Sunday, March 28, 2010

When large cheese dishes collide with active pursuit. The Swiss paradox.

I find myself in the midst of a somewhat extended European trip right now.  It started in Frankfort, Germany this past Thursday and Friday, continuing this coming week to the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.  So far it’s been a great trip. I had the pleasure of spending two fantastic days with my colleagues from the German management team as well as participating in a Townhall with German leaders.  I have more of the same in the countries that follow this week.

One of the side effects of this trip has been the weekend layover.  This happens a few times a year, and it is a necessary part of undertaking lots of overseas travel.  I try to make the best of it by spending a weekend exploring whatever city is hosting me.  The plan this trip was to spend the weekend in London, so I called an old friend.  He informed me that he and his family were getting ready to head down to Switzerland to spend their school break skiing.  Why don’t I join them for the weekend he asked?  It’s not wise to gaze too long at a gift horse such as this, so I jumped at the opportunity before he could take it back.

I arrived Friday night,  and I got connected with a Swiss ski guide who proceeded to beat me senseless on the slopes from 9:30 to 4:30 on Saturday.  I suspected that my experience skiing with the guide would be somewhat like my experiences with other types of exercise performed under the supervision of a professional:  I would work about 10 times as hard.  I was not disappointed as he was somewhat merciless in a very nice Swiss way.

We pulled into a late lunch at a quaint mountainside restaurant, and I collapsed in a heap at one of the outdoor picnic tables.  I glanced through the menu and did not see a single item sanctioned by the healthy living police.  Instead, my friendly guide encouraged me to try one of the Alp specialties, called Croûte.


What is Croûte?  Nothing that a sedentary person should eat very often.  Basically, it’s a layer of bread baked in wine smothered with Alpine cheese, infused with ham, served with a fried egg on top for good measure.  There has been much talk about smaller portion sizes in Europe, but this was not in evidence here.  This thing consumed an entire small (not too small) skillet.  I did not attempt to calculate its POINTS value, but suffice to say, it was completely decadent.  And it was unbelievably good.

[As a curious side note, he also encouraged me to try a carbonated drink called Rivella.  Well, when in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do.  In this case, that involved sipping on a soft drink made from milk extract (whey to be specific).  Truth be told, it wasn’t bad, and the one I got was Rivella blue label, which is low calorie.  Let me re-cap this:  I had carbonated diet milk byproduct.  Seriously.]

Back to the Croûte.  How is it that the relatively thin Swiss can regularly eat this stuff?  My guide wolfed his down, and he was a trim dude.  The guy who ran the restaurant was skinny as a rail.  Everybody there seemed to be in great shape despite diving into delicacies such as this.  What could explain such a towering mystery?  What is this Swiss paradox?

It’s hardly complicated.  Five to six hours of skiing burns a ton of calories.  In fact, according to my handy Weight Watchers Activity Points calculator, skiing burns about 10 POINTS value per hour.  Assume an effective four hours of skiing (taking out time on lifts, lunch tables, etc.), and I burned about 40 POINTS.  The Croûte surely was no match for this?  Well, actually it was probably close to break-even, but I chose to give the exercise side of the ledger the benefit of the doubt.

I do not find it to be a surprise that places where people are outside ALL the time, like Switzerland, Colorado, etc., tend to have lower obesity rates.  It is amazing how useful couch extraction is to helping to fix the calorie deficit equation.  It doesn’t have to be skiing, as people in these two locales undertake a myriad of outdoor physical activities.  Being active in mountainous regions seems to be a way of life.  There is lesson in this for all of us.

The other helpful concept in here is that of the active vacation.  Spend a week where you are doing something active for four to six hours a day, and you can just about eat whatever you want (within reason).  This applies to skiing, biking, hiking, surfing, walking tours, etc., etc.  Sadly, it does not apply to lying on the beach.  Oh well.

Moral of the story:  know your vacation calorie deficit math.



Sunday, March 21, 2010

What do Cortes and Skinny Jeans have to do with each other? Tip: successful maintenance. Vanity Part 2.

Why does maintenance seem hard?  Probably because it is hard.  Keeping motivation going and avoiding the temptation of pulled pork BBQ platters with hush puppies and fries is a long, tough process.  It's hard because it never ends.  In this way, maintenance is very different than the weight loss process.  Theoretically, the weight loss phase has a beginning and end.  Maintenance only has a beginning.

