Sunday, January 30, 2011

Learning to master the mysterious Chinese food wheel. Field report from Shanghai...

One of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to attend lots of Weight Watchers where I don't even understand the language.  Given my lack of language skills (typical American, I'm afraid), one might find it strange that I am often asked by my local co-workers, "What did you think of the leader?"  Interestingly, you can tell a lot about a Weight Watchers meeting by just watching people's faces, listening to their laughter and observing a free wheeling discussion.  I am always amazed by how much Weight Watchers meetings are alike from country-to-country around the world.  Members are members and Leaders are Leaders.

There are huge cultural differences across countries, yet I would observe that people fundamentally are more alike than different in their needs, wants, hope and dreams as they relate to weight management.  They may eat different foods in a different way, but their fundamental approach to adopting a healthy lifestyle is remarkably similar.  We all eat for emotional reasons, we all graze, and we all struggle to make healthy choices in an increasingly unforgiving food and activity environment.

This was all on display during my trip last week to visit our new office in Shanghai.  It was the second time I had been in the past few months.  As always, jet lag in China can be brutal (I averaged about 4 hours of fitful sleep each night), but it is always an energizing experience to be there.

Jacki's meeting in SuperBrand Center in Pudong
I had a chance to get to a meeting my first night at one of our local centers.  Sitting in that meeting, I was observing what was unmistakably a bonafide Weight Watchers meeting.  The rhythms and emotions of the meeting were identical to what I have seen in so many meetings around the world.  The Leader (Jacki) was an absolute star, and her members were clearly energized by her.  It was also a thrill to see a member achieve Lifetime membership in the very meeting I attended.  Just like they do it in NY!

Yet, following the Weight Watchers program in China is a very different and somewhat more challenging (at least initially) experience.  First off, China's nutritional labeling requirements are pretty sparse, so it is not easy to find out what is in the food on grocery store shelves.  Second, Chinese in the big urban cities tend to eat out very frequently, often one of the most challenging places to make well-informed choices.  Just to keep things interesting, the Chinese often partake of family-style eating with a spinning wheel in which new dishes are periodically dropped into the mix.

In this context, try to imagine keeping track of your Points!  A spoonful of this and a spoonful of that.  These aren't foods that show up on the website of a fast food chain, perfectly portioned and precisely measured for calories, fat and fiber (let alone protein, carbs, fat and fiber).  Yet, despite all of this, we have scores of members who are in fact learning how to use Points to manage their lifestyle and as their tool of choice in learning healthier habits.

How could this be?  For starters, the local Weight Watchers team undertook the painstaking process to build a 20,000 food database, the majority of which are a wide variety of restaurant dishes.  They worked with local chefs to make many of them and then measure it's nutritional content.  China has eight distinct regional cuisines with multiple sub-cuisines including the big eight:  Shandong, Sichuan, Yue, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, and Zhejiang.  Our team has developed dishes covering all of them.

The wheel of mystery!  Chinese family style
So, if you are a member in China, the data is there.  What about portion sizes?  The Chinese tend to be quite a bit less precise in how they serve and portion their food.  It tends to be a spoon here and a spoon there.  This is particularly true in family style.  Therefore, our Chinese members learn to estimate by keeping track of spoonfuls and by grouping (e.g., four vegetable dishes, three meats, etc.) to make the process more intuitive and manageable.  This is much of what they learn in their Weight Watchers meetings, and these are the tips they share with each other.

I had my own family style experience last Wednesday night when I had dinner with the local team.  Sure enough, there was a parade of dishes, few of which I recognized, making their way through the table.  My Chinese colleagues talked me through how to keep score, and even my easily distracted brain was able to roughly keep track.  What could have been a very intimidating experience for someone on program was actually very manageable.

