Friday, September 28, 2007

Weight loss wrap-up -- my story

Time to wrap up this series on diet, and I wanted to share how things have been going for me on my attempts at weight loss, exercise, and improving nutrition. (It's intended for encouragement, not as any kind of boasting)

One doesn't get 50 to 100 lbs overweight overnight, it takes a while! Specifically, I got there by ignoring exercise and nutrition, eating too much and too often, and ignoring the scale so I didn't know how bad it was. I hit a few walls simultaneously, each of which was a point I did not want to pass. Feeling way too winded from climbing up stairs, no energy to play with my kids, and pants starting to be too tight (again). My waist size was one I vowed I would never exceed, and stepping on the scale for the first time in too long found me just short of a boundary I never wanted to cross. Together these factors were too big to ignore and it was time to make some changes.

In the past I've played a lot of volleyball and tennis, and at this time some friends asked me if I was interested in playing volleyball with them one or two nights a week. Overdue, I took them up on that, and played for several hours the first night. I was completely exhausted, and sore for three days. Next time, still exhausted, and sore for two days. Improvement! Next two times just sore for a day, and after a month I could finish the evening without feeling completely wiped out or hurting the next day. At this point I made no significant changes to my diet except cutting out evening snacks on volleyball night. Exercise itself led to a weight loss of 0.5 lbs per week, playing volleyball twice a week. Does that sound puny? For two reasons it's not. First, I love volleyball! This was no treadmill, and it soon became a firm habit, and something I really hated to miss. Second, the weight loss was slow and steady, consistent - and after a year it added up to over 25 pounds. I still loved food too much, and had not made many changes to my eating habits. Two helpful ones, however, were: reducing evening snacking from fatty foods in large quantity to modest foods in modest quantities (pretzels, low-fat ice cream), and cutting lunch portions at restaurants in half to save them for later.

Those two consistent changes helped me to lose 40 pounds from my peak weight. Yet at that point I seemed to be hitting a plateau. Right at the 250 lb mark, I could not seem to go below it. I had got somewhat complacent on eating, and after a week of vacation with the family found the weight starting to creep back up. I needed to kick things up a notch and get back on track, and this time I would have to take a closer look at what I ate. Three things really helped at this point. First, I started learning about what was in the food I was eating, how many calories there were in my snacks and fast food choices. Second, I read several books on fitness including Jim Karas' "The Business Plan for the Body." Third, for several days I forced myself to work off the evening snack calories on an exercise bike before I could eat them. Boy, was that an eye-opener. The exercise bike is way too boring for me to stick to for the long term, but it was good for motivation to get informed about my snacking choices. This new information finally helped me to see my eating habits as choices I had to own, and made me consider them as strongly as I considered the cost of the meal - and as a strictly on-the-value-menu kind of guy, that's saying a lot!

Like some of my friends who got more enjoyment out of clothing when they bought them on a great sale, I now found myself greatly enjoying foods that were a calorie or nutritional 'bargain', including low-fat snacks and (to my surprise) salads and fruits. I also found that by adding a few snacks or mini-meals I would eat far less at dinner and overall. Knowing how you are doing is very important for success, and for me it too was motivational. Knowing my calorie 'budget' for the day, and knowing I was on track through dinner, let me enjoy some ice-cream in the evening while knowing I was would hit my goal for weekly weight loss.

Coming to the present, I'm happy to report my weight loss total has reached 56 pounds and ten inches off the waist! I'm under the 'obese' level and have a target of another 10-25 pounds to get out of the overweight zone completely (which would be the first time in twenty years!) Happy with my new food choices, having fun with the exercise, not feeling deprived of food I like, and keeping a consistent weight loss rate of 0.5 to 1.0 pounds per week, I have confidence I'll reach these goals.

Friends who've seen the weight loss and greater energy sometimes say "I could never lose 50 pounds", but that focuses too much on the end point. I didn't lose 50 lbs - I lost half a pound, repeatedly, over the course of the last two years, and I've enjoyed it. That doesn't mean it was easy to start exercising, or start eating salad, or that I never got frustrated, but there was nothing fundamentally hard about what I did. Choosing to become fit - flipping the switch in your mind - along with taking baby steps on a consistent right path, will do it. If you have any questions, or if I can help any of my friends or family to take a few of these steps, please let me know!

Good luck!

Monday, September 24, 2007

So you don't like exercise?

