Saturday, December 24, 2011

2012: end of the world or new beginning?

It's been a little quiet on this blog for the past month, so apologies for my distractedness.  December was a whirlwind month with many elves spending many hours getting ready for January (our Christmas).  I finally clocked out Friday, December 22, celebrated Christmas and got on a plan with my family for a week in Mexico.  It was a great trip, which was oddly educational.  We spent most of the time traipsing on old Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and visiting villages and cities on the Western part of this Mexican state.  After that, we had two days of R&R on the Caribbean coast.   It was an amazing trip, and there is now one more culture (the Mayan) of which I am now only mostly ignorant.

Right around 12/22, I got weighed, and I was very much at goal weight (yay me!).  From there, I had three days of Christmas merrymaking followed by seven days of Mexican/Maya cuisine -- lots of homemade tortillas and tortilla chips.  I was disallowed from exercising for SIX WHOLE DAYS.  Fate was indeed cruel.  I was not able to start getting back on physical activity until this past Saturday.  This was longest stretch without a workout in the better part of 10 months.  I was half convinced that my failure to exercise was going to accelerate the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world.

Dear Earth:  I'm sorry that my failure to
work out for six days caused a planetary event.
Will try harder next time.  
Yet, I am still breathing along with all of the other Earthlings, so I guess my lack of working out did not actually cause the planet to plunge into catastrophe.  I have not been weighed in yet, but I am guessing about a 3-5 pound gain.  Hardly another reason to predict the end of the world.

As a side note, my tour guide to the Mayan ruins informed us that the Mayans never said the world would end on Dec 21, 2012.  They merely had to reset their odometer and use it to mark a new beginning.  That sounds much more encouraging than the whole planetary destruction thing.

This vacation I did my noble best to try to force myself to disconnect from job, diet, and workout routines just a little bit.  I even managed to go a full day without having my iPhone in easy reach.  This is not small achievement for yours truly.

But now it's January, and it's time to get my game ON.

There are many who would criticize the premise of January resolutions as useless or bad.  I am not one of them.  I love treating January as the start of a new year and the opportunity for new beginnings.  I personally believe that any time we can create an internal trigger to stimulate a new behavior change effort, why not.  As long as we keep the resolution in perspective and not get down on ourselves when we don't completely change every single aspect of our lives in the course of three weeks, resolutions can be a very good prod.

So I start this new year 2012 with the best of intentions and the most positive of beliefs.  I try to keep my resolutions pretty basic, so here you go:

  1. Getting my food patterns back on course.  I want to make sure that I have a good stable of menus and meal ideas as I go into the new year so I can resist the temptation to stray little-by-little into less healthy territory.  I've got my tracker out this morning, and I'm going to try to keep it out for the next few weeks.  It's a great course correction tool.
  2. Continue working on my efforts not to snack after dinner.  Made good progress on this at the end of 2011, and I have a great opportunity to build on that progress.  My primary tool here will probably be some more public commitments via Twitter where I mark my progress at the end of each day for a week.  Worked great the last time I did it.  
  3. Find someway to up my exercise output by 10% to 15% by adding some new activities.  Planning here is still nebulous.  
My biggest New Years resolution has nothing to do with weight.  It has to do with my outlook and what I show other people.  

My #1 2012 resolution:  smile more.  

What do you have loaded up for the new year?



Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Father Weight Watchers: Part 2. The other side...

In my last post, I talked about my aspirations to be a useful role model to my kids in promoting a healthy and sustainable lifestyle -- all good stuff and all the right intentions.  Yet, I am also cognizant of the fact that I need to check myself in front of them.

There is no doubt that childhood obesity has become a major health issue that seems likely to get worse.  However, it is also the case that eating disorders also represent a significant and growing issue among kids.  It sometimes feels that we parents are navigating between two perilous health issues, both of which can have a debilitating effect.  My only hope and dream for my kids, and all kids for that matter, is that they can find a balance in a healthy and sustaining lifestyle.  It's a difficult balancing act for parents, and I've found it to be a difficult one for me.

Let's start with me and how I am.  Everyone who knows me well would be pretty quick to point out that I can tend to be a little over-the-top in how I approach life.  When in doubt, my inclination is to charge up the hill with both guns firing.  I am also pretty vocal and open about what's on my mind and how I'm feeling.  I am very much one who wears his cardiovascular system on his sleeve. 

This has certainly been the case when it comes to my weight.  For the most part, the behaviors I am modelling tend to be pretty good ones.  My kids see me eating healthy meals while also finishing the great majority of what is on my plate.  They see me going to the gym, going for walks, and going for bike rides.  My operating assumption is that this is a big net positive.

However, I am also aware of the fact that I can be a bit obsessive about my weight.  I am no stranger to vocal self-flagellation after a bad weigh-in.  I am also aware of the fact that I do talk about losing weight and keeping weight off.  I worry that my kids can see me becoming anxious if and when I'm falling off program.

Me in my kitchen...
I am also no stranger to the twisted world of body image.  Like a lot of people who have lost a bunch of weight, I cannot help but be somewhat enamored of looking better than I used to.  One way this manifests itself is in my preening about in tailored fashion gear.  I know that I will occasionally sneak looks at my reflection in a street-side window wondering if my pants make my derriere look fat.  For the most part, these are fleeting thoughts that come and go pretty quickly, almost always without verbal commentary.  But what if my daughters could read my mind?  They do know me awfully well.  Am I inadvertently setting a criteria for how they should look rather than how healthy they should be?

All of my concerns are amplified by knowing what kind of environment my kids live in outside of our home.  They live in a town where obesity is far from the norm.  They, in fact, live in a place sometimes referred to as Stepford, CT.  I see their schoolmates, and they are almost universally thin and fashionable.  It sometimes looks like Mean Girls, the massively extended version.  Blond and thin is very much the aspiration in my town.  I cannot help but believe that the peer pressure the girls in their schools face is to look a very particular way.  I cannot help but recognize that this peer pressure has a truly unfortunate side that manifests itself in a host of negative ways.

So there you have it.  My daughters live in a very thin town, and their dad is the CEO of Weight Watchers and who is prone to bouts of self-obsession about how he looks.  Pretty scary, and something I really need to be aware of and to take seriously.

The good news is that I am unbelievably lucky to have two daughters who are confident, independent and not afraid to laugh at themselves.  I cannot imagine having half the confidence they possess when I was their age.  I am also lucky that they routinely laugh at and deride me for all of my many peccadilloes.  They know that I am a walking midlife crisis, and they routinely mock me for it.  They can never know how grateful I am for their goodhearted scorn. 

For my part, I do my very best to keep my weird obsessive thoughts locked in my weird head, because frankly, most of them really don't need to see the light of day.  When I do talk about food, I studiously attempt to talk about it as fuel the leads to health.  I NEVER ride them about eating too much, and I try incredibly hard to be careful of the whole "eat your vegetables" routine.  Frankly, my wife is better at that this than me, so I let her take the heavy lifting on this topic (among many others).

Ultimately, as a father, it's my responsibility to be a healthy role model for my kids.  It's also my responsibility to be a father, not a peer who shares every self-doubt in front of them.  My aspiration is to demonstrate common sense and confidence.  When I'm with my kids, my job is to not be selfish and self-absorbed, but rather to be present for them.  I am a thousand miles from perfect on this front, but I know it's important and I know I need to work constantly to seek to achieve this state.  If I can, then maybe they will forgive me my fancy threads. 



Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Father Weight Watchers: part 1

One of the questions my wife routinely gets asked goes along the lines of:  "So.  What's it like being married to the CEO of Weight Watchers."  Maybe it's like being married to a preacher where she is expected to also be a model of health rectitude.  Perhaps there is also a presumption that I must certainly scrutinize every bite taken and every food choice made.

In truth, my wife has always been a more responsible health person than me, and she has become even more so over time.  Unlike many these days, she regularly cooks, and she is pretty spectacular at it.  She has a gift of taking a normal recipe and putting it on a diet while still having it come out sublime.  She's incredibly active with a healthy mix of working out, walking our anxiety-ridden dog and playing lots of team racket sports.  If anything, her continuing advantage over me is that she is much less obsessive than I am.

That said, I do understand that with the label of "married to the WW CEO" comes its own set of pressures.  I have to say that she handles them very well.

Perhaps a better question, and mostly definitely a thornier one, is this:  what about my kids?

I want to takle this topic in two separate posts:  one focusing on the good and other focusing on the watch-outs.

