As noted in the last post, all author proceeds of the book go to Share Our Strength ( to benefit their No Kid Hungry campaign.

Here are the Amazon and Barnes & Noble have links active for pre-order.  I’m told there will be electronic versions as of the on-sale date (I’m still confirming this…)

Here are the pre-order links...


Barnes & Noble:

Books a Million:



Friday, March 23, 2012

My great big giant secret

I have a confession to make.  Over the past few months, I have to admit that my blogging has become a little sporadic, and I feel a little guilty about that.  As luck would have it, I do have an excuse.  It’s not that I haven’t been writing, it’s just that I have been writing in a different venue.  In fact, I just finished writing a book.

There you have it.  I buried the lead.

My very first ever, giant leap into the world of book publishing is about to come to life.  In fact, it’s at the printer as we speak, getting ready to be bound into real-life hard back books that will be found in real-life bookstores (electronic and otherwise).

And the title is?  Don’t laugh.

My face looks like I ate a bad piece of fish...
Weight Loss Boss:  How to Finally Win at Losing--and Take Charge in an Out-of-Control Food World

So what is this book?  Why write it?  More importantly, why read it?  Who’s it even for?

Allow me to answer in several blog posts leading up to (drumroll please) the book launch date on May 8.  Each post will make a case for why I wrote it and why one might be inclined to read it.  So here it goes, reason #1…

Reason #1:  To put my life on sordid display so that others may succeed

So who is the book is for?

I wrote it for anyone who is struggling or has struggled with weight – that’s most of us.  I wrote it with Weight Watchers peeps in mind, but I also wrote it for people who have never or even may never darken the doors of Weight Watchers.  Without pandering too much, I wrote the book for everyone that reads or has read this blog, and I definitely wrote for everyone who has ever posted comments on the blog (even the harsh ones!).  In fact, it was the people (you) who frequent my little blog that motivated me to write the book.

My motivation to write it came down to my recognition of a very simple truth:  none of us is alone in either our struggles or our victories.

I originally started writing the blog as a bit of an experiment.  I wanted to start writing about weight because I felt that too many guys avoided talking about the subject.  I felt that there needed to be more male voices talking about the challenges of living the healthier path, but most of us dudes were a little too sheepish to do so.  I made the decision to start opening up about my own challenges with weight, and I made the conscious decision not to write as the CEO of a big company.

What transpired over the next three years was both fascinating and ultimately critical in shaping how I would ultimately think about the struggle with weight and the obesity epidemic.  As I would start to share my demons in my blog posts, others would jump in and talk about how they experienced similar challenges.  People seemed surprised that the CEO of a big weight loss company would have so many of the same weaknesses and issues.  They also found it encouraging (or they simply liked watching me bare my soul), so I was egged on.  The deeper I got into my own self-examination, the more others responded in kind.

I originally thought that my blog would primarily appeal to male readers, but it quickly became apparent that I was off the mark.  I had many more women commenting and sharing their own experiences.   It seemed that the challenges that we face, man or woman, are much more alike than they are dissimilar.

All of this brings me back to that very simple truth.  For myself, when I’m having a bad day/week/month with eating, I tend to hold myself in bitter contempt.  I cannot help but beat myself up for all of my crummy habits that seem so hard to break.  I get stressed that this process of dealing with food seems never ending.  It’s easy to feel pretty alone, as if everyone else in the world has all of the answers and the discipline while I have none.  Yet what I have learned is exactly the opposite:  we all struggle with the same challenges.  When we share them out loud, we not only help ourselves, we help everyone in earshot.  Through this realization, we can learn to lean on each other and become stronger in the process.   None of us is alone.

So this brings me to the first reason I wrote the book.  If the CEO of a giant weight loss company struggles with all of the same issues and is willing to blurt them out loud, maybe others will be inspired to do the same.  So in the book, I bare my soul, my crummy habits, my peccadillos, and other bits of data that never needed to see the light of day.  I did it for myself, and I did it for anyone willing to toil through the book.

