Actions work where Magic fails

magic-hatThis recent New Year’s Day I found myself thinking about the mindset behind the celebrations. Why do people expend so much energy and emotion celebrating the changing of the page on a calendar? We get so worked up and excited because the imaginary numbers with which we mark the earth’s solar circuit has a new final digit.

The usual inspiration for the celebrations is two part: (1) relief that we made it through another year, and (2) anticipation that we will do more in the next year than just make it through. “We survived this year, hoorah!” “We’ll do more in the next year than in this, hoorah!”

But will this be anything more than an empty celebration? Anything more than an exercise in silliness and futility? The only reason to bother celebrating the changing of the year is to actually make January 1st and beyond differ from December 31st and before. This only happens if you make it happen.

Many people make New Year’s resolutions. These resolutions are so commonly made and commonly broken that it is a running cultural joke. People may resolve to be a better person, a better parent, a better (fill in the blank). These can be defined in various ways. Some may see being a better person as being a lighter one who has lost weight. Some may define it as being someone who does not have a certain bad habit, like smoking or drinking. After a few days, they lose their resolve and go back to being what they always were. The problem is not the definitions. The problem is that we forget the importance and power of the word “be.”

This “be” is a form of the phrase “am/are/is.” When I tell you “I am so-and-so” it means the qualities that define the ‘so-and-so’ define me. They define me in the same way and to the same extent that they define the ‘so-and-so.’ When we say I will be something, it means the characteristics that describe the something will equally, and in the same way describe me. The “I will” makes it future tense—something that is going to happen. It is a way of saying, those characteristics will define me someday, though they may not define me at present. But this statement can be either wishful thinking or a statement of intent. If it is wishful—they will hopefully define me someday—then it is not going to happen, unless you believe you will be transformed magically into a better, skinnier, wealthier, happier you.

To actually change, the “will be” has to become the “am.” I have to take the future tense and move it to the present. This only happens if you take intentional action to make it happen. You have to change the qualities that define you. To do this you have to know those qualities, what they look like, and how they compare to your current qualities. If you want to be skinnier, then you have to know what a skinny person does (how they eat, how they exercise, etc.) then do those things. If you want to be financially secure you have to know what financially secure people do (what they spend their money on, how they make a living, etc.). If you want to be a better parent, then you have to know what good parents do.

Once you know the target qualities, you have to take an honest inventory of your own qualities and see where you fall short. If a skinny person eats lower carb, lower fat and lower calories each day than you do, then you have to change the way you eat. If a skinny person works out more than you do, then you will have to get off the couch. If a financially secure person spends less than they make, but you spend more than you make, then you have to change either your income or your spending habits. The same is true of any change you want to make.

This is why resolutions fail. They are too often grounded in magical thinking—“Saying I am going to be (fill in the blank) transforms me into that.” No, it doesn’t! If you want to actually change in the New Year, the first thing to change is the reliance on magical thinking. Understand that positive changes only follow intentional positive actions. Yes, those actions begin as positive thinking, but the thinking must inspire action. Until the action happens, no change is possible—neither will it ever be possible until you take action.

If you made a resolution take out a sheet of paper and write it down. Think about the goal (happier, skinnier, nicer, wealthier you). On one side of the page write down qualities that define that goal and on the other side write down your qualities that do not match up. For example if you want to be thinner, perhaps on one side you write, “A thinner person exercises regularly.” Across from this you may write, “I don’t exercise regularly.” Now you have a list of change you must make to transform yourself.

Once you have the list of necessary changes, it’s time to decide how to make those changes. For example, a financially secure person spends less than they make. If you spend more than you make, but your goal is to be more financially secure, then you have to change this. You have to look at your own life, understand the only options are spend less or make more. You have to decide which is possible for you. It’s the same with losing weight. If I want to lose weight, I either have to burn more calories and carbs through activity or reduce the amount that go into my body. There are no magical options!

You can either waste time making meaningless resolutions, or you can act upon them and make real changes to your life. The choice is yours.

