Weight Loss & Your Goals: Fight For The Holidays You Deserve!

For those of us working to lose weight, the holiday season really is “make it or break it,” and unfortunately, this is the time of year where a lot of us give up on our weight loss and work out goals. This is the time of year when we have obstacle after obstacle thrown in our path. There’s holiday parties, edible gifts, seasonal drinks and treats and everywhere we look, there’s temptation staring us in the face. It’s also freezing cold in the Northern Hemisphere! Face it: if you’re in Australia, New Zealand or South America, you can go surfing after your big Christmas dinner, but up here, you’ll freeze your buns off in a bathing suit! For a lot of us, that’s excuse enough to ditch the workout!

While we really do want to lose weight and be healthier, more than a few of us are looking for an excuse to give up, especially this time of year.  We want an excuse to eat all the holiday goodies that are only available for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  We hate the thought of missing out on something special because we know if we do, we’ll have to wait until next year, so we rationalize why it’s okay to eat or drink this particular treat. For a lot of us, it’s just easier to give up our goals ‘for the moment’ and we promise we’ll ‘get back to weight loss after the holidays.’

Those of us who have been working at this for a while know that if you go looking for an excuse, you will find one.  I can guarantee you that right now! There will always be a reason why it’s ‘a bad time’ or why ‘this is an exception’ or how eating or drinking XYZ is a ‘necessary comfort’ for you. There is always going to be stress or exceptions due to holidays or celebrations and comfort foods to soothe whatever ordeal you are going through.  At the risk of being b*tchy, that’s just how life is!

There are those of us who always have ‘something’ going on in our lives and then there are those who like to think of their lives as simple and uneventful.  The truth is that however we think of our lives, there is nearly always a built-in excuse for why we can’t eat as healthy as we should or why we can’t make the workout that we planned on. My built-in excuse is usually my commute, although right now, I am also making twice daily trips to take care of my mom’s dog while she is in the hospital, so on top of everything else going on in my life, I’ve got this added to it! So, if I wanted an excuse to get drive-thru or takeout or to skip my workout, bingo! Here it is!

It’s tempting to say “I can get back to eating healthy once this is over,” except that would be giving up on something that is important to me.  Obviously, it’s better to be healthier, thinner, stronger and more flexible than to be overweight, eating junk food, and sitting around instead of being active.  I can rationalize that ‘doing those thing for a couple weeks won’t kill me,’ but it will set me back on reaching my goals.  It’ll mean I will have to make up for the time I lost as well as any weight I might gain.  It also means that I will probably have to ‘get back into the healthy habits’ again and that can take some time and some work.

Is it worth it to give up on something that is valuable to me in exchange for something that is easy and expedient? Obviously, eating fast food is easy and expedient since I can get it cheaply almost anywhere.  There’s nothing I need to prepare; I just take it home and eat it! The same is true for skipping my workouts.  If I’m not at the pool exercising, I have more time to do everything else I need to get done and I don’t have to walk out of a gym fresh from a shower into the freezing cold November night! (That can be a bonus!) Class attendance usually drops off in the holidays since everyone has more things to do and frankly, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like walking out into the parking lot in the cold! So skipping the healthy eating and working out gives me more time to cross other items off my To-Do List! I’m not driving home in the freezing cold; I’m not running around for healthy groceries or busy preparing healthy meals at home.

So what is it exactly I am giving up when I give in to excuses and rationalizations? I am giving up everything I have worked for in the past years and everything I want for my future. Frankly, that’s a lot to give up. Even worse, I am just throwing it all away in exchange for momentary treats that aren’t worth these goals. It takes work to reach your goals and that work usually includes a lot of sacrifice. We all know about making sacrifices, even if that’s not how we think of them.  They were all those nights we stayed up studying or working on school projects when we’d rather be asleep or out with friends. It was all those times we passed on spending our money on a movie, a night out or something else we wanted so we could save it for something special like a vacation or a down-payment on a car.  It’s about trading our goals and values for those momentary desires.  Yes, a brownie would be good but is it worth giving up what I really want and have been working for? No it isn’t.  We don’t think of a brownie in those terms but maybe we should.  When we were saving for a new car, how many times did we weigh a night out with friends spending money against how much that would set us back on the new car?  Seventy-five dollars on dinner out, a movie and a night at the pub is $75 less in the New Car Fund! Believe me, that makes you pay attention! It only takes a few of those “$75 nights out” before your New Car Fund is gathering dust or worse, dwindling away.

Losing weight, being healthier, and being more active aren’t just goals for my future: they are my goals for life right now too! I remember how icky I felt after overeating, eating junk food and sitting around all day. Not only was I not making progress eating better, feeling better and losing weight, but I physically felt bad: my hands hurt; my knees hurt; my back hurt and I just didn’t feel well! It’s bad enough to give up on my progress and my goals, but to give up something so valuable in exchange for something that makes me so unhappy? How foolish is that! It’s like trading in your New Car Fund for a used car with bald tires and 100,000 miles on it. Not only are you not making progress on getting something you really want and need, you are giving it up for something that is just going to end up costing you!

And if you think giving up on your weight loss and workout goals isn’t going to cost you (or cost you that much), you aren’t being realistic. It’s not only going to cost you on time and progress lost towards those goals, it’s going to cost you every time you feel cruddy because what you ate wasn’t the best for you or when your knees or back or whatever else stiffens up because it isn’t getting exercised like before.  And those clothes you like wearing? What about when they don’t fit as well as they used to? The truth is that for most of us, we didn’t realize how bad we actually felt eating junk food and sitting around until we have something to compare it to.  Once you’ve gotten used to walking around the mall without huffing and puffing, realizing you are doing it again is shocking.  When you realize the fast food makes you feel like crap, you really notice how good you felt eating healthy.  You notice how much energy you had after working out instead of sitting around on the sofa in the evenings feeling like a slug. This is the real cost and it’s not just what you are giving away for your future– it’s what you are giving away for your present! It’s ultimately up to you: do you want to spend the holidays feeling like celebrating with family and friends or do you want to spend them on the sofa–again–wishing you felt like you did before?

Broaden Your Perspective: Weight Loss & Tunnel Vision

This is kind of a follow up to my last post about being consistent.  One of the reasons we go off the rails is that get locked into “All or Nothing” thinking.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Dead Poet’s Society, there’s the scene where Robin Williams takes the boys out into the courtyard and has them walk in a circle until they are marching as a unit (Dead Poets Society Lock Step Scene).  We fall into the same routine when we get locked into that All or Nothing Mentality: we are so laser-focused on staying low cal/ low carb/ clean eating/ keto /whatever, that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Today follows yesterday and tomorrow follows today and we need to eat clean, eat healthy, eat low carb…..ahhhhh!!! Suddenly, we’re looking in the fridge and all that’s there are bags of salad greens and boneless skinless turkey breast! “How the heck did that happen?!”

If those are foods you love to eat, then don’t worry about it.  I usually have bags of butter lettuce-spinach mix in my fridge mainly because it’s a favorite with me and my dogs (they love it!) As for turkey breast, not a fan at all! Even with skin, if it’s in my fridge, it’s an accident and it’ll probably end up in the dogs’ bowl unless I fry it up with something else or add it to a salad (even then…) But the point is that we get locked into thinking that anything other than steamed veggies or salad greens is unhealthy or too many calories or carbs.  The same thing with any other proteins than chicken/ turkey breast and egg whites.  Everything else has too much fat, too many calories or it’s just not healthy! So we end up subsisting on ‘healthy foods’ that we’ve eaten for weeks on end and we are dying for something different! There we are, picking up trash bags and paper towels at Walmart and before we know it, we’re walking out of the store with the paper towels, the trash bags and two boxes of microwave popcorn (one is kettle corn), a bag of Hershey’s miniatures and a 6 pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups! We don’t mean to go off the rails, but we just couldn’t take another day of egg white omelets, steamed broccoli and grilled chicken breast!

We’ve been so focused on Healthy-Low Cal-Healthy-Low Cal-Healthy-Low Cal, march-march-marching along like Robin Williams’ school boys that we forget there are other foods that are also healthy and also fit in our weight loss plan.  We’ve lost sight of the forest because we’ve been staring so long at the trees right in front of us! This is a big reason why we suddenly snap and eat a whole bag of Doritos during the football game.  We don’t really like Doritos, but, hey, they weren’t carrot sticks! To add insult to injury, we beat ourselves up after we cram the empty bag into the bottom of the trash can: “what’s wrong with me? why do I always sabotage myself?”

The irony is that it wasn’t so much the Doritos that sabotaged your weight loss as it was the weeks of spinach- egg white omelets and steamed broccoli with chicken breast.  Yes, those are healthy and yes, they encouraged your weight loss, but they were also setting you up for a binge! I don’t mean that ‘eating healthy’ or ‘eating for weight loss’ is always going to deprive you and leave you bingeing your brains out on junk food, but limiting yourself to only a few “healthy” foods will cause you to crave something different- whatever that something might be!

