16 November 2009

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

This morning I flunked the mirror test. This is really of great concern. I can’t think of anything worse than flunking the mirror test. The consequences are very bad. I looked again; maybe my aging eyesight is mistaken. No, it appears I really did fail to pass this essential test.

I have been fighting the tendency to gain weight my entire life. When I was young, there was a popular albeit sophomoric joke, “Do you want to lose 10 ugly pounds? Cut off your head.” While not as drastic a measure, when my weight creeps up, I eat less and try to exercise more. It is not a fun regime.

If you consult a doctor about ideal weight, he or she is likely to show average and ideal weight charts based on the latest research. The doc may calculate your BMI (Body Mass Index) or even more esoteric calculations like your waist to hip ratio.

I have less sophisticated ways to calibrate ideal and not so ideal weight measures including:

The Scale Test. As referenced above, when my weight passes a certain line (170 pounds / 77 kilos), I know it is time.

The Mirror Test. Whenever I can no longer bear to look at myself naked in the mirror, it is time to go on a diet.

The Shrinking Pants Test. When my pants become too tight; it is not due to fabric contraction or improper cleaning, it is a clear message from the fat fairy.

So this morning I passed the scale test and my stretched jeans have not shrunk too badly but the mirror does not lie. I am not looking good even holding my stomach in and not breathing.

The challenge of weight management becomes more difficult with age. Over time, we shrink; I understand gravity does it. If you want to maintain that height of yesteryear, sign up for the next lunar mission. On earth, we are doomed.

Therefore it is possible to pass the scale test but flunk the mirror test as the body compresses and showcases the extra kilos. This is just not fair; but what else in the aging process is fair?

Why is losing weight so difficult and to be dreaded so? Probably because it is so easy to gain weight. Let me count the ways the solar system is aligned to make us fat and inhibit efforts to slim down.

A Fat Baby is a Healthy Baby. Typical of the common beliefs when I was an infant, my mother felt a fat baby was a healthy baby. I think child diseases were a major concern then, and parents felt thin babies’ survival was more at risk than fat babies. So my generation received plenty of food as long as income was there to buy it. My generation has been overfed from our earliest years.

We are surrounded by high-fat high-calorie tempting food. I often stop for a morning coffee on the way to work. Coffee shops have been able transform a no-calorie, no-fat product (coffee) into a high-fat, high-calorie offering by adding milk, creams and sugars. Then they complement the transformed coffee with high-fat, high-calorie muffins, brownies, biscuits, and cakes. Good luck trying to find something healthy at your local coffee bar.

High-fat, high-calorie food tastes really good. We have grown up with hamburgers and chips, pizza, fried chicken, and other assorted good tasting bad-for-you stuff. What tastes better, a cupcake or an orange? If you’re not sure, let me tell you– it’s a cupcake with frosting.

We are addicted to high-fat high-calorie food. Overeating is an addiction. If someone is addicted to smoking or hard drugs, they can quit albeit with difficulty. But you cannot quit eating food. Instead, we have to reduce the intake of what we are addicted to but we must keep consuming stuff or we will die. This is a very difficult position to be in.

We are comforted by eating. When I am stressed, I often turn to food for comfort and security. I also need activity; I am never comfortable sitting quietly for long periods of time. Some drug company came up with a new disease, “restless leg syndrome.” I have restless body syndrome, but the answer for me is not drugs it is finding a better outlet than eating.

Social and business settings require drinks and typically big lunches and dinners. This is true. Sometimes I can offset the big meals with a rigorous workout at the gym; other times I should offset big meals by eating less at other times, but this is very difficult. As I consume more, my body calls for even more input. And the weight creeps up, the demand for food increases.

Friends think they are being nice by telling us how good we look instead of comparing us to a pachyderm in the zoo. Enough said.

Some of the common ways people try to lose weight are more form than substance. A few of my pet peeves follow. I am not a doctor and claim no medical knowledge or expertise but I will share some non-scientific and not necessarily accurate observations.

Common Myths of Overweight People and Diets

People are fat because their metabolism is low. Wrong. I know lots of overweight people and they all eat more than I do. People are fat because they eat more than they need to sustain their activity level.

People are fat because they have a “fat gene.” This is a new one. I have no doubt that people have different genetic issues and some may be more attracted to the satisfaction food can provide, but give me a break. This just means you have to be more careful in what you eat.

You should not diet because you will just re-gain the lost weight. It is true that most who lose weight on a diet will regain the lost weight. However, if the same people never went on a diet and continued to gain at whatever rate they put on the extra pounds in the first place, how much heavier would they be without the time spent eating less? Every day spent eating less is a day not spent eating more.

Walking burns calories and causes weight loss. Theoretically, if you walked all day, you would burn appreciable calories but you don’t burn many walking around the block. I figure I burn about 100 calories a mile (1.7 km). If I walk for 30 minutes at a brisk pace (say 15 minutes per mile), that is a lousy 200 calories. Eat a brownie and you need to walk for an hour to make up. Yes walking is good for your heart and circulation, just don’t walk to the neighbors’ house and figure you can afford a couple extra beers.

Going to the gym reduces weight. I try to go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week. I have noticed that there are two types of people who go to the gym. Those who are focused and have a hard workout and those who hang around, socialize, and occasionally lie on the mats and meditate about working out. The latter group evidently assumes that by going to the gym, their mere presence causes the pounds to float away. Dream again.

It is not how much you eat but what you eat. This is the basis of countless diet books, which all seem to sell well and make the authors bazillions of dollars. The basic fact is you consume a level of energy units (calories) and you burn a level of calories. When you consume too many, you gain weight; when you consume too few you lose weight. Most of the diet formulas are really schemes to reduce your caloric intake. Try eating less and you will achieve the same results.

If you don’t clean your plate, children in India and China will starve. This theory was popular with The Greatest Generation (i.e. my mother) but the concept is not so great. I never understood the precise connection.

When I was doing work in India a few years ago, I had dinner with a family near Delhi. As the mother encouraged her son to eat more, I asked if her mother used the starving children in China and India story when she was a child. She replied, “Yes but not the China part.” That makes sense.

I have a friend who lives in Houston, Texas, who manages to stay if fairly good shape and never seems concerned about dieting and weight management. But I think Gary’s ideas may not be very scientific. Here are a few of his wisdoms passed on to me that seem to work for him.

If you break something in two (like a biscuit), many of the calories escape into the air. If you break tasty morsels into multiple pieces, eating only a small piece at a time, most of the calories are simply lost.

If you eat a piece of fruit or vegetable, that neutralizes bad stuff you also eat. Eat a banana and the secret stuff in the fruit attacks and removes the calories in a donut for example.

Drinking water causes weight loss. Washing down biscuits and cakes with lots of water makes the calories flow through the body without stopping or adding fat.

Eating while standing or walking makes the calories harder to collect in the body compared to eating while sitting. No wonder people who ‘eat on the run’ tend to be thinner.

Hanging around thin people makes you thinner while hanging with fat people makes you fatter. This evidently has something to do with electrons and complicated physics. I guess the fat molecules hop across to others nearby. Have you noticed how couples are often both thin or fat? Proves the point.

I am not looking forward to next week after failing the mirror test today. I will recheck the mirror test tomorrow hoping for a miracle or temporary loss of eyesight, but it appears I am about to embark on a difficult journey that involves combating gravity, the alignment of the solar system, habits bred since birth, evil temptations on every street corner, addiction, and fewer and fewer role models. It sounds like a horror film; only it’s not a film. At least I have some handy techniques from Gary to help me through the process.