The Casual Blog

Tag: diet

New resolutions and my latest green smoothie

I have a soft spot for New Year’s resolutions. It’s generally a good thing from time to time to think about where we are versus where we want to go. Few, if any, of us that are fully optimized. At the same time, there’s never any shortage of small feasible steps we could take to make our lives better.

But personal self-improvement resolutions usually don’t get the job done. A prime example is our most visible, common, and serious public health problem: obesity. There’s no great mystery what needs to be done (eat less and exercise more), and most of us who aren’t naturally optimized for body mass know that much perfectly well. Nevertheless, each year the incidence of obesity is about the same or worse, and the over all trend in the last thirty years is worse and worse.

Plainly this is not a simple problem with an easy solution, or we would have solved it. But part of the reason we can’t successfully address obesity and other serious behavioral problems is our poor understanding about how our own minds work — that is, our own impulses and motivations. As regular readers know, I’ve been learning more about this in the last couple of years from reading Daniel Kahneman, Michael Gazziniga, Jonathan Haidt, John Brooks, and Edward O. Wilson, and I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. In addition to being inherently fascinating, these books have provided insights into life’s persistent problems, like over eating.

One of my main takeaways from these psychologists, biologists, and critics is that our reasoning processes, which seem at times so powerful and impressive, will get us only so far, and if we want to change behavior and minimize bad decisions we need other tools and tricks. Charles Duhigg’s book on habits and how to change them, which I wrote about recently, is a good signpost on this. If we understand our behavior in terms of the interaction of our emotional needs and our environment, we can experiment with changes.

But we may as well admit that eating is especially complicated. I’ve long been convinced that what we eat is a major component of how healthy we are and can expect in future to be. I try to keep up with current thinking about nutrition. Over the course of several years, I’ve developed a repertoire of habits that help me avoid most unhealthy foods and consume mostly things that have nutritional value.

But even so, I managed to pick up five pounds over the holidays. How did this happen? It was little things. Christmas parties and more restaurant meals, colleagues bringing to work delicious cookies that had to be sampled, and old friends sending gift baskets of treats. The combination of sweet things and childhood Christmas memories overwhelms all the circuits, and extra food is inserted in mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Of course, it was momentarily delightful, but it is so much harder to take the lbs off than to put them on.

Each year around January 2 we leave the land of the sweets and other excesses and things return to normal. New resolutions are made. Regarding eating, I’m trying some new ingredients in my breakfast green smoothies (pictured here and previously described here), including in various blendings, along with greens and fruit, hemp protein powder, marine phytoplankton, cacao nibs, and goji berries. It’s fun to mix a superdrink (as in superhero), and rewarding to be able to do something fabulously good for the body. I try to make it a point each day to be grateful for such good fortune.

How to eat and sleep better, and a brief report on my golfing

Sally and I stayed up late sipping wine with friends on Saturday night, and I overslept and almost missed my golf game at Raleigh Country Club on Sunday morning. I normally like to get to the course early and warm up before a round, but that didn’t work out. The day was sunny and mild, though breezy.

I walked the course with my push cart. My first drive was weak, and the succeeding drives were mostly shorter than my average.The rough was so thick that three balls disappeared never to be found, and those I found were difficult to liberate. These misfortunes and others caused several triple bogies and a disappointing net score of 103. Yet I hit some gorgeous approach shots. I sank three long putts (20-30 feet). But I missed three or four short ones (three to four feet). Golf is a beautiful but frustrating game.

Back in my New York days, everyone I knew read the Sunday New York Times. You had to read it too if you wanted to know what people were talking about and join in the conversation. I’ve kept the habit, though the original reason for it has largely gone by the wayside. Inasmuch as some of my best informed friends no longer read the Times, I will note two articles published today worth reading.

1. How to improve your health with food. An article by Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, provides clinical support for the kind of eating I’ve been doing in the last few years. Ornish says “patients who ate mostly plant-based meals, with dishes like black bean vegetarian chili and whole wheat penne pasta with roasted vegetables, achieved reversal of even severe coronary artery disease. . . . The program [which included moderate exercise and stress management techniques] also led to improved blood flow and significantly less inflammation” and lowered risk of various types of cancer. The program also resulted in sustained weight loss.

According to Ornish, “Your diet needs to be high in healthful carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in natural, unrefined forms and some fish, like salmon. There are hundreds of thousands of health-enhancing substances in these foods. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.” In contrast, he cites and large Harvard study that shows that consumption of red meat “is associated with an increased risk of premature death as well as greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.”

