All the right moves

Friday January 29th 2016, 5:08 pm
Filed under: Main

From August to January, or roughly six months, I managed to maintain a fairly remarkable consistency in my healthy lifestyle habits. Relatively few parties, not much eating out, and -sadly- no major vacation breaks.

So it was with trepidation that I planned a five day visit to the East coast to see my elderly mom. She is a tolerant soul, but always makes a jab or two about how all of her kids have their “special dietary needs.” Or as mom told my aunt before we drove out to see her, “Jonathan won’t eat our food. He eats his own food.”

I realize that 14 years after losing 50+ pounds you’d think I would have this travel thing down pat. But, no.

On my last trip I fell down a slippery slope slick with chocolate into a vat of junk and sweets.

Fortunately, in my training as a WeightWatchers leader, one of the key things we’re taught when someone presents a dilemma to us is to ask “have you dealt with a situation like this successfully in the past, and if so, what did that look like?”

So I took stock before leaving town. My first big obstacle are airports. When I enter one, my stress level spikes and I mindlessly hone in on the shops that sell candy and the food vendors that sell bakery treats. For years flying through O’Hare I would always stop and buy a crazy expensive bag of caramel popcorn and down the entire thing before boarding.

A few times in the past, however, I breezed past the airport crap easily because I had good food of my own, and plenty of it. So this time, I asked my friend who gave me a lift to SFO if we could stop at Trader Joes. She readily agreed.

I got two salads for my overnight flight, four apples, and some sugar free lemon drops. My friend bought some string cheese and made me take two of them. And I already had some crackers with a very small container of peanut butter from home.

Long story short, despite airport stress, a cancelled flight, and a last minute 3-hour rental car drive to mom’s, I had exactly enough food to manage my needs (both physiological and psychological).

And, once I reached my first destination, I dropped off my bags, changed gear and went for a six mile run, before packing mom into the car for the next leg of our journey.

That first successful 24 hours turned into the perfect set up. At that point I felt more virtuous than nervous, and I began to think that this would FINALLY be a good trip, not a crappy (food) one.

And so, each day I made an extra effort. My mom and aunt are entirely sedentary, for example, so that meant announcing I was going for a run or a walk and then departing! I also drove (and/or walked) to the market and got my own food, even though my aunt insisted she had “healthy” food on hand.

Finally, on the very early morning flight home, I arrived at O’Hare to change planes. It turned out I had a 90 minute layover.

And there was the popcorn right across from my arrival gate. What to do?!

Well, I decided to see how many steps I could get in on my Fitbit.

My first goal was 3,000 and that was easily met walking the terminal. So then I decided to walk the next terminal over. 4,500

And then the NEXT terminal over. 6,000.

Finally, after stopping to eat the healthy breakfast I had brought with me (mixed crunchy greens from Trader Joes with fat free yogurt on top), I decided to go for it.

10,000 steps!!!

I cruised through all three terminals again and made it back to the gate with almost exactly 10,000.

And you know what? It was FUN. And it felt great. And it totally took care of my stress.

Looking back, I have to say two things about the week: (1) staying on plan took lots of planning and much effort and (2) all of that work paid off in spades and made the trip MORE enjoyable –at least for me.

Can’t speak for mom


Fighting Evolution

Thursday January 21st 2016, 3:39 pm
Filed under: Main

From what I understand, human beings evolved over millennia in situations where food was more likely to be scarce than abundant. Even in societies that moved to agriculture and then industry, there was a lot of work involved in obtaining and preparing food, and a relatively high economic cost.

But in 21st Century America, all that is out the window. Cheap calories are everywhere. I’ve seen cookies and serious candy offerings in clothing and electronics stores, and now “drug stores” are much more like supermarkets than anything else.

And no matter what you read about the cost of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, the fact is that once you adjust for inflation, all of this stuff comes to us at a far cheaper cost than ever before. (And besides, we’re not getting fat from bread and milk, we’re overindulging on fries and soda and nachos and pizza and etc.).

When you hear talk of an “obesogenic” environment, what it means is that everywhere we turn there is an overabundance of food. And if we just respond naturally to the cues in our environment, we will end up consuming enough excess calories to become overweight.

