[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a personal letter to Almost Fitreaders, both long-time friends and new acquaintances. I will be posting a "Best Of" article shortly, but I think you'll agree that this letter was already plenty long enough. Thanks for reading, and thank you for hanging in there with me in my recent absence. UPDATE: I dozed off last night, so this is now a Saturday post. A day late - but that's what you get for blog dollars ]
Tonight is the one year anniversary of a mild obsession: testing whether eating real food in moderation can actually work to lose weight and achieve better health.
And the principle corollary: Is it possible to live moderately in a culture of excess?
No low fat this or low carb that (both of which I had previously tried, exhaustively, to no permanent success); just eating real, whole, and at times decadent, foods - the key of course being to keep the quantities in check.
Before I get started, let me just say that it’s been a long day; I slept about 3 hours last night before heading out at 5AM for a 4 hour drive to Seattle for a business meeting at 9, and then turned around several hours later to drive 3 1/2 hours back home (don’t ask me where the missing 1/2 hour went). I’m admittedly exhausted, but some things simply cannot wait, things for which any devoted writer knows sleep deprivation is no match.
In honor of this anniversary I am sitting down with my laptop and a stiff margarita - ice, fresh squeezed lime juice and a healthy dose of tequila - evaluating as honestly as I can whether this year’s changes have been worth the effort. So if things get a little squirelly, you’ll know why.
Where did I start?
It has been 365 days since my first post on Almost Fit (” Welcome to Almost Fit - Almost Who? “). So what have I learned through this first year? Am I miraculously thin as a result of this “revolutionary” idea of eating less (hmm…eat less to lose weight? What?) ? Have I left all of my old bad habits for good, happy to eat only truly local, sustainable, whole foods, perhaps donning hemp shoes and opting not to shower for weeks on end? The truth is, if you ask my pants, not only will they stare back at you blankly, but inside they will concur - I’m certainly not thin - not yet - and I don’t own any hemp shoes. That said, this year has marked some of the biggest changes in my diet, how I feel about food on an emotional level, how I feel about taking social responsibility for what I eat, and what I expect from this approach.
A year ago to the day, here’s what I had to say about my condition. At the time, I was:
Some things have not changed, including:
Over the previous 6 years, I had been steadily gaining weight despite a lot of boxes of low fat cookies, losing weight and gaining it back thanks to South Beach, Oprah’s diet guy, and just about every chemical product or supplement that the food industry could throw in the feed trough. I ate it up, and it showed. I was gaining an average ofnearly 10 lbs each and every year - even having run my first 10k race and a 1/2 marathon in the 5th year. That’s right: 6 years and 60 lbs later. And quite frankly, with no end in sight, other than the one that wasn’t fitting in the mirror.
Perhaps more importantly, when I started this experiment there was one very large fear on my mind: I was staring into the headlights of all sorts of health complications with which I was all but guaranteed to collide. I felt strongly that if I continued on the path I was on, I would certainly be setting myself up for blood sugar management and degenerative cardiovascular problems that go hand-in-hand with my family history. These elements, I am convinced, always loom in my DNA, but their onset is sped up rapidly by poor diet and lack of exercise. Sounds like common sense to me. Ultimately my hope is that doing what I can will help me to outlast the diseases until science finds a reasonable solution.
Where I’m at today
Here’s the short answer: For the year, I’ve lost 22 lbs (as much as 27 before the holiday season - more on that in a bit). And equally as important, I have not gained the 10+ lbs that I was on track to add, if history was any indicator. I’ve also had some pretty big challenges over the last few months, but those are finally starting to settle down.
So in a sense, you could say that all in all I’m down 32 lbs from where I would have been, but I’m choosing to only view it as 22 lbs down for the year. And how do I feel about that? Is that enough for a year? What did I learn? And where am I going with it?
10 things I’ve learned from a year of moderation
Changing my diet to real, whole foods has been a learning experience to say the least. Some successes, some failures, and some revelations. Here’s a list of things that seem clear to me after a year of giving this a shot.