It doesn’t happen only with “healthy” foods either. If you were eating junk food day after day, you’d start craving something homemade or something simple.  There have been times when we’ve all really wanted a crunchy salad, in my case it was because I’d been eating French fries forever! There are biologists who will tell you that humans’ love of diversity comes from a biological imperative to make sure we are getting enough nutrients. While that is no doubt true, it’s the $10 explanation for why we crave novelty and change.  When we’ve been eating beans forever, it doesn’t matter what it is that crosses our plates– we will eat it as long as it’s not beans!

While eating across a wider band of healthy foods is more likely to keep your hand out of the Doritos, it is also more likely to keep you healthier overall, for that very reason those expensive biologists mentioned! We’ve all heard the horror stories about Bob’s sister’s best friend Janis who lived on carrot sticks and fat-free ranch dressing, lost 50 lbs but turned bright orange! While that is an extreme example (yes, it does happen!), when we limit ourselves to only a few foods, we are also limiting our nutrition. Maybe you’ve heard the expression “eat across the rainbow”? Different colors in fruits and veggies signal different nutrients, so when you eat more colors, you get more nutrition that only eating the green ones or the yellow ones!

While staying consistent means staying healthy, it doesn’t mean it has to stay bland, tasteless or boring.  We can eat great food we love that’s good for us, low calorie, nutrient dense and full of flavor and stay consistent!  It just takes a little more imagination and we definitely need to remember the bigger picture but we should never be afraid to try something different!

 

 

DIY Weight Loss: No One Else Can Do It For You

You would think that’s pretty obvious: you can’t hire someone to lose your weight for you. In our society, however, we hire out as much of the hard parts of everything we can, and unfortunately, it’s those hard parts in weight loss that matter the most.

When it comes to weight loss, most of us look for three things when we choose a weight loss plan: 1) it works; 2) it’s easy; and 3) it’s fast. Sounds like great criteria, right? And really, it is. No one wants to waste time with a plan that doesn’t work, is more complicated than it should be and takes a long time to deliver results, or worse, delivers failure.

Our approach to choosing a weight loss plan isn’t much different than choosing a plan for a cell phone or Netflix. We talk to our friends: what do they have and what is working for them? There’s nothing wrong with information gathering; we aren’t asking our friends to lose our weight for us since they obviously can’t. The problem mainly comes when we sign up for one of the popular diets or weight loss plans.

These plans fit the criteria above: they’re fast, they’re easy and they seem to work. Check that again: they seem to work. What makes them easy and fast is that it’s all laid out: most of the food is already prepared, the meals are set up for you and all you have to do is heat and eat. All the hard work is done for you: you just make your choice from your stash of diet food. That’s what makes it easy and it works as long as you stick with the plan and most of these plans work pretty quick, because everything you’re eating is controlled.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t that what we want: fast, easy & practically guaranteed? Yes, it’s what we want but the problem is we aren’t doing it for ourselves. We hired out all those hard parts and those are the parts that matter. We aren’t actually making our own food choices: we’ve hired someone to do it for us. We’re not deciding how much we eat or even what we’re eating- we’ve let someone else make those decisions for us. And when it comes to sustainable weight loss, those are the important decisions that matter.

The problem with those popular diet plans is that they don’t teach us anything about how to eat healthy and how to make good food choices. That’s why the results aren’t permanent: once we stop eating their pre-packaged prepared food, we usually go back to eating what we ate before, usually something high-calorie, highly processed and not healthy for us. Obviously we aren’t trying to undo the success we had with our weight loss plan but once we’ve stopped eating their food, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a bag of diet cheese puffs and a bag of ‘reduced calorie’ cheese puffs.  The same thing with diet frozen lasagna from our diet plan manufacturers and ‘low cal’ frozen lasagna in the grocery store.  What do we learn on the weight loss plan we bought? We learned to eat packages that say “diet” or “low calorie.”

What makes weight loss so hard (and those diet/ weight loss programs so tempting) is that real sustainable weight loss and healthy eating means we actually have to look at what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and how often we’re eating.  Simply put, it’s a pain in the butt! It means reading labels for nutritional information, ingredients and serving size- literally, the fine print! It means going to the grocery store on a regular basis, buying fresh foods and- ack!!- cooking!  This is pretty much what most of us are trying to avoid and the weight loss plan people know that.  That’s why these “plans” are so popular year after year- you take the food out of the box, heat it and yay- you’ve just made dinner!  But think about it: how much of their business is repeat business? As in “I lost twenty pounds on Nutrisystem/ Jenny Craig/ Weight Watchers last year so I’ll sign up for them again since I gained it all back.”  This is also what we’re trying to avoid!

It really isn’t a choice between cooking or endless dieting, but it does mean that we have to learn how to eat on our own.  There will be some cooking involved but not the complex process most of us dread. There are a lot of healthy meals that can be prepared in thirty minutes and with a small investment in a pressure cooker/ slow cooker, even some of the more complex dishes can be prepared with a minimum of fuss.  Seriously, you put the food in the machine and set the timer. All you need to do is figure out when you want to eat it: half an hour or at the end of the day. (I bought an Express Crock Pot for my dad last Christmas because it does both and he loves it.) My own dinner last night took longer for me to eat it than it did to cook it: lamb chops in the cast iron skillet and fresh asparagus in the microwave steamer. It was about twenty minutes to prepare all told.  If I had gotten rotisserie chicken, it would have been faster. It’s easy, it’s fast and it’s healthy, and nothing came out of a package.  How complicated is that? It’s food that I really like eating and I got to prepare it the way I like it.

We’ve got to do it ourselves when it comes to deciding what and how to eat unless we plan on spending the rest of our lives eating diet food out of boxes and bags.  That means spending a little time on a learning curve. It also means that once we’ve learned what we like to eat, what works for us and how easy it is to prepare, we start picking up speed on that curve. One of the tips that works for a lot of people who aren’t fans of the kitchen is batch cooking.  This is where you prepare food for several meals and either freeze it or save it in the fridge. This can be something as generic as meatloaf or baked potatoes or chili, or something as ‘fancy’ as frittata muffins (omelets baked in muffin tins). I do a version of this when I make pork ribs or burgers: I make enough for two or three days and put the rest in the fridge. The ones I plan on saving for later I pull off the stove/ oven a little early so they don’t overcook when I reheat them.

Confession time: there’s a certain pride that comes from knowing how to do it yourself.  There’s a sense of independence and self-reliance that balances out whatever DIY hassle might be involved. It means you don’t have to be confused when your friends insist on going out to dinner and the menu doesn’t have a “lighter side” section.  When you know what is healthy for you, you can choose for yourself and feel confident in your choices.  Example: I eat Paleo (lots of veggies and some protein). I lose weight, feel better, have more energy and I like what I’m eating. When I go out with my mom, she likes the Olive Garden, so my favorite meal there is broccoli with baked fish. I get salad and leave the breadsticks (I never liked their breadsticks, so no loss for me there!) Something similar happens when I go out with friends: they like Asian so I get the chicken teriyaki, light sauce, no rice but all the stir-fried veggies (cabbage, celery, carrots, broccoli, bean sprouts). I’ve never been a fan of white rice, so again no loss for me!

Yes, it took a while to feel comfortable on this learning curve and learning to do it myself was a pain in the beginning. It was a lot of reading labels and figuring out that cauliflower rice, no matter how popular, isn’t popular with me. It also took a while to figure out that I really like steamed veggies and if I feel like something different, I can always steam a different veg or throw together a quick salad. It’s also kind of fun sharing my salad with my dog who is practically vegetarian! You don’t have to choose to eat Paleo or vegetarian or keto; you just have to choose healthy foods in reasonable portions.  You also don’t have to make a radical change to how you eat or how much you eat.  You get to decide all these important personal matters for yourself.  The point is that once you learn how to do it for yourself it’s actually easier than always depending on someone or something else. You make your own choices and you choose what works for you.  It can be as boring or as adventurous as you want it because you’re the one making the decisions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Experiments in the Kitchen: Better Living with Chemicals?

I’m usually in two minds about cooking.  I did most of the cooking when I was growing up.  My parents divorced when I was about 8 and once I was tall enough to reach the stove-top, cooking was my job!  I didn’t exactly hate it, mainly because I didn’t know anything else, but once I was an adult and living on my own, I cooked as little as possible! (I stopped dating one guy because he made it clear he expected me to be the ‘traditional housewife’- been there-DONE with that!)

The whole Not-Cooking mindset meant I ate mostly fast food and prepared/ processed foods, and in those days, there were not a lot of healthy options.  Fast food was burgers, fries, burritos, tacos, etc. and prepared processed foods meant a lot of quick carbs, and whenever possible, I ate as much bread as I could get down my throat.  ‘Eating healthy’ usually meant eating something low fat and low sodium with as many of those ‘healthy whole grains’ as I could get.  In short, it was a recipe for disaster.

Going back to cooking was probably one of the hardest things for me.  To be honest, I still don’t like it much and I really don’t have the patience for measuring out this and mixing up that and then letting it simmer for however many minutes. Sometimes when I happen to watch a cooking show, and they have something that needs to be heated or marinated or brined for hours, that is far too many steps for me. The same goes for something with a long list of ingredients: too much freaking trouble!

