Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beware of the hot zone

I find myself in the midst of a book first published in 2008 that has been completely captivating me.  The book is Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.  Thaler is a economics professor at the University of Chicago and Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard (formerly at the Univeristy of Chicago).

If you will indulge me a little bit of geekery...  I went to the University of Chicago to get my MBA, and I fell in love with the place.  It was the first time I was every truly drawn into intellectual pursuit [my days of overly socially stimulated campus Falstaff (see two posts ago) were now firmly behind me].  In particular, I found myself fascinated with economic theory.  More than most business schools, Chicago placed a lot of emphasis on economic theory and math, and it was known as a pretty nerdy place.  I fit right in.

The University of Chicago is known as a pretty opinionated place when it comes to economic theory.  Underpinning much of this economic theory was the concept of the economic man, a mythical fellow who always made rational decisions.  I wanted to think of myself as an upstanding economic man, so this too had much appeal to me.  

Around the time I was attending, this horribly sacrilegious guy named Richard Thaler was joining the faculty.  He completely flew in the face of the at-the-time prototypical Chicago economist in that he focused much of his energy in how humans made flawed or biased or herd-like decisions on a range of subjects including savings, investments, etc.  He had the unmitigated gall to suggest that the fully functioning economic man was not necessarily a model for how humans act in all circumstances.  I refused to take his class as I saw him as kind of a theoretically impure degenerate who failed to hew to the economic man model.  I didn't know of Sunstein, but given that he was in the law school, that's not a total shock.

Nearly 20 years later, I find myself fascinated by Thaler and his area of exploration.  It would be hard not to given my last 10 years plus at Weight Watchers.  Thaler is part of a new generation of behavioral economists who are breaking open fascinating ground in a wide range of subjects.

Which brings me to the book.  The basic tenant of the book is that by better understanding the biases that humans put into their decision making process, one can seek to design systems that nudge them toward better outcomes.  We at Weight Watchers come from a long line of nudgers, so how could I not now see him as a kindred spirit?

One topic the authors delve into is the subject of Automatic vs. Reflective systems of the mind.  Basically, it states that the mind operates on two levels:  one is instinctive and automatic and the other is planned and analytic.  We need both as we would otherwise have no way of making the many thousands of decisions we make in our incredibly complicated day-to-day world.  Taken at the extreme, I'm very glad that I don't have to weigh the pro's and con's of breathing or whether to laugh at a good joke.  At the same time, if I was instinctive 100% of the time, I would probably be running through the streets of Manhattan naked right now.

When it comes to food, it's pretty easy for me to see my Automatic system in action.  It is the part of my brain that leads to mindless eating.

In one particularly fascinating part of the book Thaler and Sunstein refer to cold states (i.e., food is not in front of us) vs. hot states (we have a bowl of nuts in our lap) of the mind.  As they delicately put it, "For most of us, however, self-control issues arise because we underestimate the effect of arousal." They continue, "When in a cold states, we do not appreciate how much our desires and our behavior will be altered when we are 'under the influence' of arousal."  This is what another economist, George Lowenstein, labels the hot-cold empathy gap.

Say what?  My interpretation:  we humans place too much stock in our own sense of will power.  When we get under the spell, we can often fall to pieces.  Want an example?  As always, I'm happy to oblige with one of my favorites...

I was flying back from Brussels to NY this past Thursday.  I told myself the following things before I got on board:  no wine, not nuts, only low-fat dishes, and NO CHEESE PLATES.  I got sort of far.  I didn't graze in the airport lounge.  I said no thanks to the pre-flight drinks.  I had a diet coke as a pre-lunch drink.  Then something happened.  Every single person around me ordered a glass of wine.  Then the flight attendant put a small bowl of nuts in front of me.  What did I do?  I did what I always do on transoceanic flights.  I totally succumbed to my "arousal state".  I had everything they gave me, and then I fell asleep.  My hot state showed its complete and utter dominance.  My only redeeming quality was that I said "no" to the snack offered at the end of the flight.

What's the moral of all of this?  I can't try to beat my own brain.  If I test myself too much, I'm going to periodically run into trouble.  Herein lies the value of controlling my environment.  I can't get aroused by what I don't have in front of me.  The best way to avoid a "hot state" is to surround oneself with cool, icy objects.

Business class on an airplane is borderline unsolvable for me.  The whole process of being strapped to a chair for 8 hours and then surrounded by other people succumbing to their own hot states is an awful lot to overcome.  Frankly, that's OK.  I travel a lot, but the total number of meals involved are manageable if this remains my primary weak area.  I will keep at trying to address this issue, but I suspect I should prioritize my efforts on fixing the other parts of my environments that are more controllable.

I got home to CT that night to an empty house (family was in North Carolina).  The first thing I did was jump into my car and outfit the house with a bunch of fruits and healthy snacks.  I stayed "cold" for the next few days, and felt much better for it.

