Thursday, August 27, 2009

The glass has to be half full

195 pounds
At the end of my post called “Are you still with me?”, I mentioned some advice my friend Al gave me, and I think his comments bear repeating.

As I explained before, Al is a psychologist, and I know him from St. Andrews College in North Carolina, where we were both members of the faculty before Dave and I moved to Kentucky.

One day Al came by my office and listened to me venting about the fact that I had eaten way too much the night before. I was basically going off on my bad behavior, and Al told me that beating myself up for a mistake I’d already made and couldn’t undo was causing me twice as much harm. He said that, instead, it would be healthier to own up to my bad behavior and move on, focusing on what I could do right in the present rather than what I'd done wrong in the past.

Of course, Al was right, so right that his words have stayed with me since that day nearly four years ago. Not only that, but his advice has helped shape my new and much healthier attitude about the way I see myself and the way I approach weight loss.

Unfortunately, there are still so many people who don’t see it that way.

I was talking with my friend Laura recently about her weight. Laura is really unhappy about her body and completely down about the fact that she hasn’t been able to drop any pounds even though she has wanted to do so for a while now. At one point during our conversation, she told me that she knows that her problem is that she eats too much.

I hate it when Laura is hard on herself, and on top of that, I know she was wrong so I immediately took issue with what she’d said. Since her weight gain occurred before I met her—and I’ve known her for over a year—I know she really doesn’t eat too much anymore. It’s possible that she ate too much in the past—when she picked up the pounds she’s now trying to lose—but I know her well enough to be sure that she is no longer eating more than anyone else. Besides, if she really were overeating, she would be gaining weight rather than maintaining. So the fact that the number on Laura's scale hasn't gone up recently tells me she’s actually doing something right.

But rather than give herself credit for not gaining weight, Laura is only able to see that she’s not as thin as she once was. Because she has to look in the mirror every day and see the extra pounds she’s still carrying with her, she truly believes that she’s still eating too much.

In this way, Laura is equating the size of her body with her current eating habits . . . even though that’s not an accurate equation. In a sense, she is beating herself up every day for something she did years ago, and I wish there was something I could say or do to get her to understand what Al told me back in North Carolina, but my words don't seem to help.

What worries me is that I don’t think Laura is alone. I think many people who are unhappy with their bodies do the same thing. They look in the mirror and see something they don’t like and think, “God, I’m such a pig!” Or “Why do I always have to eat so much?!” even though the reflection they see in the mirror may have nothing to do with their eating habits for a long, long time.

I know that other people do this because I do it too. Yes, I’ve learned to control how hard I am on myself most of the time, but every once in a while I still slip up, go back to my old ways, and see myself through that really harmful lens.

The problem with continuing to beat yourself up for things you did months—sometimes even years—ago is that doing so doesn’t allow you to give yourself credit for what you’re doing in the present. Because if, like Laura, you’re not gaining weight, that means you really deserve praise, not criticism. Unfortunately, it’s one of life’s cruel realties that it usually takes a long time for our hard work to pay off. If life were really fair, we'd all look like Heidi Klum the morning after we spent a whole day sweating it out at Boot Camp and crunching our way through bags full of celery and carrot sticks. Or we’d resemble the Bride of Frankenstein after a long night of downing plate after plate of nachos and spinach dip over half a dozen whipped cream-topped strawberry daquiris and two packs of Kools. Unfortunately, it takes much more time to see the results of our hard work (or the consequences of our mistakes), which is why we have to look for the positive rather than wait for it to be pointed out to us in the mirror.

I’ve been working hard at trying to lose weight for almost five months now, and I’ve really only lost a handful of pounds in all that time. And I’m also not sure that my body looks any better than it did back in March when this whole thing started. It would be really easy for me to get down on myself about this, but what good would it do me? If I had spent the past five months thinking about how little I’ve accomplished, I think it would be very difficult—if not impossible—for me to stay motivated and keep working on being healthy. And that’s the reason it’s crucial that we all take Al’s advice and focus on what we’re doing right in the present rather than what we did wrong in the past.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's a revolution!
Why Lizzi Miller could change everything

196 pounds
Holy stomach roll, Batman!!!

I just found out (thanks to my cousin Jill) that a “plus-size” model is featured in Glamour this month (the September issue). Not only is it impressive that a magazine like Glamour featured a regular-sized women in its pages, it’s revolutionary!

Lizzi Miller appears naked in a Glamour article about self-esteem looking both confident and real (see the pic on the right), and the web is buzzing about it. Apparently, readers are falling all over themselves to say how much they love Miller’s very real stomach and legs, a sign that we are all ready to see women who actually look like us rather than woman who look almost as unreal as Barbie dolls.

