Archive for category Diet

Changing Habits

My garage is full of chemicals.  I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds.   I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive.  I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean.   I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.

I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe.   I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad.   Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out.   And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.

I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys.   We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days.   It’s just life.   We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous.    The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal.   Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.

I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning.   We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives.    I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting.   People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems.    Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems.    Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s.   We may not know the real impact for quite some time.

This creates a perfect storm.   There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown.   Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is.   Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?

That’s been me for years.   I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested.   I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise.   But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head.   They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways.   There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do.   So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.

In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US.   In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.

My wife read the book as well, and was convinced.    She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees.   I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow.   But I was still skeptical.   The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement.   The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist.   So I’ve been investigating further.

But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky.     Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood.    The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments.   They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.

Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem.   Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’   That’s true.  But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either.  Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done.   Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.

OK.  Consider this chart:

This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention.   Is this circumstantial?   Yes.   The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.

The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it).   If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.

But my health is at stake.   The lives and health of my children are at stake.  And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection).  Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.

So my habits are changing.   Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous.   I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed.  I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant.    I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food.   Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat.   Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us.   Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens.     We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.

Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people.   This is something we have to live with.   But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.


Eating in America

Last February I was dismayed when my scale read “222.”  2 is my favorite number, but at 6 ft 0 inches, that’s too much.  So I went on a diet, started an exercise routine, and by May 16th — the day we left for the Germany travel course — I was at 190.  That was a good 32 pounds lost in three months.

The good news is that I have kept up my exercise routines, now with 5:45 AM step machine workouts, and evening bowflex work outs three times a week.  I feel good.   The bad news is that my weight has climbed back up to about 196.  Moreover, it’s done that despite the fact I am still trying to eat in a healthy manner, limiting both snacks and eating out. Those last belly pounds remain resilient.

Part of it is the amount of weight I already lost this year.  You lose more than 10% of your body weight (for me that was about 22 pounds) and your body goes into “starvation mode.”  It assumes that some kind of calamity has hit the food supply.   The pounds are dropping fast, clearly something must be wrong!   And in a state of nature where you struggle for your food rather than struggling to avoid the allure of KFC chicken or Sbarros stuffed pizzas, that was a good thing.  In fact, my current weight is back very close to that 10% level (and 222 was a high last February, before that I was stable at about 218 — 196 is exactly 10% less).    So I may be at that 10% plateau below which weight loss becomes very difficult.

Yet I want to get down to about 185, or if I can put on some muscle perhaps 190.   And I’m not going back to getting half my calories from soyburgers like I did last spring.   A month of intense of calorie deprivation like I engaged in last spring could get me there, but I don’t want to do that.   I want to find a healthy mode of slow but consistent weight lose and develop habits that will keep me where I want to be.

My problem?   I love sweets, I love fatty food, and I find eating vegetables to be a chore.  I’ll eat them, but they don’t satisfy me so they can’t replace the foods I like.   But when my snacks are ice cream, Ritter Sport candy bars, bread and butter with salami, the calories add up quickly.   Worse, I want to eat like the television tells me I should.

Big yummy pieces of pizza full of pepperoni and sausage, stacks of pancakes next to eggs and bacon, a big juicy steak beside a loaded baked potato with a dinner roll.   Pasta — pasta with creamy sauces, stuffed with cheese, and preferably three helpings.   I want gelato daily, to eat bagels and cream cheese, and to supersize my fries.   I want milkshakes.   I want delicious breads, well crafted pastries, and lots and lots of butter.    I don’t want these things in small quantities at special times, I want them in large quantities multiple times a day!

I see these things on the TV all the time, being eaten by young people with beautiful bodies, showing me how cool pasta in an edible bread bowl really is.   The restaurants entice me, telling me that “I deserve a treat,” and of course, I do.  Always.  That statement is true every time it is made, I deserve something special!   I work hard, I help people out, I deserve a treat.  A pizza.  A DQ blizzard.   A Tim Horton’s vanilla cream donut.

At night as I unwind I deserve a drink, maybe two.  I deserve to feel relaxed and a bit buzzed as I watch Jon Stewart mock the political class.  (And if I have to watch Sarah Palin, then I deserve four or five. )   I also need to snack on popcorn with butter, potato chips, or a little salami sandwich while I unwind.  It was a rough day balancing work, kids, grading, etc…I deserve it.

