Posts Tagged ‘Weight Loss’

The Thinker

Keeping off the weight

I officially start the maintenance phase of my diet tomorrow. Thirty pounds of my body has been converted, principally from fat to energy. Curiously, in the process of losing those thirty pounds, I have avoided regular exercise. Whereas, when I was gaining weight I was in the gym three times a week or so doing aerobics and lifting weights, all to stay “healthy”. Exercise was probably good for my cardiovascular system as opposed to doing nothing. However, exercise was a bad way to think I could lose weight. To the extent it made me hungry and caused me to gain weight, exercise was bad.

For me, the value of exercise came from reading Jim Fixx’s book on aerobics. Aerobics opens more blood vessels, and that means you require more energy for the same amount of body mass, which means you need more calories. The exercise pros know to have that protein bar before starting exercise, so you don’t tend to crave food afterward. However, I saw eating food in general as “bad” as it was “calories” so I avoided eating before exercise. Sometime after the exercise was over my body noticed my blood sugar was low, so it sent me eating. Unsurprisingly, this often meant eating more in calories than I had just burned off. This silly strategy of mine recalls the legend of Sisyphus, who was doomed to repeatedly push a rock up a mountain knowing that at some point it would tumble back and he’d have to do it again. Using exercise to lose weight is a lot like that.

I’m not suggesting that exercise is unimportant. Doctors recommend regular exercise because it promotes cardiovascular health and body integrity. However, it’s based on the assumption that you are already at a normal weight. It’s not a bad thing to have muscle mass. It came in handy recently when I had to haul my daughter’s crap from Richmond back home (she finally got her degree!) and never once panted. Yet most of us are not laborers, farm hands or professional movers so we probably don’t need a lot of well-toned muscles. Mind you looking like one is not bad, if that’s your thing. I find it is curious that the weight lifters I mostly see at the local Gold’s Gym are obese. Yes, they have a lot of muscles but they also have large rolls of fat.

My takeaway from this weight loss experience is that to lose weight you should avoid exercise. Losing weight is really about calorie reduction. You don’t want to give into temptation, and exercise is likely to make you hungry, and thus you are likely to cheat. Moreover, diet marketing is mostly full of bullshit in an attempt to sooth your anxieties by parting you from your money. Any diet will take off the weight if you have the constitution to stick with it. Few though will work with your body rather than against it. Almost all of them will set you up to put the weight back on. Having just taken off thirty pounds, I remain skeptical about the long term success of the Ideal Protein Diet I used to take off the weight, particularly as I add back into my diet fats and carbohydrates. But at least their maintenance strategy makes sense. It helped me cut through a lot of the dieting bullshit.

Most of us Americans have gotten the message that the Western diet is bad. We know we should not eat a lot of junk food, and that stuff we do eat like pizza generally is not good for you. What almost no diet will tell you though is that a calorie is not a calorie. All calories are not created equal. Your body needs both fats and carbohydrates to maintain a healthy weight. You are doomed to fail if in your maintenance phase you do not get some of both, like the Atkins Diet. You just need to keep them apart. Put them together and you are asking for a heap of trouble. Basically, you are back on the Western Diet.

There are so many zillions of diet strategies and ideas out there it’s really hard for anyone to tell the good ones from the bad ones. From painful experience I can now recommend an article, one of the one percent or less of diet articles that actually imparts some useful information. Go read it. This is what happens when you eat carbs and fats together, at least in significant quantities. This is why it wasn’t a problem in the past. Most importantly, once you take off the weight, this is how you keep it off. Don’t mix the carbs and fats. You need both, just don’t put them together. Enjoy a nice Caesar salad for lunch but easy on the croutons. At dinner, have a plate of spaghetti but go easy on the cheese. Your liver will be much happier. It will be very confused if you throw them together, and it will attach the byproducts to your waist.

Americans like knowing that they should eat fats and carbohydrates. The part we overlook though is that the body also needs proteins and vegetables. What you need is a healthy balance of all four food groups. Every meal except maybe breakfast should include a vegetable or two. Every meal should also have a protein. These foods are essential to maintaining a healthy body, plus since they are relatively low in calories they will make you feel fuller.

So pick the diet of your choice to take off the weight. But to keep it off:

  • Protein at every meal
  • Vegetables at every meal but perhaps breakfast
  • Make one meal fat heavy and carbohydrate light
  • Make one meal carbohydrate heavy and fat light
  • Preferably, eat vegetables and proteins first
  • Watch your portions
  • One to three small snacks during the day will keep you from getting cravings

Resume exercise after you have lost the weight. Aspire to be an athlete or weight lifter only if that is your passion. Otherwise low impact aerobics like walking is fine. Lifting weights once a week or so is probably a good way to keep the muscles tuned as well.

If you have struggled keeping weight off before, I hope that I have saved you thousands of dollars and a lifetime of misery.

 
The Thinker

Thirty pounds and two months later

One of the curious things about dieting is that no matter how fast weight comes off it can never come off quickly enough. I’ve been on the Ideal Protein diet for a bit over two months and I have lost twenty-six pounds officially, thirty unofficially. Getting that amount of weight off in such a short period of time is amazing. There have been times when I have wondered if it was a safe way to take off weight, given that it comes off so quickly.

The general advice from diet coaches to take weight off slowly sounds reasonable until you consider that lots of people follow the advice, give up after a few pounds, and then end up putting on more weight. The other general advice is to make “lifestyle changes”. It makes it sound like you just throw a switch and somehow you move from daily dinners at the Old Country Buffet to eating little but tofu and beansprouts, and that eating habits of a lifetime can somehow suddenly and irreversibly change. So the Ideal Protein Diet is certainly radical in that it takes off weight very quickly. Considering the poor long-term success rates of all those other dieting schemes, it was worth the chance.

As I can attest, if you follow it, weight will come off quickly. Its claim that you should never feel hungry after the first few days, however, is dubious at best. I have no doubt that some and perhaps most of their dieters rarely feel hungry. I still feel hungry pretty much every day, just not all the time. For a while I would wake up in the night with my stomach hurting from hunger. When I feel hungry though it is usually genuine hunger, not because I have a sugar craving. Those particular cravings have largely disappeared. It is the sugar cravings more than anything else that I think are to blame for so many Americans being overweight. Consequently, for me the most challenging period of the dieting comes not during weight loss phase, but when I attempt to sustain a healthy weight. It’s pretty easy to see that I will need to eat a lot less sugar and a lot fewer carbohydrates in general.