And this isn’t even the first time Miller has graced the pages of Glamour. She also appeared in their April issue wearing nothing but a flesh-colored bikini bottom. (See the pic on the left.)

So who is this beautiful but normal-sized woman?

Lizzi Miller is an absolutely gorgeous 5’11”, 180-pound, 20-year-old “plus-size” model, and I think she is going to have to be my new hero and the patron saint of I will not diet. Miller says she wears clothing that ranges from size twelve to fourteen, and she’s been modeling for seven years. How she managed to not give into the pressure for models to be rail thin, I’ll never understand, but I admire the hell out of her for it, especially since she’s only twenty! Let me repeat—she's only twenty! And yet she is stronger than women I know who are twice her age. It would be a huge victory if a middle-aged woman with a real body was featured in a women's magazine, but a twenty-year-old with a real body? That’s like winning the lottery.

(By the way, I’m putting the words “plus-size” in quotation marks because I don’t understand how she can be a plus size model if she wears between a size twelve and fourteen, which, as well all know, are not plus sizes.)

Just think how models like Miller could change the way young women feel about their bodies! My ten- and fourteen-year-old nieces already claim to be watching their weight even though they are mere skin and bones, and I love thinking about them accepting themselves for the beautiful young women they are if models like Miller were to become the norm.

The best part about Miller is that she is exactly what I’ve been saying we need: a happy medium, a woman who is not a size zero and not a size twenty. Not only is she an average size—because the average woman in America wears a size twelve to fourteen—but she’s also gorgeous, happy, and comfortable in her own skin. This is exactly the kind and size of women we need to see more of in the media: she’s not only someone we can admire, she’s also someone we can aspire to look like.

This is a huge victory for those of us who are lobbying for more healthy role models, and I think we should take it as a clear sign that things are changing. This change also means that we must keep insisting that the women staring back at us from our pages and our screens look more like we do. How do we do this? We do it by voting with our dollars—by buying the September issue of Glamour in record numbers (and asking for it if it's sold out) and by paying to see movies that feature real-sized women (see the list on the right side of this blog). We can also Google Lizzi Miller so many times that women's magazines will have no choice but to get the message. Because the truth is, how can we possibly feel good about ourselves if we don’t embrace women like Miller?

This is a good day for average-sized women everywhere, and I honestly couldn’t be happier about the attention all of this is getting. I don't know about you, but I needed this. I say we all celebrate this coup by putting on something sexy this week and feeling good about our gorgeous—and real—bodies in honor of this brave twenty-year-old.

One more thing . . . way to go, Lizzi!!!!!

Addendum: I just found this amazing health and fitness blog by Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive—Vitamin G—which contains more info about Miller (she's a belly dancer!) and other related issues.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Are you still with me???

196 pounds
As I mentioned in my discussion of the recent Time magazine story on exercise, my grandfather had a massive stroke Friday, August 7th and died a few days later on Monday, August 10th. As soon as we heard about the stroke, Dave and I got in the car and headed for Ohio, where we spent Grandpa's last three days, staying until we had to leave in order to get back to Kentucky to teach our last few days of summer school. Hours after we left for Kentucky, Grandpa died, so as soon as we were finished with our classes on Thursday morning, we got back in the car and returned to Ohio for the viewing and funeral, a trip that was extended with side trips we had to make to Indianapolis and Cincinnati on the way home.

When all was said and done, we were on the road for three days, home for the next three, and then on the road again for five more days, meaning we were traveling eight of those eleven days. It was obviously exhausting, and I can't remember the last time I felt so happy to come home.

The day before Grandpa's stroke, I weighed 194 pounds, and the day before that, I'd bottomed out at 193—a full ten pounds less than where I started back in March. Since I hit 193 on a Wednesday, I didn't get to post that number with my blog. I also knew full well that the first time you hit a low number like that, you're bound to go back up the next day and fluctuate numerous more times before that low number becomes a reality. So I didn't make a big deal out of it on the blog—though I was happy to mention it in passing.

But now that I'm back from the trip, I find that my weight is back up to 196 pounds.


I don't spend a lot of time talking or complaining about the numbers on the scale because, as I've said before, one of the goals of this blog is to demystify those numbers, to send the message that the numbers don't matter as much as how we feel about ourselves and how healthy we are.

On the other hand, I also started this blog to document my weight loss. So when I have to admit to the world that I weigh 196 pounds almost five full months after I started trying to lose weight, I feel more than a little bit frustrated. I guess in some ways I feel like I'm letting you all down.

I don't want to send the message that my only goal is to lose weight because it's not. And I definitely don't want anyone to think that I believe that losing weight has to happen on a timetable because I believe that's one of the worst things we can do to ourselves. In fact, for years, I've believed that as long as the numbers on the scale are going down—even if its only by one pound a year—instead of up and the doctor says I'm healthy, then I'm doing well.