Of course, if I did all that I’d soon be pushing 300 pounds.   Eating in America is hard — and hard in a perverse way.  It used to be that health was more likely endangered by malnutrition or under-eating.   Eating was hard because you had to either grow or trade to ensure a variety of foods, raising animals and then preparing, preserving and rationing your foods as winter came.   Bland food is delicious when you’re struggling to survive (I think I understand that judging by how good my Boca soy burgers tasted when I was in my intense diet last spring!)

Now it’s so easy to grab something tasty — often it is also cheap, and often we underestimate the damage it does.   Many meat and pasta dishes at common restaurants chime in at 1200 calories or higher.   Add drinks, desert, and the complementary bread and butter and it’s easy to walk out of a restaurant 2000 calories richer.   If you weigh 150 pounds or less, that’s all you’re allowed for the day without risking weight gain!

There are always temptations — snack foods, breads, cakes…easy to pick up at the store, and easy to munch on over the course of the day.  A donut at work, coffee with cream and sugar…it adds up!

To try to keep weight off  I have to recognize and keep reminding myself that the food cornucopia that advertisers say I should be able to enjoy is, in fact, an illusion.   They’re selling a product, often enhanced by artificial flavors and dyes.   The idea that healthy fit people can constantly enjoy these foods while staying fit is not true.  I cannot let myself be seduced by the images and temptations on TV, on Main Street, in the mall, or at the grocery store.   They are poisonous,  filling my taste buds with delight while destroying my health and fitness.

I need to take control.  Yes, I like pizza.  I like ice cream.   And yeah, I’m in this world of plenty and not being an ascetic, I’ll enjoy.   But I’ll not enjoy at the ravenous quantity of intake my advertising manipulated emotions cause me to want (or think I deserve).   I’ll figure out what I can afford to enjoy, and plan it for maximum pleasure.   I’ll savor it, rather than pounding down pizza slice after pizza slice.   My superego has to snatch the donut from my id.

Yet even as I type that, I have to fight the Homer Simpson inside who is suddenly thinking “Mmmmm, Pizza and donuts, mmm *drool*…”


Diet progress

Back in February I noted that I had hit a record weight of 220 (and that was first thing in the morning).    I vowed to go on a diet and get back to my “ideal” weight of 186.    I had gotten to the point that even my ‘fat pants’ were getting tight, and I heard myself grunt a bit while lifting my body off the ground, especially after playing on the floor with the kids.   I have finally lost 22 of the 34 pounds I need to lose, so I’m making progress — just over two pounds a week.

In Mid-May I’ll be blogging from Vienna, Munich and Berlin while teaching a travel course (much like my blogs from Italy last year), assuming we’re not grounded by volcano ash.  If I reach my goal of 186 (or am at least close), I’ll allow myself to go wild with Kuchen, Torten, Bier and restaurant dining.   Since we walk so much on those trips, I doubt I’ll gain any back.    That goal is one which keeps me going on this diet.

So let me share my dieting secrets.  Up front, know that this is not the kind of diet a doctor would recommend, and the harder thing for me to do will be to create healthy eating habits once the diet is over.   For me losing weight is all about a strict, disciplined regime of eating as little as possible, while exercising daily.   Screw all the stuff about balanced diets, lifestyle changes, and point counting.   I want to lose it as quick as I can, and the key is discipline.   That means when I’m out for dinner at a friends’ or at a party, I’ll eat small portions, and take only one small helping.   At home I’ll wait until I feel out of energy, and my main snack is a Boca vegan soy burger with ketchup.   70 calories, all but five of them from protein.   The ketchup adds a few more.

Now, if you’ve had Boca burgers before, you might say “yuck, I couldn’t eat 25-30 a week, with no bun and just ketchup.  Some days I eat as many as six.   But first of all, it’s soy so it’s really healthy and sticks with you.   But most importantly, when you’re really hungry almost anything tastes good!

Second, mostly boring meals.   I love pizza.  I make my own dough, so I can control the portions and have perfected the 300 calorie cheese pizza.   A delicious break from the boca burgers.   Add maybe a few M&Ms (and only a few), some soup now and then, or some Hormel prepared dinners (you can store them at room temperature — 230 calories or so) and small sized portions of Chef Boy R Dee beefaroni or spaghetti — about 210 calories each, and that’s about all I eat.

