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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fat Chyck Manifesto

Not cultural as such, but hopefully it falls under the topic of generally useful.
I suck at symmetry, timeliness, and that sort of thing, but I've been meaning to write this down for a while. Today is as good a day as any.

Over the last 54 weeks, I have lost just a touch under 45 lbs. (I really wanted to hit the 50-lb mark by 52 weeks, but see above re: symmetry and timeliness). I am now at my lowest weight since my first year in college, even lower than when I lost a little over 40 lbs. from 2002-2003 (because dumbass then gained back 25 of those). I've never been in the habit of measuring myself, but I've lost about 2.5 sizes with the poundage. I'll spare you the pictures of how big my fat jeans are on me, I promise.

I don't have a 533kr1t diet or plan. As I told my friend L, I looked into tapeworms, but there's such a stigma attached to being riddled with parasites. What follows are my experiences over the last year, both for myself to look back on and for whomever among you might find some of the strategies useful.

Having the right equipment to make a commitment to losing weight and/or getting healthy has been very important. My list of indispensible tools isn't long and it didn't involve any giant outlay of money, but I would not have persisted without them.

Diet-related tools
First, I came to realize that I really needed something to keep track of calories. That was new to me. I'd never done it before, not even in 2002. For me, the winner was Calorie King, which is software available for both Mac OS and Windows. If you have a windows machine as your primary computer, they also offer a pocket version of it for the PDA that is syncable with your desktop. That feature unfortunately isn't available for Mac OS. It has an extremely large database of foods (both generic things like "raw chicken breast" and branded things like "Wendy's Chicken Tenders), and it's easy to use.

Based on your target calorie intake, it also keeps track of your target carbs, fats, protein, and fiber. It also has a database of calories burned in various types of exercise and you win calories back as you enter your exercise for the day. It has lots of other features like check-in graphs, pie charts and bar charts that show you the various components of your diet over a specified period of time, and so on. The bells and whistles were something of a motivator earlier on, but I don't use them much now. Personally, I have focused on calorie intake without too much conscious emphasis on the relative contributions to the diet. Yes, if I see that my "fat" bar has turned red for 5 days in a row, I'll make an effort to avoid greasy, fatty things for a few days, but I don't stress about it.

The one kludgey thing about the software is dealing with making a dish for dinner. If I'm making something like a chicken breast for me and M with some side dish, it's easy enough to input my individual portion. If, on the other hand, I'm making something like Jambalaya or Chili Tamale Pie, it's not so easy, but I've found a somewhat awkward fix: I go a day in the future and enter each of the components into a single meal; then, I save that meal and when I dole out my portion, I can input it as a percentage of the entire meal. So, say an entire Chili Tamale Pie is about 2000 calories, I cut it into eighths, and I record my dinner as .125 of the saved meal. I can then delete the components from the next day and the meal is still saved. There may be a better way to do this, but I haven't found it.

The calorie software would not have done me much good at all without a kitchen scale. Mine is a salter digital scale that does both grams and ounces (I think it goes up to 10 lbs, which is probably overkill). The scale keeps me honest and accurate in inputting calories. It also provides an intervening step that disrupts the autopilot of going to the fridge to get a snack. If I'm grabbing something of unknown calorie content, I have to weigh it. It's not a guilt thing, it genuinely is just a moment that jars me out of a life-long bad habit.

The final tool that goes with the software and the scale might seem stupid, but it's been important for me. We bought one of those Smart Spin Storage Things that has plastic containers of varying heights that all use the same lids and get stored in a lazy susan thing. It provides a nearly endless supply of containers to pop on to the scale for weighing, it allows me to store things in a less half-assed way that means I'm much more likely to have ingredients I need on hand and not either dried out or semiliquified because I didn't wrap it properly. The small and medium containers are also ideal for packing a single portion of some type of snack (more on that below).

Exercise-related tools
When I lost weight in 2002-2003, we were living in a high-rise that had a gym in the basement of the building. Membership was quite discounted for U of C people, so I joined. And, for the most part, I went. I found the machines that I hated the least (ellipticals and stationary bikes, recumbent for preference, treadmills were ok too when one of the preferred pieces was not available). I think this is a highly individual thing. Many people love those bikes on which pedalling powers the fan. I hate them (in fact, I don't much like upright bikes at all---they burn ma damn ischial tuberosities!). I'm also not a big fan of stairmasters, but I can suffer through them. My main point is that, whatever you buy, it should be something you will actually use, not something that is cheap or magical or whatever. It won't do you any good if you'll never get on the thing.

When we moved into the house, I did buy an elliptical machine after doing some research. An online subscription to Consumer Reports is indispensible for so many things, and this was no exception. I found that most of the machines they recommended were tremendously expensive, but they had a couple best buy options that were in my price range. I wound up with an Eclipse elliptical (that's not my model, but it's similar) that has a number of different types of programs, two of which are based on adjusting to your heart rate.