Or as I like to say “Just follow what your friends, coworkers, family, and neighbors are doing, and you will become among the 66% of Americans who are now overweight or obese.”

As a result, the challenge to being a healthy eater today isn’t just about making good food choices. It’s about making those choices in an environment that doesn’t support what you are doing.

In a three hour staff meeting yesterday, we started off by having sandwiches and a tiny group “salad” (romaine lettuce mixed with a TON of shredded cheese), and then had a cookie and brownie plate (with a paper cup filled with M&Ms in the middle) and then finally moved on to cupcakes.


There was no fruit, there were no fresh vegetables, and the desserts on offer were literally enough for ten times the number of people we had at the meeting. And yet no one, at any point remarked at all about what was there.

Personally, I brought my own salad from home (mixed greens, shredded cabbage, broccoli slaw, 0.25 ounce parmesan, 4 oz of chicken, and dressing made from 1/c up of fat-free salsa plus 2 teaspoons of olive oil). And I munched on an apple during “dessert.” (Since when does lunch require dessert?).

Yet at the end of the three hours, I felt exhausted. Not just because the meeting itself was overly long and very stressful. But because I find it extremely hard to be surrounded by junk food and not eat any of it. I have little willpower, and I dearly love anything made with sugar, fat and salt. Especially cookies, brownies, candy, and cupcakes.

Thousands of years of evolution were telling me EAT EAT EAT!

It’s no wonder that with “only” 14 years of being a sensible eater under my belt that this journey can still feel like such a challenge.

It’s hard. And I love it.

Wednesday January 13th 2016, 8:22 pm
Filed under: Main

I’m a runner, and it’s fair to say that I love running.

Yet I don’t find running easy, and I often have trouble finding my motivation to get going. Every run I undertake is its own accomplishment, and yet most days on most runs, I go through a period of seconds or minutes where I imagine stopping, turning around, and walking home, where I will throw away my running shoes.

I point this out because people endlessly complain to me that maintaining weight loss is “harder” than the actual process of losing weight itself. I try not to judge…. but that’s just silly on the face of it. How can it be “harder”?

Losing weight requries efforts. Maintenance requires effort. The End.

The problem is, that we sometimes convince ourselves that once we reach our healthy or ideal weight that we will be transformed individuals, who seamlessly integrate into our lives permanent auto-pilot strategies that will keep us in line …forever.

But maintenance is like being a runner. It’s not enough that I ran two weeks ago, or that I completed a half-marathon last year. To be a runner, I need to run many times a week, and keep running all year long.

To maintain my weight, it’s not enough that I kept a food journal, exercised restraint, became fit, and lost 50 pounds fourteen years ago. Everything I put into losing needs to be in place in some way to keep being a successful maintainer.

In fact, again and again, when I have reduced the effort that I put into my weight management process, I have regained either some or a lot of weight. In the interest of honesty and accuracy, I must confess that a chart of my weight since 2002 would look a lot like a reverse rollercoaster, with any number of steep rises and long, slow declines.

To my mind, it’s not because maintaining my weight is “harder.” It’s because gaining weight is so damn EASY! For instance, all I have to do to gain some weight is stop running. Or eat more cookies. Or both. (Note: I have indeed tried this strategy.).

So back to this running metaphor — what I know is this: some part of the process has to be enjoyable, either while I’m thinking about it or doing it or reflecting on it afterwards. It helps if I find pleasure in all three. I don’t have to be happy and blissful every flipping second, however. It’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to sometimes even hate it.

One of the things that helps me when I’m running is to focus on my immediate surroundings, rather than how far I have to go. Another thing is to be aware of and acknowledge that I’m exerting effort, as an observation, rather than a concern or a complaint. “Wow, this is hard!” is perfectly fine to say as I’m climbing slowly up some steep incline.

Another key thing is to make an effort to be appreciative – “Look at the view” or “Gosh, I ran far today” or “I’m so glad I’m strong enough to be out here under my own power.” I also laugh at myself, take time to be in the moment emotionally, and –of course– watch my dog effortlessly, flawlessly, and joyously run his strong legs off.

