Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can men be emotional eaters? Off the record...

For those who have never seen one, a focus group is a mainstay of market research that infinite companies use to gather infinite opinions on infinite topics.  I've been to a million over my ten years at Weight Watchers.  There are few that were as memorable and fascinating as the ones where men spoke about weight loss.  

Usually, the discussion starts off where the different men around the table start tentatively sharing their experience with being overweight.  During the first ten minutes, there is a lot of predictable chest thumping and joking along with proclamations such as "I've got too much pillow in the middle, but it's OK because I'm just gonna start hitting the gym" and "What does it matter if I'm heavy?  I'm married." or "I don't eat cuz I'm sad.  That's for chicks."  

Truth be told, men have a pretty humorous way of talking about weight, possibly because they are a little uncomfortable with the subject matter.  Comedy is a great way to skirt around a touchy subject.  

What was interesting about these focus groups is how the conversation would change over the course of 60 to 90 minutes.  By the end of the sessions, there was pretty heavy discussion about underlying emotions about being overweight, and how the condition made them feel about themselves.  These guys kept it together, and there was no weeping, but the conversation got pretty personal and very real.  

The conventional wisdom is that men have a very different take on weight issues than women.  Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.  Men eat because they just like to eat while women eat because eating is connecting to a myriad of other issues.  Is conventional wisdom true?  Are men and women all that different?  Can men be emotional eaters?  

So ask me the question.  Am I an emotional eater?  

Before I answer that question, let me first provide an honest and important caveat. I've been working at Weight Watchers for the better part of a decade.  You can't spend this much time at this company, spending this much time talking about weight issues, without developing estrogen deposits.  I'm a much more sensitive dude than I used to be, and arguably, some of my inherent manness has been obscured by frilly drapes. 

But go ahead and ask me the question anyway.  Am I an emotional eater?  Damned straight I am.  

The word "emotion" covers a lot of ground:  happy, sad, bored, stressed, relaxed, frenzied, etc.  Do I create ritual acts of combining crying and ice cream eating?  No (or at least I would never publicly admit to such a thing).  Do I eat for a million reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger.  Most definitely.  So what are my emotional trigger points for unnecessary digestion?:

  • Boredom: This is a big one for me.  I don't eat much when I'm in the midst of a flurry of activity, running from meeting to meeting or running errand after errand.  However, put me in a place of stasis, and I get ravenous.  This is almost always the trigger for a good grazing session.
  • Stress:  If I really analyze it, I would have to say Yes to this too.  When I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and the fates are conspiring against me, I am not above a little bit of food-based self-medication.  I deserve this bit of nasty food because life isn't being fair.  Putting something gross into my system would surely make me feel better.  BTW, it does make me feel better...  for about 3-4 minutes.  
  • Reward:  This is a BIG yes.  I have done great things this week!  I deserve a giant reward in the shape of a calorie bomb.  
  • I want to be happy:  like most people, I've somehow convinced myself that the act of eating has the capacity to create a state of prolonged joy.  At least for a few minutes.  
  • I want something to look forward to:  I always look forward to my next meal.  Somehow, it will be one of the highlights of the day.  Even though the meal eating process may only last 15 minutes.  Kind of sad.  
So what to do with this self-examination?  Knowing what my trigger points are seems the right start to winning this battle.  The next step is identifying ways other than food for addressing these trigger points.  Somehow I need to rewire my neural synapses to recognize that eating is not the salve or reward that I think it is.  This is easier said that done, but I do believe I can learn to do it over time.  

Dealing with eating issues is not just about managing the calorie deficit equation.  I never cease to be amazed by how complicated the topic of weight is and the degree to which eating is connected to a million emotional issues other than the need for basic sustenance.  If it were just about calorie deficit, we could all just buy a diet book, get educated, and be done with it.  Behavior change is so much more complicated, but it can be solved.  That's why Weight Watchers exists.  That's why I have to admit that going to meetings has been a big help to me in making changes in the way I live my life.  And it's not just because I'm in touch with my feminine side (though I am).  It's because weight issues are about fundamental human nature, which is not gender specific.  

Ask any guy and he will tell you the same.  Unless he denies it.  If so, give him a hug and let him have a big cry and maybe a spoonful of ice cream.  

Other brave men care to jump into the truth telling pool?  Please do share.  



Sunday, January 24, 2010

You are hereby sentenced to healthy living for life!