To go with whatever home equipment you buy, I also found that a heart rate monitor with a watch that stores data was a must-have for me. Yes, the elliptical's computer will show data while you're working out, but having the portability of the chest strap and watch means that I can substitute some walking or whatever I might feel like for an elliptical workout. The monitor keeps me honest in terms of how vigorous that exercise really is. Likewise, being able to look back at the hours you've clocked can be a motivator.

A good pedometer was a brand new introduction to the program this last year. A friend first pimped them to me, and I went to Consumer Reports to check it out. It's a piece of equipment that you have to be careful with, because so many are not at all reliable or they may be reliable only under fussy, unrealistic circumstances (e.g., earlier models had to be suspended from a belt exactly over the midline of the thigh, which is not realistic for wearing it all the time, which you should). CR found this Omron model to be among the best, and it's what I've had throughout. You can pick it up at your local CVS, but it'll run you $40. After losing a couple (and having M wash two), I just ordered several from Amazon at the $18 price.

The American Heart Association recommends that you take 10,000 steps a day to keep healthy. For me, literally taking that many steps each day is not terribly realistic (at my stride length, that's a touch under 4 miles). The AHA website has a tool that will convert other activities (lifting weights, weeding, etc.) into steps (that's FYI, I don't really use it myself). I don't formally convert my elliptical workouts into steps (the pedometer isn't accurate on the elliptical, because of the nature of its motion), so I'm not pushing for 10,000 logged on the pedometer everyday. I use it to push myself to incorporate walking into my day though, and for this recovered Catholic, the guilt works. I park at the lot that's farther from my office and classrooms. I take the stairs and circuitous routes between places. I make multiple trips from the car with groceries, etc. The pedometer helps me to remember that exercise should not be a special occasion. If at all possible, I also recommend a dog. The fact that Gil loses his mind every afternoon if he doesn't get out for a walk means that I'm walking much more as a matter of course.

Progress-marking tools
This is another area, like home equipment, where I think mileage will vary a great deal. Probably a lot of folks will want to mark progress with measurements. For me, not so much. I don't need to put any more thought into my freakish body proportions than necessary. For me, I live and die by the number on the scale. To some extent, anyway.

The first scale I bought was a regular Health-o-Meter dial scale. My lord and master, Consumer Reports, was not a fan of many of the digital scales (especially the ones that supposedly tell you your body fat content and the like). I still have this scale, but after relatively rapid initial loss, I got frustrated with the fact that weight loss is not very visually striking on a dial scale at one-pound increments. (Yes, I'm shallow and easily frustrated, which is an important fact to know when trying to do this.) So I later bought another Health-o-Meter weight-loss tracking scale, which allows me to celebrate over fractions of pounds and so forth, I get little stars as I inch closer to my goal, and so on. Ironically, this is the scale that tracks much more exactly with the scale at my doctor's office, whereas the dial scale weighs about 4-5 lbs heavy.

Clothing is an iffy motivator for me. I don't actually care about clothes all that much and would spend 100% of my time in jammie pants if I could. Given that I cannot, though, clothing-related progress was particularly important early on. I was fat enough when I started this that I was hovering at the end of clothing that one can buy in non-speciality stores, and the selection was pretty heinous. Now that I'm pretty well clear of that, it's theoretically nice that the number on the label is smaller, but I don't live for smaller sizes. That said, I just ordered a few pairs of pants that are the smaller of the two sizes that I'm wearing now, and as I held them up, they looked absurdly small. I thought "These will NEVER fit," but they're actually only a bit snug. Probably most people would wear them, but I have persistent looseness issues.

Having the tools is one thing. Making good use of them is another. Identifying bad habits and subverting them is important. Not punishing or depriving yourself is equally important, as is identifying things that will encourage you to stick to a program.

Diet-related strategies
In 2002, I was not formally low carbing, but I was being carb conscious and making an effort to eat whole grains, have protein accompanying carbs, and so on. That strategy was based on, you guessed, a Consumer Reports article on weight loss programs and their sustainability. Since then, they've done a follow-up study showing that, in the long term, a lot of low carbers have now gained back their weight (in contradiction of the midterm findings that a low-carb diet was likely to result in sustainable weight loss), in part due to the fact that the market is now flooded with low-carb products that up the number of calories one intakes on a low carb diet.

In trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I've kept up with a lot of the habits from the low-carb era, but I have a different perspective on them. The problem with high-carb foods is that they are very calorie dense. A sandwich with two slices of bread means that I've just consumed nearly 15% of my daily calories without having put anything on the sandwich. Ditto a 2-oz. serving of pasta or rice. I eat bread and pasta, don't get me wrong, but I'm aware of the price in calories. And I almost never get enough fiber, despite the fact that I only cook with whole grain stuff. Quinoa pasta is my favorite---lower carb, higher in protein and fiber, and it has none of the bad mouth feel that some whole wheat pastas have (although whole wheat pasta's come a long way). For a while, I was trying to make my own noodles with soy flour and stuff like that. Forget it: It smells like farts, it tastes like farts, I am not eating farts. That's my line in the sand.

