Depletion of Will Power

A great deal of my reading, both professionally and personally is in the area of ethics. Ethics is often described as “The study of ‘How should I live?’” It delves into issues of honesty, propriety, temptation, etc. It is fun when this interest sheds light on my own struggles with weight and food temptation. Don’t be surprised, because if it is unhealthy and harmful to eat to excess, then isn’t doing so unethical? If I should eat in moderation, then eating immoderately is to behave unethically.

One book I’ve been reading is Dan Ariely’s “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: Why we lie to everyone—especially ourselves.” It’s a fascinating look at honesty and the things that trip up our efforts to live as we believe we should. In a chapter I read this morning, Dan discusses Cognitive Depletion and its effect on temptation. It can be quite enlightening for those of us struggling with dietary temptations.

Just as a muscle can be worn out through use, our will power can be worn out through activity. We live stressful, tempting lives. All through our day we face temptations and make decisions. We exercise our will to overcome these temptations. Funny thing is we do this with all sorts of activities, not just our diet. We face decisions at work. Often there is a temptation to cut corners and we have to will ourselves to resist. We might face decisions on the road home and have to resist the temptation to react to other drivers. With each use of our will power ‘muscle’ it becomes depleted and by the end of the day we may find ourselves without the strength to overcome the next temptation. Often this “bridge too far” temptation is dietary. We know we shouldn’t have it. We know we will do better without it. We know we are healthier without it. However, we quickly find ourselves giving in to temptation and eating what we should not.

How can we overcome this? There are a couple ways. If you can manage your day to have the most stressful events in the morning or right after breaks when you are refreshed, this might help. But let’s be honest, if stress could so easily be managed we wouldn’t really be stressed, now would we? A better way is to be aware of what is going on. Be aware that after stressful times temptations take on new dimensions and what was once easy to overcome becomes harder. Prepare for this beforehand. For example, you can empty the tempting foods out of your house. Remove the sweets, the chocolates and the ice cream. Don’t keep them around to tempt. Perhaps you should remove the Pizza place’s magnet from your refrigerator door so you don’t get tempted to just dial up a large with everything—including double guilt. Keep a selection of healthy options quickly available so the choice is made beforehand. If you find it difficult to pass by a certain restaurant then on stressful days you may need to drive home a different way.

One of the best defenses is being able to recognize a problem coming on. Highly stressful days with lots of choices can deplete your ability to make good decisions. Be prepared. The good thing, also like a muscle, as you overcome temptations and get used to eating healthy it can become easier to make those good choices over time. However, it is unlikely you will ever be beyond the siren call of certain foods and free of any and every temptation. So make a plan and keep an eye out on those really stressful days.

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New Weight and an Italian Dinner

IMG_20141017_075717I haven’t posted anything in a while on the blog. I haven’t gotten bored, neither have I given up, nor have I “fallen off the wagon.” Things have been pretty busy career wise, and I’ve had to put more emphasis in some new directions there—which leaves less time for other endeavors. Of course, one of the biggest improvements to my career has been losing weight. I now have the energy to match my drive giving new joy from my work.

There are several differences over the last few weeks. As I said before, I transitioned off my earlier program onto a different one because my goals have changed from losing weight to building muscle in order to impact my lean mass to fat ratio from the other side.

I’m on what Roman Malkov calls a macrocycling rotation in his book The Carb Cycling Diet. This means I am doing more than one day a week working to build muscle. One or fewer days per week on weight-lifting (a regiment concentrating on weight loss and cardio) is referred to as microcycling.

Here is what I’m doing now:

Monday: Weights—high resistance, low repetitions; higher carb; higher calorie.

Tuesday: Cardio—one hour on the treadmill; low carb; low calorie.

Wednesday: Weights—high resistance, low repetitions; higher carb; higher calorie.

Thursday: Cardio—pool workout; low carb; low calorie.

Friday: Weights—highest resistance, low repetitions; higher carb; higher calorie.

Saturday: Rest—no cardio or weights; moderate carb; moderate calorie.

Sunday: Rest—no cardio or weights; moderate carb; moderate calorie.

Each day I have a protein shake for a meal replacement and on weight lifting days I have two. I still eat six times a day and try to get half my body weight in ounces of water per day.