For me, food is simple.  I like something exotic or complex as much as the next person; I just don’t like it enough to make it myself! One of the podcasts I listen to is 2 Keto Dudes, and both hosts are true keto gourmands. Their recipes are pretty complex, but what I find more than a little off-putting for me is that they sometimes use ingredients that sound like part of a science experiment to me.  I really don’t want to add sodium citrate to my grated cheese so I can make a ‘melty creamy cheese sauce’ for a Philly type cheesesteak sandwich on some ‘keto friendly’ bread made with something else that sounds like it belongs in a lab.  While I do try keeping my carbs low (about 50 g daily), my goal isn’t to be keto or ‘zero carb.’  My goal is to eat healthy real food.  Recently, I heard an interview with Mark Sisson on the Primal Potential podcast, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said (paraphrasing here) “most Americans want to eat as much as they can for the fewest calories they can.”  Basically, the attitude is ‘how much can I eat without gaining weight?’

I think this is what’s happened with a lot of the ‘keto craze’: how can I give the food I used to eat a keto makeover so I can still have donuts, waffles and bread? When you listen to the hosts of 2 Keto Dudes, their attitude toward bread, donuts, waffles, etc is that they are horrible foods that can make you sick if you eat them every day.  Whether that’s true or not isn’t the point here.  Their attitude towards the keto version of these foods is that they’re wonderful and not ‘carbage’ (their word) and they taste delicious.  Again, the truth of this statement isn’t the point, especially since I’ve never tasted them so I can’t voice an opinion.  The point I am trying to make is that much of our current health problems with processed foods came from scientists and food manufacturers trying to find ways of making food taste better, be ready faster, and more convenient and presentable to the public.  Reading the reviews for several Paleo friendly versions of foods, I find there are a lot of complaints about ‘texture’ and a ‘strange after taste’ and other ‘aesthetics.’  The Paleo cookie doesn’t taste like a ‘real’ cookie so “save your money!” This is why we have frozen pizza with ‘rising crust’ and deep dish in ‘its own pan’ and it ‘tastes as good as delivery!’  We keep trying to find cheaper, easier shortcuts to get fast flavorful food that tastes as good as the ‘old fashioned’ foods we want.  Why spend most of the day making lasagna at home when we can buy it in a box and have it done in an hour?  So what if it’s full of chemicals and preservatives? It tastes home-made!

For a lot of Paleo, keto and other ‘specialty diet’ followers, including vegetarians and vegans (not all but a lot), their attitude is simply ‘processed food is killing us’ and for the most part, I agree.  One of the reasons I chose Paleo is because it’s real food and it’s real simple.  That is pretty much my criteria when it comes to food and most things I use: the fewer chemicals in it, the better.  This is why I think it’s strange that some keto eaters, Paleo people, vegans and vegetarians will opt for some kind of chemical additive to make non-meat look or taste like meat, make non-wheat/ grain bread look or taste like ‘normal’ bread or make their cheese sauce creamy without adding flour as a binder.  They would rather add something like sodium citrate, guar gum or xanthan gum to make a cheese sauce that tastes like a ‘normal’ cheese sauce.  Reminder here: that cheese sauce wasn’t good for you to start with, so why do you want to eat something like it? These are usually the same people who will tell you that fake sugar sweeteners are as bad for you or worse than plain old sugar and honey, but they don’t see the difference when it comes to switching out flour for ground psyllium husks in bread or tortillas or other low carb swaps to make their favorite non-keto/ Paleo foods.

For me, a big part of eating healthier is eating real food with as few chemicals as possible.  I’m all for a swap when it doesn’t stretch my boundaries too far, so like all things, it’s about limits.  Breading chicken with crushed pork rinds instead of crackers is okay and I’ll even go as far as having a Paleo cookie made with almond flour.  In fact, I recently bought some ‘Paleo cookies’ and the deciding factor wasn’t the reviews about texture but rather the ingredient list: Almond Flour, Raw Unfiltered Honey, Maple Syrup, Pecans, Coconut Oil, Sea Salt, Cinnamon, Vanilla Extract. For me, the flour started as whole almonds that I can toss in a mixer and grind myself.  The same with the pork rind crumbs: I can throw them in a baggie and mash them up myself.  But xanthan gum? Psyllium husks? That’s up there with some of the long unpronounceable additives I find on the Doritos bag and those are big red stop signs to me.  If I have to start shopping in the science department for my dinner, I think I’ll go without.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now Trending: The Keto Diet and Vegan Documentaries!

Recently there has been a lot of noise in the fitness and nutrition world about some things: 1) the Keto diet; and 2) the What the Health documentary currently available on Netflix.  I’ll be honest and tell you that I’m usually pretty leery of the latest craze.  Whenever something is “super popular!” is usually reason enough for me to stay away from it.  Part of it is just because I’m rebel enough not to follow the crowd, and the other reason is people tend to do stupid things just to be like everyone else.  That doesn’t mean that every new or popular idea is bad or stupid, but it means until I’ve taken a good look at it, I’m not going to go along just to be one of the crowd.

One of the hot new trends is the ketogenic diet: “everyone is going keto!”  “Keto is so healthy!” “Keto is so much better because of blah blah blah!” I tried keto before after being Paleo for several months.  It wasn’t as hugely popular as it is now, but the reason I tried it is that it is very good for insulin resistance (one of my issues). Adjusting to a ketogenic diet is not the easiest transition: there are a whole lot of down-sides to it, and for some people, staying on a ketogenic diet is just as hard.  Ketosis, simply put, is a metabolic state in which your body gets its energy from fat, either dietary fat or body fat, instead of from glucose (carbs).  In order for that to happen, you have to eat no more than 20 grams of carbs a day.  In food that means, one slice of bread (whole wheat or white) plus one tall Starbucks latte will put you over the 20 grams.  The half cup of cashews I had with lunch today alone were 14 grams of carbs! So, that means you have to keep your carbs extremely low (most people eating Paleo eat about 100 grams of carbs and most people eating the Standard American Diet eat about 200.) Most people make the mistake of replacing all those carbs with protein, but too much protein will keep your body from converting the fat to the ketones it needs for fuel because your body can make glucose from excess protein (gluconeogenesis).  The trick is to keep the carbs low and keep your protein at a moderate level and fill the rest of your calories with healthy fats (key word is healthy).  And once you start eating keto, there is the transition phase, usually called ‘keto flu,’ or ‘carb withdrawal.’  This is usually a few weeks of feeling irritable, tired, and just pretty ugh due to headaches and brain fog.  I heard one person say this is how you know you are doing it right! Yay?? But the prize is that once you get over that transition period, you have much more energy than before and your body is much more efficient at burning body fat, i.e. you lose a lot of weight and tend not to gain it back.

So obviously, you can see why keto is so popular: everyone is looking at the results and not so much as the path to get there, which is not always so easy.  If you are seriously considering a keto diet, which really is good for a lot of health and digestive issues, I would suggest you read Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore or The Keto Reset Diet by Mark Sisson (coming out in October).  Both of these authors have done their research and earned the respect of their peers. Both will let you know the limits of keto and any problems you may face; they don’t fudge the facts, even if they are unpleasant.

This is the problem with the What The Health documentary currently making waves in the nutrition world.  I’ve not seen the film and judging from all the critiques I’ve heard, I am not likely to waste my time.  The documentary is about the benefits of being vegan.  One of the critiques I’ve heard is that the producers and other experts behind the film are all vegans.  That is less important to me than the allegation that the information provided in the documentary is “cherry-picked” to bolster their viewpoint rather than giving us the whole story.  One of the ‘factoids’ put forth in the film is that people can get all the protein they need from about 2000 calories of rice.  It sounds good, but it’s not true. My family is Mexican, which means as a kid, I ate a whole lot of beans and rice! I can’t stand it now because I ate enough for a lifetime! I also learned- long before I was 12- why we eat them together: beans are an incomplete protein and so is rice, but when you eat them together, they complement each other and make a complete protein.  Eating rice will give you a whole lot of carbs and energy, but it won’t give you a complete protein! That factoid alone is enough to make me question the rest of their ‘facts.’  As I said, there are a lot of critiques being bandied about the fitness and nutrition arena, and none of the ones I heard were complimentary. Most of them were also from meat-eaters, except for the review by Laura Thomas I heard on the Food for Fitness podcast.  Laura Thomas is a London dietician/ nutritionist who is vegan.  She has been vegetarian since she was ten years old and went vegan in college, about ten years ago, so she has had some experience with the lifestyle, and she described this documentary as a “complete sh*tshow.”  She took issues with their “cherry-picked” research and incomplete explanations and overall felt this kind of “bad science” promotes fear-mongering rather than any of the true benefits of veganism.  I thought it was particularly interesting that the host of the Food for Fitness podcast, Scott Baptie, chose Dr. Thomas because of her qualifications and reputation and did not know she was vegan until they recorded the  actual podcast. Her less-than-stellar evaluation echoed the criticisms of the other reviewers, but because she was viewing the documentary as a vegan herself, it gave me all the information I needed to know: this really was “bad science.”

