The Shapiro Files

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

New Columns: "Parental Math" and "On the Road Again"

Check out my latest "Father Knows Best?" columns:

Parental Math
An attempt to describe what it's like to deal with my crazy kids in purely quantitative terms.

On the Road Again
A revisit of the topic that got me the "Father Knows Best?" gig in the first place.

Coming next month: Dietary Dilemmas in which I talk about the challenges of getting my kids to eat food with actual nutritional substance.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Getting Healthy, Losing Weight (Mostly on Purpose)

Since so many people have been asking, I'm going to come clean and admit that I've lost just over 35 pounds over the past five months. Yes, it was intentional--well, mostly intentional. But I'll get to the "mostly" part in a little bit. First, I'll start at the beginning.

As I entered my 30s, I experienced an all-too-common slowing down of my once overcharged metabolism due in no small part to a more sedentary life of working full-time in a high tech setting. Things got even worse when I became a parent six years ago. When you have kids, it's not unusual to allow your health to take a backseat to the parenting concerns that tend to monopolize all your waking hours. Life had become more stressful than ever, I was overeating, and I certainly wasn't about to take any of my rare free time to go to the gym. As a consequence of all this, I found myself about 15 pounds above the normal weight range for my height. Even worse, I felt sluggish and not pleased with the way I was looking.

I finally woke up one morning in March and decided that after years of Marcie regularly nudging me to start exercising, I would finally heed her advice. The first thing I did was ignore fad diets and programs promoted by fitness gurus. I've always liked doing things in my own way. That's just the way I'm wired. Instead, I did my own research and came up with a very balanced workout/dietary plan that I hoped to be sustainable and healthy. As it turns out, this plan proved to be so effective that I found myself losing weight far quicker than I would have ever expected. I originally figured that I might lose a pound or two a week and reach my goal of losing 20 pounds within about three months. I ended up doing it in under two. And no, I didn't starve myself--quiet the opposite, actually.

Five months later, I'm now more than 35 pounds less than where I started and have more energy than I've had in years. That's the good news. But if that number 35 looks a little troubling, that's because I did experience a bit of a detour along the way, which as already promised, I'll get to shortly. But first, since so many people have been asking me how exactly I managed to lose the weight and improve my overall health, I thought I'd share my whole regimen here. Of course, what worked for me may not necessarily work for others. Still, maybe something from my experiences could be helpful to someone interested in such things.

Exercise + Diet = The Magical (Albeit Obvious) Combination

My whole routine has been predicated on the most basic of fitness tenants: Sustainable weight loss can only be achieved by a combination of healthier eating and exercise. It's that simple. Fad diets only get you temporary results. Once your metabolism catches up with whatever tricks you're playing on it, you'll stop losing pounds and will likely start gaining them right back. The key is you absolutely have to exercise as well. In fact, in the balance between diet and exercise, I'd say exercise is, by far, the more important of the two. It's also the most difficult and time consuming.

And let me tell you, I hate exercising. I hate the sweating, I hate the heavy breathing, and I hate the rapidly pounding heartbeat. I also find it incredibly tedious. But that's where discipline comes in. Being a grown-up is all about doing things I don't like doing and so this is just one of those things. Plus it at least has a very tangible impact on my well being.

The other consideration is how much time is takes up. The fact is, I would have never been able to achieve my fitness goals without Marcie's selfless support. In particular, she has had to go solo with the kids even more than usual in order to give me the time I need for going to the gym. I know it's not easy. In fact, if I had to add one other variable to the Exercise + Diet equation, it would have to be the support of a loved one. I'm indeed more fortunate than I can say that I have this in spades.

The Fitness Plan

I go to the gym three times a week--two days immediately after work and one weekend day. I always start off with aerobic exercise, spending around 40 minutes on a treadmill. I do a five-minute warmup, at least 30 minutes at full speed with gradually increasing incline, and 5-10 minutes cool down. I always have something loaded up on my iPod to listen to, as the time on the treadmill would otherwise feel interminable. By the end of the session, I'm usually red-faced and drenched in perspiration and wishing I don't run into people who know me. I'm not a pretty sight.

I next go to the weight training area where I do chest presses, shoulder presses, dumbbell curls, and a bunch of other things whose names I don't know. I'm always trying to gradually increase the weights each few weeks to help build up more strength. I do all this not only for strength and flexibility, but because more muscle mass equals higher metabolic rate, which is helpful for sustained weight loss.

Finally, I do about 10 minutes of mat work, which includes several different types of crunches, sit-ups, pushups, and stretches.

