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!