30-Day Challenge results

success_baby As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I started a 30-Day Fat Loss program in consultation with my physician. Wednesday was the final day, so I weighed in and did a body fat measurement this morning. Here are the results: weight_20140626_v2 A total loss of 19.2 lbs, 11.9 of which was fat. An almost 2% reduction in total body fat. I am thrilled with this progress. My physician is also pleased. We discussed next steps at length, and agreed that this plan is clearly working, and it makes sense to continue. He took blood on Monday and we’re sending it to a special lab that does extremely detailed blood analysis. Besides an extensive lipid analysis, they also can show genetic and metabolic markers for certain kinds of intolerances. In other words, it may give me clues as to foods and food groups that may contribute to weight gain or loss. I’ll get these results in a few weeks, and I can’t wait. This will help me optimize my eating plan even further, which is exciting to someone like me.

My food consumption over the past 30 days has been consisting of a very small list of foods. For protein, I’ve been sticking to grass-fed beef and lamb, wild-caught salmon (Copper River salmon is in season…it is SO delicious), organic eggs, organic chicken. This, of course, makes eating out very difficult, so when I do, I just stick to the leanest possible thing on the menu. I eat a lot of chicken breast and roast chicken.

For vegetables, mixed greens, asparagus, brussel sprouts, broccolini, a bit of avocado on occasion.

For flavor, balsamic vinegar and every spice and herb under the sun. This is where I channel my cook mojo – spice rubs. Making my own is essential, as so many store bought ones have sugar and hydrogenated oils. And, of course, Marie Sharp’s, which is the greatest hot sauce in the world.

Unsweetened tea and coffee when I feel like it, and only before noon. And that’s it.

No dairy, no starches, no sugar, no alcohol.

Thirty days is not very long, but it is the longest I’ve gone without certain foods (and drinks) in a long while. I’ve discovered that absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. My cravings for certain things have waned, while others have remained constant.

I miss having wine with dinner, of course. It is such a part of the meal to me, its absence is noticeable. I know I’ll be able to drink it with regularity once I get to my goals.

I don’t miss sugar. I really, truly, do not miss sugar at all. Donuts…ice cream…oh, I know they are delicious, but I don’t want them. I see donuts and pastries every single day at work and they hold no sway over me. And because I don’t want them, I’m not going to even bother having them.

I don’t particularly miss starchy foods, either. Bread, potatoes, pasta. All of them I now greet with a collective shrug.

I miss variety most of all. I miss having a mixture of flavors. Tomatoes in my salad. A small, melting pat of herbed butter on a steak. A bite or two of aged cheese and some salumi. In time, I will enjoy these things again.

This week I’ll indulge in a few things. Sushi tonight with my amazing and incomparable wife, whose unwavering support has been essential to my success. I’ll have some wine with the tri-tip I’ll be grilling on Saturday.

Monday morning, I’ll do the 30-Day thing again. It is as if 19.2 pounds of me has morphed into a strong wind, to fill the sails that have been still for so long. By the end of the month, I’ll use the blood panel info to optimize my plan.

The one thing I am not thrilled about is the losing about seven pounds of muscle. That could be due to the built in error ratio of bioimpedance body fat calculators (which can be as much as 5-7% off), so it may not be as much. Then again, it may be more. But looking at my body composition, I have too much muscle in places…most notably my legs. This is expected – carrying around as much excess as I do is akin to an all-day weight training regime, one that I have been silently doing for decades, and as such, I need muscle to simply move through the world. Muscle loss is inevitable, and as long as I am losing fat, I am not worried. It would be astonishing for me to lose 2% body fat every 30 days, and I suspect that may be difficult to achieve.

We’ll see what the next 30 days holds, and what challenges it will present. In the meantime, I will ponder this future while I sip some Pinot Noir.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


Pretty sure this guy didn't give a shit about gluten.
Pretty sure this guy didn’t think about the gluten in his meal even once in his life.

I wince at the time stamp of my last update. I have considered for a while how to summarize the last thirteen months, in terms of food consumption, diet, exercise, progress.

Lack of progress.

There’s a lot going on right now and I’m just beginning to make sense of it all. I write this to get it out, to update people on my progress, but mostly in the hopes that it might provide value for people who struggle with food in the same way I do.

Short version: I’ve been really angry.

Long version: See below…

I think I’ve got pretty solid evidence that I’m a food addict, and this realization is forcing me to change my relationship to food…again.

So how did I reach this conclusion?

After doing a “Biggest Loser”-style challenge at work in the first four months of 2013, I lost almost 50 pounds, bringing myself to around 250. Most of what I lost was fat (not muscle), so I was pleased with myself. After giving up a LOT of foods (as well as alcohol) for four months, I took a break from watching my food and decided to take what I called a “food vacation”. This was an incredibly poor decision, because it began a relapse-style process that undid all of the progress I had made, and almost threatened to send me all the way back to where I was in 2009. Over the past year, I have gone back and forth between adhering to a food plan and abandoning it. This has contributed to a steady increase in overall body weight, putting me back at around 300 pounds (as of late May).

It’s embarrassing to say that.

The food plan I’ve been on and off for the past year is nothing different than what I had used before with good results – whole food meals low in carbohydrates with one “cheat day” a week, along with three workouts per week focused on strength training and flexibility (in other words, the Slow Carb Diet). The difference last year is, apart from the 4-month challenge at the beginning, every time I’ve gone “on the plan” I haven’t lost any fat at all. Not a pound. Some weeks I even gained weight. Visits to doctors provided no clues as to anything “wrong” with me. What I got was a combination of trendy-but-terrible advice (“replace all your sugar with agave nectar!”) and general platitudes about getting older, and needing to “change things up” every once in a while.

This fueled an exasperation I haven’t experienced in a long while, one that built up over months of alternating between committing to a food plan and abandoning it all together. I don’t know many people who have had this kind of experience before, but it is incredibly discouraging. It has made me livid at times. I have wrestled with all sorts of “why” questions for the better part of a year, and I’m not sure I’ve got any answers.

I went to my physician – a new one, not the moron I had before – and explained my predicament. We did blood work and he said my triglycerides were extremely high. When his assistant called me to walk me through the results, she launched into a standard “eat less carbs” lecture and I, for an instant, wanted to shoot back, “I HAVE BEEN DOING THAT FOR A YEAR! DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” but, of course, I didn’t. I patiently explained that I had been on a low-carb diet for a while and I STILL had those results. She agreed it was weird, and we scheduled an appointment to talk to the physician about it and come up with a plan. More on that later.

