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.  



    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Little plates make full tummies. Better not throw away my daughters' old tea set.

    Very recently, the Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion (CNPP), a joint department shared between the Department of Agriculture and HHS, revealed their new icon for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  They took the bold step of throwing out the head-scratching food pyramid for something we can all relate to:  a plate.  On this plate, they have half of it dedicated to fruits and vegetables and the remainder dedicated to lean proteins and whole grains.  On a personal level, I like the new icon a lot and see it as a huge improvement over the old food pyramid.  Why?  Two reasons:

    1. I like what it says.  I really like the way that the more cutting edge advice in food choices is becoming pretty simple and common sensical:  focus on eating real foods that have real nutrition.  I am obviously biased as this is what PointsPlus is all about, and it reflects the way I eat (or at least aspire to) these days.  
    2. I like how it says it.  Call me odd, but I have never had occasion to serve my food on a serving dish laid out like a pyramid.  I've known about the food pyramid since its introduction almost 20 years ago, and it never once has caused me to re-think how I eat.  The plate on the other hand is something I definitely relate to.  Visualizing what I'm putting on my plate makes a lot of sense to me.  I also really like the basic message of filling half my plate with fruits and vegetables.  Nothing like a simple message to penetrate the severe bone density of my skull.  
    However, there is another message of the dietary guidelines (and PointsPlus) that doesn't really find its way onto the new plate icon:  portion control.  How big a plate are we talking about?  Hopefully not a platter.  
    I'm assuming that the Lego disciples were able to
    make do with little Lego plates

    There was a very amusing study published last year that looked at artistic renderings of the Last Supper over the past 1,000 years.  Using some sophisticated computer analysis comparing the size of plates and loaves of bread to the size of heads (I'm glad I wasn't in the paintings -- my gravity inducing noggin would have distorted the results), they were able to measure how artistic views of serving sizes had changed.  Lo and behold (pardon my religiosity), over the past millennium, plate sizes have increased an average of 66% with the biggest gains being scored around the year 1500.  I guess no one can blame Coke and Pepsi for that one.  

    More recently (i.e., the 90's), plate sizes have increased from 10 inches to 12 inches, an increase of 20%.  Does this matter?  According to our new friend Professor Wansink (I'm starting to feel like his PR coordinator), it matters quite a bit.  Time for another game of human experimentation.  
    • Experiment #1:  At an ice cream social (the opposite of a Weight Watchers meeting), the researchers gave their test subjects either 17 oz bowls or 34 oz bowls.  Those who were given the larger bowls served themselves up 31% more ice cream.  When given a larger scoop to go with their great big bowl, they served up 57% more ice cream.  
    • Experiment #2:  Test subjects served a medium-sized hamburger on a smaller plate (a saucer) estimated their burger to have 18% more calories than when it was served on a regulation-sized plate.  
    Basically, the point is that our eyes can get us in trouble as we use other objects to ballpark the size of our food.  Maybe this is why overly fancy restaurants are often accused of skimping on food:  they put normal portions on huge plates.  

    For myself, I have two observations...
    1. Appetizers can be pleasant surprises.  I was recently at a lunch where I was on stage (in fact, being grilled -- pardon the pun) with a bunch of Wall St types.  They were at the lunch to hear about what we were up to, so that meant it was time for me to talk.  As a result, I didn't bother ordering a main dish, but instead I asked for an appetizer serving of tuna tartar.  It was a nice serving size, but was clearly an appetizer.  That said, it did look more impressive on its smaller dish.  Combine this with my having to talk non-stop, and I ended up feeling pretty satisfied after lunch and wasn't hungry again until dinner.  Moral of the story?  Talk more and order smaller sizes.
    2. I am not wired for empty plates.  It's the soon-to-be-starving, fight-or-flee caveman that lives inside my stomach that disallows me from doing anything other than cramming food on my plate.  My choice is either to fight this urge or simply to use a smaller plate.  The latter seems much easier than relying on will power.  Moral of the story?  Use salad plates.  
    How many of you have reverted to using your grandmother's old china to solve this problem?  What else is working for you?



    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    The origin of the Clean Plate Club. or, It's not my fault, I blame the vikings

    I'm continuing my man-crush on Cornell economist, Brian Wansink, whose book "Mindless Eating" is continuing to provide excellent insight and amusement.