Now that I’m at my healthy goal weight, I am working to incorporate these same strategies into my maintenance efforts. I note in my food journal when the going is hard, and I jot down ideas and events that are playing into my food choices. I take time in the morning to observe my body in the bathroom mirror uncritically — accepting and noticing every part of my body whether it’s ideal or not, and appreciating that I’m alive, breathing, and still in the game. I make sure to curate the clothes in my closet so that I’m wearing only things that fit me well (neither too large, nor too small) which underscores the value of all this good health. I also think a lot about food and how to be satisfied and not feel deprived.

And, of course, I run.

Samson and me, post-runIMG_9699[1]

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Hungry Like a Wolf

Thursday January 07th 2016, 2:27 pm
Filed under: Main

A pattern I have noticed about myself is that when I eat (especially in the evenings), rather than achieving an increasing sense of satisfaction and slowing down as I “fill up”, I tend to do the reverse – I eat very quickly, and the more I eat the “hungrier” I get. It’s not unusual for me to eat 50% or more of my daily intake in just one hour at night.

I end up feeling simultaneously bloated and ravenous. As crazy as that sounds.

I’ve adopted a number of approaches over the years to address this, although I haven’t hit on a truly satisfactory solution. I always start by eating something super healthy and filling– usually steamed vegetables or a baked potato, and then by having some protein, and either a smoothie or something else to drink. From there I often move on to popcorn, or crackers, or whatever else I have in the pantry. (Note: it’s NEVER apples!).

Yet again and again I find myself inhaling my food with little pleasure, and only a wild feeling of “what can I eat NEXT?!” filling my thoughts and emotions.

Interestingly, I know that if I tell myself I need to stop, it can backfire. I’m already in an emotional, non-logical state of mind, so I guess it makes sense that whatever is driving me to keep eating isn’t going to take kindly to the idea that I’m doing something I need to curb.

In the past, I’ve set a 15 minute timer after eating the initial evening meal to give myself a break. This is partially effective because I respond better to “waiting” as opposed to “stopping.” I’ve also tried things like allowing myself to eat whatever I want, but only up until a certain clock time (say, 8 p.m.). I like these methods, and will probably continue to employ them. But they don’t really get to the fundamental issue at hand.

Why am I in such a rush? Why do I become like a frenzied wolf wailing down on an animal carcass?

Very recently, instead of using a timer, I started listening to a 10-minute guided meditation. During the mindfulness portion, there’s a body check-in, where I tune in to my physical self and listen to what is going on, literally from head to toe. Sometimes I’m initially reluctant to do this, since I know what the result will be: I will become aware that my tummy is full!

The benefit, of course, is that meditation is calming and centering, and it’s entirely non-judgmental. I always (!) end up eating a little more afterwards, but usually it’s with a greater sense of satisfaction and pleasure.

Eventually, I would like to come to terms with whatever triggers my night-time “inner wolf”. Because no matter how good I am at building effective coping strategies, I’m still not addressing the root of the issue. There’s a part of me that simply doesn’t want to give up on this type of food frenzy. I worry that I would feel empty or deprived or defeated if I couldn’t have my night-time eating episodes.

But maybe, just maybe, if I can learn how to be good and kind to myself and to care for myself in a gentle, kind, and supportive way, I can leave the wolf behind.

What’s Best?

Sunday January 03rd 2016, 7:35 pm
Filed under: Main

In Oprah’s newest commercial for WeightWatchers she invites people to think of 2016 as the “year of your best body.” It’s an interesting and provocative idea.

What is the “best” our body can be?

People who are drawn to losing weight (like me), often consider the “best” to equate to the “thinnest.” It’s an understandable idea, but of course fraught with potential problems.

99% of women do not have the genetic makeup to look like a supermodel, nor do I have the potential looks of a fitness magazine coverman. It’s easy to say the media are to blame for our desire to look like these people, but who buys the magazines, who purchases the clothes, who perpetuates this body stereotyping?

In my life, I’ve been much thinner than I am today, and much heavier. I was the least happy with my heavier self, yet neither was I in a good place when I became super-skinny a few years ago (more by accident than by design).

