A Fiesta, Not a Feast

As I continue with my exploration of Mindful Eating, I am  now reading a new book, Eating the Moment by Pavel Somov. I am enjoying it so far. Somov recommends 141 tips to be more mindful at meals. I am only finished with 1/3 of the book, but I have already gleaned some interesting tips. One is to have a fiesta instead of a feast. Somov tells us that the word “fiesta” comes from the Latin word for “joy.” His point is to take a holiday, and instead of revolving the whole thing around food, make a non-food activity the “main event” of a holiday.

As I pondered this tip, I realized how many of our holidays revolve around food. I don’t think we would know how to celebrate a holiday without food at the center. However, there are millions of joyful activities out there, it is just a matter of finding them. After our huge meal, Jonathan and I always take an annual Thanksgiving Day hike, if the weather permits. We have done this for years, and often the weather is so nice it is kind of like an Indian Summer. The muted browns and reds of nature from those hikes are deeply burned in my consciousness. The conversation is great, and it is a time to catch up. Looking back, while I appreciate the Thanksgiving meal my mother and grandmother prepare, the hike stands out more than just about anything. The reason is that I typically overeat at the Thanksgiving meal, and end up feeling tired and foggy-minded. Granted, this is my own fault, but my point is that while the meal is good, the hike is invigorating, and not weighed down by the side effects of eating too much.

My point is that who says we couldn’t have an annual Thanksgiving picnic and hike? It always gives me joy. We wouldn’t get rid of the Thanksgiving meal; it just wouldn’t be “about” the meal. The meaning I experience hiking could be the source of joy, rather than the meal that often gets the best of us. More joy and less bloat, mind-fog, and body fat? Sounds like a winning tradition.

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

When I was in high school my older cousin was on (yet another) diet, and he said, “you know, with our genetics, I realize I will have to battle with food everyday of my life. It is just that simple.” This was 15 years ago, and he is still obese. He must not have had the fight in him. Either way, I agreed with him, and for the sake of my physical, emotional, and social well-being, I decided it was worth fighting the battle. That idea stuck with me: I would fight food, and win.

I was thinking today about a concept I came across while reading Mindful Eating. It is an idea from the Buddhist tradition that essentially says that whether you have a strong desire or strong hatred of something, you are still tethered to it. It made me realize that I have been “tethered” to food since I was 11 or 12. Whether it has been anxiously overeating or purposefully undereating, food has had a grip on me. I consume food, think about food, worry about food, but rarely, if ever, really enjoy food.

Over the years, I have won many battles, but lost many too. I have been a “yo-yo” dieter, reaching a high of 195-200 lbs in 2000, and again in 2006, to lows in the 150s-160s in 2002 and now. For the last 5 years, I have been winning the battle with food. I really have. I am the healthiest I have ever been. I am running 30 miles a week, and eating healthier than I ever have. My blood pressure is normal, my pulse is in the athletic range, and my mind is sharp.

But, I am questioning the point of battling food at all, because I know that there will be losses ahead, because there always are. The whole idea of battling food seems baffling now. Why in the world would I choose to “battle” food every day for the rest of my life? Who spends everyday battling something that he can never conquer? What has food ever done to me?  If anything, eating can be a great experience, where each bite is a unique mixture of complex tastes, smells, and textures. The total experience of food even surpasses the mere taste: food can be prepared artfully, served regally, and be an accompaniment to some of the best social interactions ever.

I have decided to enter a rapprochement with food. I am laying aside my arms. I am battle-weary, and I am going to try something I haven’t tried since I was a child (when I was thin without trying): I am going to enjoy food. I mean really enjoy it. I don’t mean rush through it in a blur, eat to the point of getting bloated, and then “wake up” from  my narrow food trance. I don’t mean gulping down dinner while surfing the net or watching TV. I am going to savor every flavor, smell, and texture, and every moment that comes with food. The irony is that as I stop worrying so much about food, and I slowly sever the tether, I will probably find that reaching my ideal weight will simply happen. Enjoying food and losing weight? Now, that’s a win-win situation!

Have I Ever Enjoyed a Meal??