1. It is hard to learn to NOT diet, if you are a career dieter. Since my early teens I had been off and on dieting, buying into the low fat/nonfat craze that swept my generation (and ultimately did not work), trying things like diet shakes, diet vitamin pills, and every edible diet product out there. None of them worked in the long run, and most of them tasted like cardboard with a Xylene chaser. But more importantly, it is the cycle of dieting that I had to break. When I would lose weight, I found that my strong inclination was to essentially starve myself trying to speed up the process, because that always worked before. On a diet of rich foods in moderation, it does NOT work, at least not for me.
2. Dietary choices do not have to be a “religious” choice. In the course of changing my thinking on food, I’ve had to work hard to overcome the desire to “preach” about it in polarized right and wrong terms. When you start to make food decisions based on social or moral principles, it can be easy to come off as judging others who don’t make the same choices. And while I know I certainly do that from time to time here, on my site, in person I have worked hard to avoid sounding too preachy, or even condemnatory of others. And I’m comfortable with that; after all, if you don’t care to hear it on a blog, you are free to move onto something else that resonates. When it comes to food, sometimes changing our dietary habits can become like we’re signing up for a “food religion”, requiring exclusive devotion, evangelism, and the use of “sin” or “guilt-free” metaphors. I don’t think this is necessary, and I’d like to think I’ve proven that over the span of this year. But it required a conscious effort, and learning from a mistake or two.
3. Just because you eat good food doesn’t mean you end cravings for “bad” food. My wife has never been much of a junk food eater - she has always eaten well thanks to some deep rooted family dietary traditions, her thoughtfulness and intelligence, and just plain good taste. So for folks like her, she has a hard time understanding why a KFC commercial would make me want something that makes me feel ill. ME on the other hand…I still, to this day, crave fast food when I see ads for it. Still. Even after a year primarily without. Do I feel bad about that? No. Do I act on it anymore? Almost never, but on occasion, in a pinch, I have succumbed to convenience. So just because I eat decadent cheeses and chocolates does not negate a lifetime of dietary bad habits. It took 30+ years of eating fast food and high fructose corn syrup to get here; it’s not going to change overnight.
4. Overeating is a cultural norm that is beatable - but it’s not easy. On whole, my opinion of our American cultural eating habits is in general, we simply eat too much, and thanks to multibillion dollar efforts of food manufacturers, the wrong things (there I go preaching again). Abundance and immediate availability have led us to consider as normal a portion size that several generations ago would have been considered enough for two or three. It takes real effort to ignore the sense of “this enormous plate is what everybody eats” both in the home and on the town, but it’s possible.
5. Exercise continues to be my weakest link. I openly admit that I am a fair weather runner these days - and even when the winter weather is fair, I seem to find it enormously difficult to get out and really get going. This, I must fix, in part because in life, eating moderately does not always happen. But more importantly because I am better off mentally and physically when I’m engrossed in a regular exercise routine.
6. I have to be OK with slow progress, lest I go mental. Like most of us, I want my weight to be ideal immediately - so when it starts working, I often fall into the “no pain no gain” mindset, where losing weight becomes less about eating right and more about a controlled experiment in denial, pain tolerance, and endurance until the trial is over. In other words, I tend to get a little nuts about it, ultimately to my own detriment. 22 lbs for the year should be a great number, but I struggle even still with the idea that I wanted that to be 50. I still have work to do.
7. I am an emotional eater - this I know. Eating is my response to happiness, sadness, stress, and especially frustration. When I get upset, I go for the cupboards. This too requires additional work. Thankfully there are many folks ahead of me in solving this one, and I think with some education I will beat this.
