Monday, August 31, 2015

Slow and Steady In The Same Direction

In my last post I described my weight-loss journey and how it ties to spiritual formation. What I want to do now is describe some of the details of how I did it (and how I plan on continuing). But let me first say that if you are in need of some encouragement to lose some weight or start getting healthy, this may sound trite, but you can do it. Seriously. If a lazy, food-obsessed lard-ass like me can, anybody can!

That said, here’s my story. Weight loss, for me, has been an ongoing struggle, as I know it has for many of you reading this. But after many attempts, using many different methods, I seem to have found a method that works. I use a free app on my phone called Lose It, which is similar to many fitness and weight-loss management apps. You can research and decide which app may work best for you, but the key is the daily log of calorie intake and exercise. Most of these apps will do much more than just that, including goal setting, challenges, notifications, etc., but all I needed was the calorie tracker. The app makes it quite easy, as you can search for certain foods and it will usually have the correct calorie count already in its database. For foods it does not have, you can easily enter the info yourself.

My calorie budget was (and still is) roughly 1,500 per day. What I have noticed as the weeks go by is that if I actually ate that many calories, weight loss was very slow, so it was necessary to stay below that amount to see results and not get discouraged. To reach that goal of under 1,500 calories per day, I needed to make some pretty drastic changes to my diet. My cardiologist had told me that I should avoid wheat for health reasons, so I cut out bread and pasta. Also, since I began this journey with Lent, I had cut out all sweets (no cookies and ice cream, my two favorites!). I had to figure out what was realistic to replace these things, particularly the bread, because it was so much a part of my former diet. Luckily, I am a fan of vegetables, so they became a staple of my daily diet. Steamed broccoli with some shredded parmesan is so easy and good!

You may think, no bread, ice cream or cookies? How can I maintain that? Well, I had to come up with some alternatives that satisfied my cravings for those things. In all honesty, bread was pretty easy to give up. I still have “sandwiches,” but they are simply chicken or turkey between cheese slices. And that is satisfying for me. No bread needed. Using lettuce works as well as a bun replacement. Another life saver for me is low-sugar protein bars. There are many different ones to choose, but my favorite is this Atkins bar. ( Very satisfying. The other life saver, which is my main go-to on this eating plan, is a protein smoothie. Here’s how I make it, but you can use any number of ingredients, as long as you accurately track the calories. One scoop of protein powder (find one that is for meal replacement, weight loss), one frozen banana, 1 cup of milk (I use 1%), a bit of sugar-free chocolate sauce, a dash of french vanilla creamer, and a some semi-sweet chocolate chips (30 chips are 70 calories). Add lots of ice (I like mine to be very thick), and you’ve got a pretty good chocolate smoothie. The way I make it, it adds up to about 350 calories. Best of all, it is very filling and satisfies that craving for something cold, sweet and creamy. 

My wife and I are not gourmet chefs by any means, so we needed to come up with some easy prep meals that were low in calories but high in satisfaction. So we regularly make street tacos with either ground turkey, grilled chicken, or slow-cooked shredded pork. Use small corn tortillas and garnish the meat with grilled peppers and salsa (no cheese needed) and you’ve got some tasty tacos. Another meal we make regularly is pizza (this is one instance when I don’t avoid wheat—gluten free pizza crust is available but just isn’t as good!). We use thin pizza crusts and make bar-be-cued chicken pizza (grilled chicken, onions, mozzarella cheese and bbq sauce), and veggie pizza. You can put whatever veggies you like on it. Just make sure you calculate the calories for each slice. Once we made the, we had the basic calorie amounts added into our apps and just recall it each time we make the same items. 

Other things I have regularly are eggs, cottage cheese, sweet potatoes, and cereal for breakfast. Let me say a bit about cereal. I love cereal for breakfast, and in the past would either have a sweetened cereal or put lots of sugar on my rice crispies or corn flakes. When I began lent, and cut out sugar, I had corn flakes without any sugar. It became surprisingly easy to maintain that after Lent ended, and I continue to have plain corn flakes or rice crisps (no wheat based cereals) with no sugar added to it. Adding sugar to food is one of the things I have stopped doing, and I now enjoy the taste of foods without it. Since Lent ended, I added sweets back into my diet, but still (try to) stick to the calorie budget. That means being very intentional about what sweets to eat. I look at the calories per item and choose wisely. But I don’t deprive myself. 