First off, for those who don't know me, I have two daughters, now aged 11 and 13 with birthdays at the end of February.  They are both incredibly tall, willowy girls who by all accounts are happy and well adjusted despite having a strange man for a father -- their mother gets all credit for they're being well adjusted.

In terms of how they feel about having me work for Weight Watchers, they seem to like it a lot.  My youngest daughter routinely wears Weight Watchers logo ware (e.g., "Because it works!" or "Walk-it Challenge"), which I find endlessly amusing.  Whenever we have a new TV spot on the air, they definitely make a bit of noise and make me feel good by putting on a good show of support.
Exactly the way my family looks at me!  

What I find the most gratifying is that if asked what I do, they always respond that I work for a company that helps people.  Their understanding of Weight Watchers is that it helps people learn how to become healthier by learning how to eat better and how to exercise more.  I cannot think of anything more important for a father than having his kids respect and appreciate his life's work.  I don't take it for granted, and it is by itself reason enough for me to come into work every day with a full head of steam (not the angry kind).

I also take some comfort in knowing that my daughters have grown up in a house where they see their parents making good food choices and trying to live healthily.  My kids don't live like puritans, and they are wholly unafraid of attacking a pizza or getting their candy on.  This said, they already have better eating habits than I did at their age.  They are perfectly fine measuring out two pieces of Halloween candy, and being as happy as if they had good sense.  Their father would have had a hard time stopping at 15 pieces when he was their age.

I also take some comfort in that they see me exercising pretty much every day.  I'm only gone for an hour or hour and a half each time I go, so they are not getting a window into a nut.  However, they do see someone who has found a way to work in exercise as a basic part of his life.  It's just a normal thing to do.  My girls are not yet at the age where "working out" is particularly necessary or appropriate.  They get their exercise through sport.  However, when they get older, I can only hope that they will have memories of what active life looks like for a grownup perspective.

I write all of this with optimism and hope because I truly believe that as parents, we need to be healthy life role models for our kids.  The most important lessons we teach them about food and exercise will be those that they observe of us rather than receive in the form of nagging and lectures.  Much of the burden for this role modeling has historically fallen on the shoulders of moms.  I believe that dads need to step up just as much.  If we as fathers cannot be bothered to seek a healthier life, then why should we ever expect our kids to do so?

In my ideal world, my kids will see me as a father who works for a decent organization that's trying to make the world better by helping people become better themselves.  They will see me as a person who strives to be healthy in both his relationship with food and his commitment to activity.  If so, I can think of no better reason for me to enter the new week with refreshed resolve to stick to the healthier path.



Sunday, November 20, 2011

My mother had my back

In the backdrop of all of the discussion about the rising obesity rates is the recognition that the environment around us has changed fairly radically since the 1970s.  There has been a lot of research and analysis over the past number of years to better understand why we have suddenly become so much heavier.  Why is it that obesity rates in the 1970's were about 15% of adult Americans while today they are over 30%?  Is it our increasingly sedentary lifestyle?  Is it the food supply?  Is it both?

In an interesting bit of research from the Lancet (The Lancet, Volume 378, Issue 9793, Pages 804 - 814, 27 August 2011) in their obesity special this past summer, a team of researchers performed analysis that looked at trends over the past 100 years, considering both our relative activity and food consumption as a society.  They suggested that obesity rates stayed in check from the period of 1910 to 1970 despite the fact that our society was becoming more mechanized and motorized (i.e., more sedentary).  Their theory was based on the observation that amount of food that was available during this time actually decreased somewhat.  During this time, Americans started eating less wheat due to there being fewer manual labor jobs, and foods with lots of added sugars and fats had not yet begun to proliferate.  Starting in the 1970's, the food supply in American began to swell with the introduction of new food items in the grocery store resulting in a commensurate increase in food consumption and ultimately obesity.  Below is a chart that makes their point...

To put a finer point on it, the amount of food available in the American supply chain has increased by the equivalent of 600 calories per day since the early 1970's (source:  CNPP Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010).  To be sure, it is not the case that we have dutifully eaten all of these extra 600 calories per day as some of that food goes to waste and other ends.  However, other research does suggest that actual energy intake is up roughly 200 calories per day for the average adult American.  It doesn't seem like much, but those extra 200 calories per day are the difference that can create an obesity epidemic.

Smart people can have smart debates about the causal factors of the obesity epidemic today, but my own personal experience leads me to believe the authors of this Lancet study.  I would certainly suggest that all useful knowledge of the universe can be properly derived from my own personal sample size of one, so please allow me to further enlighten the discussion.

It all comes back to my mom.

When I think back about my own weight progression, it comes in three fairly distinct phases:

  1. Being held prisoner in my home (age 0 to high school graduation)
  2. Getting a sailor's shore leave in the brothel of endless food (ages 18 to 34)
  3. Getting a grip (ages 35 to date with periodic shore leaves interspersed)  
In phase 1, I was disturbingly skinny.  At one point I was 6'3", but I only weighed 170 pounds.  That's a BMI of 21.  For my frame size, that was incredibly thin, bordering on entirely too gaunt.  I then promptly gained 40 pounds my freshman year of college, and I then ultimately went on to pick up another 30 lbs in the years that followed.  

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what got me heavy, but I haven't spent so much time thinking about what kept me so skinny in those early years.  Certainly some of it was the fact that I was growing and had a still fast metabolism -- one that I would gladly sign a multi-year deal with the devil to get back.  However, I think it has had much more to do with the way that I was fed during all those years, and in the environment of my house.  

I had the food fortune of growing up in a non-obesogenic environment.  I didn't binge eat or graze much as there was no suitable food stuffs to fulfill the ecstasy.  To give a better sense of what this meant, I have tried to reconstruct a typical meal plan was I was growing up:
  • Breakfast:  cereal and skim milk (reconstituted powdered skim milk at that)
  • Lunch:  cheese & mustard sandwich, banana, and 6 ounces of chocolate milk.  No extra treat.
  • Dinner:  normal portions of whatever my mom cooked that night served on a plate that would seem laughably small by today's standards
What about dessert?  I got it once per week.  Even then it was usually low-fat ice cream (then known as ice milk) served with a single 12 ounce soda.

What about restaurants?  We went to McDonald's about 4-6 times per year, and every single time as a spectacular, glorious event.  I was also taken to a nice restaurant on my birthday (kind of a family tradition), and every once and a while we would get chinese food or have pizza.  We loved restaurants, but frankly my parents couldn't afford to take all four kids to them too often on the salary of a hard working government scientist.  

What about the great big drawer in the kitchen filled with all manner of chips, crackers and cookies?  It literally did not exist in my house.  Sneaking in my house was about as fun as sneaking in a Siberian gulag commissary.  Short of thawing frozen meat and preparing it, there just weren't a lot of options.  

As a result, I just didn't have a lot of options to make spectacularly bad food decisions.  The available calories per capita member of my family in my house was roughly on par with that of the Great Depression.  I never had to deal with temptation, because it simply did not exist in any meaningful way.  

So what did I do about food as a young lad?  Simple.  I ate at meal times, consuming normal and healthy portions of food.  I didn't snack much between meals, and eating out was a special occasion, not a four times per week ritual.  Hence, I stayed really skinny without much deviance in weight until I left my perfectly controlled anti-obesogenic environment and landed in the free-for-all known as college.  

I think about this because I find it to be a useful way of reframing the manner in which I manage my eating and my health.  I can focus my energy on developing mental muscle power to withstand the attack of my food-dense environment, or I can focus my energy trying to re-engineer my environment so I won't be so constantly tested.  I can't always fully control my environment unless I'm willing to never leave my house, which feels like a bad career and social decision.  Therefore, it is still useful to learn ways to master temptation when it comes.  That said, I can certainly help my plight greatly if I do seek to control that in my environment which is controllable.  

It's simple:  if there is little temptation, that is little to tempt.  I guess my mom had it right all along.  



Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bad habit intervention week

So much progress, yet sometimes it feels that I’ve made so little.