Over the last few months I have tried to analyze my relationship with food. Why is it so troubled? Ever since I was around 11 or 12, I can remember being driven by food. Food. Food. And More Food. In 5th grade I took a great field trip all over the area, visiting steamboats and historical sites. I even got to drive a steamboat for a minute. However, I barely remember caring about any of that. All I cared about was where we were eating on the trip. My brother and I went over the itinerary in our minds before, during, and after the trip, and all that continued to come up was the food. I can still remember where we ate: Western Sizzlin Steak House, and the John Henry Restaurant (both long-closed).  This was the same year the cafeteria cooks knew me on a first name basis, because I was such a great customer. In 8th grade the process continued. We took a school trip to Florida, and all that seemed to matter was that I had 30 (yes, 30) packets of sprees for the trip. I certainly wasn’t “packing light” for that trip!

You would think that all this obsession with food, which I admit continues to this day, would mean I actually appreciate food. Those who overeat know this isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true. Most of the time when I eat, I go into an altered state, a kind of food trance. I do not savor anything. Rather, I scarf down food as quickly as possible, with as little enjoyment as possible, and I can literally feel my body tensing up as I eat. When I finish, the tension gets relieved somewhat, and I feel bloated and my mind becomes foggy. This is not enjoying food. So, what  is the answer? Well, I think one possible answer is mindfulness.

I have been reading about mindfulness lately, after I picked up Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness is simply being present and aware, non-judgmentally, in the moment. It is, basically, living in the present to the fullest extent. This got me thinking about the whole idea of mindfulness and eating. Why do I go into a narrow-focused trance state every time I eat? Why do I scarf down meals but don’t really enjoy them? Why can’t I appreciate the whole experience of food?

I decided to buy a book called Mindful Eating. I highly recommend it. I am working my way through it and the result has been pretty much revolutionary. It has made me realize I probably haven’t really enjoyed a meal in a long, long, time. According to the author, Jan Bays, mindful eating is basically being aware of the experience we have while eating. It is being attuned to our own hunger and experience of food. Mindful eating has us asking questions such “why am I hungry” and “how am I hungry.” It has us paying attention to the tastes, textures, flavors, colors, smells, and experience of a meal. In essence, mindful eating has taught me to slow down and actually enjoy a meal, and to live in the experience of eating a great piece of food or glass of liquid. Yes, we can even savor water! According to Bays, mindfulness is the best seasoning!

I have been using the techniques and I am very excited about it. Lately I have been saddened that I just don’t enjoy coffee like I used to. I grab a cup in the morning, at work, and in the evening. I gulp it down while I surf the net, talk to my wife, or drive. Even though we use good Arabica bean coffees (such as Starbucks Pike’s Place and Thanksgiving Blend), all the coffees were tasting the same to me. Recently, I decided to be aware of the experience of drinking coffee. Just aware. No thinking, no judging, and no rushing. I was amazed. I hadn’t enjoyed coffee like this in a long time! I have said how much I love coffee a lot over the last 3 years, but honestly, I haven’t really meant it, until now that is.

Last night I decided to eat dinner the same way. Bays mentions that it is okay to play with your food, so instead of eating at the table or in front of the TV, we decided to “have a picnic” in front of the fireplace. We put a blanket down and faced each other. The cat sat in between us, while the flames kept us warm. My wife made spare ribs with a tomato sauce, over whole wheat noodles. We enjoyed our meal slowly, and became aware of the experience. We talked some, but left plenty of time for just being aware. The flavors and experience came alive! Each bite was a little different, and the blend of spices and texture made it a great experience. While doing this, I became attuned to my stomach, and realized that I was full fairly quickly; I even left some food for later. As I looked up out the window during the meal, I noticed a strong orange and blue hue shining in, as the sun was setting outside our house. I realized that THIS is the way a meal was meant to be. The alternative, staring at a TV screen while inhaling the meal, now strikes me as a virtual waste of time.

I am planning on eating at Chipotle on Friday, and I literally cannot fathom how I will eat the whole thing (even though I usually scarf it down). The thought of eating that quickly makes me a little sad actually, looking back at how many meals I mindlessly ran through. Instead, I will mindfully enjoy it, and whatever is left, I (or someone else) will eat later.