The scale results are not nearly as impressive as they were on Take Shape for Life and Medifast, but I am looking for different results. My weight is down to 262 lbs. This is a loss of about 4 lbs. over the last month. It’s about 10 or 12 lbs. under the rebound weight that I recorded shortly after changing over. My most important measurements are with the tape. My waist is down two inches and my chest is up about 3 inches. The other day my daughter asked me to print something for her on my computer. I sat down at the desk without a shirt with her standing over me. She looked down and said, “Dad, your abdomen goes down straight from your chest while seated and I can see the muscles in your shoulders.” She was shocked. She didn’t know me as a young soldier—she was born after I got out of the Army and had gained a ton of weight. She had always seen me fat, and was shocked at the transformation.

Keep in mind that transformation is the goal. If the need is to transform the numbers on the scale then concentrate on those. If the goal is other transformations then don’t get worked up over scale results.

I want to share some lessons gleaned from the book Mindless Eating, which I’ve referenced here before. On my weight lifting days I get higher carbs, and can even allow myself carbs that I would previously have passed on. My wife and I love Italian food. One day, a weight lifting day, I decided to take her out to an Italian restaurant—a treat I hadn’t allowed myself in months. I won’t name the restaurant, since they aren’t paying me.

Restaurant meals are usually larger portions than anyone actually needs—unless you are eating at one of the pretentious, sanctimonious, hoity-toity eateries, which my wife and I wouldn’t be caught dead in. Besides large portions, the restaurant we went to, like most, would serve in courses, so I would make decisions about multiple courses. Thanks to Mindless Eating, I’ve started doing such meals like this:

The meal would include several course options:

Bread

Beverage (Could be alcoholic, or sweet, or neither)

Appetizer

Salad (Keep the dressing in mind)

Entre (high carb, or low)

Dessert (Sweets, fruit, etc.)

Mindless Eating recommends you take such a list and pick three or four. I did a form of this, but adjusted volumes and options by carb content of each choice.

I would only consider Italian food on a high carb day, but I still had to watch it. Carbs would be the driving force behind my choices. My entre was going to be higher carb—we had already decided to split a pasta dish. This meal would give me more carbs, but splitting it with my wife kept the carbs and calories down. One point on pasta: from what I’ve read, if cooked properly pasta has a lower glycemic index than other wheat products because ungelatinized starches are trapped in a web of gluten if cooked al dente. While the GI is low, one still has to keep down the amount to avoid a high glycemic load.

Since my meal was higher carb (and contained wheat) I decided to have no bread. I also chose to refrain from an appetizer because all of the options were breaded and fried. I also did this so I could have a bit more freedom on my choice of salad dressing—I wanted Ranch, and some places add sugar to it. I also wanted to allow myself to have a few of the croutons with my salad.

For beverage, I chose unsweetened tea (my go-to drink in restaurants). Had it been later in the day, I might have had a vinaigrette dressing and ordered a glass of wine. The alcohol can disrupt the system as it switches from burning fat to metabolizing the alcohol to clear it from the system. However, once the alcohol is clear it quickly returns to burning fat. Like most things moderation is called for, but when trying to lose weight moderation usually means abstaining. You make the choice. Now, if I were on a low carb day, wine would not have even been an option, but of course we would not have considered Italian food either. On weight lifting days I am not trying to burn fat or lose weight. On those days I’m trying to build muscle. However, keep in mind that even on those days excessive alcohol can be a problem because your system uses testosterone and Human Growth Hormone in the muscle building process and excessive alcohol can reduce testosterone production—sucks huh? Allowing yourself a glass of wine is one thing. Allowing yourself a bottle of wine is totally different.

Some might look at this and think, “That’s just too much to think about!” The point is that one of the biggest problems with our health is eating with little or no thought. If we just eat without any thought we eat too much, too often, too imbalanced and just too wrong. That might be acceptable if you have the health and metabolism to handle it. The problem is that when we get out of balance and our health deteriorates thoughtless eating just makes things worse.

Slaying the Scale Monster!

The scale can be a real monster sometimes. Using it to know where you are and if you are going in the right direction is helpful. However, it can also be a real kick in the shorts when you are sure everything is doing well, you step on the scale and it attacks—giving you a number far above what you expected. It is hard to not get worried. There are so many things that can cause a scale fluctuation—inflammation, dehydration, etc. But one can still get quite scared and even emotional when that scale doesn’t say what you want it to say.