“About 75 percent of the 2.8 trillion in annual heath care costs in the United States is from chronic diseases that can often be reversed or prevented altogether by a healthy lifestyle. If we put money and effort into helping people make better food and exercise choices, we could improve our health and reduce the cost of health care.”

Ornish doesn’t say this, so I’ll say it: a vegetarian diet results in increased happiness. At least it does for me. There are so many delicious things to eat that also make you feel good. I mean physically and mentally, leaving aside the ethical dimension. But to be clear, the diet needs to include the kinds of foods noted above (though I take exception to the inclusion of fish on the list).

2. Rethinking Sleep. This article by David K Randall calls into question the standard wisdom that we all should be getting eight straight hours of sleep a night. It notes that much of the world today sleeps in other ways, such as millions of Chinese workers who stop for after-lunch naps. It also notes historical references to alternate sleep cycles, including from Chaucer, separating “firste sleep” and subsequent sleep. The article cites a current study in which a common pattern was for patients to wake up a little after midnight, stay up a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep.

This was of particular interest to me, because this happens to me a lot: I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I usually read something, and sometimes write. I enjoy the quiet time. But based on the received wisdom regarding how much sleep is generally needed, I’ve thought of it as sort of a health problem, and worried about it a bit. Now I’m wondering if the eight-hour sleep prescription is yet another instance of folk wisdom masquerading as medical science.

It’s reasonably clear that sleep serves some important functions for brain health, and that getting too little sleep can impair performance. But there’s evidence that power napping works well for some people. I’m hoping it gets to be more socially acceptable.

How to keep lost weight from coming back

Healthy snacks on the counter at Casa Tiller

Returning from travels over the holiday break, I stepped on the scales to find myself three pounds heavier. It always happens! I swear, though there were temptations aplenty, I was reasonably moderate in my eating and drinking. How amazing that the body can accumulate mass so quickly! Also, a little scary.

In recent years, I’ve not been much concerned with losing weight, but I’ve been working hard not to add it. This basically means being careful about eating and diligent about exercising. That sounds — so — boring! Even if you do it, who wants to hear about it!

Thus, I was interested to read the NY Times magazine piece titled The Fat Trap: Do You Have to Be Superhuman to Lose Weight? by Tara Parker-Pope. According to the article, sustaining a healthy weight after losing a lot of pounds is not just unusual — it’s extraordinary. Those who do it are a “tiny percentage.”

That’s a bummer, both for the individuals who struggle with their weight and for our health as a society. Scientists are trying to figure out why people usually gain back weight after losing it and what can be done about it. Meanwhile, as a member of the fortunate “tiny percentage”, I may have something helpful to contribute. I’ve previously posted about losing 50 pounds, but here are some additional thoughts specifically related to how I’ve kept that weight off for several years.

It isn’t easy, but it also isn’t impossible — obviously! In fact, the methodology is basically the same as any worthwhile achievement that takes sustained effort. If you’ve learned to play the piano, speak a foreign language, play golf, or whatever, you’ve probably already employed most of the same methods you need for ongoing weight control. You need to find your motivation, keep it simple, be empirical, and have fun.

1. Find your motivation. Actors talk about needing to find a character’s motivation to bring the character to life. Try it: ask yourself what you really want, and why. For anything that’s going to take a long, sustained effort, you’ll need a motive that carries real meaning for you — something that’s more important than simply feeling good right now. It helps to articulate it clearly. My own guiding motivation has to do with the battle with father time. More concretely, I’m working today to be able to ski the deep snow in the big mountains of Colorado and Utah when I’m in my eighties. The snow on the mountains is beautiful. I sometimes think of this in the very early morning when it’s still dark and I’m making myself go to the gym.

My friend in the gym on the roof -- the elliptical machine

2. Keep it simple. If a system is too complicated, it will not be sustainable. A good system is one you don’t have to think about very much once it’s in place. It involves turning good intentions into good habits. For myself, I have some simple rules that help in avoiding bad eating decisions, such as: no chips, no sodas, and no candy bars. For snacks, I put in place simple and nutritious substitutes, like apples, bananas, and baby carrots. If you are considering going vegetarian, I’ll note that one of its many benefits is helping to simplify the challenge of eating a healthy, less fattening diet. Anyhow, these types of snack choices have gradually become habitual for me, and as habits they don’t take much mental energy. Of course, there’s the countervailing powerful force of other lifelong personal habits, customs, traditions, and advertising tempting you to make bad eating choices. There will be slip ups — and hello, there’s three new pounds. Then you refocus, and move on.