Just as there are tips and tricks to taking the weight off, there are just as many tips and tricks to keeping it off.  Most of them center around the general topic of focus and motivation.  The problem with focus and motivation is that they are qualities that seem to come naturally to people other than me.  I have to consciously find ways to invent games and charades to keep myself motivated to stay on the righteous path of healthy living.

I often hear from countless women who talk effusively about the feeling of being able to shop in the "regular" section of women's clothing stores after losing their weight.  They talk about being able to show off their arms and legs.  They talk about buying pretty clothes, rather than just shoes and handbags.  They talk about the joy of buying a completely new wardrobe and then using it as a way of keeping themselves motivated to not regain their weight.  

So what is the equivalent technique for men?  It's time for me to once again delve into sharing my inner secrets in a way that will probably come back to haunt me in the form of taunts and other forms of verbal lashing.   So here it goes:  

I like to buy clothes that make me look pretty.  I like to buy clothes that make me look thin/fit.

There.  I said it.

First off, it might be helpful to review the fashion (or lack thereof) choices that I used to make when I was heavier.  Primary examples included anything baggy, loose fitting, "relaxed fit", etc.  Staples included roomy khakis with pleats and baggy jeans.  I used to wear pretty big, flowy (is that a word?) suits.  Big, heavy sweaters were staples.  It was kind of the fashion equivalent to standing inside of a refrigerator sized cardboard box.  Just because the box is big, is it necessarily the case that the contents inside are equally big?  Just because my clothes were big and baggy, wasn't there some possibility that something thin was on the inside?  

As I started to lose weight, I had the pleasing experience of having minor wardrobe malfunctions.  I began requiring the installation of more notches on my belt.  My shirts started to feel like tents and sometimes like small parachutes.  I started to squeeze up and fold over more and more of the waist on my pants.  By the time I reached goal weight, I started to look like Tom Hanks in Big when he reverted back to being a little kid stuck in a large suit.  Either that or David Byrne from Stop Making Sense.

On an emotional level, let me just say that this transformation completely rocked the house.  It is hard to express how happy I was when I shrank to a size 34 pant (down from 38, leaning north of that).  It is hard for me to describe how unbelievably awesome it is to have the sales guy at my fav men's fashion emporium start to direct me toward styles more suitable for, as he put it, "trim men".  It was shameless salesmanship on his part, and I completely fell for it.  With a big, fat smile on my face.

I began the process of buying thin guy clothes.  These included flat front pants with a trimmer cut.  I was able to buy a pair of Levi's with a so-called "Matchstick" cut.  Unbelievably, they actually fit without making me look like a 70's Jordache ad gone horribly awry (only Erik Estrada could pull that look off).  I started buying trimmer cut suits and jackets.  I was able to go down a couple of neck sizes, and I asked the store to take in the sides of the shirts for a slimmer fit.  In short, I have now completely replaced my wardrobe, head to toe.  In the process, I have turned into a person whose pulse rises when confronted with nice looking apparel.  I actually like shopping, and I don't need my wife to pick things out for me anymore.  I frankly find it all slightly frightening.

So what does all of this have to do with staying on maintenance?  Answer:  everything!  All of my stuff fits me well now, but a 10 pound weight gain would be disastrous.  10 pounds is all it would take for me to look like a stuffed sausage.  Given that I fancy myself as kind of a dandy these days, Dave in a bratwurst costume is just not an acceptable outcome.

The story goes that Cortes had all of his ships burned so he could then go on to conquer the Aztecs, destroy their culture, and enslave millions.  He burned his ships to prevent his men from falling into mutiny. There is a lesson in this for me (no, not the enslaving part):  one way to prevent healthy habit mutiny is to burn my own ships, in the form of my prior wardrobe.  Or maybe something more productive like giving it to Goodwill.  Which is what I plan to do today.

Moral of the story:  when applied properly, vanity works.



Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jerky: misunderstood food or man's best friend? Or both.

Can a movie change the way you eat?  For the better part of 25 years, the answer for me was yes.

Dial the clock back to 1983, when one of the all time great cinematic achievements made its way onto screens across the United States.  That movie, of course, was Trading Places.  My favorite scene (if I was forced to choose) was the one in which Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd), Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis -- looking great I might add) and Coleman (Denholm Elliott) are all dressed in disguise on the New Years Eve train, attempting to recover the orange juice crop report from the dreaded Clarence Beaks (the amazing Paul Gleason).

Billy Ray, disguised as Naga Eboko in African garb, says hello to Coleman, disguised as a priest:

Billy Ray/Eboko:  "Beef Jerky?"

Coleman/Priest:  "No son, it gives me wind, something terrible."  

