Monday, May 30, 2011

The perils of endless food

When it comes to the world of weight management, the word I despise the most is "willpower".  It bothers me that there is a presumption that if we were just "better" people that there would not be an obesity issue in this country.  While it is true that dealing with a weight issue requires attention and some elbow grease, I wholly disagree with the notion that our failings are due to a lack of character.

With this in mind, I have been greatly enjoying a book that I have been meaning to read for a long time, "Mindless Eating", by Brian Wansink.  Brian is probably the last guy on Earth that you would think would write one of the most interesting on weight loss on Earth.  Why?  He's not a psychologist, but rather he is a PhD economist who is a professor of applied economics at Cornell University.  What makes Brian's work so fascinating is the massive number of experiments that he and his colleagues have undertaken to understand why we consumers do the things we do around food.  Wansink has a weird combination of intelligence, statistical rigor and a slightly corrupt sense of humor.

The gist of this book, which I highly recommend BTW, is that humans underestimate the degree to which they can successfully resist a tempting environment.  I completely agree with his conclusion that the secret of mastering our obesogenic environment is not to summon mythical heaps of willpower, but rather to learn how to change our environment to help nudge us toward healthier choices.  Over my coming posts, I will try to make it a point to reference the results of some of his experiments as I continue to examine my own nutritional failings as well as my plans to address them.

I'd like to start with one of my favorites.  Wansink's belief is that very few people stop eating because they are full.  Rather, they tend to stop eating when they receive certain visual or other types of external cues.  In one particularly twisted experiment, he asked a bunch of test subjects eat soup until they were full.  All of us members of the Clean Plate Club (I'm a charter member) use the existence of an empty plate to signal that we must be full.  In his clever soup experiment, Wansink and his conspirators rigged some soup bowls so that they were automatically refilling.  His subjects would either get a normal bowl or they would get one that was secretly and automatically refilling.  He served soup in a large 18 ounce bowl and asked people to stop when they were full.  Here were the results:

  • People in the normal -- if 18 oz can be considered normal -- bowl group ate an average of 9 ounces of soup.  When asked to estimate how many calories they thought they consumed, they guessed 123.  It turns out they actually ate 153 calories.  In other words, they underestimated by 24% -- a cautionary tale for us all!  
  • People in the bottomless bowl group ate an average of 15 ounces (!) or 67% more than the normal bowl group.  Apparently a few ate over a quart.  When asked how many calories they guessed they had eaten, they replied with an average of 127 -- about the same as the normal bowl group.  In fact, they had eaten an average of 268 calories.  The underestimated by 111% how much they had eaten.  
What should we take from this?  Humans are terrible at guesstimating calories, particularly if they don't have a visual cue to help guide them.  One of the reasons for this is that most research indicates that it takes the stomach about 20 minutes to inform the brain that it's had enough food.   I don't think I've ever taken 20 minutes to eviscerate a plate of food in my entire life.  

One important conclusion of this is to remind ourselves why keeping track of what we eat is so important.  Countless research has shown that people have a STRONG tendency to underestimate how much they eat by 25% to 30%.  That is more than enough of an error to result in consistent weight gain if not frustration at a lack of weight loss.  Even when we track, we have a tendency to underestimate portion size or to miss tracking bites/licks/tastes, but the act of tracking has been demonstrated over and over and over and over and over again to give us a huge advantage of those who do not.  

So what does this have to do with me and the size of my waist?  Last night, our neighbors invited us over for a BBQ.  They are wonderful and givings hosts, and they had a full spread of food more than adequate for the six adults present.  In fact, I would say the spread was solidly bountiful, particularly on the chips and guacamole side of the table.  With such a large basket of chip and a huge bowl of guacamole, I couldn't hope to make a dent in it despite my best mindless grazing efforts.  If I'm just being honest, I have no Earthly idea how much I ate other than the fact that it was a heck of a lot more than I could ever hope to guesstimate.  

What would have been a better strategy?  Easy (in practice).  Rather than pick off the finger food trays, the much better strategy would have been to plate out everything I planned to eat onto a dish.  I could have easily lingered and nibbled off the plate, but I would have had a visual cue when I was getting to the end.  Asking for a paper plate would have only been slightly antisocial and weird, and I don't think my good friends would have used this as a convenient excuse to never have me back -- they have much better, substantive excuses for that.  