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Looking Back While Thinking Ahead

New me, old pants

New me, old pants

Well, today is December 31, the last day of 2014. While I didn’t start my quest for a healthier me on New Year’s Day, it has defined most of my year. For this reason, I thought no other picture was as illustrative of the past year as one of today’s me wearing my old pants from this time last year. The waist is 54 inches (and not the largest I’ve had to wear). I now wear a waist size of 38.

I’m still working on building lean mass with weight training. Funny thing is, I find I have a problem unlike any I’ve previously experienced. I am having a hard time eating enough to fuel the gains. I find myself either unable or unwilling to eat enough. Part of this is because my tastes have changed—as have my normal volumes. Another part is because, while I want to have the gains, it is normal for those building muscle to also put on some extra fat. Body builders alternate gaining and cutting routines, where they go through a time putting on muscle and then switch up to burn off the fat that accrues. While I am not Body Building, I have to keep this in mind. The problem for me is twofold. One, losing fat is far harder than putting it on. I don’t want to go back to struggling to take off a fresh layer of fat. I already have some to lose once I build up. I switched over to building, not because I was down to my body mass goal, but to approach the goal from the lean side for a while. I’ve always planned to go back and finish the fat burning process afterwards. The second part of the problem is that I am an old acquaintance of carb craving and insulin resistance. I don’t want to undo any of the chemical balances I’ve worked so hard to maintain.

This concern has brought on a different form of obsessing. I was warned that I would likely see an increase in the scale numbers with weight training as I increase muscle mass. I know this is natural, and inevitable. Muscle weighs more than fat, so as I put on more—even if a bit of fat is consumed in the process—I will go heavier on the scale. Also, the different hormones involved in each process—anabolic for growth and catabolic for fat burning—can swing the scale while keeping one from losing much fat while building muscle. I don’t pretend to understand all of this—I’m still learning—but I am trying to get a grip on it. However, even knowing this, it feels a bit discomfiting to see the scale edge back up to around 270 lbs. I plan to give myself one more month on weights and then switch back to a cycle mixing cardio/low carb days with weights/regular carb days. After a few weeks there, I’ll lay aside the weights (other than for maintenance) and switch to all cardio/low carb for a few weeks to burn fat and try to hit my final goal by Easter 2015.

It’s been an interesting year where I have come to know more about myself. I also at times find myself saddened by all the years of ill-health and lack of energy suffered due to undisciplined eating. I try not to imagine the things I could have accomplished if I had protected my health from an earlier age. But, this is no time for regrets. I am quite happy with the transformation, thus far.

Health Horror on the Holidays!

The holidays are a major cause of diet failure. Various studies confirm that people tend to gain weight over the holidays. One study I found cited an average of 1 lb. for the season, and one study went as high as 5 lbs. on average. I’ve experienced it myself in the past. Ten years ago I lost a lot of weight on a low-carb program. When the holidays came around I figured “The program has been so easy and I don’t want to try to stay low-carb over the holidays.” I decided to drop off program for the holidays and start again for the New Year. Unfortunately, I went into carb craving since I didn’t transition off and quickly gained the weight I’d lost along with a lot extra. I craved carbs so bad that I could not get myself back onto program.

Built into this is an argument I want to dissect. I will present it here as:

Healthy eating requires deprivation.

Celebrating the holidays requires over-indulging.

Over-indulging causes one to gain weight.

Therefore, holiday celebrants inevitably gain weight.

We have three premises and a conclusion. The form of the argument given is such that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. So our only choice would appear to be skimp on the holidays or gain weight. But is this our only choice? Is the argument above true? It can only be false if one or more of the premises are false, and I believe one could argue that all of them are false.