I should say a bit about struggling with hunger pains. I am used to living without hunger, because any time I felt hungry I would eat something. Now, I am learning to embrace hunger. In my last post, I shared how I use hunger as a trigger for experiencing God’s presence. If you can’t relate to that type of spirituality, perhaps using hunger as a reminder that you are human, and stand in solidarity with the millions who go hungry through no choice of their own. It is a way of reminding oneself that there is more to life than our own selfish desires. On a practical level, though, drinking water is a great way to quench an immediate feeling of hunger. My water intake has increased quite a bit, and it helps me make it to the next meal without much discomfort.

Regarding exercise, let me say this: calorie intake is the most important part of losing weight. Changing my diet, not my exercise habits, is what made the most impact. I lost 45 pounds with very little additional exercise. I walk regularly, usually 3-4 miles, but was doing that before I lost the weight. Now that I am thinner, I find that I am desiring exercise like never before, so the desire to get in shape is a by-product of losing weight. I have tried to lose weight in the past by exercising more, only to lose motivation after a couple weeks. But it is amazing how, now that I have lost weight by changing my eating habits, my motivation to work out and be active has increased dramatically.

The last thing I should mention is my tendency to binge eat. Yes, I still struggle with food obsession. That obsession on occasion becomes overwhelming and I have given in to “pigging out” on several occasions. When that does happen, I don’t get depressed and give in to my dark side, going back to my old ways. I simply say, “It is what it is,” and get back on track the next day. I don’t fret about it. If I put on weight, no big deal. This is a journey, and it will have ups and downs. I have plateaued at my current weight for several months. It took me 4 months to lose 45 pounds, and I have been roughly the same weight for two months. I still want to lose 20 more pounds. Slow and steady in the same direction is now my motto. Sometimes it is really slow. Sometimes I veer off course. But as I keep on keeping track of my eating, which is my new, life-long practice, I am confident that my journey will be worth it in the end.

If you are encouraged to try something like this, all the best to you. It really is a life changer, and I hope my story can encourage you. 

Grace and peace,


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lent and the Art of Weight Loss

If anyone reading this has known me for any length of time, one thing you know about me is that I am overweight. I have struggled with being a fat dude most of my life. In fact, there is no time in my life that I was not self-conscious about my weight, even going back to when I was a young child, and some of the memories that have stuck with me most are the ones about being a fat kid.

I recall being in third grade and not ever taking my coat off at school, even on hot days, even in the classroom, because I wanted to hide my fat body. I can’t count the times as an adolescent that I was called a whale. Someone even wrote, “Hey Kent you whale,” anonymously on my eighth-grade yearbook. I crossed out “whale” and wrote, “nice guy.”  There was also the time in seventh grade when everyone’s weight was put on a board in the wrestling room for PE. At 152, I was the highest. The closest second was 130. It may not seem that big of a deal today, because there are presently so many kids that are overweight. But this was the mid-seventies when childhood obesity was not a big issue. So being a fat kid put me in a small club reserved for those who were destined to be ridiculed by the skinny majority. 

I stayed in that club all the way through high school and then had a breakthrough. By the end of my senior year, I had had enough. After mustering up the courage to ask my crush to the Senior Ball, I was rejected. I don’t blame her, because she didn’t know me very well (my naturally shy nature was quite enhanced because of my weight problem, so I didn’t talk much to girls). But what was a self-esteem blow turned out to be the impetus I needed to make a change. So, I went on a diet. A real one. I nearly starved myself and started exercising. That Summer I lost 40 pounds and was finally no longer a fat dude. 

Though I managed to stay relatively thin for about 8 years, after settling into married life, in my late twenties I managed to gain the weight back again. And, save for a short period of time in 1990 when my wife and I both lost weight on Jenny Craig (I gained it back and then some), I have remained a fat dude. Of course, like most of us that struggle with weight, I tried plenty of diet plans, resolutions and gym memberships. It was a pattern of two steps forward, three steps back. My obsession and/or addiction to food always overcame the desire to lose weight and eat healthier.