One of the biggest barriers to tackling weight loss for me was that I just hate exercise. Ill-fated attempts in the past at jogging or aerobics didn't last long. The only exercise I've ever been able to keep up long term was the few that I actually enjoy. So here are a few thoughts to help get you thinking about getting a bit more active.

* Once again, baby steps

One reason exercise is so unappealing is that we don't have the energy for it. The good news is that as we get more active, our energy level and ability to exercise without collapsing improves rapidly. The first times doing it may well be a struggle, but trust me, it gets better. When I started playing ball again after years of near total inactivity, I was sore for four full days after playing for a few hours. The next time out, I was only sore for three days! Next was two, and before long one day. After a few weeks, playing without overdoing didn't leave me feeling sore the next day, but instead, feeling kinda good. If a total coach potato bearing an extra fifty pounds can get over the hump in a month, so can you. Just remember not to overdo it, and not to give up.

* So little time

The second huge reason for not exercising was that I felt I didn't have any free time available for it. That's another reason to do something you enjoy, and for starting small. For me the time ended up coming out of time playing computer games; for many people it comes out of the slice of life given over to TV viewing. Doing even moderate exercise with an exercise ball or resistance bands while watching TV is a good start.

* But I don't like treadmills

Neither do I! When sedentary people think about 'exercise' they usually think of things they don't like. Instead, consider just how many different things are available for someone trying to get just a little more active. Team sports: Basketball, volleyball, frisbee. Solo or with a friend: Aerobics, tennis, ping pong, badminton, tae bo. There's also a lot of activity not usually considered 'exercise' but that gets you moving. Drumming, gardening, dancing, to name a few. Find something that you find satisfying, and do it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Nutrition and Weight Loss

To say I've not put much consideration into nutrition or the types of food I've been eating is a big understatement. To not only do well on the weight loss but to improve overall health and minimize risk of disease down the road, I've had to start learning more about nutrition. A healthy eating plan is one that emphacizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk, includes lean meats, beans, eggs and nuts, and is low in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars.

Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, is not a good idea. People who eat fewer meals tend to eat more and weigh more. A low fat breakast, especially with fiber, is a useful tool in the weight loss arsenal.

What about Low carb diets?
* Idea: Many people eat too many carbs, which promote insulin production and lead to weight gain.
- The good: Low carb diets tend to be calorie restricted as well, around 1200 calories per day,
so yes, many will see a loss of a pound a week with these.
  - For those with, or at risk for, diabetes, there may be advantages to reduced carbs.
- The bad
  - Low carb diets lump together good carbs (most grains, beans, rice, pasta, some vegies and fruit) with bad (simple sugars).
  - Low carb diets can lead people to eat way too much fat and protein
  - The initial 'burst' of weight loss on starting such a diet can be mostly water loss due to glycogen conversion
  - Fad diets tend to be temporary and hard to maintain long-term. Without changes in eating habits long term, weight may return.

Reducing or eliminating sugary drinks is a smart choice both for your diet and for your teeth.

"Nutrition Guidelines for Weight Loss" suggests the following:
1. No less than 1200 calories a day, unless under doctor's supervision.
2. Find your calorie range, then subtract up to 750 calories a day.
3. Try to keep your carb/protein/fat ratio between 50-55% carbs, 20-25% protein, and 20-30% fat.
4. 8-10 servings of grains per day.
5. 7 servings of vegetables per day.
6. 2-4 of fruits per day.
7. 4-6 oz lean meat or 2-3 servings of soy per day.
8. 2-3 servings of lowfat dairy products per day.
9. Try to drink 64-100 oz of water daily.
10. Eating disorders are common and serious.
11. Moderation, variety and balance are key.

They provide a 'sample day' for a 25 y/o female, 5'8", 160lbs, lightly active.
(Calorie Range 1950-2200, Weight Loss Range 1200-1950)
- Eats Breakfast: 2 pieces of toast w/ peanut butter and jelly (100% fruit),
orange juice, coffee (black), water = 400 calories, 2 grains, 2 fruit, 1 protein
- Goes to Work (desk job): more water
- Lunch: 10" sub sandwich (w/ meat, cheese, and veggies), chips, tea (unsweetened)
= 800 calories, 4 grains, 2 protein, 1 dairy, 2 veggies
- More Work: more water
- Snack: carrots with ranch dip = 150 calories, 2 veggies, 1 dairy
- Goes Home ;Runs 30 min: more water
- Dinner: salad with turkey bacon and olive oil/raspberry vinegarette,
garlic toast = 350 calories, 3 veggies, 2 grains, 1 protein
- Does Light Housework
- Relax and Snack: Hot Cocoa = 150 calories, 1 dairy
Total: 1850 calories, 8 grains, 7 veggies, 2 fruit, 4 protein, 3 dairy

