Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can't fight the burger and fries lust. Better to avoid the fight in the first place.

I continue to be fascinated by my recent readings from behavioral economists (Thaler, Wansink, and Lowenstein) around the topic of the unbeatable force of the environment.  Every time I see myself failing, it is in the context of a lustful bought of food love.  The concept of a "Hot State" (Lowenstein) is something I wrote about a couple of months ago.  In such a state, one finds oneself overtaken by a gripping frenzy in which no food can be saved.  I sometimes mock my dog, Gabby, who goes through a similar process every time she eats.  See my post from April 2009 to watch a music video of her in action:


As I noted then, I'm no better than she is when I find myself in the grip of the food frenzy.  There is no doubt that there are particular trigger foods that bring out the frenzy in a way that makes me feel like I can relate to meth addicts (this simile inspired by one of my fav shows, Breaking Bad, which is back on the air).

Last week, my youngest daughter was in town for a week between sleep-away camp sessions.  We were doting on her with reckless abandon, and we had her in town to see some live music (Gomez).  Her only request pre-entertainment was to go for a proper burger, so we headed off to a place called 5 Napkin Burger, just off of Time Square.  5 Napkin is not a place for PointsPlus lovers.  All burgers clock in at 10 ounces, and something tells me that they are not shy about marbling their meat with fat.  What's a man-on-maintenance to do?  Lighten up, be a good sport, and make my perfect little girl happy on her night out in the town.
The original 5 Napking burger:  not for the faint of heart,
but definitely able to cause the heart to become faint

I put my program-related reservations about restaurant choice to the side, fired up a beer and placed my order.  I tried to tell myself that I wasn't being completely debauched by ordering the "Burger Salad" and the sweet-potato fies.  I knew perfectly well that the dressing on the salad was worth at least as many PointsPlus values as the bun that they replaced.  I also knew that the fried sweet potatoes were not really that much better, if at all, than their yellow Idaho counterparts.  I was happy to bask in my delusions of health and pretend that I was being kind of responsible.

After the meal, I made it a point to think about how my brain felt while I was eating.  The answer was that it was locked in a temporarily state that prevented me from recognizing any external stimuli not emanating from the food in front of me.  Conversation and external noise disappeared from my consciousness.    I felt like a Major League pitcher blocking out distractions while standing on the mound.  My fork, knife and fork did not finish their furious dance until there was not even a tiny scrap of food remaining.  I blew through it just as fast as my dog would blow through a bowl of her food.

I finished my meal with the slightly remorseful feeling of having gone through another food bender.  I was irritated with myself for losing control and not pacing myself.  I was again slightly frustrated that I could not remember to not finish everything in front of me and save a little for the restaurant trash can.  I was bluntly forced to reckon with the fact that I didn't have the will power to master my situation.  I put it all in the back of my mind and went about the rest of the night and had a good time.  However, I wanted to make a note for myself to try to find the object lesson.

So what is the lesson?  The lesson is that yet again, my belief in my willpower is my undoing.  It's hard to fight the hot state.  At least in my case it wasn't a hot state causing me to send an inappropriate text message (is sending a picture of a naked burger -- no bun -- inappropriate?).  Nonetheless, I don't particularly like falling prey to the feeling of being slightly out of control.  

In contrast, I was at a business dinner last week in Minnesota.  I found myself talking quite a bit, as one does at these dinners.  I ordered on-plan food, and I clearly had more on my mind than just eating.  Lo and behold  at the end of dinner I hadn't finished my entre.  My mind never got into food vapor lock.  Same basic environment, but a totally different outcome.

What are the lessons for me?

  1. Be focused on something other than eating.  Examples might include socially-oriented activities such as taking an interest in the people around me.  Engaging in conversation while eating seems to work well rather than pretending the food on my dish is slop in a trough.  
  2. Know that certain foods will always bring out the worst in me.  Saying I'm only going to eat half my fries just doesn't work for me.  Better to not order them in the first place.  
The biggest lesson for me is that the kind of willpower necessary to be healthy is in being willing to plan and create an environment that reduces temptation for falling to food lust.  Better to focus my energies on avoiding hot states than to try to fight them once they set in.  It's kind of like avoiding the riptide instead of trying to swim against it.  



Thursday, July 7, 2011

Courage defined: one man's 300 pound journey

I’m proud of the weight I’ve lost and prouder still that I’ve been able to maintain the loss, particularly over the past three years.  At my heaviest, I weighed about 40 pounds more than I do today, and my official weight loss with Weight Watchers was 32 pounds.  As proud as I am, I have always been in awe of those who have lost multiples of this. 