Right now I feel as though I’m in great shape – my body does amazing things (takes me running, gets me through workouts at the gym, propels me up every staircase I can find, etc.). Given that I’m middle-aged, it’s a blessing to know that my body still responds so well to clean eating and healthy forms of exercise.

Up until now, I’ve always considered my WeightWatchers “lifetime” goal weight to be the upper bound of what I should weigh. But lately I’ve been thinking that it’s really just a target, and being above or below that scale number is less important than feeling like I’m getting enough to eat, that I’m happy and healthy, and that whatever I’m doing is sustainable over the long run.

So, will 2016 be the year of MY best body? I sure hope so.


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Thursday December 31st 2015, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Main

For better or worse, I’ve generally been the kind of person who follows “the rules” first and asks questions later. (With all of the downsides that entails. ) In recent years, however, I’ve experienced a growing ability to question “received wisdom” – particularly when it flies in the face of my own experience.

One such dictum that I tried to follow, but which never rang true to me, was the advice that “variety in the diet is important to weight management.” In fact, during my 13 years as a WeightWatchers leader “getting more variety in your daily diet” has been the assigned topic of the week more times than I can count.

So over the years, I have labored to have variety in my foods, and I’ve experienced lots and lots of guilt over my preference for simply eating the same types of things every day.

I suppose this all stems from the widely held belief that “variety is the spice of life.”

But here’s a secret – I don’t even LIKE spicy food. I don’t even own any actual spices (other than a bottle of “Mrs. Dash” – a salt-free seasoning powder). No salt, no pepper, no nothing.

That’s why it hit me like a lightning bolt when I was reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “Diet Cults” in which he pointed out that three commonalities among people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off are 1) weighing yourself regularly, 2) getting exercise and 3) … drum roll… “monotonous eating.”

Monotonous eating?!?

In essence, people who eat the same WAY all the time, whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday, whether it’s August or January, tend to be more successful with long-term weight management. Predictability in eating helps people monitor their intake, and wards against the tendency to overeat.

In fact, when I look back on periods of time when I was managing my weight well, I have always been very routine about my meals and food choices. For example, since August, I have had the same breakfast nearly every single day: fruit, yogurt, and granola.


Now, I always try to have two different kinds of fruit, and I vary the types of fruit I’m eating. I switch off between plain cow’s yogurt, goat yogurt, and (when I’m feeling wealthy), sheep yogurt. And once I finish a bag of granola, I try to buy a different brand or flavor the next time I’m at the market.

But the routine is the same.

And, in truth, my lunches and dinners are along those lines as well: the core ingredients might vary a little, but the menu is pretty much always the same.

My suspicion is that variety might be important for SOME people. That the idea of routine eating might send some people running for the cookie cupboard. For them, having cookbooks and lots of novel food ideas feels both exciting and satisfying.

But for me, I’m okay with the same old-same old.

Except for one thing – I’d rather use the term “metronome” than monotone. My routine eating sets a pace for me to go at that doesn’t vary, that keeps me on the beat, and serves as a touchstone for the music of my life.


If the pants fit…

Wednesday December 30th 2015, 7:04 pm
Filed under: Main

I hate losing. I have known this ever since I was a little kid. The youngest of five siblings, I learned early on that I was never going to win if I played any type of game with my older brothers and sisters. Inevitably, I would end up in tears.

As a result, throughout the course of my adult life, I have assiduously avoided direct one-on-one competition, or any other situation where it would be clear that someone was a “winner” and someone was a “loser.”

Years of therapy…still no change there!

Fortunately, one thing that I have learned is that if I set small, doable goals, I feel good about accomplishing them.

This approach is broadly supported by the WeightWatchers philosophy. Start small and build your journey one milestone at a time. They have awards for weight loss, such as 5 pounds, or 5% of your weight, but also for getting started (the 4-week key chain!) or intermittent charms that can be earned through attendance goals.

Back in August, I decided to go after this approach in getting back on track with my healthy eating. Among my first goals was to “write everything down.” (I say “write” because I prefer to keep a hand-written food journal).