There is something about maintenance that can seem overwhelming if I think about it too much.  Am I to live a life of nutritionally balanced drudgery?  Must I be conscientious for the rest of my life?  Will I always have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get my workout in?  Why can't I eat breakfast burritos every morning?  What about my beloved 3,000 calorie mega death cheeseburger and fries combinations?

The truth is this:  for me to stay healthy (and thinnish), I have to continue making smart food choices, and I need to exercise most, if not all, days.  Sadly or not, this is simply the way we are supposed to live and the way we are supposed to treat our bodies.  This shouldn't be such a bad thing as I am fully aware of the benefits of taking the healthier path:
  • I feel better physically and mentally when I eat right and don't stuff myself
  • I feel better mentally when I don't pilfer treats in the middle of the night
  • I feel better physically and mentally when I am getting regular exercise.  I can't remember a workout that made me feel worse afterward.  
  • I am improving my odds to live a longer, less sickly life, and hopefully spend as many productive, fun years with my family as is humanly possible.
  • Truthfully, I look better in a fit state than in an obese state.  There.  I said it.  I'm not above a little (no snickering please) vanity.  
So with all of this big pluses, what's the problem?

I'm coming on one year at Lifetime, and I have been in fighting shape now for close to two years.  I've certainly been in better health over the full course of the 10 years I've been with Weight Watchers than I was pre-WW.  I really should have purged myself of dark thoughts by now.  Right?

Not so fast.  I still am tempted by bad, impure food thoughts.  I dream of four pound calzones, stuffed with sausages & onions, drenched with buttery red sauce.  My palms get sweaty when I'm around nuts and cheese.  I have deep seated lust for ice cream.  I fondly reconstruct mental scenarios of my old life, spending every weekend eating mountains of crap (nutritionally speaking) food.

I went to dinner last night with a big crew of friends.  They pretty much all ordered whatever the felt like eating, and I had a nice piece of cod.  Should I have thrown in the towel and succumbed to a massive piece of fatty red meat, basted in blue cheese sauce?

Is there any hope for me?  Am I ultimately doomed?  Can I survive maintenance?  Is it all just too hard?  There are two reasons for me to be optimistic about the future:  1) I'm not really depriving myself and 2) perseverance.

On the point of not depriving:
  • My fish was terrifically tasty and satisfying.  It was a million miles from a hardship.
  • I get plenty to eat.  I'm not really physically hungry much anymore, as I've found lots of ways to get lots of bulk eating in without very many calories.
  • Exercise is no longer a hardship.  It's hard to push yourself while you are in the act, but the after effect is always worth it.  
  • In other words, the feeling of missing the my old life is purely in my head, and the "truth" in missing it is pretty false.  

On the point of perseverance...  I attended a Weight Watchers meeting in Oakland, CA about a month ago that talked about this.  I kind of dreaded the topic as the word "perseverance" sounds like a quality that more disciplined people have, like Ben Hur in the slave galley, rowing away under the whip.  However, the Leader had an interesting way of recasting the concept.  She pointed out that we all have numerous examples in our lives of persevering during challenging times.  One member talked about getting her bachelors degree at night while taking care of her three kids as a single mom.  If she can do that, making the decision to eat fish and vegetables can hardly be that much of a challenge.

The point is, that I too have persevered and rose up to challenges many, many times in my life.  Perseverance isn't a quality that you develop or an asset that you acquire.  It's already there.  We are all much stronger than we realize, presuming we don't let the little, misinformed voices in our head tell us we aren't.  Did I just admit to having voices in my head?  Ugh.  Too much self-disclosure again.

Curious how all of you get the bad voices to cease and desist.

BTW, next week's topic at my Weight Watchers meeting is Physical vs. Emotional Hunger.  It begs the question:  are men emotional eaters?  Stay tuned!



Monday, January 18, 2010

Sneaking! Airing My Dirty Laundry

As a successful Lifetime Member, I like to think of myself as the model of absolute propriety and righteous healthy living.  An upstanding member of the prudent life community.  A model Weight Watchers citizen.  A role model for all.

Except when I am secretly not.  A few weeks ago, my wife and I were winding down in the middle of the week after a typically long and busy day.  She announced that she was going upstairs, and I indicated that I would be up in just a little bit.  After I heard her go upstairs, my vision got fuzzy, and I headed over to the freezer in a somewhat frenzied state.  See, I knew there was ice cream in them there hills.  I pulled out a spoon like a trusty six-shooter, and dug deep into the vat of Edy's (the fact that it was "low fat" was hardly the point).  I was a fast and steady gunslinger, as I quickly brought spoon to mouth.  Then my wife walked into the kitchen.  Ooops.