Some of us carry weight real well. That describes me. While I have lost thirty pounds, it is curiously hard to tell. I never carried a beer belly (it helps not to drink beer). In addition, for more than thirty years I have gotten regular exercise, including weight training. To some extent my cardiologist overreacted because while I was overweight I entered the diet at the high end of the acceptable level of percentage of body fat. Basically, I retained a large amount of muscle mass from all that exercise, but not to the extent that I look like a weight lifter. So in that sense losing thirty pounds is a bit anticlimactic. I don’t look a whole lot thinner, at least to my eyes, but scales do not lie.

I have taken up a notch on my belt. It used to be that three notches were uncomfortable. Now I must use four notches to avoid a plumber’s crack. I notice my weight loss most where I least expected it: around my arms. My arms now look great, with little in the way of fat between my muscle and my skin. It looks like I do rock climbing every day. Yet I have lost nearly three inches around the waist. Being very daring, I recently bought a new pair of jeans a size smaller than normal, on the assumption I would keep off the weight.

How is the Ideal Protein diet? As far as getting protein and vegetables, it will deliver, and you will be amazed that you can live on half your body’s daily caloric intake with so little fuss. Like any diet it requires discipline. You often leave the table thinking, “Is that all?” Yes, it is. Dinner consists of eight ounces of a lean protein plus two cups of low or no carbohydrate vegetables (basically avoid vegetables with roots). Otherwise at least during Phase 1 of the diet, you are consuming their “foods” which arguably are not cheap. The foods cost about $90 a week, and supplements run out periodically and cost more. By eating less you need a lot of supplements. Their foods are low salt foods, but you still need salt, so you use their salt and sprinkle it on foods or add some to your water. Like most diets, you drink a lot of water, at least sixty-four fluid ounces a day.

For breakfast, I typically make eggs from their omelet mix, which is surprisingly palatable and filling. Lunch is two cups of vegetables plus one of their foods. I find most of their lunch foods remarkably unappetizing. The best I’ve found so far is the Chicken a la King pottage mix (add salt). Snacks are also not much to write home about. The best of them is the Caramel Crunch bar. It’s that and lots of water (I drink mostly zero calorie iced tea) and zero calorie salad dressing with salads. I liberally add spices to my dinner.

So off goes the weight in a rather predictable three pounds or so a week, although it is closer to ten during the first week due to water weight disappearing. Change vegetables, proteins and “food” mixes for some variety, but you will probably find some combination that work well for you. Eight ounces of protein for dinner is actually quite a lot for an entrée. It can be a huge hamburger (no bun or condiments, obviously) or four eggs. I supplement meals with lots of iced tea and usually have one or two cups of coffee (a little instant creamer and artificial sweetener) with lunch or breakfast.

Still, after two months, my body is now seriously complaining. It didn’t help that I spent two weeks mostly on the road. With no access to a kitchen, there was no way to make their omelet breakfast, so I fell back on their small portion and not particularly appetizing “Crispy Cereal”. Have I cheated? A little bit. When in Louisville with no kitchen I had to live off the land, which meant nearby restaurants and plain Subway salads with lunch. It also meant a lot of walking, generally three or more miles a day. My body complained. I ate a lot of Mediterranean food, as three of these restaurants were convenient to the hotel. If they added pita bread or some rice, I ate some of it. I still lost weight, but it was probably from the walking. Last Sunday I found myself at an Apple store waiting while they rebuilt my hard disk. With close to an hour to kill and my tummy seriously complaining, I succumbed to a cupcake from a nearby eatery. In the last week or so when I have felt particularly hungry I have added a quarter cup of peanuts as a snack. I don’t feel particularly guilty about it. I am still losing weight but when my body gives me firm guidance, I listen.

After some discussion with my counselor though I’ve decided to start the second phase of the diet, which consists of adding real protein at lunch instead of protein from a powder. I may extend it beyond the two weeks to take off additional weight, or not. Ideally I’d like to be at the weight I was when I was married, but I was a skinny thing then because I didn’t work out. I have added a lot of muscle mass and I think it is reasonable to keep that extra muscle mass.

In summary, the Ideal Protein diet does work, it is reasonably painless but it requires tenacity like any diet. It is not inexpensive so adding in coaching fees and food it can easily cost you $1500 or more by the time you are done with it. Its ultimate success will be vindicated if I keep the weight off. My pancreas should now be well rested as it has had little in the way of carbohydrates to process, so when I resume eating carbohydrates I should process them more efficiently. I hope that I will consume fewer of them, and keep up eating more vegetables as a percent of my diet. I am finding that I prefer steamed cauliflower. So maybe I can retrain my taste buds, at least to some extent.

More dieting episodes to follow.

 
The Thinker

Full steamed vegetables ahead!

So how’s that Ideal Protein Diet going, Mark? I just finished day ten of the diet and what a strange diet it is! It consists of a mixture of healthy food (you better learn to love carbohydrate-free vegetables) and what feels like mad scientist “food”. It’s hard to argue with results, however. When they put me on the scale I had dropped 9.7 pounds in eight days.

Yikes! If I maintained that kind of weight loss I’d be emaciated in ten weeks! That won’t happen. It’s true that when you get about 900 calories a day and burn 2500 calories a day you are going to take off weight quickly. Which means for me anyhow it should take about two to three days to take off a pound, if you can maintain this crazy diet. This kind of weight loss should rapidly slow down. What’s coming off now is mostly water weight. After you exhaust blood sugar, the body will hunt for calories in your muscles, specifically glycogen. Glycogen is bound to the muscle with water molecules. Burn the glycogen and that water finally exits the body. So it’s kind of like getting double for your money, while it lasts. Soon, if it hasn’t started yet, my glycogen will be exhausted too. Providing you can retain muscle mass (the whole point of the Ideal Protein diet) the body turns to burning the fat in fat cells for energy.

This is a crazy diet because this kind of extreme weight loss seems dangerous somehow. I had always heard that to take off weight safely you were supposed to take off a pound a week. In theory you were less likely to put it back on than if you took it off more quickly. The Ideal Protein diet seems to be rewriting the rules.

Whether I can continue holding out is open to question. I think so but not because of the “food”, which generally consists of powders in silver envelopes that you mix with water in a shaker they provide. This “food” makes up my breakfast, lunch and snack, which means that I have one real meal a day: dinner. You can have eight ounces of lean animal protein with dinner (or tofu if you are a vegetarian) and two cups of no-carb vegetables, which you also have with lunch.