I came away from the trip with a couple of themes floating through my head:

  1. The greatest value of tracking PointsPlus values is in the mindfulness, not necessarily the precision.  For me, 75% of the battle in tracking is simply doing it.  The process alone is enough to make me aware of how much I'm eating and what I'm eating.  Whether the final tally is 11 vs. 13 PointsPlus values is frankly going to have less impact on my long term success on the plan.  The Chinese use estimation all the time, and our members there are having weight loss success very similar to what we see in other countries.  
  2. If you are in an environment where you are eating new and different foods all the time, you learn to loosen up.  It's been periodically very easy for me to fall into a rut of eating the same meals over and over because it is a safe and easy practice.  Yet, the work that is actually required to introduce new dishes onto my menu is not nearly as onerous as it seems at first blush.  I really should mix it up more.  If I can stay OP in family style meals 8,000 miles away, I can certainly try a new lunch order.  Variety keeps it all interesting.  

Should you find yourself wandering in Shanghai in need of a meetings fix, check out the website ( and stop by.  You're always welcome no matter what country you're in.



Sunday, January 23, 2011

How I got heavy. My eyes deceived me.

Picking up where I left off last week (i.e., placing the blame for all my food issues on my dear sweet mom), I was thinking about how I went from being terribly skinny to quite stout.  As I have mentioned on my prior posts, by senior year in high school I was 6'3" but only about 170 pounds.  Skinny.  Very skinny.  By the end of freshman year in college, I was clocking in at around 210 pounds.  Not a bad weight for me, but it was indeed a 40 pound gain.

To what do I attribute this impressive weight achievement?  Change of metabolism?  I sincerely doubt that anyone's body chemistry can change that quickly in 12 months (of course, did not stop me from proclaiming it was a change of metabolism).  So what did it?  Beer?  I'm sure this didn't help.  However, I suspect most of it came from a very simple change:  unbridled food consumption.  Not a very complicated explanation.

In college, I finally found full access to the food outlet that I cherished the most:  the cafeteria.  Here's the deal with the younger version of me and cafeterias.  I LOVED THEM!  Some people might find the thought of warmed-over food left too long under heating lamps served with giant ladles icky.  Not me.

I can still remember the first time I ever went to a Smorgasbord-themed restaurant when I was about 14.  For the kid who felt deprived of bad food, this was a revelation.  You could eat as much rubbish as you could possibly jam into your gullet.  Seeing an infinite selection of deserts was beyond my comprehension.  The visual impact of the whole thing was dizzying for poor little deprived me.

As a side note, how is it that the country that exported the Smogasbord, Sweden, has much less of an obesity issue?  Maybe it's because they only eat there on special occasions.  Interesting!

Smorgasbord/cafeteria style all-you-can-eat (AYCE) was not an issue from a weight/nutrition point of view when I was still at home because my interaction with these kinds of places was pretty infrequent.  Then college happend.  I spent my freshman year eating in AYCE cafeterias every single day of the year.  I think back now to the amount of food I ate at a single sitting, and it's frankly disturbing.  I clearly remember eating gigantic salads heaped with egg fragments (the awesome reconstituted kind), bacon-like substances, blue cheese and at least a cup of blue cheese dressing on top.  And then I had a burger and fries.  And then I had desert.  I must have been plowing through at least 80 to 100 PointsPlus values a day.  The fact that I didn't end freshman year at 300 pounds was a miracle that I can only attribute to still having a rabbit-like metabolism.

I kept my love of the megadeath buffet for many years.  I was always a fan of the huge Sunday brunch spreads at hotels.  I cannot remember ever going to one where I didn't have seconds or thirds.

So what was it about these roman food orgies that I found so appealing?  I have a theory.  Over the past five or six years, I still have had occasion to indulge a Sunday brunch binge.  Every time I would look at the huge desert spreads, my heart would begin to pound.  Yet, every time I eat what looks like the best looking piece of pie ever, it never failed to let me down.

There you have it.  Buffets look awesome, but the food itself rarely delivers.  My theory is that my love of buffets comes down solely to visual impact.  There seems to be some sort of link between my optic nerve and the part of my brain that makes me act like wild animal shoving its snout directly into the food platters.  Yes, I'm one of those horrible people that will eat food directly from the platter because my table is entirely too far away for me to wait.