These lines were indelibly etched in my mind for the next quarter of a century.  Beef jerky causes uncontrollable flatulence.  How could they make such a thing up, even in a movie?  It must be true.  For 25 years, I couldn't look at a Slim Jim without grimacing.

Two years ago, I gave myself a long hard look in the mirror.  I asked the wrenching question that I had been avoiding for so many years.  Was I a food bigot?  Was I willing to assume cheap, tawdry stereotypes foisted on my simple mind by Hollywood?  Was I a food profiler?  I looked deep in my soul, tears streaming down my cheeks, and I accepted the truth.  I had given jerky a bum rap, and dammit, it deserved better.

My moral failings aside, one might reasonably ask the question:  who cares?  Fair enough.  Here is why beef jerky matters:  very few calories and many grams of protein.  This translates into snacking and satiety glory.  One serving of jerky typically has 70 calories, 14 g of protein in a 1.1 oz serving.  In addition, they take a while to eat because they are hard and chewy.  These characteristics alone warranted a second look.

A couple of points about genus Jerkius.  I do not consider Slim Jim's to be beef jerky because they aren't.  They are beef sticks, and I still find this to be a concerning concept/descriptor (sounds like they come from a processed meat extruder, which they probably do).  Further, they have 150 calories, 13 grams of fat and only 6 grams of protein.  Not an awesome deal.  On the other hand, consider Oberto Beef Jerky:  70 calories, 2 grams of fat, 15 grams of protein.  That's what I'm talking about.  [Nutritional caveat:  I know that beef jerky has too much sodium.  I just choose to ignore this fact.  If it makes you feel any better, I never use table salt.]

It was time to give the jerky an open minded try.  I got some Trader Joe's buffalo and turky jerky, and gave them a shot.  Conclusion:  they tasted FANTASTIC and my G-I system remained in tact and non-offensive.  Another stereotype crushed!

Recently, I have tried to expand my purview of jerky to include some more artisanal/gourmet varieties.  Here are four that I've tried recently (I found these from a NY Times review from two years ago)...

1) Mahogany Gourmet Meats "Beef Slab".  How could I not try something labelled Beef Slab?  All organic, natural, lean meat was also a good call.

Assessment:  very tasty, great name, but a bit too tough.  There is a fine line between a piece of leather and a fine slice of beef jerky.  This variety was a bit too tough for my personal preference.  Others may prefer this style, particularly as it really does take a little longer to eat.

2) Gary West Buffalo and Elk Jerky.  Why should cows take all the heat?  In many respects, wild game is the perfect jerky given that elk and buffalo tend to be pretty lean cuts at the start.  Unlike the Mahogany, which was a slab, the Gary West jerky looked more like a meat stick (i.e., Slim Jim) except it was not perfectly round and didn't have that industrial extruded look.  Again, pretty much all natural except a little bit of Sodium Nitrite (tsk, tsk).

Assessment:  these sticks rock.  Really tasty and chewy/tender, not tough.  At 60 calories per serving, I can see these as a staple.

3) Texas A+M Aggie Brand beef jerky:  First off, how could I not support public education?  This stuff is made and sold by Texas A+M.  Probably the best part of the Aggie beef jerky experience is the purchasing process.  Quaintly, there is no online store, and purchases require the use of a telephone (seriously!).  Even better, they answer the phone "Rosenthal Meat Science Department, how may I help you?"  Seriously, the assistant for the meat sciences department answers the phone, takes your order and has your product shipped (she's VERY nice BTW).  That said, I couldn't stop imaging the range of experimentation happening near my meat processing.

Assessment:  unfreakinglybelievably great jerky.  Amazingly tasty and totally tender.  This stuff is almost too good.  It's also completely natural and unpreserved, so remember not to leave it on a shelf for four or five months.

Phone: 979.845.5651

4) Alaska's Best Salmon jerky, sold by Trapper's Creek in, where else, Alaska.  The Trapper's Creek guy found me via Twitter and put me to the challenge.  I was a little nervous about this one as dried fish doesn't seem quite as intuitive as dried beef.  I dug deep, manned up, and placed my order of dried fish (variety pack please!).

Assessment:  Not bad!  Same kind of nutritional profile as the beef (70 cal, 2 g fat, 13 g protein).  If you like smoked salmon, you will probably like salmon jerky.  I did.  My only minor complaint is that they are a little oily, though not too fishy, which was more of an issue for finger tip clean-up.  I'm not sure if this will be my go-to dried chunk-of-meat, but it adds a nice bit of variety.