I also think this will help my battle with weight gain. One principle of Mindful Eating is to recognize different types of hunger, and satisfy them. Some types of hunger can be satisfied with things other than food. For example, eye hunger (desiring a food because it looks appetizing) can be satisfied by looking at something beautiful. Who would have thought that if a piece of nicely decorated cheesecake on a dessert tray at a restaurant is calling your name, a simple glance at the sunset outside might satisfy your hunger? As someone who has struggled with food for years, I am starting to think that this mindfulness thing might be the answer. And I can tell you that living mindfully in other areas of life has transformed me as well.

More on Green Tea and Weight Loss

For obese individuals with metabolic syndrome (which I am guessing most obese people have, to some degree or another), drinking green tea resulted in 5 lbs of weight loss in 8 weeks, with no additional lifestyle changes. Most people I know would gladly drink a little extra tea to lose 5 lbs so easily. This is yet more evidence that green tea is mildly helpful in helping a person lose weight. I don’t care for the taste, so I take a green tea extract pill a few times a week before exercise.

I should note that it is probably good that a supplement is only “mildly” helpful in weight loss. If a substance is highly effective at causing weight loss, we have another name for that substance: a poison! This illustrates why the public’s demand for a magic weight loss pill is contrary to our basic biological nature. For hundreds of thousands of years humans evolved to more effectively gain weight (which is why our bodies become more efficient and nearly “shut down” when starved), and yet for the last 50 or so, Westerners are getting too much food. I would be suspicious of a pill that caused dramatic weight loss.

Dealing With The Holiday Pitfalls

Now that Thanksgiving is over, most of us are thinking of the upcoming Christmas holiday (especially we teachers that get 16 days off!). However, this time of the year is generally bad for your health. Well, perhaps I should say that the choices we often make during these days are bad for our health, which, when coupled with certain naturally occurring conditions (like winter), make matters worse. There are a few things I think we should all keep in mind as the season of holiday parties and treats approaches.

First, let me start with a little philosophy. As a Catholic, I believe that life consists of both feasting and fasting. Christmas (which, as a Church holiday, begins on December 25th) is a time of feasting. Advent, which runs roughly four weeks before Christmas, is generally a time of restraint and simplicity, and in some traditions, fasting. So keep in mind as I share some of these ideas, that I most certainly believe in both fasting and feasting properly!

– The first pitfall to watch out for is gainig too much weight around the holidays. The average person gains 7 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is really quite a lot of weight to pack on in such a short time, and stresses the body physically and mentally. We have compiled ways to lose and maintain weight that are applicable any time of the year, including the holidays.

– The second pitfall is holiday-related stress. Money, travel, family visits, etc, all create stress, and this is in addition to the daily stresses we encounter. Studies show one solution to stress is to simply smile. Using the facial muscles necessary for smiling tells the brain that it is happy. You may look crazy randomly smiling, but you’ll be happier.

– The third pitfall is winter depression. Winter is a rough time for a lot of people. Add holiday stress, and holiday eating to this, and many people are less than joyful around Christmas. One way to beat the winter blues is to get some sunlight. As simple as it sounds, it is true: sunlight triggers the brain to produce serotonin. Unlike Vitamin D, whose production requires sunlight to hit the skin during a limited range of months, simply looking in the direction of the sun with one’s eyes closed triggers serotonin production. This can even be done from the inside. In the winter, I make it a point to go to the window and soak in some sun during planning periods.

Back in the “Low” Life Again


If you are prone to weight gain, it’s important to live your life lower (but not too low) than higher. And, it’s amazing how weight gain can get away from you. You work hard, you love how you look and feel, and then bingo, you’re back on the roller coaster ride of weight gain. The key I guess is to keep it a small hill since it’s much easier to get down. I personally put on about 6 pounds over the last 3 weeks and I’m trying not to make it permanent and a prelude to more.