At the same time, I have to admit that I first hit 196 pounds back in April, only weeks after I started trying to lose weight, which makes me feel like I haven't accomplished anything in months. And if this is frustrating to me, I imagine it must also be frustrating to the people who tune in merely to see how many pounds I've lost.

(Mom, are you listening?)

Seriously, if you read any of the weight loss columns in women's magazines—or, God forbid, watch shows like The Biggest Loser—you're used to seeing the pounds drop pretty quickly. And if you're disappointed by how long it's taking me to get back to a healthy weight, I apologize.

But at the same time, I don't want you to give up on me. I want you all to believe me when I say I know my plan will work. It's worked in the past, and it will work again. Yes, I've had some setbacks this summer—first with my knee injury, and then with my grandfather. We all have setbacks (that's how I gained 27 pounds in the 18 months before I started this blog), and I don't want to use them as an excuse, but I do want to acknowledge them.

And maybe that's all I—or any of us—can do: acknowledge that sometimes the unexpected happens, and we can't blame ourselves if we are forced to backtrack a little when dealing with the unexpected.

A few years ago, my friend Al, who's a psychologist, listened to me flagellating myself for eating far too much after a long day at work, and he wisely pointed out that if I beat myself up for making a mistake, then I'm only causing myself more misery. Better to let mistakes go than to rehash them, Al said, and it was this advice that eventually led to my belief that we must allow ourselves indulgences from time to time.

Obviously, the important thing is to keep going, keep improving. During those eight days I was on the road, I only exercised twice, and I ate a lot more crap than normal—visits to Skyline Chili, Graeter's Ice Cream, and Frisch's Big Boy come to mind. But I've been home for three full days now, and it took me two of those days to get back to the person I want to be: a person who eats delicious home-cooked meals, a person who gets plenty of rest, and a person who exercises like a kid let loose in the schoolyard. I'll keep doing this until the next setback comes, and maybe, just maybe, in the meantime the numbers will prove that not dieting really can help people lose weight.

I believe. Do you?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Get some sleep!

196 pounds
I always talk about how we’re too obsessed with the numbers on the scale and the numbers on the BMI chart, but one of the numbers we obsess about that I have yet to mention is the amount of hours we sleep each night.

I have always been a night owl—something you might have guessed by the time of day I write my blog posts—and I like to stay up until all hours and get out of bed later than most people. I try my best to get nine hours of sleep each night when it’s possible, and in an ideal world, I would stay up until midnight and sleep until nine. But there are some nights when I find myself still awake past one, forcing me to sleep even later if I want to feel rested.

But when I tell people that I like to get nine hours of beauty rest and sleep until nine or—gasp!—ten in the morning, they act horrified and say things like, “I wish I could do that!” which seems to be a passive aggressive way of saying that they think I am a bit lazy at best and a slothful loser at worst.

This raises the question, why do people think sleep is bad? Why are those of us who like to sleep late so maligned???

All of the research clearly indicates that not getting enough sleep is DIRECTLY related to weight gain, health problems, and longevity. In fact, a 2006 study by the American Thoracic Society “showed that women who slept 5 hours per night were 32% more likely to experience major weight gain (an increase of 33 pounds or more) and 15% more likely to become obese over the course of the 16-year study, compared to those who slept 7 hours a night.”1

Why does this happen? For two simple reasons:

1) When we’re tired, we look for ways to help get through the day and one of the coping mechanisms we rely on is food and drink—often high-calorie junk food and sugar-filled, caffeine-laden beverages. I like nothing better than a cold soda and a bag of chips after a late night, and I’m sure all of you could easily name the poison you use to get through a nasty sleep hangover.

2) But I bet you didn’t know that not getting enough sleep also affects “the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates and causes high blood levels of glucose, which leads to a greater body-fat storage.”1 Once you understand that, getting nine hours of sleep doesn’t seem so crazy after all, does it?

Nevertheless, most people seem to believe the old maxin that “the early bird gets the worm” and far too often translate that to mean people who sleep more than six hours a night are also not getting the worm or are lazy, which is a dangerous message to send given how directly sleep affects our health.