That does mean I eat more often than usual — maybe two soy burgers for breakfast (170 calories, counting ketchup), a prepared dinner from the microwave at work mid-morning (230), two more soy burgers early mid-afternoon (another 170), a late afternoon beefaroni (210), and a cheese pizza for dinner (300), and I hit 1180.   Add maybe 150 for small snacks and I reach 1330.   The one luxury I allow myself is a drink at the end of the night before bed.  It’s useful because the alcohol hits me quick when I’m eating so little, and I actually then can fall asleep without thinking I’m hungry.   Also, it’s a reward — if I can avoid eating too much, I know I have the luxury of a Rum and Diet Coke while watching Jon Stewart.  Add 100 calories for that, and it’s 1430.   I’d say most days I end up having to have small snacks, or maybe some toast in the evening, and it probably ends up hitting 1600 calories or so.   Still, that’s reasonable.

Then, there’s the exercise.  For that I either walk, or use my step machine.  It tells me I burn 500 – 560 calories per work out (as I have been losing the number of calories burned goes down unless I increase the pace).   Put my head phones on, and push myself through the workouts.   It’s really hard early on, but I tend to do seven or eight days in a row, then a day off because of some social event.   Discipline.  (I’ve done 16 days in a row in this stretch).

Once I’m in this routine, it’s not that hard to stay disciplined.   One key is no exceptions. We were at a community fund raising “mystery theater” the other day, where teams try to solve a murder mystery, talking with people who play characters in the mystery.   They had lovely donated cookies, and rich Gifford’s ice cream that all indulged in.  I had nothing.   I could not do that in my normal routine, only when I’ve disciplined myself to this diet.   We had a big communal Russian feast at our place a couple weeks ago, and a friend cooked us Indian food — my favorite — last weekend.  Each time I kept my intake low, trying everything, eating slowly, and cutting foods earlier in the day to make sure I stay at a reasonable calorie count.  Since February 12th, I’m sure I’ve not gone above 2000 calories once, except maybe at the Russian feast thanks to vodka and wine (alcohol does provide empty calories).

So, how can one get disciplined?   It’s actually not hard once the routine is established.  You see yourself dropping pounds, feel better, and your body gets used to getting by on less (unfortunately the body also burns less calories, working against the diet, but c’est la vie).   But having many failed attempts where I vow to start a diet, and then can’t get going, it’s sort of like a hard to start lawn mower, where you have to pull the chord over and over before it finally works.  A few things help:

1.  Goals.  I’m going to a conference in Chicago later this week.   My goal is to fit into a suit I bought back when I was in very good shape.   I don’t think if I’ll make it, but that keeps me especially disciplined now.   I mentioned the Vienna-Munich-Berlin trip.  I want to be very much in shape during that travel course (gotta keep up with the students!)

2.   A sense of certainty.   When I started this diet, I was certain I could keep it.   It just seemed like ‘this time it will work.’   Other times I think I’m only half in it, I didn’t see it as a major part of my life.  It just isn’t optional this time.

3.  Daily weigh ins.   Every morning and night I weigh myself.  Now, the body loses weight unevenly.  So my morning weight chart may be: 208.3, 207.4, 206.9, 208.1, 207.7, 207.4, 206.3, 205.2, 205.4, 206.2, 204.8, 205.1…you get the picture.   The key is that the trend is down.  It can be depressing when you “plateau” at a certain weight for awhile, but sticking to the diet, it always goes down.

4.  A sense of control.  I can have the body I want to have, have the health growing old that allows me to be active and not worry about heart attacks and high blood pressure, and be confident.  I don’t care what people say, but when I weigh 186 I’m a lot more confident and self-assured than when I weigh 220 (which I have hit).

Alas, I love food and I know the diet will end when I reach a certain point, and while I have been able to maintain a good weight level for a year or so, I usually start inching upward.  The challenge this time will be not to.  Otherwise, sometime maybe in 2013 or 2014, this blog will be reporting another diet, Boca burger sales will increase (I wonder if they notice it at the grocery store?)   So, now I’m under 200 and still losing!


Nearing 50…

Tonight I did a workout, and am on day eight of a new diet.  I have spent my life fluctuating from a very in shape and healthy 185 pounds to a pudgy and out of shape 215.  I don’t worry too much when I gain weight because I know I will lose it again.   Depending on where I am in my weight cycle, different jeans are in the closest or in storage.    When my second son Dana was born in late 2005, I was near my “prime” weight.  I thought nothing of the fact that suddenly two kids meant I had less time to exercise and was more likely to overeat.   So slowly over the last four plus years, I drifted from about 190 to a hefty 219 last Thursday.   Efforts to eat less and exercise more failed for various reasons.  Only one pair of pants really fit comfortably.

