Friday, January 30, 2009

+26 (∆ +0.5)

Ha, I knew this was going to happen... I gained weight today! Sweet!

It is a relief, to be honest. I've been waiting for an upswing and this one isn't so bad. I'm still very confident I'm eating fewer calories overall so my weight will drop again very soon. In fact, after working out today, I even stopped by Taco Bell to have 1 Beef Burrito Supreme (469 calories) and 1 Beef Gordita Supreme (310 calories). After that bonanza of fast food, I still have 1148 calories left for the day, which is more than enough if I have fish and veggies. :)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

+25.5 (∆ -2)

Last night was my first time eating out at a restaurant since I starting this whole thing. Restaurants are a danger zone for me—my inclination is to make the most of dining out by ordering a fantastic dish, but that usually means the worst possible thing for me. For instance, I love pasta, and whenever I see Fettucini Alfredo, my mouth waters up in anticipation. 'Tis my Kryptonite.

Having a plan is key, I've found. Knowing well in advance that I'm simply not going to order certain "trigger" dishes like Fettucini Alfredo fortifies my willpower against temptation. Maybe one day, Alfredo won't be quite as enticing (remember how long it took me to ween off whole milk?), but for now, those yummy noodles would kick me into "screw it" mode. So I opted for Salmon & Mashed Potatoes and escaped the restaurant by being full... and satisfied. Now I know what to order next time I go there!

I've also been wrestling with hunger pangs in the late evenings, which is a new sensation for me. This time around, though, whenever I feel this late-night hunger, I gleefully flip the bird at that mischievous Lard Troll trying to seduce me into paying a visit to the fridge.

On Monday, I also hit an emotional obstacle—for three days straight, my weight didn't change at all. I sort of expected something like that so I wasn't too surprised. Even so, it's still frustrating when I know I'm eating better and eating substantially fewer calories. I probably ought to take my own advice and not pay too much heed to the weight number because sometime soon, my weight will likely go up before it goes down again and that should be seen as a statistical anomaly in the larger picture of weight loss trending downward.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All About Nutrition Labels

First off, here's the entertainment at the top of the program—the worst breakfast ever. Go read that and once you wipe away your tears of laughter, I'll tell you a little something about how to read nutrition labels.

I didn't grow up in a family that looked carefully at nutrition labels. My parents were from the South which means good food that's reeeeeally bad for you. To give you an idea of exactly how well/poorly I ate throughout my childhood, my dad used to make all my breakfasts, every morning, like this:

  • 1 glass of milk
  • 1 glass of orange juice
  • 2 eggs, over easy
  • 2-3 strips of bacon
  • 2 sausages
  • 8-9 Tater Tots + tomato ketchup
  • 2 English Muffins + butter (though it was probably margarine)
  • grits (on occasion) + butter

    —and the kicker—
  • banana slices... with mayonnaise!

When you eat that badly during your childhood, it's hard to correct course in adulthood. It's not impossible, but it does require fundamental re-wiring about how you see food. Unless you have an iron will, that unfortunately implies you surround yourself with people who have good eating habits, too.

I remember the first time I went shopping with my wife years before she became my wife. I remember quite clearly putting a box of Hamburger Helper in the cart and watching her as she took one look at its nutrition label and flat out said, "Yeah... we're not getting that," then put it back on the shelf. At first, I was flustered, then angry, but as she has educated me about calorie and food labels, I now see Hamburger Helper (which was an occasional meal in my childhood) as The Devil. Clearly, it's not the worst dinner ever, but it's a distant cousin. It's been a decade since I've had Hamburger Helper and today I couldn't even see myself buying it. Frankly, I cringe to think how much I might have weighed today if my wife hadn't vetoed all those bad food choices.

As a child, I have fond memories of drinking whole milk every day and, well into my 30s, I was still drinking whole milk. Then, in 2000, I switched to 2% milk, then 1% in 2003, fat free in 2005 and soy milk in 2007. I still love whole milk but it tastes like half and half to me now.

My wife has taught me to look at food labels and assess quickly if they're friend or foe. I haven't been good at my portion control, which is why I'm presently cutting back on food intake, but at least I haven't been maxing out on fast food and microwave dinners this whole time.

For the purposes of pedagogy, but also for the sake of completeness, let's assume that you've never read a nutrition label and know absolutely nothing at all about foods.

All foods are a blend of three basic categories—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

A calorie is a unit of energy for your body, which you can consume with food or expend through exercise. The recommended daily caloric intake is 2000, although that changes a little according to one's weight, age, how fast you want to lose weight, and other factors. Thankfully, the more calories you burn through exercise, the more calories you're allowed to consume for that day.

Certain categories of food are better than others, e.g., protein is better than carbohydrates, and both proteins and carbs are better than fats.

