Chapter Seven

In this excerpt from Chapter Seven, I explain the importance of those nutrition labels, and why you really should pay attention to just what it says on the tin.

Labeling, not enabling

Not long after I got out of the hospital — I think it was between two and four weeks, but I don’t remember exactly — Kaiser invited me to a free post heart-failure class, which was led by a nurse and a nutritionist. There were several dozen attendees in the room, and other than the nutritionist and one kid who must have been his grandmother’s ride there, I was by far the youngest person in attendance. And I don’t mean by just a couple of years. Everyone else there had to have been at least two decades older than me. If they weren’t, they sure looked it.

I found myself wondering why there was such a huge difference. As far as I could tell, no one in that room was a current hospital patient, so they all must have been through the same experience. Now, granted, my relative youth might have been an important factor, but I’m only assuming that everyone was so much older. Again, it could have been perception, and there may have been younger people in that room who were just a lot sicker.

After all, in the months before I’d gone into the hospital, I had looked a hell of a lot older myself.

But it was a strange sort of encouragement. I felt downright chipper and energetic, and if what I was looking at around that room was the alternative, then I had either really lucked out, really done something right, or both.

This feeling really kicked in at about the halfway point when the nurse had finished talking about the importance of physical activity, then said it was time for a stretch break and asked us to stand up. Three of us did — one patient, the aforementioned grandkid, and I. The nurse quickly covered with the request, “If you can’t stand up, just put your arms up.”

Some of those efforts were totally half-assed as well, and I really began to feel sorry for a lot of folks in that room, also remembering that not all that long before this class, I would have been in their boat, and not paddling along on my own.

I hope this isn’t making the class sound useless, though, because what the nutritionist taught us is still invaluable. It’s advice I follow to this day, and information I alluded to in Chapter 2. This is where I learned to start watching people in restaurants in order to see if what she’d told us was true, and it is — the first thing the vast majority of people do when their food arrives is to grab the salt and start shaking away, even before they’ve tasted a single bite.

She also taught us the importance of those nutritional information labels on the backs of packages that we often wind up ignoring, which brings up another one of those funny doctor moments.

Before I wound up in the hospital and as my doctor was scheduling my echocardiogram, I had mentioned my dieting attempts and how they weren’t working, but I insisted that I always read the nutritional labels. As the conversation continued, though, I realized that I wasn’t really reading the labels. I was only looking at the Calorie information, and only on a few items. After all, if you go by only Calories, an entire jar of 100 grams of olives only has 115 — but it has 735 mg of sodium. And a condiment, like a particularly snooty brand of mustard, only has 5 Calories per serving but 120 mg of sodium.

(Free grammar and science lesson: “Calorie,” with a capital C, refers to the things in stuff you eat. The other one, “calorie” with a lowercase c, refers to a specific scientific unit of measure, and is 1/1000th of a Calorie. No, I don’t know why, but the easy way to remember is that Calorie, with the big C, is bigger than calorie with the little c.)

My M.O. had only been to look at the Calories on pre-packed, frozen entrees, but I hadn’t given it a thought when it came to other things, like bread, buns, condiments, juices, and so on. I also gleefully ignored the serving size rules, meaning that the Calorie counts on the package became meaningless. After all, if the serving size is one fifth of a package at 260 Calories, eating the whole package would actually be 1,300 Calories, or a huge chunk of an adult’s needs for the entire day.

The hypothetical product I’m basing that on would also jump from an already ridiculous 960 mg of sodium to 4,800 mg — way over double the RDA.

Guess who used to ignore the serving sizes and consider “one package” and “one serving” to be synonymous? I used to eat an entire 12-inch pepperoni and sausage pizza for a meal. A meal like that was loaded down with 1,360 Calories, 60 grams of fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar just for fun. Sometimes, I’d even add extra cheese, bringing it up to 1,520 Calories, 72 grams of fat, and 3,180 milligrams of sodium.

Hey, at least the cheese didn’t add any sugar, right? And I won’t say which brand that pizza was, other than that it’s very appropriately named. What I will say is prepare yourself now, because pizza is one of those things that’s going to become very, very rare in your diet if you want this to work.

If your initial reaction to that comment was to express some degree of skepticism or disdain at losing out on pizza, then you are going to have to work extra-special hard at all of the tricks I’m sharing, because you are being your own enabler. In order to succeed, you’re going to have to learn to cut off all of your enablers, including yourself.

That cutting off begins by doing what I learned to do. Read those nutrition labels on absolutely everything.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Six or Chapter Eight, or start at the Prologue.

Chapter Three

In this excerpt from Chapter Three of “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” find out how we can be set up to fail almost from the beginning — by the best of intentions.