For a brief moment I thought about giving in.   I am healthy, a few extra pounds isn’t that bad.  I can live wearing size 38 rather than 36.   Should I try to stay at 215 or so…?   Then I looked at the calendar.   Not the month, date or day, but the year.  2010.   I was born in 1960.  On March 1 I turn fifty.   I then thought about skiing last weekend, how my body ached and my back went into spasms as I forced my ski boots locked, how picking up the polls on the ground seemed a chore, and going up the T-bar with my six year old son made my back and legs feel like they were under extreme pressure.  In short, my body is feeling my age, and every pound adds to inflexibility.

Then I did some math.   When my youngest turns 21, I’ll be 66 years old.   By the time he hits 40, I’ll be 85.  I’ll be in my 70s at least when I become a Grandfather.   The choices I make now determine what kind of life I’ll have down the line.  So with a renewed sense of commitment I am now one week and a day into a diet that keeps me under 2000 calories a day and exercising.

Alas, at 50 I can’t diet like I did in my thirties.  I hit 210 for the first time when I was 35.   A year later I was 185 and lean.  I exercised and cut calories by eating only what I liked.  That was generally pasta, pizza, bread, and sweets, only in smaller quantities than before.   My veggie intake was limited to tomato sauce on my pizza/pasta, and a salad now and then.   I was doing weights so I’d also dine on steaks rather frequently — low fat cuts, but nice juicy medium rare slabs of red meat.   Not as good as the steak I was used to in South Dakota, but when you’re down to 2000 calories  a day (or less), any steak is delicious.

Nope.  My body can’t handle that now.  I need nutrition, for some reason.  I was feeling lethargic by day four, even light headed.  I still will probably have mostly carbs and empty calories, but I’ll have to integrate veggies in there somehow.   This morning I was 215.  That means “officially” I lost four pounds this week.  At that pace, I’ll do great!  Of course, I have learned over the years that week one is almost always a huge loss because my body gets rid of a lot of excess water.   Two pounds a week is more realistic.  A nice start does keep me motivated.

I’ve never really been too bothered about getting older.  For one thing, I have young children so I feel a bit younger than I would if I had kids at the ‘normal’ time and they were bringing me grandchildren now.   Heck, my Grandma was 38 when I was born!   I also really like having lived through the era I was lucky to be born into, remembering Vietnam (vaguely), Watergate, the Cold War, and my dad working at a Computer firm (Data, Inc) in the sixties when computers with much less power than this laptop on which I type occupied whole rooms.  I have watched the technology and information revolution from a time when we got four TV stations through an antenna to Dishnet with DVR.

Still, there is something about turning fifty that causes me to change my self-image.   There is a point in life where the future seems to be unlimited opportunity, with a sense of magic.  That sense of magic is still there, but the opportunities are now bounded.   And that’s OK.   At a teaching school I accept that I will never become a prolific scholar or well known expert on German and European policy.   But I am free to choose to explore different questions of interest to me, and take chances with an unconventional conventional approach.   It could still turn out to be really successful, but if not it’s OK.

With a family and all the responsibilities that come with that, my dreams of travel and living abroad are truncated.  But this year I’m part of my 7th travel course in just over a decade, bringing students to Europe, and I look forward to showing as much of the world as possible to my kids as they grow.   Being more life experienced, I find myself much calmer and able to take things with a sense of perspective than I could twenty years ago.   Very little bothers me.  Yet I see my sons just coming into the age where their passions will cause them to take chances, lose their temper, or be overcome with emotions, I hope to help them deal with those challenges.

Now that we’re financially sound I realize that I’ll never be rich, but probably won’t end up poor.  I also am amused that whether it’s making two decent incomes as we do now, or meager teaching assistant pay in grad school, it’s always the same: barely enough money to get by, yet satisfied with what I have.    Yet even as I feel life is going well, I worry about the future of my kids — what about oil crises, climate change, the decline in the US economy, etc,?   In short, I no longer worry about my own future or fantasize some great success story; I’m happy and content with the life I have.  Yet now my childrens’ future is my main concern, and I daresay I worry more about them than I ever worried about myself!

So it’s about time I not only lose weight again, but this time embrace ways to stay healthy so I can minimize the aches and pains that inevitably go with getting older, stay as active as possible with my very active and energetic sons, and find ways to make the second fifty years as good as the first.   Optimistic?   Perhaps.   But I really want to see at least one of my grandchildren graduate from college.   Since my oldest child is six, I think I have to shoot for 100 to see that happen.   And looked at that way — I’ve got as far to travel as I already have traveled — turning fifty has a romantic and exciting flair to it.   Which is good, since I’m not going to get that from food any time soon.