I have nothing against vegans or vegetarians.  Personally, I avoid looking at chickens and cows in the trucks I see on the road, because I know where they are going.  As much as I love animals, it bothers me to think that the food on my plate was probably something I’d have found adorable. I am sure the producers of What The Health were hoping to provoke more thought about animal rights and the benefits of a plant based diet, but bad science only hurts their cause. If they really want to promote animal ethics and their values, they need to show the world the truth, even the parts that don’t look good for vegans.

Unexpected Poisons: Toxic People & Relationships

Most of us who are trying to be healthier work at eliminating toxins from our lives.  These are things like chemicals in our food and environment.  Most of us know not to use Teflon or plastics with BPA and we avoid crops grown with Round Up.  We consciously choose organic and non-GMO to stay as healthy as possible.

But when it comes to the toxic people in our lives, we have a lot more trouble spotting them, and even when we do recognize them as being toxic, cutting ties with them is much harder than switching the brand of detergent we use.  For most of us, the toxic people in our lives tend to be the ones who are hard to avoid, like bosses, coworkers, or family members.  Realistically, if you have a friend who is an emotional drain on you, they usually don’t stay your friend for very long.  I had a ‘friend’ who only called me when he needed something; the rest of the time, he couldn’t be bothered with me, so one day when he called and asked me for a favor, I just flat out told him: “I haven’t heard from you in more than 6 months and the first words out of your mouth are ‘can you do me a favor?’ Call me back when you can be a real friend.”  He did call and apologize and ‘make nice,’ because he really needed the favor, but it was the last time I spoke to him. No loss there.

The toxic people we have real trouble with are the ones who are fixtures in our lives.  How can you cut ties with your boss or coworker without changing jobs?  Is avoiding someone who is a real drain worth the hassle of finding a new job? And why should you be the one to leave when the other person is the problem? Chances are they are a problem for others also.  Then there are the family members: cutting ties with them can be cutting ties with a whole section of your family, and if you happen to live with them, almost impossible.  In these cases, we usually just put up with the ‘toxicity’ rather than causing major upheaval in our lives.  It’s an unconscious cost-benefit analysis: is cutting ties going to be worth all the drama and uncertainty that’s going to come with it?

Honestly, this is where most of us sigh and ‘man-up’ and just live with the ongoing stress and negativity that comes with having these people in our lives.  To use another business analogy, it’s ‘the cost of doing business.’ There’s the sense that we are overreacting or being childish if we refuse contact with someone in our family.  We think we may cause a major family rift if we cut ties with someone or it could mean that cutting ties with one person means we lose contact with someone we really want to stay close with.

It’s not an easy decision to make either for work or for family, but sometimes the poison that is making you sick in your life isn’t what you’re eating: it is an actual person in your life.  If you were gluten-sensitive, you wouldn’t think twice about avoiding bread and telling others that you are gluten-free.  The same if you have a peanut allergy or any other kind of sensitivity: it’s a fact of life- XYZ makes you sick!

I have mentioned The Boss From Hell before in this blog and I know there are a lot of people who make similar references to ‘bad bosses’ in their own lives.  This woman literally made me ill and nearly killed me, and not just me either!  The Associate at this job also suffered from similar panic attacks, anxiety and stress related problems.  He and I both had trouble sleeping, concentrating and I actually developed a slight tremor and heart palpitations while at that job. What was worse was that it didn’t stop when I left the office: this woman would call and text me while I was at home, on my commute and on weekends, and as far as she was concerned, it was part of my job!  And she did the same to the Associate.  The last straw was when I was driving home and she called to complain about what I hadn’t done that day (namely call FedEx to see why she wasn’t getting a discount on the mirrors she’d ordered for her home that FedEx had delivered broken) and why I hadn’t finished my other duties that day (mainly because I spent much of my day on the phone with FedEx and the mirror retailer).  I practically had to pull over on the freeway because I was so upset.  The next day, I went to work and quit. And she could not understand why I was quitting or why a few months later, the Associate quit too!

Of course there was a lot of stress and uncertainty with finding a new job, but by the time I made the decision to quit, it was pretty much black and white: I either take my chances with the Unknown or I die at this job, because it was no longer a matter of ‘if this job will kill me,’ but ‘when this job kills me.’ [ Just as a point of reference, there were a lot of people who kind of giggled and said I had the boss right out of The Devil Wears Prada.  I didn’t see the movie until my job had already begun making me ill, and I could not (and still haven’t) seen the whole movie because certain scenes cause stressful flashbacks but if you have seen it, my boss was a lot like Meryl Streep’s character, only not as nice. ]

Most of the toxic people in our lives are not as black and white as The Boss From Hell, but the point is that they are just as toxic.  Sadly, most of us are familiar with the domestic violence situation where we are on the outside shaking our heads: why do they keep going back to their abusers? Because behind all the abuse, the victim remembers times when their abuser was kind and sweet and a different person.  Once they get some distance on the most recent abuse, they start missing the ‘good times,’ even if we can’t see or identify them as being ‘good.’ I think this is why we put up with toxic family members: underneath all the poison, they are ‘family’ or ‘blood’ and so we put up with being treated like trash, being taken advantage of or being verbally or physically abused.  “It’s family and that’s what we do for family.”

The truth is that ‘family’ isn’t any more synonymous with abuse than is ‘friendship’ or ‘work environment.’  We should not have to put up with being victimized or abused or mistreated because someone is a ‘friend,’ ‘family member,’ ‘coworker,’ or ‘boss.’  If a stranger treated you the same way, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call the cops or walk away from them forever, but because there is this connection, we accept their bad behavior.  The result is that the situation causes you stress and quite possibly illness.  Oftentimes, once we get some distance on the most recent instance of bad behavior, like victims of domestic violence, we start remembering when times were better and that ‘they aren’t always like that.’  The truth is that when you go back to socializing or working with them, you are condoning their bad behavior of you. Many of them, like The Boss From Hell, do not even accept that their behavior was bad.  You need to decide if they are worth the abuse.  Looking back on my situation, I confess I stayed with her for much longer than I should have, because as is often the case, the relationship didn’t start out awful and I thought of her for a long time as a friend, even after people starting telling me- in earnest- that this job was going to kill me. Only you can decide if the toxic people in your life are worth the pain and stress, but frankly, the ones we love shouldn’t be the ones who hurt us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down and Dirty: How Clean Living Can Make You Sick

I recently finished Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be at the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it by Josh Axe. (Yeah, that’s a long title!) While audio books aren’t my preferred format, I think this book is worth the effort. Dr. Axe makes a few interesting correlations between the relatively sudden rise in autoimmune diseases and other disorders, our sanitized society and our microbiome.  While he defines the terms ‘leaky gut,’ ‘microbiome’ and ‘microbiota’ in his book, I will give you the short version: our digestive tract is full of bacteria, both good and bad.  This symbiotic relationship is necessary to our own individual survival: we need this bacteria in our digestive tract to break down the food we eat.  Once it has been broken down by the bacteria, our body is able to absorb the nutrients through the lining in our intestines.  The integrity of our intestinal lining is dependent on the health of these bacteria (microbiota).  The microbiome is the environment these bacteria inhabit: essentially our digestive tract.  Leaky gut (Increased Intestinal Permeability) is what happens to our digestive tract when we don’t take good care of our microbiome: the integrity of the intestinal lining becomes compromised, allowing not only foods we’ve eaten to enter our bloodstream and body but also some of the toxins that should have been expelled.  Sometimes it’s not that the food particles which enter are bad for us: they are not as broken down as they should be, and that causes problems.  When foods we’ve eaten before without problems begin giving us problems, it’s usually because our microbiome has been compromised.

This is the reason that so many people have problems like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Celiac Disease, among others.  The helpful bacteria in the gut has been compromised either by highly processed foods, toxins we’ve ingested (sometimes in the form of medication) and our squeaky clean sanitized society.  Not only are we failing to feed and care for our microbiota the way we should, we are actively attacking it with antibiotics, toxic foods, preservatives, chemicals and hand sanitizers.  While being clean is a good thing and no one is saying don’t wash your hands, there is such a thing as being toxically clean. Not everything needs to be disinfected and that disinfectant you just used to kill the benign bacteria on your counter or desk could be making you sick instead of keeping you healthy. Most of the bacteria in our environment is not harmful and some of it is actually beneficial and necessary to our survival. Being ‘clean and sanitary’ the way we think of it now is killing us through digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, malnutrition and possibly cancer.

The cure for this? Eat dirt. Really. If you were to swab your skin and look at it under a microscope, you would see thousands of bacteria.  Dr. Axe reports that we are probably more bacteria than human since we have them inside us and on us all the time.  We are walking bacteria colonies! The naturally occurring bacteria in our environment helps us to break down the foods that come from that environment.  When humans foraged for food, the bacterias on the foods like roots and berries became part of our microbiome.  Since most of them lived on the foods and broke them down to metabolize them, they continued to do the same thing in our intestines.  Therefore, when that farmer plucked an apple in his orchard and ate it after wiping it on his shirt, the bacteria on the apple skin became part of his microbiome and helped him digest the apple he just ate.  The bacteria take up residence and multiply in our intestines, so it becomes easier to digest the local foods.  When we kill those bacteria before they can get to our intestines, we are killing our ability to digest some of these foods.  This is why we sometimes get a little sick when we eat something we’ve never eaten before: the bacteria needed to digest it isn’t in our microbiome.

