When I decided, back in 2011, that I needed to do things for myself to improve my health, I knew this couldn’t be yet another round of find a diet and lose some weight. Been there, done that, knew it wouldn’t work. I’d already been thinking about my personal situation in light of the social environment, so I knew it had to be an environmental change.
This made me think about my personal environment. I knew the effect I wanted (reduce weight, increase bone and muscle, reduce joint stress, strengthen heart and lungs, protect damaged nerves/joints/muscles), but had to determine how to create a the conditions under which I could achieve them and maintain them. It’s the maintenance part that is problematic, really. If these kinds of changes were easy and enjoyable, well, I’d already be doing them (along with the majority of the rest of society) and we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we? Changing your body is the fun part. Keeping it in a changed state is the long slog.
In short, my prognosis is not good. All odds are against me being able to maintain even the level of health I currently enjoy, let alone make any more significant changes that can be maintained.
On the other hand, I’m coming in to this a lot less motivated than before, which is to say that I’m satisfied with good enough. I don’t need to be thin. I don’t even need to be normal weight. I’m not going to run a race or lift a gazillion pounds. That was really the bottom line – if improvements don’t fit into what I’m doing, ain’t going to happen. That alone lifted a psychological burden.
I also knew what I was not willing to do. Front and center is any kind of surgery to splice my guts so that they don’t function correctly and fail to hold and absorb normal amounts of food. As I’ve said in a few places, I’ve had major abdominal surgery before, to remove damaged lung tissue. No fucking way would I ever repeat that for anything less than an immediate threat to my life. Given the risk of complications, super bacteria in medical facilities, and the body’s own amazing ability to adapt to and subvert physical damage (because that’s what the surgery is, deliberate damage to your correctly functioning digestive tract), it was never an option for me.
Next was restrictive diets. They couldn’t pass the sniff test. Eliminating food groups. Only eating on a precision schedule. Having to drink calories. Extreme caloric deprivation. Fasting/cleansing/”detox.” Eating packaged diet plan foods rather than cooking for myself. None of this made health sense because none of it is normal. I know what I like to eat. I am an awesome cook. (Hey, this fat on my ass came from somewhere, and that somewhere is made up of delicious food.) I already had a diet (in the original sense of the word) that was very close to what reputable medical and public health organizations said were good for me, so why upend that for the talk show fad of the week?
There was no way I would sign up for exercise programs or boot camps. This includes exercise videos and DVDs, too, that come with brand names and accessories to buy. I’m not opposed to the idea of going to a gym for heavy, supervised weight lifting or some kind of special machinery that’s too big or expensive to have at home, but I have yet to encounter a need for any of that.
Finally, I wasn’t willing to reorganize my free time around intensive exercise. I’m not going to get up at some ungodly hour of the morning to “get my run in,” or turn down weekend party invitations from friends because “it breaks my routine.”
OK, before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I do not and will not advise anyone else to do as I have done/am doing. You’re not me (for which we are both profoundly grateful) and what I do may be the worst possible thing for you. The only thing I will come close to advising is to do what is best for yourself, as you are now, and don’t listen to the fuckwittery promulgated by the diet industry, the food puritans, the food paranoiacs, and overly opinionated 20-something reporters who need to fill some copy inches with the outrage of the day, m’kay?
I keep a food log. I know some people hate doing food logging, but it fits my analytic style. I want data. I’ve used a variety of sites and programs over the years, and have come to like My Fitness Pal best because I can type in my recipes and get a really detailed nutritional analysis for each one, plus it has a pretty good app for my Windows phone. But the food log itself is how I make sure I’m not getting into extreme eating habits. I can see that I am eating a lot of fresh vegetables, I can see that I’m doing just fine with grams of sugar and fat, I know that my protein intake is excellent. I can also skip however much of it I want.
I have always eaten fresh vegetables and home cooked meals (assuming there was anything to cook) and have never been able to understand other people’s aversion to some sauteed vegetables in the dinner. That’s not to say there aren’t vegetables I don’t like, and I’ll probably write a blog post on them some time so you can all have a laugh. But, if asked to choose between a bowl of homemade roasted garlic mashed potatoes and a bowl of good quality ice cream, I will always go for the mashed potatoes. For the cooking itself, I collect my favorites in OneNote online notebooks (one for meat, one for grains, one for legumes, one for vegetables, etc.) and add in stuff I find in blogs and cooking sites. For most recipes, I double the vegetables, reduce the cooking oil by half, measure grains and pastas to 1 cup servings, and keep meat to 4 ounces per serving, but the food I’m eating is food I would proudly serve to any guest. It’s food I can and will eat for the rest of my life. There’s nothing unusual, restrictive or “diet” about it. I cook with whole grains (we had a big wheat berry and chicken salad last night), but I’m also just as likely to serve up white rice or regular pasta. No obsession with organics, gluten-free, wheat-free, paleo, vegan, sugar-free, high-carb, low-carb, blah, blah, blah. Is it good tasting? Does the Spousal Unit like it? It’s on the menu.
In terms of my actual eating habits, I more or less do the following.