While not a painless way to lose weight it’s incredibly quick and you don’t usually feel hungry (except in the first few days). After trying enough of their “foods” you can find some that are good enough and some that are quite good. As a snack person, the snack constitutes the food highlight of my day. The Caramel Crunch bar is quite good. Some of the foods are an acquired taste, at best. If you like your soup foamy, you may find some of the soups acceptable but I found them hard to finish with ingredients that were often gritty. There are enough choices where you can get by, but you won’t be raving about the food to your friends. My “omelet” for breakfast has the sort of consistency and look of eggs, but not quite. It’s acceptable enough and with little else but protein you shouldn’t feel much in the way of hunger until lunch. Protein suppresses appetite and vegetables fill the void in your tummy. Repeat indefinitely until you reach you weight loss goal. Then start Phase 2 and learn to keep it off. Or so they say.

I expect I can complete this diet, but it won’t be without giving myself some constant coaching. I am trying to be thoughtful to my pancreas, which for a couple of decades has been in overdrive, squeezing out extra insulin to handle the extra blood sugar. It certainly deserves a break. These weight loss people believe that with a long break it can function more like a normal pancreas. When I think of unpleasant ways to die, pancreatic cancer is probably number one. I doubt there is a link between it and obesity (this was never a problem for Steve Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer) but why take a chance?

Aside from the weight loss, there have been some good things about this diet. I have more time because I am not exercising. It is specifically discouraged, because the body cannot draw calories as quickly from fat as it does from blood sugar courtesy of various sugar-laden fast foods. Exercise typically took six or more hours a week out of my schedule. I have them back, at least for a little while, which is giving me more time in the evenings to enjoy nerdy activities like writing code for my open source project. (I know, I know. I should be blogging more instead.) I’ll go back to exercise when I am off this diet, but it’s nice to have a break from that routine. It’s also strange to pass that plate of brownies and not feel a magnetic draw toward it. It took a few days but the sugar craving is gone.

In its absence is a kind of neutral zone. When we went to see the musical Next to Normal a couple of years ago, the severely depressed woman Diana spoke of life on antidepressants: no highs, no lows, just a boring steady state. She missed the lows because it let her enjoy the highs. I feel like that sometimes. I finish lunch and I am full, sort of satisfied but my stomach feels strange. I want to feel some gripping hunger. Since dinner is my only real meal, there are things that can be done to make it more interesting. Mainly, I can avail myself of spices, and I can add some olive oil when I heat up the meat in a skillet. That and some freshly heated vegetables liberally covered in the salt they want you to take regularly can make dinner pretty satisfying. I still need to find some calorie free salad dressing. Eating vegetables, particularly raw vegetables, gets somewhat dreary after a while. Mostly you drink lots of water. A little coffee is allowed. I did find a calorie-free iced tea/lemonade mix with Splenda that is really good. The diet coach said it was okay but recommended drinking it only at meals. Since Splenda is okay, a low-tech and cheap way to make drinking water more palatable is simply to add a couple packets to a bottle of water.

Doubtless I will develop more coping techniques in the weeks ahead. This diet will likely become more challenging the longer it goes on and particularly when I have to travel in a couple of weeks. But I will get through it somehow, I hope. Full steam(ed vegetables) ahead!

 
The Thinker

The plate of brownies diet test

The worst thing about going to the doctor is not when they tell you that you have incurable cancer. It’s when they put you on the scale. I don’t want to know how much I weigh so I don’t peek, but doctors care. They are obsessed with weight, body mass indexes and other warning signs like blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

It seems that once again I have succeeded in taking off weight and then slowly but incrementally putting it back on again. Here I am hardly unique. In fact, it is hard to find the case of someone who after taking off large amounts of weight doesn’t put it back on again.

Permanent weight loss after decades of being overweight or obese most of the time is actually quite hard. Given our ever-expanding American girth, it seems like Mission Impossible. It is made harder by the tons of disinformation about healthy eating and weight loss out there, plus the heaping doses of guilt you absorb. You would think with all the money spent by the National Institute of Health they might have a study that would indicate the most effective ways of losing weight and keeping it off. Even if there were such a way, most doctors operate on the illusion that weight loss is handled through a one size fits all solution. “Eat less and exercise more,” is basically what they will tell you.

In fact, I had been eating less and I get plenty of exercise. While I get vegetables and lean meats on a daily basis, I clearly have been eating too many carbohydrates, which my body promptly turned into fat. This comes in part from exercise, which burns blood sugar and makes me crave carbohydrates. The Dark Chocolate M&Ms addiction has also contributed to my carbohydrate problem. Anyhow, my cardiologist felt the need to give me a stern lecture about my weight last week.

“Look doctor,” I told her. “I’m good at taking weight off. Like most Americans, I have done it lots of times. The only problem is keeping it off. I don’t want to waste my time with another trip to Weight Watchers when their success rate is as miserable as anyone else’s in the diet industry.”

This doctor though was prepared. Cardiologists see lots of overweight and obese people. They deliver this lecture dozens of times a day. Apparently this practice got so sick of not having any real solutions for their patients that one of the practice doctors decided to do something about it. He thoroughly researched the problem and then set up a clinic down the hall from their office. “If you want to take weight off and keep it off, go see them,” she told me. So I did.

Of course, what I really wanted was a diet where I could literally have my cake and eat it too. Every dieter wants a painless weight loss plan. We particularly want one that requires us to eat lots of easily processed sugary carbohydrates. Of course, no such plan exists that actually works. Lots of plans, including Weight Watchers’ newest one, wants to convince you otherwise. Weight Watchers has a relatively new “Fruit is free” plan. Their market has always been “eat what you want, just a lot less of it.” The new plan lets you eat as much fruit as you want but ups the points on everything else. You can lose weight if you follow their plan. But more than likely because your carbohydrate addiction craving has not really been solved, you will put the weight back on. It’s not bad for their business model. You reenter the program, take the weight off again, and their cash registers go ching.

Thus I found myself yesterday talking to my new diet coach at The Healthy Weigh Now down the hall from my cardiologist. While the doctor in charge and the nurses and coaches there actually work for the cardiology practice, the program they are following is really the Ideal Protein plan. No fruit allowed on this plan, or pretty much anything in the way of carbohydrates. Not much in the way of calories either. The plan is 900-1000 calories a day. It’s no surprise then that those who follow the plan take off weight, and quickly. Women lose on average 2-3 pounds a week; men 3-5 pounds a week.