There is not much more to say about my state of mind over the past year, but I have come to a realization. Maybe not quite an epiphany, but definitely an opening in self-awareness.

The realization came courtesy of a friend who recently did a 30-day cleanse thing. She abstained from caffeine, alcohol, gluten, sugar…all the standard “bad guys” of the food world. These can be useful as a ways of testing one’s willpower, as well as bringing awareness to certain habits as well as encourage mindfulness (one of her realizations – sugar is in EVERYTHING. It’s true!) Her conclusion at the end of her successful 30 day thing was that it was exhausting for her to think about food all the time.

When I read that, I paused for a second and thought, “you mean…people don’t think about food all the time?”

I think about food all the time.


“Well, of course you think about food all the time! You’re a cook!” you may be saying to yourself. And that’s certainly one part of it. But there’s actually three kinds of “food thoughts” that I deal with, which I will call “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”.

The Good is when I’m thinking about food in the context of cooking. Thinking about ingredients, techniques, recipes, menu ideas. I come up with menu ideas all the time. Sometimes a single ingredient will pop into my mind and I’ll think of a way to prepare it, and the next thing I know I’ve got a whole meal planned. And if I start to think about wine…forget about it. I’ll have a six-course wine/food pairing menu planned for you within the hour. This is my thing. This is what I do. I’m good at it. I have channeled my obsession with food into a passion for cooking, an unceasing search for perfection on the plate and in the glass. I don’t particularly want to stop this kind of thinking, because it’s fun, it’s part of who I am, and I would probably lose friends if I said, “yeah, so that whole cooking thing? Not for me anymore”.

The Bad is the daily expenditure of energy agonizing over what I can and cannot eat. I do this all the time, and it’s 100% my own fault. I choose to eat restrictive diets as a fat loss tactic, so I force myself to be mindful of what I eat. I have to make choices, or the plan doesn’t work. Of course, I’m also a pain in the ass about things like whole foods vs. processed foods, organic vs. conventional, and so on.

If ever there was an image meme designed for me, it's this one.
If ever there was an image meme designed for me, it’s this one.

All of this thinking is manageable, most of the time, but it can get out of hand. It occupies much of my thought processes before and even during a meal. It’s the part that makes me blurt out “Oh I can’t eat that” when someone offers me a cookie. Which is another subject altogether…one of my most annoying character traits is my need to tell everyone about my food restrictions. Like it matters to them. It doesn’t, but I can’t seem to turn that off. I can’t just say, “oh, no thank you” to the cookie. I have to say, “Oh…I can’t eat sugar” which can either spawn a conversation about food and diets, but it more often than not just makes the person uncomfortable. I need to stop doing that.

The Ugly is when mindfulness about food becomes a kind of sickness. An all-consuming obsession with everything I’m putting into my body. But not a healthy, my-body-is-a-temple kind of obsession…the kind of obsession that leads to great choices and rainbows and leaping dolphins. It’s a gnawing, insatiable obsession that has me thinking only of deprivation and longing. Before I started changing my relationship to food, my obsession was with making myself feel terrible for the things I was eating, or the portions I was eating. The cycle went like this:

1. I crave a food that’s indulgent.
2. I am ashamed that I am craving that food.
3. I agonize about wanting that food, but concluded that I cannot have it.
4. I get angry that I have to deprive myself.
5. I break down and eat the food.
6. I enjoy it for what seems like seconds, but I eat a lot of it.
7. I immediately regret eating the food, then beat myself up for it.
8. Repeat this cycle several times a day.

When I started this journey, I managed to get a handle on 1, 2, and 3. I learned why I craved indulgent foods, or food at all, and stopped being ashamed about it. Then I successfully broke the cycle of deprivation/indulgence. And then I lost a lot of weight. Which was awesome. And, for a while…a few years, in fact, I had this cycle locked up tight. It didn’t run me.

Over last year, The Ugly came back in a major way, but it was different. We’ll call it “Ugly 2.0″.
1. I commit to a diet that has a specific set of foods to eat.
2. I eat those foods and try to make it all work.
3. I weigh myself and measure my body fat percentage, and when I don’t see results, I get angry.
4. Then the old cycle kicks in, but instead of being ashamed, I take the attitude of “fuck it” and throw caution to the wind.

I’ve successfully replaced shame with cynicism.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

This is not progress.

This is The Ugly.

And it’s where I’ve been dwelling for most of the past year.

In hearing my friend speak of her exhaustion about thinking about food, I realized that my relationship to food isn’t normal. I was discussing this with another friend (who recently ended a lifelong smoking habit), and he said something along the lines of “yeah, sometimes when you talk about food, it’s great because you’re describing something delicious and amazing, but there’s a point at which it goes beyond that and you start to talk about food like the way I used to think about cigarettes.”

So where is that line, exactly? The line that on one side is a passionate guy talking about what he loves and on the other side an addict obsessing about his next fix?

I don’t know yet. I’m trying to figure that out.

What is clear to me, at least for now, is that I lost control of The Ugly. And at first, I thought that perhaps it was just going back and forth between eating “on the plan” and eating like an asshole for a few weeks. And, just to be clear about why I got so angry, it was primarily because I didn’t know why things weren’t working.

I spend a considerable amount of my work life making things happen, and then measuring whether they are effective or not. If there is no way to measure effectiveness, it drives me crazy. With diets and food, it is no different. I want to know what I’m doing is effective, and the world of nutrition and food is so filled to the brim with misinformation, lies, “good advice” this is dangerously misguided, charlatans hawking all sorts of bullshit solutions, and amidst all of that, a diverging consensus about the very foundations of nutrition science, metabolism, and how food affects the body. Add to that the fact that we have such feeble measuring tools…most of us are able to weigh ourselves by stepping on a scale. Some can measure body fat percentage, but few do, and all the methods available for that have an error rate of 2-8% depending on method. The full picture is often hard to get, and its impractical to do blood panels every week. If I step on the scale at the end of a seven day cycle and I’ve lost two pounds, that would seem to be a victory, but what if those pounds are muscle? How can I know? I’m not just trying to “lose weight”, I’m trying to lose fat…and it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of that.