Thank you, Mr. President

When I was in elementary school, something called the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (whatever that was) determined that we had to be tested in our physical abilities as part of the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. Now, here are a couple of new details about me I don’t think I’ve mentioned before.

Number one, I was born very premature — something like two months early, possibly more. I spent the first sixteen days of my life in an incubator at Kaiser Hospital Hollywood, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which sounds much friendlier under the initialism NICU — especially if you treat it as an acronym. Preemies often have lung issues, and when I was about seven I had a bad case of bronchitis. Air quality in Los Angeles up through the ‘80s and probably into the mid-1990s was also total shit — seriously, it is much, much better now — none of which helped me at all.

I also had viral pneumonia when I was 14, so why I ever started smoking is beyond me, because I never should have in the first place. But flashback to about two or three years before that and here’s the scenario. First, I’ve never really had upper-body strength. Oh, sure, I’ve got legs for days, and in middle-school I could leg-press ridiculous weights — I distinctly remember actually lifting six hundred pounds with no effort. But my chest, shoulders, and arms? Not so much.

Now combine that with bad air and weak lungs, and strenuous physical activity really wasn’t my thing. But around fifth grade, they were suddenly testing us on how many pull-ups and push-ups and sit-ups we could do — for me, I think the answer was “one and a half” of each on a good day. But it got worse, because we were expected to run laps around the schoolyard, and we were grouped and categorized based on how many and how fast.

While I had strong legs, running was not my thing because I would get winded really fast. Also, because it happened to be our Evil Overlords (aka Principal from Hell and Teachers) mandating that we do all this shit, I really rebelled against it. I’d run as far as I could, which was maybe a quarter of the way around the hot asphalt playground of my elementary school, but then I’d stroll the rest of the way with those of us who couldn’t manage to go much faster. Fortunately, my two best friends, who were both named Mike, weren’t big runners either, so at least we had a private triumvir via which to commiserate and bitch about it.

Meanwhile, the jocks would easily cruise through a dozen or more laps in the fifty minutes allotted while the coaches — the bitter alcoholic recently divorced fifth grade teacher Mr. Slane and the butch lesbian ex-military sixth grade teacher Ms. Harrison — took notes and blew whistles and shouted.

In a weird way, this enforced activity missed the same boat that teaching kids strictly for standardized tests does now: It doesn’t effing work. If anything, it does the opposite. They started to test our natural abilities in fifth grade with an eye toward training us to pass the tests in sixth — but then they tried to ride the asses of those of us who weren’t cutting it and guess what? Our response was pretty much to decide, “Okay, we’re going to fail this shit, and we don’t care.”

At least we weren’t actually being graded on this one, right?

Honestly, it’s fine to fail at this kind of thing if your ambition is to not be a jock. But, on the other hand, if you want to actually get an education and this is how they’re feeding you math and history and languages and arts and everything else, well… it’s a really, really bad system. Especially because the current system doesn’t really include that art part at all.

You cannot build people up if you start out by saying, “Well, gosh, you sure suck at this.” And you can’t build yourself up if you start out by saying, “You’re right. I do.”

Improvement only comes from a safe space, and it starts with an acknowledgement of effort. I’m sure that, back in those days, if the response to my pathetic attempts at physical fitness hadn’t been, “Well, shit, you’re a weak little faggot, aren’t you,” but instead had been, “Okay, you did one, that was great. Can you do two? ‘Cause I think you can…” then things would have turned out totally different.

Well, who knows? I could have been a famous retired gold-medal winning Olympic athlete or something now. Why do I think that? Because, even earlier than failing at athletics, I got encouragement from all over the place on my intellectual abilities, especially my writing and my musical skills. Those are what were nurtured by my parents, teachers, and friends.

Guess which two things I have done for all of my life and still do to this day, and which other bunch of things I only rediscovered and learned to love recently.

Now, the idea behind all the Presidential Fitness shit was sound and noble. It’s just that the approach was bad. However, irony alert — it was probably largely due to government intervention in an effort to make people thin that America got fat in the first place.

I’ll get back to that part in a moment. But first of all… how are we going to define “fat?”

* * *

 Putting the “die” in diet

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), if you’re American there’s nearly a 37% chance that you’re obese, meaning that you have a Body-Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30. For a woman of average height, 5’4” (1.62 m), this means a weight of 174 lbs. or more (79 kg). For the average man, those figures are 5’10” (1.77 m) and 207 lbs. (94 kg). However, keep in mind that the BMI can be really wrong for very athletic people. An in-shape male bodybuilder of average height who is mostly muscle and weighs 230 lbs. is probably not actually obese.

But you’re probably not a bodybuilder, or mostly muscle instead of fat. You probably wouldn’t be reading this book if you were. You might be sighing in relief to yourself right now to realize that you aren’t obese, but many estimates put the number of overweight adult Americans at two thirds of the population — those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9.