To prevent this, you can weigh infrequently. Rather than weighing every day you could pick a day of the week to weigh. If that day, you happen to be in a small scale fluctuation it is likely to be after a week of weight change so even a number higher than it should be will be welcome. This is a good method when doing the same thing over a period of months and you are confident it works. When you are weighing like this, you aren’t trying to figure out if your plan is working. You are just checking to see where you are. This isn’t as helpful when transitioning or changing things up. During these times, it may be necessary to weigh every day—as I have been doing over the last few weeks.

Recently, I transitioned over from trying to lose the maximum amount of weight in the shortest possible time, to trying to build muscle. I reached one goal and now have set another different one. Because of this I transitioned over from MediFast on the Take Shape for Life program (which saved my life and set me on a good path), to using Carb Cycling with a combination of weight and cardio days. Unlike the earlier program, in which everything was so well laid out and easy to follow, the new program takes a lot of study, practice and learning to know what to do. This means there are more chances of screwing up. Since this program means eating more carbs, and I have a history of carb cravings, there is a great deal of apprehension when adding in new things, and watching the scale helps to tell if I am going the right direction, and weighing each day has become part of this.

To handle this I adopted a practice similar to a skill learned in the Army. In the Army I served as an Infantryman for eight years. One skill that you learn is calling in artillery on a target. Artillery is an area target, meaning that you aren’t trying to hit a target on the nose. You are trying to get a special projectile within a certain distance of a target (within the effective area). In the days before laser guided and smart munitions, you began by calling in initial coordinates; then, the gun bunnies fire a shell; the observer sees where it hits, calls in corrections and then another shell is fired. The observer tries to walk the shell impact onto the target with a technique known as bracketing. For example, the first shell lands 100 yards north of the target. Call in a correction and the next shell lands 100 yards south of the target. Correct the next shell back to the north for 50 yards and see if it hits.

When I use the scale I have an area that is acceptable: “If I weight between A and B, then everything is fine.” I also want this area to slowly move down. I notice over time that the lower number of my acceptable range slides down and the upper number is lower and lower. This way, scale fluctuations are built into the expectation. If I am supposed to weigh 260, then anything between 255 and 265 is acceptable. Slowly over time this becomes 250 to 260. For some it might be a ten pound spread. For others it might be five.

In my new program, big week to week changes in the scale just don’t happen—this really makes me miss being on the full TSFL program. Seeing that big drop of pounds each week was nice. However, my goal now is muscle building and changing my body fat percentage by both reducing fat and raising lean mass. One thing that helps to monitor now, is regular tape measuring. For example, my weight hasn’t changed much over the last three weeks. However, my clothes are loose. My muscles seem to be tightening. In my arms and legs I can start to see some new definition. Now I still weight regularly, but I find a tape measure a far more useful tool. Besides measuring various locations, I like to give myself regular tape tests. I use the military tape test because it is the easiest. I know it is not the most accurate, but it gives me a good picture of direction and change that the scale may not see. I found an app for my phone so I simply enter the measurements and it gives me my range.

Even though my scale hasn’t registered any big changes—just a very gradual movement—the tape shows a different story. According the tape I am now out of the obese range and into the acceptable range. This means I am not yet “fit” but would pass a military tape test. That is progress. If you are working and working but not seeing change where you expect then look somewhere else. Are the scales not moving? Well, are your clothes looser? Are your body dimensions changing? Have things disappeared? For example, one day it seemed I wasn’t making progress until it dawned on me that my “moobs” were gone. Yesterday, I realized my “love handles” were gone. One day I looked down and realized I could see the bones in my knees. The fat that usually surrounded them was just not there.

There are health targets to shoot for other than numbers on a scale.

Emotional Eating

Before I started this journey, my doctor recommended meds to encourage weight loss. I have always been one who disliked being dependent on anything, especially something that come from a pill bottle that will almost always have unwanted side effects. Because of this, I asked him, “What does the medicine do?” He said it would reduce my appetite to help me be less hungry, reducing the amount eaten and lowering weight. I pointed out that I knew myself well enough to realize that my problem wasn’t eating when hungry. My problem was eating when not hungry. Even when starting a meal because of hunger, I seldom stopped when no longer hungry. I asked, “What will the medicine do for this eating problem?” He responded that it would be useless and that the only thing to help me would understanding why I was eating. This is why I declined the meds and eventually found a way to lose weight naturally. Many people use food, not to assuage hunger, but to soothe their emotions, or to cover other needs.