In contrast, reading a menu has a totally different effect on me.  I cannot actually see the food, so I tend to make much saner choices.

For the most part, I have now trained my brain to recognize that huge displays of shiny food will rarely deliver the joy I think they will.  Therefore, I am much better at navigating buffets and making good choices.  That's good as I'm going to be in a hotel for most of next week.  Maybe I should wear a blindfold.



Monday, January 17, 2011

A man and his messed up relationship with food. Oliver Twist gets a paycheck and look what happens!

So from where did my sometimes uncontrollable food lust originate?  Call me strange (you wouldn't be the first), but I find self-examination fascinating.  I consider myself kind of a freak at heart, so I find the process of understanding the origins of my freakishness to be an incredibly interesting exercise.  This is the case for numerous aspects of my life, but it is very much true for my relationship with food.

Time to break out my armchair Dr. Freud and get into some deep exploration.  Why do I have strong impulses to overeat when I'm around food?

Well, it couldn't possibly be me.  There must be someone I can blame.  There must be some despotic figure who waged a campaign early in my life to create my unnatural tendencies to binge on food.  I know!  It's my mom!

Just like Coke!!!!
Lest you think I'm an awful person, I think the world of my mother.  She didn't have much to work with when it came to me, and I think I turned out pretty OK.  She did a great job raising me, and she has been an excellent role model for parenting.  Yet, it is impossible to parent without inflicting at least two or three unforeseen consequences on your offspring.  As a parent myself, I often wonder about the myriad of ways I am unknowingly messing up my kids.  So I feel a little bad for publicly teasing my loving mom, but I really can't help it.  Some stories just need to be told.

The most important bit of context about my mom is that she is incredibly frugal.  She had to be.  My dad spent his entire career as a basic research chemist working for the US government (NBS/NIST and DOE for those curious), so we lived on a middle class government salary (contrary to anything you might have heard on Fox News, this is not the way to become a millionaire).  She was taking care of two kids while my dad was getting his PhD, with literally less than two cents to scrape together.  Ultimately, she was taking care of four kids.  My parents put all four kids through college, including their ungrateful third child (me) into an over-priced institution in Durham, NC.  She worked full time as a typist, earning practically no money so they could cover tuition.  It is also worth noting that my mother's mother was a product of the Great Depression.  She was even tighter.  Given all of the above, my mother's frugality would give the most hardened Scot a run for his precious money.

When it came to frugality, there was no better evidence than the food in my house.  A few notable examples come to mind:

  1. Lunch bags.  Other kids got those cool, pre-cut lunch bags made explicitly for carrying their lunch to school.  I got whatever large brown shopping bag happened to be around.  I kind of looked like a homeless person carrying his belongings in a tattered brown bag.  
  2. Bread.  We never got fresh bread from the store.  Instead, we stocked up on day-old bread that was on sale, and then stored it in the downstairs industrial strength freezer.  I didn't complain  as much as my siblings (my recollection, anyway), so I tended to get the heals, not the normal slices from the middle.  That's right.  My sandwiches were made out of day-old, frozen-then-thawed heal slices.  Wonder Bread you ask?  Heck no!  Always generic.  
  3. Cheese.  Did I get those awesome tasting processed cheese slices that the cool kids got?  Please.  Bologna?  Never!  I got Safeway brand longhorn cheddar cheese.  Therefore, my prehistoric crust sandwiches were served with basic cheddar cheese.  And mustard.  That's it.  Some days I did get PB&J.  
  4. What else came in my cavernous lunch sack?  Usually a brown banana.  
  5. What about a treat with my lunch?  No.  I was the kid that literally had nothing good to trade at lunch in the cafeteria.  Oh, the shame of it all!!!!
  6. What about buying my meal from the cafeteria?  Maybe 3-4 times per year.  
  7. OK, lunch was sad, what about breakfast?  Anything tasty and sweet on the menu?  No.  My family was early adopters into the cult of private label.  In those days, Safeway sold a private label which was literally a white box with black letters with catchy derivative names like "Oats of Cheery".  No Lucky Charms for this young man.  
  8. A personal favorite example was milk.  We got the huge box of powdered skim milk.  Just like the astronauts!!!  I don't think I tasted full-test whole milk until I was 16 years old.  
  9. Dinner was usually a reasonable portioned, healthy dinner.  Fortunately, my mom was a good cook, so this was the eating highlight.  
  10. What about fast food?  I probably ate out 5 to 10 times per year.  McDonalds was reserved to the trips to and from vacation. 
  11. What about the drawer in the kitchen full of tasty treats and cookies?  Didn't exist.
  12. Did I have desert ever?  Yes.  One night each week, I got the "Treat of the Week".  It was usually a Black Cow, constituted of private label (Cragmont) root beer and private label ice milk (not to be confused with ice cream).  
So how did this affect me as a young guy growing up?  First off, I was REALLY skinny.  By senior year in high school, I was 6'3" and about 170 lbs.  You could count ribs on me up to the age of 17.  [In my next post, I will tell you how I miraculously gained 40 lbs in about eight months in college.]  