Another enemy to eating well is the fact that I spend so much of my days away from home when I'm teaching. That fact leads to vending machines and fast food, which is a friend to no one. My solution to this is identifying portable things that are not calorie dense and that I actually like to eat. The night before I have to teach, I take a gallon ziplock bag and fill it with some combination of the following: A yoplait light yogurt (100 calories. It has actual pieces of fruit in it. Most other light yogurts are terrible and nonlight yogurts are high calorie); a nature valley fruit 'n nut trailmix bar (140 calories. I don't really like granola bars at all, but this one showed up in the vending machines at school and I find it very edible. I buy big boxes as Costco now); light string cheese (Depending on brand, 60-80 calories); a 1 oz serving of pretzel sticks, soy crisps, pita chips, or something else salty and crunchy (for this, those small containers are key, also big bags of acceptable things can be had at Costco); a piece of fruit; a Campbell's Soup at Hand (Depending on type, 70-150 calories. Microwaveable and safe for even Matilda to eat while driving or walking).

For me, knowing that I have a variety of things available to me throughout the day is an important psychological element. I find that I'm less likely to feel hungry, probably because I'm not talking myself into the fact that I'm hungry NOW when I can get something, because who knows when I might next have the opportunity to grab some food? And yeah, this is the only way I've been able to come close to those ridiculous recommendations that one should be eating 17 small meals of 4 calories each throughout the day. These are also foods that I will go for even if I'm at home and have more options, so it's important to identify things that you have some liking for, not just a host of things that you won't DIE from eating.

When eating out, I am constantly aware that, no two ways about it, I'm going to be blowing a lot more of my day's calories at one sitting. That doesn't mean that I don't do it, it's just a frame of mind that keeps me realistic and let's me make better choices. We have a Panera bread about 3 blocks from the house, and both the ZK and I like their "pick 2" options (you get half a sandwich or half a salad with a full serving of one of their soups). It's comparatively healthy, it involves at least a short walk before and after, and Panera is a great company for assiduously providing nutritional information on its website, but it does involve eating a little less than half the day's calories.

Sweet cravings are another problem to which, I'm glad to say, I've found a very good solution for me: Dove miniatures. They sell a box that is all dark chocolate around french vanilla ice cream and a box that is a mixture of dark and milk chocolate around one of a few different types of ice cream. They're 60 calories each and they satisfy my dessert cravings much better than any of the low-carb, low-fat ice creams. There's also an assortment of M&M/Mars ice cream bars that are 90 calories each (pack comes with snickers, three musketeers, milky way, and twix) for the occasional bigger treat. And, yes, I eat other desserts, I just try to be sensible and honest about recording it when I do.

Exercise strategies
The first thing that I want to say about exercise is, I believe, the most important. YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE IT, YOU JUST HAVE TO DO IT. I'm really quite serious when I say that I have been derailed from a program to lose weight and/or get healthy in the past, because of this myth that my body wants to exercise. I am here to tell you that my body wants to sit on the couch and watch television. My body is built for supinity. I don't crave exercise. I don't get a high off exercise. I don't become one with Gaia when I exercise. I hate exercising EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

So my first strategy was simply not to do things that I superduper-extradouble-fudgey hate, no matter how nonsensical or irrational that hatred is. For example: I do not jog. I do not run. I do not move at a pace faster than a brisk walk while outside. A this point, I have been covering between 25 and 30 miles per week on my elliptical machine, religiously, for a year. If I went outside and tried to jog one city block, my lungs would be filling with a deadly mixture of papercuts and lemon juice, my lower back would be breaking down to its compoent atoms, and my knees, hips, and ankles would be kicking the shit out of me from the inside. Some of that doesn't make any sense, but that's the way it is. I don't need to jog. I have made peace with my nonjogger identity. Seriously: Fuck jogging.

The second strategy was not to set myself up for failure by planning unrealistic exercise. I love to swim, it's true, but there's no way I'm going to pack everything involved with swimming and tote it to some place to swim. It just doesn't fit with my personality or life. Similarly, I really want to take up martial arts again. I hope to do so, but it's not realistic that that will be my routine exercise.

Third strategy involves finding an exercise that you will do and motivating yourself to do it. One of the serious hurdles for me to regular exercise time is the fact that it kind of demands unitasking. That bores me very easily and it makes me feel like I'm wasting time. So for me it was necessary to feel fully occupied. It also helped me tremendously to have some kind of "treat" to go with exercising.