Humans- and other animals- have developed this way and it’s not a optional condition.  Without these bacteria, we will die, probably a horrible painful death.  We would be ravaged by disease and illness and be unable to derive any nutrients from anything we ate.  Our microbiome not only feeds us, it protects us from illness: our gut is our immune system’s first line of defense.  If our gut is sick, odds are we are sick too!

Some of you know that I work in the same building as my sister, who’s known the attorneys I now work with for many years. In fact, I heard about many of these people for years before I ever met them, and one of the secretaries was forced to retire because of her Crohn’s disease.  When I first met this poor woman at a social gathering a few years ago, I could not believe how thin and frail she looked.  When I came to work here, a little over a year ago, one of the things that really shocked me was how much hand sanitizer they had in the office.  Seriously, they have Costco size bottles every fifty feet and in every room in the building- NOT KIDDING! After reading Dr. Axe’s book, I think I may have an idea about what contributed to this poor woman’s Crohn’s disease. While I have hand sanitizer in my purse and on my desk (little 99 cent bottles), I don’t often use it.  I also have disinfectant wipes that I rarely use.  If I think I need them, I do (mainly to clean off sticky stuff), but there are a lot of people in this building who consistently smell like hand sanitizer.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an unsanitary dirty slob (I come from a family of farmers so a little dirt is a way of life), and years ago, I listened to a report about ‘Super Viruses’ and how we were making them ourselves by overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial everything.  Every time we take an antibiotic or use an antibacterial, we do not kill all the bugs: some are resistant, survive and then when they reproduce, all the new bugs have their parents’ resistance to antibiotics/ antibacterials.  This is how we end up with killer bacteria like MRSA (methilicillin-resistant staph aureus)  and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staph aureus) just to name a couple.  These killer bacteria are resistant to most of the drugs used to treat the ‘normal’ staph infections, and if not treated correctly, they will kill you.  (No kidding: I’ve the MRSA and it’s not fun.) The doctor quoted in the report advised not taking an antibiotic every time we think we get a cold or flu, and when we wash our hands, regular soap and warm/ hot water is enough. This advice stuck with me and my sister and so while I do keep the antibacterial stuff around for times when I think it’s needed, most of the time I just use the soap and water.  I’ve never been a fan of gulping medications of any kind (the only reason I went to the doctor for the MRSA was because it was MRSA.) I get a cold, I’m miserable for about a week and I get over it.  Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I figure if we consistently hide from dirt and germs, when we do run across them, we have no resistance to them.  As a kid, I played in the sandbox, ran around barefoot and, according to my mom, was a big fan of making mud pies when I was a baby.  I’ve also had pets all my life and they sit on my lap, lick my face and hands, and sleep right next me. (If what Dr. Axe says is true, my pets and I have a lot of the same microbiota!)

Dr. Axe’s philosophy regarding bacteria and germs is fairly similar to my own: micro-exposure.  Basically, my philosophy has been to treat my immune system like a car and keep the battery charged and fuel lines in good shape by using it.  If your car just sits idle in the garage, your battery loses its charge and if it sits too long, the oil and gas start to lacquer.  The tires and fuel lines start to crack and lose flexibility.  In other words, your car falls apart and your immune system isn’t much different.  If your immune system gets triggered periodically by a cut, a cold or some mildly unpleasant stomach bug, it swings into action, takes care of it and then goes back to ‘stand-by.’  If your immune system doesn’t get triggered regularly, then it can overreact and start attacking everything, including your own body.  Or, if it’s constantly triggered because you eat foods you are sensitive to, then it can also start ignoring the triggers, the way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock when you’re half asleep.  Later, when you wake up after oversleeping, you’re in real trouble! Getting small exposures to bacteria on a regular basis keeps everything functioning normally.  Your immune system knows what’s a real threat and what isn’t and you can pick up additional healthy bugs!

By contrast, not being exposed to different bacteria does not keep you any healthier, and in fact, can make you sick.  Dr. Axe mentions a comparison study done of Amish children and ‘mainstream’ children regarding allergies, food sensitivities and asthma. The Amish children, most living in rural areas surrounded by animals, pollen and dirt, were much healthier with fewer allergies, sensitivities and breathing problems, while the ‘mainstream’ children had higher rates of all these problems.  Dr. Axe’s theory is that being constantly exposed to a myriad of different bacteria kept the Amish children immune to these problems. Again, microexposures to bacteria were keeping their immune system and digestive tracts in good working order.

Obviously, we need to use a little common sense when it comes to bacteria.  Trying to kill off every bacterium and germ we come across is a bad idea, as well as being pretty unfeasible! But we still need to be sensible about things: if you’re in a public restroom, maybe using the hand sanitizer after washing isn’t a bad idea, and if you have a cut on your hand, you might want to use gloves when you’re out in the yard cleaning up the doggie doo.  Using the hand sanitizer after finishing lunch at your own house or your own desk might be a bit overkill, literally. Washing up is a good idea, but warm water instead of soap with triclosan or another antibacterial agent probably isn’t necessary every time.

Besides not killing our microbiota, Dr. Axe gives some advice on the ‘care and feeding of our microbiome.’  They are living organisms and they need an hospitable environment to live and reproduce (our intestines) as well as plenty of food (our food is their food).  Most of those unhealthy bugs also like the junk food we like, and when we eat more of it than we do the healthy foods, the bad bugs crowd out the good bugs. This is a problem for us, because the bad bacteria (ideally about 15% of our microbiome) can cause many of the digestive disorders mentioned above. When the bad bacteria take over our intestines, we lose the ability to digest certain foods, and these are usually the foods with higher nutrients, so even though we are eating the healthy vegetables, fruits and proteins, our intestines and our bodies never get the nutrients because the bugs in our guts that break those down for us aren’t there to break them down.  It’s like having a flashlight with dead batteries: no good batteries, no light and the flashlight is useless to you.  If you have no good bugs in your digestive tract, all that healthy food is useless to you.  Even just feeding the bad bugs more often than feeding the good bugs can cause a population shift favoring the bacteria that cause us problems.

So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Don’t be afraid to hug your dog or cat, even if they’re a little grungy from the yard.  Eat more local organic veggies.  One of the sayings in my family is “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt.”  I really believe a little dirt isn’t a bad thing any more than getting a little sweaty is a bad thing: they both keep us healthy!

 

 

 

Being Uniquely You vs. Joining the Pack

New Year’s resolutions are running rampant right now as people are doing everything they can to hang on and not give up on the attempts to make positive changes.  I admit that I have never been a big fan of making resolutions based on a time of year.  Yes, it’s convenient to have an unforgettable date but the new year already has so many changes associated with it: new laws and government forms are in effect; you have to change the dates on a lot of items, not to mention every time you date a form “don’t forget 2017!” (we even had court calendaring clerk assign a trial date based on the wrong year: “um, that’s a Saturday, Your Honor!”) In my opinion, the new year already has enough baggage for you to deal without bringing your resolutions with it.

However, now that you’ve made them, there’s no reason not to try and keep them.  It’s not the resolutions that I have problems with- it’s just the timing. Establishing healthy habits is always a good thing! Let me add one little caveat to that statement: provided the habit is healthy for you! In all the hustle to sell their new workout videos and diet programs, the health and fitness industry is not really very concerned about what’s best for you! I’m not going to sit here and say they’re just out to make a buck, but- yeah, that’s what I’m going to do! They are trying to sell you something and if it doesn’t work out for you, then you’re probably going to buy something else they are selling to see if that works for you, so the more things that don’t work for you, the more they are going to make from you.

I’m not selling you anything.  I don’t even advertise for other companies on my blog (although WordPress might- I don’t have any control over that.) My concern is that you learn healthy habits that work for you, so you can be as healthy and happy and get the most out of your life. The key phrase is here “work for you” and I am emphasizing that ‘you’ because I don’t care what works for everyone else.

This issue actually began for me as a rant against a podcaster (whom I actually like very much) and another book I was reading about learning to sleep smarter.  Both of them were talking about “prime sleep hours” and the “best wake-sleep rhythms” and so on.  It was really annoying because they are trying to cram everyone into one little box and if you don’t fit, you’re just not trying hard enough and you’re hurting yourself. (Huge eye roll here!) It’s like when the FDA tries to tell everyone that they need to drink 8 ounces of milk each day or eat 11 servings of whole grains daily.  HELLO! I think we all know by now that all those grains led to a huge epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity, and that some people are sensitive to lactose (especially if your ethnicity is not Northern European!)

This is where I get really annoying again and tell you that if you aren’t tracking your foods, energy, moods, and sleep, you really should, because that tells you what works for you and what doesn’t.

Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while may recall that I have a really jacked up sleep-wake cycle (‘circadian rhythm’ is the technical term).  When I was in college on semester/ summer break, my sister and I would both turn into vampires.  We would sleep most of the morning, wake up about noon or later and be up until around two in the morning and then go to sleep. It wasn’t because we had night jobs or night classes or had some kind of weird disease: this was normal for us.  In fact, we did most of our grocery shopping around midnight at a 24 hour store.  Even after we moved to separate locations to go to graduate school, we kept the same hours: we’d text each other around midnight or one a.m. and it wasn’t unusual to get back a response in a couple minutes, because, yep- we’re up!  One of the reasons I got a kindle in fact is because I do most of my reading and book-browsing between 11:00 p.m. and two a.m. (Amazon will back me up!)

When I keep my normal hours, I am alert, rested and a little high energy in fact: I sleep when I get tired, wake up without the alarm and feel good during my ‘day.’  That’s how you are supposed to feel and it’s how you know you are getting enough rest.  On the other hand, if I tried to force anyone else to keep my schedule, most people would feel really tired during my waking hours and would try to wake up probably about 6 or 7 a.m. (when I am normally getting my best sleep!) They would get very burnt out in a few days and probably be really irritable and groggy and drained.  It’s because this is not their circadian rhythm; it’s mine.

That is how I feel most of the time when I try to match the rest of the world’s sleep-wake cycle.  I have to wake up at a time when I am normally getting my ‘best’ sleep: between 4-6 a.m., be awake and alert when I am normally sleeping and then I’m supposed to go to sleep when I’m normally awake!  I know that humans are not nocturnal creatures, but my sister and I are about as close to being nocturnal as humans can get! If any of you have ever had a night job, you know how uncomfortable and disorienting it can be to be awake when you’re normally sleeping and sleeping when you’re normally up and alert.  It’s physically painful for me at times to wake up to an obnoxious alarm clock (they are all obnoxious!) and get ready for work.  It’s a long and difficult transition for me to adjust to a ‘normal’ wake-sleep cycle and when I am off for an extended period of time, I revert right back to what’s normal for me.

The point of all this griping and grousing is that so many of us try to do something similar with diet, exercise, sleep and everything else in order to fit the rest of the world’s “healthy habits.” We try to eat 6-8 ounces of meat daily and drink 8 ounces of milk daily and get all those healthy whole grains and we feel horrible.  Our digestive tract rebels and causes all kinds of pain and discomfort but we keep on trying.  We hit the gym and walk the five miles or so three times a week and our knees, back and hips revolt until we can hardly stand up, let alone walk, and we keep trying.”What’s wrong with us?” Probably nothing! We’re that round peg not fitting into that cookie cutter square hole. The point of being an individual is that we are not like others.  Some of us don’t digest meat very well and some of us are lactose intolerant and some of us are sensitive to grains.  Just because we’re humans doesn’t mean we are all alike! It’s like the old syllogism logic teachers love: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.  Yes, they are all dogs, but yes, they are all different  and the same truths apply to us. While we are all fundamentally the same, we are all actually very different.  While this may seem like a real “duhhh” statement, how many times have you or someone you know tried the “one size fits all” approach? and how did that work out for you or them? There were a lot of times I tried the latest diet fad and most of the time, if it didn’t outright make me sick, I generally felt pretty horrible.  I know when I tried Nutrisystem, yes, I lost weight and yes, I was hungry the entire time.  I didn’t have a lot of energy either, but I kept with it because I was losing weight.  Weight loss: yes; Energy level: low; Hunger: high; Learning new healthy habits: oh hell no!  But because of that one yes, I stuck with it until I couldn’t stand their food anymore (besides being REALLY expensive!)

The same thing happened with me when I tried exercising.  How can you hurt yourself walking on a treadmill?  It was the bottom line recommendation from my gym and just about every website and blog I read: if you haven’t been exercising, start using the treadmill. So I did.  My feet hurt, my legs hurt, and my knees were killing me.  I pushed through, because I know there’s a difference between discomfort and pain and when you start a new activity, there is usually a little discomfort involved.  When it didn’t go away and started to get worse, I went to my doctor and the treadmill was actually the worst thing I could do.  I have arthritis in my knees (this is how I found out!) and even the low impact from the treadmill aggravated the condition (even now it still does, since I tried it again recently and even just 15 minutes was enough for me to feel it).  My doctor told me to use a pool since I can exercise without aggravating my knees and the water has some good resistance to it as well.  I can easily do an hour’s workout in the water and still not have painful knees.

I don’t want you to get the idea that everything needs to be personalized for you by some trainer or nutritionist or professional.  If you can afford those, then yes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but even though most of us can’t afford that level of personal attention, it doesn’t mean that we are out of luck!  When you start a new way of eating or new workout program, monitor how well it works for you.  Yes, this will mean writing down when you eat, what you ate and how you felt afterwards.  The same with the exercise and anything else you start doing differently.  I like to use a paper journal but there are a lot of apps (like My Fitness Pal and Fitbit) which will allow you to track this and those two apps will talk to each other, so you can use them both to combine your info.  Both of those will also sync with the My Health app on iPhones so you can have all your data in one place. The idea is that if there are some things about your new habits that work out for you, then you want to keep those but if there are things that don’t, then you can modify them.  For example, I eat a low carb diet, but I know that if I consistently eat lower than 50 carbs a day, my energy level drops dramatically.  I’m tired and irritable and usually have a bit of a headache.  I try to keep my carbs between 50-100 (a big carb day for me is about 135).  I generally feel pretty good in that range, and actually 135 was my old number (which is in the moderate range).  I knew from experience that eating really low carb (less than 20 carbs daily) really made me feel awful (some people call it ‘keto flu’ or ‘carb withdrawal’) so as I ate less, I found a range that worked for me: I didn’t feel tired or irritable, was getting enough fiber and glucose to exercise without getting exhausted or voraciously hungry, and my mood and hunger/ satiety were still positive.  By tracking all these things, I figured out what range is good for me.

This may sound like complex science experiment but it really isn’t.  If you use an app like MFP or Fitbit, when you enter your meals, the app does all the work for you. You don’t even have to write it all down if you don’t want to.  There’s a Notes section on MFP so at the end of the day (or during the day if you want) you can make notes like “really tired after lunch” or “lots of energy after breakfast” or whatever else you want to say about your mood, energy, digestion- whatever! The Nutrition portion of the app will tell you want your carbs, protein, fats and nutrients were for the day.  I like to write it all down but that’s just me!  It takes a couple minutes each day and at the end of a week, you have a lot of data collected.  If you don’t notice any problems or changes, then boom! you’re all done! But if, like me, you do notice days when you feel really tired or really fat or really hungry, you can take a look at what you did that day, and the next time it happens and the next, until you can see that each of those days you did or ate XYZ- maybe that’s the problem? Make a change! Then note the results: I ate more than 50 carbs and felt better.  I did a bigger cardio workout and I’m probably going to be really hungry tomorrow morning.  Tracking lets you know what you need to change and what you need to keep, so over time, your eating plan and workout program, and even your sleep schedule if you want, is customized to give you the best results for you. You know yourself better than anyone, even before you start tracking.  Tracking just clues you into the signals your body is sending you anyway- the difference is now you’re paying attention.  It’s like taking that “one size fits all” dress or slacks and altering it to fit you perfectly! Tracking also helps you keep making progress because we all know that what works for us now will eventually stop working as our bodies and metabolisms change.  This is why calorie counting methods keep dropping your calories the more weight you lose.  Eventually, your body will get used to your exercise and your metabolism will get used to a certain number of macros.  This is where many people get confused and frustrated and sometimes they will abandon their program and go in search of something different.  They may not need ‘something different’- they just need to make an adjustment to what they are doing now! It’s like altering those slacks again! It keeps your plan personalized for you! You have changed, so shouldn’t your plan change also?

One more heads-up: peer pressure can be enormous, especially if people are telling you you’re doing it ‘wrong,’ or that their plan is much better.  Maybe it is better- for them! Maybe the way you’re doing it works for you! The push to join the pack is extremely hard to resist.  We see everyone else having great success or lots of enthusiasm with their programs and we not only feel the need to be like others, we also want to have the same success.  It’s normal, but before we join the pack, we need to take stock of our current situation.  Is our plan working for us, i.e. we are hitting our goals and we are happy with it? If not, then maybe it’s time to make a change to our plan before abandoning it altogether.  If we do decide to try a new plan, we need to monitor ourselves to see if it works for us.  If not, again, we can try personalizing it to fit us or we can try something new again.  The point is that if we are not being patient and making the changes we need to our eating plans and workout programs, we are just going to keep bouncing from one to another.  That’s not a good way to find success.  One more personal example: when I started college, I took the required Study Skills class that said we should all study in a quiet isolated room with no distractions.  The guidance counselor thought I was crazy when I told her I studied in the living room with the tv on or the cafeteria full of students with the campus radio going full blast.  I knew from experience that the silence of the library was too distracting to me.  A sneeze in a silent room is the same as bomb going off while a sneeze in a room full of noise is just a sneeze.  My brain filters out a room full of noise as junk but one sound in silence is an alarm bell. I still study and read with the tv on.  We are all all our own unique individuals and we should be proud of our differences!  That’s what makes us strong! We need to focus on ourselves and less on what everyone else is doing and what everyone else says is “the best way to go.”  What works for “everyone else” would be fine, if we were “everyone else.”  Frankly, the world would be pretty boring if we were all everyone else and all dogs were poodles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Carrot or The Stick: Positive v Negative Reinforcement

The simple approach to reinforcement is either the carrot or the stick. You can lure the donkey forward with a carrot or you can try forcing it to move by hitting it with a stick. Maybe these approaches work on donkeys (doubt it!) but the fact is: you are not a donkey!