This plan stuffs you with vegetables, but also “ideal” proteins. To burn fat, you must first use up sugar in the blood. The body will then turn to muscles for energy and finally resort to burning fat. Their “ideal” protein supplements keeps your muscles from losing muscle mass and convinces your body to instead burn fat. And so it goes if you can stick to the diet.

The first twenty-four hours has been a bit challenging but not too difficult. I find myself mildly hungry for much of the day, but that should pass in a couple of days. “Meals” though stretch the definition. Two out of three meals come from their prepared food packages, which are often powders combined with water. There is a daily snack from one of their approved snacks. All emphasize protein. Dinner consists of eight ounces of lean protein and certain vegetables. There are also numerous vitamin supplements, olive oil, fish oil and lots of water to drink. The food categories so far taste better than I thought, but calling a half glass of fruit flavored high protein “juice” a breakfast is a bit much. Just follow the protocol, they tell me, and those pounds will quickly disappear. “You will soon be punching new holes in your belt,” they assured me. It just works.

And I am confident that it will make me lose weight quickly. So I have really only one question: will my body rebel and I find myself at a Dunkin Donuts scarfing down boxes of French Crullers, the food I would prefer to eat?

If so then comes the real challenge: keeping the weight off for good. Here is where the plan will hopefully succeed where others have failed, as I transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 and eventually all the way to Phase 4, with a doctor and coaches weighing and watching and adjusting and advising all along the way.

When I can pass a plate of brownies at the dessert bar without instinctively wanting to reach for one of them, that’s when I know I will have succeeded.

 
The Thinker

My sad prediction for today’s “biggest losers”

My blog seems to be on something of a health kick lately. This is because over the last year I have been dealing with more than my usual number of health issues. It’s not just me. This week, my mother in law complained of chest pains. Doctors found a blockage near her heart and put in an emergency stint. She then suffered a heart attack that was followed a day later by another and worse heart attack. She was technically dead for ten minutes until they finally managed to restart her heart. She is still in intensive care and is delusional, a condition I saw my own mother go through since she also suffered from congestive heart failure. Her long-term prospects look dubious, but she is about eighty years old. She is fortunate to be alive in any condition, because she made lifetime habits of smoking and not exercising. My wife plans to fly out to Phoenix tomorrow to be with her mother. Her return date is unknown. If all this close-to-home health news were not enough, one of my sisters called me today to tell me that she has been diagnosed with the onset of adult diabetes.

So feeling my mortality, I am focused on healthy living, as are many other people including First Lady Michele Obama. Obama is busy planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, demonstrating healthy eating and fitness, and working to end childhood obesity. This is long overdue but of course, this being America, there is fierce resistance. The processed food industry is all up in arm about taxing nutritionally empty foods like soda that give us sugar highs and put us prematurely into the hospital. I heard one C-SPAN caller the other morning (a self professed Tea Party member) dreadfully upset that “big government” was trying to regulate sodium in our food and was thinking about raising taxes on nutritionally empty foods like sugared sodas. To me these are “better late than never” proposals, but it makes other American hopping mad. I wonder if they also object to nutritional information on packaged food. Apparently, it is more important to be nutritionally ignorant and cause millions to die prematurely and deal with wholly preventable diseases than it is to increase the size of government. You have to wonder if the nutritionally empty crap these people are likely eating is affecting their judgment.

I avoid “reality” TV shows but about a year ago, while stuck in a hotel room, I watched an entire episode of The Biggest Losers, which now has many international spinoffs. As with most of these “reality” shows, it seems to be much more about fostering unhealthy relationships between fellow contestants than losing weight. The more weight your team loses, the “better” you are doing. The grand prize of $250,000 would certainly be nice to win, but at what price? In any event, in addition to the constant sniping you can watch contestants downing protein shakes, dehydrating themselves, working with personal trainers and engaging in the vigorous cardiovascular exercise they ignored most of their lives.

If you are obese, losing weight is usually vital for your long-term health. If you are overweight, it is also a good idea. Still, losing twenty, 40, 80 and in some cases more than 100 pounds is not by itself healthy. First, if the calories you are ingesting are not nutritious, you are not being good to your body. Second, as I discovered, dehydration can result in syncopes (fainting spells), falls, concussions and even death. No wonder Biggest Loser contestants in case they should they end up in the hospital or drop dead sign forms disclaiming NBC from all responsibility. Perhaps the most likely thing that will happen when you lose weight is that soon after the cameras are tracking your progress, you will quickly rebound, putting back the weight you gained and often more, such as happened to actress Kirstie Alley. Arguably, if you were just going to gain it back, you might have been better off not dieting in the first place.

Granted I only watched one episode, but what I saw on The Biggest Losers appalled me. Not only does the extreme competition glorify sniping at fellow team members (hardly the sort of harmonious living the Dalai Lama would encourage) but extremely rapid dieting almost guarantees that you will gain back the weight. A real competition for The Biggest Losers would not emphasize how much weight contestants lost per week, but track the contestants on how long they maintained a healthy weight, ate sensibly and followed a moderate exercise regime. The show should reward those who took off lots of weight in a sensible manner: by taking off a pound a week. They should reward those who have also successfully kept the weight off. This, of course, would make for very uninteresting television, but seeing how others did it would be very instructive to the sixty percent of us either overweight or obese.

How do people manage to lose and keep the weight off? My last post is perhaps instructive, but my method is but one of many. Methods that work will be tailored to the personality of the person and work with their eating and exercise preferences. Like alcoholism, I see obesity as a lifelong disease. I will forever be at risk of being overweight and obese. It is only through incorporating effective eating and exercise strategies into my life in a natural way that I will succeed in my real goal: being at a normal weight and remaining at a normal weight. Of course, I want all this, plus I want to be fit, to have a healthy heart, get optimal nutrition and never have to worry about high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I want to pass away gently in my sleep sometime in my nineties. I’ve kind of figured out this means I won’t be eating many French fries or getting double cones at Baskin Robbins.

In sum up, The Biggest Losers contestants are almost predestined to be tomorrow’s biggest gainers, an inconvenient fact that the producers will not bother to highlight. What we need is much more clinical research into the best techniques for losing and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, we need research on staying optimally healthy while spending our working days in office buildings typing on keyboards.

I would like to see billboards highlighting people who have taken off significant amounts of weight and have successfully maintained a healthy weight for five, ten or more years. These billboards should come with URLs to websites so people can learn more about how they did it. Like Miss America contestants, these real Biggest Losers should tour American classrooms and give public lectures spreading their gospel. Maybe this way, along with reducing sodium, calorie and fat content in our foods and restaurants and encouraging fitness both at home and work, Americans will revert to being fit and healthy again.