One other nice benefit of pre-plating snacks is that it forces you though a series of steps that are slightly more involved and deliberate than merely opening the back and shoving my head inside of it and then breathing deeply.  If I make myself use a plate, there are times that I will not be able to motivate to go to the trouble of grabbing a plate and then putting it in the dishwasher.  Never underestimate the power of laziness!  

This week, I'm going to try pre-plating all of my snacks so I can actually keep track of the PointsPlus values.  I will let you know how it goes.  



Sunday, May 22, 2011

Denial. Bad. The story of my crummy weigh-in.

Allow me to remind the world for the 39th time that travel is hard on my regimen.  This is particularly the case for my biannual trips to Australia.  Though native Australians love to complain about their national airline, I have to tip my hat to Qantas for running a pretty tight ship.  In particular, I still hold that they serve the best airline food around, though this is an admittedly low bar.  Combine their almost-haute cuisine with 24 hours of non-stop travel time, and it's a recipe for eating disaster.  I tried my noble best to not careen completely off the rails, but I was only marginally successful.  I exercised hard this past week, but there is only so much working out before the crushing tide of too much food overwhelms.  Basically, I just got back from a cruise.

In general, I have to say that the past few months have been pretty rough from a staying on-plan perspective.  I don't ever recall a time in my professional life with quite as much travel and work socializing as I have experienced over the past few months.

All of this is a lead-up to 6 PM last night.

Fun fact about my house:  we keep a Weight Watchers grade Tanita professional scale in our house that was acquired from a medical supply shop several years ago.  Its presence means that I can have a Weight Watchers worthy weigh-in any time I like.  Yet, for the past few months, I have avoided this hideous device like the plague.

I was in three consecutive Sydney-based Weight Watchers meetings this past Tuesday, and I could have weighed-in at any of them.  I didn't.

Why?  The very obvious answer is that I really didn't want to know the truth.

So at 6 PM last night, I was fishing something out of the guest-room closet where I keep our Tanita scale, and I had the sudden impulse to man-up and step on the scale.  What ensued felt a bit like being hit with a club.  6 pounds over goal.  Ugh.  I proceeded to toss myself into a one hour tail spin replete with rampant self-abuse and prolific self-cursing.  In an effort to further propel my self-flagellation, I grabbed my waist and shook it, cursing myself all the way.  Boy did I suck.

Two observations about this little hour of sunshine and the time that led up to it:

One:  What's with avoiding the scale?  There is something so dumb and self-destructive about my avoiding weigh-in's.  I know that I'm slipping, yet somehow denial will make it all the better.  In the process, I miss the opportunity to more quickly self-correct and get back to a more sane and healthy choices.  Avoiding the weigh-in results in a building cycle of not so awesome choices followed by further avoidance.  This my friends is how I successfully gained six pounds.

What's the definition of denial?  Courtesy of Wikipedia (courtesy of Pyschpages):  "Denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence."

There is some really interesting research that has come from a project called the National Weight Control Registry, run by some really sharp academics.  This research project has studied a large group of people who have lost significant weight and have maintained their weight loss for many years.  One shared trait among them is that they weigh themselves or get weighed regularly.  When they see their weight creep up, they use this as an early indicator that they are falling back on old habits and they course correct.  This is how they avoid gaining back 30, 50 or 100 pounds.  Usually the tolerance for re-initiating is about five pounds.  For these folks, this is not being a slave to the scale, but rather using the scale as an objective lifestyle feedback mechanism.

Lesson for me?  Take advantage of the Weight Watchers meetings I am already attending for work purposes, and get a weigh-in.

Two:  What's with the self-flagellation?  There is a widely held belief that men don't get emotional about their weight.  I don't know who came up with this theory, but based on my own giant sample size of one, I find this to be wholly ridiculous and untrue.  I believe that the only difference between men and women on this topic is how they express it.  My theory, based on my own self-observations, is that men have a tendency to bottle it up and try to put it into a safe little box in the back of their minds.  Based on my own experience, this is not a good practice -- at least not for me.  

I've been at goal, not moving more than 2-3 pounds in either direction for well over two to three years.  It is only natural for me to be disappointed and irritated with myself now that I have significantly deviated from this.  Owning this publicly, either on this blog or at a Weight Watchers meeting, is a better way to exorcise the demon by being honest about the fact that I slipped up.  It is the full opposite of denial.

This said, my self-flagellation was pretty over-the-top and definitely distorted.  I mean really, six pounds on a six foot three inch man is not worthy of a bridge jump.  I do realize that I tend to be a little ridiculous about this kind of stuff.  What can I say?  Don't do as I do!

