Friday, February 27, 2009

+19 (∆ -0.2)

Today I noticed that my gym posts progress sheets for everyone working with the gym's trainers. The gym's unit of measurement to track progress—with colored stars, just like in kindergarten—is percentage of body weight lost. I've never seen that as a unit to track weight loss, but I really like it. It tracks progress simply and clearly, and inspires you, too.

Just for fun, I started looking for the person with the highest percentage of weight loss. When I finally found her, I started wondering, how much percentage of weight have I lost... and without a trainer? After some quick math, I discovered I'd lost exactly the same percentage. Awesome!

The gym's personal trainers offer three free sessions and when I finally hit that dreadful plateau, I'll be hitting their trainers for that "last mile" of motivation. Sooner or later, I'll probably have to start doing weights, about which I know almost nothing.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

+19.2 (∆ -0.8)

Today the AP reported on a weight loss study which found that it doesn't matter what you eat as long as you eat fewer calories, and burn more calories with exercise. Given what I said Tuesday about eating whatever I want, I feel like I read today's news two days ago.

Low-carb? Low-fat? Study finds calories count more
from The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES February 26, 2009, 12:15 pm ET • Low-fat, low-carb or high-protein? The kind of diet doesn't matter, scientists say. All that really counts is cutting calories and sticking with it, according to a federal study that followed people for two years. However, participants had trouble staying with a single approach that long and the weight loss was modest for most.

As the world grapples with rising obesity, millions have turned to popular diets like Atkins, Zone and Ornish that tout the benefits of one nutrient over another.

Some previous studies have found that low carbohydrate diets like Atkins work better than a traditional low-fat diet. But the new research found that the key to losing weight boiled down to a basic rule — calories in, calories out.

"The hidden secret is it doesn't matter if you focus on low-fat or low-carb," said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the research.

Limiting the calories you consume and burning off more calories with exercise is key, she said.

The study, which appears in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, was led by Harvard School of Public Health and Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana.

Researchers randomly assigned 811 overweight adults to one of four diets, each of which contained different levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Though the diets were twists on commercial plans, the study did not directly compare popular diets. The four diets contained healthy fats, were high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables and were low in cholesterol.

Nearly two-thirds of the participants were women. Each dieter was encouraged to slash 750 calories a day from their diet, exercise 90 minutes a week, keep an online food diary and meet regularly with diet counselors to chart their progress.

There was no winner among the different diets; reduction in weight and waist size were similar in all groups.

People lost 13 pounds on average at six months, but all groups saw their weight creep back up after a year. At two years, the average weight loss was about 9 pounds while waistlines shrank an average of 2 inches. Only 15 percent of dieters achieved a weight-loss reduction of 10 percent or more of their starting weight.

Dieters who got regular counseling saw better results. Those who attended most meetings shed more pounds than those who did not — 22 pounds compared with the average 9 pound loss.

Lead researcher Dr. Frank Sacks of Harvard said a restricted calorie diet gives people greater food choices, making the diet less monotonous.

"They just need to focus on how much they're eating," he said.

Sacks said the trick is finding a healthy diet that is tasty and that people will stick with over time.

Before Debbie Mayer, 52, enrolled in the study, she was a "stress eater" who would snack all day and had no sense of portion control. Mayer used to run marathons in her 30s, but health problems prevented her from doing much exercise in recent years.

Mayer tinkered with different diets — Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach — with little success.

"I've been battling my weight all my life. I just needed more structure," said Mayer, of Brockton, Mass., who works with the elderly.

Mayer was assigned to a low-fat, high-protein diet with 1,400 calories a day. She started measuring her food and went back to the gym. The 5-foot Mayer started at 179 pounds and dropped 50 pounds to 129 pounds by the end of the study. She now weighs 132 and wants to shed a few more pounds.

Another study volunteer, Rudy Termini, a 69-year-old retiree from Cambridge, Mass., credits keeping a food diary for his 22-pound success. Termini said before participating in the study he would wolf down 2,500 calories a day. But sticking to an 1,800-calorie high-fat, average protein diet meant no longer eating an entire T-bone steak for dinner. Instead, he now eats only a 4-ounce steak.

"I was just oblivious to how many calories I was having," said the 5-foot-11-inch Termini, who dropped from 195 to 173 pounds. "I really used to just eat everything and anything in sight."

Dr. David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center and author of several weight control books, said the results should not be viewed as an endorsement of fad diets that promote one nutrient over another.

