Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning to Want, Part IV

In Part III of this series, I talked about some of the steps I took to improve the environmental influences that contributed to my consumption driven lifestyle. As I said there, just the awareness of how much advertising and social pressures affected me was an incredibly powerful skill to develop. While on this journey, I also learned some other lessons that helped me address some of the internal barriers to implementing my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Sometime in my late 20s, somebody recommended that I read Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. I wasn't battling with depression or anything like that, but I was caught up in some negative thought patterns that had me stuck in a rut. While I don't even recall much of the book today, I did find it very helpful at the time and one phrase that still resonates with me was this:

Only your thoughts can upset you.

While obviously this principle has some limitations like severe physical pain or when a real tragedy has occurred, there are really very few situations in my life where this principle doesn't apply. Let me take driving in traffic as an example. I used to get furious when people cut me off or did something rude or even thoughtless. I'd lay on the horn, throw out a string of expletives or simply wish them an early, gruesome death. I've been a passenger with enough other people over the years to assume that I wasn't at all unlike the majority of people.

Other than the one time that I was actually hit by another driver, none of those people had ever done me any harm. I realized that the anger and frustration I felt on the road was ultimately my choice. While I can't necessarily control my initial thought response when someone cuts me off, any further thoughts are my choice. While I still occasionally allow myself a cathartic minute of wishing eternal agony on some jackass, I've learned that I'm much happier breaking out of that train of thought immediately because ultimately, it is my thoughts, not their behavior, that make me upset. So to put the lesson in a slightly different way:

It is my thoughts that cause my feelings, not my feelings that cause my thoughts.

This wasn't an easy lesson to learn or to apply. When you're in the moment, there is such a strong feedback loop between the two that it is very difficult to take that mental step back from the situation and break out of it. For me, it was like learning to be a third party observer over my own thoughts and feelings. Initially I could only learn what went wrong by doing honest assessments after the fact. As I took the effort to do this on a consistent basis, I eventually learned to break negative thought patterns before they caused negative feelings.

I won't claim to be some absolute Zen Master over my every thought and feeling, but having developed a general mindfulness has proved very useful overall. If I'm feeling the urge to buy something new or snack on some "off plan" foods, I can usually deconstruct the thought patterns that would have driven me to succumb to the temptation in the past. Heck, I don't even see such things as temptations anymore, they're just choices which I make consciously. Sometimes I do indulge myself and when I do, I do so without guilt.

I'll close this part of the series with this final lesson:

Contentment is a choice.

I'm a lucky human who happens to live in a state of luxury our ancestors could never have dreamed of. I'm surrounded by advanced technologies that provide me with endless comfort, convenience and entertainment. To spend any of my time dissatisfied with the things I have just because other things exist is irrational, foolish and self-defeating. It's my choice if I want to be drawn into the never-ending cycle of consumerism that keeps everyone around me wishing they had the latest and greatest. It's my choice if I want to spend my time being unhappy about how unfair it is when others do. It's beyond my power to change any of that but it is not beyond my power to change my thoughts.

I'm certainly not perfect and I still get aggravated about things I know are pointless to be upset about. Sometimes it feels good to rant for a while but I do so with an awareness of what I'm doing and a new ability to let go of it. It feels much better in the long run to know when to stop and choose to be content again.

Looking back, none of this was a highly disciplined or difficult process. It was a growing awareness of how my environment and thoughts influenced my feelings and my behavior. That awareness coupled with a willingness to make different choices was all it took to make some significant changes in my life. It's a subtle, yet powerfully different thing when you change your behavior by modifying your underlying impulses rather than trying to exert your willpower to thwart them.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lessons Learned from an Intentional Plateau

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had dropped below 190 lbs. at the end of April and decided to maintain for a while. The question I had was whether I could make faster strength gains while maintaining my weight compared to while I was losing weight. After more than two months of increasing my calories every week, I have made some strength gains but they haven't been any faster than before.