Remember the four food groups and the old food pyramid? It's gone through serious revision since I learned it as a kid. The pyramid has been turned on its side and expanded. There is more emphasis on individuality, balanced eating, physical activity, whole grains and fiber, and more detail on what kinds of fats and oil to avoid. They have a nicely done web site with a lot of information, and personalized charts to help users know how much of what they should be planning for their meals, and tools to keep track of these. Check out MyPyramid at

Some other useful links to find out more about nutrition and weight loss:

Friday, September 14, 2007

Weight Loss and Exercise - Facts and Myths

Ok, time for a quiz! Which of the following are true, which are false?

1: Exercise is not very helpful at all for losing weight
2: Exercise is very important for getting to and keeping the right weight
3: An hour of exercise can be wiped out with one spoonful of food
4: Some people have a harder time losing weight than others
5: You don't need to exercise to lose weight
6: You don't need to diet to lose weight
7: Carbs are bad
8: Carbs are good
9: Fat is bad
10: Fat is good
11: A calorie is a calorie, what you eat doesn't matter
12: How you get your calories is very important

Ready for the answers? For the questions above, the answers that are true are: all of the above. The answers that are false are: all of the above. Each one contains partial truth, neglects part of the story, and may often be presented as some kind of 'secret' to weight loss success. Let's take at closer look at each of these.

1, 2, 3. Exerercise is (not) helpful for weight loss. Whether it is or not depends on goals and expectations, as well as what kind of exercise you're doing. As discussed recently, walking five days a week for a half-hour - while helpful for your heart and wellness - is only going to burn about an extra 500 calories a week. That's less than one medium shake or large burger. On the other hand, playing full court basketball for several hours a week for six months or might be enough to lose 10-15 lbs. The longer your time frame, the more frequent or energetic the exercise, the more helpful exercise will be for weight loss. If you're looking to shed 20 lbs by the big dance next month, you would need to run up and down the court for four hours a day, every day. For short term weight loss, significant changes to your diet are necessary (and beware, fast off, fast back on). As for an hour of exercise being wiped out in one spoonful, it's possible. One very heaping tablespoon of peanut butter could indeed wipe out the gains of an hour of slow walking. One spoonful of low fat ice cream won't do too much damage to an hour of jogging though. (Not that peanut butter is bad, it just contains more calories and more fat than most people think.)

4. Indeed some people DO have a harder time losing weight than others. There are differences in body chemistry, hormone levels and metabolism that do make it tougher for some people to lose weight. Typically women will also have a harder time losing weight than men. The problem with this statement is that so many people use it as an excuse for not even trying. It's harder for some people to do their taxes than for other people, but if you want to live right and do well in the long run, you need to make the effort to do both.

5, 6. You can definitely lose weight by doing just one or the other. As discussed above, exercise may take longer but can be useful to lose some weight. However, if you're eating too much, or eating the wrong thing, you'll hit a plauteau with exercise - and you'll be missing out on a lot of other health benefits from eating right. Likewise, you can cut out/cut down some foods and shed a few pounds, but will be missing the significant health benefits of consistent exercise. There is also some synergy to doing both together. When you start watching what you eat and know the calories in tempting foods and the exercise required to burn off those same calories, it can be a big motivating factor to say "no." Also, using extra workouts to counteract those days where you do blow it on the diet is good for keeping you on track and avoiding demoralization.

7, 8. Carbs are absolutely essential for your body to function. Some people have success with a low-carb diet, others don't. For me it's inconceivable to envision a long-term future where I deny myself the carbs I love, so I'm not going there just for a short-term gain. For some whose main downfall is too many carbs, it might be a good way to 'kick off' a long term change in eating habits. But unless that occurs - a long-term change in eating habits, weight taken off will not stay off. One thing that should be considered though, is that frequently we eat far too many refined or over-processed carbs, and sugars, instead of the more healthy complex carbohydrates and high fiber foods. Making some simple changes such as your choice of bread and drinks, can go a long way.

