Monday, December 20, 2010

Buddy the Elf wanted for breakfast violations. Just one Grinch's opinion.

I spent Sunday night with my family watching one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies:  Elf.  It still makes me a little weepy when they will Santa's sleigh back into flight by singing.  

However, in my official capacity, I was horrified and upset.  What sort of horrible lesson is this movie trying to teach unformed and easily impressionable minds such as my own?  

Over at Weight Watchers, we find ourselves in a new glorious era of a PointsPlus program that encourages vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy.  By contrast, the four basic food groups of the Christmas Elves are apparently:
  1. Candy
  2. Candy canes
  3. Candy corn
  4. Syrup
It's one thing for Buddy to eat used gum off the railing at a subway station (not very many points at all), but his breakfast choices were truly unconscionable.  How bad you ask?  In one morning alone he had (in a single bowl):
  • Spaghetti (3 cups by my estimate):  15 PointsPlus values
  • Maple syrup (looked like 1/2 cup):  12 PointsPlus values
  • Marinara sauce (the bargain of the lot):  3 PointsPlus value
  • Chocolate chips (1/2 cup):  12 PointsPlus values
  • M&M's (conservatively one bag):  6 PointsPlus values
  • Chocolate syrup (1/2 cup):  14 PointsPlus values
  • Pop Tart (one):  5 PointsPlus values

  • 2 liters of Coke:  23 PointsPlus
That's 67 PointsPlus values for the breakfast and another 23 for the drinks.  This is simply not responsible behavior.  

It goes without saying that we are not targeting our new program to the denizens of the North Pole.  What about my house?  How do I coexist with PointsPlus during the holiday season?

I have to admit that I thought I was going to have a mild nervous breakdown yesterday.  My wife was in over-heated kitchen duty, creating Christmas treats for friends, teachers, etc.  Among her creations were Nutter Butter's ground up into balls coated in melted milk chocolate and then chilled.   She did the same with Oreos and white chocolate.  Then there were pretzel-peanut butter rounds, coated in chocolate and then by peanuts.  For the healthier touch, she made cashews with rosemary.  Of course, she wanted me to try them all to taste test, and I did.  It goes without saying that they were all fairly spectacular, particularly the pretzel-peanut butter-chocolate things.  

Having enjoyed the samples, my wife and I looked at each other and said the same thing:  we've got to get these out of the house.  Fast.  They are being packaged and delivered today, and my home can again become a safe place.

So really how much of a horrible combination of Scrooge/Grinch am I?  What's wrong with a little holiday indulgence?  Why can't I lighten up a little bit?  

In truth, Buddy the Elf is alive and well inside of me.  I love the decadent stuff, particularly this time of year.  When it comes to eating this kind of food, I know myself well enough to know my own limits.  If I am surrounded by chocolate delights for weeks upon end, I will eat them for weeks upon end.  

On Christmas Day, I have no intention of either tracking my points or hitting the gym (really!!!).  I just don't want the week that follows or the one the proceeds to feel like a mind numbing bender.  

For some people, the introduction of the new PointsPlus program in the midst of the holiday season was stressful.  I can totally understand that.  For me, (obvious bias caveats apply) it was a complete blessing.  I've been tracking my points most days, exercising like a nut, and I'm at goal right now.  That makes me happy and proud.  I can afford to lighten up at select moments over the next two weeks, but I just don't want to completely freak out and find myself sleeping in a damp gutter of junk food and sweets.  

So, my holiday plan:
  1. Track this week up until Friday night (I LOVE Christmas Eve)
  2. Do not track on Saturday (Love Christmas Day even more)
  3. Slowly re-enter responsible life on Sunday
  4. Fully back on program as of Monday with some grace for the fact that I have the week off (kind of)
  5. Exercise LOTS (I no longer consider this a hardship -- I like it!)
I want to hit January 3 feeling strong.  At the same time, I really am trying to leave my inner Grinch safely locked up.  As they say, moderation in all things, including moderation.  

What's on your docket?

Cheers & Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 13, 2010

Multiplicity of topics: call centers, last week and holiday fun

Wow.  I'm finally getting a little bit of time to settle down with my blog again, and I'm looking through all of the comments from last week.  Great stuff (even the harsh stuff) from all of you!  Weight Watchers folks are definitely not shy and understated!

Topic #1:  I am a bad responder...

The official call center:
Slackers!!!  Get back to work!
For better or for worse, I really do write and manage this blog as a solo act.  I don't have a small army of elves that can pay attention to it 24/7.  The good news is that you get a real life version of me (at least I think that's good news).  The bad news is that I cannot spend nearly enough time on my blog to manage a full time conversation.  The way my schedule goes, I usually write my post on the weekend.  Once the workweek starts, I get completely slammed, and I am challenged to get lunch, let alone spend time on the blog.  The upshot of this is that I am not set-up to answer questions on the fly.

It may not be totally realistic, but my original intent of this blog was to have a place where I could be a member (which I am).  For the past two years that I've had the blog, most of the ensuing conversation on it has been member-to-member, which I (and hopefully others) have really enjoyed.  To the extent that I can hold onto that ethos, that would be great.  

All of this said, I should also tell you that I read every single comment that has ever been posted on every single post I've ever put up.  I have taken note of all of your comments & suggestions over the past two weeks, and they are now firmly etched in my mind (e.g., desire for free eTools for Lifetime members -- got it!!!).  Therefore, feel free to keep firing them in there from time to time as long as 1) we can generally aspire to keep this as a place where we share our experiences as fellow members and 2) there isn't an expectation that I will respond to each one via this blog.  

For those who are looking for a place that is ready made to provide help and support, I would always suggest:
  • Your meeting and your Leader
  • If you are an Online subscriber, the message boards on our website are a fantastic place to share and get ideas
Oh.  For all of you who had a great week, you have no idea how much your comments filled me with unbridled joy.  I practically broke into tears a few times, which would have been a little embarrassing.  For those of you who struggled a bit or bridled against the change, I cannot emphasize enough that working the transition will be totally worth it for you.  We saw more than a few of our beta testers take two to three weeks to get their sea legs, sometimes gaining weight during that time.  We saw those same people start to make great progress once they 1) fully committed to the new program and left the old one in the past and 2) worked their new routine and rhythm.  Hang in there!!!!  

Topic #2:  Last week

On to my navel gazing...

Last week on PointsPlus was pretty great.  I know that I'm biased, but I really did have a good week.  I think that if I were hating following PointsPlus, I would find some way to talk about something else, like how rain makes me feel sad sometimes.  

What made last week great?  I really was making different choices, consciously and subconsciously.  [As a side point, how can anyone be conscious of a subconscious point?  I will ponder that a while.]  When I found myself going for the fast bite/snack, I was hitting the fruit.  Rather than dipping pretzel thins into my Bobbi's bean dip (which I am loving), I was pulling out the bag of baby carrots and dipping those instead.  When I was stuck in conference rooms overflowing with trays of food, I was grabbing a small plate and getting my honey dew mellon on.  When I went for a Weight Watchers ice cream treat, I had one instead of two.  Still a little irritated about the wine, but I am learning to happily coexist with a single glass.    

Every time I found myself making one of these choices, I would weigh the cost of the alternative.  The alternative always seemed like a rip-off, so it was really easy to take the righteous path.  

I was able to easily stay within my 43 PointsPlus value range.  Truth be told, I did not eat all my Points each day.  I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, so I hewed to the Weight Watchers recommendation of eating until I'm satisfied and not until I'm stuffed.  Even doing this, I felt like I was eating a lot of food, and I wasn't hungry.  Ever.  This pleased me greatly.  

Final tally?  Down a pound.  This puts me basically at goal weight, which I think is pretty great for this time of year.  Yeah me!  

Topic #3:  Bring on the eggnog, except hold the eggnog  

So now, December 12th, I ready myself to enter the zone of nutritional doom and despair.  Holiday time is here!!!

Looks like BIG fun.  Probably a wear-black-&-white themed holiday party
I went to a big Christmas party last night.  I'm happy to report that I practiced safe eating.  In particular, I made it a point not to finish each of the plates of food served.  For some people, this practice comes naturally, but for me, turning of my internal industrial strength vacuum clean is far from a guaranteed practice.  

This week, I have:
  1. My neighborhood holiday party last night
  2. My office holiday party on Wednesday night
  3. I am spending the day in DC on Tuesday
  4. Yet more Christmas parties on Saturday night
That's a lot of dangerous ground.  I'm thinking my strategy at each is going to be to only eat those things which are beloved by PointsPlus, preferably Power Foods.  If I add to that the don't-finish-my-plate-o-food trick, I am feeling like I will be in good shape.  I'm also thinking that I am going to ratchet up my workout intensity a bit this week to provide some extra margin for error.  