If you’d like to calculate your own BMI, here’s the formula, in both metric and imperial units:

In the above, k is your weight in kilograms and m is your height in meters; P is your weight in pounds and I is your height in inches. Here’s how the formula breaks down for me:

 k/m^2 (or) P/I^2 x 703

Of course, if you’re averse to even simple math, you can always search “BMI Calculator” online and find many options for plugging in the numbers to see your own results.

76.1/1.88^2 = 21.5 (or) 167.8/74^2 x 703 = (0.0306 x 703) = 21.5

How did you do? Even if you did come up with a BMI in the normal range, read on, because this book isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about avoiding unhealthy outcomes in the first place, but that only applies to one third of you.

The question is: Why is it that so many of us are or have been overweight in the first place?

* * *

You can read all of Chapter One, excerpts from Chapter Two or Four, or start with the Prologue.

Chapter Two

And more of the book drops, although this time you only get a hint, which is the very first part of the (much longer) second chapter. If you’re a math nerd, this would be about 18%. Bon apetite!

It starts early

I grew up as a typical American Gen-Xer, in a boringly suburban middle-class life — not quite upper-middle, but not lower either. Pretty average. I was an only child from what was the second marriage for both of my parents, so while I had half-siblings they were all much older than me and we didn’t grow up together.

Other than a brief little time of trouble with one particular neighbor family that led to their kids bullying me, there really wasn’t a lot of drama. I can’t remember ever seeing my parents fight, and they stayed married until my mom died. We had a dog and a house, I took music lessons, avoided sports, loved science and science fiction, and read relentlessly.

Yeah, I was a nerd then and I still am now and I’m proud of it.

There was always food on the table and in the fridge, and my mother was an excellent cook. She had grown up in a poor Irish-American family in Pennsylvania, lost in the middle of seven surviving kids out of thirteen. To them, “exotic” food was baking the potato instead of mashing it, so it was probably only natural once she landed in a stable marriage that she learned how to cook “fancy,” although her repertoire covered mostly Italian and Mexican food, and nothing Asian.

That was fine with us, though. My father was a huge fan of spicy food, and so am I.

My mother made incredible lasagna, enchiladas, and a casserole that was an amazing combination of ground beef, sour cream, egg noodles, corn, and cream of mushroom soup. Sunday lunch was quite frequently roast beef and mashed potatoes. There were always seconds, leftovers, and dessert.

Consequently, I always carried around a little extra weight growing up and averaged around 185 in high school. That’s still considered normal based on BMI for my height, but just barely — it’s ten pounds less than the lower limit for being overweight. There were also times in my adult life, on-and-off, when I averaged around 225, which is nine pounds under what would be considered obese for me.

A funny thing did happen once I moved from home after college, though — my weight dropped to 165, but it didn’t stay there and I yo-yoed. I had periods of being skinny and periods of being fat, but I could never really figure out a particular cause other than diet. For example, when I started working in TV I gained weight because it involved a lot of sitting around writers’ offices where they fed us constantly — and not the healthiest food, either, but a lot of it. And free.

There’s a very simple rule for weight-loss that tends to be buried under an avalanche of fad diets and pseudoscience. If you want to lose weight and it’s not being caused by an underlying medical condition, eat less and move more. When I’ve done this, I’ve lost weight. When I haven’t, I’ve gained. I’ll cover this concept in much more detail later on, but that’s really the secret in a nutshell, and yet it’s alarming how many people don’t get it. Sorry, but there are no magic foods or pills you can put in your pie hole to melt the pounds off. Surgery does work, but see above, re: existing medical issues. I have several friends for whom this was the case, and the lap band worked miracles for them, but chances are you won’t need to go that far.

This was also why my efforts from 2013 onward to lose weight didn’t work — there was an underlying medical issue I was unaware of, although one that I was able to fix.

As part of my care after getting out of the hospital, Kaiser invited me to a free class taught by a nurse and a nutritionist, and the nutritionist had some amazing stories, but one in particular is relevant here. She had a patient who had been trying to lose weight by eating healthier, and this patient proudly informed the nutritionist one day that they had eaten fifteen oranges in an effort to be healthy.

There’s just one little problem there. Even fruits and vegetables have calories, in this case about 45 per orange, so the patient had just consumed a third of their required daily caloric intake. Oranges are also full of sugar in the form of fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Finally, in sheer weight, that patient probably ate about four pounds of oranges. Can you imagine yourself eating four pounds of anything in one sitting?

Of course, food wasn’t the only thing that was going to slowly lead to my heart problems. I picked up two other not-so-great habits in college…

Read an excerpt from Chapter Three.