Recently I’ve been reading Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. The book has been very informative and I have put several things to practice. The author shares some guidance on emotional eating from the book Think Thin, Be Thin. Many of us think we are hungry, when we actually have some emotion inspiring us to eat. Many find it hard to tell the difference. The following list (from the book) shows information on each and offers a way to know if hunger or emotion is driving you to eat:

Physical Hunger Emotional Hunger
Builds gradually Develops Suddenly
Strikes below the neck (e.g., growling stomach) Above the neck (e.g., a “taste” for ice cream)
Occurs several hours after a meal Unrelated to time
Goes away when full Persists despite fullness
Eating leads to a feeling of satisfaction Eating leads to guilt and shame

Eating is supposed to nourish the body and encourage health. It cannot medicate other problems and should not be used as a poultice applied to every hurt feeling or every bad mood.

Battle of the Buffet

Last night my wife and I went to a restaurant we have frequented for years. Raising kids on a limited pastoral salary meant learning to economize. One way to do this was to eat at buffets like Country Buffet or Golden Corral. This gave everyone a wide selection of their favorites and we could be sure everyone would get plenty.

A problem though is the difficulty with overeating. Being on a weight loss and health journey, meant either not going, or finding tools and techniques to help. In the past I have worked hard to only eat what was allowed and quantities that were appropriate. Avoiding carbs was always pretty easy. However, it was not uncommon to find at the end of the meal that I had consumed more meat than I should have. Also, to avoid having too much often required white knuckling it through the last few minutes of the meal—resisting temptation while waiting for my wife to finish her latest plate.

While in the past I’ve found personal techniques and tools to help get through such situations, lately I’ve been reading Brian Wasink’s book Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. It’s been a fascinating read and is filled with suggestions and tools to help with changing our eating habits. The book talks about the reasons we overeat and the things which contribute to this, though most of us may be totally unaware of them.

Rather than sharing all of the ideas, I’ll concentrate on ones I used at the buffet. When going, I have learned to start with a salad. In the past my usual plan was “eat the meat and dessert first, then if there is room pass slowly by the salad on the way to seconds on sweets.” Now I make myself a fair sized salad first and finish it. This gives me my greens and I work hard to keep it low carb—as low carb as possible. This time, inspired by my recent reading, I started with two differences: (1) I took time to talk to my wife and ask her questions about her day. Over the many years of being married we spent so much time monitoring the kids we got used to not really conversing when eating. Talking slowed me down and turned my focus off of shoveling food into my mouth. However, do not just mindlessly eat while talking. Before you know it you will have overeaten without paying attention. Instead, from time to time, put down your fork or spoon and talk for a few moments. Then return to your food. (2) I ate my salad slowly while talking to slow down, but also stopped after the salad and waited five minutes before getting my entre. This gave my body and mind time to register the eating and to sense that though my hunger was not satiated it was lessoned. Since it takes about twenty minutes for our mind to recognize satiety, this gave my mind time to catch up to what was happening in my body.

After my salad and the short break between courses, before getting my entre I walked through the buffet area, without a plate, looking at all the foods to decide what I wanted and what I could or should have. I had already decided before going in that I was going to allow myself more carbs, because today was a weightlifting day. My body needs more calories and more carbs on lifting days because material and energy are needed for building muscle. However, I was going to avoid the simple sugars, grains, fried foods and starchy foods. I looked for everything that offered protein, but was not breaded or fried: roast chicken, broiled fish, etc. I also looked for foods that offered more complex carbs: sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, etc. Then there was low carb greens, like broccoli. No bread, no pasta and no other grain products would be allowed. So, without a plate I walked through thinking, “I can have that, but not that. I could have that but should avoid it because I already had X today. That will be OK, but should be limited. A nice side benefit was that this slowed down my eating more. With my plan and decisions made beforehand, I grabbed a plate and went back through grabbing the foods I’d already selected.

After that plate was finished, I sat for a few minutes talking to my wife and having a decaf coffee. It was then that it struck me that I didn’t want anything else to eat—my hunger was fully satisfied, but I was not stuffed. Also, by doing it this way, I didn’t have to sit there telling myself “I must not have more; I must not have more.” I didn’t want more.

So, here are my steps for dealing with the buffet:

  1. Start with salad.
  2. Eat slowly, by enjoying the company of others—occasionally put down the fork and talk.
  3. Wait between refills to give time for the brain to sense the body’s sensations.
  4. Browse through the buffet foods without a plate to prepare a plan of action.
  5. Get only the foods you planned in the amounts you planned.
  6. Repeat step 2.
  7. If still wanting more, repeat step 3, then reevaluate.