I would not waste your time looking for useful tips on how you can weather our obesity crisis by watching The Biggest Losers. Instead, you might want to make an appointment with your physician.

 
The Thinker

One year later: my healthier living update

About a year ago, I wrote that I would periodically keep you abreast on my journey of weight loss and healthier living. (Actually, I wrote this mostly to remind myself so I would not slip.) Based on previous attempts at dieting, I discovered a truth: taking weight off is relatively easy. Keeping it off is harder. So how am I doing a year later? How am I doing after about nine months of Weight Watchers, giving up Weight Watchers because I wasn’t learning anything new and am now all on my own? Did I balloon to the size of Orson Welles (or for that matter Kirstie Alley)? Did I make it back to the same weight I was at when I was married and was a skinny thing? Did I yoyo back and forth? What great wisdom have I learned that I should share with the rest of the world?

A year later, I find myself within a couple pounds of where I was when I left Weight Watchers. That part is good. When I weighed myself on Monday, I was one pound above what is considered a healthy weight for my height. That part is not ideal, but being one pound overweight is better than being twenty three pounds overweight, which is where I was when I began my journey in January 2009.

So I can say I succeeded, with an asterisk. My goal was always to take off a chunk and then maintain it, since that was where I had failed many times before. The asterisk means that I slipped a bit. Over the holidays, I indulged too much, exercised too little, and not coincidentally, I also picked up five pounds. I knew what to do (start counting using Weight Watchers points again) but it took me a month or so to find the wherewithal to do it. When I did, it worked reliably again and the pounds came off. Yet, once I lost the few pounds I put back on, I found little incentive to keep reducing. Getting back to the weight when I was married continues to be an elusive and perhaps not very important goal.

Nevertheless, maintaining a near healthy or healthy weight for a year is a genuine accomplishment. I went back to some bad habits, but not all of them. When I wasn’t counting points on a sheet of paper, I had a good idea how much I could realistically eat and not gain weight.

I am usually fastidious during the week. For example, for breakfast this morning, I had one cup of Cheerios with skim milk and a cup of blueberries. This carried me over nicely until lunch. I packed a banana and a cup of grapes to have with lunch. When I eat at the cafeteria at work, four times out of five I am getting a soup and salad for lunch. It’s nearly automatic. My sweet tooth will not wholly be denied. I try to fit in one chocolate treat, which often means a bag of Dark Chocolate M&Ms, a favorite. My salads are quite low fat and full of healthy vegetables. I skip salad dressing and garnish the top with just a little cheese. Dinner, at least when I am eating alone, often consists of an entrée of from the diet part of the frozen food aisle. Lean Cuisine gets a fair amount of my business. Many of their entrees are quite tasty and reasonably healthy. (I particularly enjoy their Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta, one of the best diet entrees ever, except for the sodium.) Their main value is portion control. I may supplement it with some bread, add in a banana or some other fruit. If my sweet tooth calls, have a 1-point Weight Watchers Fudge Stick.

On the weekends, I am more lax. On my Fridays off, my wife and I still engage in the fatty practice of breakfast at Silver Diner. Once or twice a month doesn’t make it a bad habit. Instead, it’s a treat. Otherwise, I have given up most restaurant eating. Recently, someone at work has been leaving out chocolate Easter eggs and I confess it is hard to pass them by without doing some grazing. I do binge at times, but not egregiously.

Over the last year, I have also been challenged by other physical problems. It is hard to follow Weight Watchers when you are having vein or tarsal tunnel surgery, and two hospitalizations these last two months hasn’t helped either. It is much easier to be good when your life is not topsy turvy.

My doctor is still not happy because my cholesterol level is still elevated, but not dangerously (110 bad cholesterol). He would like me to eat a lower fat diet than I do, but my diet is markedly lower in fat than it used to be. It would be difficult to excise too much more fat from my diet, but if driven by necessity I am sure I could. In my near future, I may end up on statins or other drugs to reduce cholesterol. Over the last eighteen months or so, I have also developed an irregular heartbeat. It is likely though that dieting has reduced heart problems rather than caused them.

My exercise is reasonably consistent, but at a lower level than when I weighed twenty pounds more. When I ate too much, I tried to make up for it by exercising more. Exercise is still a good idea, and I typically hit the health club three times a week as well as walk up many staircases. While beneficial, if you want to maintain a healthy weight, excessive exercise has no particular advantage. If anything, burning those calories makes you want to eat more. One of the lessons I have learned is that although you need enough exercise, you do not need to go overboard. If you are concerned about having and maintaining a healthy weight, calories matter more. In general, Americans consume far more calories than we need. I have trained myself to demand fewer calories than I used to. If you are struggling with this problem, I suspect you can too.

So here’s to me and my mostly successful first year, and here’s hoping a year from now if I write about my adventures in healthy living and weight loss again, I will at least be where I am now. Perhaps I will find the impetus to take off another fifteen pounds and literally be the man I was when I was married. It would make a good goal for my 25th wedding anniversary in October.

 
The Thinker

The Ten Percent Solution?

One of the reasons to read The Huffington Post is to get your celebrity kicks. I have to confess I don’t care too much about what celebrities are doing, Jewel Staite being the possible exception. Yet, it was on Huffpost that I read about the latest celebrity yo-yo dieter, in this case the actress Kirstie Alley. For a while Alley was a spokesman for Jenny Craig, which was not only financially remunerating for her but also allowed her to lose seventy-five pounds. She eventually parted ways with Jenny Craig to come up with her own diet and sell her own dieting book. She would be wise not to write any for a while. Alley put the seventy-five pounds she lost back on, and an additional eight more pounds to boot, for a total of eighty-three pounds. Now she plans to take it off again and get back to the svelte 140 pounds or so she was when she did Cheers. Good luck Kirstie.

Alley is an egregious example of a yo-yo dieter. She has plenty of company but the rest of us struggle with our weight without the glare of publicity. I too have struggled, though thankfully I never got more than twenty-five pounds above a healthy weight. I have tried a number of diets over the years too, including the Carbohydrate Addicts Diet and the South Beach Diet. For a time, both diets looked like solutions for me too. Both were ultimately a waste of my time and money.