As you can see, I never actually got back to 190. I'm sure that I could eventually get there if I continued ratcheting up the calories and continued this experiment for another month but I'm calling it quits. Here's why:

1) It is becoming unpleasant

I'm increasingly beginning to feel like the subject in an overfeeding study. Breakfast is the worst. I'm generally not that hungry in the morning and I've had to make this meal bigger just to work in all the calories. My breakfast lately has been four eggs, two strips of bacon, 4 oz. of roasted potatoes and a 4 oz. burger. It looks like a deconstructed Denny's Breakfast Skillet without the cheese and as much as those used to be one of my favorite indulgences, eating this every morning leaves me feeling stuffed well past lunch time, at which point I need to work in an other meal. Then dinner time rolls along and I'm still feeling bloated. As much as I've gained and lost weight in the past, I'm shocked that overeating is actually unpleasant now.

2) I'm having to resort to added fats to get all the calories in

Just the thought of more meat and starches is becoming too much to take and jacking up the added fats has been the only way to make it more bearable. As much as I love some good Homemade Mayonnaise, it is becoming the only way I'm able squeeze in the extra calories and I dislike resorting to added fats just to get in the calories.

3) I'm not seeing the strength gains I expected

Well, that speaks for itself. Why overfeed when it's unpleasant and it isn't yielding any positive results?

Even though I didn't see the results I wanted, I did learn a few interesting lessons:

1) My maintenance calories are much higher than I thought they would be

From the whole Calories In/Calories Out theory, it should only have taken 200-400 calories per day extra to get to maintenance. At the end, I was eating 900 calories per day extra. That surprised me. It feels like my metabolism picked up quite a bit when I started adding calories in and that's a good sign.

2) Real food is satiating

Looking back at the times I easily gained significant amounts of weight, I never recall feeling overfed. Those periods usually were filled with plenty of pizza, ice cream, chips and lots of fast food. I might have felt stuffed after a single meal, but never for days on end. Trying to overfeed with meat and starch, home cooked from scratch is entirely different. It's encouraging to know that not only can I feel full eating real food, I know I can feel overfull from eating too much of it.

3) I feel like I have greater control over my weight

I have never actually tried to maintain my weight before. I have always either dieted to lose weight or abandoned a diet and regained. This is the first time I have actually picked a weight and tried to hold it. I wish I would have tried it before. It made me feel like maintenance will be even easier than losing. Rather than constantly trying to lose weight, working in periods to maintain may have metabolic advantages and give psychological relief and encouragement.

Anyway, here's a recent picture of me at the gym. I'm happy with how far I've come and how much this way of eating is helping me to regulate my appetite. I'm going to shift back to weight loss mode for a few months and see how I look and feel another 10 or 15 lbs. lighter.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Learning to Want, Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series I explained how I came to the point where I decided to unwind my consumption-driven lifestyle. Now I'll finally get to explaining some of the specifics of what I did that helped me to implement what I call my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Some of these practices were accidental discoveries, and others were ones that I reluctantly adopted out of necessity. The first of these was completely accidental and actually started long before I began making more conscious efforts to reduce my impulse to consume:

I reduced my exposure to advertising.

It all started when I bought a TiVo in the mid 90s so that I could watch my shows on my own schedule. Once I got used to fast-forwarding through all the commercials, advertisements in other media began to be increasingly annoying to me. I eventually went on to cancel cable altogether, and now just about everything I watch is through Netflix Instant (using a Roku), on DVD, or on YouTube. Actually, I don't even watch that much TV anymore nor do I miss it. I've also dropped all my magazine subscriptions, and I have Adblock Plus installed on all of my web browsers.

As I've reduced my ad exposure, I've noticed a significant decline in my interest for "what's new". I have no clue what new movies are playing, whether there's a new iPhone being released or what new flavor of Doritos is going to make my head explode. I am blissfully unaware of all the new and improved, greatest and most exclamatory-adjective-laden products that are now available to make me dissatisfied with what I already own. I don't have a constant stream of professionally engineered sounds and images trying to separate me from money, only to obtain yet another thing they will make certain I am dissatisfied with before I'm even done paying for it.

Corporations spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising. For many products, a great portion of what you spend on it goes to cover the advertisement costs of convincing you to buy it. Practically every TV channel, magazine and radio station is utterly dependent on advertising to stay in business. Those corporations are not financing all that "free" entertainment out of a sense of goodwill or a charitable desire to sponsor the arts. They spend that money because advertising works. Period.