3. Be empirical. Look at the available data, and consciously monitor how you feel. I bought a digital bathroom scale and use it every day. I watch food portions carefully, and notice whether I’m feeling too hungry or unenergetic. I have not adopted a single off-the-shelf theory of eating and exercise, because I think every body has somewhat different needs. What works for you may not work for me. You need to be experimental. If an approach isn’t working, chuck it, and try something else. If you test a healthy snack or an exercise approach that seems to work for you, try it again and see if it still works.

4. Be creative and playful. We’re talking about a long-term approach here, and if it is no fun, you will eventually give it up. Simple repetition is boring. Try out interesting new healthy foods and new exercises and sports. When traveling, I make it a little game in airports to find the least unhealthy meal, and to find something interesting to do in the little hotel gym. I vary activities over the course of a normal week, so that at the moment I alternate among the elliptical machine, the stationary bike, and swimming, and various types of resistance training. For more fun, I enjoy listening to music and reading while doing the elliptical. I’ve found that classes liven up the cycling experience. Every so often, I change the mix of activities and try something new.

So there you are, for whatever it’s worth. Having said all that, I’ll note again, sustaining weight loss isn’t easy. It takes conscious work every day and every meal. But it doesn’t have to be white-knuckle misery or boredom. The guidelines of motivation, simplicity, empiricism, and playfulness help. And developing skill with the guidelines could lead to other good things. They can be applied to any rewarding long-term objective, like learning a sport or a musical instrument.

Improved propaganda and healthier diets

For all the money and energy we spend on health care, you’d think we’d be more focussed on eating practices that improved our health. But changing eating habits is difficult. The forces of advertising and tradition powerfully reinforce our bad habits. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see the government’s replacement for the food pyramid this week.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s a significant improvement.

The pyramid was supposed to help us eat healthier, but it didn’t do that very well. The various versions of the pyramid were confusing where they weren’t downright misleading. In the past, the food industry has battled hard against changing the food pyramid, as well described in Food Politics by Marion Nestle. It would be interesting to know what happened to bring about the new symbol. Could it be Michelle Obama?

In any case, the new symbol emphasizes that half of your diet should be fruit and vegetables, and another significant portion should be whole grains. The other large chunk is dubbed protein.

The oddity, of course, is that there isn’t anything in the grocery store called protein. Many believe that eating meat is necessary to get adequate protein, although this is a myth. In fact, many plant foods (whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and nuts) are good sources of protein. It may be that the meat lobby figured that the meat-protein association is so firmly lodged in public consciousness that it will not be shaken loose any time soon, and so their markets won’t be threatened

The new graphic treats dairy products in a confusing way — a circle to one side of the main plate. This could be interpreted as a suggestion to drink lots of milk, but it could also mean that dairy is not entitled to the same status as the main dietary categories. This smacks of a political compromise with the dairy industry. There’s a growing body of evidence that cow’s milk is not good for humans, but the official new guidelines contain no hint of this. It’s good, though, that they recommend low-fat options.

Another subtle problem with the new graphic is that by depicting a plate completely covered with food groups, it reinforces our tendency to eat too much. Americans already have trouble not covering every square inch of their plates with food, and eating all of it. Our obesity epidemic proves the point. To be fair, the new web site (see link above) acknowledges the importance of reasonable serving sizes. Still, a better graphic would show that we should eat only as much as we really need to nourish ourselves, which for most of us means: eat less.

My weight loss secrets revealed

Over a two-year period, I lost 50 pounds to reach my personal goal and have now maintained my target for another year.  I learned some things in the process, and it may be that this information would help others.  We Americans have a tendency to thicken, which is both unsightly and unhealthy.   It isn’t a great mystery what needs to be done.  To sum it up in five words:  better eating habits and more exercise.  But even knowing that, it took me a long time to figure out how to get rid of excess pounds, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person to have had such a struggle.

Still, with all good intentions, I’ve found it difficult to write about this subject.  Part of the reason is, it sounds a bit like bragging, which I try not to do, or at least get caught doing.  Also, the subject suggests a certain narcissism, an excessive interest in one’s own looks or well-being, and I don’t like to think of myself as more-than-normally interested in my own physical aspects.  Also, it’s hopelessly hackneyed.  You can get more diet advice in the  grocery store checkout line than a normal person can digest in a year.