How are all of you holding up in the Bermuda Triangle of holiday food extravaganzas?  



Monday, December 6, 2010

Week one on PointsPlus: happy, full and in control. Maybe even a little taller.

I'm just wrapping up my first week on PointsPlus, which for me started in earnest last Monday.  I went to my GSS on Sunday, but really, start a new program on a Sunday?  I think not.

So how did it go?  In short, great! 

Here's what I have to work with:  43 PointsPlus value for my Daily Target Points (DTP) plus the standard 49 PointsPlus values for my Weekly Points Allowance (WPA).  All these acronyms almost make the whole process sound a bit like a public works project, but what better way to show off to your friends than dropping a few well timed in-the-know alphabet soup references.

For those who have not memorized my normal breakfast (roughly 6 billion people), my standard fare is:
  • Quaker regular oatmeal:  3 PointsPlus values
  • Fage 0% plain yogurt:  3 PointsPlus values
  • 1/8 cup Fiber One (mixed in w/ the yogurt):  1 PointsPlus value
  • Grapes:  0, baby
  • Banana:  0, baby
  • Blueberries:  0, baby

That's a lot of babies and only 7 PointsPlus values.

My lunch (or I should say my most typical lunch)...
  • Salad from Pump Energy Food that includes:  spinach, steamed sweet potatoes, balsamic marinated mushrooms, slow cooked turkey, shredded cheddar, fat free honey mustard dressing
  • A cup of fruit salad
The Pump is kind of enough to have a groovy nutrition calculator when you build your salad online.  The total nutritional make-up of my salad works out to:  32g carbs; 36g protein, 9f fat and 9g of fiber, which calculates to 8 PointsPlus values.  The fruit is 0.

Snack:  usually an apple (0) and/or another Fage 0% fat yogurt for 3 PointsPlus values.

Therefore, my typical pre-dinner day has worked out to 18 PointsPlus values leaving me another 25 left over to cover dinner.

For exercise, I'm getting the following:
  • Weight lifting (4X per week, 50 minutes per session):  + 5 Activity PointsPlus values (is that an APPV?)
  • 30 minutes of stationary bike (time permitting on lifting days) at a pretty hard pace:  + 7 Activity PointsPlus values
  • 50 minutes spinning on non-weight lifting days:  + 12 Activity PointsPlus values (nice!!!!!)
OK, so far all of this is great.  What about less pleasant surprises?  In a word, wine.  Holy Toledo.  The nectar of the gods has become a luxury in more ways than one.  In truth, the rampant inflation on the Weight Watchers price of wine is a useful reminder to me that one glass should suffice.  Aspirationally-speaking of course.

Dinners have also been fine save for the two flights to and from San Francisco.  When I tallied up the damage, I had blown 26 PointsPlus values on my flight from JFK to SFO.  My first day was a 52 PointsPlus day -- ouch!!!.  While I had enough AP's to cover it, it was still a bit of a wake-up.  I since made adjustments for the rest of the week, and I was able to comfortably stay within my range.

So my first impressions of being on the plan.  Fantastic (and I'm not just saying that because it's in my interest to do so).  Here is why this plan worked for me in week 1:
  • I already eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, so this part of the math works in my favor
  • Knowing the inflation on certain foods was definitely steering me toward better choices
  • I'm liking the more favorable math on activity points
  • Not once did I feel hungry or sad
  • In general, I really loved my week and I particularly loved the way I lived my week.  Feeling healthy just feels healthy.  If you know what I mean.  
I weighed on Saturday AM, and I am back to within 2 pounds of my goal weight.  And I never weigh in on Saturday (for obvious reasons).  I'm happy to be tracking again, and I am feeling much more in control.  Changing over from old Points to new PointsPlus values was not a big hassle, and I'm enjoying seeing the interplay of carbs, protein, fiber, and fat in the way the new values come out.  Then again, I'm a WW geek (and proud of it).

[For those asking how much weight I lost during the week:  I don't know.  I was too chicken to get weighed after Thanksgiving despite attending four meetings last week.  Sad and un-courageous.]

What else helped me with the transition?  For starters, seeing four different meetings from four fantastic Leaders across the country helped me get my head straight.  Having access to eTools was a godsend.  Finally, I worked the iPhone app hard, and it performed like a champ. I didn't have too much trouble getting my eTools favorites ported over.  My DSW has had an account for about 10 years, and she probably has well over 100 recipes and user-generated foods on the system.  She indicated that it was a bit of a hassle to move stuff over, but she didn't throw a dish at my head knowing that I'm to blame for many of these changes.  Which was good.

BTW, my general policy is not to comment on official company business on this blog -- it's all Dave all the time around these parts.  That said, for all of you loyal Google supporters out there, I will say this:  it has not passed our attention that Android is growing like a weed, particularly over the past 6 months.  Doing a full blown app for that platform is not an overnight job (multiple O/S versions and platforms), and our talented and over-worked tech team has been completely slammed getting the launch ready (it's hard to describe the amount of work that's been happening behind the scenes).  We also don't want to give you anything half-baked.  So with caveats entered, all I can say is that we're on it (!).  Good things come in Spring...

This is the part where I now ask you how your week 1 went.  Some of you are going to say it went GREAT.  To you I say:  rock on!  For those who had a not great week 1, I say:

  1. Please don't freak out.  It's a big change (there's a reason we haven't done this in 13 years)!  Give yourself time to get the hang of the new program and DO NOT BEAT YOURSELF (or me) UP!  
  2. Check the website and your meeting for comments and thoughts on potential transition challenges.  Some culprits can include: a) eating a mango grove all at once, b) mixing Points values from the old and new program (does not work), c) having someone secretly put their toe on the scale when you got weighed, etc.
  3. Ask your Leader for help if you go to meetings. 
  4. Consider going to a meeting so you have a Leader to ask for help
  5. Check the website.  There are a TON of resources around the site on helping people navigate the transition.  The message boards are also a good place to go for ideas.  
That said, how was week 1?



Monday, November 29, 2010

New again... What I want for myself from the new PointsPlus program.

At this point, I think I've written four or five different columns and pieces describing my official view of the new Weight Watchers PointsPlus Program, which launched officially today in the US.  For the latest, and most comprehensive manifesto, click this link...

Our new program: Taking Weight Watchers to the Next Level

Therefore, rather than provide yet more official love for this rocktacular new program, I thought I would use the time instead to reflect on the role I want it to play in my own life.


I'm still within five pounds of my goal weight, even after the debacle of Thanksgiving weekend.  I think knowing that there was a new program launching on Monday gave me license to indulge.  I swear I ate about 7 pounds of cashews and almonds.  In additional full disclosure, I had leftovers every day of the long weekend.

Emerging from my holiday binge, I went to a meeting in Stamford, CT on Sunday morning to get the new Getting Started Session for the PointsPlus program launch.  It was a big, busy meeting with about 20 more people than usual.  It was amazing to watch the atmosphere in the room change over the course of 60 minutes, going from fear-stricken to excited and optimistic.  For me personally, I've been involved with this new plan for close to four years in it's various incarnations of development.  There wasn't anything new in the delivery for me, yet I wanted an official kick-off anyway.

Our Leaders and Receptionists have been doing the PointsPlus plan for the past two months.  They have soldiered without the benefit of electronic tools, most notably eTools and the iPhone app.  They are now new veterans of the plan.  Was I right there with them?  Errr.  No.  I just couldn't make myself track on paper.

Therefore, I am officially announcing that as of today, I am now doing PointsPlus all-in.  I just tracked my breakfast and morning workout.  I found out that I have an insane Daily Target of 43 (!) (it's a tall man thing).  I am learning about the new values for all the things I normally eat.

So what do I hope to get out of the new program?  Two big things:

1)  A reconnection with Points

I have been "doing" Weight Watchers for over 10 years now.  I was an early POINTS person.  Yet, if I am being completely honest, I have not been regularly tracking for quite some time.  These days, I only track POINTS when I'm sure that I am falling off the program in spectacular fashion.  For the most part, I have been happily eye-balling foods and staying generally aware of their POINTS value, but I have been far from rigorous in actual tracking.

Is this a problem?  It hasn't been a huge problem as I've been at or close to goal for over two years now.  However, I cannot help but feel that I'm really starting the fudge my estimations and therefore my choices.  Funny how my eye-balling seems to be perpetually favoring the lower end of the estimation range.  It must be a special form of astigmatism.  As a result, I have this feeling that some non-awesome habits have been creeping back into my daily routine.