So my impotent rage was largely fueled by not knowing what was really going on. When I do something, I want to know if it’s working. Period. If it’s not working, I want to know what I need to change to make it work.

It took about a year, but I think I figured out why “the plan” stopped working, and it was hard for me to admit to myself at first.

It was the cheat days.

A lot of people are familiar with the concept of these. There are plenty of really effective eating plans that use them well. Some people eat the 6 days on/1 day off way and they are lean, strong, healthy, and fit.

There are numerous benefits. In the context of a low- or no-carb diet, the body’s metabolism can slow down, specifically the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone to the more active T3. It can also increase cAMP and cGMP, which can accelerate lipolysis (a kind of fat loss). Of course people gain water weight for a few days afterwards, but as long as they get right back to the low carb thing the next day and maintain that for six days, the water weight goes away and the body has a few days to continue to burn fat.

The psychological benefits were also significant. As Tim Ferriss says, “everyone binges eventually on a diet, and it’s better to schedule it ahead of time to limit the damage.”

These plans are very clear about cheat days. They say “eat whatever you want on cheat days”. Eat whatever you want. This was music to my ears, of course. Someone was telling me I could do something I wanted to do! Of course I’m going to do it.

The problem is my cheat days started veering into the realm of compulsive overeating that was my daily life prior to April 2009. I don’t think these cheat day champions really had in mind what I did on my cheat days. I noticed this with my wife, who was on the same plan as me, and noticed how she would have a few treats, or maybe even one, on our Saturday cheat days, while I would seem hellbent on packing as much indulgence into the day as I possibly could. It wasn’t until I watched her satisfy food cravings, watched her have a few bites of cake, rather than two slices, watch her nurse a delicious cocktail, rather than have two of them, that I started to realize that these cheat days were unleashing this food crazy part of me and that maybe…just maybe…I was eating so much on those cheat days that my body wasn’t able to recover.

How I figured this out was all about how my clothes fit. After a cheat day, my body would swell up and some clothes would fit kinda tight for a day or two. By day three, though, I’d be back to normal and things would feel good. I’d step on the scale the morning of the cheat day and smile at the loss of weight. But that stopped happening. I’d feel bloated and huge for the whole week. How my clothes fit are a poor indicator of progress, but this was a pattern I could not ignore.

So perhaps cheat days every seven days aren’t really for me. I don’t seem to be capable of having just one donut. I have to have six. At least…that’s the old me. The Ugly Me. The one I thought I left behind in 2009.

But I had control for a while. I know I can get back to that, and so I’m going to do what I did back then. Which brings me to the new current plan.

With my doctor’s blessing, I’m doing a 30 day food plan that focuses on very high quality protein sources (grass fed beef, game meats, organic eggs, etc.) and non-starchy vegetables. No sugar. No starches. No alcohol at all. No dairy products. And most importantly, not a single cheat day. I’m taking a micronutrient supplement that I really love. The plan prescribes large amounts of fish oil to help maintain Omega 3/Omega 6 balance. I have more food variety than I did on the Slow Carb Diet, in a way, so it makes meal planning easier.

I’m in week three of this plan. The first week was tough. Cravings all over the place, and I was eating ravenously. After about five days, my portion sizes got smaller and the cravings went away.

I’m walking 2-3 miles every other day, instead of strength training.

On June 23rd, I’ll weigh in, check my body fat, and do a full blood panel. We’re sending my blood to a special lab that does extremely detailed analysis of cholesterol and triglycerides.

In the meantime, I feel fantastic. I am sleeping better. I have great energy. I know I am losing weight – my clothes are fitting better, down a few belt loops – but I don’t yet know if it’s fat or muscle. At this point, I’m not concerned. This is about establishing habits and testing the theory that weekly cheat days were thwarting my progress.

It’s also about relating to food as fuel, not entertainment. Of course I’m not suffering through bland horrid meals…I am still MYSELF. I am enjoying my food immensely, because I know how to make things taste great with spices, herbs, and calorie-free foods like vinegar. So, I’m not just eating my lettuce and crying. I’m eating my lettuce splashed with a bit of lemon and olive oil, next to a garam masala-rubbed grass-fed lamb steak. I miss the glass of Syrah that should go with that, but we’ll figure that part out later.


May Plan

After my workplace competition ended, I chose to slack for a week with regards to food. I gave myself a little cheat week of sorts. Nothing egregious, just a mental vacation of having to manage food so rigorously.

A funny thing happened. I didn’t enjoy it. The novelty wore off pretty quickly. I got back on the program and have been maintaining for the month. Took a “cheat weekend” in wine country that was every bit as satisfying as it should have been.

One thing that I did not like about the competition was the lack of exercise. Since I was trying to lose as much weight as possible, I didn’t want to put on muscle, so I stopped exercising altogether. I didn’t like it. Carolyn didn’t like it. She mentioned to me last week that she noticed that I have been, on the whole, a little more stressed and occasionally “edgy” these past two months. When I was working out regularly, that edge was gone.

I had already resolved to start up again in May, but it gave me even more reason to do so. I miss the routine, I miss the physical activity, I miss the mental “check out” time that comes with strapping on some headphones and being in my own little world for an hour.

May brings with it a continued commitment to the Slow Carb Diet. It’s working, so I see no reason to abandon it. I am going to spend the month doing the exercise described in the Four Hour Body in the “Perfect Posterior” chapter. The workouts are relatively light, but very effective and targeted. Kettlebell swings, myotatic crunches, reverse drag curls.

I had planned on starting the “Occam’s Protocol” portion of the book, as I feel compelled to build muscle. However, that program is extreme, and I will need to regularly check my body fat percentage. At the very least weekly. I am hoping my gym will let me use their bioimpedance tool once a week, so I can at least have SOME method, even though that method strongly overstates body fat percentage if the subject is dehydrated (which is common pre- and post-workout). In June, I’ll buy the BodyMetrix, which has a very low error rate.

In the meantime, I’ll work out three times a week, and keep the Slow Carb Diet going. I’ll measure body fat once a week, to gauge progress.

Another difference this time around…I’m going to measure myself and take pictures of before and after. I’ll photograph myself every week from now until I hit my goal of 20% body fat. It’s so hard for me to see my progress, and I want to watch as muscle replaces fat on my body.