It’s also not true that older folks need less sleep, a myth that I often hear repeated by my dad, who likes to get up as early or five or six in the morning and then wonders why he’s tired and cranky before noon. The truth is that “the need for sleep doesn't decline with age” though it may be harder to stay asleep longer without waking up.2

If you do have trouble sleeping, you might try some of these techniques the American Psychological Association recommends for better and longer sleep:

• Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule
• Don’t consume caffeine four to six hours before bed and minimize daytime use
• Don’t smoke, especially near bedtime or if you wake up at night
• Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before sleep
• Get regular exercise
• Minimize noise, light, and excessive hot and cold temperatures where you sleep
• Develop a regular bed time and go to bed at the same time each night
• Try and wake up without an alarm clock
• Attempt to go to bed earlier every night for certain period; this will ensure that you’re getting enough sleep2

I've also heard that it's not a good idea to read for long periods of time in the bedroom. Reading to fall asleep is okay, but if you spend significant time doing more than the two things that beds were designed for, you are basically training your body to stay awake while in bed.

So the next time someone scoffs over your desire to sleep late or catch an afternoon nap, take a step back and ask yourself if the person wagging a finger at you looks like he or she could use a better night’s sleep too.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nothing beats a home-cooked meal

195 pounds
So now that we can all agree that processed foods are the devil’s handiwork, what can we do about it?

1) Shop on the outside of the grocery store and stay away from anything boxed, canned, or frozen.

2) Buy more locally raised produce, eggs, and meat.

3) Cook at home more and eat out less.

Numbers one and two are not that hard to do if you set your mind to it, but number three is obviously more difficult for many of us, especially if both you and your partner work.

But I learned a wonderful trick this past year that makes it much easier to cook and eat at home.

Unlike most English professors, Karen, the chair of my department, has to go to campus five days a week and work long, tiring days. Her husband Kevin also has a job that requires him to be away from home all day long every day of the week. In that way, they are like most Americans. (Trust me, I know how lucky I am to be able to work at home two or three days a week.) And they are also like most Americans in that by the time they get home, they have little or no energy left for cooking. (A problem that is, of course, exacerbated if you also have children on top of a full-time job.)

But Karen and Kevin are foodies—they love food but they want their food to be fresh, natural, healthy, and usually homemade. In order to stay healthy and eat well, Karen and Kevin cook all of their food on Sundays. They each make one big meal on Sunday, and then stretch that one meal out for three days. So if Karen makes moussaka and Kevin makes steak, they’ll eat the steak for the first three nights of the week and the moussaka for the next three nights.

Once I learned about Karen and Kevin’s routine, I was so impressed that I decided that Dave and I should give it a try.

Because we can sometimes work at home a few days a week, we don’t have to make everything on Sunday the way Karen and Kevin do. Instead we take turns cooking and follow Karen and Kevin’s model of making meals that will last us more than one night a week—one of us cooks on Sunday, we eat that meal Sunday and Monday, and then the other one of us cooks on Tuesday, making a meal that lasts the next two days. On Thursday, the person who cooked on Sunday cooks again, and we eat that meal Thursday and Friday. (And we usually eat out on Saturday.)

Sometimes we stretch the meals out longer, but even if we only have to cook every other night, we always notice how much of a relief it is when half of the time we don’t have to exert any effort for a delicious home-cooked meal. And since we take turns, that means each of us only cooks one or two days a week, which seems doable even for the busiest couples. If we plan it right, we almost never have to cook on an especially long and exhausting day. This is, of course, important since we are all more likely to eat out or eat unhealthy food when we are tired.

Another benefit of this system is that we eat less. If we know that a meal has to last two—or three—nights, we’re much less likely to get a big plate of seconds, a huge benefit for two people who really like their food.

This may seem like an obvious solution to the problem of not having time to cook, and in many ways it is, but until we heard about Karen and Kevin’s routine, it had never occurred to us to do make such a simple change.

It seems fitting that today to end with a recent quote from Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma: “You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want—just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Say what? Why it's dangerous to say that
"exercise won't make you thin"

196.5 pounds
I want to take a break from my discussion of processed foods to talk about the Time magazine cover story about exercise. The headline with the article says, "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin," and the cover of the current issue reads like this: "The Myth about Exercise: Of course it's good for you, but it won't make you lose weight. Why it's what you eat that really counts."

The good news is that the main message of this article is that exercise as we know it—meaning going to the gym for 30-60 minutes a day—is not an effective way to lose weight, and that instead we should exercise all day long if we want to lose weight. This is the same assertion I made in my "Returning to Childhood" post a few months ago, and I'm thrilled that the study proves what I've been promoting.

But the problem with this article is that it sends the message—intentionally or not—that exercise is not as important as dieting when it comes to losing weight. And that's what readers—especially readers who just look at the cover and flip through the pages without reading the entire article—will take away from this.

That's an incredibly dangerous message to send because, though diets may help someone lose weight in the short term, they almost never work in the long term. In fact, 90%—yes, 90%!—of dieters gain back the weight they lose. That's why I worry about how many people will see this study and focus on dieting rather than exercise, completely ignoring the message about being active all day long instead of cramming all of your activity into one grueling hour-long gym workout.