So how to re-frame all of this?  First off, I need to be relieved that I finally stepped on the scale and confirmed what I already knew to be true.  Better to find out at six pounds than twenty.  Secondly, slapping myself repeatedly about the facial region is wholly unnecessary.  This isn't complicated.  I just need to break out the old tracker and get back on program.  Give me a month, and I can easily be back on goal.  Again, this is not a cause for stress, but rather it's a relief.

In summary, denial + self-abuse = unhelpful.  Proactivity + self-belief = good outcomes.

I get to spend an entire week in my normal routine (i.e., no travel).  Seems like a good opportunity to get back to basics.



Sunday, May 15, 2011

New area of focus: my flabby brain

I find myself writing this as I sit in the American Airlines lounge on a four hour layover enroute to Sydney, AU from NYC.  I love Australia, Sydney and Australians, but I hate the flight that gets me there.  24 hours of commuting is always a bear, followed by a few days of rough jet lag.  Perhaps I need to be reminded of the ridiculous hardship that this journey would have spawned had I made it 200 years ago.  Scurvy seems like a rough travel affliction in comparison to a little sleep deprivation.

As always, I don't have high expectations for my nutritional intake in the 16 hour leg from LAX to SYD.  That said, it's only one day, and I've been living the straight and narrow for the past couple of weeks.  I will be fine once I get to Sydney.  I've already found my gym (Fitness First), which will let me buy day passes.  I find it sad how relieved this makes me feel.

Browsing through the American Airlines magazine, I was reading an article about Naomi Watts, who is now an ageless 42 years old.  She's had two kids, and she leads a pretty kooky schedule and lifestyle.  According to the article, she works out pretty consistently, and she tries to take in decent nutrition.  She also made of a point of saying how she avoided depriving herself of any foods because she claims that this act causes her to crave.  She seeks moderation and balance.

I have to admit that every time I read an interview of a beautiful (and thin) celebrity talking about how they don't "diet" that I am always a bit skeptical.  What else would they say?

In this case, I am hoping that everything she said was true.  Why?  I am starting to relate to it -- or at least I aspire to.

When I hear people talk about living their healthy lifestyle, they often talk about balance and not over-stressing about food.  There is something about them that sounds a bit like a Zen monk who has found balance and grace in the world of overly abundant junk food.  I'm jealous of them because I'm not there.

My issue with food always seems to come down to the fact that I'm a pretty compulsive eater when I let myself go.  When I start on food my head gets buzzy, and I find myself in a frenzy of food lust. One of these days I am going to video tape myself eating a meal.  My guess is that it will look a sped-up video with a person eating at 3X speed.  I literally have to focus on slowing myself down or I run the risk of eating through my plate and possible the table beneath it.  Does it matter?  There is certainly research that suggests that eating to quickly does not allow your body time to tell you it's full.

I also tend to be a pretty compulsive eater when I'm bored.  I have immense nervous energy.  It's hard for me not to play with things constantly, and my office is full of small gadgets and toys.  When I'm in the kitchen, that energy can quickly get channeled into grazing and drinking.  For example, I almost always have two diet Mountain Dews for lunch during the week.  Why two?  Frankly, I have a hard time stopping at one.  Ironically, this just gives me more caffeine which in turn creates more nervous energy.

At this point, you should be picturing someone who is a thousand miles away from being a Zen monk -- more like a Tasmanian Devil.  In truth, of all of the dimensions of a well lifestyle, stress management is one of my big unfinished projects.  I'm not a deep breather.

I've started my own exploration into finding a more centered approach to life.  Over the past couple of years, I've begun to poke around Eastern philosophies, and I've even tried meditation (which I actually found surprisingly relaxing).  My premise is that just as there is fitness for the body, there is also fitness for the mind.  I have found a way to exercise my body just about every day of the week.  It seems only logical that I should do the same for my brain.

I am gradually approaching the realization that a model for taking care of myself is one that encompasses sound nutrition, sound body and sound mind.  It is increasingly clear to me that it's hard to really achieve the nutrition and body bit without the mind part.  Just as I take time to get my body fit, it seems only reasonable to endeavor to keep my mind fit as well.  For some people, mindfulness comes naturally, but for most of us, it requires effort and training.  So I hereby aspire to get my mind seriously fit.  I just wish I could sport it in a swimsuit once I get there.