I remember very clearly in one of my first Weight Watchers meetings in the year 2000 when I first saw a member who had lost over 100 pounds.  Her leader was celebrating her effort, and the support and cheers from her fellow members was an inspiring sight.  I always tell people that this day was the first day in which I truly began to understand the power and mission of the company I had joined.  It was the day I learned that Weight Watchers was unlike any organization I had ever known.  It was the day I heartily drank the Kool-Aid (sugar-free) and become a Weight Watchers zealot. 

I’ve thought a lot about that member for many years.  I have often wondered how I would do if I had that much weight to lose.  I have wondered if I could have summoned the courage to walk into the door of a Weight Watchers meeting and ask for help.  I have wondered whether I would have just given up and accepted life as a morbidly obese person.  How would I have handled things if the goal had seemed so far away? 

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know.  I do know that the strategy for most of the folks who lose a tremendous amount of weight (e.g., 50 pounds or more) is not to focus on a distant goal, but rather to set manageable near-term goals such as 5% or 10 pounds.  The second strategy is to re-frame the weight loss process into one of gradual and small changes, not crash, siege-like dieting. 

The other day, I received an email forwarded by our regional field staff in Indianapolis.  It was a letter from Derrick, a young guy in his 20’s, who had just reached the milestone of losing over 300 pounds.  I was completely blown away by his accomplishment and his courage, and I was also moved about the very real effect that this process had on his life.  Rather than re-telling the story, I will let his words speak for themselves: 
The day I walked into a Weight Watchers meeting, I was trembling with fear. I hadn't been weighed in years. No scale would weigh me. I had absolutely no idea how much I weighed. I stepped up on the scale, only to weigh in at an unfathomable 529 pounds. The meeting leader, Cyndi Portteus, could not have been any more positive. I said to her, "Can I really do this? This seems impossible." She smiled at me, took my arm and said "Derrick! You can do this! I know you can!" And I haven't looked back since.  
 Life was very different back then. At 26 years old, I was on two blood pressure medicines. My doctors were practically begging me to have Bariatric surgery and I slept with a CPAP for severe Sleep Apnea. My seat belt didn't fit me in my car. I couldn't sit in booths in restaurants. Every chair was my enemy. Would I fit? Would it hold me? I couldn't go to concerts or any public event that had stadium seating. It was out of the question. Flying was a dramatic, terrible ordeal.  Everywhere I went, all eyes were on me at all times. I was the biggest person everywhere I went. My back constantly hurt. I was wearing a 6X shirt and size 64 inch pants. And special ordering clothes from a catalog was the norm. Going to the grocery store was a grueling ordeal.
 But that was two years ago. I went down 20 pants sizes. I have lost over 26 inches from my waist alone. I can buy clothes anywhere I go. I have been taken off all my blood pressure medicines and no longer have high blood pressure. My blood work is stellar. After a sleep study last year, I have absolutely no symptoms of Sleep Apnea and no longer sleep with a CPAP. I can fit in any booth, seat or chair. I have participated in eight 5K's with 3 more scheduled this year. I have even dropped a shoe size! 
 My entire life has changed, and changed dramatically. Weight Watchers saved my life. Presently, I am only 1 pound away from losing 300 pounds and am inching closer and closer to Goal. I can see Goal and Lifetime, and it's only a short distance away. I finally see it can be done! At the time that my doctors were telling me what a perfect candidate I would be for Weight Loss Surgery, I knew that would never be for me. I knew if I was going to do this, I was going to do it. I knew Weight Watchers worked.

[Note:  as of this blog posting, Derrick informed me that he had reached a total loss of 302 pounds.]

I can never know the kind of courage that Derrick had to summon to walk into that door.  I can never know the kind of perseverance and determination that it took for him to see through a 300 pound loss.  I can, however, acknowledge and celebrate his success and enthusiastically tip my hat to him.  I can also acknowledge and thank our local staff, particularly Derrick’s Leader, Cyndi, who supported him through his journey.  Most of all, I can thank Derrick for reminding me, once again, why I love working for Weight Watchers. 

Derrick’s success is entirely his own.  I’m just glad we were able to help. 

As I write this blog entry, I’m sitting in a Frankfurt hotel room early in the morning.  I’ve been blitzing through Europe for the past three days, and it’s been a great trip.  My eating habits have been a C+ effort, but I’m trying to compensate by keeping my exercise pace up.  After I make this post, I will dutifully put on a pot of coffee and head over to the gym next door.  I will do my best to keep it sane today and the flight home.  I will also take comfort in the fact that I’m back on my home routine for a couple of weeks.  This process always has its great weeks and not so great weeks.  If one many can lose 300 pounds, then another can keep focused while on maintenance.  Derrick’s story reminds me that healthy life is a process, not a sprint.  His story also reminds me that the benefits are worth the effort. 

Thanks Derrick!