2) Cleaning my diet and snacking habits

One of my long term objectives is to continue shifting my food choices toward more non-processed food and to increasingly cut out junk foods.  As many of you know from my earlier posts, one of my ghostly habits is grazing.  I almost always graze on foods like baked chips, dips, etc.  I now do this with less caloric and lower fat versions of them, but I know intuitively that I would be better served if I replaced those choices with more use of fruits, vegetables and their derivative products.

For me, what I like about this new program is that it makes the following kinds of foods a great deal:  vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and low fat dairy.  It makes high carb and high fat foods much less of a good deal.  In my own case, I think knowing this will get me to start nudging my regular choices, particularly snacking, toward the foods which are a great deal.  This will then result in more of my total caloric intake coming from foods that are loaded with nature-fed nutrition as being better at keeping me feeling full.  That seems like a good outcome.

People who are extremely healthy and active often talk about "eating clean".  They seem to use most of their calories on vegetables, fruit, fish, white meats, whole grains and low fat dairy.  They seem to eat a lot of it, and they seem happier and healthier for it.  Getting to this place is my aspiration.  PointsPlus will be my path for getting there.

As I look over the coming months, I feel like I get to be a new member again.  Of course, there is the nervousness of being a new member, but there is also the feeling of constant discovery as I learn this new plan.  I'm already learning how to ball-park grams of carbs into PointsPlus Values.  For me, this is the fun part of doing a new program.  I am a Lifetime Member, so I want to make sure that I avoid falling into a rut.  Therefore, bring on the new stuff!!  

How will you use PointsPlus to take your own efforts to the next level?



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cage match: my weak mind vs. Thanksgiving

Where am I???  Oh yeah, I'm in London now.  I was in China last week, and I got into London late Friday night.  After five consecutive nights of 4 hours of sleep (Asian jet lag always gives me a beating), I slept for 9 hours last night.  Feeling very much the new man right now, I'm looking forward to spending the day bombing around this awesome city after I get my workout in.  Then I'm off to a three day wall-to-wall meeting blitz, flying back to New York late Wednesday night.  This in turn rolls me right into...  Thanksgiving!

How do I think about Thanksgiving?

Politically correct answer:  Thanksgiving is a time for spending excellent quality time with family and friends.  It's a time for slowing down, reconnecting and being thankful for the fact that the Pilgrims were able to avoid the temptation of slaughtering the local denizens of Massachusetts for a nice moment of detente.  Really, the food is a there to to be a symbol of celebrating everything I'm thankful for.

Factual answer:  The part about spending time with family and friends is actually true.  I will have been out of the country for close to two weeks, and I miss my family terribly.  That said, I'm also thinking a lot about eating food.  My mind is on a continuous loop of clicking through each rich dish on the menu.  I'm thinking about wine, and I'm thinking about creating a giant depression in the couch while watching a feeble football game.  The Lions?  Really, why does this have to be a tradition?  [Actually, I'm liking the additional night game, and getting both a Jets and a Saints game is pretty great.]

There is nothing particularly wrong at all with enjoying a big food day on Thanksgiving.  I've been pretty good this past week on the road, which is always challenging for me.  One benefit of not sleeping is that it's given me time for some ridiculously involved workouts.  Other than a sleep-deprivation induced room service food bonanza last night, I've also been pretty disciplined/good on my food choices.  Therefore, I'm not really worried about Thanksgiving day.

However, spending lots of time thinking about what's on the menu for Thanksgiving day has led me to a very sad conclusion:  my brain is broken.  It seems to be stuck on a an endless do-loop (raising my geek flag here) of visualizing and obsessing about things I am going to eat.  It's an extreme example of something I do all the time:  I obsess about my next meal.

I have a sneaking suspicion I'm not alone on this.  I sometimes wonder if we humans are wired to constantly think about the next thing we are going to eat.  I just finished breakfast 10 minutes ago, and I'm already thinking about what I'm going to have for lunch.  Frankly, I already know what I'm having for dinner, but I'm thinking about that too.  Why do I do this?  Is it because I am channeling  a past life as a cold, emaciated hunter wondering where to find that damned mastodon herd?

It makes it a lot harder for me to think about eating in a normal and restrained way when I'm constantly thinking about eating.  I have a feeling that naturally thin people don't really think about food that much. I resent them all!

My brain is an overwrought and undisciplined place.  I would do anything to be much more in control of what I think about.  This is certainly true about food.  I believe it is what makes living the healthy life such a challenging journey.  It is why I get so frustrated when I hear people criticize others for not living up to the challenges of losing weight and then keeping it off.  It's difficult because our brains are unruly.

So what to do?  Increasingly, I find myself constantly reminding my brain how much happier it is when I make good choices.  I remind myself how irritated my brain gets when I over-indulge and binge.  I am starting to believe that my brain is capable of being gradually re-shaped over a period of time to reduce my obsession with food and therefore the reduce the likelihood of spectacular lapses in judgement.

The best tool I know of for this is planning.  So therefore, here are my two options for Thanksgiving:

The less good option:

  • Before dinner is even served, there will be a huge layout of appetizers in the form of dips and cheeses.  I will transform myself into a factory robot with my mechanical arm constantly lowing and raising from the spread until I'm pretty full.  
  • Then I will ignore the fact that I'm full and start heaping as much Thanksgiving dinner on my plate as I can possibly fit.  Are you a vegetable?  I'm sorry, there's no room for you on this paltry 12" plate.  Only starches are allowed for this trip.  
  • Dessert?  You bet.  With three different pies available, it would just be rude not to have some of each.  
  • From here I go home feeling totally bloated with a hideous case of heart burn.  
The better option:  
  • Avoid the appetizer tray.  The Pilgrims didn't nosh on dip, so I'm not offending history if I don't either.  That said, there will be a shrimp cocktail tray, and I will definitely hit that.  
  • For the actual Thanksgiving dinner, I will have a bit of everything, including the vegetables.  They create a nice volume barrier on the plate so I don't have that fifth scoop of stuffing.  
  • Dessert?  You bet.  One normal slice of the blue ribbon winner of the pie contest should suffice.  
  • From here I go home feeling happy and well fed, but not like a goose headed for the fois gras factory.  
And my brain?  I suppose my best option is to re-channel its obsessive tendencies toward hashing over my "better option" plan.  They call that mental rehearsing.  I hear it works.  

What are you doing to fix your respective brains for the holidays?



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A thousand little dishes: friend or foe?

I got back from a weekend conference in San Francisco this past Sunday night.  I kept thinking about the words of a colleague as I was getting ready to leave New York in reference to one of my planned stops that weekend:  "For crying out loud, please have the common sense not to blog about it..."

To set the context of my tale, my wife kindly joined me for the conference.  She was a good sport to come, so I sought to reward her with a bucket list event on Saturday night.  We went to a "little" restaurant in Napa Valley called the French Laundry.  For those not familiar with it, the French Laundry is an over-the-top Michelin 3-star restaurant that has been blowing the hair of foodies back for many years.  It was started and is still run by one of the most creative chefs on Earth, Thomas Keller, who was reportedly the inspiration for the Pixar film Ratatouille.
The French Laundry.  It seems harmless enough from the outside...

For people who love good food, this place is a shrine.  They only seat 16 tables a night, and every dinner is a three hour culinary marathon.  It is horribly expensive, and almost impossible to get a reservation under two months in advance.  In fact, the general manager shared with us that there was a 900 person waiting list for that Saturday night (!).

So why did my colleague urge me to keep this little adventure to myself?  Either because she thought that I would sound like a complete spendthrift, blowhard-showoff (fair point) or that it would be a strange thing to share in a blog about weight loss.  Perhaps one could compare a weight-concerned person going to the French Laundry to a heroin addict touring poppy fields.  I have a very different view.

First off, the experience was amazing and surreal.  Nine perfect courses with incredible wines paired accordingly.  Every single bite was spectacular and amazing.  By the end of the three hours I was stuffed, yet I literally soldiered through the last petit four served.  It all seemed like fairly delinquent behavior for a member (let alone President) of Weight Watchers.  But was it?

The thing about a place like the French Laundry is that it truly is a bucket list experience.  The restaurant shared an interesting data point with me:  off all the people who go, only 3% come back more than once.  It's not because it isn't spectacular, but it's because it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This isn't the kind of dining experience that I would call vaguely normal.  I'm not at risk of becoming a multiple-time per week (let alone lifetime) visitor given the minor and inconvenient fact that it would bankrupt me.  Beyond that, I think some of the magic would be lost in the process.