Biggest Loser Competition – Final Results

Final results for our “Biggest Loser” competition at work are in. I came in third place. Didn’t win the money, but I don’t really care.

My results:
I weighed in at 294 pounds. I ended the competition at 246.6, a total loss of 47.4 pounds. This is more than 16% of my total body weight.

For those playing at home, this puts total weight loss at 108 pounds since 4/2009, or 30.54% of my total since I started.

I will continue with the slow-carb diet through April, and in May, begin building muscle, shifting focus away from weight and exclusively to body fat %, which I have not measured in several months. This competition motivated me significantly, and I was grateful for the challenge.

Mine eyes deceive me

I always thought I was a fat kid.

I wasn’t. At all.

I had a bit of a stocky build. My torso was abnormally long, my face was a little “chubby” especially when I smiled, which was often. My mom had to seek out the “husky” jeans in the boys section at Sears. But I wasn’t fat. Being told for years by my brothers and my schoolmates conspired with my inferior performance in sports (compared to my brothers, who are both phenomenal athletes) ingrained it in my brain. One of my grandfathers loved to say about me, “Danny never met a meal he didn’t like.”

Fast forward to high school and I was a little overweight. My senior year, I took a “body development” class where we would lift weights and run three miles. By the end of my senior year, combining that workout with epic, 50-60 mile mountain bike rides every weekend with my step-brother Ken, I was in the best shape of my life. I didn’t know it, nor acknowledge it at the time. I still saw “fat kid” in the mirror. When I got to college, the perfect storm of dorm food, beer consumption, and aversion to exercise coalesced into real, actual weight gain. The “freshman fifteen” turned into thirty, and just kept going. I didn’t really notice. The fact that I had to keep buying new clothes did not set off any alarm bells. I had been growing my whole life, and I had always been fat (in my mind), so…what was the issue? My body, in a weird, ironically twisted way began to match my self image. I had friends who would put on a few pounds and then suddenly change behavior, working out, eating less, saying “man, I hate the way I look, I need to shed some weight.” I didn’t have that going on. I still have no idea why.

Much later, after I was married and living a life in the 325-poundish range, I had a huge wake up call in the form of an old VHS tape. My grandparents, Bonnie and Ted, were the first people I knew who purchased a video camera. This was back in 1983 or so…years before most people bought little handheld ones, and decades before everyone had cameras in their pockets. Back then, the video camera was this huge, shoulder-mounted camera with a giant cord that led down to a suitcase-sized VHS machine. It was ridiculous even then, but they had one to record my brothers and I in a number of activities. Bonnie found some old tapes and had them converted from Betamax (!!!) to DVD, and showed us all at Easter brunch some time in the late 90’s. We laughed and pointed as my brothers and I, by then all married men, monkeyed around our old living room, struggled to play a simple guitar tune together when we were all taking lessons, and hung out at the Little League field. That’s when it hit me. I watched an “interview” Bonnie did with me, while we were not-really-watching one of my brothers play a game. Everyone was chuckling at my hammy, jokey 9-year-old self (fact: I have always been hilarious) but I could not stop staring at myself. It blew my mind to see me as I was, and I was NOT fat. Not even close.

A better person may have had the same experience and realizing how far they had fallen into obesity, how perniciously his or her own mind had tricked themselves, resolved to get in shape, stop eating horrible foods in unimaginable quantities, and dedicate his or her life to never falling prey to that mental lie that is body image. I responded to this by getting fatter. I careened into a depressed rage, feeling cheated and betrayed, by my own mind. I was furious with myself, and invented even more insidious ways to beat myself up. I lamented the missed opportunities I thought I had in college, were I slim and more attractive and had better self-esteem. Looking for solace in my rage and self-loathing, I turned to my ol’ buddy food for comfort, which only made things worse.

I long ago got over that rage. Years later, I changed my lifestyle, and at 250 pounds, and rapidly continuing a body transformation that has nothing to do with rage, self-loathing, and frustration.

Along this journey, now almost four years in the making, I have had to contend with the realization that my body image, and my actual physical form, may always be at odds. I no longer see myself as a fat kid, or a fat guy, or a fat anything (even though I am still overweight). When I look in the mirror, I see more fat than I want, and a body shape that doesn’t fit my new image. But that image is still a fiction. It is, at best, a courtroom sketch of what I think I should look like. It’s concept art for the 3D model that I want one day to become.

I haven’t got a clue what I will look like when I’m “done” losing weight. I have a number – 15% body fat – that I am shooting for, but even then, I have no idea what that will look like. I can guess a bit, and as I start to see muscle definition, as I start to see areas historically puffed out by adipose tissue suddenly tighter, more defined, as I see lines of muscle (my dear girlfriend enthusiastically points them out to me as often as she can) defining my legs, my arms, even my shoulders (turns out I have a collar bone…who knew!?) I can see that guy, that man, that ME emerge. But I still don’t know if the fat around my belly will ever fully disappear. I’ve seen pictures of men who lost 150+ pounds and they had folds of excess skin removed through surgery. I may need to do that, or may need to just live with the fact that parts of me may look like a Shar-Pei. I’m almost 40. There is a point at which the body does not bounce back, and this image I have in my head may never emerge intact.

I’m fine with that. I truly could not care less. Because I know that it is a lie. It’s all a lie. It’s a vision that will never happen exactly as I picture it. But it inspires me and keeps me going. Watching part of that image manifest in the physical world is enormously gratifying. Knowing that it won’t be 100% is, admittedly, annoying sometimes, but I can handle it.

I’ll spend the rest of my life manifesting…something. I plan to bulk up and slim down. To what extent I’m not sure. The plan is still in flux. I plan for a living. I am a producer. I make things real (or as real as they can be on the tiny supercomputer you call your phone). But anyone who plans things and then executes them knows that the end product resembles, but never fully matches, the original idea.

I take an image – a concept – whether it’s mine or someone else’s – and I make it real. I get paid to do that, and it’s a tremendous privilege. I do the same with food…the recipe never really looks exactly like the picture in the magazine, but it doesn’t matter, as long as it tastes good and the texture is correct.

In the same manner, I’m taking a concept called “Dan in peak physical fitness” and bringing it into reality. I have a plan, of course, that I stick to until it stops working. Then I make a new plan.