The proper proportions of proteins, fats and carbs are called "Recommended Daily Values", which appear as "%DV" on Nutrition Facts labels. (NB: These values assume a daily intake of 2000 calories). The "%DV" is explained in more detail here, but this is really all you need to know:

All foods are required by law to include a Nutrition Facts label with their food's blend of proteins, carbs, and fats. The Food and Drug Administration has a detailed and easy to understand guide to their Nutrition Facts label here, but this snippet is almost everything you need to know:

Great. Now here's what I look for and why, in order of priority:
  1. How many Calories (per Serving)? If total calories are over 300, each serving should be a large quantity of food, otherwise it's not worth it. Good range: 20-250 calories/serving. Bad range: (usually) anything over that.
  2. How many Calories from Fat? If total calories are 200 and 180 calories are from fat (e.g., salami), it goes back on the shelf. If total calories are 200 and 50 are from fat, that's a more acceptable ratio.
  3. How many Servings Per Container and how big is each serving? If the serving is only 1/4 cup and that serving is 200 calories, that's a miniscule serving... and if that package has 20 servings of 200 calories, that's a total of 4000 calories in the package, which is twice the recommended daily caloric intake! (Nuts are especially culpable in this department.)
  4. Does it have Trans Fat? Trans fat has been linked to heart disease and is actually banned in some European countries. If there is ANY trans fat, that food goes back on the shelf.
  5. What is the Total Fat? If the %DV (percent of daily value) is higher than 10%, that's a black mark.
  6. How much Cholesterol? Lower is better, preferably under 15%DV.
  7. How much Dietary Fiber? Higher %DV is always better.
  8. How much Protein? Higher %DV is always better.

Here are three examples of Nutrition Facts labels from my own pantry. Given my hectic lifestyle, I'm a fan of quick & easy foods whenever possible and I've discovered microwavable rice products are an ideal food for us.

Ranked in order of worst to best, Uncle Ben's 90 second Whole Grain Medley "Brown & Wild" (a Safeway purchase):

Trader Joe's 90 second Fully Cooked Fried Brown Rice with Mushrooms:

...and Trader Joe's 75 second Fully Cooked Black Beluga Lentils:

The lentils kick ass over the other two rices because they have fewer calories per serving (even though the serving size is slightly smaller), almost no fat, zero sodium, lots of fiber, and lots of protein.

Following the above guidelines, a few foods are immediately banned from our house, such as carbonated sodas, chips, snacks and all fatty meats. Initially, that was a harsh reality to accept, but it wasn't so bad to switch from Coke to Snapple, from Tortilla Chips to Soy Chips, from a pint of Ice Cream to an infrequent 6-Oreo package, and from Ground Beef to Extra Lean Ground Turkey. That's not to say I've never pigged out on occasion, only that food bingeing is thankfully few and far between.

Okay. Knowing what you know now, take a second look at Swanson's Hungry Man Breakfast... and try not to have a heart attack:


P.S. If you spot a glaring error, please let me know; my wife—el doctor—hasn't proofed it yet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

+27.5 (∆ 0)

Note: Sorry if I'm a little obsessed about weight loss for the time being. Though there are surely other film-related things to write about, none of them is topical right now, and it seems I have a lot to say about weight loss. Don't worry—I'll make it educational whenever possible.

As long as I can remember, my obsession has been mathematical charting. Pie charts, graphs, statistics... I love to chart stuff. Eventually, I've realized that I'm a visually-oriented person who learns best from visual representations of things. When someone rattles off directions, I just know I'm going to get lost, but show me a map and I'll find anything.

The most frustrating aspect of tracking weight is that the changes are so small over the period of time you measure that it's hard to see which way the weight is trending. With so many weight fluctuations over the course of a week, is the weight going up, going down, or staying the same? Over a week, a tiny change might be too small to see, but you might see a clear trend emerge over many weeks, and that might be enough to motivate you to continue your dieting regime despite any of the inevitable and frustrating setbacks along the way.

One of my favorite kinds of charting methods is a candlestick analysis, which has been used to study stock markets for over 200 years. They're called candlesticks because their shape resembles a candlestick. A candlestick displays only four data points —opening price, closing price, high price and low price—but a lot of information can be gleaned from just those four data points. A simple and comprehensive tutorial on candlestick analysis can be found here.

I've often thought it would be informative to apply a candlestick analysis to weight change, but the challenge centers around which time frame you analyze. If you measure your weight 8 times every day, a candlestick chart might be useful in revealing how much your weight fluctuates throughout the day because of drink and food intake, exercise, and other factors. But seriously—who weighs themselves that frequently? Come on, I know I'm obsessive, but I'm not that bad.

However, a candlestick analysis would be more helpful when measuring weeks. To create each candlestick, you'd take the highest and lowest weight for the week and the weight at the beginning and end of the week. After week two, the beginning of a trend would become clear. In a few weeks, I'll have exactly this kind of data, so I'll make a simple chart to illustrate what a candlestick analysis would look like in this case.