Next week.  Reason #2:  I’m pretty sick of hearing about will power

Important announcement

In making a decision to spend your hard earned money to listen to me blather, there is one important fact that you can take comfort in.  I made the decision to give ALL of the author (that’s me!) advance and royalties of the book to Share Our Strength ( to benefit their No Kid Hungry campaign.  You heard it right.  Neither I or Weight Watchers will make one red cent on this book.  Share Our Strength will spend the money much more wisely that I could ever hope to.

And yes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have links active for pre-order.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Time for a cleanse?

The other day, I was minding my own business and taking a quick spin through my calendar for the next few weeks.  Suddenly, it hit me like a brick in the head:  my annual physical was a mere two weeks away (Tuesday March 20).  I completely panicked.  I quickly got a weigh in and was horrified to discover that I was a full 4 pounds over my goal weight (horrors!!!).  

Suddenly the likely outcome of my upcoming physical became so very clear...  I would see my doctor who would have someone take blood samples.  She would then have me weighed and my blood pressure taken.  I would then be left alone, in a cold and antiseptic room equipped only with old issues of Highlights magazine.  I would be eagerly awaiting her return with the results.  However, she would never come.  Instead, the room will be stormed by four large men in suits and sunglasses who would whisk me away and have me remanded to a frightening third world country.  From there, I would be tortured horribly.  They wouldn't even ask questions.  They would then quietly dispose of my body.  Why?

Because I got failing scores in my blood work.  And I never even learned to read!  

OK.  Maybe this was a bit of an unlikely scenario.  I highly doubt that being four pounds over my goal weight would significantly alter my chemistry, and I can only hope the CIA has bigger fish to fry.  But what can I say?  I want a gold star, and the gold stars from my doctor are particularly shiny.    

Having survived this anxiety attack, I made the decision to clean up my act in the nine days leading up to my doctors appointment.  It was time for an intervention!  

One might fairly ask the question as to why I needed an intervention in the first place.  What was I doing that was so bad?  In truth, I wasn't being horrible.  I was just sliding a bit, and it showed up on the scale.  Frankly, I didn't even need to look at the scale as I new that I had gotten a little slack.  

Part of my strategy to maintain my weight loss has been to know when all of those little, itty bitty seemingly innocuous decisions are starting to go slightly sideways.  It's one of the reason that the scale is still helpful for me -- it's a pretty impartial judge (and a fairly sensitive one at that) about the cumulative effect of my habits.  

Another thing I have learned over the past few years on maintenance is that sometimes an intervention is needed when a habit slide occurs.  Sometimes I need to hit the reset button.  

I'm sorry, but really?  The idea of this
 for a week makes me sad.  
For this reason, I decided to do my equivalent to a cleanse.  However, rather than spending a week drinking green slime, I decided to make it a little more simple.  I wanted to execute a couple of changes and live with them for a full eight days.  These were:
  1. No more mindless eating/grazing, particularly after dinner.  The reasons for this are probably pretty self-evident.  
  2. I wanted to take a break from having a glass of wine at night.  The reasons for this one are less self-evident.  I like a nice glass of wine as much as the next guy (maybe more), but I also realize that they are pretty empty calories.  Further, I also realize that the daily pattern of having a glass of wine each night can become more about it being a mindless habit, and less about actually enjoying the wine.  With this in mind, I wanted to shake things up a little bit.  
I wanted to give myself an extra incentive to stick with this little eight day pledge by deciding to Tweet about it each day.  It's funny how well this works on me.  I truly do not want to let down the people who follow me.  I'm also enough of a narcissist to think that the people who follow me on Twitter wait with baited breath on my every stated action.    

So where am I in the challenge?

I'm now in day five of eight.  The no grazing pledge is going perfectly.  I would guess that I have eliminated about 500 to 600 calories per day in mindless consumption (seriously!).  Even better, I really don't miss these little post-dinner splurges.  I'm not feeling at all hungry.

What about the other one?  I happily went four nights with nary a fermented grape.  Last night I got home, and I made the decision to join my DSW, whom I hadn't seen in a couple of days, with a drink (bourbon -- technically a loophole!).  I'm OK falling off this part of the challenge as I felt like I had already achieved my goal of not treating wine as a mindless habit over the course of the week.  Anyway, that's my rationalization, and I'm sticking with it!  