How did this affect my attitudes toward food?  Frankly, I used to always think about those kids that had full and unfettered access to branded, processed foods, not to mention frequent access to fast food.  I looked at their kitchens, and all I could think was that they had the good life.  They had luxury.  They had dining extravagance.  I felt like the poor kid wearing my Sears Toughskin jeans (which I did until my old brother pleaded for fashion clemency on my behalf), carrying my big brown shopping bag with a crusty cheese sandwich and a brown banana.  

To this day, my palms get sweaty when I see branded food.  I still cannot stand the idea of buying generic food.  Why?  The most expensive food must certainly be of higher quality.  Right?  

I think some people grow up with frugality, and they carry it with them.  Others rebel with all their might.  I clearly fell into the latter camp.  For me, there is something comforting about being able to have and buy any food I want, whenever I want it.  This was particularly the case for many years when it came to eating out.  I used to rock a mean Big Mac back in the days after I left home.  

Just like the Armani kind!!!!
In retrospect, my mother created a pretty healthy environment for her kids.  It's not like I was hungry growing up, and I was clearly not obese, nor malnourished.  Most of the indulgences I dreamed of are exactly the types of foods that are now being vilified in the war on obesity, particularly childhood obesity.  Maybe my mom was just ahead of her time.  However, I think that I somehow formed a link between the Oliver Twist food I had and the social status and wealth indicators that I so badly wanted.  Acceptance came from wanting to fit in with the mainstream of my school, no matter how unhealthy that mainstream might have been.  

What about the Toughskins jeans effect?  Same bloody thing.  I love pretty clothes now, and I spend too much money on them.  Frankly, I went through a period of time when I didn't even like buying clothes on sale.  Somehow, it made me feel less worthy.  I'm over that, though I still like a nice set of threads (channeling my Greg Brady here).  

So that's the story of how one man developed an unhealthy relationship with food.  It had nothing to do with food itself, but rather my own perception of social acceptance and worth.  Strange, isn't it?!



Saturday, January 8, 2011

What do airplane nuts have in common with tissues? Bring on the emotional eating!

Every once in a while I catch a reflection of myself in the mirror, and I realize that I'm a guy who works for Weight Watchers.   Even more, I'm a mannish Lifetime Member who works for Weight Watchers.  Granted, I fancy myself a pretty modern and sensitive dude, I am still a guy.  One of my primary reasons for writing this blog in the first place was to use it as an opportunity to explore the endlessly rich topic of weight management from a man's perspective. 

The operating assumption is that when it comes to weight loss, men are from Mars (like the candy?) and women are from Venus.  In particular, there is a frequently cited belief that men are not emotional eaters.  We eat because we are hungry, not because we are sad.  Or do we?...

The past six weeks have been pretty crazy, and they have certainly not be devoid of stress.  New program launch, new marketing campaigns, annual budgets, etc. etc.  Rewarding and exciting, but more than a little intense.  Last week was particularly so.  Take the nuttiness of the first week of January when we get crazy busy and add on top a few unforeseen personal dramas, and I was a slightly over-wrought little puppy.  As I sit here on Saturday, I've already forgotten and/or put into perspective most of the things that were causing me stress.  What I do remember very clearly is how I channeled my emotions. 