This doesn't mean I never buy new things but I'm rarely even aware of what my options are until I actively seek something out. I only do that when I am ready to buy because the old one broke or no longer meets my needs. It's shocking how much longer the old stuff remains satisfying when you don't even know that new things have been released.

Just a bit of proactive ad avoidance resulted in a significant increase in contentment with the things I already had. It surprised me, especially since I considered myself to be practically immune to advertising. The most insidious aspect of ads is not just that they are intended to promote a specific product, but they seem to stimulate consumption in all aspects of life.

I like to think that I'm a strong, independent thinker and savvy consumer. Even if I am, that doesn't make me immune to advertising and being aware of that:

I became more conscious of environmental influences.

I had heard the conventional wisdom as long as I could remember: If you're trying to stop drinking, don't hang out at the bar. If you're trying to quit smoking, don't hang out at the smoker's bench. If you want to manage your portions, don't go to the all you can eat buffet.

Even though I was familiar with the concept, I didn't really think about it too deeply before. Besides the obvious factor that I was more likely to give in to temptation I'm influenced by peer pressure, there was an other level. Even when I had the discipline to resist those temptations, just being around those environmental influences made me less content with what I had.

This is an ongoing process and I suspect it always will be. My environment changes over time but I try maintain an awareness of how it affects my contentment. I try to minimize the most negative influences. I don't want to become a complete hermit or a social outcast (well, not usually) but I find myself avoiding social situations where I know I'll be tempted by too much food and drink. When I do partake, I accept beforehand that I may indulge, even to excess. I'm learning that there's no need to feel guilty about an occasional indulgence or that it's in any way a reason to abandon all the positive changes I've made. It's a part of my life where I'm still trying to find a balance but I think I'm mentally in a much healthier place than I was before.

I found that these small adjustments to the external influences in my life were very helpful in reducing the all those unconscious impulses to constantly consume. Just being aware of the influences of advertisement and environment was remarkably powerful. Having turned down some of the external noise and pressure, I was able to listen to the internal processes that needed to be addressed. I'll talk a little bit about those in the next part.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Learning to Want, Part II

In Part I, described how in my early thirties I had reached a tough spot in my life. No, I wasn't homeless or destitute, but the easy trajectory of my charmed existence was headed in the wrong direction. My debt load had become excessive and my weight was at an all-time high.

Looking at my family for guidance wasn't very helpful.My parents and my brother were in the same boat. Most of my friends were, too. I didn't have any role models for success. Even my friends who earned significantly more than me were fretting about their finances. The few people I knew who were lean were eating the same crap that I did. There wasn't a template for me to follow to break out of the cycle that I felt trapped in.

This wasn't what I wanted my life to be like. I didn't want to spend the rest of my days struggling to make ends meet while my health slowly declined. I had to figure my way out of it, and the first part of the process was to figure out how I had gotten into it. I had a few tough lessons to learn and the first one was this:

I was living the life I felt I deserved, rather than the one I had earned.

This wasn't an easy lesson but it was an unavoidable truth. I was spending more money than I could earn and I was eating more food than I could burn. I had become one of the out-of-control consumers I was criticizing so many years ago. I had fallen prey to the consumer culture that surrounded me. Even though I was relatively disciplined in some ways, I used that as a rationalization to overindulge in others.

I didn't spend much money on clothes so I felt justified buying a new high end computer every year. As an IT worker, it was easy to give myself the green light on that as it was vaguely work related even though I rarely used it for work. I practiced restraint eating meals during the week but on Friday nights, I would order a large pizza and eat the whole thing on my own. I felt I had earned the indulgence by being good. Many years later, I crunched the numbers on what I was eating and realized that I was barely undereating during the week and overcompensating on the weekends. By far.

Those are just two examples that were easy to identify when I took a step back to evaluate my consumption patterns. It all seems so obvious in retrospect, but it seemed so reasonable at the time. My lifestyle was no more extravagant than the people who surrounded me. I deserved to live it up in little ways just like everyone else did. But just like everyone else, I was getting buried in debt and watching my waistline expand. Then it was time to learn the second tough lesson:

In spite of all that consumption, I still wasn't content with what I had.