The Diet

I take a very common sense approach to my diet. I'm not into large-scale eliminations, tracking dietary ratios, or even counting calories. Instead, it's all about moderation and logical choices. Here are its main components:

  • A minimum of sweets and anything with refined sugar
  • A minimum of white starches (white rice, regular pasta, etc.)
  • Lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Low fat, but not no fat
  • Controlled portions at breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • Healthy snacks in between meals to keep metabolism running high

Power Breakfast

Of all my meals, the one most optimized for maximum energy/metabolism boosting and all around good health is breakfast. On most mornings I eat a cup or so of non-fat plain organic Greek yogurt mixed with about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, blueberries (sometimes strawberries and/or sliced banana) topped with plain (unsweetened) toasted oats. Every item performs a specific function and the result is something that's pretty yummy (unless you can't stand fat free yogurt) and gets me through the first couple hours of the day. Every so often, I'll eat something more conventional for the sake of variety, like a bowl of Product 19 cereal with non-fat milk and either blueberries, strawberries, or sliced banana. Also, about every other Saturday, I make whole wheat pancakes for the kids and will take a few for myself (without syrup, of course).

Super Salad

Every lunch and dinner starts with what I've come to call my "Super Shapiro Salad":

  • Romaine lettuce
  • Baby spinach
  • Carrot slices
  • Chopped celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumber slices
  • Very lightly steamed broccoli
  • Very lightly steamed cauliflower
  • Avocado
  • A tiny amount (maybe a teaspoon, but I've never actually measured) of olive oil balsamic vinaigrette

I eat fairly large portions of this salad with both lunch and dinner so I have to spend a few nights a week making up new batches. Sometimes I feel like there's no end to the produce to wash, slice and dice, and steam every week. I should also add that since I eat so much produce now, I only use organic ingredients. Let's just say that Whole Foods Market has become one of my favorite destinations.

Lunch and Dinner Main Course

My main course for lunch is usually whatever leftover I have from the night before. I use our Tupperware collection for portion control by using the small (maybe pint size?) containers for this part of the meal. This is roughly half the amount of what I used to eat, but with the addition of the super salad, I'm fairly satisfied after meals. As for what exactly I eat, it can be just about anything, just as long as it falls within the general guidelines of my overall diet plan. Here are just some of the meals I regularly make:

  • Whole wheat pasta with organic ground turkey red sauce (made from scratch)
  • Brown rice noodle pad tai with chicken, carrots, and broccoli
  • Sliced organic chicken apple sausage mixed with zucchini, squash, tomato and spinach/tomato pasta
  • Breaded and baked skinless/boneless chicken tenders served with brown rice and/or veggies
  • Chicken curry and veggies with brown rice
  • Tofu and veggies stir fry

I usually make these meals for the whole family, but it's not unusual for the kids to only eat certain components of each meal. They're especially resistant to sauces. Kids are weird that way.

The In-Betweeners

To keep hunger at bay and my energy/metabolism high, I eat healthy snacks throughout the day. Usually at 10:30, I'll have a salt-free brown rice cake topped with just a tiny amount of organic wildflower honey. Later, between lunch and dinner (usually around 3:30), I'll have some seedless red grapes. I also always keep a bag of unsweetened almonds on my desk and grab a few whenever hunger pangs strike. Less frequently, I'll snack on celery or carrots with humus or a handful of edamame. Sometimes I'll even treat myself to an afternoon cup of green tea. It's supposedly high in antioxidants, plus it gives me a slight energy boost during those late afternoons when I'm especially tired from a lack of sleep (often due to late night salad preparations).

I also discovered early on is that I can't have a good workout unless I eat something right before heading off to the gym. The thing I've found the most effective is a flat Oroweat whole-wheat "sandwich thin" roll with plain almond butter and a touch of honey. This always gives me the boost I need to get through the workout without crashing.

The Dark Side of Good Health

As mentioned earlier, the road to better health took a surprising turn a few months in. I had quickly hit my 20 pound weight loss goal and started working toward my stretch goal of 30 pounds, when I started experiencing some very troubling stomach pain that often came about 45 minutes after eating. The first time it happened I thought that perhaps I had some minor food poisoning. But after a few episodes, I realized this was a different type of pain. I wasn't nauseated and wasn't--well--having to do those things you'd normally do when experiencing food poisoning or the stomach flu. Instead, I was feeling a very sharp pain that was clearly centralized in my upper abdomen. It was almost like someone was constantly jabbing me in the stomach with a knife--sometimes more aggressively than other times--and these attacks became increasingly more frequent. It made my work days tough, it completely soured my mood (leaving me with zero patience for my kids' usual shenanigans), and disturbed my sleep. Obviously, the time had come for medical intervention.