9, 10. Fats are not evil, they too are absolutely essential for the body to function. The problem, especially in America, is that we eat way too much fat in our diet. Also, there are huge differences in the health risks associated with different kinds of fats (trans, saturated, unsaturated, etc.) This is an area I need to learn more about - but I'm starting by reducing trans fats and targeting no more than 30% of my daily calories to be from fat. I'm not at this point trying to eliminate fat from everything. For me that would unsustainable, and highly demotivating. But I have switched from a couple of kinds of high fat snacks to much lower fat and healthy snacks.

11, 12. For weight management, a calorie is indeed a calorie; there's no significant difference in where it comes from. 3500 fat calories or 3500 protein calories will both net you one pound. But for healthy eating and getting what you body needs, what you eat and how you get those calories matters quite a bit. For more information on that, see "A calorie is a calorie, or is it" and "Calories + Nutrients = Food"

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Role of Exercise in Weight Loss and Wellness

An excellent online calculator for exercise may be found at the Freedieting website. You can enter a target number for minutes of exercise, or number of calories to burn, and find out how long (or how many) various exercises are needed for you. For a 210 lb. man, a half-hour of basketball will burn 400 calories. For a 160 lb. woman, a slow walk is about 150 calories per half-hour, or twice that number for a typical step aerobics workout. Another very useful calculator for calories burned includes household and occupational activities. (For example, scrubbing floor on hands and knees for a half-hour is 300 calories for a large guy. I think I'll stick to volleyball.) There's a similar calculator for both sports and everyday activities at The Fitness Jumpsite. Looking more closely at these charts I see entries like sleeping 100/hr and computer work 160/hr. That confirms the numbers for a given activity are total numbers, not extra calories compared to sitting around doing nothing. (So burning 300 calories in an hour of low impact exercise is only 200 'extra' calories burned above your basal metabolism rate.)

Let's look at few examples of the role of exercise for weight loss. First, 45 minutes of basketball twice a week is an extra 650 calories per week, or a pound per month. That could improve if it motivates you to eat better, or might see no actual gain if it makes you hungry or you 'reward' yourself with a huge bowl of ice cream! Walking briskly five times a week for a half-hour is about 500 calories per week over sitting around doing nothing, taking seven weeks to lose a pound. These numbers may not seem huge, but they're an effective improvement over the long term and provide many other advantages. Besides, they add up. When I started playing volleyball twice a week for several hours I was a bit disappointed by the lack of any quick weight loss. Taking over four months to even see a ten pound loss was frustrating at first. Then the consistency of the slow weight loss, the enjoyment of the sport, and the feeling that what was coming off was going to stay off, changed my attitude toward exercise. Sticking with it, after playing for a year and a half, I had lost forty pounds and was feeling much better.

There are several benefits to regular exercise, besides the extra calories burned.

1) It's good for your heart and your health. The heart itself is a muscle that benefits from cardiovascular/aerobic exercise. It doesn't take a tremendous amount of time for this benefit, about 3x per week for 20 minutes. (5x for 40-60 minutes is even better, but that's a much bigger time committment.) By aerobic exercise it doesn't have to be an "aerobics class", but anything that gets your heart goin' and keeps it goin' over an extending time like tennis or cycling (target 60-70% of max heart rate, which is around 220-your age).
2) Exercise improves muscle strength and flexibility, and helps to reduce risk of injury when you're not working out.
3) Increasing the amount of muscle mass relative to fat in your body will increase your base metabolism and burn more calories even when not exercising. How much seems to be a matter of some debate. Strength training and resistance exercise is more effective at building lean muscle mass than cardiovascular exercise.
4) Regular exercise can help reduce the risk for the following
- High blood pressure — Regular aerobic activities can lower blood pressure.
- Cigarette smoking — Smokers who become physically active are more likely to cut down or stop smoking.
- Diabetes — People at their ideal weight are less likely to develop diabetes. Physical activity may also decrease insulin requirements for people with diabetes.
- High levels of triglycerides — Physical activity helps reduce triglyceride levels. High triglycerides are linked to developing coronary artery disease in some people.
- Low levels of HDL — Low levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL for men/less than 50 mg/dL for women) have been linked to a higher risk of coronary artery disease. Recent studies show that regular physical activity can significantly increase HDL cholesterol levels and thus reduce your risk.
5) Other health benefits of regular exercise
- Physical activity builds healthy bones, muscles and joints, and reduces the risk of colon cancer. Millions of Americans suffer from illnesses that can be prevented or improved through regular physical activity.
- Physical activity also helps psychologically. It reduces feelings of depression and anxiety, improves mood and promotes a sense of well-being.
- The 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity also suggests that active people have a lower risk for stroke.
(Source: American Heart Association. The American Heart Association also has a useful PDF called "How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?")