As she put it, I looked remarkably like a seven year old boy caught completely red handed.  Red faced too. Busted!!!

All this has led me to wonder the age old question:  why do I sneak food?  Had I merely had some ice cream in broad daylight under the witness of others, no one would have thought anything about it.  You can certainly do this (in moderation) under the Weight Watchers program.  What is it about sneaking that almost makes the food taste better?  Why do I sneak even when I know that I will self-flagelate later?

Like most aberrant behaviors, I needed to go back to childhood for the answer.  You see, I have always been a sneaker (behaviorally speaking, not a piece of footwear).  When I was growing up, my bedroom was next door to the basement where we kept our deep food storage freezer.  My mother would keep a large inventory of frozen bread (don't ask, she was very frugal!) and other various staples.  As a little boy, I used to sneak into the freezer to sneak a piece of frozen bread (as I write this, it's hard for me to believe that I'm not making it up).  Put aside the fact that I could have gone upstairs and had a thawed piece of bread.  The frozen, stolen variety just tasted better to me.

My mother used to bake tin after tin of Christmas cookies during early December in preparation for the rounds of social events that transpired over the holidays.  She would, of course, put the cookie tins in deep frozen storage, which was conveniently located next to my lair of thieves hangout (i.e., my bedroom).  I would carefully attempt to orchestrate imperceptible cookie removal which required intricate rearrangement of the cookies within the tins so as to avoid loss detection.  Of course, I discovered years later that she knew all along that I was engaged in these nefarious activities.  She just didn't say anything as long as the shrinkage was at manageable levels.

I did the same with ice cream, attempting to employ the technique of perfectly removing 3 millimeters of surface across the area of the cylinder container.  I really thought that no one would notice the difference.  Of course, they always did.

I ultimately outgrew the freezer bread raids, but I never outgrew the habit of wanting to sneak food under the cover of darkness.

I really don't understand why.  I was not an overweight kid.  In fact, I literally could not gain weight until I went to college, and let's just say that my environment changed.  I was rail thin through high school, bordering on emaciated in elementary school (it's a tall guy thing).  Maybe I was insatiable because I was literally insatiable.  I could eat anything and still not gain weight, so perhaps that's why I ate so much.  People didn't eat as many treats back then, so maybe I simply craved what was forbidden.  If I had to guess, I would say it was the latter.

As it is for so many people, forbidden, private eating remains one of my weaknesses.  As it is for so many of us, I prefer to do my dirty food work in private.  Why?  A little dash of forbidden fruit and a little dash of embarrassment.  There is a freedom to being able to self indulge without fear of recrimination and loss of approval by others.  But all of this begs the question:  isn't our approval of our own behaviors the only approval that matters?  Clearly yes.

Isn't there a better way?  Yes.

Step 1:  put out my dirty laundry in a safe environment (this blog and a WW meeting is a good place to start) where others will relate and be supportive.  In 1961, our founder Jean Nidetch did exactly this when she held the first ever Weight Watchers meeting in her apartment in Queens, NY.  It is the whole reason that Weight Watchers exists today.
Step 2:  find ways to care less about what others might think of our indulgences.  I need to make healthy behaviors for myself, not for the approval of others.  Whether someone else sees me indulging or not is completely irrelevant and frankly none of their business.
Step 3:  understanding that it is the cover of night that allows our minor indulgences to blossom into monstrous food disasters.  Just because I can't be seen by someone else, doesn't mean that I can't see myself.
Step 4:  become more mindful of the situations in which I mindlessly head over for a sneaking run, and more carefully think about what I'm doing
Step 5:  plan indulgences explicitly into my routine so I don't feel the need to steal my indulgences

Feel free to share your own frozen bread story.



Spinning Epilogue: You Wouldn't Like me When I'm Angry

Ummm.  It seems that my nice spinning teacher read my blog last week.  She came into the Sunday morning class muttering something about "I'll show you fascism, you communist..."  Or something like that.

She then proceeded the subject everyone in the class to 60 minutes of unadulterated terror with hideous hill climbs which went to hill sprints which led to flat sprints, doing this cycle over and over and over.  All the while she had a disturbing somewhat sociopathic/maniacal grin.  Before the class was over, about five people dropped out.  At one point, I heard a somewhat quiet, but clearly audible muttering of "b&%ch" from two bikes to the right (I've always wondered why more people didn't say that in group exercise classes).

Truth be told, it was a pretty awesome workout and a good testimony to the 50% harder work than cycling alone theorem.  Kind of like people who go to Weight Watchers meetings lose multiple times more weight than people who diet alone (oops, pardon my shameless, self-serving plug!).