The study compared high quality, heart healthy diets and "not the gimmicky popular versions," said Katz, who had no role in the study. Some popular low-carb diets tend to be low in fiber and have a relatively high intake of saturated fat, he said.

Other experts were bothered that the dieters couldn't keep the weight off even with close monitoring and a support system.

"Even these highly motivated, intelligent participants who were coached by expert professionals could not achieve the weight losses needed to reverse the obesity epidemic," Martijn Katan of Amsterdam's Free University wrote in an accompanying editorial. Link.

On the Net:
New England Journal:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

+20 (∆ 0)

If you haven't already noticed, I try hard not to use the word, 'diet'. To be honest, I loathe the word. It carries a huge amount of baggage with it, and—to me, anyway—mostly negative. "Dieting" always sounds to me like you're being forced to eat much less than you should, which sounds punitive. The whole concept of "starting a diet", then, is abhorrent to me.

Of course, that's an emotional judgement, not intellectual or logical in any way. I simply don't like the word, "diet" because each time I think I'm on a diet, I feel like I'm going to have a miserable time following a random routine set up by some random person. My gut rebels against any kind of restrictive rules. Instead, to simply say I'm "eating less" seems more flexible to me, and thus far more appealing. If I'm eating less, I know I only have about 2000 calories to do with as I choose. I can eat a massive 1700 calorie Carnitas burrito for dinner, but only if I have two apples and a mixed salad for breakfast and lunch. "Eating less" is actually a more accurate description for what I'm doing... with fewer of the pejorative overtones.

But my biggest problem with the word, "diet" is that it's constantly used to promote a lifestyle with a brand label and price tag taped over it: The South Beach Diet, The Atkins Diet, The NutriSystem Diet, The Weight Watchers Diet, and on and on the list goes. Why not just, "eat less"? Isn't that enough of a directive without resorting to a particular brand of dieting? Why do I have to buy a book and follow a cascade of cultish complicated rules when all I really have to do is eat less than 2000 calories a day? I'm not against businesses wanting to make money from customers who follow their diets—but my question to those customers is, why are you giving money to people who are merely repackaging and selling information that's already free?

I walked into Franklin Covey one time to evaluate their notebook organizer "system". It seemed pretty cool and I was getting excited about buying one of their organizer notebooks—which even included their specially designed organizer notebook pages—until I saw Franklin Covey's paper hole punchers. All U.S. Letter size notebooks are designed for standardized three-hole punches, and smaller notebooks are also designed for smaller three-hole punches. Not Franklin Covey—instead, they sell a special seven-hole puncher that only works for Franklin Covey notebooks. That's horseshit. I walked out of the store.

Still, I advocate we all do whatever works for us. Dr. Van K. Tharpe, a successful stock trader and stock trading coach, describes his "Holy Grail" of stock trading as not one particular kind of stock trading, but a kind of stock trading that works for you. For example, some traders have a personality better suited to day trading, while others are more comfortable with a buy and hold strategy over months or years. The same is true for diets—you absolutely should choose the thing which works for you and stick with it for as long as it works for you. If you love Franklin Covey notebooks and you want to buy their 7-hole punches because their whole system works for you, I say do it.

For me, though, any kind of "diet" just doesn't work. I've bought a bunch of books on dieting and exercise and none of them has ever motivated me. The only thing which has worked for me hasn't been Atkins or South Beach or Dr. Phil or whatever—it's simply eating less. That's probably because a simple directive like that requires less mental energy to follow: I can count to 2000, so I'll always know if I'm eating less. Or not.

Monday, February 23, 2009

+20 (∆ +0.2)

For the last two weeks, it feels like I haven't really strayed from my +20 buoy. Up and down, back and forth... it seems like it's not moving at all. I'm working my ass off, quite literally, and apparently getting no results. In a former life, I might be giving up right now by loading up on 11PM snacks.

Fortunately, I expected this going in and have diligently graphed my weight the entire time and today I saw the pattern below. Each data point is my weight for one day and the entire graph represents the last two weeks:

One pattern I see here is that there are two peaks and valleys—the first peak begins about 1/3 of the way from left side of the graph. Another pattern I see is that the second peak is slightly lower than the first, which is a small but clear trend downwards. That miniscule fluctuation reinforces to me that, despite how despondent I might feel for a specific week's weight average, I am still clearly making progress... only in near undetectable ways.