In game development, in cooking, in making anything, those who experience the end result will criticize the work. They will let you know what that experience is like.

“This game is too hard, and too confusing, but this part is too easy…it’s just not very fun, I don’t really know why…except for that part which I HATE, and why does the cat do that little dance? That dance is stupid, he should do another dance, and maybe he should have a giant laser gun and he should be five hundred feet tall and wouldn’t this be better if it was multiplayer? And, uh, SOCIAL! You could add micro-transactions and an energy system, and oh, I see a whole monetizat-“

Sorry, that was the image of me choking that person to death. Not in reality! No no! No, the manifestation of me listens and nods patiently. Heh heh…heh…uhh…anyway.

In cooking…

“Oh my god, this is AMAZING. This is the BEST. RISOTTO. I. HAVE. EVER…is it supposed to be gritty? No, not the sauce, the little…risotto…things. Err, rice thingies. They’re just…hmm. And you said this has cheese in it? What kind? I don’t know what that is…that’s a cheese? It sounds like the name of a cleaning product. Anyway…don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing..I was just expecting…I dunno. This wine is really…jammy? I think? I don’t know what that means, I just heard it on the Food Network.”

And, of course, with our bodies, although no one except reality TV stars says these kinds of things out loud…

“Whoa, look at him. Could someone get him some more hair for his head? He seems to be running out. And that shirt is NOT doing him any favors. Horizontal stripes? Someone has to tell him he looks like the Hamburglar. Except…rounder. But not as round as his shoulders.”

You get the idea. These words are not often spoken aloud by other people, but many of us speak these things in our heads about ourselves. But, when the world adds its own scornful voice to echo the constant critic in our own heads, it can be devastating. Unless you realize that it, too, is a lie.

Back to the fat kid thing…I was made fun of quite a bit growing up. I was called fat, even though I wasn’t. Later in life, when adults, in general, learned to be less publicly cruel, such things happened less often. I had only my own self-inflicted cruelty to contend with most of the time. But a comment here or there did pop up.

I remember walking on Venice Beach in college, past a bar where many of the patrons looked out onto the boardwalk. The guys would make comments about anyone who caught their eye. Mostly catcalls and whistles at skinny girls, jeers for the overweight girls. I felt sorry for the women who had to pass by that little zone of judgment, and never imagined they would single me out. I was a guy. They commented only on passing girls. But of course they noticed me, all of them saying, in a weird, slow chant, “Budddddddddha……..”

Who knows? Maybe they were just really into…Buddhism?  Maybe?

But it bugged me.

A few years later, I was standing on a street corner and I heard someone say from a passing car, “hey, when’s your baby due?”

Bugged me.

Throughout my life, people called me “big guy”. “Hey, big guy.” It has always bothered me, even though I know it was probably not malicious. For me, it was a way of saying “I acknowledge your physical size, and I can’t get past it.”

Haven’t heard that moniker in a while. But even if I do, it won’t bug me now. I even named myself “Big Daddy” as my playa name, and although many thought it was because I was so large, it was never a reference to my physical size so much as my overwhelming tendency to taking care of my friends and loved ones. That will not change with my waistline.

Even though I’ve lost more than a hundred pounds, I’m still overweight. I still have a ways to go. And, as such, occasionally I get comments here and there. They’re rare, of course. But they do happen. And because I don’t know how and when I’ll be “done”, where my body will land at whatever definition of “optimum” I choose, I may always get them.

But now instead of derailing me or feeding into my self-loathing, they amuse me. They roll off of me. Because my self-loathing is managed now. Sure, it’s still there, it pops up from time to time…I’m still a human being. But it is so locked down at this point, its mewling voice so drowned out by the stentorian Alleluia chorus that fills my head most of the time, that when a voice from the world tries to join it, it just strikes me as funny.

Two years ago, I was flying high after having lost about 50 pounds, I bought myself some new clothes, since everything was resembling a circus tent on me. I parked my car and was walking up to a store, feeling good. I’m not exactly sure, but I think Katrina & The Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine” was playing in the background (what…you don’t have musical montages in YOUR life? Pshh. You better handle THAT.). Anyway…two guys emerged from a store through one of the two doors. One of them quickly opened the second door and said, “Whoa, better open BOTH of these doors for THIS guy!” And they laughed. That comment would have devastated me in the past. This time, it didn’t. I just shook my head as I walked through, thinking of nothing witty to return with. But I did notice that the comment didn’t bother me.

Something similar happened about six months ago. Again, no reaction. No “Bitter? Party of one? Your table is ready” for me. Just amusement. I thought, “they have no idea what I’ve been through.” And then I started to realize something.

A few days ago, I was on a cheat celebration day. Grabbing breakfast in the cafeteria at work. I was in a hurry, so I grabbed a burrito and, what the hell, a muffin. A giant blueberry muffin with big sugar crystals on top. It looked delicious. And it was a celebration day, so hell YES I was getting that. Across from me is some guy, getting oatmeal and one of those stupid “green machine” smoothies. He looks at me, looks at my intended meal, and says, “Sure that’s such a good idea?”

I just smiled and said, “No, it’s a GREAT idea!”

Peoples’ experience of us is a moment in time. They don’t have the benefit of knowing our journey, knowing what we have accomplished, knowing where we are headed. They may see us on step 100,000 of a million-step journey. But they don’t realize it, and their judgment-oriented mind draws conclusions about us. Their snap judgment is nothing more than a pebble on the road, but if it triggers our own judgment, that pebble can become a mountain, making the trek all the more arduous and time-consuming. It can even become a wall, stopping us in our tracks. Knowing the hard lessons and difficult choices we had to endure along the road, and choosing to keep moving in the same direction allows us to keep that pebble in its place.  We can step over it as we move forward.

I thought of saying something to Smoothie McJudgypants, but as I walked away, chuckling to myself as I settle into my desk, I realized how pointless it would have been. It would have taken a long time to explain to him why his momentary experience had no meaning in any context. He saw a fat guy ordering a ridiculous breakfast. He didn’t know it was my cheat day, didn’t know I had lost so much weight, didn’t know that it was perfectly allowed, even encouraged, on my current plan, to eat like that. He didn’t know me at all, but chose to make a comment. He probably thought he was doing me a favor. He probably tweeted about it.