My golden rule in weight loss and maintenance (for myself, anyway) is to accept the limitations of my own will power.  I cannot rely on it always being there for me.  Planning and environmental control are the keys to my long term success.  That and apparently taking more cold showers.



Friday, April 15, 2011

Functional healthy food: beauty is skin deep, inner beauty is everything. Seriously. Really.

When does healthy food get weird or creepy?

The other day, I had a meeting around lunch time with a colleague.  As luck would have it, I had a half hour window ahead of the meeting to have my regular lunch concoction.  My colleague later came into the meeting with her assortment of sushi.  As she sat down, she announced, "I'm so glad that you are already finished with your weird protein meal.  It kind of freaks me out."  You would have thought I had just eaten a plate of monkey brains.

It got me wondering whether my regular lunch is kind of weird or is best suited for weird people.  I will let you come to your own conclusion.  Here is what I normally get courtesy of the Pump Energy Food (a small NYC healthy food carry out/delivery chain) (their ingredient descriptions, not mine):

  • Baby spinach
  • Shredded turkey
  • "Grass fed" cheddar
  • Steamed sweet potatoes
  • Caramelized peppers and onions
  • Basalmic marinated mushrooms
  • Non-fat honey mustard dressing
The nutritional's on this are as follows (courtesy of their online nutrition calculator):  9g fat, 26 g carbs, 33 g protein and 5 g fiber.  Total PointsPlus value = 8.  

I get this plus a grilled eggplan and zucchini soup nutritional's of:  5g fat, 2 g protein, 12 g carbs, and 0 g fiber.  Total PointsPlus value = 3.  

That works out to 11 PointsPlus values for the entire meal.  Why this meal and what's the theory?  First and foremost, it's a boatload of food, bulk wise.  Secondly, it's got a nice slug of both protein and fiber, which is appealing for workout geeks like myself.  Thirdly, I happen to think it tastes great.  I'm a giant fan of sweet potatoes, and I love getting a minor cheese indulgence thrown in.  

This is my ideal of the perfect lunch meal.  Tastes good, lots of nutritional benefit, and it keeps me completely full.  I may grab an apple at 3 PM, but I'm otherwise good to go until dinner.  

Not gorgeous, but definitely yummy.
And big (hard to see in this photo)!
So why all the grief?  OK, I will admit that the aesthetics are not spectacular.  There are no pretty colors to make it pop out and say:  "Look at me!  I'm pretty!".  It has the unmistakable look of functional food, and it would certainly be home in a pre-capitalism USSR restaurant.  Do I care?  No.  It is hard for me to describe the degree to which I am not moved by food visuals.  When I eat with my eyes, I eat for the spatial dimensions, not the pretty colors.  Seeing a ton of food for only 8 PointsPlus values is beyond sexy in my simple proletariat mind.  

Why else?  I suspect part of it is that it comes from a place called the Pump Energy Food.  I LOVE this little chain, but I will admit that it's name is still closely linked to it's early days as a bodybuilder feeding stall.  I guess the theory is that if bodybuilders like it, it must be disturbing and steroid-like.  Anabolic turkey anyone?  In truth, the Pump has changed a lot over the years, it's kind of become a groovy little place that's reminiscent of Chipotle, only much safer calorically speaking.  Nonetheless, the name is probably not doing them any favors in escaping their heavy metal roots.  

This said, what is this ridiculousness that overtly healthy food should be stigmatized for not being fashionable?  What is it about walking into a health food store that makes so many people sad?  What is it about eating food from a place called the Pump Energy Food that makes people feel a little sheepish?  Why can't functional, healthy food be seen as the new culinary Prada?  

For me, I think some of it comes from the notion that eating this kind of food from places like the Pump still feels a little bit "not normal."  It's not where everyone else goes, and it sends out a signal that seems to say "I'm a self-depriving food freak.  I eat food that only other scary people like bodybuilders would eat."  It's also kind of like ordering the salad when everyone else is firing up a Rueben with fries.  The salad tastes great, it's better for you, and you feel better after eating it.  Yet, there is a natural instinct to feel a bit like a weirdo or a sad person when you don't join the carnage.  

Having gone on this whole diatribe, I suspect I know what my colleague would say if she read this post:  "You think about this stuff too much.  I wasn't making a grand statement.  I just think your lunch looks kind of gross."  

My response:  food beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  There is nothing foxier than a giant bowl of grub with very few PointsPlus values.  I may need to take a cold shower just thinking about my lunch.  

Am I alone in being sheepish about eating weird healthy-people food?  



Saturday, April 9, 2011

99 Bottles of Beer on my frame. How I gained weight in college.

It all came rushing back.  Suddenly I remembered the collegiate version of myself:  town idiot. 

This past week, I had the opportunity to do a market visit in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.  For those not familiar, this is the triangle of Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.  It also contains a number of other towns such as Cary and Wake Forest (which oddly enough does not house Wake Forest University -- moved to Winston-Salem in the 50's).   It is also home to my beloved Alma mater, Duke University. 