Saturday, May 7, 2011

Manning up the nerve to talk about food

We first launched Weight Watchers Online for Men about four years ago.  Prior to that, the Online product was unisex other than the fact that it had lots of articles that arguably had a feminine slant (Stress Eating?  Take a Bath Instead!).  Weight Watchers Online for Men basically took all of the same tools, but packaged them around articles and features more suitable for a mannish lifestyle.  All the usual cliches applied such as beer, grilling, etc.  We developed a nice base of dude subscribers, including me.  

The only thing missing was the little issue of not really telling anyone about it.  Lots of guys kind of assume that Weight Watchers is only concerned about women, so it doesn't even dawn on them to look for something designed for the hairier sex.  

It made my heart glad the other morning when I saw a Weight Watchers Online for Men ad pop up while I was eating my oatmeal and watching CNN.  The male race had finally arrived in the world of Weight Watchers, and Weight Watchers was finally spreading the good word to the other 50% of the population.  

Here is one of the spots...

I like this spot a lot mostly because all three guys are actual subscribers who have had great success, and they get the whole Weight Watchers thing.  And they're pretty funny to boot.  

However, there is also a part of the ad that is arguably a little sad.  The spot has to get into things like BEER and GRILLING and other overtly mannish signaling devices as if to say "Hey guys, jump in!  The water's fine!".  It also pokes fun at the unseen other guys who were clearly teasing one of the three guys for doing Weight Watchers.  It seems a shame that the ad has to go out of its way to prove that Weight Watchers is OK for guys, and that it's OK for guys to deal with their weight issues. 

The reality is that many guys still don't feel comfortable talking about weight issues let alone doing something about them.  We still need to be convinced that it's OK to consciously make healthier choices and to burn more calories than we take in.  The advertisement is merely a reflection of this reality, and it does its noble best to begin to break down some of these calcified perception issues.  

Men are very happy to blog prolifically about their exercise routines and share notes all the time on matters of biking, running, lifting, etc.  However, they rarely seem to share notes on food choices, managing portion sizes, and they certainly don't get into the emotional aspects of eating.  

Do a search of weight loss blogs, and see what percentage have female scribes vs. male ones.  I'd have to guess that 95% of the weight-oriented blogs are written by women.  Men just don't talk about this stuff.  In fact, the reason I first started writing this blog was that I believed that there were not enough men out there talking about weight, weight loss and healthy life.  I'm grateful for every other guy who does the same, even this guy out in California named Jack Sh*t, who likes to make fun of me.  

I certainly write about my own experiences.  Do I talk about them too?  Most definitely, but usually with the women I know.  That said, I have some dude co-workers who are willing to engage on the topic, but mostly to make fun of each other.  Frankly, teasing beats silence, so it's something.  Outside of work, most of the guys I know almost seem embarrassed to talk about what they eat or what their struggles are. They usually don't get much further than making fun of themselves for being out of shape and having a belly.  

Does it matter?  I am starting to think it does.  If we guys feel self-conscious about talking about eating more healthily and eating less, then we may feel the same way on actually carrying out healthy behaviors.  Is it actually embarrassing or unmanly to eat healthily?  I hope not, but I do worry.  

Talking about food choices and nutrition should be the most natural thing in the world for a guy to do.  We share notes on cars and gadgets all the time.  We obsessively track stats from the sports pages and stock market.  We love keeping score.  Why not talk about the fact that scallops have practically no PointsPlus values, yet they have tons of protein.  Why not talk about the fact that a bowl of fruit is a huge amount of food that keeps you full, but it has relatively few calories compared to most processed foods.  

I'm not preaching here, because I have been (and sometimes still am) one of those guys who feels a little shy about the topic.  I think that the shyness comes from not wanting to admit that I'm on a "diet".  The shyness comes from feeling badly about not having enough "will power" to conquer my food demons.  The fact is this:  there are still lots of stigmas and emotional issues around weight and weight loss, and none of them are helpful.  This has always been the case for women, and it's increasingly the case for men too.  They just come in a different form.  

In my utopian view of the world, we would all treat weight, healthy lifestyle and obesity as a math problem to be solved.  On some basic level it is just that:  the first law of thermodynamics.  Use more energy than you take in, and fat stores go down.  It's all numbers and keeping score from there.  When we look at the topic in this construct, there is nothing whatsoever about it that is deserving of embarrassment or shyness.  

Btw, here is a fun little fact about the men who subscribe to Weight Watchers Online:  in our satisfaction surveys, they rate the product at least as high as their female counterparts.  More importantly, they have some pretty impressive weight loss results.  The simple truth is this:  counting and keeping score works in weight management.  Nothing un-masculine about that.