- I plan menus and meals each week. This is more for money management than eating, but it does make me think about what I’m going to be eating in the coming week, and helps me have the ingredients on hand to make a wide variety of things we love. If I’m always eating good stuff, then I’ll keep eating it. And, some nights, I just say “fuck it,” call the SU and tell him to pick up Mr. Fish and Chips on his way home. Seriously, this is the best fish & chips in San Diego. You have to try it if you’re in the area.
- I don’t eat bread with my meals. This is standard for my childhood, but is a little tough on the SU because he grew up always having fresh bread on the table. I will eat bread if we go out, I always have cornbread with chili, etc.
- I don’t take seconds. I know how much I cooked, how many servings it is, I know it is plenty to eat. I’m not opposed to left overs, so having something ready for later in the week is a plus, like the Chicken Biryani we’re having tonight that I cooked last week. Then again, if there is something really good and I’m feeling hungry after the first serving, I eat it.
- I try not to eat candy at work. Every office manager worth her salt has a bowl of enticing candy on her desk to lure unsuspecting staffers in where she can sweetly interrogate them over their missing status reports. Costco makes it so easy to buy “fun size” chocolate bars and other goodies in huge bags. I realized I had been eating a lot of candy at work, which wasn’t a good kind of food to ingest in large amounts, so I make a conscious effort not to chow down.
- I try not to eat stuff left out in the break room. The remains of a catered lunch. A plate of cookies. “New guy” doughnuts. The last of a sheet cake from someone’s weekend birthday party. I can ignore that. But if there’s an apple fritter, I’m eating that puppy. I’m not going to deny myself that kind of fun.
- I make my own lunch. I know what I’m eating and it’s so much cheaper than buying lunch. But if the company is bringing in sandwiches for a big sales meeting, I”ll have one of those, especially the roast beef. I love roast beef sandwiches.
- I drink mostly water, plus a lot of coffee. I don’t put flavorings in water, either, and I don’t care if it is tap water. If the water tastes funny, coffee it is. I drink it black because I have always drunk my coffee black. I generally don’t have more than a can of Diet Coke in a day. If I’m at a party, I’ll have a beer or some wine, especially if I’m not driving home, but usually even then, I’ll stick to water. This is what I’ve always done, so it really isn’t a change. I won’t touch a smoothie under any circumstances – those things are vile.
- I don’t buy snack foods for home consumption. We do buy peanuts, a rice cracker and nut mix, and rice cakes on a regular basis. We don’t buy cookies, crackers, chips, crisps, candy, mixed nuts, snack bars, dips, spreads or trail mix.
- I limit the amount of home baking I do, and I don’t buy bakery department stuff. If I’m going to a party, or if there’s an event at work, I’ll bake something to share. In the middle of winter, I need to bake bread. The SU has a favorite lemon and cranberry bundt cake that I’ll make with fresh Meyer lemons off our tree and cranberries from the freezer.
- We don’t go out for dinner more than once per month. And sometimes not even that. When we do go out, it’s for a special occasion of some kind, I order exactly what I want, I eat as much of it as makes me happy, and I don’t give a second thought to calories.
And that about sums up what I’ve done to improve or restrict my diet. It’s a way of eating that works for both of us, uses good ingredients in recipes we love, and is flexible enough to handle any situation life throws my way.
For activity, I’ve talked about my resistance training and my walking. Crucially, because my work is IT and computers, I have to be sure I leave the screens behind. The change I had to make with each is to make sure I made some time in my week to do a certain amount of this, and not just fritter away my free time looking at LOL Cats. I am a person who likes routine, so I like having a regular schedule of what days I’ll do what activity, but I’ll also break or skip that routine if I have better things to do.
As with food, I keep logs of being active, and they’re how I document my progress. I know how much I’ve been lifting on my bicep curls, and when it’s time to try a heavier weight on the overhead triceps lift. I can see how my time for covering my regular neighborhood stroll gets shorter. I can watch the resistance level on the exercise bike climb. I have weights at home so I don’t need to travel to a gym, which increases the probability that I’ll lift. I request earlier shifts at work, going in early to get home sooner to get a 20-30 minute workout in before I have to start cooking dinner.
For walking, I just walk everywhere I can and not limit it to the neighborhood strolls. I’ll go off to the Zoo or the Wild Animal Park or do a trek downtown to see the newest county park, or walk to the local retail areas to pick up something or meet someone for lunch. I use stairs, I don’t mind going to a colleague’s cubicle, and the far side of the parking lot usually has open, shady spaces. And, if I don’t feel like moving around or picking stuff up, I don’t.
Over the last three and a half years, this has been enough to reduce my weight by my 20% goal and to make me measurably stronger with greater cardiovascular capacity. I’m still fat and I’m comfortable with the reality that I always will be. I’m more active, which the medical powers that be say is even more important than reducing my weight. I’ve eliminated most snack food and make a conscious effort not to “graze” on the ubiquitous feast in front of me. I don’t feel better for not eating “processed” foods; aside from increased girth, I’ve never had a negative reaction to that kind of thing. I have not had to give up anything I really truly love, though I may not eat as much of it at a single sitting as I once would. I am as active as I like and I think I can keep chugging along at this level for the foreseeable future.