By complete coincidence, the night I was going to be arriving happened to be the night of the final game of the NCAA Tournament.  My Blue Devils had already been summarily blown out in the Sweet 16 vs. Arizona, and UNC met a similar fate one round later to Kentucky.  Therefore, any huge rivalry that might otherwise be swirling around Tobacco Road had largely drifted away.  Given the less war-like atmosphere, I made the decision to spend the night in Chapel Hill.  Why?  It's more fun and more college-y than Durham. 

I called on an old friend and fraternity brother who now lives in the Chapel Hill area to watch the Butler/UConn game.  We decided to watch it at a traditional Chapel Hill college bar, Top of the Hill.  I will admit that it was a little surreal for me as a Duke fan to watch UConn (whom I despise) play Butler (whom I gloat over) in a UNC (for whom I have great distaste) bar. 

It was a beautiful Spring night in North Carolina.  It started harmlessly enough as I found myself happily working through a nice piece of salmon served over cheese grits.  It went South (no pun intended) from here as I somehow got lost in a bottomless glass of beer watching the game.  After all, here I was with an old college buddy in a college sports bar immersed in hoops.  Just like old times. 

The next morning I was reminded why it's not a good idea to dive into a bottomless glass of beer -- I had a headache delivered by a rusty ice pick.  The only cure for this is exactly the antidote that my local team supplied:  that true North Carolina delicacy, pork BBQ.  Just like old times, I happily shoved my snout into a plate of pulled pork BBQ (Eastern style), Brunswick stew, baked beans and...  hush puppies.  Only later did I discover that hush puppies carry the heavy excise tax of 5 PointsPlus values for two.  It should go without saying that I had many more than two. 

So this is how I gained 40 pounds my freshman year!  Doesn't seem so surprising now that I think about it.  But it does beg another question.  What the heck happened to me in college?

Pre-college, I was a pretty hard working young man.  I woke up every morning for about four years to deliver the Washington Post newspaper -- a fact my children will never live down.  I studied hard.  I lived a clean life, at least until senior year of high school -- and even that was pretty tame. 

College came, and I kind of lost my mind.  I quickly found myself hanging out with a great group of dudes, and soon joined a fraternity full of goons and degenerates.  Next thing I knew I found myself on a close to four year bender of beer and horrifically caloric food.  I literally had no self-restraint whatsoever.  I turned into Bluto from Animal House, but less funny and less charming. 
So this is why I couldn't get a date in college...

In many respects, college was the ultimate obesogenic environment.  Back in my days of college, the drinking age was 18/19 so acting like a drooling buffoon was a fully accepted practice [this comment inserted in case my kids read this and need to be reminded that the drinking age is now 21].  Every Thursday night we had kegs at the fraternity.  In fact, there was pretty much no night of the week other than Sunday that someone wasn't having kegs somewhere.  The college itself (yes, an otherwise prestigious academic institution) would regularly allow events where a huge tractor trailer would pull up on campus and tap 40 kegs of beer and supply a band to go with it.  There was a reason to go out pretty much every night of the week.  Combine the cheap beer landscape with all-you-can-eat cafeterias, BBQ joints, pizza and every other nasty food I can think of, and it is no wonder I burst out of my frame. 

I used to drink these warm.  Sad...
I often wonder how many PointsPlus values I racked up in a debauched college day.  A twelve-pack of Goebels or Milwaukee's Best beer (yes, I was a craft beer connoisseur)  alone would be 60 (12 X 5 per 12 oz).  I had to easily be breaking 100 many days, and I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a 150 PointsPlus value day.  Frankly, it's  a wonder that I didn't weigh 80 more pounds than I did.  There is little I wouldn't do to retrieve my youthful metabolism. 

How I ever graduated  in one piece remains a mystery to me (and to my parents who watched my transformation in near horror).   In the years following college, I was able to resurface the work ethic I had in high school.  By the time I went to business school at night, I was a completely different person.  Maybe the fact that I had to pay for it myself gave me adequate incentive not to act like a complete idiot. 

These days, I am kind of a control freak when it comes to my lifestyle.  I sometimes wonder if this is due to my knowing how easily I fell into depravity during my college years.  Maybe I'm afraid that if I let my guard down I will find myself slouched in a broken-down Lazy Boy chair, donned in a mustard-stained T-shirt watching TV with beer cans and pizza boxes served on top of a stained carpet.  Attractive! 

I wonder if everyone else who is tackling or has tackled a weight issue feels that they are constantly on the razor's edge of falling into the abyss of their old, less healthy life.  I am much more confident about handling my health than I used to be, but I also worry about gradually getting slack.  One little slip leading into another, seemingly unnoticed until they accumulate into a complete reversion.  Yikes.  Glad I worked out on this fine Saturday morning.  That would not have happened in college.  I'd still be sleeping.