It is too early for me to claim victory. I have claimed it before only to find myself slacking off and find the pounds had returned. However, I have reached a milestone, losing ten percent of my weight in about five months. No, I was not on Jenny Craig, which would make little sense in my case as they market primarily to women. Nor was it Nutrisystem. I am on Weight Watchers. I have this simple advice for Kirstie: if you really want to lose weight and actually keep it off, try Weight Watchers this time. There is no guarantee you will succeed with Weight Watchers either. However, I can say that after following their program these last few months I can see the results on my scale and in the extra number of free belt notches. Moreover, I have a realistic expectation that this time I will keep it off for good.

Here is the problem with virtually all the diets out there: they may succeed in helping you lose weight, but they will do little to help you keep it off permanently. That is actually fine with the diet industry. They do not want you to keep it off permanently. If you do, they have lost another customer. No, they would much prefer you take it off, get sloppy, put it back on, then give their diet another go around. If you cannot, well, there are plenty of other diets to choose from, and they need your money too.

Any diet will let you lose weight if you follow it. Only a few though have a decent track record helping you keep it off once you have lost it. Weight Watchers is a big commercial company too, and I am sure they get their legions of yo-yo dieters too. Nonetheless, if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you should stop the Jenny Craigs, the Nutrisystems and the Slim-Fasts and do Weight Watchers instead. After you lose the weight, you will at least have a decent chance of keeping it off permanently. This is because Weight Watchers is one of the few diet companies out there whose business model involves not only helping you lose weight but helping you keep it off once you have lost it.

How hard was it for me to lose ten percent of my body mass? You might expect I spent much of the last five months eating celery and carrot sticks, but that is not the case. Mostly I ate things I already liked. In many cases I ate less of what I already liked, and changed portion sizes and ingredients so that what I ate was less caloric, higher in fiber and lower in fat. Did I suffer? If I had to rate my suffering level with Weight Watchers compared with any other diet plan, with 1 being no suffering to 10 being massive suffering, Weight Watchers was about a 3. Most of the other diet plans were in the 7-9 range.

How was this possible? Mainly, I watched what I ate, exercised portion control and kept track of what I was eating. With Weight Watchers, you learn to practice a few simple rules like “eat the filling foods first”, manage hunger through small snacks, assess the impact of what you are eating through their Points system, and eat your daily point allocation. If you want to eat more, exercise more. They have a way to calculate your bonus points via your exercise level. There are also extra points you can use over the course of a week on those days when you feel you are suffering too much. Truly, it is not that hard. Are you listening Kirstie?

Since you can eat at least some what you want, you may find yourself like me getting creative. I eat the filling foods first, but I also find creative substitutes for other foods I enjoy. Whole wheat bread is healthy, but still has more calories per slice than I would prefer. A high fiber English muffin though is only 100 calories. Cut in half, with a teaspoon of butter on each half and you have something quite tasty and dense in your stomach for less than 200 calories. It comes down to choices. The big greasy slice of pizza may be out but an occasional Lean Cuisine pizza may be okay. After a while you may find, like me, that you don’t need to count points anymore because you eat many of the same sorts of foods you used to and you know what and how much you need to stay on track. In any event, the weekly weigh in helps enforce discipline that may be lacking. I think it is essential in keeping you honest.

I am not entirely there yet, but I am close to the point where my new eating habits are becoming automatic. I now find that although I could have fancier things to eat for lunch, I want a salad. I can dress it up in a way where it is filling and satisfying. My weight loss coach was very pleased when she recently announced that I lost ten percent of my weight. She said this is a key indicator of people who can develop the habits to keep the weight off permanently. By the way, unlike many yo-yo dieters you should lose weight slowly. About a pound a week is ideal. Have patience. If you lose a pound a week, in a year you weigh fifty pounds less and you are much more likely to keep it off too.

I am planning to keep losing weight even though I passed the ten percent threshold, with the goal of getting my weight down to the day I was married, which was probably the last time I was at that weight. Then I will do my best to stay there. I will use my blog, in part, as a reminder to keep at it.

I hope you can learn from my experience. I think celebrity diets are a waste of time. Find a diet program that works with your eating habits and has some track record for helping you keep the weight off once you have lost it. There is no painless approach to weight loss but plans like Weight Watchers are the only ones that have any realistic chance of succeeding in the long term.

If your freezer is full of food from Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem, you might as well chuck it because these diets at best will only succeed in taking off weight for a while. Keeping weight off permanently and developing new habits, like eating better and exercising more, is what you really need. A diet is only one component for reaching this goal. You need long-term health. This is a completely different game, but it is the only plan worth having.

 
The Thinker

More adventures in weight loss

Since I officially started my latest diet on January 22nd, I have lost thirteen pounds. Seven weeks and thirteen pounds is close to a weight loss of two pounds a week. How hard was it? So far, not that hard.

There are lots of diet plans out there of course, but overall I think the current one I am on, Weight Watchers, is probably the best of those I have tried over the years. Any weight loss plan of course will work if you adhere to it. Unfortunately, most people will put the weight back on shortly after they take it off. I am not the exception either. I certainly did not intend to be a yo-yo dieter, but simple inattention and giving into the cravings of my body made the weight creep back up over time.

Truly, despite all the sweats that diets tend to give us Americans, taking off the pounds is the easy part. Keeping them off is the hard part. Can I successfully incorporate new eating strategies into my life for the rest of my life? It remains to be seen. Still, I can feel the weight coming off. Thirteen pounds amounts to two notches on my belt. I feel healthier and have more stamina. My blood pressure is already down into the normal range. I do not know about my cholesterol count yet. I had blood drawn on Tuesday and should get lab results soon. Since it typically takes six months for cholesterol levels to get back to normal, I probably have a way to go. I would prefer to avoid cholesterol-lowering drugs. Time will tell whether I will succeed there.

Why is a stodgy old diet plan like Weight Watchers working so well? I think it is mainly because I can choose what I want to eat. As I pointed out in my first post, it does not mean you can eat as much of what you want, unless you prefer low calorie, high fiber food. Clearly most of us losing weight do not prefer these foods; otherwise, we would not have gained the weight in the first place. Maybe once a week I will have a Lean Cuisine Spaghetti for dinner (5 points). I grew up on spaghetti dinners. So eating food I enjoy, even if in smaller quantities than I was used to, really does help. As Linda, our coach put it: “If it doesn’t taste good, don’t put it in your mouth.”

In hindsight, it is easy to see how I fell off the wagon. Throughout my weight gain, I never lacked for regular aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Granted I get little of it in the office, but I hit the gym regularly and really worked out. I deluded myself to some degree that if I exercised enough the weight gain did not matter. Of course, even if you exercise regularly, if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. It is that simple. I simply chose to not pay much attention to the problem until my doctor gave me a wakeup call.