Being a graduate student, I don't get to read for pleasure that often, so I would allow myself that (this requires coordination and a good book stand for the machine, but if Matilda can do it, anyone can do it). Truth be told, though, reading alone is not generally enough to keep the hate from flowig through me. Reading + iPod (or MP3 player of your choice [but we all know iPods are teh R3aL H0tn355]) worked for me when I was going to the gym. If exercising at home, the solution is to find a long-running SciFi show starring MacGyver and become obsessed with it. One hundred and fifty episodes, a DVR or DVD player, and Peter DeLuise involvement should do it.

My fourth strategy was to make exercise nonnegotiable at the beginning of the program. This only worked because I was not teaching at the time and because I am a night person. When I started this, I was on the elliptical machine every single night for 45 minutes, no exceptions. Even if I slowed to a crawl at about the 10-minute mark, I forced myself to remain upright and cling to the damned thing. On very rare occasions, I would allow myself to skip one day, but never two. For me, that was absolutely crucial. It's simply too easy for me to say "Oh, I'll do it tomorrow." (When I look back at my Pact [see below] entires, I see that occasionally I made it 25 or 26 days without missing a workout.) By the time I was teaching again, it had become a habit. That's not to say that I don't have to consciously force myself to do it every single day. I do. But it had become part of the routine. I still try very hard to manage six workouts a week (I usually let the night of my Old Town classes be my night off), but I am now at a point where I'm confident that even if I miss two or even three, I'm still in the habit.

In tandem with the nonnegotiability of daily exercise, the pedometer comes into play again. The reason that Old Town days are reasonable for letting the formal exercise session slide is that those are the days when I already have a fair amount of walking built into the day and I try hard to augment that. I often drive up early to avoid traffic and parking trauma, and then I'll sit in the park, sponge off the library's public wifi and eat my bag o' snacks. If I walk down to the Jewel to get a bottle of water (and, oh, if some Johnny Depp cereal leaps into my basket, what's a girl to do?), I've built in about 20 minutes of aerobic walking, there and back. If I have reason to suspect that I'm not going to get to the elliptical workout, I am slave to the pedometer and I try to squeeze in as many steps as possible. Exercise doesn't have to be a special occasion: trite but true.

A substrategy of the BDSM games with my pedometer is that I do not record the pedometer's assessment of calories burned unless I've clocked aerobic walking time. This means that I actually have some additional, unquantified "cheat calories" available to me. It's a weird mental crutch, but there it is. Another upside of this is that the pedometer can help you NOT get derailed when vacations or other things come up (I also try to do at least a brief yoga routine on the road, but that's not always doable), because you can remain accountable for activity.

Accountability strategies
The software is a big part of my accountability, even though it's only to myself. I find that it is not onerous to keep track using it and I am brutally honest. In contrast, I have often wanted to stab my sister for telling me how many "points" an item of food is. That's just my baggage, though. Weight Watchers points may be YOUR tried and true type of accountability. You've just got to have a place in which you are faithful and don't lie about your diet and exercise.

Equally important if not more so for me is accountability to something external, though. Again, I'm not going to weigh in. I'm not hanging the needlepointed Magnet that says PIG or BIGGEST LOSER on my fridge for the week. I am not, in short, a joiner. Back in 2002, my friend J and I developed The Pact, others soon climbed on board, and It Was Good. On days when I really didn't feel like dealing with the weird people at the gym, I'd tell myself that I'd promised I would. Yeah, it's another stupid mental crutch. It's not like anyone was going to yell at me. If anything, they'd help me make excuses, but just knowing THAT got my ass in gear.

Last year, it was another friend who renewed the call for The Pact. I realized that among the other changes I needed to make, I personally needed to be more formal about The Pact. So I created a filter (Pactees) of LJ friends who would not want to rip their eyeballs out if they had to read one more sentence about me obsessing about my weight. (For the record, I think that it's important that The Pact is really about being WELL and having healthy habits, not, strictly speaking, about losing weight.) Every Sunday (with few exceptions, in which case I'd do a double or triple update the next week), I posted a Wellness Update to that filter that examined my week in terms of diet, exercise, and progress. My peeps would then comment with applause when I deserved it (and often when I probably didn't), encouragement, their own progress, and so on. And, of course, it's another form of longer range self-accountabity, too, to complement the day-to-day grind of calorie and exercise recording.

And that's pretty much the it. I'm still losing weight, albeit more slowly now. I have a dream number in mind and it'd be great to reach it eventually, but right now I'm proud and relieved that I have found something that feels sustainable to me.

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Blogger tigtog said...

Great post, Matilda! Sorry to take so long to read it (in stages over three days now) but I've been distracted by a threatened meltdown in a mailing list I belong to and thus delayed.

I'm going to have to blow the dust off the pedometer and think about an elliptical machine.

3:22 AM  

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