How did it happen? I took the vacation mentality too far. My mother in law was in town for a few weeks and she can cook. Very, very well, in fact. And, she cooks in a traditional Italian way: generally healthy (I don’t eat meat which helps), but also caloric and lots of added flavor. For example, I put about a cup of cheese on a whole pizza. She put almost a cup per slice (or so it seemed). As much as I loved it, the pounds started creeping on. And, since she was visiting, I didn’t make it to the gym as much. In short, my control slipped away.

My plan is to lose it over the next few weeks now that she is gone. I’m going to miss her for a variety of reasons including her cooking. I should’ve adjusted and actually used moderation and control. This is how I typically gained weight in the past: I “go off” and never really get back on until it’s too late. Not this time, though. I’m back in the low life again, which, as those who have been overweight and lost it know, the “low” life of healthy weight is actually the high life in terms of health and confidence.

Image by Jonathan Bennett. To order prints or download high resolution images, click here.

Attention High School Students: Back to School Weight Loss and Maintenance

It’s that exciting…er…dreaded time of year for many students, teachers, and parents: back to school time. Today, I am going to discuss some ways to maintain and lose weight once school starts. We also have a Weight Loss Tips and Ideas Page that contains more generally helpful weight loss ideas, most which would be effective in a back-to-school setting. You should consult a doctor before starting any weight loss plan.

When I was in high school, summer was pretty much the beginning of football season, but I did have a lot of control over my diet and activity level. Football got me into shape, and I ate pretty well at home, so the combination was good for weight loss and maintenance. My senior year, I ran a lot outside of football, so much, that I remember worrying that football would not keep me in shape nearly as well as my running would (maybe I should have joined the cross-country team!).  Either way, summer was full of good weather and possibilities, whereas once school started, I seemed to be locked into a tight and stressful schedule (more on this below).

In high school, I struggled to maintain my weight. I knew that it was a good idea to be in shape, especially if I wanted to get dates, but yet, gaining weight was so easy in high school. This was because a lot of my friends were naturally thin, with high metabolisms (not so anymore, by the way), and could eat whatever they wanted and not gain weight. I, on the other hand, had to struggle to keep the weight off. While I just mentioned that losing weight in the summer was pretty easy, once school started, I faced a lot of temptations that hurt my weight loss efforts:

Bad lunches – the cafeteria offered little in the way of healthy choices, which made bad eating the order of the day. Packing lunches required time and effort I didn’t always have (see below).

Stress – I got good grades in school, and enjoyed the social aspects of school as well. Nonetheless, when football was in season, school was pretty stressful for me. Basically I was busy from 7:30 AM-7:00 PM, which left a few hours in the evening to eat, catch up with family and friends, and squeeze in some alone time.  My natural response to stress was to eat more.

Social Pressure – Like most high school kids, my social life usually involved food. Where would we go after practice? The local greasy spoon. Where would we go after games? The local pizza joint. What did we do for entertainment on the weekends? Sit around and play Super Nintendo. Obviously, I enjoyed all of these activities, but if they weren’t reigned in, the result for me was weight gain.

Sitting Around All Day – Unfortunately, high school involves a lot of sitting, and even those among us without ADD sometimes struggle to focus when sitting still all day. We are asking kids who should be at their prime of physical activity to sit around all day.

The key to losing and maintaining weight, besides knowing *how* to lose weight is the effectively address hindrances to weight loss, i.e. situations and realities that may cause a mere lapse to turn into a relapse. So below are some ways to address the potential problems I have addressed, but obviously, each person will have different hindrances to weight loss, so be creative!

Bad lunches can be dealt with by packing a lunch. Yes, it takes time and effort, but the control you have over your lunches, both in taste and calories, is worth it. To make the job easier, I suggest planning your week’s meals before you get to the grocery story, and then buying enough food to last the entire week. This way, you aren’t scrambling each night to develop tomorrow’s meal.

Stress is rampant among all age groups. Fortunately, it is easy to deal with stress, if you are willing to try different techniques. This website has a bunch of stress relief ideas and techniques. Instead of immediately eating when you are stressed, try some of these ideas.