(If you're wondering where I got this graph, I'll be writing about it soon; it's a screen cap from an iPhone app, and one of three apps I use daily to track my food intake, nutrition, calories, body fat, and body mass index, as well as heart rate and cholesterol.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

+21.2 (∆ +1)

Two days ago, my scale was at "+19" and seeing my weight inexplicably go back up again is rather demoralizing. And look, I already know the theory:

  1. Due to the body's natural ebb and flow, weight loss on a day to day basis is effectively meaningless.
  2. If muscle mass in increasing and body fat is decreasing, then weight might stay the same... or even increase.
  3. A more meaningful trend to follow is average weight loss over weeks.

Despite knowing all that, seeing my weight go up is still disappointing. Here's why:

Last week I decided to make up for not getting to the gym all week (my pesky daughter had a cold all week so I was effectively stranded at home until she got better). During this last week, I had read that the body's base metabolic rate (how quickly the body burns through fat) stays higher for longer if you workout for as much as an hour. You don't have to work out for 60 minutes straight, but a workout of only 30 minutes during the day will return the body back to its previous metabolic rate 90 minutes later whereas a one hour workout will return the body back to its previous metabolic rate 5 hours later—i.e., after an hour's workout, more fat is being burned for five hours after that even if all you're doing is watching TV.

My workouts have been steadily increasing in length. In the beginning, I went for only 15 minutes just to get into the habit of going. I went two to three times a week, did 15 minutes on the treadmill and then hopped in the pool. The 15 became 20, then 25, then 30 and so on until I got to 45 minutes and had to nix the pool altogether. From there, I increased it by one minute until, by last week, I was at 54 minutes. When I read about the benefits of 1 hour workouts, I thought, "Well, what the hell? Let's try it for a week!"

So here I am, almost a week after kicking my own ass on the treadmill and I appear not to have made any progress at all. Quite to the contrary, it feels like I'm worse off than before.

The truth is, I've been eating poorly this last week. Pizza and burittos. Maxing out my calories a few times, probably because I feel like I'm owed a little fun. I'm still coming under my daily net calories (meaning, I've been eating 200 extra calories every day, but my workouts are 500 calories, so my daily net is -300), and even if I eat more for a day or two, my weekly net calories are still under budget. Yet, I can feel my mind rebelling and pushing back. Every day, I feel a stronger need to have an extra portion. Maybe it's because I'm working out more, but it's probably also because my mind is impatient about seeing results.

The good news is that, even if I happened to be the same weight I was a week ago, my overall weight loss is still trending downwards. I used to be at +33 a month ago which equates a 2.6 pound weight loss per week, over two and a half times my original goal of one pound weight loss per week. When you look at it like that, it's hard not to feel a twinge of excitement again about seeing "+0" at the top of this post.

In any event, I'm determined to see some results from a week's worth of treadmillin'—for the rest of this week and next, I'm going to go back to my original daily budget of 1950 calories AND keep doing my 60 minute workouts. At some point, the weight is going to drop. It has to. It's simple math.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Kill Vader

Fans of Kill Bill (and Lego), beware:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bill O'Rielly's Right to Privacy

Here Jon Stewart does a masterful deconstruction of Bill O'Rielly's unconscionable hypocrisy:

So Fox News is doing fair reporting? Riiiiiiiiiight.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dance, Mumble!

Parenthood has its drawbacks, like being induced to watching the same movie ad nauseum. Sometimes, though, that can work in your favor since many of the animated children's movies made these days are spectacular and well worth watching repeatedly. Shrek. Kung Fu Panda. Anything by Pixar. Fortunately, as each year passes, animated films only get better and better.

One film stands above the rest—Happy Feet. When this film came out in movie theatres, I hadn't even heard about it despite the deluge of ticketbuyers. When it finally arrived on DVD, we were eventually forced to watch it. Happy Feet has a lot going for it that I hadn't anticipated: action, adventure, romance, stunning scenery, comedy, story... but the shining star at its core is its music, song and dance. Happy Feet is about a tap dancing penguin amidst a community of singing penguins, and thus, it is almost literally a fish out of water story.

Regardless of the dramatic implausibility of musicals, I have a deep fondness for the musicals genre. Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls, and 42nd Street are among my favorites, and newer musicals like Rent, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge! are on the list, too. I'm also drawn to anything involving percussion—the broadway show STOMP was riveting. Tap dancing, I realize, is essentially percussive dance.

If you combine my love of musicals and percussion, it's not a stretch to see why I'm already predisposed to like Happy Feet. Even so, it's hard to do a musical and tap dancing well, and Happy Feet simply knocked my socks off. It clearly earned its Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2006.