That was actually a daunting task, and I went after it one day at a time. I didn’t tell myself I would do it “forever” but rather, “for now.”

Once that was underway, I started to set other end-of-the-month goals for myself, like reactivating my OK Cupid profile, or fitting into more of my work clothes.

Bit by bit, these small, do-able goals led me to take better care with my food choices and slowly rein in my weight. I couldn’t even fathom what long-term “success” would look like back when I started at the end of the summer. I just wanted to feel like I was back in control, and I wanted to see that I had made progress.

It took months and months, but as reaching my healthy goal weight started to look more and more like a reality for me, I made one more short-term goal: if I had any clothes in my closet on Dec 31st that didn’t fit me, I would get rid of them.

Over the years, I have learned that it’s best if I try and keep only one size of clothes at all times, but my 2014 weight gain had led me to pack away a few too-small-now things that I wasn’t ready to get rid of.

Delightfully, I found that I fit into all of my work clothes by early November, even if a little snugly. And then I found my jeans were too big (!) so I bought new ones and got rid of the old ones.

Finally, this morning I went back to the closet with resolve (even if it IS a couple of days early). I pulled out the last few things (two pairs of shorts, a pair of khakis, and two knit shirts) that were too small the last time I tried them on.

On they went.

Voila. Everything –every last damn thing– fit me.

Actually, I decided that I didn’t really like one of the shirts, so I’m still getting rid of that.

But today I’m wearing the smallest pair of pants I’ve owned in 10 years. Unremarkable pants in every way, really.

But they fit.


So, I guess this is the only kind of losing I will ever be happy about.

Next up: new short term goals for maintaining!

What’s the Point(s)?

Monday December 28th 2015, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Main

True confession: I get a little bored with WeightWatchers members who argue over the “points” values of nutritional foods.

Is it 2 or 3 points for that plate of shrimp? Is it 3 or 4 points for that reduced-calorie whole wheat bread? Are jumbo eggs more points than large?

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I don’t mean to be impatient or rude. But when I examine my past and the food behaviors that led to me gaining weight, it was never lean proteins, whole grains, or dairy products.

More like …rapid consumption of large quantities of processed foods high in sugar and fat. Cookies, chocolate muffins, granola, candy bars, ice cream, etc.

A good example of a behavior that I engaged in even just six months ago: drive to Whole Foods, buy one pound (!) of peanut butter chocolate milk balls, and eat most of them while in the car on the way home. Feel queasy, so eat some crackers to “calm my stomach.” Then, an hour later, tell myself “That’s okay” and then crack open a package of Oreos.

If there were an Olympic event for crazy non-stop eating, I could definitely be a medalist.

Now of course, it IS possible to overeat anything. Clearly, even a vegan could become overweight. Certainly, one could binge on bananas and avocados. But in my experience, the first step in managing my own weight is to work on the extremely caloric foods.

Of course, once I’ve begun eating healthy, I absolutely DO monitor my intake – I weigh cheese, granola, seeds, etc. on a pocket digital scale. I use measuring cups and keep a close eye on crackers, peanut butter (not a red-light food for me, fortunately), and honey.

Yet because I’m an active person, it doesn’t matter so much to me if I’m having 3 ounces of chicken or 5. If I used ketchup on my turkey burger. If I buy a large sweet potato instead of a medium.

Psychologically, for me at least, a healthier goal isn’t to MINIMIZE the “points” of what I’m eating, but to MAXIMIZE my sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.

Perhaps I’m lucky. Perhaps for a majority of the population, a little extra quinoa, avocadoes that are too large, or excess lean chicken breast can tip the scales in the wrong direction. But for me, as long as my daily caloric intake is from “real food”, I’m more likely to be seeing the kind of results I like.

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Numbers On My Mind

Wednesday December 23rd 2015, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Main

Last weekend I kind of freaked out.

Before leading my two WeightWatchers meetings, I normally hop on the scale for an unofficial peek at my weight. This past Saturday, after a week of fairly consistent effort and a lot of hope for progress, I was somewhat devastated to see that the scale hadn’t budged.