What can I learn from all of this?

I find hitting the reset button incredibly helpful when I'm on maintenance.  At first, cutting out mindless snacking seemed like a big ask, but as the week has progressed, it has seemed less and less a big deal.   It has dawned on me that I really don't need the extra few (or more) bites after dinner.  Ever.  In other words, what seemed like a cleanse-like activity is actually more of a normal state of being (i.e., only eating at designated meal times).  

Beats drinking green slime any day!



Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fast food optimism...

The other morning, I was watching the news, and I saw the CEO of the company that owns Hardee's and Carl's Burgers complaining about the cost of healthcare.  I had to admit that my first reaction was to be slightly irritated given the role of obesity in driving healthcare cost.  While it is hard to deny the impact of eating giant cheeseburgers to expanding waist lines, perhaps loading all of the responsibility for the obesity epidemic at the door step of fast food is a bit severe.  Reasonable people can disagree on this point.

Nonetheless, all of this got me thinking about how I generally feel about fast food, particularly as it relates to the way yours truly currently lives his life.  In truth, it's pretty unusual for me to darken the doors of a traditional fast food establishment these days.  It's not really a conscious decision that I make each day.  Rather, fast food just isn't really part of my daily patterns any more.  Again, this is not a value judgement, but rather a simple observation of what I do.

It wasn't always this way as my relationship with fast food has evolved quite a bit over the years...
  • The early years:  When I was a kid, we didn't go out to a lot of restaurants.  My folks were tending to a litter of four kids on the salary of a government scientist.  As well, it's important to remember that we were still in Olden Times when I was a kid.  In those days, people ate a lot more of their meals at home.  For me, fast food was generally equated with McDonalds, which I got to go to about four to five times per year.  Each of those visits was a wonderful, glorious occasion filled with Big Mac's, shakes and fries.  It's hard to describe how much I loved burping Big Mac's over the hours after a McDonalds trip -- it was like getting to go over and over again during a course of hours (I admit that this is a gross recollection, but I dare you to deny feeling the same way). 
  • College:  Fast food was a constant.  These were the years of Super Size gone horribly wrong.  I will admit to sometimes stepping up to a double Big Mac order.  These were also the years in which I worshiped at the alter of fried chicken (I went to school in NC after all).  Bojangles was a particular highlight.  There was nothing like fried chicken and a biscuit w/ sausage gravy to erase an evening of beer soaked hijinx. 
  • Early years of work, up to the day I started at WW:  I still hit fast food from time to time, but my menu tended to move to more sit-down-service burger joints.  Frankly, these were probably worse, nutritionally speaking, than any of my fast food indulgences. 
  • The healthier years (i.e., today):  As noted, I really don't see a lot of traditional fast food in my life other than the occasional visit during a road trip.  It's almost as though the frequency and occasions have returned to what was the case during my early years.  
So with all of the above in context, I started to think about how I do and could handle fast food today.  After feeling a little critical of the Carl's Jr burger guy, I went on their website to see what normal options could be had.  In fact, Carl's sells salads with low fat dressings.  This is the case for most fast food places.  In other words, if you need to go, you can absolutely stay on plan.  Pretty much the only places where I haven't figured out how to do this are the true dens of hedonism such as 5 Guys, IHOP and Dairy Queen.

From a broader social perspective, the basic value proposition of fast food is that it is:
  • Convenient:  fast food is everywhere
  • Inexpensive:  certainly compared to other dining out options
  • Tasty:  depending on your taste, they deliver a lot of satisfied taste buds.  
 It's the last bullet point where people have gotten into trouble with fast food.  Most of the stuff on the menu is not really ideally suited to be part of an every day healthy eating plan.  Most of the menu (I would guess 85% to 90%) is great for a treat or a splurge, but not really for five days per week.  The biggest issue with fast food is that while you can make the healthy choices (e.g., the grilled chicken-no mayo, the salad w/ low fat dressing, etc.), these good choices represent a narrow part of the menu, and most of us are tempted to fall into the choices that aren't so hot (nutritionally speaking).

My way of handling this kind of temptation is to mentally rehearse my order before I walk into the store.  I really don't want to be making my choice on the fly and at the counter -- too much risk of rash decision.