I am very familiar with positive reinforcement.  When I was freshman in college, my Intro to Pysch teacher covered it and what I thought interesting is the idea that even though negative reinforcement gets all the attention, studies show positive reinforcement is much more effective.  As a result, I went home and started using it on my dog (education in action!)  Over the years, pretty much all my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement.  My basic approach: every time my dog (or cat) does something I want them to repeat, I give them praise and affection.  He asks to go out to pee, he’s a good boy.  He sits calmly on my lap, he’s a good boy.  The cat uses her scratch post instead of the sofa, good kitty!  When I was out of town last year, my mom babysat my dog and when she told me he was playing chase with her dog, I told her to tell him he’s a good boy.  She called back and said after she told him “good boy,” he was more enthusiastic about playing with her dog.  I told her that’s the point: once he knows he’s doing something that pleases me (and is also fun), he has more incentive to keep doing it!  That’s what positive reinforcement is supposed to do: the action becomes pleasurable because you are rewarded for it so you have much more incentive to keep doing it. 

Negative reinforcement is the opposite, of course: the pup wets on the rug and you scold and spank him. As far as pups go, it’s not really effective because the pup usually doesn’t make the connection between wetting on the rug at 10:30 a.m., you coming home at 6 and seeing it and scolding him.  As far as he’s concerned, he was happy to see you come home and you’re mad at him for being happy to see you.  This is why the positive reinforcement works better for potty-training: he goes out, pees on the lawn, and he’s a good boy.  He has incentive to wet all over the lawn because as long as he does, he’s a good boy.

But, again, you aren’t a puppy.  How does positive reinforcement work on people, and why isn’t negative reinforcement effective?  You would think associating donuts with bad feelings would make you avoid donuts much more than associating happy feelings with broccoli or exercise.  The difference is that while negative reinforcement is better at getting you to change behavior, it’s the positive reinforcement that keeps you exercising and eating the broccoli.

One of the best ways to get started changing and keeping a new habit is to use a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement.  With my dog, when he does something I want him to repeat, he’s the greatest puppy in the world (which he loves to hear) and when he does something I don’t want him to repeat, I tell him no firmly but without a lot of fuss and leave it alone.  He’s trained by now to look for the praise and he’s focused on doing things that earn him praise and, since the wrong behavior didn’t earn it, he’s moved on to something else.  For example, let’s look at workouts.  If you schedule an appointment with a trainer and if you get charged for missing that workout, that’s incentive to keep the workout (negative reinforcement), but if you are constantly praised and encouraged for your progress while at your workout, that’s also incentive to keep the appointment (positive reinforcement).  So that combination works pretty well: you don’t want to pay for a service you aren’t getting, but at the same time, each time you go, you see that you’re lifting more weight, doing more lunges and your trainer is praising your progress by telling you know how far you’ve come.  You have more incentive to keep going because you can see the benefit; if you didn’t see any benefit or the trainer wasn’t enthusiastic about your progress, eventually you would stop booking appointments to avoid the cancellation fees.  This is what happens when people make nasty comments to you about eating fast food: you don’t stop eating fast food, you just stop eating it with those people.  You avoid the negativity by changing your behavior but not necessarily changing the bad behavior.  Your goal becomes avoiding the negative result, not avoiding the negative behavior.

Most of us are frustrated because we are trying very hard to make positive changes in our behavior to improve our health but the problem is that most of us do it with negative reinforcement.  We can be our own worst enemies.  We eat a candy bar and we berate ourselves like we threw a kitten under a bus! We skip our workout and we’re the laziest, most unworthy person in the world.  We use the stick to beat ourselves over the head about how we aren’t eating healthy, we aren’t working out, we keep eating all the cookies, cupcakes and potato chips and we believe that if we keep beating ourselves, we’ll eventually change.  If our bodies showed the emotional abuse we heap on ourselves, we’d look like we were hit by a semi.  We look at ourselves in the mirror and abuse ourselves: “I’m so ugly it’s a wonder my spouse hasn’t left me.  I look like a monster.  I can’t believe how fat I am!  I’m too far gone to save.”  Any of this sound familiar?  It breaks my heart when friends post things like this online: “I got on the scale, saw I went up two pounds and couldn’t stop crying.”

This is not productive.  This is not healthy, or helpful, and your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person. Stop beating yourself with the stick! You aren’t a donkey and it doesn’t work! If you want to change your behavior, you need to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement with a BIG emphasis on the positive!

It’s always best to make this process as simple as possible: 1) Write out your objective simply and specifically; 2) Associate a ‘negative’ with avoiding the behavior; and 3) Associate a ‘positive’ with completing the task.

Let’s say the most important change you want to make this year is to eat more healthy foods.  Write out a simple specific objective, such as “I want to eat at least two servings of vegetables each day.”  That’s specific and it’s a change in the right direction.  So let’s say that each time you finish a day without two servings of vegetables, you put $5 in the Veggie Jar and at the end of the month or week, you give the money to your kids, you donate the money to a charity, or you use it to buy veggies- whatever- as long as the money is not going to you!  You are charging yourself for not changing the behavior!  As a positive reinforcement, let’s say that for each day you finish with two or more servings of vegetables, you get to take $5 out of the Veggie Jar, or you, your kids/ spouse put $5 in your Healthy Habit Jar and that money goes to you for a non-food treat, like a movie, a manicure, or something else you were wanting.  Don’t overlook the power of praise and encouragement either!  Remember when you were in grade school and every time you got an A on a math quiz, the teacher put a gold star on the wall chart next to your name?  You really wanted to get the A, not so you would be good at math but so that you would have as many stars as possible (and maybe beat out some of the kids you didn’t like) You can still do the same thing.  On a calendar, give yourself a gold star for each day that you hit your goals ( 2 + servings of veggies; a workout; 8 glasses of water, whatever your goal is for that month!) Looking at a calendar filling up with stars is really very encouraging.  It’s a sign of your continuing improvement there on the wall for everyone to see. Just looking at it makes you feel good about yourself and your progress. (Looking in the mirror and seeing your body getting fitter or smaller is also very encouraging.)  The calendar also has a little bit of the negative impetus as well: a calendar with only a few stars on it shows that you are not focusing on your objectives and frankly, it stings a little.  It also has the “instant gratification” effect:  the more you hit your objectives, the sooner the calendar starts filling up with stars.  “I hit my goal- another star for me! That’s three this week already! Yay, me!”

Does it seem a little  silly?  You roll your eyes, and tell yourself that you aren’t twelve years old and a chart full of stars is childish.  It worked when you were twelve because frankly it made you feel good. It reinforced your positive attitude towards hitting your objectives, whether it’s making healthy lifestyle changes or getting an A in math.  You can choose whatever positive visual reinforcement works for you but making things too complicated tends to defeat the purpose.  Seeing the days of accomplishment stack up, whether it’s stars on a calendar or money in a jar, the goal is to encourage yourself to make positive changes. Just the acknowledgement of your achievements can be emotionally uplifting and associating the positive feelings with completing the task should not be underestimated. Back to my dog, there are times when I’m very busy and he’s sitting off to the side watching me. I’m not angry, just busy, but as soon as I look up at him and say his name, he ‘smiles’ and wags his tail.  Just acknowledging him makes him happy.  Yes, you are not a dog, but you are not too far from that proud twelve year old who just got another star on the Arithmetic Aces Chart either. Don’t be ashamed to flaunt your successes- you earned those stars!

 

A Letter from the Dark Side: Weighing Nearly 450 lbs.

Many of you know I’m a rabid fan of My 600lb Life on TLC but you may not know why. Yes, it’s a great ongoing reinforcement for me, but in order to be on the show, patients have to weigh a minimum of 500 lbs. In June 2014, I weighed in at 438. I think that’s the highest I ever weighed, but since I never weighed at home and avoided doctors as much as possible, I’m making an educated guess. I never looked at the scale when I got weighed at the doctor; I had to look up that number in my records. But judging by the way I felt physically, I’m pretty sure that was my highest weight.