In so many parts of my life, I have been able to incorporate healthy habits that I can almost take for granted.  Eating a healthy breakfast, not eating a foot long sub for lunch, exercising like an Upper East Side socialite are just a few examples.  So it can be all the most disheartening when I find myself struggling with the same set of vices.  A few of my big ones:

  1. Going on steady-state feed mode throughout the afternoon on weekends
  2. Saying “yes” to everything served on an airplane
  3. Getting overly ambitious with appetizers at social events
  4. The biggest of them all:  mindlessly eating after dinner

If I think about all of the caloric damage of the above four, number 4 is clearly my Waterloo.  This not very good habit manifests itself in a few ways, but the timing is always the same:  after dinner.  Some examples:

  • Assaulting the bags of nuts in the kitchen cabinet.  For a while, we had a Costco container of cashews sitting openly on display.  BADDDDD!  
  • Having two Weight Watchers ice cream treats in a sitting.  
  • Quietly knocking back seemingly innocuous slices of cheese
  • Eating a handful of cereal straight from the box
  • Hotel mini-bar excursions

We all have bad habits to lick.
I really wish I could send my dog
to this school for hers...
There are few of these that don’t come with a 4-8 PointsPlus sentence in the penalty box.  However, what makes me particularly crazy about these is that I always feel badly about myself afterwards.

It’s the latter point that I’m particularly interested in.  Why do I beat myself up when I fall victim?  I suspect it is most because it just seems so dumb.  I’m not really hungry when I do these little raids.  I cannot say it’s completely mindless because I am at least somewhat aware that I’m doing it.  The fact of the matter is that it seems mostly like a compulsion.  I’m so used to doing it that I think that I have to do it.  I find myself looking at my dinner and thinking that it couldn’t possibly be enough food to hold me over until morning.  Yet, I intellectually know this not to be true.

For myself, I have always found it easier to DO something healthy than to STOP from doing something unhealthy.  I was born with too much nervous energy, and I have a hard time stopping inertia and momentum.  Eating a healthier breakfast was only a function of replacing unhealthy foods with healthy foods.  Exercising was a process of finding the time to do something new.  Stopping a bad habit requires a completely different approach.

I was getting pretty frustrated, when I decided to try an experiment last week.  I decided that I wanted to grab one bad habit and see if I could make some progress on addressing it.  I made the conscious decision not to try to address my full laundry list of vices all at once.  This go around, I wanted to have a little bit of focus.

The Plan

My plan was to have a one week challenge for myself in which I wouldn’t eat anything after dinner.  I could have as much dinner as I wanted, but once the plate was done, I was done.  To try to put some teeth into the challenge, I also made the decision to share it publically and report on my progress every day on Twitter.

The Outcome

I did not eat once after dinner for seven days.

What I learned

Making the public challenge announcement with public updates was really helpful.  It was nice to have a consequence that I could fall back on if I was feeling at all like having a minor break down.  Knowing that I would be Tweeting each morning was enough to give me that extra bit of focus and personal accountability by making myself accountable to others.

I also learned that I did not go to sleep hungry once.  I really didn’t need to eat after dinner to feel just fine.  I was particularly proud of the fact that during this week, three of my evenings had me in a hotel room with a minibar topped with a small mountain of highly snackable  treats.  There would have been no witnesses to my crime.

Finally, I learned that I felt really good about myself for having completed the challenge successfully.  I felt much more in control, and I realized that killing this habit was a real possibility.

Going forward

One 1-week challenge does not vanquish a bad habit.  I view this habit as one that I will need to proactively work on for some period of time (and maybe forever).  My thinking is that I might do a “pulse” every few weeks in which I do a one-week challenge.  Over time, I suspect I can get to the point where I start to ritualize the process of not mindlessly snacking after dinner.

My one open question with this is the degree of how far I take it.  The notion of never eating after dinner does not feel even vaguely realistic, so I think it would be a mistake for me to define success as never eating after dinner.  There is nothing wrong with dessert after dinner nor is it a crime against nature to have a piece of candy on Halloween night (I had two).  Therefore, I think I would be well served into defining for myself what is OK and what is not.  I need to think more about this one.

Feel free to jump in with the one habit you’d like to abolish forever.  Maybe we can create a planet-wide movement to kill our one least wanted habit?!



Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tracking: salvation, not purgatory!

I've been doing the Weight Watchers thing for well over a decade now.  In reflection, I sometimes shudder to contemplate how many foods I've tracked.  However, if I think back a little more thoughtfully, I can realize that tracking has played a number of different and important roles for me in my efforts to reform my eating and exercise habits.

Early years (2000 to 2003ish)

What can I say?  I was a nutritional idiot.  I sometimes think back on the shear volume of ignorance I had about food, and it is terrifying to behold.  Examples include:
  • Kung Po Chicken is good for you.  It has chicken.  
  • Big bowls of granola are an awesome way to lose weight.
  • Fettuccine Alfredo is super good for you because it has broccoli.  
  • Salad with a cup of blue cheese dressing is much better than that piece of steak.
  • All wraps from the sandwich store are a great bet because all wraps are definitionally diet-y.  
  • Tuna salad is what you eat when you are being super disciplined.  
Believing these things and following up on them is what I believed would balance out the time when I knew I was gorging (deep dish pizza, omelets the size of a VW, etc.).  

Suffice to say, the day I started tracking POINTS was a giant wall of cold water.  Everything I knew was largely wrong, and every day I tracked was an education.  

Portion size was also a big revelation for me when I started tracking.  The notion that a full entre of Chinese food might be a bit too much for one person in one sitting was also a rude awakening.  

It is impossible for me to express the full degree to which tracking my POINTS was the game changer in the way that I live.  For the first time, I was making food choices with knowledge and discipline.  There is zero doubt in my mind that the exercise of tracking was the biggest reason I started losing weight. 

Final (?!) weight loss:  2007

At this point, I had lost a bunch of weight my first time around, and I was pretty consistently down 20 pounds from my peak of 240+.  However, I was still about 15 pounds from where I really wanted to be.  I started the year with tracker in hand (or on computer to be more specific), and I kind of waged war.  I once and for all re-did my breakfast and lunch routines with full knowledge of my POINTS each day.  I significantly reduced inter-meal consumption (at least before dinner), and I jacked up my Activity POINTS.  Finally, I reached my goal weight, became Lifetime and entered into maintenance. 

During this time, tracking was the diligent routine that allowed me to make a bunch of these hiugh impact lifestyle changes. 

Maintenance:  2007 to present

OK, it's now been close to 12 years from the first time I started tracking POINTS (now PointsPlus) values.  I will be the first to admit that I do not track on a regular basis.  My tendency is to eat the same things from breakfast and for lunch, and I know what those meals ring up.  I really don't eat during the day (on week days anyway) outside of an apple, a fat-free Greek yogurt or perhaps a Weight Watchers mini-bar.  My days are largely controlled, and at this point, tracking won't add much to the equation. 

This begs the question for grizzled veterans like myself:  is there any need or point to tracking anymore?  The answer is yes, and I just need to embrace it, but in a very specific way.  Here is how I'm now thinking about my tracking applications:
  1. Course correction:  sometimes after multiple weeks of travel, excessive socializing, etc., I can feel my better lifestyle start to slip away.  Intuitively, I know that if I ignore that this is happening then I will definitely start adding weight.  I now know myself well enough to know when this is slipping effect is starting to happen.  During these times, I can/will pull out my iPhone and start tracking away.  It gets my head back into the game, and it refocuses me on applying reasonable restraint.  
  2. Will power:  I have a basket of Weight Watchers mini-bars that sits outside my office.  They are largely for visitors and to encourage colleagues who might otherwise be afraid of me to at least walk by my office.  There are times that I look at that basket and seriously consider plowing through 3 to 4 of those little guys.  Mini bars are meant to be eaten one at a time and not by the bag full.  It is amazing to me how much my Tracker protects me from this temptation.  If I know that I will need to track the PointsPlus values of these little 4 second snacks, I will almost always divert myself to my refrigerator where I keep a collection of apples.  In this context, my tracker is kind of like my home security system.  
  3. Attacking persistent weaknesses:  I am the first to admit that I am a million miles from perfect on the program.  I can go pretty far off the reservation on weekends, particularly when it comes to grazing.  I still struggle with mindless munching, bordering on binging, after dinner, both home and away.  I also know that if I ever want to address these weak spots, I need a tool to help me get there.  In this context, I have recently been thinking about focusing my tracking on weekend days and post-dinner.  Per #2 above, I know that if I make myself track it, I will be much less likely to mindlessly munch.  If I can keep this going for a long enough period of time, then I have a real shot at establishing some healthier habits.  