Choose some activity you enjoy, preferably with a friend whose company you enjoy,
and get movin'!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Some Weight Loss Math

I'll try not to get too much lost in the numbers, but let's take a look at what is needed to gain/lose weight or maintain your weight. The types of food you eat do affect your health and should be considered, but for weight loss, the bottom line:

Rate of weight gain/loss = [Calories you take in] - [Calories you burn]

This gain or loss occurs at a rate of one pound per 3500 calories of calories in excess/deficit of what you need. The second term, how many calories you burn, is made of up your base metabolism (what you burn even while sleeping, sitting, breathing, over the course of a day), calories expended during exercise, and 'thermal effect' of food (what it takes to actually digest your food, which is about 10% of your intake). Some people are more 'gifted' in others in their base metabolism - you know, those guys who can eat absolutely anything and not gain weight. Chances are that instead for some of us merely passing by chocolate can make us gain weight.

The two main factors you have control over are:
1) The number of calories you eat per day (on average)
2) The number of extra calories you burn each day/week with exercise

For most people, the first factor is by far the dominant one, the second factor can be quite important (as well as good for overall fitness). (A third factor would be to increase lean muscle mass by weight and/or resistance training. For those serious about it this can be quite helpful, but for now let's focus on the two main factors.)

Most of you already know that one gram of protein or carbohydrates contains about 4 calories, while fat is 9 calories per gram. There are a ton of resources on the web with the caloric information for most foods. For restaurants and fast food, there are also several good sources, like Shape Fit and Calorie-Counters. These sites also give information on sodium which is helpful to watch.

If you can consistently eat 500 calories less per day than you need, you will lose 1 pound per week, which is a great target over the long term. Actually, for most people anything over 2 lbs per week is far more likely to come back or to lead to yo-yo dieting. Feeling like you need to lose about 20 pounds for 'the big event'. Don't wait until a month before! Four months at about 580 calories per day reduction will get you there.

Liquid calories are especially bad, providing far less feeling of being full and higher in calories than most people think.
A 12 oz can of soda has 150 calories, and the 20 oz bottle has 250.
A large soda at Burger king is 420 calories.
A medium size shake is 500 calories (small around 400, large around 700 calories)

While cutting down (or out) fast food is probably 'best', a less painful 'baby steps' approach is to simply arm yourself with information on the calorie counts for some of your favorite items, and when needed find a better substitute. For example:

KFC's: Chunky Chicken Pot Pie (it's got veggies, so it's healthy??) 770 calories
    Tender Chicken Roast sandwich, no sauce: just 270 calories
    or the Honey BBQ Sandwich, with sauce: 310 calories.
Taco Bell: Mucho Grande Nachos: a whopping 1320 calories, or
    the Grilled Stuffed Burrito: over 700 calories.
    Soft Taco, around 200 calories. Chili Cheese Burrito 330.
Arby's: Roast Chicken Casear weighs in at 820 calories,
    Regular Roast Beef 350 calories.
McDonald's: Steak, Egg and Cheese Bagel is 700 calories,
    Hash browns are just 130, 2 eggs alone are 160 calories.

Small changes and consistently eating a little differently (or a little less), really does add up. Other things being equal (which of course is never the case), a change of one can of soda per day will eventually lead to a weight loss (or gain!) of 10 pounds. (That value comes from 150 calories per day for a soda, divided by a ballpark estimate of 15 cals/day/pound needed to sustain body weight for a lightly active person.)

Suggested action ideas (from least involved to more)
- Make some deliberate change in food choices or portions
   to cut out 500 calories per day
- Look up your favorite fast food or desert calories and see if
   they're reasonable or something that needs to be changed
- Add in some more veggies, fruits, salads (not Caesar, and dressing
   on the side or 'lite')
- Journal what you eat for one week to get the real data on calorie intake
- Set a reasonable goal, set a comfortably long time frame,
   and make a plan to reach it that takes 'baby steps'

Next time I'll look at the important role exercise plays in weight loss.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Some Fitness Math

Over the next few posts I want to shift from motivation and examples for losing weight to some more quantitative information that's helpful in evaluating your needs and in setting appropriate goals. In particular, there are a few numbers that anyone concerned about their weight should know. First, what do you weigh? Simple enough, just get on a scale. Second, how much should you weigh? Third, how many calories per day do I need to maintain my current weight (which will help you know how much you you should be targeting if you want to lose weight.)