From a societal perspective, I think we can safely say that fast food is here to stay, so we cannot wish it away.  Further, I would not discount the value of convenience and price that these outlets provide.  My hope is that the big chains will step up and transition their platforms to much more fully embrace healthy choices on their menus, ideally representing 75% or more of what they sell vs. 10 to 20% today.  Is this wishful thinking?

View of the future?
Let me call attention to a relatively new chain, the Energy Kitchen, which is based in NYC.  The Energy Kitchen was founded by Mike Repole after he sold the Vitamin Water business he founded to Coke.  His plan is to open up 40 stores over the next two years.  Of note with this concept is that nothing on the menu is over 500 calories.  The Energy Kitchen has become my new go-to lunch spot in NY.  The food is great, and my lunch clocks in at 6 PointsPlus values for a cobb salad with a side of creamed spinach.  It's a great bit bunch of food for not a lot of calories.  BTW, it tastes great.

What I particularly like and admire about the Energy Kitchen is that they are trying to prove that you can sell nutrient dense, energy light food that is also great tasting and convient/fast.  I can only hope they these guys find success beyond belief and serve as a role model for the broader restaurant community that good taste, great nutrition, convenience and value can all be part of the same equation.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Little epiphanies from my vacation

I'm always a little amused with myself, as I continue to live my healthier life.

I'm on vacation this week with my family, on a ski week in Utah.  As I have written about many times, I like active vacations that hold the promise of both activity and relaxation.  I suppose it is a little odd and obsessive that I need activity when I take a week off, lest I suddenly gain 53 pounds in seven days.  In truth, I could easily take the entire week off of exercise, and my world would continue to spin on its axis.  However, it's not only obsession that makes me appreciate an active vacation as I truly do love to run around for a whole host of reasons beyond the size of my midsection.  Among other things, I do believe that ski vacations are among the best ways to get truly quality time with my family.  There is nothing like being stuck on a ski lift to make a 14 year old daughter talk to her dorky dad.

But what about the food on vacation?

Our first day here, we went to a nice restaurant in Park City for lunch that had a pretty spectacular and fairly indulgent menu.  My first reaction was to pull on my body armor and get prepared to make the proper Calvinist self-denial choice.  My eyes quickly went to the "cold seafood sampler" consisting of very sea creatures untouched by heavy sauces, served with a cocktail sauce on the side.  Safe choice!  Meanwhile my family was debating between cheese burgers, quesadillas, and other seemingly less responsible routes.

At this moment, I had a sudden bolt of recognition:  I was being a complete downer. I'm at goal weight.  I've been good all January/February.  Really, was a cheeseburger going to be the end of me?  I remembered my advice to myself:  when you are going to splurge, make it matter.  This restaurant was a place where I could definitely get a lot of bang for my splurging buck.  I "boldly" changed my mind and ordered the cheeseburger.

I am a pretty cheeseburger.  You can love me.
Just don't love all of me.  
Let me be clear.  This particular cheeseburger was a sight to behold.  It was made with high grade beef, a Gucci bun and a side of thick cut fries coated in parmesan cheese.  I had chosen well, and I was glad that I was able to let go and act like a normal person on vacation.

Then something else interesting happened.  My normal course would have been to inhale the meal in about 73 seconds, and then spend the next four hours feeling like crud with a case of bad indigestion (not to mention holding myself in disregard).  Instead, I reminded myself that swallowing the burger whole would make me feel pretty nasty afterwards.  So I took my time, and I stopped eating at about the 60% complete mark (of both burger and fries).  I actually managed to not clean my plate.  On vacation no less.  This is no mean feat for yours truly.  

Afterwards, I felt great.  I got a great, indulgent meal that tasted unbelievably good.  I was also rewarded with not feeling physically ill afterwards.  Finally, I had ZERO remorse.

This little experiment is giving me a new idea on how to manage my clean plate club habit, which I would really like to shed.  There was a super interesting article in the NY Times magazine this week "How companies learn your secrets" , talking about how retailers use information to learn how to get their shoppers to change habits.  What caught my eye in this article, however, was a section on habit change.  It argued that one key to establishing a new habit is to create a new reward the follows a new routine so that your brain will be pleased when you follow a new habit pattern.