Friend or foe?  I say definitely a good buddy.
There are two ways I can look at tracking:
  1. A tool for servitude (i.e., the wrong way):  This is when I look at tracking as a sentence of misery.  If tracking is something I have to do to its own end, it can be a pretty depressing thing to think about.  "Mr. Kirchhoff, the court has sentenced you to a lifetime of tracking with no hope of parole."  Looked at it this way, tracking is little more than a basic diet.  Who wants that?
  2. A really awesome tool to help me achieve something bigger (the right way):  When I think of tracking this way, it's very much like my iPhone or iPad.  They are super cool gadgets that let me do more stuff with more success and more ease.  I think of my tracker as my tool to help me achieve the changes in my life to which I aspire.  I really want to stop this post-dinner grazing thing once and for all.  My tracker can be an invaluable tool to help me get there.  The point is not the act of tracking by itself.  The point is achieving a higher level of personal performance and establishing better and healthier habits.  The tracker is simply the tool that makes me much more likely to get there.  
 In summary, tracking isn't really something to graduate from.  It really just a really great tool that I can use in different ways depending on where I am at the time.  When I look at it this way, it's my friend not my master. 

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it!



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Will the real Dave please stand up?

I haven’t been posting as frequently recently, through a combination of being overly busy and because I have been noodling on a new territory of self-scrutiny.  Get ready of a long, circuitous and somewhat odd post.

Still reading?

One of the aspects of maintenance that I struggle the most with is the following thought in the recesses of my mind:  that any day I will receive the following notice:

Dear Mr. Kirchhoff, 
We have reviewed our records, and it has come to our attention that your visa in our beautiful country has expired.  You are now in violation of our laws, and we are beginning steps to have you immediately deported. 
Thanks for visiting us. 
The citizens of Thin-landia.  

That’s right.  I am afraid that I will be discovered as an intruder and not a native citizen of the land of naturally thin people.  Now they want to send me back to where I came from, Heavyopolis.

Who Am I?

It’s strange how we rigidly define ourselves based on how we once were, particularly when it comes to body image.  It makes us second-guess ourselves, and it convinces us that we are ultimately doomed to trudge through life as the never-changing version of our former self.  It is though we see ourselves as being rubber band people who will inevitably snap back to what ever form we previously occupied.  While there are some arguments that are made on a biological underpinning of some of this, I also wonder how much of this elastic effect is in my head.  Like a lot people, I have a tendency to see myself a certain way, and I assume that image of myself must represent some inherent truth.

Over the past couple of years, I have taken an interest in studying up on Buddhist philosophy and it’s intersection with psychology.  Light reading, right?   Given their history of spending the last 3,000 years pondering and analyzing why people think what we think, I find the Buddhist perspective to be a fascinating one.  One concept I have been particularly intrigued by has been “reification”.

What is the definition of reification?  From Wikipedia:

Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.[1] In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea.


Here is my take on the concept as it applies to how I (and possibly others) think.  There is a natural tendency to construct an image of oneself, like a giant statue carved of stone, based on who I think I am.  I let others weigh in on the statue design by allowing them assign labels and identifiers that I gladly incorporate along with my own labels and identifiers.  I continue to develop this statue in my mind as an identity that must have some undeniable truth.  I convince myself that there is a “self” that is permanent and concrete and that any deviance from it is bound to crumble.   From what I understand, Carl Jung referred to this as the “shadow self”, a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts (again, thank you Wikipedia).

Buddhists would tell us two things:  1) this so-called self is not really real and that it is full of distorted thinking and self-misconceptions and 2) the process of then clinging to it ultimately makes us miserable.  They then go into their fundamental belief that there is no “self” and that we are all inter-connected beings struggling with the same basic stresses and sufferings.  People and things all change, and clinging to something or some self-image as permanent is fraught with frustration.  Their point is to suggest that the only path to happiness is to have compassion for our fellow planet-mate and to let go of our notion of this fake self.

At this point, it would be totally fair for you to say some combination of the following:  1) “Dave, thanks for your attempt to compress an incredibly intricate philosophical framework in a paragraph, and doing it in an only marginally accurate way.”  2) “Dave, this makes my head hurt”, 3) “Dave, you are a strange man.  BTW, can I borrow some Patchouli oil?”  or finally 4) “Dave, what does this have to do with your weight?”

My social and professional self-portrait gallery

As I wallow in self-examination, I realize that over my life I have periodically constructed identities/portraits of myself and that I have assumed to be true and set in stone…

  • When I was very young:  “I am not a smart person.”  I am slightly dyslexic, and I very much struggled throughout much of elementary school.  I assumed that others were much smarter and that my life would be somehow limited.  
  • Middle school:  “I am not a foxy guy.”  What can I say?  I was really tall and really skinny, and I had a face that looked like a pepper spray assault.  I didn’t help that I wore fashion-backward Toughskin jeans from Sears, and that I only had one eyebrow.  I was cute girl anti-matter.  I did receive a consolation prize:  I somehow found a way to manage through my dyslexia, and I started getting good grades.  
  • College:  “I’m a slacker.”  My skin had long since cleared up, and I gained enough body mass to no longer be a flight risk in a stiff breeze.  I also learned how to make one eyebrow turn into two.  Enjoying my new found status as a normal and socially activated person, I settled in for the identity of town idiot.  It was hard to find me without a beer in my hand, and I was not a model student.  I kind of assumed that I would ultimately end up being a fun guy with an uninteresting career.  
  • Work:  “I’m a hard worker, running from my past.”  I eventually got a little fed up with playing a supporting role in a college hijinks movie, and I found my work ethic again.  I worked my rear off in graduate school, and I somehow finagled my way into a job at a fancy consulting firm.  I have always thought it completely ridiculous that they took me in, so I worked my tail off there too.  Interestingly, my general feeling of being an unworthy imposter has been a useful source of fuel in my professional development.  Now, I am the CEO of a public company, and let me assure you, I wait everyday for the imposter police to storm into my office and shoo me back from whence I came.  All I can do to avert it is to work hard and do the best that I can to serve my company, the people that work for there and the members and mission that it serves.  

As I look back, my education and professional development has been impacted by seeing myself in a particular way and assuming that however I developed would be temporary because I was deviating from some “true self”.  I have continued to assume that the citizens of the country of Successville will ultimately cast me off their island because I wasn’t born there.

My weight and body image self-portrait gallery

My weight and body image have interesting parallels to my professional development.  My body can be comprised of three phases of identity:

  • Emaciated man:  this was the period of age 4 to 17 in which I was disturbingly thin.  Ribs could be counted and weight could not be gained.  Ichabod Crane was I.  
  • Big man:  this is the period of age 21 to age 34 in which I gained roughly 70 pounds at peak from where I was at age 17.  I became a big guy who was doomed to clean his plate of giant food as well as whatever was left on his neighbor’s plate (even if those leftovers were at a different table in the restaurant).  
  • Temporarily fit man:  this is age 35 to present.  This is the period in which I have been nursing my weight loss, becoming a pretty diligent exercise person as well as a reasonably careful eater.  I say “temporary” because I think I still assume that I am “big man” underneath this temporary state.  I assume that it is in my nature to eat compulsively because that is “who I am”.  

So here is my point.  There is no firmly defined “me”.  I am a collection of choices that I make each day, and I am constantly evolving, growing and changing.  I am not bound by who I was when I was age 7, 17, 21, or 34.  I am not bound by who I am today.  I can make choices each day that are wholly divorced from choices I made 10, 15 or 20 years ago.  I can either be unbound with a world full of possibilities and growth or I can calcify.

I am fortunate to live in a country of immigrants.  We all came from some place else, even the Pilgrims.  Our future can be defined only by the choices we make going forward.

Therefore, in response to the citizens of Thinlandia, I think I might stick around a while.   I have extended my visa, and I think I’m going to apply for permanent residence.



Saturday, September 24, 2011

Do I commit fruit abuse? I claim complete innocence!

How much fruit can a man eat?

I had a chance to be on FoxBusiness on Friday to talk about obesity and healthcare.  While I was getting miked-up, one of the guys on the Fox crew pulled me aside to share that he was a Weight Watchers member.  As you know from previous posts, I always enjoy the chance to meet fellow-man travelers in the world of Weight Watchers.  We are a brave group of pioneers, and our numbers are rapidly increasing.  This particular guy shared with me that his one concern about the program was that fruit had zero PointsPlus values, and he was nervous about binging and perhaps had done a little of that.

I shared with him the advice I always give when asked about this.  I talked to him about the fact that it is pretty hard to go crazy on fruit.  If you look at it, while fruit does have natural sugars, it is also filled with fiber and water.  As a result, it's naturally filling.  It is also helpful our bodies have a way of reacting to fruit binges through vigorous feedback from our digestive system (enough said).  Finally, I told him that while fruit had a zero PointsPlus value, as do most vegetables, we encourage people not to go crazy on it and treat it as a mindless eating/binge food. The golden rule in weight management is to not suspend reality.  It is, in fact, hard to lose weight while eating 73 apples a day.