Dec. 2014, 235 lbs.
Now to address the title of this post. What does Lent have to do with this? Growing up in an evangelical setting kept the idea of Lent off in the compartment of Catholic and mainline churches, of which I had very little knowledge or experience. It wasn’t until my later years as a Christian, in the last 10 years or so, that the idea of Lent became something helpful to my spiritual formation. During the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter, the spiritual discipline of fasting is practiced. It is based on the 40 days of fasting that Jesus practiced just before He began His public ministry. Traditionally, one is to fast from something in order to, in a small way, participate in the suffering that Jesus endured when He fasted. Typically, coffee, alcohol, or sweets are given up, but it can be any number of things. When I began practicing Lent, it was usual a combination of those three things. The purpose of the fast is that it would cause one to rely on Christ for strength when those cravings come. There are times when it is quite difficult to stay on track, especially when those cravings for sugar come. The best thing about Lent, however, is that it is temporary. When you can look forward to that feast on Easter during which all the things given up can be consumed again with no guilt, it makes the 40 days of going without a bit easier. This was my experience for a number of years, and after Lent was over, I went back to my gluttonous ways.

Now I’ll tell you about this year. First, a little back story. I turned fifty in 2011, and since then my health seemed to go downhill very fast. First a knee replacement, then a heart condition was diagnosed. My back and knees always hurt after working. Suddenly I’m up to several pills a day just to stay relatively healthy. Though my cholesterol was good, other things were showing up on my yearly blood tests that caused alarm, all of which were related to being overweight. Add onto that the fact that I was now in a classic rock band, which caused even more grief about my weight (I mean, seriously, there are no fat rock stars!) Each year I would say to myself, “This time I’ll make changes,” and then do nothing about it. 

Something changed this year. In December of 2014 I was about the heaviest I’d ever been at 235. Most of my clothes were not fitting me. So, when January rolled around, once again I said I’d make a change. This time, however, it worked. There were two things I did that made the difference. First, I decided to track my calorie intake. In the past, I had found this type of practice to be much too difficult to stick with, and would usually end up just estimating and keeping track in my head. If any of you have tried this, you know that it does not work. Tracking with actual numbers is essential to remain on a steady weight loss plan. Second, I began the new eating plan with Lent. This was for two reasons: I was already planning on fasting from sweets, but more importantly, I was connecting my eating habits to spiritual formation. 

Let me unpack this idea a bit. For my entire life, I have been obsessed with food. Some of you may relate to this. I would not wait until I was hungry to think about what I wanted to eat. I wanted the pleasure of tasting rich, sweet, decadent food at the expense of my health and weight. And if I ever was hungry, the portion of food I enjoyed went far beyond what was needed to fill me up. This is why it has always been a losing battle to try and diet without dealing with the issue of food obsession. So this year I decided to deal with this food obsession while practicing Lent. As I did so, things began to fall into place. I began to experience my cravings differently. My hunger pains became triggers to point me to God, the supplier of all I need. As soon as Lent began, I began using an app on my phone which tracks calories and exercise. I found this immensely practical and easy to use. (There are many free apps which all do basically the same thing, but the one I use is called Lose It.) Gradually, as I stayed on track, I noticed that my obsession with food had been changing. I no longer was eating all day long and was actually hungry when meal time came. This was a major change for me. After Lent was over, I found that it was quite easy to continue on with the fast from sweets, within reason. That is to say, I do not obsess anymore about eating ice cream or cookies, but I don’t completely deprive myself of them. If I can stay within my calorie range, or at least get back on track the next day, then it’s no problem to have something decadent on occasion. The key for me has been the journey. Slow, steady and in the same direction. 

August, 2015, 190 lbs.
All this is to say that today I am now 45 pounds lighter and much healthier. Though I still find myself splurging sometimes, and continue to fight against obsessive cravings on occasion, I can say that I am eating to live now, rather than living to eat. I seemed to have plateaued at my current weight, but still have a goal of losing twenty more pounds. I found that when I don’t track my calories, my weight creeps back up a pound or two. So I have learned that daily tracking is essential. What is most essential, however, is the awareness of the connection of my eating habits to my spiritual life. As I stay aware of this connection, the strength to carry on as a healthy eater is greatly enhanced. 

You may be wondering about the details of what I do and don’t eat, how I use the app, and how much I exercise. I’ll follow up with another post about that soon. For now, I hope I have gotten across the importance of connecting our eating habits with spiritual formation. For me, at least, it was a game changer, and God willing, a life-extender. 

Grace and peace,