BTW, I've since been hearing about other varieties of jerky including meat free (incongruous for me) and even caffeinated jerky (should red meat and caffeine really be mixed?  Isn't this how crime sprees start?).  

Jerky is now a fixed part of my snacking routine.  In many respects, it really is perfect man-food (not that women don't also love the jerky -- they just don't love the jerks).  Eating it makes me feel a little bit like the Marlborough Man, and the sodium is much less dangerous than the cigarettes.

So there you have it.  For all of you adventurous Weight Watchers-friendly food lovers, give the above a shot and let me know what you think.

Please do share your own jerky thoughts (again, I'm referring to the food, not behavior) and any other similarly weird food loves.



Saturday, March 6, 2010

Go-to foods: Breakfast

I'm a big believer in ritual and consistency, possibly born of my borderline OCD tendencies.  I aggressively seek ways of not making decisions in my every-day life as I feel that I've more than enough decisions to make in not-so-everyday life.  This is particularly the case when it comes to food.

I've often heard of people complaining that it's hard to stay on program because they get bored eating the same things over and over again.  When I hear this, I nod my head sympathetically and manipulate my facial muscles to express sympathy and understanding.  I can certainly understand intellectually how variety my be the spice of life for many.  I just don't relate on any kind of personal level.

I am more than happy to eat the same breakfast and lunch pretty much every day of the week.  I would have not much of a problem doing the same for dinner as well.  Case in point, I was known in my past life (read, plumper me) to buy a gigantic pizza, and then eat it for 4 to 5 days straight.  Preferably cold and hopefully not moldy.

It's not that I don't love food or that I'm afraid to try new kinds of food.  When it comes to eating, there are precious few things that I'm not willing to put into my mouth.  The list of foods that I won't eat is probably down to 2 or 3, with grapefruit still being the number one food that I really avoid (too bitter).  More the issue is that I cannot be bothered to summon the 12 IQ points necessary to make a food selection.

This makes having basic meals on program really simple (even for my little brain).  Take breakfast for example.  My approach here has been to start with some basic constructs and evolve them over time.  By way of example, here are my better breakfast software release notes:

  • Better breakfast 1.0:  Quaker flavored oatmeal, Danon fruit at the bottom yogurt, and coffee w/ sugar and 2% milk.  This wasn't a terrible version 1.0, but it clearly contained a bunch of bugs.  By way of example, standard flavored oatmeal has lots of added sugar and flavors that may or may not be natural.  I'm not puritanical about the whole organic food thing, but coughing up 3 POINTS given the volume of food didn't seem a good trade off.  
  • Better breakfast 2.0:  Quaker Weight Control oatmeal, Danon Lite yogurt.  Better, particularly since the WC oatmeal has more protein.  Still, not enough food to keep me full until lunch.
  • Better breakfast 3.0:  Quaker Weight Control oatmeal (160 cal) w/ added banana and blueberries.  Also for this release is the introduction of Chobani 0% Greek yogurt with fruit (around 140 cal).  I have become a giant Greek yogurt convert:  lots of protein and not too many calories in the 0% fat variety.  Still, I was sensing that there might be too much added sugar -- probably an extra 2 POINTS worth.
  • Better breakfast 4.0:  McCann's non-flavored instant oatmeal (100 cal) + fruit.  Fage 0% plain yogurt (90 cal) + grapes.  For this who aren't super fast with their mental POINTS calculator, my breakfast works out to about 6 POINTS.  Given that I get 31 POINTS per day (I'd prefer not to get flamed by those of you who only get 18 per day...  don't hate me just because I'm a tall guy on maintenance), this is a totally manageable total.  
Breakfast 4.0 is pretty perfect for me.  It's a ton of food without any wasted POINTS in the form of added sugar other than from the fruit.  Again, this isn't a moral judgement (I'm not one to spray paint on fur coats or picket HFCS plants), it's a purely practical one.  The reason this breakfast plucks my heartstrings is that it has been bulked up with fruit, so it is very filling.  This means that I really have no hunger-related reason to eat again before lunch.  

Now that I'm on Breakfast 4.0, I really don't foresee the need for a change in software.  Ever.  [Maybe there is a lesson for Microsoft in this somewhere.]  Therefore, the secret to my personal breakfast success has been iteration/optimization rather that constant exploration.  

I've applied the same logic to lunch and snacks, which I can share in a later post (including which Weight Watchers bars I eat and how I really feel about artificial ingredients).   

Feel free to share your own breakfast tricks.  I'm getting bored with mine.