So what's the moral of the story?  Talk smack to your spinning instructor.  You just might get an even better workout.  Or you might hurl.  Either way, nothing risked, nothing gained.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Contaminating my hermetically sealed fitness routine with human interaction -- yikes

As I've often told people, I really did have to attend my Weight Watchers meetings to lose my weight.  I needed the meetings for a host of different reasons, but first and foremost has been the value of being weighed by a Weight Watchers person.  In any case, when it comes to staying on the path of nutritional righteousness, I'm very much a group participation person.

Interestingly, I have never been one for group exercise.  When it comes to working out, I'm pretty much of a lone wolf (dark and mysterious, even).  My weight lifting routine is too much of a Rube Goldberg contraption to expect either 1) others to do it with me or 2) find room for a personal trainer in my complicated mix.  When it comes to cardio, I am also an individual player, preferring to jack in my own tunes on a Lifecycle and have at it at my own pace.  It's worked well for me, so my stance has been not to rock the boat.

Now I find myself on the precipice of slowing including social-exercise into my weekly routine.  It's kind of my New Years exercise resolution to start routinely including the following two group formats:

  1. Spinning
  2. Yoga

I've been to about three spinning classes over the past week at Equinox gyms in NYC and in CT.  Compared to solo cycling, there really isn't any comparison.  I find myself pushing at least 50% to 75% harder in spinning classes than when pedaling on my own.  I've been wondering why this is the case?  You can get a ridiculously hard workout on a Lifecycle, so why don't I?  The answers:

  1. The spinning instructor:  she (Emma) seems like a nice, kind, decent person on the outside.  However, once the class starts, she becomes slightly fascist and a little bit abusive.  "David, you're spinning too fast, you need more resistance!"  "I need you to get to a place where you are kind of miserable."  "You should be feeling nasty by now."  This is not nice behavior, but strangely it works.  When someone looks you in the eye and tells you to push harder, you do.  
  2. Peer pressure:  when I exercise on my own, I feel like pretty much of a stud.  In my solo-workout mind, I'm pushing my pedals harder than what anyone has ever attempted before!  I rule!  In a spinning class, I keep seeing everyone keeping pace while jacking up the tension on their spinning wheel.  I stink.  Therefore, I push to keep up.  [BTW, I cannot rule out the possibility that they really aren't increasing tension on their wheel, and it's all for show.  Not that I would ever do this.]
Bottom line:  my desire for the approval of others (Gold Stars are the best!) and my inherent competitiveness make this format pretty ideal no matter how much physical duress it creates during the actual class.  Based on this, I plan to make spinning a new part of my fitness scene.   

One side point on spinning class selection:  three key elements to a great class (my opinion, anyway). 
  1. Good music:  no to house music I've never heard of.  No to really slow music (including dirges).  Never show tunes (really, never).  Yes to music that is hard and fast.  Yes to cheesy, spastic music.  
  2. Instructor must have a sense of humor and must not take herself/himself too seriously.  Prefer if instructor can avoid temptation to be a life coach during the class.  Best spinning instructor I ever had was prone to violent air guitaring during the class.  
  3. Class should be fun and slightly silly while also being challenging.  

My second area for exploration is Yoga.  I have historically been pretty skeptical about the whole spiritual exercise thing.  I prefer the route of the knuckle dragger, clinging to my free weights at all cost.  However, I decided to give yoga a try for two reasons:
  1. Stretching:  I am probably the least flexible person I know.  I rarely stretch after exercise due to my lack of time and discipline about activities that I don't see directly leading to the improvement of my appearance/vanity.  However, it's a little sad that someone who considers himself to be in really good shape cannot touch his toes without a sizable knee bend.  Yoga is a pretty thorough way to get in a huge range of stretching that I would otherwise never do.  
  2. Getting my zen on:  like most people, it feels like my brain is on constant overdrive, barreling from thought to thought without ever a break.  Meditation is increasingly used as a great way to settle the brain and improve concentration.  Again, the yoga classes I have tried have had a pretty heavy dose of concentration.  I have even been known to join in the chanting, albeit with my usual tone deafness (my singing voice sounds like a horrible cross between Frankenstein and Tarzan -- see old SNL clips w/ Jon Lovitz for an example).  
As was the case with spinning classes, I have particular preferences when it comes to Yoga.  Specifically, I seem to be gravitating toward birkenstock, crunchy, chanting yoga classes rather than hyperactive, hardcore aerobic-class style yoga.  To each, his/her own.   