I occupy a finite physical space in this world. It is ever-changing. Comparing it to any other physical thing is folly. I won’t ever look like anyone else but me, and the journey here is to figure out the optimal version of me that supports what I want to do in my life. Like salsa dancing or hiking or playing beach volleyball or being on my feet in the kitchen for fourteen hours or even sitting in a chair for ten hours a day typing on a computer. Just like I produce fun games, or produce delicious food, I am producing my body. It will never match anyone else’s. It may never match the vision I have, but I have no attachment to the accuracy of that vision. I will pursue it, and along the way, some magic will happen. I may not know what the final version looks like right now, but I’ll know it when I see it.

The pebbles on the road don’t care much why I am on the road, and stopping to explain to them my past, my motives, and my goals makes the journey that much longer. I don’t need the pebbles to understand and appreciate me. I just need to keep walking.

The journey is for me, not for them. While I transform, they remain.

*tap tap* Is this thing on?

Hard to know how many people read this, or what value they derive from it.  I’ve got some longer-form posts I’m writing for future updates, as well as a small series I’m going to do on books that I derive inspiration and guidance from.

I’d like to know if anyone has anything specific they want me to talk about…what they find most useful, topics I haven’t covered, questions…let me know.

Slow Carb Progress and Blood

Short update this week.  No earth-shattering insights to share…just plugging away at the diet and enjoying the changes its bringing.

The Slow Carb Diet?  It workes, bitches.

I’ve been on it for four weeks now.  Started it weighing 288, and as of yesterday, I weighed in at 271.  That’s 17 pounds in four weeks.  Eating full, satisfying meals, having gloriously decadent cheat celebration days.

I even reduced my exercise from five days a week to three.  This made a huge difference – I am so much hungrier on workout days.

Of course, I don’t know if that 17 lbs is all fat, because I haven’t done a fat percentage measurement in a while.  Working on that – I suspect I will need to buy this in the future, although the price tag makes me wince.

I’m finding tremendous satisfaction in the routine of the diet.  Eating the same lunch every day takes a lot of “what the hell am I going to eat?” out of the equation.  Ditto the same breakfast.  Dinner has slight variability, based on which house I am in that night, but it’s still the same basic foods.

On another positive note, I got blood work done with my new doctor.  Last time I had blood work done was May of last year.  The results – very good, across the board.

HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) went from 36 to 41.  This is not surprising – I’ve started exercising regularly, which reliably boosts HDL.  Anything over 40 in this realm is considered “good”.

LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) went from 158 to 142.  Woo hoo!  My doc wants me below 130.  So, I’m on the way.  Keep in mind I eat a TON of dead animal.  And eggs.  I credit the reduction in LDL to virtually eliminating dairy products from my life.  Yes, yes, I know…dairy products are delicious.  I know.  If I could eat ice cream every meal of my life, I would.  But they are not good for us.

Even better news, my triglycerides are at 97.   Lowest I’ve EVER seen them.  Considering that I once saw them “break the machine” and register at 600+ (which my nutritionist at the time said was “appalling”), this is fantastic news.  My blood glucose was a very reasonable 77.

Dropping cholesterol levels is fantastic news, of course, but I am beyond elation at the triglyceride/glucose levels.  This is proof that my lifestyle is keeping my blood sugar at proper levels, and – most importantly – my body isn’t frantically trying to store excess blood sugar as fat.

So, 271.  Down from 355 in April 2009.  That’s 84 pounds in total, for those following at home.

Celebration Days

The fifth and final rule of the Slow Carb diet sounds enticing on its surface:

Take one day off per week and eat whatever the hell you want.

Pretty cool, eh?

In practice, not so much. In fact, it’s the reason why I avoided the Slow Carb Diet for so long.

When I started this lifestyle change back in April of 2009, it was clear to me that I was addicted to food. I ate massive portions of highly indulgent foods, whenever I wanted. After reading the book that changed my life, I became focused on one goal – breaking the cycle of reward-based eating. Eliminating the foods that I craved the most – fried food, ice cream, fast food of all kinds – was my path.

The idea of cheating seemed counterproductive, when I was desperately trying to create new habits around eating whole foods. The first month, I gave it all up, and it worked. Despite a gnawing, almost desperate “hunger” that lasted for almost 30 days, a lack of satiety that could not be eliminated, no matter how many cucumbers I ate, I got through it. I know now that that “hunger” wasn’t actual hunger – it was addiction.  Once I got through that, I eventually added in little “cheats” here and there, and that worked, too, because I was steadily losing weight.  Perhaps most importantly, that gnawing addiction feeling didn’t return. My new relationship with food was intact.

When I hit a plateau in April 2011, I searched for a new weight loss program. The SCD intrigued me, but I didn’t like the idea of a cheat day. Listening to people describe their cheat days felt like listening to a drug addict recall their greatest highs. I didn’t like it. However, I did cheat, more and more, and that got me where I am today – gaining back weight.  Has anyone seen my high horse?  I think I fell off of it a while back…

After two weeks of the SCD, I’m down ten pounds. Not bad. I’ve had exactly two cheat days, and here’s the thing…

I don’t like them.

They’re supposed to be fun, right? Go crazy! Eat whatever you want!

They’re not that fun. For two reasons:

– Many of the foods I’ve chosen to cheat with haven’t been satisfying.
– It’s wreaking havoc on my digestive system.

I’ll spare you the details on the digestion.  We’ll focus on the lack-of-satisfaction part.  Monday I ate a cupcake. I tried to savor it…eating it in about eight bites when I would normally wolf it in two or three. Immediately, I wanted another. It tasted pretty good, and all I wanted was MORE. It left me feeling hollow, and wanting.  I couldn’t think of anything but how UN-satisfied I felt. I didn’t like that feeling at all. I felt like I could lose control. After four years of establishing control, I become incredibly sensitive to that “out of control” feeling. This triggered it for me.

For dinner, though, I made one of my favorite dishes – pork tinga – which is Mexican comfort food at its most essential and satisfying. That was enjoyable.

Next week, I’m going to avoid snacking on crap – that seems to be unsatisfying. Instead, I’m going to just focus on making something delicious for dinner.