That was an even more difficult lesson to learn. It was actually quite depressing to think that I had wasted so much with so little to show for it, but it gave me the one bit of insight I needed to start shifting my thinking. My contentment was not related to obtaining what I wanted. It was such a counter-intuitive concept but I couldn't deny it. Years of chasing more money and consuming more than I earned wasn't working. At one point, I even tried to rationalize the behavior as a motivator to keep earning more. The assumption was that eventually, I would earn enough to consume with wild abandon but I had to stop fooling myself. It wasn't working and I had to finally pay attention to the phrase I had uttered so many years ago:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

In the next part of the series, I'll detail some of the specific methods I found useful to unravel my consumption driven lifestyle and learned to find contentment.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Pork the One You Love

This recipe is shockingly delicious for how easy and inexpensive it is. Everyone I know who has tried it out has raved about how good it is. If you're moaning about how difficult it is to find time to cook, the 20 minutes of prep time this recipe takes to prepare will easily yield 10-15 servings. And it's just as tasty reheated on day 5 as it is on day 1 and freezes up nicely, to boot.

1 pork butt, about 5-7 lbs
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp paprika
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garlic powder

Place the pork butt in the slow cooker and all the dry ingredients in a shaker. If you don't have one, a bowl is fine but a shaker is inexpensive and makes the job a lot easier.

Generously season the pork butt, making sure to work the seasoning into all the nooks and crannies.

Making sure the fat side is up, put the lid on the slow cooker and turn it on Low.

Now walk away for about 10 hours.

After 10 hours, turn off the cooker, cover it with a few towels and let it rest for at least 2 hours.
This is what it should look like when it's done. A big hunk of yumminess swimming in a pool of its own juices.

Transfer the pork to a large baking dish. It will be impossible to do it in a single piece as it'll be falling-apart tender by now. Then use a pair of forks to shred it all.
When you're finished shredding it should look like this. Not bad at all but wait, we're not done, yet.
There will be a lot of juice left behind in the slow cooker and for goodness sakes, don't let that go to waste! Pour it over the pork and mix it up. 
Here it is served on a bed of rice but the possibilities are endless. My wife likes it mixed up with some avocado and grilled veggies.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Rant About Meat and Paleo

One of my friends on the music forum I run brought my attention to this NPR article. The folks over at Music Gourmets are somewhat amused by my Paleo way of eating but most of them aren't really interested in trying it out or listening to my ravings. I have no problem with that, and it's one of the reasons I started this blog. Gotta vent somewhere.

Anyway, the NPR article is written in a concerned and reasoned tone questioning how much red meat is too much in the context of the Paleo diet. While using John Durant as the poster boy for this meat fest, they admit the evolutionary fact that meat consumption was key to our development as a species but question whether it's a good idea in light of current science linking meat consumption with increased risks of heart disease and cancer.

I'll admit that the question is fair, and other than the dubious statement that "few cavemen lived long enough to get heart disease or cancer", the author makes an effort to provide a non-judgmental presentation of the facts. I respect her for that and appreciate any kind of coverage of the Paleo diet that doesn't outright condemn it without consideration.

I think the first problem I have with the article is that most Paleo dieters eating generous portions of meat have done quite a bit more contemplation of the facts than simply thinking, "Cavemen ate lots of meat so I should, too." None of us want heart disease or cancer. It's one of the reasons we've adopted this way of life.

The point that needs to be made is that we're not ignorant of the current science. We're dismissing it because it appears to be flawed. Rather than making some ham-fisted attempt at doing my own rebuttal , I'll defer to Denise Minger's excellent dismantling of one of the recent studies referenced in the article. Ned Kock at Health Correlator also crunched the numbers in the dataset for this study.

The one fact that stood out to me is that the difference in mortality rates between the highest and lowest meat consumption group was 3 in 1,000. And that's over a 20 year period. Considering that fact when the authors of the study claim that red meat consumption "contributes substantially to premature death" makes me somewhat skeptical of the notion that red meat will kill you. The rhetoric appears to be far out of balance with the facts, and if an observational study that 3 in 1,000 over a 20 year period is the best evidence they can put forth for this supposedly "substantial" health risk, I'll gladly dismiss the claim.