Weight Watchers has convinced me (it’s amazing how quickly we forget) that a few simple things take the pounds off: burn more calories than you take in, exercise regularly and systematically, track what you eat and use the discipline of a support group. If you can do these four things, you will lose weight. It does become much less burdensome though if you can mix in some of the foods you love (hopefully lower fat, lower calorie and higher fiber equivalents) with the healthier foods. If you chose not to do these four things most likely you will not succeed in losing all the weight you want to lose, and are likely to falter on your path.

The discipline of being weighed once a week in front of an impartial coach has an amazing effect. Simply put, it provides essential accountability. Since most of us have a hard time being accountable to ourselves, why not to a coach? Since you will not be the only one at the Weight Watchers class, you will also watch others lose weight too, and they are likely to encourage you in your journey. The social aspect of weight loss is critically important, and perhaps the most important part of succeeding.

I have also found that you can eat really tasty and nutritious food that doesn’t pack on the calories. One of my favorites is a Chicken Stir Fry. Our local warehouse club BJs makes a great chicken stir fry, loaded with tasty vegetables, spaghetti, chicken of course and garnished with soy sauce. It has 190 calories per serving. There are four servings in a bag, so if you have two servings you are getting only 380 calories and you have a huge plate full of healthy and good tasting food. Moreover, it is loaded with dietary fiber and is low in fat. Perhaps if you are salt sensitive the soy sauce is not good for you. Two servings are just six points.

There are many low calorie products out there, some of them are exceptionally good. Weight Watchers of course sells dozens of them, many of them mediocre but some seem too good to be true. Take their fudge bar. Amazingly, it is only one point but it is still quite chocolaty and actually tastes rich. If you have a sweet tooth like I do, it is manna from heaven. You have to be careful though that you do not subsist on a diet of Weight Watchers fudge bars. Your body really does need the dietary fiber from fruits and vegetables too, so you want to include healthy portions of them in your diet. They will fill up your stomach much better than a couple Weight Watchers fudge bars.

I will give you more progress reports in the weeks ahead. It drives my wife nuts at times because she has this thing against Weight Watchers. However, if the first thirteen pounds came off with such little pain, I do not see why I cannot keep going until I reach a healthy weight. I am about half way there already.

 
The Thinker

Watching Points

Men, if you want to meet women, join Weight Watchers. At least, that appears to be true based on the class I attended the other week. There were fifteen women in the room (including the leader) and I was the only man. So I asked the women in the room: do men, like, ever do Weight Watchers? Someone remembered a man who joined briefly some months back, but in general, at least with this group, men just don’t do Weight Watchers. Maybe Nutrisystem or something is a more manly way to lose weight. After all, prominent well-remunerated ex-football coaches endorse it.

Granted, if you are looking for super skinny women you won’t find any at a Weight Watchers meeting, except for possibly the leader, who is probably already spoken for. I also happen to be spoken for and as best I could tell the other women in the room were too. However, by being the only man in the room you may find women competing for your attention. Also, you are probably far more interesting than the weekly weigh in.

My cardiologist suggested Weight Watchers. “It’s easy. You eat what you want,” she said, which is okay for her to say, as she is from India, vegetarian and as skinny as a rail. My experience in dieting over the years probably parallels yours: it is never easy. Mainly it is a matter of consistency and force of will. If you regularly slip on either of them, you tend to put on the weight again.

While I would normally no more go out of my way to attend a Weight Watchers meeting than I would an AA meeting, I had to confess to myself I do not have that excuse. A group meets weekly on my floor, in a conference room about a hundred feet down the hall. Moreover, Thursdays from 11 to Noon, their meeting time, was also a convenient time for me to attend. Having no viable excuse and knowing my cardiologist would keep giving me a hard time, I opened my wallet and signed up.

I am on Day Nine of Weight Watchers. The one thing I have not actually done since my first meeting is weigh myself. That was because yesterday I was facilitating a large meeting of more than a dozen people, most of whom were from out of town. Nevertheless, I certainly have been scrupulously tracking points. Points are what you track if you do the Weight Watchers thing. You can look up the number of points for some dish in a convenient book they give you or on their web site, or you can use their calculator to convert calories, dietary fiber and fat content into points.

The women in the meeting looked at me enviously. I hope it was because I didn’t look like I should even be at Weight Watchers. I have no beer belly and what excess fat I have tends to be in the form of modest love handles. Their envy likely had more to do with me being a male, which means I am larger, thus burn more calories, which means I get six extra points a day. I am not supposed to exceed 33 points in food per day, whereas all the women in the room were somewhere in the mid to upper 20 points per day.

It is true you can eat anything you want on Weight Watchers and theoretically lose weight, but of course, you probably cannot eat as much of you want of the foods you like. You quickly learn that if you eat what you like, such as calorie-dense food full of sugars and fat, you can earn your daily points with just a few candy bars. Moreover, these sorts of food simply make you want to eat more of them. Naturally, if you are intent on minimizing your misery you quickly discover the virtues of filling foods, i.e. foods that have few points, and are relatively low on calories and fat and high in dietary fiber. One I like is grapes. One cup of grapes is just one point. They have some dietary fiber, taste nice and sweet, contain zero fat and are available year round. However, a cup of most fresh fruits will do the same thing. As I tend to like berries, a cup of fresh raspberries or blackberries as a snack or with a meal goes down rather pleasantly.

Still, you have to keep meticulous track of what you eat, at least for the first six weeks. You also need to track activity points. That’s not a problem with me, as I already get adequate exercise, so many days I earn extra points. This of course means you can eat more and still lose weight. However, exercise does tend to make you hungrier. The benefits of exercise though go far beyond weight loss, so it makes sense to exercise and diet simultaneously.

After a couple months, my feelings may be different, but overall the first week was not as hard as I anticipated. The trick seems to be to be doggedly consistent. In the morning, before I rush off to work I usually have a bowl of cereal. Since starting, I now measure one cup of Cheerios and three quarters of a cup of soy milk. That’s four points. Mid morning snack is that cup of whole grapes: 1 point. Lunch: soup and salad from the cafeteria. We have plenty of variety in the salads we can create. The trick is to add heaps of healthy vegetables, go sparingly or skip the salad dressing and avoid the urge to load it with proteins like chicken or tuna. If you do this, the salad can be just a couple points. If your idea of a salad is a Caesar salad loaded with dressing, three cups of Caesar salad is seven points! I love soups and most are only a few points. Many though are loaded with salt, which may be a reason to avoid them. An apple is just two points and very filling so it works for dessert. Enormous dinners are out, of course, and creating even modest dinners and staying within your point range can be challenging. I make sure I reserve two points for a Skinny Cow, a sort of ice cream sandwich-lite.