Am I a Healthy Weight?

One common and useful measure of the body's relative weight is the Body Mass Index (BMI). Online BMI calculators may be found at Free Dieting and HealthLink. This measures a the persons weight relative to their height. It is an important number to know because life expenctancy decreases for those with sustained BMI of 26 or more. (People who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, but you probably already know that.) Waist size above 40 inches (for men) or above 35 inches (for women) is also associated with increased health risk. The CDC has a BMI calculator for children and teens as well as adults.

Calculation of your percent body fat is another good indicator of whether your current weight is healthy. A useful body fat percentage calculator may be found at the freedieting website.

Several sites put together this information to give an ideal weight. In reality, any weight where you feel good about yourself and are in the healthy range for body fat percentage is a great weight.

How do I Determine My Body's Daily Calorie Needs?

An easy way to learn how many calories you need each day is to use this online calculator which accounts for age, gender, weight, height and activity. Another good one is the Mayo Clinic calorie needs calculator. The Healthy Body Calculator gives both caloric needs and body mass index. There are many other calculators or simple formula, but if they don't include factors like weight or activity level, they're over-simplified.

For you engineers out there, the Health Recipes website has a very good article on "How to Determine Your Body's Daily Calorie Needs." It covers this topic in considerable detail. The question is tougher than it looks because the body's needs depend on its basal metabolic rate (BMR), energy expended during physical activity, and the thermic effect of food (energy required to digest and metabolize food, about 10% of your caloric intake). A calorie needs calculator that lets you pick the formula to use may be found at the freedieting website. This website also has an ideal weight calculator and BMI calculator as well. There is also a weight loss calculator that will give the date you should expect to hit a target weight for a variety of levels of daily caloric deficit. (Hmm, it seems that I like the Harris-Benedict formula, which overestimates my caloric needs by about 200 calories compared to what is probably more accurate, the Mifflin-St Jeor formula) What I like about this calculator is that it gives a rock-bottom value for how many calories per day I should not go under to avoid fat starvation effects.

Next time we'll look at how this information is useful for weight loss, followed by discussion of the impact of exercise on weight control.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Baby Steps for Fitness

One movie I've enjoyed is "What about Bob?" with Bill Murray, which portrays a man trying to overcome many phobias who is counseled to take "Baby Steps." As with other types of change that are difficult, the most important thing is starting. Waiting for perfect conditions, or choosing a path too steep can keep us from starting, and can lead to a quick and frustrating failure. If someone is doing no exercise at present, deciding to go out and start running 10 miles everyday just isn't likely to work. For many people, cutting out carbs would be too big a step as well.

In addition to taking small steps, I think it's helpful to make choices about what we do that are sustainable and will work in the long term. Or if a short term route is taken, realize that, and know how you'll follow-up. Here are a few examples of things I've tried in the past that were too big, and some other changes made that were more sustainable and effective.

* Snacking - I'm a night owl, and it should be no suprise that seven hours after dinner, I may occasionally get hungry. Trying to eliminate after-dinner snacking has never worked for me, though I've tried several times. Oh sure, I can last a short time, but it's too painful and not sustainable. Instead, choosing some incrementally healthier snacks has been doable. Instead of a large bowl of potato chips, I go for a huge stalk of celery. Not! That's too big a change - instead I now prefer a small bowl of flavored pretzels with mustard and habanero sauce. There's absolutely no sense of missing out on flavor or having something delicious (and the heat makes the amount self-moderating). Unbuttered popcorn is another popular choice in the family.

* Exercise - Basically, I'm a couch potato who prefers mental activity over physical activity. Efforts at running or a treadmill were tried, but doomed to failure at the start. For me it's so mindnumbingly boring, it's not something I'll ever keep doing. So even if it helped me reach a weight loss goal, I know I would stop doing it and put the weight back on. What does work? Something you actually enjoy. For me that has become volleyball, when I found that a group of friends were playing casually competitive games twice a week. The first few times were exhausting, but I stuck with it and have been playing regularly for almost two years. Other physical activities I like are tennis and ping pong. For others, the specific activities will differ, but choosing something that you consider fun (or at the very least, tolerable) is crucial.