Below is what I consider as among the best musical and performances ever. If you can get past the central conceit of penguins dancing and singing (which already happens after seeing the first 10 minutes of the film), then you start to appreciate some incredibly well thought out choreography, singing and musical arrangement. It came as no surprise to me to learn this on wiki:

The animation in Happy Feet invested heavily in motion capture technology, with the dance scenes acted out by human dancers. The tap-dancing for Mumble in particular was provided by Savion Glover who was also co-choreographer for the dance sequences. The dancers went through "Penguin School" to learn how to move like a penguin, and also wore head apparatus to mimic a penguin's beak. Link.

In the clip below, pay special attention to the music's pacing, and the musical and dramatic intensity of each moment within the scene—to create a sharper and more dramatic impact, a long and quiet intimate moment precedes a massive performance with lots of noise. Additionally, the entire film sets up this one scene—Gloria spends the first part of the movie repeatedly singing the opening stanzas to a popular song from the 70s, so her lyrics nag at you the whole time... where have I heard that? So when Gloria finally sings that song (in this scene)—with a full orchestra and a chorus of hundreds behind her—it's the emotional equivalent of feeling a dam burst.

Some dramatic setup: Gloria is the pretty girl courted by every suitor because of her enchanting voice. Mumble, her childhood sweetheart, has been outcast because he's tone deaf and has "bizarre" tap dancing skills. Desperate to win Gloria over, Mumble returns with some new friends to sing Gloria a song she's never heard before... and fails miserably. Equal parts astonishing and comical, what happens next is the best scene film:

I wish someone had forced me at gunpoint to go see Happy Feet when it was in movie theatres.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

+20.2 (∆ -1.8)

Today's a milestone.

Today, I finally dipped below a weight I haven't been in years. In fact, my weight's coming off a lot faster now than I'd have thought possible and while that's always welcome news, it's also bad news in a sense—if my weight comes off too quickly, then it's that much easier to get discouraged when my weight plateaus later on. For example, even if I were to have stagnant weight for a week, I'd still remain below my average weight loss overall—it just won't feel like it. Because motivation plays such a key role in all this, how one perceives progress is almost more important than the progress itself.

Anyway, I'm just happy that I've lost so much so quickly. Based purely on how successful 19 days of eating less and working out has been, I think I can confidently say my August 21st goal will be met, and likely a lot sooner than that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

+22 (∆ -1.6)

I can't be sure, but I think my stomach is shrinking. I've had just under 1700 calories today and don't feel like I'm starving. Either that, or I'm getting used to a regular appetite.

Today was also a little funky for calories. If you include my workout of 388 calories, my total Net Calories—food calories consumed minus exercise calories burned—is 1307 (in case you're wondering, my food today was one serving of grape nuts cereal in soy milk, one large pear, a tuna fish sandwich with sharp cheddar on honey wheat berry bread, one large banana, and halibut with a half cup of fried brown rice and mushrooms and zucchini. And coffee. Looooots of coffee.).

At the gym today, I was surprised to find myself crunching my abs a little on the treadmill. Mostly, it was an experiment to see if I could feel all my abdominal muscles, which appear to be more active from my workouts. Right after did a quick crunch, I saw my treadmill's heart rate monitor shoot up for about 10 seconds. That was kind of fun to watch, and inspired me (albeit mildly) to do some sit-ups to feel all my abdominal muscles... but not today.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

+23.6 (∆ -0.8)

There's only one fast food place I love to go to, and that's Chipotle. I've always been a sucker for burritos and this week, I decided I was going to indulge. First order of business: I needed to make an informed decision.

A couple of years ago, I used to love getting Chipotle's Carnitas Burrito. Like anyone, I already know pork is really bad for me, but I still enjoy a splurge once in a while. This is what I used to order at Chipotle:

  • 13" Tortilla
  • Rice
  • Black Beans
  • Carnitas
  • Corn Salsa
  • Cheese
  • Sour Cream
  • Guacamole
  • Lettuce
  • Chips

Yummy, yummy. Keep in mind that 2000 calories is the recommended daily calorie intake, and then take a look at what I was actually having... in one meal:

Yikes. I had no idea my "splurge" was quite that bad. Fortunately, I never had a Carnitas Burritos that often and I've since noticed that their Veggie Burrito really doesn't taste so different from a Carnitas Burrito that I can't switch to a Veggie Burrito permanently. So here's what I ordered instead:
  • 13" Tortilla
  • Rice
  • Black Beans
  • Carnitas
  • Tomato Salsa (in place of Corn Salsa)
  • Corn Salsa
  • Cheese
  • Sour Cream
  • Guacamole
  • Lettuce
  • Chips

While the fat and the sodium values are still absurdly high, that's an acceptable price to pay for a single outing of fast food. Since my dinners are usually around 950 calories anyway, I actually ordered under my calorie budget for dinner. And those burritos are so damned filling that I easily came under budget for the day.