It takes a ton of oranges to make much less than a ton of OJ

Just as a fun math check, consider the commercial for Tropicana orange juice.  "16 oranges to make a bottle".  That's 16 oranges for a 59 ounce bottle.  That works about to 2.2 oranges for an 8 ounce glass.  Sit down and feast on 2.2 oranges along with the rest of your breakfast, and tell me if you still feel hungry.

I always come back to the reason why Weight Watchers made the decision to give fruit a zero PointsPlus value.  We are trying to encourage people to make the healthy food choice rather than the processed cookie choice.  The example I often give is this:  the 3 PM snack.

  • Old Points program:  it's 3 PM, I can choose an apple (2 POINTS) or a 100 calorie snack pack of Oreos (also 2 POINTS).  It would not surprise you to discover that many people would say "There is no way on Earth that I'm wasting 2 POINTS on a piece of fruit, give me the cookies or I will bite your arm off."  
  • PointsPlus program:  it's 3 PM, I can choose an apple (0 PointsPlus value) or a 100 calorie snack pack of Oreos (now 3 PointsPlus value).  All of the sudden that apple is looking pretty good.  It's also healthy and filling.  Good bargain, good satisfaction and good health.  That's a nice hat trick.  
Feeling very self-proud of myself for espousing the righteousness of our approach to fruit, I stepped back to ask myself the question:  am I a fruit binger?  

I've been on Weight Watchers since I joined the company 11 years ago (I have gray hair now).  Fruit has always been a big part of how I follow the program.  It was always a pretty good deal, and now it's a great deal.  As a result, I have grown to LOVE fruit.  It's almost an unnatural love.  I thrive on apples, and I can even tell the difference between varietals (I'm a particularly big fan of Fuji).  I love all manner of berries.  I like a good banana, as long as it's not brownish.  I have more recently discovered the mango, which pairs nicely with my old friend the pineapple.  If binging starts with love, I am an ideal candidate.  But am I a binger?

So here is my daily fruit round-up:
  • Breakfast:  This is my primary fruit eating meal.  I mix in a banana and a half a cup of blueberries or rasberries into plain oatmeal.  I also mix in about 1 1/2 cups of grapes in with zero fat Greek yogurt.  
  • Lunch:  I might or might not have an apple with my salad.
  • Snack:  I grab an apple, particularly if I didn't have one for lunch.  
  • Dessert:  my most healthy desert is mixing in frozen berries with zero fat Greek yogurt.  I haven't done this in a while, and writing this post is reminding me to consider getting back into that habit (i.e., instead of low fat ice cream).  
Therefore, a typical day for me is about 5 servings of fruit.  Just for fun, I was curious how many calories I was picking up.  Here is the tally:
  • Grapes:  1.5 cups = 90 calories (22 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 1 g protein, and 0 g fat).  Like most fruit, the grape is mostly water and pulp.  
  • Banana:  1 large = 121 calories (32 g carbs, 3.5 g fiber, 1.5 g protein, and 0 g fat).  Bananas are a bit of a watch out food for me because I know I can eat one in about three to four bites.  They go down a little too fast, so I usually only eat them sliced up in my oatmeal.  
  • Blueberries:  1/2 cup = 41 calories (10 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 1 g protein, and 0 g fat).  These guys are a pretty great deal.  Rasberries are an even better deal (32 calories for the same 1/2 cup).  
  • Apple:  1 medium = 95 calories (25 g carbs, 4.4 g fiber, 0.5 g protein, and 0 g fat).  One of the aspects of apples that I find most helpful is the fact that they take a while to eat.  I also find them pretty filling. 
  • My total for the day:  347 calories (89 g carbs, 12 g fiber, 4 g protein, and 0 g fat).  
If I were attempting to lose 1.5 pounds per week, my target calories per day would be slightly north of 1,600 assuming that I was doing zero exercise given my height, age and weight.  This would suggest that my 347 calories in fruit would be about 22% of my total caloric intake, which doesn't feel crazy to me.  In fact, the latest US Dietary Guidelines suggest filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables.  My 22% is right on target.  

Looking at all of the above math makes me feel even better about how well the program works for me.  All of that fruit is an awful lot of food, and it's a big reason why I don't spend my days starving to death.  For the volume of food it represents, the above fruit is a pretty great deal for me  (i.e., calories per bowl of food).  This is true even though I am a pretty big fruit eater.  I'm probably two standard deviations about the population average, but that's a stat I should probably check.  

Moral of the story for me?  It's nice to know that my not particularly planned fruit regimen is very much on target.  It is also a good lesson that zero PointsPlus value fruit does not mean throwing mindfulness out the window.  Tracking can be good even when adding up a bunch of zeros.  



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

True confession time.  I have a love/hate relationship with my body.

I know that I work pretty hard to stay in shape and eat healthily, but the interesting question is "Why?".  Officially, I lift weights because it is a good healthy practice, and muscle burns more calories at rest.  In truth, weight lifting promotes muscle growth, which can look pretty excellent.  Officially, I perform vigorous cardiovascular exercise because strengthens the heart.  Unofficially, I do it because it helps balance out every (or most every) mindless eating indulgence and thereby keep me thin(ish).  So there you have it.  One of the reasons I try to live on the healthy path is so I can, as they say, look good naked.  If I can simultaneously be super healthy with improved prospects for a long life, it's a definite win-win.  Right?

Sometimes when I see my birthday-suit self in the mirror, I'm pretty OK with what I see. Mostly, that's the case when the light is dim, and I haven't eaten in hours.  I also think I look OK when I'm lying on my back -- gravity is amazing at creating a flat stomach.  However, I would say that most of the time when I look at my body, my reaction is either 1) "My body is weird" or 2) "Criminey, I suck".  I see all of my imperfections on display, and I can tell you where every single pocket of fat is not-so-effectively hiding.  In fact, most of the time when I look at a mirror, I'm pretty much only seeing the imperfections.  Throw some grey hair on top of my head, and the guy who's looking back at me from the mirror is some middle-aged guy.  And I don't think I like looking at him very much.

Fortunately, most of these mirror reactions are fairly split second, and they dissipate pretty rapidly.  Also fortunate is the fact that I intellectually recognize that I'm an idiot.  In a rational and self-reflective moment, I realize that I look comparatively just fine, and the degree of scrutiny that I put on myself is unmatched by any other human being in the known universe put on me.  All of the little imperfections that I see go unnoticed either because a) most people could really care less what I look like and b) I wear clothes.  Yet, like so many others, I choose to subject myself to the bright fluorescent naked torture light of doom.

What to do?  The best place to start is a useful scapegoat -- I blame part of my body image problems on people who illustrate comic books and cartoons.  Most human bodies do not look like the ones found on Aquaman, Batman, Superman or any of those other goons from the Hall of Justice.  Perfectly etched abdominals and excellent muscle separation combined with unnatural chest-to-waist ratios don't really exist without the benefit of an airbrush pen.  They certainly are not found on many mid-40's guys, no matter how well-intentioned they are.  Yet, I am convinced that they have somehow become the subconscious norm that have ultimately found their ways to the covers of upstanding periodicals such as Men's Health.  Just like our female friends, we guys are now subject to ridiculous body image comparisons.

The real one may have a gut, but I wouldn't want to try outrunning him...
In truth, most bodies are kind of funny looking.  We humans are a widely varied bunch, and we come in lots of shapes, sizes and body-types.  To put a finer point on it, I was recently thinking about the most manly of all primates, the gorilla.  I did a Google image search of gorilla photos vs. gorilla cartoons.  the results were pretty telling.  One is a so-called idealized image, fully equipped with finely tuned musculature, and the other is a real, living and breathing animal.  The real one, by the way, is in pretty good shape.  Of course gorillas don't sit around cross-legged and look sadly at their protruding bellies.  They are too much alpha members of the jungle for that kind of nonsense.  This is a human failing -- or at least one of mine.

So what to make of this?