* Fruits and Veggies - Ok, I've never really been big on these. I don't loathe them, but I never enjoyed them as much as good old meat, carbs and fat. Eating the typical choices in my family, apples, pears, green beans, tossed salad, was always something I did because I 'had to', but didn't enjoy them at all. But by being selective and choosing things I like, I'm finding there are a lot of choices that I like a lot, like mango, canteloupe, pineapple. One in particular I probably would never have chosen just based on the name was musk melon, but it's delicious. For salads, I'm finding out the main reason I've been lukewarm on salad has been the dressing, typically vinegar-based or lackluster in flavor. Those I can't stand, while the ranch peppercorn or caesar I like are full of fat. There's a middle ground that I've found to work well - lite (fat-free) flavorful dressings like Honey Dijon, Catalina, or a lite ranch (on the side!) have brought the fun back to salads. Using those as dips also makes a lot of other vegetables a lot more interesting.

* Parties and Social eating - If I go to a party with food I love and force myself not to eat anything, I feel miserable. Maybe a day will come in the future where my willpower is better (ew, the 'w' word!), but for now that's too big a step for me. A baby step is however to plan for it in advance, compensate as much as you can, and strategically enjoy yourself at the party. Do not skip meals in preparation, that will just encourage you to eat more (unhealthy) food when you're there. Instead, make wise low-fat low-cal choices earlier in the day, knowing in advance the payback will come soon enough. If I know I'm going to have a huge dinner, I'll probably have a banana for breakfast, a low-cal lunch entree from the microwave, and will eat a large salad before I go to the party. I also know from experience I won't need to have a midnight snack on such an evening. Then I'm pretty much free to enjoy myself. With just a few strategic selections at the social (whether portion size, choosing some veggies with dip instead of the cheese-sticks), I can easily keep things on track for the day.

* Portion control and better lunches - Eating out, I love to go out to a mexican restaurant, eat a bunch of chips and consume a burrito as big as my head. Eating in, I tending to go for something like a Hungry Man's chicken dinner, since memories of "diet" selections were wickedly unappealing. What are some excellent short term choices? Never eating out and bringing in a paper back with skinless chicken and some carrot sticks of course. Do I see myself keeping that up for a year? (Do you?) Two baby steps have helped me a lot. The first (which I mentioned recently) is to divide the entre at a restaurant in half before I take my first bite and ask for a box. Is there still room for improvement, eating chips and half a burrito? Well sure! But in the meantime I have a double win - 400-500 less calories for that lunch, and the same amount or more by eating the leftovers and not going out a second time that week. The other very helpful step is retrying some of the newer selections available in frozen dinner/lunch entres. Oh my goodness, have they improved!! For typically under $3, I can get something that's delicious, balanced, and leaves me feeling "Wow, that was tasty". And the best news, it's usually only 300 calories or so. Sheesh, that's one half to one third of what I eat at Arby's or McDonald's or a restaurant. I had a bring-your-own-lunch meeting recently where a friend carried in a foot long sub with fries. Out of the microwave I pulled my dish. He asked what I was having. "Roasted red-pepper chicken over a bed of creamy garlic penne, with some apple cobbler crisp. It's 320 calories." His eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. He looked down at his bag and said "I think it's 320 calories just to smell what I brought." Even if I have a granola bar or some pretzels later to feel satisfied on volume, I'm way ahead of the game, and feel satisfied on flavor and taste.

Again, the thing I'm emphasizing is that you can greatly improve your diet, nutrition and fitness, by doing and eating things you really enjoy, with a little thought and effort, without feeling like you're punishing yourself. These changes alone won't make you lose ten pounds in a week. But guess what, they definitely can help you lose ten pounds over the course of a few months. If you're happy with the changes and can keep going, that could easily be twenty pounds or more in a year. That's just 200 calories a day, which is easily doable if you make choices you can sustain.

I have a feeling my friendly nutritionist would strongly recommend some further changes to my diet and would counsel me on fibers, the types of fats, and say I still need to double my fruit and vegetable intake, but I'm only now in a frame of mind (and body) to start to consider those further changes after having taken and succeeded in the baby steps described above. I also know some smaller friends and women are thinking the steps mentioned above wouldn't be baby steps for them, or maybe they've already cut way back on eating out and snacking. The specific steps, and the size of the steps, will be different for everyone. But if you can think of a few baby steps appropriate for your situation, that you can enjoy and keep doing, that burn or save 200-300 calories a day and take a step toward eating more healthy, those are steps well taken.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How did I get so big?