There is also a big part of me that doesn't buy it. If you read my blog, you know that I lost 27 pounds over a seven-year period from 1999 to 2007, and I lost that weight primarily because I started exercising for an hour every day. Sure, I am a big believer in exercising throughout the day now, but back then, I almost never exercised more than once a day. And I certainly never dieted, so I don't know what else could have led to me lose those 27 pounds.

Maybe it would have been better if the article had claimed that exercising once a day is not an effective to lose weight quickly. That's something I could agree with. But I would also reassert that almost anyone who loses weight quickly is unlikely to keep it off.

From my point of view, a better study would have examined how few people who exercise—once a day or throughout the day—on a regular basis are overweight or obese. Because I think a study like that would prove that exercise of any kind does help us lose weight and stay healthy over the long haul.

Unfortunately, the study that was conducted only looked at the short-term goal of losing weight rather than considering what our long term goal should really be: to be healthy and not carry too much extra weight. Because what good does it do us if we can lose twenty pounds every few years if we are still thirty pounds overweight all the other years of our lives? The answer is obviously that it doesn’t do us much good at all.

And did this study really tell us anything new? It tells us that the fastest way to drop pounds is to eat less, but we all knew that already. What it doesn’t tell us is that weight loss usually doesn't last. And that’s because our bodies are, in some ways, smarter than we are—when we stop feeding them, they stop burning calories and begin to store fat so that we don’t starve to death.

The article also claims that one of the reasons that once-a-day workouts are not effective is because they use up all of our stores of discipline, thus causing us to eat more. This is, of course, presuming that those who exercise eat more. I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat more when I exercise. If anything, I eat less! Because exercising makes me happier, I am less likely to feel the need to “feed my emotions” than I would if I didn’t exercise.

In fact, you might have noticed that my weight is up to 196.5 pounds today—a number I was loathe to post here. This is 3.5 pounds more than my low of 193 pounds last week.

On Friday, right after my last post, my grandfather suffered a massive stroke. Of course, Dave and I got in the car and drove to be by my grandpa's side all weekend. (We made it there in time to see him, but sadly, he died yesterday morning—though I should add that, at 89 years old, he was one of the few people lucky enough to live a long and full life.)

The reason I bring this is up is because I feel confident that the increase in my weight is the result of the fact that I didn't exercise all weekend and ate a little bit more than normal because of the stress of watching my grandfather struggling to recover. This is why it's hard for me to believe that exercise doesn't help us lose weight—whether it's once a day or three times a day—since the numbers go down on the scale when I exercise and up when I don't.

Ultimately, I'm happy about this study because it confirms what I've been saying all along about the fact that we need to make exercise a more integral part of our lives—a part that we not only enjoy but also engage in more than once a day. I only wish that Time hadn't framed it in a way that makes it appear—especially with a headline that reads "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin"—like they are down on exercise and in favor of dieting because I truly believe that's a recipe for disaster.

Postscript: As my friend Neal pointed out in the comments below, The Huffington Post ran a similarly outraged response to the Time cover story. You can access it here: "The Real Truth about Exercise" by Jake Steinfeld. As Steinfeld says, "Those who exercise regularly are fitter, feel better about themselves, have less propensity for developing a chronic disease, and ultimately do lose weight. I was a fat kid with a bad stutter growing up. Exercise helped me lose weight while boosting my confidence and self-esteem. Exercise changed my whole life." I couldn't agree more since this mirrors my own experience, and I'll never believe that exercise doesn't help us lose weight in the long run. Steinfeld also quotes his a friend of his who is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic and says, "medical professionals ALL agree that exercise, as part of a healthy lifestyle, improves one's health and lowers costs to the health care system. Americans should be encouraged to do more of it, not less. Of this there can be no debate."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Uh oh, no more Spaghettios:
the problem with processed foods

194 pounds
In my last post, I talked about how difficult it is for working-class Americans who live in rural areas to get reasonably priced, healthy food—either in the grocery store or in a restaurant, but I didn't really get into a very detailed explanation of why processed foods are bad for us.

Just so we're all on the same page, processed foods are foods that "have been altered from their natural state for safety reasons and for convenience. The methods used for processing foods include canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration and aseptic processing."1

One easy way to spot processed food is the ingredient list. If an item has a long list of ingredients, then it's probably processed. Because, let's face it, most food should not have an ingredient list! Beans do not need sodium nitrate. Cranberries do not need high fructose corn syrup. And our bodies don't need them either.

Another way to think about it is, "If it's boxed, bagged, canned or jarred," it's probably processed. 2

I think most of us are aware that processed foods are bad for us, but I'm not sure that all of us—including myself—fully understand what is meant by "processed."

