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.

Back in the “Low” Life Again

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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

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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

Beating Expectations

My employer is known for its excellent lunches that it provides to its employees free of charge. We have all kinds of choices including soups, bagels, deli, salads, and dessert in addition to a hot meal. People who work here often speak of the “G_____ fifteen” referring to the amount of weight people gain once they start working here.

A colleague recently shared with me a story about my first year here. Some of the kitchen employees predicted, in a lighthearted way, that they thought I would gain weight while eating their lunches. Maybe it was the fact that I came in chunky.

Happily, I’ve beaten expectations by not just avoiding weight gain, but also by actually losing weight and getting fitter. How did I do it? Responsible choices. I picked the salads, the veggies, the fruit, and the whole grain items. I skipped the desserts.

It’s nice to beat expectations.

Attacking Cortisol and Belly Fat

As mentioned in a previous post, that flab that hangs around your belly (sometimes quite literally) even after doing all the right things with diet and exercise, may be due to the body’s overproduction of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands as a response to chronic stress that can increase the fat around your belly (since that fat has more cortisol receptors). The bad news is that cortisol may be destroying your chance for perfect abs. The good news is that it’s not terribly hard to lower your cortisol levels (and stress).

I workout a lot and eat very healthily. In fact, I’m probably in the top 1-3% of the population in terms of my diet and fitness routine. Yet, I am also frequently stressed out as with most Americans. I started researching cortisol and have come up with the following plan to fight stress and belly flab:

1)  Practice breathing techniques throughout the day, especially during stressful situations. I’ve found Andrew Weil’s three breathing techniques, especially the second, very useful.

2) Practice chi gong (qigong) techniques throughout the day. This is a Chinese form of meditation/exercise that helps to lower stress. This site has really good information on techniques. Click on each exercise for more detail and photos. 

3) Cut back on caffeine. The body can react to caffeine by making more cortisol. I am going to drink only tea, not coffee, after noon.

4) Take phosphytidylserine (aka PS), a brain supplement that some research indicates can help lower out of control cortisol levels

I’ll let you know how the whole strategy proceeds. Numbers 1 and 2 are the areas where I’m most hopeful. Stress is the major contributor to cortisol production and I hope to get it under control for the summer beach season.

Lose the Stress, Lose the Flab

Looking for the source of your belly bulge? Ice cream? Doughnuts? Coke? Look again. It may be the screaming kids, the grumpy boss, or the constant breakdown of your car. Well, not those incidents specifically, but anything that causes stress.

The body responds to high stress by releasing the hormone cortisol which protects the body from harm by creating a fight or flight response (or anything in between). This was an adaptation from the days when we could be surprised and eaten by a tiger or today when we could be attacked by an intruder. Chronically high cortisol levels have been shown to contribute to the long term accumulation of abdominal fat.

The problem today is that while our body is not constantly responding to intruders or wooly mammoth stampedes, we are constantly dealing with low-mid level stress that can be endless, e.g. financial worries, job stress, etc. This keeps our cortisol levels high enough to keep that abdominal fat from leaving no matter how many crunches we do or hours we may spend on the cardio machine.

So, while giving up the ice cream, doughnuts, and coke are important, if you truly want to be thin and fit, especially in the belly, you also need to give up…the stress.

Article partially used for this entry: Cortisol Stress and Weight Loss

Workout Tip #5: Get Motivated (Part 2)

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I previously wrote about the importance of motivation and how to use short term motivation. Here are a few of my ideas for long term motivation. They are similar to the short term ones in many ways, just more focused on the…well…longer term.

Visualize Yourself- While the first short term technique was to visualize your immediate goal, this is more about visualizing your healthier, fitter self. What do you want to look like? Feel like? Imagine it and remind yourself of that each and every time you are tempted to skip your workout or even eat un-healthily. Which image would you rather date? Or hang out with? Be?

Look at your old or current self- In addition to your new image, remind yourself what you don’t want to look like.Keep a “fat” photo of yourself close by at all times. When you feel tempted to avoid workouts look at it. Is this really what you want to be?

Find a deeper reason- Looks are not everything, even though they we’d be lying if we said they didn’t matter. But, there are deeper and more important things in life: family, friends, health, happiness. Pick one or more of these and remind yourself of them every time you want to slack. Maybe it’s the grandson you want to see graduate high school or the ability to golf (or live) past 45.

The photos are ones of me (the first poorly manipulated) to illustrate the first two principles. If anyone has any more tips that work for you, please share in the comments.

jonskinny