The second aspect about a place like this is that the food just isn't normal.  I tried cooking a full three course meal from a restaurant like this once (from Rick Bayless's original cookbook from Topolobompo in Chicago).  It took me 1.5 days to prepare, and it was about 45% of the quality that the chef would have served, and I had a wicked backache for my trouble.  Every single little dish that I had last Saturday night was a painstakingly prepared piece of cooking perfection.  It was as much artistry as eating.  Again, it was an experience, not a regular occurrence.

A third notable point about the meal last night was that each dish consisted of about 4-5 bites.  It was enough to savor and taste before the point of sensory dullness.  In my mind this is the way food is meant to be enjoyed.  Whether nine such dishes is really appropriate is a subject for a different debate.

For me, being healthy and on Weight Watchers is not about becoming a monk who swears off the celebration of food.  It's about living an existence that largely consists of healthy choices and real food.  To be clear, I did not save my Weekly POINTS Allowance for the occasion.  I just rolled with it.  I'm glad I did, and I'd do it again.   Maybe in 10 years.

All of this has spurred me to publish my field guide to restaurant decadence:

  • Fast food:  I rarely eat fast food.  When I do, I always go for the best option, usually salad with a low fat dressing.  I had enough Big Macs in my youth to last for my entire life.  
  • Breakfast and lunch joints:  I stay on the straight and narrow here.  I rarely blow out my POINTS on breakfast, and I don't like to do it for lunch either.  Again, I'm pretty disciplined if I see it as a regular meal stop.
  • Nice restaurants (dinner):  I will loosen up a little bit here, but I will still seek the least-bad option.  I might have dessert, but it is often just a few bites of a shared portion.  Seafood is usually my go-to option in these places.  
  • Bucket list restaurants (like last weekend):  No holds barred.  I have whatever and as much as I can handle.  I define a bucket list restaurant as a place I go to once every three to four years.  

I like that I follow a program that affords me flexibility to live my life and occasionally enjoy once-in-a-blue-moon crazy restaurants.  In my book, losing my mind once a year is not being off program.  We Weight Watchers people love food, which is precisely why we love Weight Watchers.

Postscript:  I weighed-in on Tuesday, and I was up 3 pounds.  If only there was some new program coming out that could help me wipe that slate clean... 

What constitutes a lose-you-mind-and-forget-your-WPA worthy dining event for you?



Sunday, October 31, 2010

What to do when zombified flesh eating death candy attacks.

To the breach!  Defend yourselves!  Hide the children!  Doom is eminent!

That's right.  It's holiday time.  Today is Halloween, the official commencement of the 60 days of eating bad food until you get sick.  Truth be told, it kind of snuck up on me this year.  There was chatter in the background by the kids talking about their costumes.  Some time last week, I came home from work and found the front yard decorated in a giant mock-spider's web along with a large image of a blood sucking zombie in the living room window.  Yet, my distracted mind was not able to focus on the underlying significance of these trappings and decorations:  it's candy time.

I didn't wake up until today when I took my DSW out to lunch to our favorite neighborhood place.  We grabbed a couple of stools at the bar for a nice meal, and there it was right in front of me:  a bowl of candy on the bar.  It almost looked odd and alien, like a bowl of peanuts that had been strangely transmuted into small chocolate bars.  All the favorites were present:  Reese's (love these), Three Musketeers, Snickers, etc.  It was seductive, yet terrifying and horribly evil all at the same time.

I was about three seconds from pulling my jacket back and doing a quick-draw move on a few of these little guys.  Somehow I was spared the abyss by a last minute thunderbolt of clarity: this is where it all falls apart.  This is where I look at the next two months and casually say:  screw it.  This is where I dive right into a two month calorie binge, telling myself that it will all be better in January (10 pounds later).  The thought of this kind of abysmal collapse bummed me out.  I didn't fall prey to it last year (not too much anyway), and I wasn't going to do it this year.

This Halloween, I'm going to say NO to candy that really doesn't taste nearly as great as it costs in POINTS values.  This Halloween, I'm going to look at candy like the villainous, horrible demon spawn that it is.  I need a flamethrower and a chainsaw!  I'm going to hunt zombie food, kill it all and send it flying back into the vortex of eternal fire!

I admit it.  I loved the old pixilated version of this game.  
OK, I'm being completely over the top, and only about 83% serious.  Yet for my own sake, I have a point. My best strategy when entering treacherous times is to make an overly dramatic statement in an effort to gird my loins.  [For those who enjoy a good idiom, I'm intending this expression in its militaristic form (see Wikipedia):  "The term "gird one's loins" was used in the Roman Era meaning to pull up and tie one's lower garments between one's legs to increase one's mobility in battle. In the modern age, it has become an idiom meaning to prepare oneself for the worst."]   I simply choose not to go into the next two months with a losing attitude.

So what commitments must be made as of today?  Simply stated, I need to choose not to steal from my kids' loot bags that will be hanging around the house for the next two months.  This is the third or fourth time that I have used this blog to proclaim that I will not commit larceny against my sweet, awesome kids.  Sad that I need to use a public podium to not commit theft, but hey, whatever works.

The way I look at it, most of these dwarf bars are about two POINTS values, the same as an apple or a non-fat greek yogurt.  That strikes me as a truly crummy deal.  Particularly in a recession!

This is my strategy, but that doesn't mean it should be your strategy.  My feeling is always this:  know yourself.  In my case, starting with a few small Snickers can lead to a bag full of misery.  Therefore, it's best for me to avoid the whole thing all together.  Many of you have much greater self control around candy than me, so using your WPA to cover a chocolate pop per night might work famously well.

Further, I also know that I'm traveling pretty much every day in November, and there is a Thanksgiving thrown into the mix for good measure.  Right now, I just can't afford the Halloween failure.  That doesn't mean I can't have fun.

Happy Halloween!!!!



Friday, October 22, 2010

In broad daylight

I was thinking about my first time going to a Weight Watchers meeting in January of 2000.  I was incredibly nervous for two key reasons.

  1. The whole process seemed a mystery, and I just didn't know what to expect
  2. It felt weird walking into a place that helped people with real weight problems.  

On the first point, my initial concerns were pretty quickly dispelled.  Frankly, by the next meeting they were gone.  I was totally comfortable, and the people who ran the meeting were unbelievably nice, welcoming, accepting and helpful.

On the second point, it took me a lot longer to get passed those initial anxieties.  Why was I worried?  Was I worried for how I would see myself, or was I worried that I would be seen by someone I knew?  I suspect the answer is both, but the second was probably the bigger issue.  As a guy, you can imagine that it felt particularly strange to me as there really weren't any other dudes to speak of (other than my meeting leader!).  That said, I'm sure lots of people, women and men, feel that way.  The question I have been pondering is this:  why?

The last time I checked, 70% of the US adult population was overweight or obese (1/3 in the case of the latter category).  My weight issue hardly made me unique.  In fact, I was actually doing something about it, which is more than many people could say.  Why wasn't this a point of pride?

The world has changed rapidly over the past 20 years.  When I was a kid, most people weren't heavy.  Worse, heavy people got teased or dismissed.  I am sad to say that this still happens, but that fact that it does seems bizarre.  Most of us are now a product of our environment, one which surrounds us with junk food and bad TV.  Today, most of us are just trying to figure out how to navigate our new world and find a way to live more healthfully and lose weight in the process (order of these two reasons might be switched depending on person).

Back in its early days, Weight Watchers centers were hidden on purpose.  People who were seeking to manage a weight issue wanted privacy.  Back then, this desire made sense because people with weight issues were in the minority.  It's not that way any more.

BIG SIGN (St. Louis)!!!

(Ribbon cutting ceremony with my rock star colleagues in Tampa)

Interior shot...

Recently, Weight Watchers began installing new centers in two test markets:  St. Louis and Tampa.  We purposefully chose highly visible retail locations with great big signs that jump out and say HELLO!  These centers are brightly lit and brightly colored.  To me, they are emblematic of the way we should all start thinking about how we deal with our weight issues:  with pride, with volume, and in the open.  The more people see us doing it, the more they will join us.

Weight Watchers is coming even more into the bright light of day.  It's time for all of us to come into the bright light of day.  It's time for us to recognize that addressing a challenge and seeking personal growth is not a source of embarrassment.  It's a source of pride and a sign of strength and a demonstration of courage.

I big into publicly revealing and sharing my challenges now, so clearly I've drunk the exhibitionist Koolaid.  Why not join me!



Sunday, October 10, 2010

Iron stomach. Wherefore art thou?