Healthy eating is not deprived eating

To eat healthy is not to deprivation, but appropriate eating. One who wants to eat healthy takes various things into account: food available, preferences, nutritional need, etc. One eats what the body needs and then stops when the body is provided for. Actually, it is deprivation that is unhealthy. To be deprived nutritionally does harm to the body. Yes, healthy eating can feel like deprivation to one who has spent years eating unhealthy. However, this is actually a symptom of prior bad choices. I want comfort food that is fatty and sugary, not because my body needs it. Our systems are adapted to prefer easy high energy sources. Tie this adaptation for survival to a psychological makeup that ties these foods to some pleasurable memory or makes them into a medicine to cover some bad memory and we have a double whammy telling us to eat what is bad for us, and to do it in copious quantities. It is this that makes such eating unhealthy. It is also this psychological component that makes healthy eating seem like deprivation.

Celebrating the holidays does not require over indulging

When we celebrate the holidays, we are spending time with our friends and loved-ones (and, often, some not-so-loved-ones).  The food is actually there to encourage closeness. The history of feasting and shared meals is one of relationship building. In ancient times, when people shared a meal they established a covenant relationship. To share someone’s food and then turn on them was considered an exceptional level of evil. This was all part of ancient hospitality—“We have shared food and now we are bound to one another.” It is this that was behind the ancient feasts in the Old Testament and is also the root of the New Testament Lord’s Supper. This was, originally, a full meal shared by the congregation. Sharing food brings people together. When there is food between us, we relax. This is a primary reason for the food. There is nothing requiring you to actually consume a certain amount of food—at least not in our culture. Of course, there are some cultures where you must eat a certain amount or you will offend the host. At times it may even be necessary for you to have a bit of everything—even those things you shouldn’t have—in order to spare someone’s feelings. While that person should care more about your health than their contribution to the meal, this is not always the case.

Shared meals are actually common in church, and as a pastor I have attended more than most. We even use the word ‘fellowship’ in church to mean a potluck meal. I’ve been in churches where the ladies would bring their favorite dishes to the church potluck and if I didn’t try every dish someone would get their feelings hurt. I had to develop a tactic to help me with this. I’ll even share it with you and you can use it at church or at your Aunt Gertrude’s house over the holidays. No one actually kept a record of what I or anyone else actually did eat, so when someone brought something that either I shouldn’t eat, or that I even didn’t want to eat, and they would ask me, “Pastor, did you have some of my (fill in the blank)?” I l would look them right in the eye and say, “Why yes! I did and it was great!” That’s right. I lied! Do I feel shame over it? Absolutely not! Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely! By the way, if you think that a person should never under any circumstances tell anything untrue then you are either naïve or uninformed about the realities of life—you are at the least not married.

Over-indulging does not have to cause one to gain weight

Now I understand that what I just said may seem heresy to the dieting crowd. However, please let me explain. Let’s say I am on a strict diet that I follow religiously. I lose weight steadily. One day I decide to allow myself to have more than I should—I over-indulge. Will I gain weight? Probably not! Understand that it takes around 3500 calories to add a pound of fat. This means that in order to gain any appreciable weight I have to consume a very large amount. Recently, an article ran about a man said to have gained the most weight in a single Thanksgiving meal. Everyone at their dinner weighed themselves before eating and again after eating. The article went on to say that he had “gained” 7.5 lbs. in that one meal. Well, this is just patently false. Much of the food he is actually water and will pass; much of it was fiber that will not digest but will pass. That is not weight gain. That is just bulk gain. Much of it will pass out within a day and, he will gain some weight, but not the full amount.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying over-indulging is a healthy choice—especially for someone trying to lose weight. If you are on a diet, then over-indulging should be avoided. However, if something causes you (like your own choices, lack of will-power or that nice little aunt who insists you have just one more piece of her cheesecake) it’s not the end of the world. You may not even register any weight.