For example, I was flying down to Dallas, and the nice flight attendant offered me a cup of warm nuts (and I love nuts).  I didn't need them, but dammit, I had a tough day.  I deserved this food that I didn't need.  I came home late from work another night, and I was a little wrecked and exhausted.  There was a nice piece of fudge in the fridge.  I wasn't really hungry, but dammit, I deserve a nice piece of fudge (don't we all). 

In the broad context, I had a pretty good week in most of my eating choices, but I found myself being fascinated by these little food salves that I was applying to my wounded soul.  Holy cow.  I was self-medicating with food!  Put on some Barry Manilow, throw in a box of tissues, and I could have let loose a pretty respectable cry.  This was no good!  I was at risk of being kicked out of the Little Rascals He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club (please don't shred me if you've never heard of this 1930 cultural reference). I am already bracing myself for the abuse I will likely get from some of my friends who read this blog.  [Then again, they are reading a weight loss blog, so who are they to judge?]

Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that more men are emotional eaters than would like to admit.  "I had an awesome day working the stock market.  I deserve a steak!"  "I lost all my money on the stock market.  I deserve a steak."  "It's Friday, the work week is over and I deserve to eat an entire still-living bovine.  With a nice Bearnaise sauce."  "I'm bored.  I want to chew off my finger tips."  "I just got dumped.  I want some ice cream."  What?  You don't think men say the last one?  They may not say it, but it doesn't mean they don't do it. 

So!  Professor Plum in the Library with a Wrench! 
The Limbic System made me eat the cake!
As a guy, if I can't admit that I use food to deal with a mood, then I will be doomed to a harrowing and tragic life of unneeded airplane nuts.  Hyperbole, but you know what I mean.  With the application of a nice dose of rational hindsight, it seems kind of ridiculous to use food as a form of cheap anti-depressants.  Why?  For me, it's basically using food self-indulgence to justify emotional self-indulgence and self-pity.  It's bad enough when I'm bummed out or stressed.  Why make the feeling worse by compounding it the regret from a minor food binge? 

So what to do?  Cognitive behavioral therapy would seem to suggest that I find a way to recognize in the moment when I'm reaching for the food "medicine".  For the short term, I need to remind myself that what ever is polluting the Limbic system of my brain (the part of the gray matter that houses the weepies) is not best cured by the self-pitying food grab.   Proactively and thoughtfully analyzing the underlying problem and source of the emotion seems at least slightly more useful.  And it's certainly less caloric. 

Here endeth my self-applied therapy session.  Thanks for sitting in! 

For any of you other guys who want to come clean about emotional eating, this blog is a safe place devoid of harsh judgment.  Also, as I've now made the case that emotional eating is not a gender-specific issue,  all women inclined to share should freely do so too!   



Sunday, January 2, 2011

My super-optimistic and massively upbeat plan for 2011

"I feel completely gross" were the last words I uttered as I fell asleep on New Years Day.

The holiday break started great.  I had a weigh-in on a Tuesday night meeting in Manhattan on December 21st.  I clocked in exactly at goal weight, which I thought was a pretty fabulous way of entering the holiday week.  I was sticking to my plan, and I did not act like a complete food crazed freak during the week leading into Christmas.  I was feeling strong and cocky.

Per the plan, I started to loosen up on Christmas Eve, and I went completely off the healthy food grid on Christmas Day.  On Boxing Day, I hit the gym in the morning for an hour of weights  followed by a one hour spin class.  I was so proud that I wrenched my shoulder patting myself on the back.  I was rocking this Christmas plan.

Then I got hideously sick with the stomach flu for about 24 hours.  The nasty part of the bug was pretty fast, but I was definitely a little weakened for the next couple of days.  Nonetheless, I was a good soldier, and I hit the gym anyway during the recovery days.  I really didn't have much of an appetite, so I stayed true during these couple of days.  Throw in the Activity Points from digging out of a nasty little blizzard, and I was still in good form.