The Nutrition Facts labels were generated dynamically courtesy of Chipotle Fan. They're fun, too—try them out.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

+24.4 (∆ +0.6)

Something strange has been happening to me—I've noticed that I'm extremely stressed out. As in, off the charts stressed. I've been easily irritable, curt, and even unreasonable at times. In essence, I haven't really been myself, or not the self I've always known.

Once I became aware of this stress, I had to think hard about its cause. What's changed? My life isn't qualitatively different than it was before I started counting calories, so what's going on? The only answer I came up with became immediately pertinent—the thing that's changed is that I'm not eating as much as I used to. Could that really have been the cause of all my stress? Well, partly.

Eating food has a comforting effect and so it's common to eat food when we're stressed out. The good feelings you get from a good meal are from the release of endorphins, so when you stop eating as you usually do, those endorphins aren't released anymore. Quite suddenly, you've robbed your body of its usual way of coping with stress. In addition to no longer coping with a particular stress, you might even have the additional angst of wondering how you're going to cope with that stress when food is no longer an option.

The next question practically asks itself: what are you so stressed out about that you have to eat food to deal with it? And you must answer that question because if you don't deal with that root anxiety, then 1) you'll fail at dieting, 2) you'll have to accept living with that stress, or 3) you'll have to find ways to neutralize that stress.

In my own case, I'm pretty sure I pinpointed the source of my anxiety and there's nothing I realistically can do to eliminate it, so my next step is fortify myself by finding ways to calm my mind. To that end, music has been extremely useful—calming music has allowed me to "ground" and thus shore up my emotional reserves. (Zero 7's When It Falls is my current weapon of choice.)

Apparently, this is a typical reaction for people cutting back on their food. A stress spike happens about two weeks in and it's often called "feeling the feelings". As I look back over all the times I've tried to lose weight, it is indeed around this time when my resolve usually weakens.

Monday, February 02, 2009

+23.8 (∆ -0.6)

On the way home last night from the Superbowl party, I (wincingly) estimated the number of calories I'd consumed... pizza, Swedish meatballs, a pulled pork sandwich, guacamole, hummus, Doritos, See's candy... around 3000 calories in all. That doesn't sound like a lot when you look at what I ate, but I made an effort to have relatively reduced portions of everything, i.e., instead of having four slices of pizza like I might have had in the past, I only had two... instead of two pulled pork sandwiches, I had only one, I ate more fruit and salad to fill me up, and I absolutely had no alcohol. If there's a five alarm gateway drug to set off uncontrolled eating on Superbowl day, it's alcohol.

Although my calorie budget yesterday was only 1969, I had cunningly worked out that morning so I tacked on 390 extra calories and pushed my lunchtime (with extra cups of coffee) until gametime at 3PM. The end result was, incredibly, that even though I went nearly 800 calories over my daily calorie budget, I still came in under budget for calorie consumption for the week by 410 calories.

I hadn't seen the calorie grand tally until this morning, but last night—expecting a sharp weight gain this morning— I had already decided to go to the gym every day this week. And then, when I stepped on the scale today and saw that I'd actually lost weight despite last night's gastronomic carnage, I thought, "Well, why not go every day this week anyway?"

I've lost a total of 9.2 pounds so far and at this rate, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, I could be at +0 as soon as April 1st. That's not my original goal, however, so I'm sticking to the original August 21st deadline because I expect I'll have to weather a long rough patch of static weight sometime this month or next.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

+24.4 (∆ -1.6)

"Nothing is worth doing unless it can be measured."

Although the above maxim was intended to describe the establishment of smarter business practices, the principle can be applied to practically anything. After all, how can you know how you're doing if you can't measure your progress? Which is why I went hunting for a more accurate weight scale. Long story short, I opted for this swanky $29 body fat scale at Sam's Club:

This scale measures weight in 0.2 lb increments, not 0.5 increments as my current scale does, which makes for a more gratifying experience when I can see I've lost at least 0.2 lbs instead of seeing possible weight loss get rounded off to half-pound increments.

As for its body fat measurement, I was initially skeptical how accurate it could be without using calipers etc., yet—with a small electric pulse sent throughout your body to measure body fat—it has to be more accurate than the internet measurement I took last week, right? I guess we'll see. At least I have another a data point to measure my progress.