8. It is possible, though not always fun, to sense 80% full. I am pretty sure that I have yet to do a detailed post on this (hari hachi bu, specifically), but I have read numerous comments on other blogs that suggest that you can’t really know what 80% full feels like, so why try? Well I disagree based on my own experience. I know what it feels like; I just don’t always like it. But it is tangible, and it does work - it just requires retraining a mind that is conditioned to get pleasure and emotional satisfaction from overeating.
9. Eating well requires preparation and time - and believe it or not, not necessarily more money. This subject has been a big question surrounding the suggestions of folks like Michael Pollan that we should all eat better quality food than most of us typically do. While I concede that for some, this is definitely going to be more expensive, I’ve found over this year that you can trade off the cost by using additional time. And in many cases, that additional time is only a perception. It often does not take longer at all; we just think it does. It DOES however require a little more effort and some planning. But we’ve actually saved money this year by eating well.
10. The more you know about where your food comes from, the better you eat. That said, sometimes that rule goes out the window. In general, focusing on education as a means of motivation has worked. When I go to the grocery store, I really do put things back on the shelf if they are made or grown outside the U.S., and often if they’re not from the states in my immediate region. I also avoid anything with ingredients I don’t recognize, and especially foods with chemical additives that I DO recognize, like HFCS. I never eat diet processed foods, and I have worked for the past year to find locally grown or raised alternatives with great success.
All that said, there are certainly times when I make exceptions to eating seasonally and locally. Coffee being a prime example. We don’t have shade grown coffee as a native crop here in the Pacific Northwest (at least not as far as I know), but I still drink it. And I think that is OK. Like I said, it’s not a religion; it’s choosing to live moderately and, I think, reasonably.
Biggest lesson of all
If I step away from the minutia of eating real food in moderation, the biggest lesson I’ve learned I think is this:
Life circumstances, like it or not, help to determine the success or failure in changing your diet. And despite what the gym Nazis may tell you, that is OK.
When I started Almost Fit, I was in a good place. I had a reasonably stable job; our second child was approaching the 1-yr mark (which meant better sleep); I was and continue to be married to a wonderfully supportive and knowledgeable mate who shares a passion for food; I found an online community of support; I live in a region of the country that leads the way in sustainable food practices; and maybe most importantly I was mentally ready to commit.
I started off in a very good position, and made great progress. I was running much more, and eating very purposefully. But as life has a way of doing, things changed later in the year. Most notably when a) I quit my job and then the economy tanked (coincidence? ), and b) I started a new job as a response to the first point, and c) we had an unexpected death in the family. Over the last few months I have not exercised to any great degree, and my eating habits have slipped. In particular, when I was on a 2-week business trip in November, I definitely succumbed to old eating habits including some really awful fast food choices. I also chronically over-ate at family gatherings, which was rather mindless at the time, but shows on the scale.
January on the other hand, feels like things are finally getting back to normal. I feel the original zeal I had starting to return, and a much stronger awareness of making time to eat better. We shall see.
With that in mind, I have definitely met numerous folks this year that are simply not in this zone. They are nowhere near the mindset that is ready to make changes like this. But you know, That is truly OK. I feel now that if you’re not ready, there is no forcing it. You’ve got to have the circumstances to make it happen, whether that means you create them or you stumble into them. Either way, we often get the message of “there’s no time like the present” to make life changes. Well I disagree with that too. If you don’t have the circumstances, and do not have the power to change that, then now is NOT The time to start. That would work if this were a temporary fix; but it’s not. If you want life changes, do it when life gives you the best chance of succeeding.
Anybody who says different is likely selling something.
Where am I going with all this?
This last year has proved the old cliche: The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s been a great first year at Almost Fit. I’ve met literally hundreds of people who impress me to no end with their desire to do whatever they can do to improve not only their own health and circumstance, but the world around them. I’ve exchanged numerous emails and rounds of comments with people I never would have had the pleasure of engaging were it not for this site, or the choices I’ve made. And for these things, I am grateful.
So what are my goals this year? What am I changing?
You’ll have to wait until another post, coming very soon, to find out.
Thank you, and the very best to you,