It's not a nice feeling to get on a scale for the first time in a year and get shocked by the number. First there is denial, then anger (though there need not be acceptance!) Seldom is it one factor that leads to such a surprise. In my observations I've noticed that people can get into trouble with their weight in a variety of ways. The following are a few of the ways people start gaining weight despite good intentions - and ones that were all contributing factors in my own 'sticker shock' on the scale: 

* Lack of Knowledge. When we don't know nutritional information on the foods we eat there can be little hope of losing weight, or even maintaining it! It's like shopping without looking at price tags. Start looking at the 'price tags', the nutrional label on your favorite foods and do a little research on what you like to eat out at restaurants. As I mentioned previously, switching from the Mucho Grande Nachos (1320 calories) to a soft chicken taco (190 calories) or from a steak/egg bagel the hash browns (130 instead of 700 calories) will make a huge difference.

* Lack of Awareness. Sometimes people are aware of the facts but are less aware about how much (or how often) they're eating. On several foods I was surprised to learn that the amount I would typically eat was 3 or more servings. Another killer for me was the candy jar at work, just way too convenient to dip into. The soda machine would be similar, but I only drink water and diet soda. For others, stress eating can be a big problem. They don't intend to eat an entire sleeve of crackers, but under certain conditions (or times) that's just what happens. If you don't intend to over indulge, just move the jar, put the crackers on a top shelf where you need a ladder to get them. (If that makes you laugh, knowing full well you'll get the ladder, read the next reason.)

* Lack of Self-Control. I listed the candy jar as lack of awareness, just because I would dip in so mindlessly and often. For others, they dip in with full knowledge and perhaps in agony, unable to resist. For me, there are several foods that if they come in the house, I'm toast. Once I open a bag of cool ranch Doritos, it's virtually impossible to stop. Egg Nog is another nemesis. The solution in this case is pretty obvious - don't bring them in the house. Do your shopping *only* when you're not hungry or craving something, and make sure you don't buy things you know you won't be able to resist. (This applies to several vices, not just food!)

* Lack of a Doggie-Bag. The portion size for most meals at restaurants is huge! A typical lunch could easily cover two or even three meals. Do you find yourself thinking you'll take some home, only to find yourself a half-hour later staring at an empty plate, stuffed? (I sure did!) For me an extremely simple trick works great. "Make the cut before you bite" Before you take your first bite, cut the serving in half and move it well away from the rest of the food. If I know in advance what marks "done" it's far easier to stop. Clearly, there may be some temptation to go beyond, once you reach that point. Console yourself with the fact that you're going to have this great lunch *again*, if you stop now - and you won't be tempted to fall asleep this afternoon either. This technique works particularly well with chinese food, mexican food, or other restaurants in your area with large quantities (I'm not as likely to cut a burger and half and save it for later, for example.)

* Lack of Exercise. This is a biggie that I'll get more into later, but it's quite rare to to find an overweight person that felt they were exercising regularly and effectively. Lack of exercise is not only a reason for weight gain, but for a host of other health problems (whether or not they occur now, or down the line.) Twice in my life I've been able to trace back significant weight gain to the point where I stopped doing exercise or sports that had been fairly regular (things were "too busy" at work to keep up with exercise). Getting back into some form of activity that I *enjoy* doing has been a great help in becoming more healthy and losing weight.

In an average week of eating without thinking, avoiding the scale, the excess calories due to the five factors above might be 1200, 1600, 1800, 2000 and 1200 respectively. If done poorly and consistently, that's a gain of two pounds per week and an eventual gain of fifty pounds. If you're only consuming 1/4 of the excess calories I was, or you ignore good eating habits "just" two days a week, that's still enough to put on about twelve pounds over the course of two seasons.

If you're facing one (or all!) of these problems, there's nothing "wrong" with you!
- You can be extremely intelligent and have a gap in knowledge about nutrional information.
- You can be very sensitive and aware in general, but may miss the mark at times.
- You can be extremely disciplined and show self-control in one area but have significant
problems with self-control in another area.
- You can be fairly active overall but still fall short of what is needed
in terms of exercise for weight control and for overall health.

if you recognize there is a problem, get past the denial stage and start thinking about what it is that has led to your present situation - what are the key contributors to being overweight, and think about whether it's time to do something about it.

Mind you, I'm not a medical doctor or nutrion expert, and there are a lot of other reasons for weight problems, including medications, lack of sleep, eating too quickly, too much fat and sugar, too little fiber, skipping breakfast, as well as eating disorders and psychological reasons. The ones listed above however are very common, and were ones that contributed to my own weight gain.