Building A Solid Road for Weight Loss: The Bottom Layers Count

One of the alleged perks of being an English Major is that literature isn’t created in a vacuum, which was my see-through excuse for minoring in history. Basically, people write about what they know and what happens around them. For those of you rolling your eyes, I’m volunteering Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. Both of their most famous works (Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, respectively) are brilliant satires on the England of their time. 

The beauty- and flaw- of this interconnection is that it lends real depth and strength to the stories, which is why we remember the mini Lilliputians and the Red Queen shouting “off with their heads!”  The flaw is that the stories are strong enough to stand on their own and no one remembers why the Lilliputians are so little and why the Queen wants to behead everyone. 

So what does a didactic Queen Victoria and petty self-absorbed 18th century Englishmen have to do with weight loss? One word: foundation. Actually one adjective and one noun: strong foundation. When we build a strong foundation for weight loss, or rather a healthy lifestyle, the healthy lifestyle will eventually stand strong on its own. The sum becomes greater than its parts. We don’t need to know the ins and outs of the history behind Swift & Carroll to enjoy the stories on their own. Usually only nerds like me care about the history; the rest of the world just likes the story. 

Since literature is rather ephemeral,the history geek in me is going to give you a more concrete example: the Appian Way, or virtually any Roman road. The Romans understood- probably better than any other culture- that if you’re going to build something, you should build it to last. All across the former Roman Empire, the modern civilizations currently living there are still using the roads, aqueducts and bridges (among other things) built by the Romans a couple thousand years ago. The solid foundations of those ancient roads still hold up better than modern creations, putting up not only with 2000 years of traffic but also continuing to withstand our modern trucks, buses and cars. One of the major frustrations of modern engineers is- again- the Why behind the strength in the Roman roads. Why do they last when something “modern and sophisticated” collapses after some rain and a couple decades of use? The secret is literally the concrete in the foundation. Roman concrete and the foundation of the road is why they last. It’s the bottom layers that no one sees and everyone forgets that give them their staying power. 

So when we go to build our healthy lifestyle to eat better, be more active and lose weight, we tend to focus more on the superstructure than the foundation: we want something that “looks dramatic” rather than the mundane stuff no one notices. Example: we decide to do a 21 Day Detox or a 6 Week Keto Reset or a Five Day Fast rather than something ‘dull’ like tracking for 14 days. Why is tracking so important? Simply put: we can’t measure what we don’t monitor. How can we improve our diet if we don’t know what our diet really is? We might think that we’re ‘eating clean,’ ‘eating high protein,’or that we’re ‘eating less,’ but studies show we really do have selective memory. We may remember “breakfast, lunch and dinner,” but forget we snacked on the peppermint patties after lunch or the latte we had after breakfast or the peanuts we got on the way home from work. Likewise finishing the last slice of pizza in the fridge after dinner or the marshmallows and hot chocolate while watching tv. Those little memory lapses add up over time and eventually tip the scales, literally. Until we know what and how much and how often we eat and drink, we can’t measure any healthy progress or make real healthy changes. It’s not glamorous or exciting, but it’s a solid foundation for positive changes. Once we know what we’re eating, we can begin making real changes and even more importantly, we’ll know what works and what doesn’t. This last simple truth is priceless. Example: if you think you’re eating low carb but “don’t count” the peanuts you have several times a week after lunch, you may not be as low carb as you think, and if you’re trying to get into ketosis, those peanuts might be getting in your way. Or it might not be the peanuts: it may be your ‘few times a week’ latte or the combination of the three times a week latte and the handful of peanuts each afternoon at the office. We might think of these as ‘occasional indulgences,’ but how ‘occasional’ are they really? You’d know if you tracked. 

The same is true if you’re trying to improve your insulin resistance: the longer you go between meals, ie fasting, the better it is for your insulin, but if you’re not tracking, you may not realize that “supposed sugarless, calorie-free” snack you’re eating multiple times a week is what’s getting in your way. If you’ve changed everything else and it’s still not working, that snack may be the culprit, but again if you’re not tracking, that snack might keep sneaking by. 

Most people don’t like to track because they don’t want to measure or walk around with a notebook to write things down. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Personally I like a paper journal because I keep other notes in it, like my mood or any pain (arthritis aggravated by grains), or just simple things like sleep quality. Most of us don’t realize we’re walking around with mini computers in our hands all day long. Tracking can be putting down what we eat in our notes app, downloading a tracking app like MFP (My Fitness Pal) or Fitbit (especially if we have a tracker), or something as simple as taking a pic of everything we eat! It can be as complex or as easy as you want, as long as it works for you, but until we have a clear picture of our bottom line, anything we try to build on top of that is off to a shaky start! 

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