A “cheat meal” is now anything that isn’t my weird list of acceptable foods, and the goal is to spike caloric intake, so I’ll be making one of those recipes I see in cooking magazines that look great but I always say “oh, I can’t eat that”.  What I realized is that, because the SCD is so strict, in terms of food variety, I can contextualize virtually any meal as a “cheat”. I didn’t have to eat fatty, sugary crap. A caesar salad is a cheat. An apple is a cheat. Seems ridiculous, but it means I can focus less on indulgence and more on variety.

I have tons of cooking magazines and cookbooks, and lists of recipes saved on Evernote. I’m not going to focus my cheat day on eating deliberately crappy foods. I’m just going to focus on celebrating food, and making something delicious. The liberating part is that there are no rules. I’m not calling it a cheat day…I’m calling it a celebration day. Is that lame?

For Monday dinner, I think I’ll do this and this. Sure, the pasta’s a bit indulgent, but what really excites me is the goat cheese. I miss goat cheese.

Celebrating.  Not cheating.  It’s all about context, right?

Why I’m Giving Up Artificial Sweeteners

“At any given time there is an evil nutrient we try to drive like Satan from the food supply — first it was saturated fats, then it was trans fat. Then there is the evil nutrient’s doppelganger, the blessed nutrient. If we get enough of that we, will be healthy and maybe live forever. It’s funny through history how the good and bad guys keep changing.”

~ Michael Pollan

We’ve spent decades, as a society, trying to identify the reason why we’re getting fatter and sicker as a nation. In the 80’s, the primary culprit was dietary fat. Doctors championed diets rich in carbohydrates and low in fat (remember the pasta diet? remember when your mom switched the family from butter to margarine?), and a cavalcade of fat-free products flooded grocery store shelves. The food industry even created a fat substitute, Olestra, with predictably terrible results. Then, in the late 90’s, sugar became the primary villain  and for a number of very sound scientific reasons, most doctors point to excessive sugar consumption as the primary contributor to our expanding waistlines. The irony of fat phobia was that most fat-free products compensated for the lack of flavor and mouth feel with elevated levels of sugar.

As we wring our fingers, looking for scapegoats for our poor choices, the food industry will always shows up with “safe” alternatives to the “bad” foods, designed to let us continue our indulgence. What’s more, some of them can even garner the hallowed “all natural” tag, which is enormously valuable to marketers.

While they are all generally regarded as safe, are their taste benefits enough to justify their potential cost? Due to some particularly maddening aspects of the human body, they can thwart weight loss and compromise metabolism.  Even the natural ones, like stevia, should be consumed with caution.

The artificial sweeteners most commonly encountered are aspartame (NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and various sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, maltitol, isomalt, sorbitol, xylitol.

Though none of these have calories (what known as being “nutritive”), all of them have been shown to trigger an insulin response. Insulin is the “storage hormone” which triggers both the conversion of glucose to glycogen (for consumption by the muscles and the brain). It also prompts the body to store excess blood glucose as triglycerides (which are a form of fat). This is why consuming lots of sugar can make some people fat. The body only needs so much sugar at one time, and stores the rest, in case it needs energy later. This does not mean that the artificial sweetener suddenly becomes nutritive, but if consumed with other nutritive substances (i.e. food), it could increase the storage of blood glucose as fat, thereby completely thwarting the fat loss process that most dieters strive for.

All that Diet Coke we’re drinking could be making us fat. Or, more likely, making it harder  for us to lose fat.  Pardon my French, but isn’t that fucked up?

What’s most interesting about all of this (and now we get to the “maddening” thing I mentioned above) is that the insulin response that comes from non-nutritive sweeteners appears to be psychological, not physiological. Our perception of taste is not limited to the taste buds on our tongue. It is a matrix of receptors located in the mouth, stomach, and pancreas, and scientists are only beginning to understand how it all works.  In other words, when you drink that Diet Coke, your digestive system doesn’t say, “Hey! Got some sugar up in here, let’s get the insulin flowing!” Your brain is the one that makes that call, because our taste buds are wired to our brain’s pleasure centers. Your tongue tastes sweet, your brain says, “dude, that’s sugar!!”, and your pancreas gets the message to excrete insulin. And it does. The pancreas is just following orders.  (Yes, science has definitively proven that your brain says “dude”.  Look it up.)

What about Stevia?

Stevia is, technically, a “natural” sweetener, and the FDA recognizes it as such, but this is an academic distinction. It is true that stevia is a plant, and one can grow or purchase stevia leaves to sweeten beverages (I brew it along with tea in the summer). Stevia is considerably sweeter than sugar, but, somewhat miraculously, is non-nutritive, and even better – does not seem to produce an insulin response when ingested.

Stevia, in its raw, natural form, is a potentially safe sugar substitute for anyone who is concerned about insulin response (paleo folks, diabetics, slow carb dieters, ketosis freaks, etc.).

When one turns to stevia in packaged goods, however, extreme caution is required. Although stevia extract has been commercially available since the 1970’s (especially in Japan), it languished in the “natural food supplements” section of US stores for decades, due to political controversy. It wasn’t until 2008, when the food industry, seeing the potential to satisfy growing consumer demand for natural and whole food products, began to push for approval of a concentrated steviol glycoside extract called Rebaudioside A (also known as “Reb A”). The FDA approved it as a food additive, and now many food industry giants (not surprisingly, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) are introducing Reb A (under various brand names, such as Rebiana, Truvia and PureVia) and filling their drinks and other products with it.

The trouble is, stevia, or even the extract Reb A, are not glycemic in nature. But they are often combined with high-glycemic ingredients, which in turn do trigger an insulin response. Furthermore, these are all highly-processed, highly-refined food additives, which isn’t inherently bad (aspirin, for example, is a highly-refined extract of an ingredient in willow bark).  I bring it up only because some people, like myself, try to limit their intake of processed foods, and thus should steer clear of commercially available stevia products.

Some examples:

– Truvia, jointly developed by Cargill and Coca-Cola is a mixture of Reb A and erythritol.
– Stevia In The Raw contains dextrose, which is a GMO corn-based, high-glycemic, fast absorbing carbohydrate chemically identical to glucose. Consuming this product is therefore likely to trigger insulin response.  Misleading name, isn’t it?
– PureVia, which is PepsiCo’s stevia product, also contains a combination of dextrose and Reb A.
– There are also some stevia/sucrose blends (C&H has one) that are minimally nutritive (they have 5 calories a serving) available.