Every summer marks the the Famous Nathan's hot dog eating contest. This year, Joey Chestnut managed to ingest 54 hot dogs (and buns) in 10 minutes despite a heatwave. Each year, I find myself repulsed and curious all at the same time. How do they do it? Training! It's a bizarre form of athleticism, but eating tremendous quantities of bad food is apparently hard work.

The infamous Weiner Circle: home of the vegetable garden hot dog

I personally encountered this challenge during one of my stops on my whirlwind September travel blitz. I was in Chicago for the weekend with my wife. Chicago is where we started dating and ultimately married back in the early 90's. This was the time of grunge, Pulp Fiction and many other visceral pleasures. For me, it was the time of big, bad food. Dogs, stuffed pizza, giant cheese burgers, cheese fries, Chinese food, giant breakfasts, huge Mexican, and many other glutenous delights. Despite having my late 20's metabolism (read: higher than my middle age metabolism), this was the time that I really packed on the weight.

Muskies: little joint close to my old apt. Remember: late-night, post-beer cheese fries are never a good idea...

I have a lot of fond memories of that time of unbridled eating (though subconsciously, I think I was starting to get a little sad about the emerging Buddha belly). I rarely eat that kind of stuff any more, so it was with a certain bravery that I gave myself permission to completely blow the doors out on my return to the scene of the crime, Chicago. I gave myself one day to binge like Sid Vicious in a heroin factory. No counting. No POINTS. No good choices. [One confession: I did put in a big workout before I got started.]

First stop: The Twisted Spoke. Located at the corner of Ogden & Grand, we stumbled upon this somewhat indescribable joint when it first opened in the 90's, about a year before we moved to DC. So how would I describe the Twisted Spoke? Kind of biker bar colliding with a burger joint with a serious dose of attitude. We were particular fans of the brunch, which showcased their truly bizarre and inspired Bloody Mary. It is called the Road Rash Mary. It's basically a heavily spiced Bloody served with a spear of deli meat and peppers. Served with a beer back. I had two. Though this could have been a meal by itself, I also treated myself to the Mex Scramble (3 eggs, chorizo, cheese, home fries, toast). And I ate it all. I did this while they were showing Japanese game shows on their TV's. Surreal but fun.

Road Rash Mary: horseradish, meat, peppers with a dash of tomato juice. And a small beer.

So how did this workout for me? Badly. I spent the next 8 hours feeling like I had swallowed an acetylene torch (hotter than a propane torch, in case you were wondering). The entire upper half of my body felt like it was coated in stomach acid. Frankly, I was fairly miserable. I tried to work it off by spending the next 3-4 hours walking through all of our old neighborhood haunts and apartments. It helped a little.

About 9 hours later, I thought I would be ready for more self-abuse. We tried to get into Gino's East (stuffed pizza joint) at 9 PM, but discovered it would take an hour for our pie to be ready. Even I'm not dumb enough to eat a stuffed pizza at 10 PM. Instead, we went for a sweet Wagyu burger served with a heaping of fries. I was only able to eat half the burger and half the fries. Frankly, I felt even worse.

I returned to my hotel defeated by bad food. Back in the day, I could have polished it all without a twinge of bad feeling. I would have owned that bad food. Today, I just don't have the chops for that kind of stuff.

In retrospect, I'm really glad that I indulged this experiment. It's nice to know that I am physically incapable to eating the way that I used to. It's nice to now that this much bad food makes me feel physically ill. It's a bit like a smoker trying a cigarette after 10 years after having quit. They seem to invariably be repulsed by the experience. That's kind of how I felt about my delinquent Chicago day. For me to go back to the bad food place would require diligence and training. Maybe I should apply those efforts to some more noble cause.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Road trip! Fear and Loathing in an airplane, hotel room, train, airport, etc.

I’m finally home.  Three weeks on a crazed road (flight) trip to some pretty disparate places:  Sydney, Chicago, Barcelona (for 5 hours), Madrid, and London with a few one-to-two day NY breaks in between.  A few fun metrics from this blitz:

  • 107 hours of commuting time, including airplane seats, train seats, taxi seats, and airport seats
  • 10 nights sleeping in hotels
  • 3 nights sleeping (kind of) on planes
  • 6 time zones (including the layover in LA)

I’m really not looking for sympathy as it was a FANTASTIC trip.  I tremendously enjoyed my time with colleagues from around the world.  I went to Weight Watchers Leader conventions in three different cities, and the energy was undeniable.  I was able to spend time in some of the most beautiful and exciting cities on Earth.  I even got to see Real Madrid play Espanyol Barcelona in Madrid, which was a tremendous opportunity and experience (particularly for a Yank).

However, I’m whipped!  Even for me, this was a crazy trip.  It reminds me of my favorite travel maxims:  I love being places, I just hate getting there.  One of the reasons is that its really hard to keep on the straight and narrow of a healthy life at this kind of topsy turvy pace.  107 hours of commuting is a lot of time surrounded by a lot of bad food choices.

For some reason, all of this reminded me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A road trip mixed with a strange city can lead to a temptation laden environment resulting in not good choices.  At the extreme (understatement here):

"The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls . . . Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon."  Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

[BTW, I realize that Fear and Loathing is everyone's cup of tea, so I appreciate the indulgence in allowing me to quote from a book that made me laugh violently during my college years.]

OK, the hotel mini bar is not quite the same thing as the trunk of Hunter S. Thompson’s Chevrolet Impala convertible, but I found the circumstances uncomfortably similar.  If you spend too much time away from normal, it gets harder and harder to keep the bad choices at bay.

On the food side, I found myself slipping a little bit more as the trip progressed.   I started strong and resolved, and I convinced myself that I was a grown man who could make responsible decisions no matter where he was.  Right up until they asked me if I’d like the cheese plate as a desert on my flight to Sydney.  Soon, I was accepting any and all cups of nuts on my flights.  By the end of the trip, I laid siege to the mini-bar twice in London, demolishing two bags of salty rice snacks, two largish bags of cashew nuts, and one bag of Whoppers.  Not exactly illicit drugs, but cashew nuts are certainly one of my drugs of choice.

I finished the trip slightly damaged, but still undaunted.  During times of stress, you learn what you go-to healthy habits are.  As was gratified that I was able to keep the faith in:

  • Sticking to a healthy breakfast
  • Eating a pretty healthy lunch
  • Ordering fairly healthy dinner options
  • Most importantly, I exercised every morning I possibly could regardless of how little sleep

I don’t think I did any permanent damage, and I may not have even really gained any weight.  Yet I came out knowing where my strengths were and where my weaknesses were still evident.  Frankly, I was a little mad at myself about the whole mini-bar fiasco as I usually resist this temptation.  However, I also recognize that I'm not perfect, and it's perfectly alright for me to fall off the program in spectacular fashion from time-to-time.

Most importantly, I am finally back on my home turf where I know how to live healthily.  Therefore, Monday is a new day, and my tracker is out and blazing with POINTS-friendly entries.  I’m looking at the last three weeks as a freakish road trip that was an aberration, not a new reality.  I have a full month until the travel madness begins anew, and I need to get back on track.  Redemption is mine!



Friday, September 17, 2010

True confession: do I eat Weight Watchers stuff? Answer: yes. And apples too.

Periodically, I get asked the question:  do you eat Weight Watchers branded products?  Generally, the subtext of the inquiry is whether I eat food that has been processed in any way, shape or form including those that carry my company’s brand.

With further elaboration ahead, the answer is yes.

First off, let me address this topic by strictly speaking to my own personal evolution and my own personal choice rather than embarking down the path of “official Weight Watchers point of view”.  I will also seek to avoid using, as I always do, this blog to submerge myself into the sometimes knotty subject of food politics.  This said, I am happy to talk about my personal views as a Weight Watchers member who has been on the program for roughly 10 years.

Maybe a more useful question is:  do I eat processed food as a regular snack?  Generally and increasingly, the answer is not as much.  Allow me to elaborate on this apparent paradox.

My personal definition of a snack has evolved greatly since I originally became a Weight Watchers member 10 years ago.  For most of my life, a snack was an indiscriminate lump of food whose sole purpose was to occupy my stomach and reward my desire to put food in my mouth.  Any food would do – so long as the time between impulse to eat and actual consumption was less than 23 seconds.  Good examples?  Tortilla chips (they’re healthy, right?) and some sort of dipping substance was always a crowd pleaser.  Fist-fulls of cheese were too.