So here is my thinking on a new No-Clean-Plate-Club habit profile:

  1. Cue:  knowing that when I sit at a restaurant, I will be given a plate with too much food
  2. Routine:  go through a mental process where I try to imagine what it will feel like to over-eat and/or eat too quickly
  3. Reward:  thinking about how I will feel when I don't over-indulge
This is a little over-simplified, and I think I need to put some more meat on the bones (so to speak).  However, this little vacation lunch was a nice reminder that I can still live in the world, and not have to choose between crazed food binge and monk-like chastity.  With practice, I can continue to learn a middle way...



Friday, February 10, 2012

Size matters redux

Our brain is a funny device.  It holds a surprising sway over us, often in ways we cannot imagine.  I read with interest and curiosity a few weeks ago an article in the WSJ talking about the curious benefit of placebos (Why Placebos Work Wonders).  Sometimes when our brain thinks we are getting better or are satisfied, it instructs the rest of the body to follow suit.  It seems that when our mind plays tricks on us, those tricks can impact much more than what's bouncing around our noggins.  In the article, they referenced one particular study from the journal Health Psychology.  Here is the excerpt from the WSJ...

Another study, published last year in the journal Health Psychology, shows how mind-set can affect an individual's appetite and production of a gut peptide called ghrelin (GREL-in), which is involved in the feeling of satisfaction after eating. Ghrelin levels are supposed to rise when the body needs food and fall proportionally as calories are consumed, telling the brain the body is no longer hungry and doesn't need to search out more food. 
Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed. When told a milkshake they were about to drink had 620 calories and was "indulgent," the participants' ghrelin levels fell more—the brain perceived it was satisfied more quickly—than when they were told the shake had 120 calories and was "sensible. 
The results may offer a physiological explanation of why eating diet foods can feel so unsatisfying, says Ms. Crum, first author on the study. "That mind-set of dieting is telling the body you're not getting enough."
So there you have it.  This study suggests that if you think you are getting a lot of food, then it can instruct your hormones to pipe down and let you feel full.  If your brain thinks you are getting gipped, then it asks your hormones to scream for more.  There is clearly a bizarre circular logic being used by our neurological systems, but what I suppose it is what it is.

One example of how we can use this curious effect to our benefit is in the use of low energy density foods.  These are foods that have relatively few calories per cubic meter, often filled with water, air, fiber, etc.  It goes back to one of my personal rules of eating:  bulk up your food.  If I go back to my staple breakfast:

  • Regular oatmeal with blueberries and sliced banana
  • 0 fat Greek yogurt with grapes with a little Fiber One
By the time I'm done with these concoctions, they completely fill two pretty decent sized bowls.  It's enough food that my family looks at me slightly aghast by the quantity.  Yet these two bowls add up to about 6 PointsPlus per serving.  It's my little version of cheating the devil.  My brain clearly thinks I'm getting a decent amount of food because I'm not really hungry until lunch.  You might now ask the following question:  if this hypothesis is true, then why aren't I destroying this phenomena by asserting it?  In other words, the fact that I am acknowledging that I'm only eating 6 PointsPlus values should signal to my brain that I'm still hungry, yet this does not happen.  Why?  Simple.  My brain isn't very smart and/or is quite gullible.  

The above WSJ excerpt also reminds me of a Charles Barkley quip from the Leno show:  "You can't give a fat man a little meal and expect him to be happy."  Amen to that.  

Big food indeed...
There is more than a fair bit of research out there to suggest that visual cues can go a long way to convincing us that we are either being well fed or starved, regardless of actual calorie content.  Personally, I view this as a gift because it allows me to imagine strategies to mentally cheat (i.e., by bulking up my foods).  I'm perfectly happy to outsmart my dimwitted brain.  

This is also a good reminder for me of one of the cardinal rules for sustainable, healthy eating:  don't go through life deprived!  I've never met a person on Weight Watchers who didn't love food.  I've also never meet a person on Weight Watchers who has kept their weight off for a long time who still doesn't love food.  The trick is to love food that loves you back.