Back Down to 192.6. It’s Time to Begin Cooking

My weight has held steady over the past few weeks, which is good and bad.  It’s good, because I haven’t gained.  It’s bad, because I would like to see it decline.

My exercise has been very good.  I ran over 4 miles yesterday and am gradually increasing my speed.  I also downloaded the new Nike+ GPS application for my iPhone.  If you have an iPhone 4 and are a runner, I suggest you pay the $1.99 to get it.  The app measures speed and distance without the sensor you needed before.  With the exception of heart rate, it functions very similar to a Garmin “watch” I bought a few years back for $299.

As I’ve written before, my dieting challenges occur on the weekends and on weekday evenings.  I’m good from breakfast up to dinner on work days.  Perhaps the solution lies in preparing more food in advance?

As Mrs. Spidey can tell you, I’ve started watching a lot of cooking shows on TV:  Top Chef, Top Chef Just Desserts, The Next Iron Chef, Master Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen, just to name a few.  I know I can’t come close to these guys, but I’ve wondered whether I can cook beyond punching numbers on a microwave.

I trudged out to Border’s today and looked at cookbooks.  It was overwhelming.  (I smartly ate lunch just before going!)  I looked at Gordon Ramsey and at Rachel Ray and others.  While they made the processes simple, none of them listed out serving sizes or calories.  I ended up buying two cookbooks, including one from the American Heart Association, which listed out the serving sizes and nutritional values for each recipe.

So, I told Mrs. Spidey I was going to cook tonight.  And, as soon as I finish this post, I’m off to the kitchen.  I’m making Tex-Mex Mac ‘n’ Cheese, which is on page 113 of the American Heart Association’s book “Healthy Family Meals.”  I know it’s not gourmet, but I have to start somewhere.  (The other book I bought is the Cooking Light Complete Cookbook, although I didn’t get the one with the DVD.)

I will post next week to give an update as to how my cooking is going and whether my family is surviving.

Ian Ayres Hits Home with “Carrots and Sticks”

Back in July, I posted about the website Stickk.com.  Stickk.com uses the concept of commitment bonds to help people achieve goals.  Commitment bonds are an agreement to pay a fine if we don’t achieve a goal, such as weight loss or exercise or even walking the dog.  Commitment bonds rely on the premise of “loss aversion:”  people fill the sting of losses more than the elation of an identical gain.

I used Stickk.com in early 2009 to lose one pound a week for twenty weeks.  I agreed on Stickk.com to pay $75 to charity, if I didn’t stay on my pace of one pound per week.  Thus, for the 20 weeks timeframe, I put $1,500 at risk.  In the end, I achieved my weight loss goal and paid out only $75 over the course of the week.

After I lost the weight, I had an opportunity to talk with Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, and one of the founders of Stickk.com.  Now, 14 months later, my weight loss experience with Stickk.com is described in his new book Carrots and Sticks. The book is an expansion of his theories around commitments and how people make them and achieve them.

I’m proud to be an example of how commitment bonds can work.  But, as Ian describes in the book, making the commitment bond itself wasn’t enough for me.  I took the commitment one step further, and I told my parents, sisters, in-laws and co-workers about the commitment.  I invited all of them to register at Stickk.com and watch my weight loss.  Telling them was a lot harder than putting the $1,500 at risk.  Ian talks about this social aspect a bit in the book (see page 183), but I can’t underscore it enough.  Getting fined and getting embarrassed socially for missing a commitment is a powerful one-two combo.

My commitment actually took one step more than Ian documents in the book.  About three weeks into the diet, I presented on loss aversion and other aspects of behavioral economics at a meeting of my company’s top 120 executives.  During the Q&A session after the presentation, a colleague publicly “outed” me and my commitment in front of all these folks as an example.  In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a better incentive.

Ian writes in the book about how I was likely to gain back half the weight after a year, due to my unwillingness to enter into a “maintenance contract,” in which I would commit to keep my weight within a band or have to pay out a sum to charity.  After struggling to get through those last few pounds, I just had no energy to enter into a maintenance contract.  I remember telling Ian that I needed a few weeks off, that I was just too tired.  Ian accurately describes our conversation in the book.

Unfortunately, the good professor is correct on pages 105 and 106 of his book that I should have entered into that maintenance contract.  The 20th pound came off in May, 2009.  Now, in October, 2010, I have indeed gained back half the weight, exactly what Ian predicted.  And, you know what? I’m struggling to get the weight back off without making a commitment bond.

If I had a do-over, I would have entered into the maintenance contract.  I’ve gone from the shining example of how commitment bonds can be helpful to the example of how not using them can hurt.  Bummer.

I think that adding a commitment bond to weight loss goals is likely the answer for people who already have the social embarrassment, but still aren’t achieving their goals.  Many people use on-line communities, blogs, or support groups to help them.  I’ve written how Brian Stelter posts his eating diary and weight on Twitter with regularity and, just last week, about a scale that will tweet your weight every day.  Is publicity of your success or failure really enough incentive?  I’ve actually been posting about my diet once a week for nine weeks.  I wanted to lose one pound per week, but after nine weeks, I’m down only 4.4 pounds.