When I first started doing the Weight Watchers program, my first step was to ramp down the calories of my snacks, but to still stay close to the type of food I liked.  A good example of this was going from full-test tortilla chips (i.e., with buckets of imbedded oil) to baked tortilla chips.  Further, I monitored how much I ate, and I reduced frequency and portion size (i.e., personal revelation #32:  eating an entire large bag is a less good choice).  Another example:  rather than eat hand-fulls of nuts, I started getting the pre-packed ones from Trader Joes.  I was able to significantly reduce caloric intake through a series of small adjustments.

During this phase of choosing lower calorie alternatives and reducing portion size, there were a number of Weight Watchers products that played a crucial role for me as snacks.  Two-POINTS bars and our salty snacks (love the Cheese Twists!) were incredibly helpful to me.  They had more good stuff like fiber and less bad stuff like excess sugars and fats.  Further, they were portion controlled, which I very much needed to start learning the right amount of food to eat as a snack.

Now on my 10th year on the Weight Watchers program, I’m continuing to evolve my choices.  In particular, over the past year, I have started to significantly alter my snack strategy.  These days my go to snack has become:  the apple.  A piece of fruit is a healthy, nutritious, vitamin carrying little meal.  Frankly, I love apples (and all fruit for that matter), so personal taste plays a big role as well.  If I’m really hungry, I might throw in a small container of non-fat Greek yogurt.  The two in combination are 4 POINTS values, which I can afford on my maintenance allowance.  My snacks are starting to look like small meals.  Further, I find that my snacks take a bit longer to eat and give me a rewarding and satisfying eating experience.

OK, this is hardly revolutionary insight, and most of you were probably way ahead of me on this.  However, when I first started to clean-up my lifestyle as a new member, I wasn’t ready to jump from oily chips to angelic apples.  Frankly, that was a bridge too far.  I needed to make a series of small changes over a period of time, and I needed in-the-middle food choices to serve as a bridge.  For me, this was similar to my exercise transformation process:  I didn’t start working out 6-7 days per week on day one.  I gradually added exercise over a period of years.

So do I still eat Weight Watchers branded products?  The answer is still yes.  Counter-intuitively, my go-to Weight Watchers products now tend to be mini-bars, pop-corn and ice cream products.  “Heretic,” you scream!  “That’s the most junky, sugary stuff!”  My reply:  exactly!

I still need my indulgences, but I need better indulgences.  Man (or at least this man), cannot live a puritanical organic apples-only life.  Sometimes I need a candy bar or some ice cream.  Juvenile?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Definitely.

I guess my thinking about this (again, as a 10 year veteran member) has evolved to the following personal point of view:  my indulgences are not my snacks or vice versa.  I now see my snacks as mini-meals.  Indulgences speak to my sweet tooth, and my sweet tooth deserves some attention.  Just, not all the time.  A Weight Watchers chocolate pretzel mini-bar is a much better choice for me than a full-test Snickers bar.  A Weight Watchers ice cream cone is a much better choice than a pint of ice cream.

In addition to these indulgence products, I also enjoy a host of other Weight Watchers products which I categorize as food staples including breads, bagels, cheeses (great snacks BTW), and others.  Further, I will still go for a Weight Watchers 2-POINTS bar or salty snack when I’m on the go, and I don’t have easy access to my new produce friends.

If there is one broad insight I take away from this, it is that adopting a healthier lifestyle has been a series of small changes that have taken place over a long period of time.  For me, it’s been a marathon, not a sprint.

How has your thinking about snack foods evolved?



Sunday, September 5, 2010

Obesity and Income (part 2): poverty = obesity. Enter Lose for Good 3.0

Part 1 of the two part series on obesity and income looked at the interesting, but comparatively trivial example of how the affluent stay thin and make themselves stay thin.  As was pointed out in some of the comments, the well-to-do have access to every tool and resource to achieve a healthy lifestyle.  This is not to minimize their weight challenges, but they arguably have many more advantages than most of the population in living a healthy life.

For me personally, I'm now 18 months as a Lifetime Member in good standing, having lost 32 pounds vs. when I first joined Weight Watchers back in February of 2000 (as noted in earlier posts, I had a few up's and down's on my way to Lifetime).  I feel good about my loss, and I feel better about how I've maintained it.  I have truly changed my life for the better, and I am very much a changed man.  That said, I recognize that I too am fortunate to have so many resources to help me stay on track:  access to a great gym, my bike (whom I adore), a sweet new Whole Foods, healthy restaurants in the city, etc.  In my case, a healthy life has been very possible because of what is available in the environment surrounding me.

All of this brings me to Part 2 of this series.  What about the other end of the income distribution curve?  What about the impoverished areas of our country?

This all came into focus for me again this summer when I volunteered at City Harvest , a fabulous organization in New York City.  City Harvest operates a fleet of 17 refrigerated trucks and 3 bikes that collect food from those who can give and immediately donates it to those who need.  City Harvest specializes in fresh produce collections and donations.  I had the opportunity to volunteer at one of their innovative Mobile Markets, this one in the Bronx in the midst of a large section of low income housing projects.  The morning I volunteered, City Harvest gave out about 19,000 pounds of produce to roughly 500 people, enough to last them for two weeks.  It was an inspiring display by an excellent organization.

Yet, I was shocked and saddened by the fact that this neighborhood even needed a Mobile Market.  The fact is that we literally could not find a single piece of fresh produce in a single store in a ten block radius.  Even those who were able to afford produce had to take a bus to buy it.

This sad state happens all over the country in which low income neighborhoods literally do not have access to healthy foods.  Obesity experts have come to call them "food deserts".  To be clear, you can buy food in a food desert, but only if you use a loose definition for the word "food".  The only food that is available in these neighborhoods is the processed, sugary, added-fat kind.  There are calories to be had in food deserts, but they are almost exclusively empty calories.  Adding insult to injury, the US (and other countries) has become a place where processed food has gotten cheaper, while unprocessed food has gotten more expensive.  Therefore, it's easier to fill a hungry stomach on junk than it is with real food.

Hence this sequence of events has led to the phenomena where those without resources are forced to spend their food allowance on energy dense, caloric foods with little to no nutritional value.  In the process, obesity has thrust itself into places where people have few options and alternatives.  Obesity and poverty have become two sides of the same coin.  Diabetes and other conditions are on the rise.  No where is this more evidence than with kids.  Frankly, it is a deplorable and heart breaking situation.

What can be done?  

Fortunately, there are organizations, like City Harvest, who are laser focused on finding ways of getting nutritious foods into impoverished populations.  For the past two years, Weight Watchers has proudly supported two such organizations dedicated to this noble fight:

  • Share Our Strength :  17 million children in the US faced hunger at some point last year.  Share Our Strength (SOS) has the simple, but beautifully elegant goal to end childhood hunger in this country.  Period.  Founded by brother and sister Billy and Debbie Shore in 1984, their wonderful organization has already raised $200 million since their inception which they have given to over 1,000 organizations.  They fundamentally believe that solving childhood hunger with nutritious food and education is the only way.    
  • Action Against Hunger ACF-USA :  Action Against Hunger (ACF) has the audacious goal of eliminating global hunger, and it specializes in emergency situations of conflict, natural disaster, and chronic food insecurity.  Fully one billion people in the world are now going hungry.  In no place is this more heart breaking and damaging for our collective global future than childhood malnutrition.  ACF has been a leader on the ground in some of the hardest hit countries such as Western Chad, Pakistan, and Niger.  This organization has already had a tremendous impact on childhood nutrition and in reducing malnourishment through programs such as Plumpy'nut.  This amazing peanut-based meal replacement bar has been demonstrated to save children's lives from starvation within a mere month.  

Enter Lose for Good

For the third straight year, Weight Watchers, its meetings members and Online subscribers are doing their part too.  For a seven-week period beginning today, we will be donating money for each pound lost by our members, up to a $1 million donation to be shared between Share Our Strength and Action Against Hunger
ACF-USA. While we are doing this, we are encouraging our members to make food donations equivalent to the weight they lose during this time to their local food banks.  These food drives are being organized by local Weight Watchers volunteers throughout the country.  Last year, our members donated over 2 million pounds of food across the US.

The beauty in these food drives is that they allow each of us to see our weight loss in the form of food.  10 pounds of weight loss may not seem like much until we carry it in a bag, and walk around with it for a while.  It's an excellent visualization tool.  The fact that we can them give that nutrition to someone who needs it is all the more beautiful.  Lose for Good was a simple, beautiful concept invented by a Weight Watchers Leader in the Seattle area (Deb Hugo -- who rocks BTW) several years ago.  It's motivating for the member in all the right ways:  help your health while you help a neighbor in need.