So what does exercise look like going forward given these changes:
  • Weights:  no change here.  Stick to 4X split each week.  Keep morning about physical fitness.
  • Cardio:  use Lifecycle as 30 min adjunct to my weight lifting mornings.  It still has the benefit of easy in-and-out.  However, replace two of my 45 minute cardio-only Lifecycle workouts with spinning classes.
  • Zen stuff:  try to get to one yoga class during the week at night and one on the weekend.  
Will I stick with all of this?  I hope so.  It feels like good blend of resistance training, ample cardio, and a little bit of stress management.  

What fitness changes are you guys doing this year?  



Wednesday, January 6, 2010

11 Day challenge recap: I was totally fine until this thing called Potluck (very 50's of me)

I had no choice but to man-up today and give the honest results of my 11 day challenge, including today's weigh-in, which I really did not want to do.  So how did it go?

Day 1 (Wed Dec 23):  

  • My plan:  Have a healthy breakfast.  Have a healthy lunch.  Spend time with family in the city doing the big Christmas thing, and pre-select my select my dinner options from restaurant menu on the internet.  And have a huge workout.
  • What happened:  I RULED this day.  Great workout.  Oatmeal for breakfast (even though I was at a restaurant). Totally responsible lunch and dinner.  Yeah me!

Day 2 (Christmas Eve):  

  • My plan:  Keep it together for breakfast and lunch.  Have a huge workout.  Abandon hope for Christmas Eve dinner at friend's house.  Choose not to have remorse.
  • What happened:  Pretty much as plan again.  Good, cardio workout in the AM.  Was responsible until 6 PM or so. Even after then, I wasn't completely gross.  

Day 3 (Christmas Day):  

  • My plan:  No exercise.  Rich food.  Candy.  etc. etc. etc.  Choose not to have remorse.
  • What happened:  No exercise.  Rich food.  LOTS of treats.  Kind of like Willie Wonka's Augustus Gloop's (the one who swims in Chocolate) swan song reenacted.  

Day 4/5 (Boxing Day and Day After Boxing Day):  

  • My plan:  I've never celebrated Boxing Day before, but why not?  Spending the weekend away with DSW.  Will plan to get workouts in (probably not huge ones) to mitigate some of the damage.  Not planning to be perfect this weekend.
  • What happened:  Worked out both days (!).  Was good for breakfast.  Not very careful for lunch and dinner.  Pretty much as planned.

Day 6-8 (Mon-Wed):  

  • My plan:  Exercise like a maniac.  Live like a cold-hearted Puritan for all breakfasts and lunches.  Keep it sane for dinner.  Seek to avoid stealing candy from my children.
  • What happened:  The Puritan's would have put me in the stocks, or perhaps considered seeing if I sunk like a witch.  Had they done so, their punishment would have been a bit severe.  I worked out hard.  I wasn't awful for meals, but I definitely partook in some Level II Grazing.  

Day 9 (New Years Eve):  

  • My plan:  Big workout again.  Keep it sane for breakfast/lunch.  Behave poorly New Years Eve.  
  • What happened:  Again, not too bad, except after 6 PM, and I worked out as planned.  

Day 10 (New Years Day):  

  • My plan:  Rub temples gently.  Get a big workout.  Keep it pretty normal for a Saturday.
  • What happened:  Well, I did rub my temples, and I did get a big workout.  However, one could only call this Saturday normal if one's name was Nero.  We decided to have a New Year's potluck open house during the day to watch football, socialize, etc.  Bad.  Bad.  Bad.  Bad.  The attached photo is showing only about 50% of what was brought to the table, and NONE of it was good for me.  It was cold out, and I didn't care.  I had some of EVERYTHING.  And no remorse.  

Day 11 (Sunday):  

  • My plan:  Back on plan.
  • What happened:  True (mostly)!

Final tally:  it got a little dicey toward the end of the 11 days, but I wasn't a million miles off the game plan.  Final result:  I'm up 2.6 pounds from goal (and I got weighed after I had lunch).  Overall, it's a decent outcome.  

As a side observation, what is it about potluck that says " make sure to bring your most oil/butter ladden foods.  If you could lace them with chocolate and lard, that would be super awesome!" ?  

Any insights from this?  Sure.  I had a plan that I pretty much stuck too.  I lived much looser than I normally do, but I kept it sane and worked out much.  The final result was very much in line with what I expected.  Looks like you really can live in the world when you do Weight Watchers.  Phew.  

Hope all of you hung in there too!!!