Then I got better.  I got all the way better.  I felt GREAT.  What to do with all this euphoria?  Run for the sugar plum hills!  I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday whooping it up as if I couldn't even spell W-e-i-g-h-t W-a-t-c-h-e-r-s.  What the heck, I was a saint for the past seven days.  I'm invincible!!!  All that stocking candy that I was planning to eat one piece per day for the next three months?  Let's work that inventory down by 50%!   Wine?  Yes please!  Seconds?  You bet!

In truth, you really can't do that much damage in three days, and I knew that I was going to be fully back on plan starting Jan 3.  Still, I was beating myself up about being such a nasty dude.  Nothing like a little self-flagellation to put the icing on top of 72 hours of food indiscretion.

Today, I was reading an article in the Sunday NY Times titled:  "Why a Budget is Like a Diet -- Ineffective."  There was one quote in particular that struck a chord with me.
"As a species, humans are notoriously poor at following through with their plans.  Sticking to a budget -- a dirty word even among many financial planners, who prefer the more euphemistic 'spending plan' -- feels too much like dieting.  And we often fail at both for the same reasons:  too much focus on the restrictions, not enough on fun.  So it's not surprising when people end up on bingeing later, more than making up for the dollars not spent or calories not consumed."  
The column then went on to lay out a bunch of strategies that sounded very much like the same strategies I hear in our Weight Watchers meetings all the time.  They mostly focused on a common theme:  set up broad goals with a positive outcome in mind.

With this in mind, I am laying out my 2011 long term goals (not to be confused with short-lived resolutions, he writes hopefully).

  1. Recognize that the over-the-top events I think will make me happy actually make me feel like doo-doo.  Every binge I have had this year literally made me feel sick.  Not just mentally sick, but physically ill.  A huge food splurge inevitably gives me a nasty case of indigestion, and I sleep terribly that night.  Further, these binges never seem to have the hedonistic dividend I think they will.  How exactly am I depriving myself by avoiding the binge if the binge itself is all downside?  
  2. I want to fully embrace those habits that make me feel food, physically and mentally.  When I eat good, real, healthy food, I feel physically great.  It really is true.  I have more energy and my gastrointestinal tract is much happier with me.  I sleep better too.  In other words, I want to eat better for purely selfish reasons:  it will make me feel better and result in better days and nights.  I am done with the concept of eating healthily because my deep-rooted Calvinistic origins say that I should suffer like the miserable puritan that I think I should be.  
  3. I want to fully embrace the awesome fact that the healthy food tastes just as good as the gross food I used to eat. I like a nice piece of fish just as much or more than a 24 oz Fred Flintstone brontosaurus burger.  I like fruit mixed in with Greek yogurt as much as ice cream.   This isn't a blind hope, it's actually true.  There is a degenerate, Rasputan character that lives in my brain who tries to convince me otherwise, but frankly, he's an untrustworthy creep.  And he's wrong.  
  4. I want to eat when I'm really hungry, and not eat when I'm just bored and fidgety.  Even better, I want to find ways of not being bored and fidgety.  I can't remember the last time I had a period of boredom and said at the end of it, "That was such as awesome experience!  I can't wait to be bored again!"  
  5. Mostly, I am done thinking of healthy life as a slog.  It's a gift and a better way for me to live.  
My next step is to put some firmer plans in place to realize all of the above.  For me, it's mostly about getting my head straight and putting it into an even more positive and hopeful place.  

The past couple of years have been challenging for many of us.  The recession was about as much fun as having our finger nails pulled.  Thinking that the banking system was melting followed by a nasty economic hangover was no day in the park.  

However, it's time to move forward.  There is great work to be done, and there is a life full of possibility to be enjoyed.  This is why I love the line of our new 2011 campaign:  It's a New Day.  I cannot think of a time better suited for this simple idea.  

Let's rock 2011 and have fun in the process.