When I told my dad this summer that I try to eat mostly whole foods and stay away from stuff that's processed, his very mature response was to start listing all the foods he thought that meant I shouldn't be able to eat.

"So I guess that means you can't eat bread?"

There was a smug look on my dad's face when he said this, and I knew he was setting a trap.

"No, I still eat bread," I said.

"But bread is made through a process! And what about milk? That's processed! Are you going to give up milk too?"

My dad loves to catch me in a contradiction, and though I knew he was missing the point, I also knew that I couldn't tell him exactly why bread and milk are okay. That's when I decided to look into the subject a little further and find out exactly what we need to avoid when it comes to processed food.

I discovered that the big things to watch for are foods that are high in fat, high in sodium, and low in nutrients as well as foods that have a bunch of unnecessary chemical additives.

High sodium is one of the biggies. According to the Mayo Clinic, it's best to stick to low sodium foods, and an item is considered low sodium if it has no more than 5% of what your daily sodium intake should be.3 Unfortunately, many processed foods have far more than the amount of sodium you should get from one meal, sometimes more than you should get in one day. For instance, a package of Lipton chicken-flavored noodles has almost 900 milligrams of sodium in each serving, which is 40% of the recommended daily sodium intake.

Of course, many processed foods are also high in fat, especially trans fats. High fat and high sodium foods can cause a plethora of health problems including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, liver overload, heart disease, and all kinds of cancer (in fact those who eat processed meats, have a 67% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who eat little or no meat products), not to mention dulled taste buds and water retention.2

This is part of the reason that Paris Hilton once famously said that only fat people drink Diet Coke. Because just like other processed foods, Diet Coke—and other diet foods—cause you to retain water and feel more hungry and thirsty rather than less. Sure, regular soda is bad for you too, but a lot of people who drink diet soda do so every single day because they have the false sense that it's not bad for them. This is why I think it's better to give in to the craving for a real soda once or twice a week than to have a diet soda in your hand all day every day.

Processed foods also tend to be low in nutrients. This is because processing takes many of the nutrients out of the food, meaning you don't even get what your body really needs.4 You may think you're eating something healthy when you bite into a canned green been, but it's not nearly as good for you as the fresh green beans sold at your local farmer's market, which are brimming with vitamins and nutrients.

And what processed foods lack in nutrients, they make up for in an abundance of additives. Unhealthy chemical additives that are added to food to make it stay fresh and last longer and look pretty. I like a red tomato as much as the next person, but I don't want the red color to be the result of unnecessary and harmful chemicals.

Ultimately, what this means is that you don't need to avoid processed foods like milk, frozen veggies, real fruit and vegetable juice, and whole grain bread and pasta, but you should avoid the following:
  • canned foods with lots of sodium
  • white breads and pastas made with refined white flour (instead of whole grains)
  • packaged high-calorie snack foods like chips and cheese snacks
  • high-fat convenience foods like canned Spaghettios or ravioli
  • frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners
  • packaged cakes and cookies
  • boxed meal mixes
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, sausage, ham and other packaged lunch meats1

  • From what I've read, "If you have to eat processed foods from time to time, be aware of portion sizes and look for ones that are made with whole grains, that are low in sodium and calories, and that are free of trans fats."1

    What's ironic is that when I was a kid, we were fed this kind of stuff all the time. I think that my mom—and many of our parents—believed that if a product was chicken-flavored or contained dairy of some kind (like Mac 'n Cheese), it was good for us. And why wouldn't she when that's what so many food manufacturers want us to believe? What's most shocking is that that kind of propaganda is still used today. The can of Spaghettios I have shown above has a picture of a round noodle flexing his muscles, a pathetic attempt to convince consumers that Spaghettios will make you strong and are, therefore, good for you. I know it's hard to make time to cook and it's even more difficult to get kids to eat a real meal, but I also worry that if you get hooked on that kind of stuff when you're young like I did, giving it up can be just as difficult as overcoming any other bad habit.

    I was raised on Lipton noodles, Rice 'a Roni, Kraft Mac 'n Cheese, Spaghettios, Old El Paso tacos, and Hungry Man TV dinners, so I know as well as anyone how hard it is to quit this stuff. In fact, whenever I see a can of Easy Cheese, I go into convulsions. Oh, what I wouldn't give for just one more can of Easy Cheese!