The goal of Weight Watchers is not just to help you lose weight. Virtually any diet will succeed in letting you lose weight. The hard part is keeping it off permanently. It means a new way of eating. It means listening to your body so you reach for a snack while your body is just starting to get hungry and stopping when you are satisfied but not full. The goal is to stay in the “comfort zone” so hunger does not drive you to excess eating. Small binges are okay. Weight Watchers realizes some days you will crave more calories, so it adds in 35 weekly points. If you don’t use them you lose weight faster. Last week I used up about half of my weekly points.

Time will tell whether a modest decrease in my weight will reduce my cholesterol and blood pressure. I am skeptical that I can wholly relearn eating habits because if I had been successful in various strategies I have tried in the past, I would not be losing weight yet again. Americans’ relationship with food is very complex. It is incredibly easy to overeat in America without really trying. Mindfulness through the tracking of points is a bit challenging but so far has not proven overly onerous. Perhaps with persistence my blood pressure, weight and cholesterol will soon all return to the normal range again.

Stay tuned.

 
The Thinker

Our stressed out nation

Didn’t you suspect this all along?

Scientists reported yesterday that they have uncovered a biological switch by which stress can promote obesity, a discovery that could help explain the world’s growing weight problem and lead to new ways to melt flab and manipulate fat for cosmetic purposes.

….

Moreover, the stressed-out junk-food eaters put on the worst kind of fat — deposited around the abdomen and laced with hormones and other chemical signals that promote illness. After three months, the animals became obese and developed the constellation of health problems that obese humans often get — high blood pressure, early diabetes, high cholesterol — an increasingly common condition known as metabolic syndrome.

I find a direct correlation between my weight and the amount of stress in my life. I bet the same is true with you. So the conclusion in this article was no surprise. When you are under stress, your body is in an abnormal state. Yet for many of us Americans, modern life is little but stress. Our employment often feels tenuous. Our marriages feel rocky. Our kids are difficult to manage. We work two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Therefore, we look for balms to relieve our stress. These are typically smoking, drinking, drugs and food. Of the four of these, the one that society frowns on the least is food. Unlike drugs, cigarettes and booze, food is both extremely convenient and inexpensive. You will not be carded for being underage and buying a box of Ding Dongs. Solutions to our stresses often involve more stress. If our marriage is under stress, to solve it we either have to endure months of painful and expensive marital therapy with high likelihood of failure or go through the trauma of divorce. If our children are grossly misbehaving, timeouts and a spanking are unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, they likely need to talk to social workers and psychiatrists. Often they will end up on antidepressants. Since their behavior affects Mom and Dad, they often end up on antidepressants too. However, since most stress is situational, treating stress by pill is no cure. At best, it offers only modest and temporary relief.

For many of us the best and cheapest therapy is a pet. Like Prozac, even the most devoted dog can only do so much. Therefore, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to buy that box of Krispy Kremes. A sugar high is easy to achieve and it feels so satisfying. Except of course, it is as successful at solving our stress as a bottle of booze. At best, it helps the stressful feelings recede for a few hours.

Maybe it is coincidence but as I travel America, I feel like I can accurately measure the stress level of a community by the average girth of its citizenry. Throughout much of the South and Midwest, Americans are noticeably more obese than elsewhere. Perhaps poverty in the South contributes toward its problem. Its culture probably contributes as well, which seems to emphasize a diet rich in empty carbohydrates. The filmmaker Michael Moore is quite obese and was raised in Flint, Michigan. Since my wife is also from Flint and we have relatives in the state, we visit Flint periodically. I note no lack of an obesity crisis in Northern Virginia where I live. Even so, when I go to Flint I feel appalled. With the auto industry in permanent decline, the city slipping more and more into stagnation with the passage of each year, it seems Flint’s biggest surplus is in obese people. The residents of Flint seem to have an unhealthy attraction to greasy spoons and donut shops.

As I noted in 2005, there are no lack of greasy spoons and donut shops in Canada either. You can hardly drive a mile without passing a Tim Horton’s donut shop, for which residents of Ontario seem to have an almost unnatural affection. (There is sound reason for their affection; we dined there twice.) I have seen Tim Hortons crowded even during off hours. Yet, at least around the Toronto area, I saw markedly fewer obese people than just a hundred miles away in Buffalo.

Last summer when we visited Paris I was struck by the absence of obese and overweight people. In America the typical person is more likely to be overweight than not. In Paris, you have to look for them. My belief is that because the French in general live less stress-filled lives than Americans do, they have less need to use food to cope with stress. With their nationalized health care system, they never have to worry about whether they can afford to see a doctor. Their law requires a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year. Their national holidays are also more plentiful than ours are. Downtime and safety from many of life’s worst shocks are built into their culture. As a result, the French seem to have institutionalized a form of living that minimizes stress. So, like the mice who were not subjected to stress in the study, I am not surprised that the French look so good. (As I noted then, I think this is partly because Parisians get more exercise than we do. They burn off plenty of calories just walking to and from mass transit. They are less likely to commute by car than we are.)

Our American values emphasize self-reliance. It is practically a religion. We see living by our wits as a competitive advantage. While it may have its benefits, I think it is clear that this form of living also has a dark side. We can see it manifested in our exploding girths. Just the comfort of knowing that we have universal health insurance may do more to combat our obesity crisis than a stack of surgeon general reports.

While I think self-reliance is a terrific virtue, I also note that Europeans with their nationalized health care systems and more socialized governments live longer and have less stress-filled lives than Americans have. You have to look hard for a Western European country with life expectancy rates comparable to the United States (Denmark and Portugal). In France, you are likely to live two years longer than in the United States, despite the fact that most of the French smoke. In Germany, one year longer. In Spain, two years longer. In Switzerland, two and a half years longer. In Canada, with its socialized medicine and rampant numbers of frequently patronized Tim Horton’s donut shops, Canadians live nearly two years and a half years longer than we do.

The common denominator in these countries is that they have institutionalized methods that reduce unnecessary stress on its population. Living by your wits, which is what humans did for most of their existence, reduces lifespan.

For a country that claims to value life, perhaps we can demonstrate it by inculcating a culture that supports it. Perhaps it is time to change our values.

 

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