Now, if I could only get someone to write an iPhone app to do this...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

+27.5 (∆ -5.5)

Not so surprisingly, I've lost over 5 pounds in as many days. I say "not so surprisingly" because rapid weight loss (nicknamed, "water weight") is a common occurrence at the start of any dieting regime. While I always welcome the good news, I don't attribute too much to it. I might go another five days and lose only 1/2 of a pound, or none at all, so I'm clenching my teeth in preparation for that. The next few weeks are going to be about endurance and diligence, about establishing new eating habits. The next few weeks will be the hardest for me.

Another factor in losing weight is the one most people overlook: the body fat measurement. It's always gratifying to see the scale trend downward, but weight loss on its own is a deceptive marker of progress because you could lose five pounds of fat while also gaining five pounds of muscle. In that event, your net result is zero weight loss and if you're only staring at a scale, you might feel like all your hard work has been for naught, when in fact, you're making huge progress.

Thus, I decided to do a body fat measurement. The usual method of body fat measurement is done by immersing oneself underwater and using a body fat caliper (pictured at left). I could at least do a caliper test at the gym, but in the interests of immediacy, I felt a measurement via a simple web site would be good enough for now. I chose this one. The range of body fat for a healthy non-athletic male Caucasian is 15% and my body fat measurement was 20.7%. Doesn't sound like such a big deal, right? I mean, I'm stressing out over a simple 5.7%? For real? [NB: According to my new scale, my body fat percentage back then was actually 28.9%, a good deal higher than 20.7%. And 17% is a healthy percentage of body fat for a a fit male in my age range.]

Yes, for real. Though it sounds harmless, 5.7% of body fat could have massive health implications for me if I were diagnosed with diabetes. If I had a heart attack tomorrow, I'd have to take at least five pills every day... for the rest of my life. So it's not an exaggeration to say 5.7% is huge deal. In point of fact, that 5.7% threatens to shorten my life and is thus deserving of all my willpower.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I first heard of Barack Obama from an NPR interview in 2005. I didn't know who he was, how his name was spelled, or what he looked like. Yet—impressed by his pragmatic and rational approach to politics—I remember muttering under my breath, "This guy is going to be our president someday." (I can even tell you which intersection I was sitting at when I said it.)

And 50 weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called Why we're going to have a President Obama. I've said a lot of things about Obama in the last year, but that February 9th, 2008 post is the one I'll always remember.

It tells me, in a highly imperfect and overly simplified fashion, that I seem to have my finger on the pulse of this country. And that's a very very comforting thought.


Today I stepped on the scales and balked.

I am 33.5 pounds heavier than I ought to be and it kind of freaked me out. +33.5 puts me at increased risk for a slew of extremely disagreeable health conditions like heart attacks, diabetes, etc. For years now, I've felt I've been slowly losing the war on keeping my weight down. It seems like every time I try something new, I get eventually discouraged. Consciously or subconsciously, I must have decided to yield to circumstance. I gave up.

And then, this week, my wife bitchslapped me. With boxing gloves, but still. And it hurt.

Which got me thinking hard... what is the obstacle getting in my way? It can't be a physical obstacle—I have far too many things in my life in place. I live with a doctor who reads nutrition labels like a religious cleric, so there's no reason I shouldn't be aware of what I'm putting in my body. I have a great gym with child care. What up? What has been holding me back?

The formula to lose weight isn't rocket science: eat less, and work out. Yet the devil is in the details and the execution of such a simple directive has been frustratingly elusive for me.

One major deterrent for me has been working out. I've always hated it. Even now, I work out and get bored. Thankfully, my gym has a TV on each treadmill so I'm less bored. And I have my iPhone now to listen to podcasts and music—I'm usually preoccupied now. As I've worked out more, it's starting to be—dare I say it?—a little fun.

And after looking more carefully at my eating habits, it's clear that my late nights are my biggest window of self-destruction. If dinner is at 6PM, then 6 hours later I'm starving. If I can only endure that late night craving, I thought, then I might actually turn the tide. My next thought was that, living in a country of abundance and instant pleasure gratification, hunger is a very uncomfortable feeling for me. If I can only deal with that feeling of hunger—stave it off somehow, or even have some small fruit and glass of water instead of a 12" cheese-laden quesadilla with refried beans and sour cream—then my odds of success should improve substantially. Even better, if I redefine hunger as a low-level feeling which I ought to feel, like a marker of my eating success, then the "eating less" part of my life should become easier, too. That seems to be working for now... we'll see.

Today, I measured out the number of calories in a single serving (1/2 cup) serving of my usual morning's cereal: 200 calories. Turns out I usually serve myself nearly 2 cups of that cereal, which is about 700 calories. With milk, the grand total is closer to 900 calories. If my daily intake should be around 2200 calories, then I'm having nearly half my daily calories just at breakfast. Yikes!

So, here it is. My goal is simple:

Eat less. Work Out.

After doing some research, it seems a realistic goal is to lose 1 pound a week and get to +0 by my birthday in August of this year. At this point, I don't care so much about muscle tone, I simply want to shed the excess weight first. When I get to +0, maybe then I'll think about looking like Peter Parker.

Goal: +0 by 8/21/09