  1. It seems that women no longer have the monopoly on applying a harsh self-critique in front of the mirror.  I suspect that many more men than just me indulge in exactly the same nasty exercise.  
  2. I would guess that my tendency to do this can be traced all the way back to my childhood underneath some nasty rock that should never have been kicked over.  Simply telling myself "just don't beat yourself up every time you look in the mirror" is probably not totally practical advice in that I will inevitably still keep doing it.  
  3. I should periodically remind myself that I am, in fact, an idiot, and that I look just fine.  There are terrible things happening all over our planet.  There must be something more constructive for me to worry about.  
  4. Probably none of the guys who wrote all of those old comic books even vaguely resembled the pictures that they drew -- that's why they drew them that way.  
  5. I should give myself a little bit of a break for being prone to superficial impulses.  
  6. While I should work to aspire to letting go of my body image mishigas, I should also recognize that being less obsessed with it is not a great reason to run out and eat a refrigerator full of Chubby Hubby ice cream.  
The part I struggle with more is this:  my desire to look good "bare" is one of the reasons I stay on plan.  Is indulging my vanity and self-image wants an evil that is useful for keeping me healthy?  When I write it out, the answer is clearly (or should be) "no".  The problem is that it's easy to be self-reflective and thoughtful in a blog.  It's hard to do in real life.    

Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it all.  I do that.  



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another summer of depravity survived

I just got back from vacation to a hurricane (actually, not metaphorically).

Vacation was great and totally helpful.  Life is crazy, and sometimes I need to force myself to sit still for a period of time and get needed rest and thinking time.  I find it much easier to think about the long view when I'm not running through the rapid-fire paces of regular life.  

From a health and wellness perspective, here is how the vacation went...
  • Breakfast:  good.  On plan.
  • Exercise:  hit the local gym and got in some good miles on my bike.  I also managed to get in about an hour of walking just about every day.  
  • Lunch:  surprisingly good.  I ate at the house or packed a lunch most days.  I had lots of fruit around, so I never felt the need to pack a bag of chips.  
  • Snacking:  well...  too much dip makes Dave a weak-willed boy.  There was some minor binging here.
  • Dinner:  not terrible.  
  • Dessert:  I was definitely a little weak-willed here as well.  
Interestingly, I kept feeling like I was being terribly gross and slothful.  Yet everything I went back over the day, I realized that I was actually making pretty decent choices.  I find it interesting that when it comes to my own self-appraisal, I'm guilty until proven innocent.  

We got in Friday night to the threat of impending doom in the form of some ill-tempered woman named Irene.  She was a very unpleasant sort, spewing rain, wind and calamity everywhere she went.  She came and went.  My little town in CT was hit fairly hard as was the case with much of my state.  Lots of flooding (I'm on the coast) and seemingly infinite power outages.  More than half of CT was without power by Sunday night, a sad, new record.  Over the weekend's ravages, I found myself performing day-in-and-out of manual labor, slugging around bags of sand, hauling big, dead branches and shifting around lots of outdoor furniture.  [Sadly, I couldn't help but think about all the Activity Points I was picking up.]  We made it through in one piece, un-flooded and still with power (we were among the lucky 30% in our town).  

Now the weather is strangely beautiful and I'm back in the office.  It's fall!  Well, technically, it's still Summer, but it's Fall to me.  I always see this as a great time of year to really get back into a good routine and focus on Program adherence.  Summer always deals a minor weight gain, and this one is no exception.  Getting back on routine is a great way to nip it in the bud.  I'm off to a good start, and I hit the gym Monday and Tuesday morning with a furious vengeance.  I'm also throttling back mindless snacking, which is a feat made easier by being a lot more busy.

Adding more to this post for the first entry yesterday (Tuesday):  I'm now on day three, post vacation and post-hurricane (it's Wednesday).  As noted, I always feel like my vacation/summer time feels a little out-of-control and overly mindless.  I have to say that it really does feel better to be back in the flow of things.  Indulgences are down significantly, exercise is up, and frankly I'm feeling great.  I sometimes forget how good it feels, physically and emotionally, to be fully back on plan.  I'm liking it!  

All-in-all, it's good to be back!

How was your summer?



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ye olde healthy vacation check list

This has not been a pretty summer.  I have been working like a crazy person from the first thaw of Winter's snow.  Tons of travel and lots of work has clearly made Dave a dull boy.  At minimum, it has made staying on program something of a challenge, particularly the travel bit.  This course of events has not been desirable.  I normally count on building up a big reservoir of healthy living chits before I head off toward vacation.  Right now, my healthy bank account is pretty much empty -- though at least I'm not in a debtor position.

I'm REALLY hoping my beach isn't this crowded.
Not a good frolicking scene..
As of Friday morning, I'm on vacation for two weeks.  To be completely clear, this fact is beyond awesome.  I need the rest, and I need to get in a giant heap of quality time with my dear, understanding wife and kids.  Yet, I feel the inevitable ominous feeling of going into wild nutritional waters, replete with fried seafood, ice cream and beer.  I'm also slightly stressed about the fact that I have to get the family car packed and ready to roll early Friday morning.

How should I handle all of the stress, fear, uncertainty and doubt?  Get a plan!

I already started my packing plan by building up an impressive spreadsheet with every item I could possibly need, including lint.  It's a little anally retentive, but I hate that feeling of driving off toward the destination with the nagging feeling that I've forgotten something.  A nice plan and a nicer list is a very nice way of proactively dealing with this.

My approach to my healthy living survival stress for the next two weeks follows the same basic theme:  have a plan.  So here it goes:

Exercise (this one is pretty easy):

  • Find a local gym that will sell me a two week pass.  Done!
  • Bring my bike.  Will be done!  
  • Take advantage of the fact that I naturally wake up at silly hours of the morning and get workout in before family arises.  No problem.  I live my life this way.
  • Put in serious walking time on the beach.  No hardship here.
  • Frolic in the waves with my kids.  Sold.  
Food (more challenging):  
  • Grocery shop as soon as I get to the rental house.  Arm the house with healthy snacks, fruits, etc.
  • Stick to my oatmeal/fruit/Greek yogurt breakfast routine.  
  • Pack lunch from the kitchen (not the sandwich shop) when possible.  Avoid buying big bags of chips.  Getting individual packs instead so I can avoid mindless beach grazing.  
  • For dinners, we are planning on cooking and grilling many of the nights we are there.  That's always a good environment for good choices.  We will also definitely be hitting some dinners out, and that's OK.  My standard guideline for vacations is to loosen up a bit for dinner and not be too obsessive (not easy for me).  
My brain (the most challenging):
  • Challenge my vacation paradigms.  Why shouldn't I imagine vacation as a time in which I don't gain a single pound?  Why does it have to be a binging splurge?  Why should I feel the need to get nervous about the notion that I will somehow turn into a garbage eating beach freak?  
  • My strategy is therefore to take a deep breath and imagine myself sitting on the beach, feeling healthy and balanced not gross and bloated.  Mental rehearsing they call this.  
Of course, there is always the stop-gap measure of taunting a shark and then letting it chase me to squeeze in a few extra Activity Points.  

I may blog from the beach, but not promises!  



Monday, August 1, 2011

Fitness over food. Doing stuff vs. not doing stuff.

New trip, same story (but perhaps a new insight)...

I returned home on Thursday night after a week long trip to China.  2011 has proven to be a tough travel year with (so far) three Asia trips, multiple Europe trips and I don't know-how-many domestic trips under my belt.  I feel like every time I get back from a trip, I say the same thing:  "I was good about exercise, but not always so good about food choices."  How did this trip compare?  Remarkably similar!  It's almost as though there is a pattern at play here!  I'm feeling like quite the detective.

So how did it go?

On the exercise front...

Bless me, I'm disciplined!  I almost wrenched my arm cleanly out of its socket patting myself on the back after all my exercise this past week.  I arrived in China on Monday night after a 15 hour flight.  I somehow managed to get some (maybe four hours) sleep, and I was ready to roll the second the gym opened at 6 AM.  I lifted weights for an hour and then headed over the exercise bike for 30 minutes of additional cardio.  I did the same thing on Wednesday morning.  By Thursday morning, I had already finished my four day weight split for the week, so I was in cardio-only mode.  I cranked in another 45 minutes of reasonably intense action on the bike.  I arrived back home Thursday night, and I was back in the gym again for more cardio on Friday morning.  I even made myself workout again on Sunday even though I was feeling kind of sick.  It was truly a display of sheer willpower.

Or was it?  In truth, I was waking up on my own in China around 3 to 4 AM each day due to heinous internal clock issues.  What else was I going to do at 6 AM?  I had already done a ton of work, email, calls from my room, and I didn't feel like watching yet more CNN.  It was easy to make the decision to jam in a workout because simply stated, that's just what I do these days.  It's pretty automatic.

On the food front...   

Typically spotty food behavior reigned once again.  I tried to be good at the breakfast buffet and choose healthy stuff (on balance, I may have had a bit too much healthy stuff).  I was pretty solid on my choices during the day because I was too busy to be bad.  Dinners degraded a little bit, but I guess they could have been worse.  However, what's up with the Budweiser & Snickers mini-bar routine right before bed time?  Very NASCAR of me.