Over the course of several weeks, I ended up seeing two internal medicine physicians and a GI specialist, getting an ultrasound, and having to go through a very unpleasant upper endoscopy wherein a small camera was threaded down my throat into my stomach. At the end of all this, the medical conclusion was that I either had acute gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) and/or gallstones. The former is somewhat treatable--albeit very slowly--via a bland diet and medication. The latter is still an open question, as they only found something that could possibly be gallstones, but could also be something else.

Consequently, for the better part of the past few months, I've been especially careful about eating anything that could case pain. There was even a week or two in there that I was eating nothing but bland foods like rice, plain tofu, and applesauce. But finally, after so much careful eating, I'm starting to feel like myself again and have slowly begun reintroducing a regular varied diet. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle of all this, I ended up losing additional weight beyond what I was intending (at least five pounds beyond my stretch goal). The good news is that I'm still within the range of healthy weight--albeit on the bottom end.

But how exactly did this whole thing happen in the first place? My conclusion is that my nearly overnight change in eating habits in April was clearly the reason. This couldn't have been a coincidence and I've identified two highly probable dietary culprits:

1) Eating loads of unwashed quinoa
2) Eliminating too much fat

First, let's talk about the quinoa. Quinoa has tons of wonderful health benefits and is especially high in protein. Early on in my new regimen, I started eating loads of the stuff. I used it in stir fries, with curries, and in lieu of pasta. However, what I didn't know at the time was that you are supposed to thoroughly wash quinoa before cooking it. The reason this is important is because quinoa is naturally coated with saponins, which is a toxic chemical compound that serves as nature's way of keeping birds from poaching seeds and grains. While saponins in small doses probably doesn't have too much of an effect on humans, I was eating significant quantities of it. Oops. I was at least a little comforted to find through my Internet research that I'm not the only one who had a reaction to quinoa/saponins. In fact, I found one person's story almost identical to mine--right down to the ultrasound and endoscopy.

Oddly, after sharing all this with the GI, I expected her to support my conclusion that excessive quinoa/saponins consumption was the source of my ills. But she was more interested in treating the symptoms than discussing root cause and looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned saponins, a word she had never heard before. Ah, specialists.

As for the lack of fat in my diet, I also learned that making a dramatic decrease in fat consumption (especially accompanied by fairly rapid weight loss) can cause gallstones. This would actually be the most logical explanation for my issues had they actual found any obvious gallstones. The best they were able to do was find what they thought were tiny (and supposedly common) benign cysts in the gallstone region. This is somewhat troubling to say the least. Hopefully all will become clearer in January when I'm scheduled for a follow-up ultrasound. This is expected to result in one of at least four possible scenarios/conclusions:

  1. If they find the same sized things in the same place, then what they found previously probably really are just tiny benign cysts.

  2. If they find the same sized things in a different place, then they're small gallstones.

  3. If they've disappeared altogether, then they actually were small gallstones and I was fortunate enough to pass them.

  4. If they find the same things in the same place, only they're somewhat larger, then I might potentially have something worse than gallstones.

I'll take option 1 or 3. But option 2 means possibly having to get the gallbladder removed. Ouch. As for option 4, well, I'd rather not think about that.

Either way, until more clarity comes in January, I've supplemented my diet with more good fats--especially avocado, nuts, and olive oil and completely cut out quinoa. I've also been taking Protonix, a proton-pump inhibitor prescribed by my GI to reduce stomach acid in order to facilitate healing of the abdominal lining. I haven't had a severe episode in a month so hopefully these things really are helping (knock on wood).

Final Thoughts

In all, I'm glad to be exiting my 30s in a much healthier state than I entered them. I haven't been at this weight and waist size since college and I'm pleased that I'm doing something that'll hopefully help keep me around longer for Marcie and the kids. To that end, I had a comprehensive physical (including a fitness evaluation, treadmill/EKG heart test, and full chemistry panel) a couple of months ago, just before the stomach issues, and got a really good snapshot of the effectiveness of my routine. I won't bore you with the actual numbers, but let's just say that were shockingly good. After so much hard work, I was thrilled to get some concrete proof that my efforts were resulting in something beyond outward thinness.

Fingers crossed that the stomach issues will be a thing of the past and I can laugh at my mistakes. Until then, I hope this extended posting was helpful. Feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts and questions. I'd love to hear them!