Sunday, July 26, 2009

When bad foods veer scarily off course

About a month ago, I saw a review in the NY Times for a new restaurant that specializes in a variety of french fries served in Quebec. It's called Poutine. It is basically described as french fries covered with fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. I'm really not making this up. Truth be told, I'm not sure what is more disturbing: 1) that this concoction exists in nature, 2) there is a large population of people in Canada who swear by it, or 3) that it looks strangely alluring.

Poutine also begs the question: weren't the fries already bad enough? Must we take our indulgences to the outer limits? Seemingly, the answer is yes.

It's not just the Canadians who ply this evil trade. The Belgians are known to serve their frites with mayonnaise. And what about the Americans: cheese fries!!! With Chili!!!

True confession time: I am not a stranger to cheese fries. When I lived in Chicago, I hit this little item more than a few times. Yet another reason for my enlargement during the 90's.

Now I intuitively know better, but I must admit to being curious how bad the actual carnage of cheese fries is. The answer can be found in the web sites of a few big restaurant chains. Denny's sells a skillet of cheese fries for the bargain POINTS price of 20. However, they are not the big winner. That honor goes to Dairy Queen which sells a cheese fries with chili basket for 30 POINTS. Yikes. That's one side of food for more POINTS than most people have for a full day. I can reasonably assume the Poutine would not fair much better.

By the way, this is not the scariest thing on the DQ menu board. That honor goes to a six piece chicken tender basket which clocks in at 39 POINTS. Impressive!!!!

So what's the point? No point really. I think I can safely state that there is not a person on Earth who thinks that cheese fries are super-nutritious and heart healthy. Frankly, the chicken basket is more of a shock, particularly for the uninformed. There was a time when I might have thought this was good for me (or at least not bad). In this case, knowledge is power.

BTW, I recently posed the question as to whether a renovated cheese fry dish was an actual possibility. The answer? Yes. Baked sweet potato fries with low fat cheese melted on top. This can be done for 5 POINTS. May not have the same decadence quotient, but it works nicely!

Testing my mettle

There is a great line from the movie Magnum Force (the second Dirty Harry movie) that has always stuck in my head: "A man's got to know his limitations." When he used it at the end of the movie, Harry Callahan was talking about the importance of the police not assuming they can act beyond the boundaries of their badge and the law (and Hal Holbrook's character paid a dear price). Unlike Dirty Harry, I don't walk the streets with a giant handgun seeking justice, so I employ the line for a different lesson: I should never assume that I can reliably rise about my greatest food temptation.

And what temptation is that? Peanuts.

My behavior around an open container of peanuts (particularly wasabi coated) is oddly similar to a shark swimming through chum. Everything goes fuzzy, and my brain begins to get blurry leading to a rapid hand-to-mouth repetition until the nuts are gone. I suppose everyone has a food that has this kind of effect on them. The trick is to know what it is and then make a plan of defense.

The first line of defense: don't buy them. Easy, simple, and cheap.

However, I do not live alone, so the first line of defense does not work. My wife uses peanuts for cooking a few different dishes. Therefore, I need a second line of defense built around the reality of cohabitation.

So, the second line of defense: don't open them. Harder, but doable. If I can manage to leave the seal on the can, I obviously cannot grab the odd handful.

We have had two cans of nuts sitting menacingly on a shelf for the past four months. They stare at me, taunting me with their pictures of pretty, perfectly formed peanuts. For the past four months, I have not opened the seal to either can. Victory has been mine. So what do I do if my wife opens one up to use for cooking?

Employ the third line of defense: ask her to hide them. Sad, but also effective.

BTW, I still manage to work in a nut fix, but I do it in a way that manages intake. Specifically, we get pre-packaged packets of almonds from Trader Joe's. They give me my nut rush, but I am much less likely to open a second pack.

My seemingly odd and undue focus on my battle with these cans of peanuts sheds light on a broader principle. The nuts are symbolic of my efforts to get myself out of situations where I am tested to fall back on a bad habit. This speaks to the importance of being aware of my food environment. If I create a safe environment, I am more likely to stick with my better habits.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Of habits, discipline and willpower

I will admit that I have gotten to a place where exercise is pretty central in my life (some might even say it sits on the edge of nuttiness). I am pretty much at six, sometimes seven days a week, including:
  • four days of weights (I do a four day split w/ different muscle groups each day) for about 50 minutes per session
  • on 2-3 of the weight days, I will toss in 30 minutes of cardio (usually stationary bike)
  • 2 more days of cardio (again, stationary bike) for 42 minutes (don't ask me why 42 rather than 41 or 43 -- I'm a creature of habit)
  • try to bike on road at least once per weekend
  • play tennis poorly
  • walk most days from GCT to office (1 mile each way)
As a parenthetical, this much exercise is pretty close to the federal government's recommended activity levels (150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day plus resistance training).

I almost always workout in the morning as I would otherwise lose motivation. This requires me to wake up at 4:30 AM for at least three mornings per week in order to manage my 1.5 hour commute from CT to NYC.

I certainly did not start at this level of frequency and intensity. I've gradually added days and activities over the past ten years. This whole exercise thing seems to be spreading, but I have gotten to the place where I like it and I rely on it (for sanity, if nothing else).