You see, the problem is not having too much at one meal. The problem comes when we use the holidays as an excuse to permit ourselves a season of bad eating. From Halloween through New Year most homes are full of bad eating opportunities. We are constantly exposed to the less healthy foods in copious amounts. We show up to work and in the spirit of the holidays a salesman has brought a whole tin of cookies. Everyone is given the giant drums of caramel coated popcorn. Unhealthy beverages are readily available in giant helping. And when facing such temptation the tendency is to say, “Well it is (Christmas/Hanukah/Thanksgiving/etc.).” Most often this is a lie. Thanksgiving is one Thursday in November. Halloween is one day in October. Christmas is two days in December (if you count Christmas day and Christmas Eve). New Years is one night of revelry. Let’s assume first of all that culture dictates that you over-indulge on all of these days. That still means you are having more than you should on five days out of ninety. You see, the problem is not what we eat on these special holidays. The problem is what we eat in between that we blame on these holidays. Halloween through New Year has become a season of excuses to binge eat. This is the problem.

Let’s look at some numbers for a moment. It takes about 3500 calories in excess to gain one pound. In the average Turkey Breast, four ounces has about 126 calories. This means you would need eat over six pounds of Turkey to gain a single pound. Don’t get me wrong. I understand there are other factors: carbs, potatoes, sweets and fats all being consumed. But my hope is that you will at least realize if you gain weight over the holidays it is not because of the actual holiday. It is because of what you use the holiday to excuse.

I have, for several months, being in a carb cycling rotation with an attempt to increase muscle mass. We had our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because of other family responsibilities—my wife and daughter both work healthcare. In our house, I do most of the Thanksgiving cooking and wanted to make all the things I traditionally have. I also wanted to experiment with imbibing in all of it, with the goal of gaining no weight. Here was the menu:

14 lbs. Turkey, smoked

10 lbs. Goose, smoked

Sweet potatoes, with lots of brown sugar and marshmallows

Green Bean Casserole

Dressing

Mashed Potatoes with Giblet Gravy

A giant loaf of homemade Swedish Almond Bread

Bourbon Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Sangria

Wine, Syrah

Now, you may think looking at this that we had a huge family gathering of dozens of people. We could have fed them, but instead we only had eight people. Everyone ate their fill. I denied myself nothing—which includes three pieces of pie (two with the meal, and a third later).

The day before this, I spent about an hour in the gym working out and did the same the day after. We handled leftovers in a special way as well. We kept a small amount of turkey for sandwiches, and froze a small amount of goose to use for something later. Every last bit of the rest was given away. We kept none in the house (except for a small plate my wife had made for her lunch the next day). The day before the meal I was on a low carb, low calorie day. The day following I went very low carb—almost none the whole day. Prior to this and after, I went back to my program religiously. We are now one week later and I have lost five pounds.

One of the purposes of my blog and the title is because I believe that if one makes a lifestyle of healthy choices, then one is free on occasion to make a choice to eat in an unhealthy way, for whatever reason. Health does not have to be drudgery. Health does not mean denying myself everything good. However, it means taking control of your choices and using them to your benefit.

I want to add a warning to those reading this. You have to understand that what I did fit with my current program. Carb Cycling actually recommends an occasional undisciplined day because hormone changes can occur with long term low carb and low calorie consumption—I don’t need my T level dropping. However, if I were still in my prior program which is ketogenic, I wouldn’t have dared do this. In such a program one must stay long term in fat burn and getting back into fat burn can take days in the early stages of these programs. That one meal would have led to days of misery trying to get back into fat burn. However, after months of being carefully on program and making healthy choices, my body goes in and out of fat burn rather quickly. For example, the day before yesterday I was in a high carb cycle on a weight day. Because of a celebration, I actually allowed myself to have far more carbs than I intended—including too many simple carbs. Yesterday I went back low carb (I do this on my two cardio days each week). Yesterday evening I checked with a Ketostix and I was already in a good level of fat burn.

First off, follow your program. Second, if you allow yourself too much on a special meal during the holidays don’t lose your mind with guilt and grief. Third, don’t use the holidays as an excuse for a season of indulgence. Fourth, don’t allow others to set the agenda on what you eat because making someone else feel good about their favorite food is not worth more than your health.