Some other lucky person's airplane meal.
Is this worthy of Clean Plate club status?
Airplanes are, as always, a completely different and altogether worse story.  The only way to get to Shanghai from JFK non-stop is via China Eastern.  It's a relatively newer airline that was spun off of the Chinese national airline.  I give them credit for flying a fairly new aircraft on their NY route, so the seats aren't bad.  I cannot, however, give them much credit yet for the quality of their cuisine.  The food wasn't still moving when I ate it, but it was several thousand miles away from being haute cuisine.  Yet I ate it all.  Everything.  Every crumb.  Pieces of the serving tray.

Therein lies the story of my life.  Mindless grazing after meals and gorging on aircraft.  How many times have I decried my own inadequacies in these situations with bold promises to fix them?  Right now, my best solution is to never fly again and to eliminate all snack food from existence.  This would obviously be a great plan except for its divergence from reality -- unless I flee society and open up a small shack somewhere in the mountains of Montana.

All of this got me thinking?  Why so good about exercise and yet still so stumped about food?

My latest theory!  I'm wired to do stuff.  I have a hard time not doing stuff.  Huh?  It's easy for me to get a spark of motivation or a whiff of impulse to jump off the couch and go do some exercise.  I've got lots of nervous energy, so this feels like the most natural action in the world.  Exercise and I were made for each other.  True love!

I have a much more complicated relationship with food.  If it is on a well-worn habit tread, like breakfast or lunch, I can nicely make the proactive decision to order up something healthy.  A good breakfast is no longer a decision, it's merely something I do by habit.  However, not snacking requires not doing something.  Not eating wholly unappealing food on an airplane requires saying "no thank you!" and then watching someone else eat it.  It requires not doing something.  As I said, I have a lot of nervous energy, so not doing something does not come naturally.

I guess I am the human embodiment of entropy.  This works well for exercise but not so well for food restraint.

This got me thinking even more.  What if not doing something, like mindless eating, could be reframed into doing something?  How can I make the act of not acting on a food impulse an actual action?  I'm starting to wonder if I should identify these not-so-healthy habits and create some kind of tracking mechanism that allows me to get credit for not falling prey to them.  I'm not sure how this is going to work, but I'm going to give it a try.

Does anyone else relate to this, and if so, what's worked for you?



Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can't fight the burger and fries lust. Better to avoid the fight in the first place.

I continue to be fascinated by my recent readings from behavioral economists (Thaler, Wansink, and Lowenstein) around the topic of the unbeatable force of the environment.  Every time I see myself failing, it is in the context of a lustful bought of food love.  The concept of a "Hot State" (Lowenstein) is something I wrote about a couple of months ago.  In such a state, one finds oneself overtaken by a gripping frenzy in which no food can be saved.  I sometimes mock my dog, Gabby, who goes through a similar process every time she eats.  See my post from April 2009 to watch a music video of her in action:

As I noted then, I'm no better than she is when I find myself in the grip of the food frenzy.  There is no doubt that there are particular trigger foods that bring out the frenzy in a way that makes me feel like I can relate to meth addicts (this simile inspired by one of my fav shows, Breaking Bad, which is back on the air).

Last week, my youngest daughter was in town for a week between sleep-away camp sessions.  We were doting on her with reckless abandon, and we had her in town to see some live music (Gomez).  Her only request pre-entertainment was to go for a proper burger, so we headed off to a place called 5 Napkin Burger, just off of Time Square.  5 Napkin is not a place for PointsPlus lovers.  All burgers clock in at 10 ounces, and something tells me that they are not shy about marbling their meat with fat.  What's a man-on-maintenance to do?  Lighten up, be a good sport, and make my perfect little girl happy on her night out in the town.
The original 5 Napking burger:  not for the faint of heart,
but definitely able to cause the heart to become faint

I put my program-related reservations about restaurant choice to the side, fired up a beer and placed my order.  I tried to tell myself that I wasn't being completely debauched by ordering the "Burger Salad" and the sweet-potato fies.  I knew perfectly well that the dressing on the salad was worth at least as many PointsPlus values as the bun that they replaced.  I also knew that the fried sweet potatoes were not really that much better, if at all, than their yellow Idaho counterparts.  I was happy to bask in my delusions of health and pretend that I was being kind of responsible.

After the meal, I made it a point to think about how my brain felt while I was eating.  The answer was that it was locked in a temporarily state that prevented me from recognizing any external stimuli not emanating from the food in front of me.  Conversation and external noise disappeared from my consciousness.    I felt like a Major League pitcher blocking out distractions while standing on the mound.  My fork, knife and fork did not finish their furious dance until there was not even a tiny scrap of food remaining.  I blew through it just as fast as my dog would blow through a bowl of her food.

I finished my meal with the slightly remorseful feeling of having gone through another food bender.  I was irritated with myself for losing control and not pacing myself.  I was again slightly frustrated that I could not remember to not finish everything in front of me and save a little for the restaurant trash can.  I was bluntly forced to reckon with the fact that I didn't have the will power to master my situation.  I put it all in the back of my mind and went about the rest of the night and had a good time.  However, I wanted to make a note for myself to try to find the object lesson.

So what is the lesson?  The lesson is that yet again, my belief in my willpower is my undoing.  It's hard to fight the hot state.  At least in my case it wasn't a hot state causing me to send an inappropriate text message (is sending a picture of a naked burger -- no bun -- inappropriate?).  Nonetheless, I don't particularly like falling prey to the feeling of being slightly out of control.  

In contrast, I was at a business dinner last week in Minnesota.  I found myself talking quite a bit, as one does at these dinners.  I ordered on-plan food, and I clearly had more on my mind than just eating.  Lo and behold  at the end of dinner I hadn't finished my entre.  My mind never got into food vapor lock.  Same basic environment, but a totally different outcome.

What are the lessons for me?

  1. Be focused on something other than eating.  Examples might include socially-oriented activities such as taking an interest in the people around me.  Engaging in conversation while eating seems to work well rather than pretending the food on my dish is slop in a trough.  
  2. Know that certain foods will always bring out the worst in me.  Saying I'm only going to eat half my fries just doesn't work for me.  Better to not order them in the first place.  
The biggest lesson for me is that the kind of willpower necessary to be healthy is in being willing to plan and create an environment that reduces temptation for falling to food lust.  Better to focus my energies on avoiding hot states than to try to fight them once they set in.  It's kind of like avoiding the riptide instead of trying to swim against it.  



Thursday, July 7, 2011

Courage defined: one man's 300 pound journey

I’m proud of the weight I’ve lost and prouder still that I’ve been able to maintain the loss, particularly over the past three years.  At my heaviest, I weighed about 40 pounds more than I do today, and my official weight loss with Weight Watchers was 32 pounds.  As proud as I am, I have always been in awe of those who have lost multiples of this. 

I remember very clearly in one of my first Weight Watchers meetings in the year 2000 when I first saw a member who had lost over 100 pounds.  Her leader was celebrating her effort, and the support and cheers from her fellow members was an inspiring sight.  I always tell people that this day was the first day in which I truly began to understand the power and mission of the company I had joined.  It was the day I learned that Weight Watchers was unlike any organization I had ever known.  It was the day I heartily drank the Kool-Aid (sugar-free) and become a Weight Watchers zealot. 

I’ve thought a lot about that member for many years.  I have often wondered how I would do if I had that much weight to lose.  I have wondered if I could have summoned the courage to walk into the door of a Weight Watchers meeting and ask for help.  I have wondered whether I would have just given up and accepted life as a morbidly obese person.  How would I have handled things if the goal had seemed so far away? 

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know.  I do know that the strategy for most of the folks who lose a tremendous amount of weight (e.g., 50 pounds or more) is not to focus on a distant goal, but rather to set manageable near-term goals such as 5% or 10 pounds.  The second strategy is to re-frame the weight loss process into one of gradual and small changes, not crash, siege-like dieting. 