When you watch the show, you listen to the patients talking about the pain of standing, walking, moving around; how difficult even the easiest everyday activities are; how hopeless and overwhelming everything feels. My mom (a retired RN) watches the show also and I usually get a text from her during the show saying something to the effect of “just wire her mouth shut!!” usually while the patient is talking about her physical difficulties. My mom has no empathy for these patients and I don’t think she understands why I’ll repeatedly watch the reruns. It’s because they were me and I was them. I was the chubby kid, the pudgy teen, the obese adult. My weight was a slow steady relentless gain throughout my life. I spent most of my twenties in the two hundreds, most of my thirties in the three hundreds and by my forties I was fighting to stay out of the four hundreds: a fight I lost in my late forties. When I was 48, I was the highest weight I had ever been. Most of my adult life I was between 370-385. (If any of you have seen My Big Fat Fabulous Life with Whitney Way Thore, I was her size.) I didn’t like being that big, but it had become “comfortable” and by that I mean, there weren’t a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do but I had gotten pretty good at judging my limits. I could get around pretty good, but I knew when to stop and how to take shortcuts to “maximize my mobility.” I took several trips to Disneyland (one of my favorite places) and my strategy was to hit the rides I could fit on (that was my reality) and when my friends went on rides I couldn’t get on, I’d wait someplace with all our stuff while they rode the rides. I was a convenient meeting place. They didn’t push me to do more because crossing the park was hard on my knees, back and feet. It was a big effort for me to walk any extended distance: I was carrying 375 lbs.

When Dr. Now’s patients talk about the pain of standing and walking, I know that pain. My weight ruined my knees: I have moderate to severe arthritis in both of them (my right is worse than my left). My large lower abdomen (my panniculus) put quite a strain on my back so just standing hurt my knees, my back and my feet. Maneuvering around the house or office or anywhere was usually a challenge since I was twice the size of a normal sized person. Fitting in chairs with arms or cars was always hit or miss since they’re not made for someone the size of two people. I was often afraid of breaking chairs (toilet seats included) and there were a lot of times I wasn’t able to wear the seatbelt in a friend’s car (they were nice enough to not comment).  In college, I was too big for some desks and I had to use the “disabled” desk made for students in wheelchairs.  In auditorium classrooms, I had to sit next to an empty seat, since the little foldover desktop would not lay flat enough across my stomach for me to write on it: I had to use the one next to me.  Getting up from any chair or seated position was always a strain on my knees, back, and hips, (lifting the equivalent of at least two adults) but staying seated for a long period of time was another source of pain on my low back.  My weight even affected my sleep: I had apnea because my weight was essentially beginning to smother me.

Clothing and shoes were another challenge.  It’s extremely dispiriting to realize that the blouse that fits you is big enough to double as a king size pillow case or that when your slacks are folded in half, they are the same size at those for normal sized people.  It’s even more embarrassing when you’re shopping and people think your slacks (folded on the store hanger) are a skirt. When you lay out your clothes for the day and your shirt is the size of a small throw, it’s pretty demoralizing. I know my nightgowns/ nightshirts were that size. I’m guessing a skirt would be that size but I never wore skirts or dresses because getting the slips, nylons and camisoles were next to impossible in my size. Let’s not even discuss lingerie! Shoes are a lot of fun because while there are some stores that normally carry double-wide shoes, when you need triple E, you almost always have to order them.  Getting shoes a size larger doesn’t help much because your foot just gets wider, not longer.

My mom doesn’t mean to be callous when she makes comments about wiring the patient’s jaws shut (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here), because she doesn’t understand how insidious the weight gain is. It’s like quicksand: you know you need to get out, but you don’t know how to extricate yourself. Fighting it just seems to make it worse and cause you to sink faster but doing nothing doesn’t get you out either; you just keep slowly sinking. You try making small improvements, but while they may seem to help, it feels like you’re bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon: it’s working but the improvements are infinitesimal compared to the sheer magnitude of the problem.

I tried diets but dieting seemed to make the problem worse since it was the “fighting the quicksand” scenario: limiting my calories slowed my metabolism so when I gave up the diet (infinitesimal progress), I gained back more weight pretty rapidly. (In all honesty, I didn’t try a lot of diets because I knew they didn’t work, but at the same time, I was desperate to try something! Unfortunately with most of the diets, the more I limited the food, the slower my metabolism became, so I’d have to limit my food even more, á la The Biggest Loser ‘winners.’  I did try some of the “food subscription diets” where you buy the pre-packaged diet foods and eat according to their plans.  Generally those plans & foods worked for me, but even while I was losing weight on them, I kept asking myself “so what happens when I stop eating their food?” That was an easy call: I gained weight again because their “meal plans” hadn’t taught me anything.  The idea behind most of them seemed to be to eat their food until I reached my goal weight and then they’re going to teach me how to stay there.  I never got there because- again- it limited my calories and slowed my metabolism.  I simply had too much weight to lose.

One of the first questions Dr. Now asks his patients is “how did you get to this weight?”  For most of my adult life, the answer is simple: I ate as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.  Sometimes I will tease others (and my pets) with the phrase “I want! I want! I want!”  I know how that feels: gimme what I want NOW!! It’s easy to ignore the consequences, and frankly that’s what I did for most of those years when I weighed 370+.  But it wasn’t like I woke up one morning and “wow! how did I get so big?! yesterday I was only 150!” It’s that insidious weight gain I mentioned earlier.  Part of it I can blame on the explosion of cheap processed foods: they are easily metabolized, full of calories and actually designed to make you keep eating more.  The fact that most of my generation and those that followed have problems with obesity and type 2 diabetes backs this up.  But most of us who grew up eating these cheap processed foods do not get to weigh 400+ lbs, though sadly there are a lot more of us than before. A lot of the blame has to be placed at my door.  I didn’t want to be active (I was never good at running or sports) and I spent a lot of my time with sedentary pursuits (reading, writing, watching tv, etc).  It was an amazingly awful combination: the more I ate, the bigger I got, the less I wanted to move so the more I sat and hey, how about another bag of cheese puffs? I tend to give myself credit for not hitting the 400s until I was over forty years old, but I was definitely on track to hit the 500s in my fifties (I noticed the numbers were paralleling each other and it was a frightening realization!) It’s along the same lines as giving yourself credit for breaking the chair but not falling through the floor: “well, the disaster could have been a whole lot worse!” Either way there is nothing good about weighing what I weighed.

It’s a hard situation to confront when you are that large and steadily gaining weight.  The solution seems simple: just go on a diet! But when those diets are based on calories in vs calories out, they don’t work.  All it does is wreck your metabolism and leave you constantly hungry, so you are not only miserably famished all the time, eventually your metabolism settles at your current calorie intake and you stop losing weight.  So while you may have lost some weight, you are right on track to gain it all right back, unless you drop your calories further.  I read in an article last September that one of The Biggest Loser ‘winners’ has to keep his calories under 800 per day in order not to gain the weight back.  To translate that into food, 800 calories is approximately 24 ounces of plain grilled chicken breast or 1.77 Starbucks Grande Mochas with 2% milk and whipped cream.  Sounds filling, doesn’t it?  So when you weigh over 350 lbs, are still gaining weight no matter what you seem to try, it feels pretty hopeless. Somehow, you walked right into this quicksand and now you can’t get out. You try making healthy changes: eating less and exercising more (again calories in vs calories out) and for a while it works, and then when it seems to stop, you try something else, but again, bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. It’s easy to see why people like me, Whitney and Dr. Now’s patients just accept that “I’m the fat one in the family!” Defeat with dignity seems better than the constant failing and disappointment. A phrase from The Simpsons would often pop into my head: “Can’t win- don’t try!” I was just destined to be fat so I might as well accept it.

Except it was killing me in so many painful ways. There was the physical pain that comes with lugging around two full sized adults on a body built for one.  There was the constant ‘helpful’ comments from family and the stares and ridicule of strangers always wearing on your spirit.  You feel embarrassed, helpless, inadequate and stupid almost every day, always asking yourself “how the hell did this happen to me?!” You are angry at yourself, at everyone in your family who tries to ‘help’ (because although they mean well, all they are really doing is reminding you of what a screw up you are), and you’re angry at all the jerks in the world who make rude comments about ‘fat chicks’ and other overweight people. It’s physically and emotionally draining to fight the weight and it’s physically and emotionally draining just living with it and all the limitations that it carries. I know in my case, the only way I found to fight it is to keep living my life as best I could.  It seemed as close to defeat with dignity as I could get. I had resolved to do as much as I could as long as I could, much the way I believe Whitney Thore has come to terms with her weight: try not to let it get in the way.

It’s a hard life, and I wish I could give everyone the keys to the secret passage out of it, but there are no easy solutions. For some, bariatric surgery is the best solution.  My mom used to try bribing me to get it done but I have never had any interest in getting my insides remodeled, although if I had reached 500, I think I would have seriously reconsidered. For others, radically changing their eating habits works, or weight loss medications or other devices (they have a permanent stomach pump now). Most- if not all- of these solutions sound a little desperate, but when you weigh in that neighborhood, desperate is exactly what you are! For me, the solution was radically changing my eating habits: I went from a diet that was 80% simple carbs to a diet that is 35% protein, 35% fat and 30% complex carbs. I now eat as few simple carbs as possible (fruit is as simple as it gets most days). It’s not as drastic a change as getting your gastrointestinal tract rearranged, but it sure wasn’t an easy transition to make.  I’m just happy and relieved that it worked and that it allows to me to live a lifestyle that is still normal and satisfying, both mentally, physically and spiritually. I have finally found my way to a happy place after a very long and desperate sojourn on the dark side.