I’m glad that Stickk.com is a success, and I urge others to use it.  I wish Ian best wishes with his book.  It’s an honor to be cited in the book, for better and for worse.

With our daughter’s bat mitzvah coming up in early February, there could be another commitment bond on Stickk.com in my future.  I’m sure Ian would recommend it.

Week Seven – 191.4 lbs., Down 6 lbs. Is Momentum Building?

After the gain in week six, I wasn’t sure what to expect in week seven.  I’ve dropped 0.2 pounds below my previous low from week five.  Some of this loss may be because my weigh-in weight from last week was an anomaly.  Not sure.  Sometime the specific day matters.

This past week, I traveled again.  This time I went to a 2 1/2 day conference in Orlando, leaving Monday night and returning Thursday afternoon.  I also went through the Yom Kippur holiday, which includes a large dinner Friday and then a fast until a large dinner Saturday night.

Conferences and business trip in general are interesting for diets.  It seems that I have less control over what I eat, but that may be an excuse.  I can’t control what the conference sponsor puts out on the breakfast buffet and serves for lunch, nor can I really control where we go for dinner each night.  I can, however, control what I order and whether I exercise.  In addition, there is rarely an opening on trips to snack during the day or later at night.  It’s hard to tell how that balances out.  This week it balanced out pretty good.

The important thing for me is not to be lulled into a sense of over confidence.  I’m sure the Yom Kippur fast helped the weight loss.  Time to focus.

Week Six – 193 lbs., +1.4 this week. I Can’t Get by the Holidays.

(I’ve been traveling for a few days, and just realized this never got posted on Monday.   I forgot to his the very large “publish” button.)

When I stepped on the scale this morning and saw 193 pounds, I wasn’t surprised.  While I’m down 4.4 pounds in six weeks, I am up 1.4 pounds since last Monday.

I know why.  It’s all about holidays and family gatherings.  This past Thursday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  On Wednesday evening, we had my in-laws and some friends over for dinner.  My wife and the wife of the family we invited collaborated on a fantastic four course meal, including matzoh ball soup and a tremendous apple pie for dessert.  On Thursday mid-afternoon after services at synagogue, my mother-in-law repeated the food fest at her house.

Sweet Kugel - Simply Irresistible

For her mother’s lunch, my wife made her spectacular sweet kugel, which proved to be the focus of my meal.  If you are not familiar with sweet kugel, I’ve included a picture here.  Ingredients include eggs, cottage cheese and noodles.  A piece is easily 150-200 calories.  Put me down for about 8 over the weekend, including some pieces grabbed the next day out of the refrigerator.

The upside of this week is that my exercise build up is progressing very well.  It wasn’t too long ago, that I was regularly running for 30 minutes at 6 miles/hour (a 10 minute/mile clip).  I started slow in week one, and now, in week seven, I will run for 35 minutes at 5.5 miles/hour.  Each week after this one, I’ll add five minutes at 6.0 mph, until I get back to where I was.  I’m having no issues with the running and, in fact, ran for 45 minutes yesterday, with all but the first five minutes at 5.5 mph.

I don’t have a break in challenges for week seven.  First, I’m heading to Orlando tonight for a three-day conference.  That means buffet meals and brownie snacks.  Then, Friday brings Yom Kippur.  Not only does that limit exercise, but the “break fast” that ends the holiday is traditionally a stuff-your-face event.  Ugh.

This is where I remember it’s all about the long term and not about the short term.

Week Five – 191.6 Pounds. 5.8 Pounds Down in Five Weeks.

Despite my eight-day business trip to Beijing, I lost nearly two pounds this week.  I’m at 191.6 pounds, a 5.8 pound lost after five weeks and 0.8 pounds ahead of pace.  So much for those challenges I wrote about last week.

When I’m on a diet, I find it a bit scary to be away from my home scale for an extended period.  I don’t necessarily weigh myself everyday, but it is important to check in every few days.  Without the same scale, I really can’t gauge how I’m doing.  I have to admit I was surprised when I got on the scale yesterday.

Business trips are also scary, because my eating patterns are way off.  I diet by eating similar things everyday at similar times everyday.  This trip, I forgot to pack Zone Bars for my mid-morning snack.  I could not really control the healthiness of meals.  The times that I ate were different from when at home.  I also had the challenge of not being able to read the nutritional labels in Chinese.

I suspect the weight loss was due to a few reasons:

  1. I didn’t really snack.  The food just wasn’t available, except for some small candies, chewing gum, and some apples I bought at a supermarket.
  2. I kept up my exercise.  Four times to the gym in six days in China.  Biggest challenge?  Figuring out my weight in kilograms and estimating my kilometers per hour pace for the treadmill.
  3. I ate mostly at restaurants, which meant that my food was limited to what I ordered.  This could easily have been a negative, but I made it a positive.
  4. I was able to stop eating when I was full.  This was important, as some of the Chinese meals were family style.

I’ve got another few trips coming up in September and hope to carry this optimism and success going forward.  Now, let’s see how I do this week at home.