The other day, I received an email forwarded by our regional field staff in Indianapolis.  It was a letter from Derrick, a young guy in his 20’s, who had just reached the milestone of losing over 300 pounds.  I was completely blown away by his accomplishment and his courage, and I was also moved about the very real effect that this process had on his life.  Rather than re-telling the story, I will let his words speak for themselves: 
The day I walked into a Weight Watchers meeting, I was trembling with fear. I hadn't been weighed in years. No scale would weigh me. I had absolutely no idea how much I weighed. I stepped up on the scale, only to weigh in at an unfathomable 529 pounds. The meeting leader, Cyndi Portteus, could not have been any more positive. I said to her, "Can I really do this? This seems impossible." She smiled at me, took my arm and said "Derrick! You can do this! I know you can!" And I haven't looked back since.  
 Life was very different back then. At 26 years old, I was on two blood pressure medicines. My doctors were practically begging me to have Bariatric surgery and I slept with a CPAP for severe Sleep Apnea. My seat belt didn't fit me in my car. I couldn't sit in booths in restaurants. Every chair was my enemy. Would I fit? Would it hold me? I couldn't go to concerts or any public event that had stadium seating. It was out of the question. Flying was a dramatic, terrible ordeal.  Everywhere I went, all eyes were on me at all times. I was the biggest person everywhere I went. My back constantly hurt. I was wearing a 6X shirt and size 64 inch pants. And special ordering clothes from a catalog was the norm. Going to the grocery store was a grueling ordeal.
 But that was two years ago. I went down 20 pants sizes. I have lost over 26 inches from my waist alone. I can buy clothes anywhere I go. I have been taken off all my blood pressure medicines and no longer have high blood pressure. My blood work is stellar. After a sleep study last year, I have absolutely no symptoms of Sleep Apnea and no longer sleep with a CPAP. I can fit in any booth, seat or chair. I have participated in eight 5K's with 3 more scheduled this year. I have even dropped a shoe size! 
 My entire life has changed, and changed dramatically. Weight Watchers saved my life. Presently, I am only 1 pound away from losing 300 pounds and am inching closer and closer to Goal. I can see Goal and Lifetime, and it's only a short distance away. I finally see it can be done! At the time that my doctors were telling me what a perfect candidate I would be for Weight Loss Surgery, I knew that would never be for me. I knew if I was going to do this, I was going to do it. I knew Weight Watchers worked.

[Note:  as of this blog posting, Derrick informed me that he had reached a total loss of 302 pounds.]

I can never know the kind of courage that Derrick had to summon to walk into that door.  I can never know the kind of perseverance and determination that it took for him to see through a 300 pound loss.  I can, however, acknowledge and celebrate his success and enthusiastically tip my hat to him.  I can also acknowledge and thank our local staff, particularly Derrick’s Leader, Cyndi, who supported him through his journey.  Most of all, I can thank Derrick for reminding me, once again, why I love working for Weight Watchers. 

Derrick’s success is entirely his own.  I’m just glad we were able to help. 

As I write this blog entry, I’m sitting in a Frankfurt hotel room early in the morning.  I’ve been blitzing through Europe for the past three days, and it’s been a great trip.  My eating habits have been a C+ effort, but I’m trying to compensate by keeping my exercise pace up.  After I make this post, I will dutifully put on a pot of coffee and head over to the gym next door.  I will do my best to keep it sane today and the flight home.  I will also take comfort in the fact that I’m back on my home routine for a couple of weeks.  This process always has its great weeks and not so great weeks.  If one many can lose 300 pounds, then another can keep focused while on maintenance.  Derrick’s story reminds me that healthy life is a process, not a sprint.  His story also reminds me that the benefits are worth the effort. 

Thanks Derrick!



Thursday, June 23, 2011

How much I weigh and other scary secrets...

The other day, I got a follow-up email request from a reporter writing an article about Weight Watchers.  He casually requested if I could provide him with my height, weight and BMI.  Apparently, he had read on my blog that I had gained six pounds about a month ago, and this got him curious about how much I actually weighed.  How did I react to his email?  Frankly, it kind of freaked me out.

Perhaps a little more context is in order.  The reporter is a guy who is working on a long lead piece, and I had already spent a bunch of time with him.  He's a very nice, interesting and curious guy, and I certainly didn't think he intended to do me any horrific harm when I got his request.  I think he was understandably perplexed when I told him that I didn't want to send the information via email, but preferred to share it via the phone.  As he said, it wasn't as though he was asking for my social security number.

Upon reflection, I was, in fact, being a little bit weird.  The fact of the matter is that although I'm at my goal weight, I'm still self-conscious about writing my weight down.  This got me to wondering why I am so uncomfortable with this?  Prevailing wisdom suggests that men are very comfortable talking about how many pounds they weigh.  Or are they?...

So for those curious about how much I weigh, here it goes (deep breath...):
  • I'm 6'3"
  • When I got weighed last week, I was 204 lbs, one pound over my goal weight of 203 lbs (this is with clothing -- in fact, I was wearing chain mail armor)
  • This puts me at a BMI of 25.5
[BTW, I made reference to a six pound gain in a blog post about a month ago.  I am happy to report that five of those pounds have been vanquished.  Yeah me!  It's also worth noting that at my heaviest, I was 244 pounds.  Double-yeah me!]
Though I'm down 5 lbs, I would guess that I still weigh more than the witch and the duck.  That doesn't make me a warlock, so put your pitchforks away.

One reason I'm self-conscious about my weight is that I am 0.5 above the clinical definition of the lower end of the overweight BMI range of 25 to 29.9 (obese is 30+ -- I was in that range at one point).  For me to be at a BMI of 24.9, I need to get down to about 199.  So how is it that my officially sanctioned Weight Watchers goal weight ended up four pounds above this?

When it came time to setting my goal weight, I first had a conversation with my leader, Liz, and I expressed that 199 felt way too skinny for me to sustainably maintain.  In fact, I've been at 199, and that's the weight where people start telling me that I look a little gaunt -- I finally learned to stop taking that as a compliment.  Liz suggested that I talk to a qualified healthcare professional to determine a truly healthy weight for me.  So I made an appointment with the Chief Scientific Officer of Weight Watchers (What can I say?  It's a perk of the job.)  She checked a couple of extra facts about me when helping me find my goal weight, including:
  • My waist size, which is 34", well under the target of 38"
  • My body-fat percentage as measured by a commercial grade impedance device.  I came in at 16% body fat.  I tested it again last week and I was at 17%.  According to the American Council on Exercise, 14% to 17% qualifies as "fitness" and 18% to 25% qualifies as "acceptable".  I usually bounce around from 15% to 17%.  
Based on all of this, she felt comfortable that my goal of 203 was definitely at a healthy weight, so I was able to get a waiver on the BMI 25 so that I could qualify for Lifetime Membership.  

Not to sound like too much of a cliche-ridden man, but I do lift weights pretty frequently (4X per week), so I have built up some muscle mass (which is totally apparent when I squint into the mirror).  Further, I'm convinced that I come from farming stock -- I'm pretty large framed.  OK, maybe I am a cliche-ridden man.    

In truth, there is no perfect measure of healthy weight, and this subject is not without controversy.  Weight Watchers regularly scours the research, and despite any imperfections, BMI is still the most easily used and maintained measure that is highly predictive of health risk factors.  However, because BMI is not perfect, Weight Watchers allows its members to get written permission from their doctors to qualify for Lifetime Membership as long as their BMI is below 27.  I'm one of them.  

There.  I have now broadcasted my weight, and it's out there in the world.  Even writing this in my blog entry gives me a vague feeling of uneasiness.  Why?
  1. I have never had any problem talking about my weight loss (30 pounds), but I have never been as comfortable talking about my absolute weight.  Most people guess that I weigh less than I actually do (I think that's a good thing), a fact that makes me feel all the more self-conscious about the actual number.  I do understand that I am overly obsessing about a number, and too often ignoring observations such as my skinnier, post-weight loss clothing still fitting and that I am looking vaguely the way I should look.  More importantly, I am still living very much of a healthy lifestyle, so that is clearly the most important consideration.  Yet, I still worry about that little number.  What can I say?  I have an in-grained need to keep score on myself.  
  2. I feel accountable to the people I work with, particularly given my role in the organization, to be the walking, breathing example of Weight Watchers.  I am happy to be at my weight for myself, but I feel obligated to make sure I stay there for others.  I'm not sure this is an entirely bad thing.  Feeling a sense of accountability for our health for others can be a useful and effective motivator (at least for me).  It is certainly a good will gesture for my family, who would like to see me around for a long time.  I also believe that the success of each of us can help motivate others to do the same.  It has often been written that obesity is contagious:  if all of your friends are over-weight, you are statistically more likely to be overweight yourself.  I'd like to think that the opposite is also true.   
    This is one of those blog posts that I write knowing that it can be kind of a touchy subject for a lot of people.  It certain has been for me writing it.  Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it all.  I do that.