Social Pressure is difficult to deal with, because nobody wants to be known as the guy (or gal) who can’t ever just go out and “have fun.” First, I think it is important to realize that if being in shape means a lot to you, then you may have to sometimes not do what everybody else is doing. Fortunately, most restaurants offer healthier menu items, and if all your buddies have around is a bag of chips, then you can always limit yourself to a handful and say you just ate. Second, if you are generally doing well regarding your health plan, then allowing yourself to go off isn’t bad, and might even rev up your metabolism. People don’t get fat by going off their plan once a week; they gain weight because they go off all the time.

Sitting around for 8, 40-minute, periods is not a great way to burn calories, but there are ways to burn calories while sitting. Tapping your feet, clinching and releasing muscles, etc, all burn more calories than sitting alone. In fact, studies show that thin people tend to fidget more than fat people, so the extra little movements while sitting probably do make a difference in our daily calorie burning!

The Power of the Mind and Weight Loss

The mind is powerful, and it is apparently so powerful, that a woman who was hypnotized to believe she had gastric-bypass surgery actually is losing weight! In fact, the woman, just like those who have undergone gastric-bypass surgery, gets a sick feeling if she eats too much.

While I am not sure if I would want to undergo hypnosis to lose weight, I do believe the mind is powerful and capable of literally helping us create our own reality (have you ever noticed how it seems bad things always happen to those people who always expect it?).

Men’s Health on Seeing that Six-Pack

running hill

Do you want to see those six-pack abs? Well, they are probably there, but they are probably buried under fat. Even though we try and try to lose weight and gain muscle, the “six-pack look” seems elusive. First, be aware that seeing a six-pack may very well involve removing some excess water off of the stomach. This can be accomplished via Water Pills (another cheap one). Second, it takes a pretty low  body fat percentage to see six-pack abs, and even those of us who are healthy, aren’t quite there. The recent issue of Men’s Health provides a diet plan by Alan Aragon that just might work to help you see those elusive ab muscles. We’ll see. It takes discipline, and is different from my current diet, but I may give it a try. Below are the steps:

1. Calculate your calories:

Aragon suggests setting your calorie goal based on your ideal weight. To do this, he provides the following formula: if you exercise 1 hour or less per week, multiply your ideal weight by 10. For every hour a week over 1 that you exercise, add another 1 to the multiplier. For example, if you exercise 3 hours a week, and your ideal weight is 150, you would take 12×150, for a daily calorie target of 1800. Yeah, that’s low, but losing that final gut fat ain’t easy!

2. Adjust your fat, protein, and carbohydrates accordingly:

Here’s where it may get a little tricky, so pay attention. Aragon advises that you consume the same amount of protein (in grams) as your ideal weight. So, in the example above, our man would consume 150 grams (600 calories) of protein per day. For fat, Aragon suggests halving that number, so our hypothetical person would shoot for 75 grams (675 calories) of fat. Carbs make up the rest, and you can figure the exact grams of carbs allowed by adding the calories from fat and protein, and then subtracting from your calorie goal. In this case, it would be 1800- (600+675)= 535 calories from carbs. Now, divide 535 by 4 (since there are 4 calories in a gram of carbs), i.e. 535/4, and you get 131 carbohydrates a day.

3. Eat Good Foods

Avoid junk like refined grains, sugary foods, etc. A diet of only 1800 calories is pretty low for an active man, but if you eat the right foods, you should get the nutrients you need (including fiber).

4. Make The Diet Work

Aragon suggests eating plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as making sure that 1 hour before, and within 1 hour after, exercising, you eat, in order to make sure you have the fuel you need.

5. Forget About the Details

(apparently after you work out the aforementioned details!)

Image has nothing to do with a six-pack, but I did lose a lot of weight by running this very hill regularly!

Fat Cell Theory

It can be disheartening to dieters, but it appears that we cannot actually reduce the number of fat cells within our body. So, when we lose weight we are merely decreasing the size of the set number of fat cells. However, this still leaves the cells themselves intact, waiting to be filled. This is called “fat cell theory.”

Our number of fat cells seems to be determined throughout infancy and adolescence. And, some scientists believe that this can be controlled, so that skinnier kids create fewer fat cells. Thus, they have an advantage throughout life. This may explain why so few obese children become skinny as adults.

For more info, visit this article