    In truth, I'm not exactly sure what I would give for that can, but I can tell you with certainty what I wouldn't give—even one day of my life, though that single aerosol can would probably take much more. And that's what we're doing when we eat processed foods—shortening our life spans. So whenever I feel like I'm about to give into the Easy Cheese craving, I head to the Southern Kentucky Farmer's Market and buy a bar of locally made, all natural cheese from Kentucky's own Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese. (The smoked gouda and dill havarti are my favorites.) And the funny thing is that I suspect that if I ever did give into my craving and buy an actual can of Easy Cheese, I would find that it doesn't taste nearly as good as I remember and wish I had gone to Kenny instead.

    What's really frightening is how often we eat processed foods and how much space they take up in our lives—both on our tables and in our grocery store aisles. In fact, Americans spend 90% of our grocery bill on processed foods!2 Let me repeat that—90%! That's the exact opposite of what we should be doing. As I mentioned earlier this week, one way to do that is to avoid the middle aisles of he grocery stores and stick to the produce, meat, and dairy sections that normally line the outside of most American grocery stores.

    In the movie Food, Inc., viewers are encouraged to vote with their dollars—meaning that they should spend their money on whole foods rather than processed foods and organic, natural, or local foods rather than foods that have been made with questionable practices and shipped around the world to get to our tables. It's great advice, and I try to follow it every day. I recommend you do too because if we all voted for natural whole foods, I bet that it wouldn't be long before the items we found in the middle aisles of our grocery stores would magically start to change.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Processed foods and little pink houses:
why we can't eat in a small town

194 pounds
It's been a while since I've addressed the question of how I can lose weight without dieting, and I need to start getting back to that question. I've already talked about the importance of indulging and making exercise a fun and frequent part of our lives (meaning more than once a day), and I'd like to get through several more tenets of my non-dieting approach over the next few months. The one I want to start talking about first is processed foods—and I say start because this post is only going to talk about why processed foods are more of a problem in our society than I think most people realize.

One of the many problems in our society is what we eat. Many of us know that the quality of what we put in our mouths is as important as the quantity. In his bestselling book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talks about how bad processed foods are for us—they're high in sodium, high in calories, high in trans fats, and have little or no nutritional value. Pollan suggests avoiding these problem foods by shopping only in the outlying areas of the grocery store—the produce section, the meat section, the dairy section—and skipping the middle aisles—where boxed Mac 'n Cheese and canned soup rule. I think we all know that these foods should be avoided, but if we all know this, then why is it that people are still buying these foods? And not just buying them, but buying them en masse?

The answer to this question is more complicated than the fact that these foods taste good or they're easy to make, though those are clearly excuses that many of us make when we buy processed foods. But these aren't the only reasons our country is in the middle of a huge obesity epidemic.

I recently had the privilege of living in a small rural town in North Carolina called Laurinburg for two years of my adult life. Despite the inherent challenges of living in such a remote area, I believe that living there was a privilege for two reasons:

1) As anyone who works in academia knows, it is extremely difficult to get a full-time job teaching college English, and I recognize how lucky I was to get one—even if it was in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. (Also, I worked with a number of amazing people, many of whom I hope to be friends with for years to come and who made my life in N.C. richer than one would imagine when looking up Laurinburg on a map.)

2) I also consider it a privilege to have lived in Laurinburg, North Carolina, because, during those two years, I believe I was able to learn more about how regular Americans live than I did in the eleven long years I lived in big cities like Washington, D.C. or Cincinnati.

For instance, I learned that movies don't become blockbusters because moviegoers want to see them. They become blockbusters because of the theatre owners who book them. Because if you live in a town with as little to do as Laurinburg and it's a thirty-minute drive to the closest multiplex, you're more than likely willing to see ANY movie that comes to the run-down two-screen cinema in your town. (What was equally interesting was that while I was living in North Carolina, I always knew what movie would win the weekend box office because it was always the same movie that opened at the theatre in our town that weekend.)

But I also learned a lot about how the average American eats.

When I moved to North Carolina, I had the false sense that we would have access to all kinds of fresh, local food because we'd be living in such a rural area. But if you know anything about the Sandhills of North Carolina, you know that they don't grow food there. They grow tobacco and cotton.

Still, it was a small town, people didn't make a lot of money, almost everything was cheap (housing, movie tickets, tuition), so I figured that food would be affordable too.

In some ways this was true. A huge Wal-Mart Super Center was so centrally located in Laurinburg that almost anyone who lived in the city limits could walk there if need be (and it wasn't unusual to see people doing so). There were a handful of other options for grocery shopping in town: two of them were pretty small and rundown and the third—Harris Teeter—was gorgeous and well stocked but too expensive for us and for most of the people we knew. Of course, if it was too expensive for us—two full-time college professors—it was obviously too expensive for most of the people who lived in Laurinburg. As a result, almost everybody did their grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, and initially we were no exception.