    "Give us your small, snack-sized livestock or I will smite thee!"
    Given the topic of my blog, ManMeetsScale, I want to use at least some of the time to talk about various pressures and incentives men have to make not-so-good eating decisions.  On a personal level, I am very much inclined to ascribe all of my own behavioral failings to hidden societal pressures dating back to ancient Mesopotamia.  Really, if the Assyrians were a little more thoughtful, they would have established a culture and ethos of healthier and more mindful eating which then would have spread over Greece, then Rome and ultimately the parts of Europe that were worshiping trees at the time.  Instead, men in the times of yore were perfectly happy to eat until they had to vomit.  The Romans were quite good at this.  Heaven knows the Vikings were big feasters.  Give them a leg of mutton, and they were happy to sack another English village.  No doubt their own military adventures brought some of that Viking meal assault culture which then led Henry VIII to gorge on food on endless banquet tables.  From there, the next stop was the Superbowl.

    The thing about Romans, Vikings and British kings is that they ultimately became role models for would-be gladiators and monarchs everywhere.  In other words, me.  I would have been an excellent Viking, and I'm sure I could have a rocking beard if I gave it half a chance.  For a long time, I definitely ate like a Viking, the approving nods of my buddies.

    Then I discovered Weight Watchers.  Now I turn up my nose when faced with the meat buffet.  I rarely eat a sandwich, and I like salad an awful lot.  Clearly a sissy of epic proportions!  Real men eat sides of beef all at once, and they surely don't eat quiche.  Actually, I don't eat quiche either because it has way too much butter in the crust and is full of hidden calories.  Gracious me.  Am I so far on the unmanly eating scale that I'm to the left of the quiche eater?  That is troubling indeed.

    Think I'm making this manly eating stuff up?  Witness yet another fascinating experiment by that clever Wansink over at the Cornell school of test subject deception.  He and his colleagues have done a number of experiments in which they observe people eating popcorn in movie theaters.  In one experiment they found that when women paid attention to how much popcorn they were eating, they ate less.  Makes sense, right?  Apparently, not for us super-smart men.  When guys indicated that they were paying attention to how much popcorn they were eating, they ate more.  Seriously.

    However, his second experiment was even more telling.  They did an ingenious experiment in which they wrote a script/story of a guy on a date.  They randomly assigned people to read one of two versions that were different from each other in only one seemingly minor way.  In one version, the guy in the story ate a couple of handfuls of popcorn.  In the other, he ate almost all of his popcorn.  They conducted the survey with 140 college men and 140 college women.  Here were the results:

    • College men:  the guy in the version of the story that ate almost all of his popcorn was consistently rated as stronger, more aggressive and more masculine than the two handfuls guy.  In fact, when asked how much they thought he could bench press, the full popcorn guy could bench an average of 21 pounds more.  Holy Toledo.  The popcorn was not even a central point of the story, which was a fairly detailed account about a guy on a date.  The seemingly subtle difference on how much popcorn he ate was enough to give him a 20lb bench advantage.  I am doing a chest workout tomorrow morning, and I'm seeing a movie with my kids today.  I just might have to check this out.  
    • College women:  They didn't rate either version of the guy as either stronger or more masculine.  In other words, the notion that women care about how much we guys eat seems over-rated, at least in this experiment.  
    So what does this little experiment tell us?  I have often heard that women work out and dress nicely to impress each other, not the men in their life.  Is it possible that we men are inclined to clean our plates (and sometimes eat them too) in an effort to impress each other?  Is this the fast food version of moose rutting?  

    While this is mostly pretty amusing, I cannot help think that it represents at least one significant barrier preventing men from taking hold of theirs weight issue:  we worry about how we think our brothers will react to our doing something about it.  Statistically, men are 50% less likely to do something about their weight (and therefore their health) than women.  While women feel pressured by body image and the media to lose weight, it seems that men have the exact opposite incentive. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that it would be a good thing for men to become slaves to body image, though I sadly see this happening in pockets.  However, it is also not a good thing for men to feel pressure to eat like a starving lion in an effort to impress others.  

    I've been doing Weight Watchers and dealing with my weight for so long that I'm mostly past caring what my guy friends think about my dainty food choices.  However, I do, from time to time, feel a little self conscious when everyone else orders a steak served with a blue cheese blanket, and I'm asking for the simply grilled salmon with fresh spring vegetables.  According to Mr. Wansink, my concern over college frat guy approval is warranted.  Apparently, I can take some solace that at least the girls, or at least my wife, don't care.