This information reveals that things are more complicated than the marketing of these products wants you to believe.  Dextrose is an extremely common food additive, and has been used to increase sweetness in everything from hot dog buns to candy. It is highly glycemic, and therefore has no place in a carb-restricted or ketogenic diet. On the other hand, erythritol, which has been considered safe by diabetics because it does not spike blood sugar (and thus trigger insulin release), is added to some stevia products.  At the same time, all of these sweeteners MAY trigger the brain-based insulin response, regardless of their caloric load or glycemic index.  The only way to know for sure how they will affect a person is to monitor glucose levels in real-time, which is difficult to do.

And in regards to food safety, consider this:  although the FDA, and the European equivalent, have approved stevia-based sweeteners, the only studies on the substance have been conducted by the corporations seeking its approval as a food additive.  (A classic FDA fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation.) Unfortunately, consumers will not know the long-term effects of commercial stevia product consumption for years, until independent scientists begin to test it.  In contrast, the artificial sweeteners are some of the most heavily studied substances in human history – aspartame alone has thousands of individual studies by countless international scientific organizations, and consensus overwhelmingly confirms its safety.

As for myself, I have experimented with making my own stevia infusions from dried leaves, and used it to sweeten beverages, but this has been in pursuit of finding something that tastes good, not examining its effects on metabolism.  For now, I have eliminated the kinds of foods that need sweetening from my default diet (except on cheat days, Hola Mexican Coke! ¿Que paso?), since the Slow Carb Diet is ketogenic in nature and demands both low glycemic and low insulinemic foods. I am not a caffeine addict, so I do not consume daily coffee or tea. This makes my life much easier, in that I don’t have to decide which sweetener to use. Beyond that, I do not eat processed foods, which eliminates yet another vector for sweeteners.

I’ve found tremendous benefits in avoiding sweets during the week, primarily to fight back against that psychological insulin response problem.  So far, I seem capable of limiting my consumption of sweet things to one day a week, and when I do, I eat real sugar.  I’m also finding that I simply don’t crave sweets anymore during the week.  I watch my children eat candy and drink soda, and I feel neither compelled to sample them, nor deprived.  I hope that lasts.  From past experience, elimination is the only way I can control it.  Indulging here and there leads to more indulgence, and I find myself on a path I regret.

The Slow Carb Diet – I take the plunge

At work, we’re doing a “Biggest Loser”-style weight loss competition. 90 days, $100 buy in, and the person who loses the highest percentage of total body weight pockets $1600. It’s no joke.

Although I fundamentally object to a weight loss competition that focuses on total percentage of weight lost, preferring, instead, to focus on total percentage of FAT lost, I still opted in. It’s a lot of money, and there’s a chance I will win. Money is a strong motivator for me, so now when I see something tempting, like, say, a cookie, I ask myself “is that cookie worth $1600″?  (Except on cheat days!)

The answer, of course, is no. My other hesitation has to do with my distinct LACK of effective weight loss over the past few months. Working out quite a bit, eating well, and total weight loss over 4 months has been about 10 pounds. According to the numbers, my lean muscle mass is staying constant – that’s awesome – but my fat loss is slow. So slow, in fact, that my trainer suggested I see my doctor because, in his words, “something isn’t right”.

I decided that I would give up alcohol and dairy for the 90 days, to see if it would contribute to my weight loss. It did! I lost six pounds in the first week! I was ecstatic, and figured I’d cracked the code…removing even an occasional glass of wine seemed to have been a breakthrough. But after the second week of the exact same plan, I lost…nothing. Not a single pound. I was annoyed.

So, last week I started something I had been considering for a while – Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet. Ferriss is a super smart guy, who does nothing without science to back him up. He’s famous for creating astonishing results with his own body, and with thousands of others who have followed his methods for rapid fat loss and rapid muscle gain.

His methods defy convention, but they are supposedly very effective. And every single one of them has been tested under doctor’s supervision, with rigorously scientific conditions. Sounded like a perfect thing for me.

This is week one of the SCD, since I am focused on fat loss. I intend to keep my exercise regime intact – I enjoy my morning workout (did I ever in my life think I’d say that?) and am not ready to abandon it for his recommended methods. For now, it’s about diet.

I am doing an orthodox version of it, keeping it as simple and as strict as I possibly can, being even more stringent in the foods I allow than he is (e.g. he allows 1-2 glasses of red wine per night – I am staying on the wagon for the time being).

I eat mostly organic eggs and chicken breast for protein. I have a grass fed rump roast currently aging in the fridge that I’ll roast up this week, to add some sorely missed beef into my life.

I eat pinto beans and black beans – made from scratch. God, homemade beans are so much better than canned beans. I also eat peas, lentils, and red kidney beans.

I eat a lot of spinach. A LOT of spinach. It’s good that I adore spinach, because it’s on the plan. I also eat tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers. When the asparagus in the stores starts looking better, I’ll be getting that in.

Olive oil is the only fat I use.  I’ll be getting some macadamia nut oil for variety (it’s better than olive oil, and supposedly tastier), and grass-fed butter.

I make my own salad dressings (olive oil, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard, and a small packet of stevia is my current “go to”).

And that’s it.

To put it in more dramatic terms: no soy, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, no fructose (fruit), no sugar. Sounds like hell, right?

It’s not.

Last week I dealt with a gnawing, almost desperate “hunger”, the kind that no amount of food could satisfy. I know this “hunger” well. I had it when I first started my new plan back in 2009. It lasted a month. A month of jonesing for carbs, for sugar, for greasy, fatty things I used to eat with shocking regularity. It wasn’t hunger. It was addiction. And it went away. I started eating smaller meals, because I got full faster, and I never had that desperate feeling again, until last week.  This time, though, it went away after five days. This weekend, I felt fantastic. I used to eat six small meals a day. I now eat four. The beans are helping with caloric load, and they help me feel full.

I’m not counting calories like I have been for the last few months (with no discernable benefit). The SCD says to eat as much as you want of the small list of foods. Each day, my meals get a little smaller.

And, stepping on the scale this morning, I lost eight pounds last week.  This is AMAZING, and I am thrilled beyond belief.  I feel like I’ve found my holy grail, and I’m wearing some pants I haven’t been able to fit into for about a year.