I went ahead and led my meetings, but the scale number was on my mind. And for an hour during my normal post-meeting 7-mile run, I went over and over in my head how I felt about NOT losing weight, and how to be patient and not throw in the towel.

After all, the current WeightWatchers program is called “Beyond the Scale” and it’s supposed to be all about the importance of food, fitness, and fulfillment. Not just one’s weight.

Odd as it might sound, seeing no change on the scale made me question everything I’d been doing over the past five months and whether I could stand ONE MORE MINUTE of being careful about eating and exercise.

Screw “Beyond the Scale.” I was mad and disappointed.

I wanted chocolate cake. And donuts. And maybe a dozen Christmas cookies or two.

Ironically, when I got home later on, I flipped through my food journal to the prior Saturday (where I had noted my weight that week) and ….WHOOPS… turns out that my weight was actually down.

What? All that angst? All that “I can’t stand this any longer”? All of that self talk about hanging in there and not giving in?

None of it necessary, as it turns out.

A few days later, on Monday night, when I did my “official” weigh in, the scale showed that I was at my healthiest/lowest weight since May 2014.

Now, I’m in agreement that things like clothing size, physical fitness, appearance, energy-level, and mental well-being are extremely important to a person who is (or was) overweight. I like the idea of focusing on the whole person, and what is necessary to live a good and meaningful life that is not based on what some machine tells you about the earth’s gravitational pull on your body.

But am I, personally, “Beyond the Scale”?

Apparently not.


Get Smart

Tuesday December 15th 2015, 8:04 pm
Filed under: Main

As someone who lost 50+ pounds in 2002 as a WeightWatchers member, and who has been on staff as a meeting leader for the company since then, I care a lot about what goes on with them. The latest WeightWatchers program debut is called “Beyond the Scale”, which introduces the idea that being your best self is about “Food, Fitness and Fulfillment”.

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Staff members were introduced to the new food points system for the plan a few months ago, so that we could learn how it works before we presented it to the broader public. As with every other points change I’ve faced in the past 13 years, I was a little skeptical at first.

But I have always been on board with the fitness piece. It’s just that now our focus will be on the idea that physical movement throughout the day is a worthy lifestyle change in itself. It’s not about swapping exercise for oreos. It’s about getting in touch with your healthiest core habits.

And the fulfillment thing is crucial – the idea is that meaningfulness and a sense of purpose in life don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything we do about work, relationships, family, food, activity, etc. feeds into our overall sense of wellbeing. So you can’t really just focus on “losing weight” as a way to become happier, it’s the other way around. A happier person is more likely to lose weight.

So… back to the food system. WeightWatchers latest points system (“SmartPoints”) is basically this – start with the caloric value of a food, and reward it for being higher in protein and/or penalize it for being higher in sugar or saturated fat. Since each person has a daily maximum allowance, the goal is to minimize the SmartPoints value of each meal or snack eaten.

For non-vegetarians who already are eating exclusively healthy foods, the SmartPoints are no big deal. It’s easy to live within the SmartPoints budget you get by choosing fruits, non-starchy vegetables, lean protein sources, and fat-free dairy. But for non meat eaters, and people who love snack foods, there is a HUGE penalty for the carbohydrate (sugar) content of foods. Even of whole grains like quinoa.

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There’s been a lot squawking this week about how Beyond the Scale makes it hard (impossible?) to eat chocolate, or cookies, or crackers, or cereal, or ice cream. Even innocuous things like coffee creamer become a challenge. I think those complaints are entirely understandable, but they underlie an important truth about the American diet:

In the 21st Century, WE EAT A LOT OF CRAP.

For 50+ years Madison Avenue has told us we can eat whatever we want, and Americans have swallowed that hook, line, and sinker.

Along comes a fairly mainstream company that says “No, actually, you need to be very careful about how much sugar and saturated fat are in your food” and everyone is up in arms.

We’ll see how this plays out. Since WeightWatchers doesn’t take a position on artificial sweeteners (which is uses in some of its branded products), there is a certain double-speak going on about “healthy” foods. But all in all, I think it’s a bold move.

The only question I have about this latest strategy – is it truly SMART?