Yet, I would not call myself disciplined, and I would not say that I exert willpower. I would more accurately describe my exercise fetish as a habit and a routine. Every time that hideous alarm goes off in the morning, I do not make a choice to exercise. I simply go. I would claim myself disciplined if I was actively making a decision each day to exercise, but frankly, it's pretty much automatic and force of habit. Almost second nature.

Frankly, I have a big issue with the notion of being disciplined and exerting tremendous will power. To me it connotes a life sentence of austerity, difficulty and self-flagellation. None of which I support as they all seem pretty unpleasant. I have always found overly disciplined people slightly scary. It's a little bit like people who never watch TV and only read greek literature in its original language. Can they really be trusted?

Developing a habit is a much more doable concept for me. It is a function of doing a little bit of soldiering until the new habit becomes a familiar routine. This is a concept that does not require me to see myself as a superhuman with a titanium resolve. It is simply a process that if I stick with and follow will gradually become automatic.

On the particular topic of making exercise automatic, here is what has worked for me:

1) always leave my workout clothes next to my computer the night before
2) set out one Sugar Free Red Bull on mousepad next to computer
3) when alarm goes off, I immediately get out of bed and walk to computer. No staring at the ceiling or hitting snooze buttons as these would lead to decision making and second guessing.
4) I split my weight routine into 4 days with different muscle groups (insight: slight OCD makes me fear bad symmetry, requiring me to never miss a muscle group by dropping one of the four days)

In summary, discipline and willpower are for the few, but habits and routines are for everyone.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Food adventures in Dusseldorf

Often on the road, my hosting dinner companions will exclaim: "You cannot stay on program tonight! You must try our regional speciality!" Friends often exhort in a very similar manner: "Tonight is special! Eat some real food!" This would be fine other than the fact that I hear these words no less than once per week. If you fall to this kind of peer pressure only once per week, it's really not a big deal. Just don't fall for it at every meal.

When it comes to being tempted by regional cuisine, one has to be particularly willing to be a good sport. So, I was out in Dusseldorf with my German colleagues, and we went to a very old, and famous Dusseldorf restaurant just off the Rhine River. It was a beautiful old place, and we had a very nice table outside.

They did not have an English version of the menu, so I had to feebly ask for help finding something reasonably on-program. My friends were having none of that, and they encouraged me to try something called Dusseldorfer Senfrostbraten. Huh? Basically, it's beef with a thick mustard sauce. Pretty much everyone got the same dish, so at least they were in the foxhole with me.

The dish arrived in all of its splendor. As you can see from the photo, the beef was thick. The sauce was thick. And the potatoes were glistening with the oil in which they were sauteed. They claimed that the sauce on the beef was mustard (great POINTS value) and breadcrumbs (maybe not totally great) (personally, I had a hard time believing there was not a cream somewhere in the mix, but why quibble). What's a nice young man on program to do? The answer: eat it, enjoy it (I did), but not feel compelled to lick the plate clean. In fact, I had about 2/3 of it, and placed my napkin on the plate, and was happy, content and unstuffed. I also worked out the next morning.

It all works.

As a postscript, we were attacked by a mass of small green flies at dinner that got progressively worse. At one point, the entire city was thick with flies to the point where you could barely see. The next day, they were all gone. Is it possible my colleagues and hosting city were being punished for subverting my adherence to being on program?

A nice trip to Dusseldorf reminds me of something important

I just returned to New York after an eight day trip to Europe, primarily in London and Dusseldorf. Travel can be a bit of a grind as jet lag wreaks no small amount of havoc on me, with some trips worse than others. However, no matter the brutality placed upon my internal clock, having the chance to spend time with our people overseas and in their meetings is truly a perk of the job.

This past Tuesday I had the opportunity to give a town-hall meeting to a group of 25 German Weight Watchers leaders (they are referred to as "coaches" in that country). They were a wonderful group, and we were able to have a great discussion. After the town-hall, I had the opportunity to visit one of the coach's meetings in a town called Muelheim, about 40 minutes outside of Dusseldorf.

It was held in a small, charming center which the coach secured, decorated, and maintains with her husband. This particular coach, Bianca, runs about 16 meetings every week in this small center. Although I do not speak German, it is pretty easy to see that Bianca is a terrific leader, and is well liked by her members. She is full of energy and passion, and that comes across no matter the language barrier.

I had a chance to hear her tell her story, and it was a striking reminder of the power of making a permanent change in your life. About 7 years ago, Bianca carried about 140 kg (300 lbs) on her small frame. As she explained, she was sure that if she continued on her path, she would not live for long. She happened to visit a Weight Watchers meeting in the US of all places. From there her journey started and continued back in Germany. Over a course of several years, she lost 90 kg (about 200 pounds), and she has been at her current weight for about 3-4 years. She is now in great health, and she looks F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C (note the before picture she is holding).

She took the opportunity to become a Weight Watchers leader. Across her 16 meetings, she is helping close to 500 people each week try to make a similar change in their lives. This is the way it has always been at Weight Watchers, back to our founder Jean Nidetch's early days. It is a full reflection of the inherent power and momentum of our organization, and it perfectly represents why I love working here.