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?!