(My 32 pounds of groceries.  Yes, I am in fact rocking some Weight Watchers logowear.  More men should!)  

For my part, I went shopping today for my annual Lose For Good contribution.  I bought my 32 pounds of food, which I will be donating to my local food bank, Person-to-Person in CT.  Holding these bags was a stark reminder of:  1) how significant my weight loss actually was and 2) how really glad I am to no longer have that much weight spread across my body.

For interest, this year I had a new shopping strategy:  wholesome food for five families.  The per family food donation worked out to:

  • 17 servings of oatmeal
  • PB&J for 17 servings
  • 15 servings of rice
  • 7 servings of whole grain pasta with marinara sauce

32 pounds of food:  my Success Wall for this year

It seems like the proverbial drop in the bucket, but I'm only one of millions.  If millions did it (and I hope they will!), that's a whole lot of drops of water.  Which means we're going to need a much bigger bucket.

Please do join me for the next six weeks in making a difference for ourselves and others!



Sunday, August 29, 2010

Obesity and income (part one). Did the Stepford Wives have it right?

First of a two part posting, observing the topic of obesity and weight control at two very different ends of the economics spectrum.  This week:  affluence and attitudes toward weight loss.  Not being either judgmental or instructive here, just making a few observations on this endlessly fascinating topic...

What is the relationship between obesity and income?  From a broad macro perspective, obesity is a - pardon the pun - mass issue.  There are 1.6 billion adults around the world who are overweight and another 400 million who are obese (i.e., BMI > 30).  The World Health Organization is forecasting this number to increase to 2.3 billion overweight by 2015 with more than 700 million obese.  This would suggest that obesity affects most people, not just poor or wealthy people.  Further to the point, in the early 1970's in the US:
  • 21% of people below the poverty line in the US were obese
  • 12% of people who were 2X above the poverty line were obese (i.e., 8 percentage points lower)
In the period of 2001 to 2004:

  • 35% of people below the poverty line in the US were obese
  • 31% of people who were 2X above the poverty line were obese (i.e., 4 percentage points lower)
In other words, the obesity gap between poor and less poor over the past 30 years appears to have narrowed.  Sadly, obesity has become more of an issue for most people.

If all this is true, what's the deal with the town I live in?  Herein lies today's blog topic.  Affluent people and their weight.

First off, a little public disclosure is in order.  I didn't grow up in a town like the one I live in today.  I grew up an extremely middle class kid with a father who was a lifelong basic research chemist for the US government (National Bureau of Standards and then Department of Energy).  His was a noble calling, but hardly a lucrative one.  That said, I didn't grew up poor either.  As a result, the lives of people who had little and people who seemed to have everything was always an abstracted reality to me.  It was something I could read about, but never knew personally.

My first exposure to wealthy people was in college when I was fortunate to get accepted to Duke University (I am still assuming as the result of a fortunate clerical error).  Since that time, I've worked hard and had more than a little good luck.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the job that I have and to be able to provide the life I can for my family.  Said differently, I live in a town in Fairfield County, CT.

My town in Fairfield County, CT is part of what has been historically known as the Gold Coast of CT.  This stretch of towns along Long Island Sound (Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Westport, etc.) is filled with people who commute back and forth to largely well paying jobs in NYC.  I live in a place where affluence and abundance is largely the norm.  There are obviously many places like it across the country, so what I say about my town would certainly apply to both upscale bedroom community and fancy urban setting alike.

From an anthropological observation perspective, living in my town is fascinating, particularly as it relates to my job.  Why?  Most people who live here are thin.  In the case of my town, they are also mostly blond (real or otherwise).  They dress well (depending on how one feels about whale pants), and they drive nice cars.  But I'm always struck by the observation my parents made when they first visited me here 10 years ago:  "where are the heavy people?"

It is telling that the original version of the Stepford Wives was filmed in a Fairfield Count town.  Maybe all the heavy people of my town were replaced by robots?  More likely, I would attribute the thinness of my town to the metaphorical lesson from the Stepford Wives:   peer pressure plays a massive role in how we live.  In my curious town, it seem that it's just expected that one be thin.

There is a research basis for all of this.  There have been a number of ground breaking research papers exploring the role of social networks and obesity based on the findings of the epidemiological data from the half-century and counting Framingham Heart Study.  This research showed how close relationships between people, particularly women, can predict incidence of obesity.  If most of your close friends are obese, there is a good chance you will also be obese, even when controlling for other factors such as income.

As I look around my town, it seems the opposite is also true.  If all your friends are skinny, you want to be skinny too.  There is an old expression/truism that women dress for each other,  not for their spouses.  If one lives in an affluent town, one wants to be able to rock a Chanel dress because one's friend can rock a Versace dress (in the case of Fairfield County, maybe the a Lily Pulitzer dress).  It's how affluent people maintain a sense or order in their community.  In the case of my town, the affect of peer pressure seems to be an issue for virtually all the women and maybe 10% of the men -- it seems that golf fashion does not require an innate level of fitness or thinness.  Even the women of my town who do not count themselves as "thin" are frankly completely healthy from a BMI/health risk factor perspective.  Most of the women who live in my town are way beyond worrying about weight for health reasons.  Looking good and feeling accepted is the driving consideration.  I suppose in this sense, Fairfield County, CT is no different than the upscale parts of Manhattan, LA, San Francisco or Dallas, TX.

Again, I'm not judging this kind of motivation as good or bad.  I'm merely making an observation.  From my personal point of view, health and well being has always been by far the biggest reason to drive toward a healthy lifestyle.  It is what gets me motivated to come to work each day.  Yet, vanity and acceptance have played a role (for better or worse) when it comes to weight management for decades.  

There are of course, the extremes.  From Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe did an excellent job describing and categorizing what he called the Social X-Ray woman (Urban Dictionary definition:  a very thin/anorexic female socialite).  I recently heard a new label for it:  the lettuce and Chardonnay crew.  It is a lifestyle of perpetual hunger, combined with hard hangovers resulting in a certain base level of harshness in social interactions.  From what I can see this is much more stereotype/anecdotal than reality, even in my crazy little town.  Most of the women I know in my town seem to strike a reasonable balance.  They are definitely careful, but they haven't gone off the deep-end.

So what defines the lifestyle of a woman in my town?  First off, they workout like convicts.  They scoff at the US Physical Fitness Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.  This crowd does a brisk business in yoga, pilates, spin classes, bootcamp death classes, personal training, tennis, etc., etc., etc.  They pretty much work out every day, and they often workout hard.  They are competitive and intense when it comes to their exercise, and they take no prisoners.

From a food perspective, they eat 90% clean.  Fish, chicken and salads are their mainstays.  They watch their portion sizes (even when they claim to be gorging -- "I ate a whole sandwich!  I'm so bad!").  They keep their deserts in check.  Just a few years ago, we had people in town with "Bring Whole Foods!" bumper stickers (a few eventually came).  If they have one source of caloric vice, it's probably in their wine.

Again, is this bad?  It's easy to make fun of this crowd ("Eat a sandwich!"), but allow me to re-characterize their lifestyles:  they exercise a lot and they watch what they eat.  Not a bad way to go as long as not taken to the lunatic (and potentially dangerous) extreme.  In fact, if the entire country exercised a lot and ate clean, we would not have the runaway train of rising health care costs.  Obviously, I fully recognize that affluent communities have access to any and all of the resources to help them stay on a healthy lifestyle.  Gaining access to healthy choices is a much more difficult process for the great percentage of society, and it borders on nearly impossible for the impoverished portion (see next week...).

One interesting possibility from this little anthropological survey is the hope that adopting a healthy lifestyle could become a population-wide trend.  A moderate amount of peer pressure to make healthy choices could help.  I'm not advocating for a nation of Social X-Rays and Hollywood celebrities.  I'm advocating for a society where people take a vested stake in their own health.  What if healthy became fashionable and the thing to do?  I'm also not advocating where peer pressure is used as a stick or source of punishment.  A balancing act is in order, and focusing on healthy choices, not six pack abs is a good place to start.  

What about me?  I exercise all the time, and I also try to eat clean.  I go for the salad (dressing on the side thanks!), not the steak.  I kind of like to buy pretty clothes (flat front trousers rule!).  Holy smokes.  Have I become a Fairfield County mom?  Well, one male friend has started calling me Skinny Bitch (SB for short).  If I can be healthy and fit as a result, I'm OK with that kind of teasing.

Next week:  Part 2.  The very real (and obviously much more important) issue of obesity and poverty.



Friday, August 13, 2010

Man meets bike. On vacation. Man loves bike. On vacation.