Week 4 – 193.4lbs. On Track, But Challenges Ahead

Writing from Beijing on an eight-day business trip.  On the Friday morning before I left, I was at 193.6 pounds.  That’s four pounds in four weeks.  I am right on pace at one pound per week.

Unfortunately, this week brings two challenges that many people deal with in the course of their diet.  Both are outside forces that are only partially under our control.

The Business Trip

I don’t care how diligent you are and how much willpower you have.  Business trips suck for diets.  Often, the food that you eat is selected for you or, at best, limited by the restaurants and hotels you frequent.  It takes an awful lot of willpower not to join the rest of your team in hearty meals and alcohol.  It takes a lot of willpower to make those good decisions when you have the chance.

Generic Cereal for Breakfast - They Get Soggy Quickly, But Are Better than the Buffet

My approach on business trips is one of moderation combined with exercise.  I eat well when I can, and moderate when I cannot.  For example, I take advantage of having a corporate apartment here in Beijing to avoid the breakfast buffet at the adjacent hotel in favor of generic Cheerios and milk in the apartment.  I buy fruit at the local supermarket and carry it with me to the office.  If I remember (and I didn’t this trip), I bring Zone Bars with me from the US for snacks.  In lieu of Zone Bars, I chew gum to get the sweetness and calm the hunger pains.  I also make sure that I exercise every single day without fail.  I burn about 550 calories exercising, and that goes a long way towards making up for some of the bad eating.

Reality is, however, that I’m not always in a place where dieting is an option.  For example, yesterday the team went for lunch at a buffet at a nearby western hotel.  I didn’t deprive myself by pecking at salad.  I stuck to sushi and some seafood salad, with one or two pot stickers, but I enjoyed the variety.  I passed by the desert table and more caloric Indian food.  Later, at dinner, I found myself eating bar food with cocktails.  We ordered some ahi tuna spring rolls to balance the french fries, and I also didn’t eat a thing later.

Stress

I don’t need to cite scientific studies to suggest that stress and dieting are not a good mix.  While I’m not one who uses food to soothe aggravations or frustrations, I am at risk for making bad decisions because of stress.  I may decide to eat more french fries or ice cream “because I’ve had a bad day.”  I simply lose the focus.

Knowing stress can be a problem is half the battle.  I try to be constantly vigilant, but that’s tough when I’m stressed.  It’s even tougher when my stress is combined with team stress.  Joining your team on a night to “blow off steam” isn’t a positive thing for a diet.  You don’t want to excuse yourself, but you don’t want to spend the night worrying.  You have to find the balance.

Balance is one key to solving both the business trip and stress challenges.  You can’t make yourself miserable and punish yourself for every slip up.  Do you best, but then make sure you exercise and make sure that, where you can control your eating, you do.  Avoid the cookies in the business meetings.  Drink lots of water.  Ensure you order things like those spring rolls instead of the nachos.  Hang in there until you get back home or the stress subsides.

Week 3 – 194.6 Pounds. Just Off the Pace, But No Worries

I weighed in this morning at 194.6, which is 0.2 pounds more than last week and only 2.8 pounds less than my starting point of 197.4.  I want to lose one pound per week for 20 weeks, but have now lost only 2.8 pounds in 3 weeks.

Oh well.

I don’t mean to dismiss this as something really awesome, but I’m getting to a good spot after three weeks.  I ran six times last week.  I splurged on a Nike+ sensor for my shoe, and I can now see my workouts online.  I would have easily stayed on pace this week, but I slipped a bit with an in-office potluck lunch on Thursday and dinner out on Saturday night.  I have to be more focused on those times not to slip as badly.

I know I could be on pace, because, as I type this after dinner on Monday evening, I’m a pound lighter than I was this morning.  All you dieters know that we are always lighter in the morning than in the evening, so I’m in good shape for tomorrow morning.

Stelter's Tweet from May 3 Recalibrating His Weight Loss Goal

For those of you who have tweeted me back or written me separately, I appreciate your support.  You may have noticed that this week, I put my weight in the title and, thus, on Twitter and Facebook.

I did this after reading an article by Brian Stelter over the weekend in the New York Times.  The article, “Tall Tales, Truth, and My Twitter Diet,” explains how Stelter used the support of over 600 followers on Twitter to lose 75 pounds in 25 weeks, surpassing an initial target of 25 pounds in 25 weeks.  While his pace of three pounds a week is a bit fast for my taste, I admire what he did.  I also admire his honesty for posting his weight on a daily basis.

As Stelter mentions in his article, Drew Magary did something similar on Deadspin. Point #3 of Magary’s Public Humiliation Diet is posting his weight on Twitter daily.

In the past, I have lost 20 pounds by using loss aversion on Stickk.com, where I had to give to charity each time I fell off my weight loss pace.  That was definitely motivation.  However, it seems to me that telling the world your weight goal and goal date, and then posting your current weight on a daily basis is even more motivating.

You can follow Brian on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brianstelter25.  Join me.  I just followed him, and I’m number 1,295 – which shows what a New York Times article can do for you!

Brian and Drew have definitely given us something to think about.