In the beginning, I did my best to focus on Wal-Mart's positive aspects: so many things were affordable (everything from picture frames to DVDs), and you could buy almost anything you needed in one place. But pretty soon I realized that there was one thing I could almost never buy at Wal-Mart without breaking my bank: produce.

Because, though the Mac 'n Cheese and the Ramen Noodles and the Ranch salad dressing were the cheapest I'd ever come across in my life, the grapes and the lettuce and the broccoli were outrageously overpriced. I remember one time I wanted to buy grapes for a get-together we were having at our house, and the regular-sized bag I picked up ended up costing eight dollars. Eight dollars! For grapes!

It was this experience that got me thinking about and paying more attention to the produce prices at Wal-Mart, and once I started really looking at them, I realized that—except for the few items that were on sale each week—the Wal-Mart in Laurinburg, North Carolina was price gouging its produce.*

Of course, I immediately understood that the consequence of this was that people in Laurinburg—especially people who couldn't afford or didn't have time to supplement their Wal-Mart shopping trips with stops at other grocery stores—probably weren't buying or eating as much produce as people in other parts of the country.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I eventually bought almost all of our produce and meat downtown at Findlay Market every Sunday, and I could do so for thirty bucks a week. I would come home with three huge paper bags stuffed full of fruits and vegetables (and half a bag of fish, chicken, and beef) and be shocked by how far our money would go there. But if I wanted to buy three bags of produce at Wal-Mart in rural North Carolina, I'd probably spend about four times as much doing so.

Not long after I figured out that Wal-Mart was making up for what they lost on frozen pizza by charging more for apples and oranges, I attended a Fourth of July celebration in nearby Maxton, North Carolina.

If I had thought Laurinburg was small, Maxton soon proved me wrong. In fact, it wasn't unusual for people from Maxton to drive the five miles to Laurinburg for an evening of cheap movies and fast food.

One of the things that I immediately noticed at the Maxton Fourth of July celebration was that it felt as if almost everyone there was obese.

Obese and poor.

As I had become used to seeing (even in a fancy grocery store like Harris Teeter), children were running around without their shoes on and many of them were in need of a bath and wearing old and ripped clothing. No, not everyone there fit this description, but most did, and in my Gap jeans and espadrilles, I stood out almost as much as Paris Hilton at a church revival. And I also noticed that, unlike other town festivals I'd been to, there were no rides or games, no Scrambler or Ring Toss. There was only one pathetic looking inflatable bouncing machine, the kind you see gracing suburban backyards for the birthday parties of kids who've never heard of, much less seen, places like Maxton.

Like many Americans, I immediately wondered how it was that people who appeared to be so poor were also so obese. How people who were clearly not rolling in money were spending so much of what they did have on food.

Then it it all came together for me: these people were not spending a lot of money on food. They were just spending it the wrong way. They weren't obese because they were pigging out at every meal; they were obese because every meal was high in sodium and calories and trans fats. They were overweight because they could afford as much Mac 'n Cheese as their hearts desired, but grapes were not in the budget.

Nevertheless, I knew that Wal-Mart was not alone in making the people of Maxton obese.

McDonalds—which was the only place open 24 hours a day in Laurinburg and which frequently had a drive-through line that extended into the street—and Burger King and Wendy's and Park Grill and Taco Bell and KFC and all of the twenty or so fast food restaurants in Laurinburg were complicit as well. Because in Laurinburg, not only couldn't you buy foods rich in iron like spinach and blueberries without spending five dollars, you also couldn't buy a healthy meal in a restaurant unless you went to the only fancy sit-down restaurant in town, a place where a salmon dinner costs around twenty dollars, a price far too high for most of the people who live there. But you could go to one of many fast food restaurants and get a 1000-calorie value meal for around three bucks and maybe even feed a family of three for the same price as that bag of grapes.

The eight-dollar grapes weren't the only reason I stopped going to Wal-Mart (a documentary called The High Cost of Low Prices also played a big role in that decision), but it was basically the final straw. And my goal here isn't to convince people to stop going to Wal-Mart (though that would be a nice side effect of this blog). My real goal is to point out how many people in this country—the people who live in places where Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker will never play—don't have very many choices about what they eat. Essentially, they eat what they're given, and the result is that many, many, many of them are obese.

I used to be surprised by how many more people in this country are now considered obese—especially by the increase in childhood obesity—and I used to believe that these people were just lazy and undisciplined. But after living two years in the middle of nowhere, the numbers don't surprise me anymore. It's not that these people—adults and kids alike—want to eat food that is so bad for them. It's that, sadly, they don't have much of a choice.

*I have not done an exhaustive study of the produce prices at Wal-Marts across America, but I do believe that one of the biggest contributors to obesity in this country is that fresh produce costs more than processed foods.