My last post outlined my excellent game plan to stay in shape on vacation.  I laid it out with outstanding diligence and detail.  And I was gently mocked, both on this blog and outside of it.  I think the gist of the message was:  lighten up (no pun intended), it's a freaking vacation.  Sound advice, I must admit.

Yet, not posting on this blog is making me feel unfulfilled.  Either that or I am needing to satisfying my OCD-like need to publicly navel gaze about, well, my navel.  So at the risk of attracting more derision and teasing, here's my vacation week so far.

Eating:  not bad, far from perfect, but far from descending into the ninth ring of eating Hades.  As promised, I am keeping it together on breakfast and lunch.  Dinner, as always, is not bad while not perfect. I have tried to snack on fruit, with many apples and peaches consumed.  I am still a bit prone to mindless grazing on salty, refined, nutritionally bankrupt snacks, but it hasn't been at extremely disgusting levels.  And I've been sneaking ice cream (I know, what mid-40's person really needs to "sneak" ice cream -- sad).

Exercise:  hit the gym for weights three mornings this week, and I've only completely blown off exercise completely one day.  I've done a good bit of running around on the beach with the vague notion of keeping up with the kids.  Walks on the beach have been reasonably frequent.

But the best news on the exercise front has been my new/old friend, my bicycle.  I am an early riser by nature, and I'm often up at least one to two hours before the next biped stirs.  The last two mornings, I've hit the bike trails with a nice little vengeance.  The joy of outdoor exercise cannot be understated, particularly at the crack of dawn. At 6:30 in the morning at a beach town, there is hardly a moving vehicle to be found (in stark contrast to an August afternoon).  Going fast in peaceful silence is an amazing, almost meditative experience.  Further, the pleasure of blitzing through a long bike trail, and to then emerge on a brilliant, blue ocean is almost surreally beautiful.  It's all a nice reminder that exercise does not have to be a chore, but can be a form of unabashed amore.

My bike.  Is it weird to love an inanimate object?

I don't know what I'd do now without my exercise, and I'm grateful that I found it and made room for it in my life.  My navel is equally grateful.



Monday, August 2, 2010

Getting activity POINTS by evading sharks. My pre-vacation check list.

All good things come to those who wait.   After a hectic summer, I am finally getting geared up for VACATION beginning this coming weekend.  Two weeks at the beach with family is really all a guy can ask for.  Accordingly, it's time for me to write-up my pre-vacation check list.  I know I've done these on this blog before, but truth be told, I write these check lists as much for myself as for anyone reading the blog.  There's nothing like a little bit of forced accountability through public disclosure.

As I've noted in past pre-vacation posts, this special time is often a nutritionally perilous time.  Most significantly, clicking on the "I'm on vacation" neon sign in my brain is tantamount to turning on the "I can do and eat anything I want" sign.  Therefore, it's useful and helpful for me to remind myself that respite does not have to equal nasty fried food.

So here I go.  Let's start with Danger Zones to manage/avoid:

  • Evil snacks:  it's pretty easy to load up the rental house and beach bag with enormous bags of chips and assorted food rubbish.  Unless I don't.  
  • Fried food:  my beach zone is in Massachusetts, home of the fried clam.  Fried food always looks awesome pre-mouth entry, tastes OK, and feels terrible post-mouth entry.  Why continue to repeat the sins of the past?  Stick with the grilled fish.  
  • Ice cream:  it's a danger zone, but one worthy of partaking on some sort of semi-reasonable basis.
  • Slothdom:  in theory, vacation creates the risk of non-movement.  However, I'm far too hyperactive to not exercise, so it's not a terrible danger zone.  
Moving on to my I-don't-want-to-gain-10lbs-in-two-weeks Action List:
  • Find a gym:  I have already worked the interweb to find a local gym that will sell a two week package.  I agree that it's sad that I find this so awesome.  Nonetheless, I find this awesome.  I wake up before the rest of the family anyway, so why not jam in a solid workout.  
  • Find a bike path:  I also looked this up online, and there are lots of trails where I'm going.  It's not mega-death hill climbing, but there are plenty of flats for a nice 45 minute semi-sprint.  Also makes for a good family activity.  
  • Try something new(ish):  I found a local surf school that teaches standup paddle boarding (SUP), which I already tried and liked this summer.  This plus body surfing and swimming is both fun and active.  Which is good.  
  • Pre-scout healthy food options:  Again, I've worked the web to find some good fresh-stands, farmer markets and organic food options.  I plan to load up on having a ton of good, fresh food kicking around.  
  • Plan on a healthy breakfast and lunch each day. 
  • Don't go crazy at dinner, but don't over-think it either.  Nuff said.  
Said differently, when entering a new environment, a little research, planning and mental rehearsing goes a long way.  As always, I don't expect to fully adhere to the above guidelines, but hitting at least 75%-80% will make for a healthy, un-gross vacation experience.  

Scanning the recent local news, I recently learned that Cape Cod is now having an outbreak of both rip currents and Great White shark infestations.  This should make for some vigorous swimming.  It's nice when the survival mechanism can also benefit the caloric equilibrium.  

I'm guessing this guy doesn't count POINTS, 
but I'm still curious how many POINTS I would be?

For those who did your vacations already, how did it go?  For those still planning, anything to add to the list?  



Monday, July 26, 2010

Your brain on drugs. Errr. I meant food.

As referenced in an earlier post, I had the opportunity to attend the recent International Congress on Obesity in Stockholm, Sweden a couple of weeks ago.  There was some research shown that demonstrates what our brains looks like when we're hungry.  It's a fascinating new angle on understanding obesity that uses the technology of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI's).  Said differently:  brain scans with cool colors that show neural activity as it is actually happening.

Researchers have used this technology to attempt to better understand the parts of the brains that get activated by different systems and pathways.  Some researchers now theorize that there are two pathways that show how brain activity relates to feelings of hunger:

  1. Homeostatic:  this is basically the control mechanism our bodies use to manage our energy balance. They largely rely on hormones to either stimulate or suppress hunger depending on whether we have excess energy stores (i.e., have eaten enough).  Leptin levels are elevated to suppress hunger while grehlin levels are elevated when we need food.  Said differently, this system was designed to help us figure out when we need food or not.  It is not to say that the system works perfectly in guiding people to their swimsuit-fantasy selves, but it generally works on some level.  
  2. Hedonic:  appropriately named, the hedonic system is theorized to stimulate people to consume "highly palatable" foods (and drugs) through dopamine release through something called the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.  Basically, when you see a picture of chocolate cake your brain goes fuzzy.  And you eat.  Or you really want to eat.  Badly.  
Recently, there has been research done that demonstrates that the hedonic system goes into overdrive for people who struggle with their weight vs. people who don't.  Apparently, those of us who are challenged with excessive food intake (like me) have brains that light up like a Christmas tree when we see something yummy.  Apparently, the naturally thin do not have this neural-fireworks display to nearly the same degree.  

Interesting, there has also been research that seems to indicate that those who have lost weight and kept it off have a different part of our brains that also lights up when we see something yummy.  It is basically, the part of the brain (the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex in case you were wondering) that helps us regulate against our impulsive behaviors.  A friend of mine asked me if such a part of the brain could be implanted or purchased.  Presuming that medical technology for this kind of quick fix does not yet exist, it sounds like the way to get this part of the brain activated may be more like developing a new muscle, presumably through practice and training.  

So what's my professional take on all of the above?  fMRI is a hot new area in obesity research that holds a lot of interesting long term promise.  It's still new technology (as it relates to obesity), and the brain is a complicated piece of equipment.  As a result, curiosity into these studies is definitely warranted, but a wait-and-see scientific patience is as well.  It's very new stuff.  

So what's my personal take on all of the above?  I totally relate to these theories.  My brain totally gets fuzzy when I see my favorite trigger foods.  I cannot look at a muffin without my heart skipping a beat and my head getting a weird buzzing sensation.  To be clear, I haven't had a muffin in years, and I still have a frenzied response when I see one.  

At the same time, I seem to have gotten pretty adept at not eating said muffin.  Therefore, it's possible that my self-restraint brain biceps have gotten at least a little bit toned.  That said, if I were locked in a closet with a blueberry muffin for a day, I would surely eat it.  So I cannot rely on my restraint muscle completely.  I also need to keep myself out of harms way by avoiding being around those foods that make my brain-heart go pitter-pat.  

It's all common sense stuff, but it's interesting to see how it's correlated to neuroscience.  Does that mean it's not brain surgery?  Let's hope surgery isn't required.  

How do  you manage your own dopamine pathways to keep yourself from spiraling into a food frenzy?