My own experience eating a diet that exceeds the recommended amount of meat consumption has also put the claim into question. Over the last six months I've been eating 4 eggs, 2 strips of bacon and up to 1 lb of meat per day. It's the sort of consumption that would make the average meat phobic person cringe in horror and grab their chest imagining my skyrocketing cholesterol levels clogging my arteries. I happened to have done blood work before and after this recent increase in meat consumption and surprisingly (well, not to me) my cholesterol numbers have improved.

Now, that's not to say that my experience should in anyway be generalized to what is best for the population as a whole. An anecdotal data point is not evidence for everybody else, and I'm not suggesting that people should eat exactly like I do because it worked for me. But here's the flipside of the coin: in all of these studies that eke out correlations between consumption of a food group and rates of disease, there's a scatterplot of data points that create an overall trend. While you could reasonably assume that the trend may be used to create predictive models for populations, they don't accurately predict individual responses. Unless the correlation is 100%, you don't know which point of the scatterplot an individual will fall on.

You could be on of the 3 in 1,000 people whose life is shortened by meat, or you could be one of the 997 others who don't suffer the consequences of this supposed hazard. No amount of statistical analysis, clinical studies or overblown rhetoric will tell you which one you are. The best you can do is see if you are a positive or negative responder to any healthy or unhealthy behavior and use whatever tools you have available to test the results. That doesn't mean you should ignore all common sense, start smoking 2 packs a day and guzzling sugary sodas by the gallon, but when it comes to things like eating meat, which has been part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, we should feel comfortable questioning the science.

But finally, here's the last issue I have with the article. Even though I'm defensive of meat consumption, there's nothing about the Paleo template that dictates how much meat you need to consume. As far as I'm concerned, you can be a raw vegan and be Paleo. The Paleo template suggests that meat, vegetables, tubers and fruit with minimal processing should be the basis of our diet. From Kitavans to the Inuit, populations have eaten natural whole foods in a wide range of macronutrient ratios and thrived on them. If you're concerned about eating too much meat, then don't eat too much meat. If you're thriving on it, then dig in.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Learning to Want, Part I

Once upon a time I was discussing the rampant consumerism of the modern age with a friend of mine. In a moment of self-imagined Zen mastery I said the following:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

I don't know if I got that from somewhere or if it was a momentary lapse of mediocrity, but the phrase has stuck with me over the years. I call it my Principle of Contentment.

I won't claim that I lived by this principle since I first uttered the phrase. For many years, it was quite the contrary. I spent much of my 20s and early 30s deeply in debt and always felt like I had justifiable rationalizations for my excess spending.

It wasn't until I started to figure out why and how to go about changing my wants that I could actually start applying the Principle of Contentment. But before I get into those, I want to clarify one thing that I had to understand about it:

It was not about learning to settle for mediocrity or giving up on my hopes and dreams. This was about learning to identify the impulsive desires that lead to constant dissatisfaction and over-consumption. I had to learn the hard way that constantly giving in to those impulses was my greatest barrier to realizing my greater dreams.

My life goals have never been exceedingly ambitious or unusual. I wanted a job that paid enough to cover the bills and have a little left over for my hobbies. I wanted to be able to retire with enough invested to maintain my current lifestyle. I wanted to be healthy and look good. That's all pretty run-of-the mill stuff and I never really doubted that it was all achievable. I was always pretty good in school when I applied myself. I usually did well at work. When my weight started to get out of control, I was able to shed most of it as long as I paid attention to my diet and spent more time exercising.

With my focus mainly on my career, I plugged away at building my skills and worked various jobs. I did increasingly well up until my early 30s and then the lucky job streak faltered. I found myself buried in credit card debt, earning half of what I did a few years earlier and pushing 250 lbs.
In a bit of a funk, trying to contemplate how I had gotten into my predicament, that phrase started coming back to me:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Yes, it seems simple and superficial but the problem is that it's so non-specific. Any principle such as the Principle of Contentment has to be non-specific because the application will be unique to the individual. But that doesn't mean I can't expand on it a bit and detail some of the specifics as it applied to me. Hopefully seeing how I applied this principle in my life will be useful to you and provide you with some strategies for identifying and coping with self-defeating impulses.

In the next part of this series, I'll describe some of the impulses I identified as being the most self-destructive along with some of the rationalizations I used to defend them.