Changing Relationships Through Changing Self

Since losing so much weight, my personal interactions have changed. People seem to smile more, approach me more and want to interact more. While it is easy to assume that this is because they “like” me better now that I am lighter, that assumption would actually be too easy. There are several possible reasons for such an experience, some external, some internal, but all positive.

First off, it is possible that some find it hard to be friends with someone weighing over four hundred pounds, as I was. There are those who are repulsed by such people. I know, because I’ve had people tell me my weight repulsed them. Because of this I know some in the past may have been unable to be friendly with me. In that case, reducing my weight so that I do not repulse is a good thing—especially for someone whose calling in life involves trying to attract people to a faith community. Being overweight handicapped my career for years. It got in the way of personal interactions, because some people would be repulsed by my weight. I even had one couple tell me they were leaving our church because I was so fat. Now, don’t feel I am being too harsh with myself and try to make me feel better about how heavy I was. It was understanding exactly what I had done to myself that inspired me to work so hard to lose the weight. It was the problems my weight caused me professionally and personally that caused me to really want to get rid of it. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” This includes painful truth—actually painful truth is probably the most freeing truth out there.

Another issue that weight can cause on a professional level is that it can be hard to take an overweight person seriously. Discipline, self-denial and energy are important professional qualities. When one wears their lack of discipline and self-denial on their face and frame, as every overweight person does, it can be hard to take them seriously. How can one believe you will deny yourself and discipline yourself enough to act in a professional way, if you will not deny yourself and discipline yourself enough to not eat too much? Or to exercise enough? I know that one thing helping me in some professional relationships is seeing that I went from 425 lbs. to 260 lbs. in a few months. This is an obvious and undeniable act of discipline and self-denial. It would have been far easier to just keep eating myself to death. Please don’t see this as a boast. I had a lot of help and over twenty years of self-loathing to inspire me. I am simply expressing what others have said to me. It is also simple truth that we know another person’s ability for discipline and self-denial by seeing examples of it. The obvious examples of failing in this area are what speak loudest. Often our weight can be the loudest proclamation others “hear” about us. Losing weight allows others to take us seriously. “If you can exercise that level of self-control in such a difficult area, what are you capable of in other areas?”

The previous thoughts all touched on the effect of weight loss on other’s perception of you. However, there are also internal reasons for a difference in relationships that are impacted by weight. The biggest would have to be self-image. I am a very outgoing, and very friendly person. I love to talk, to laugh, to tell jokes and stories. Actually, being a Texan means I have a license to stretch the truth into any form I want so long as it makes for a better story. It is a skill learned at the feet of our elders, and as such is an honored practice to be honed to perfection. However, over the years, as my weight ballooned higher and higher I found friendly interactions harder. When you do not take yourself seriously and cannot see yourself as anything but repulsive it is hard to interact with others. You find yourself wondering what that person must be thinking of you. You find yourself questioning that person’s motives for every action. This problem then works itself out in your actions and expressions. You often hear that animals can smell fear. Well, humans are pack animals used to interacting in very subtle ways. We give facial, pheromone, and body language clues even when we do not speak. Then when we open our mouths we give clues with speech cadence, pitch, tone, and voice that share how confident we feel (or do not feel). These spring naturally from our self-image. For example, some studies show that when two males converse, the voice of the more dominant will deepen and the voice of the more submissive will rise. This is unconscious and deeply ingrained. Even picking up on the difference is automatic—even the youngest children respond without knowing why.

This means that much of my perception of problems with personal and professional interactions when overweight sprang from my own self-perception. One, it would cause me to question the response of the other person—which only served to reinforce that negative self-image. It would also cause me to speak and act in ways that reinforced their poor image of me. Losing weight has caused me to see myself very differently. This causes me to respond differently to others—which is really responding to my own self-image.

Losing weight can radically change personal and professional interactions. These interactions and relationships are part of human health. Having a healthy body helps to have healthy relationships. You will be taken more seriously. You will be seen as self-disciplined. You will project a different image to others. You will project this different image because you will be different. Don’t wait. Start now to transform yourself and your future. Do it for yourself, but also do it for the impact you can have on the lives of other people. I am sure you have something positive to add to the lives of those around you. By losing weight you give them more reason to listen and give yourself more opportunities to speak into their lives.