Still, the obesity epidemic persists, and in my own circle many continue to fight their individual battles of the bulge.  I’ll therefore dispense with further introductions, excuses, or formalities, and just say what worked for me.

1.  The most important thing is commitment.  I had a better than average diet and exercise system when I was at my largest (205 pounds), but it was not adequate.  The change began for me with a decision at age 50 to make real changes and a personal commitment to stay with them for the duration.  I developed a personal animating vision, which was this:   if no piano fell on my head first, I’d  ski deep powder at Alta on my 85th birthday.  Well, maybe not the exact day, since my  birthday is in July.  The point is, I would take care of my body so as to maximize health and happiness for quite a few years out.   I determined that I was willing to accept the sacrifice of certain customary pleasures, like Snickers and Lay’s, in return for my geezer powder day.  Developing a sustaining vision and planning to sustain it were essential for me.

2.  The second most important mental element is an experimental attitude.  It’s necessary to experiment with diet and exercise.  There really is no single formula for what to eat and what activities to do, even for an individual, because our metabolism is not constant.  The system that worked for the first 20 pounds may not work for the next 20.  I approached the effort somewhat in the spirit of a science experiment.  I tested a routine for a while, and if it didn’t produce results, I modified it.  I did not look for one comprehensive, enduring solution.  I accepted the likelihood that the process would always be one of trial and error.

3.  Eating is important, and should be done with loving care.  Keeping health in focus, I avoided fad diets, which are almost by definition unsustainable.  I triangulated from the conventional wisdom (e.g. the U.S.D.A. food pyramid) and respectable weight loss programs like Weight Watchers for eating advice.  My guiding rules, developed with the benefit of numerous inputs and through trial and error, involved healthier inputs and smaller portions.  Being vegetarian helps (though I should admit that I was a fishetarian-type vegetarian even when I was at my maximum).   At various points I focussed on (a) a larger percentage of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet, (b) a lower percentage of processed foods, (c) less fat of every sort (eventually I worked my way down to skim milk), and (d) fewer pointless carbohydrates.  I quit my habit of decades of having seconds at dinner, and got accustomed to a smaller plate of food.  I quit having desserts except on special occasions.  I quit having wine on weeknights.  None of this happened suddenly, and some of it I’ve modified up as well as down.   The point is, eating well involves eating more nutritious food and less unhealthy food and generally eating more sensibly.

4.  Snacking is important.  I made it my goal never to be hungry.  My reasoning was that I needed to continue functioning effectively as a professional and a human, and hunger makes it hard to do that.  Also, hunger tends to lead to overeating, and makes it hard to have small portions at meal time.  Also, hunger is no fun.  So, I tried to have a healthy low calorie snack every two or three of hours.  This required experimentation to find qualifying foods, and continually requires planning to make it work.  My current favorites include:  unsalted nuts (10 per serving), apples, bananas, raw carrots, small low fat yoghurts, and small bags of popcorn (100 calories).   Regular snacking on pleasant, healthy foods works.

5.  Exercise is necessary, and one probably needs to do more of it than one thinks.  Through trial and error, I discovered that my half hour of aerobic activity three or four times a week needed to  become 40 minutes of more intense activity five or six times a week to get rid of weight.  I’ve done just about every type of aerobic machine, including  ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, various types of stairs, and rowing.  I like to vary the activity both to avoid boredom and to work different muscles.  Lately I’ve taken up swimming, which I find challenging.  I vary the duration and intensity depending on how my body feels and other factors.  For example, I exercise harder and longer when the scale indicates a meaningful upward trend.  Weight loss is only one good reason to exercise, of course.  I’ve gradually come to enjoy my gym routine, with more of a view to strength, flexibility, and mental health.  But there’s no way to work around the need for exercising to lose weight.

6.  A good bathroom scale is helpful.  I got one that measures tenths of a pound and keeps a record of prior weights.  It’s part of the science project to take measurements.  I do it every day before I shower.  Some days there’s a little moment of happiness, other days a moment of less happiness.  But the feedback is important.

Could it really be that simple?  No.  My over eating had to do with my upbringing, culture, social milieu, and long standing habits.  Like most people, I ate (and eat) for many reasons in addition to the need for nourishment — happiness, sadness, anxiety, you name it.  A lot of bad eating has to do with bad habits, and habits are hard to break.  Breaking the worst bad ones  and building better ones did not happen all at once, and the process for me is still ongoing.  But I have proven to my own satisfaction that it is possible to change dramatically for the better.