Chapter Eight

In this excerpt from Chapter Eight, I begin to discuss some of the unexpected places where excess sodium, sugar, and fat are hiding and how to avoid them.

The dirty yet open secrets of food

Once my doctor and nutritionist taught me how to properly pay attention to those Nutrition Facts labels, I started to see traps everywhere. They were right. Sodium wasn’t just in the obvious places, like pretzels and chips. And although that was my only initial concern, I began to see that fat and sugar were hiding in places you wouldn’t think to find them, either.

There are some things that naturally have sodium when you wouldn’t expect it. For example, spinach actually has 24 mg per cup. Not a huge amount, really, and totally safe. The fruit and vegetable families are generally sodium-free, but there are still surprises like this. Here are some others, with their sodium count per cup: chard, 77 mg; celery, 81 mg; carrots, 88 mg; beets, 106 mg; artichoke, 320 mg; and seaweed, 792 mg.

Seaweed probably shouldn’t be that big of a surprise since it grows in salt water, but what about the most common shellfish? Those figures are, again for one cup: oysters, 193 mg; lobster, 401 mg; mussels, 649 mg; Dungeness crab, 669 mg; shrimp, 810 mg; clams, 1,364 mg; and Alaska king crab, 1,895 mg.

Since I’m going to cover all of the food groups, let’s look at meat. Those numbers are: beef, 59 mg; turkey, 109 mg; chicken, 170 mg; lamb, 186 mg; pork, 1,262 mg; honey smoked ham, 2,043 mg; bacon, 2,384 mg. The last three are a really good reason for pork to be considered tref and haram.

You wouldn’t think that the cheese aisle would be a minefield of sodium, but it is. A look at that list shows why the only cheese I eat anymore is Swiss — and I find the “Most Sodium” award winner in this category to be very ironic. The per cup figures are: aged Swiss, 440 mg; Jarlsberg, 1,053 mg; havarti, 1,187 mg; Gruyere, 1,378 mg; pepper jack, 1,405 mg; provolone, 1,419 mg; Brie, 1,428 mg; mild cheddar, 1,460 mg; string cheese, 1,703 mg; mozzarella, 1,703 mg; Gouda, 1,859 mg; imitation American, 3,053 mg; and deluxe American, 4,061 mg.

The per slice figures aren’t much more encouraging. Based on 20 grams per slice, they work out to be: aged Swiss, 35 mg; Jarlsberg, 93 mg; havarti, 105 mg; Gruyere, 121 mg; pepper jack, 124 mg; provolone, 125 mg; Brie, 126 mg; mild cheddar, 129 mg; string cheese, 150 mg; mozarella, 150 mg; Gouda, 164 mg; imitation American, 269 mg; and deluxe American, 358 mg.

Did I mention that I used to love to have grilled cheese sandwiches with eight slices of that imitation American cheese? Toss that between two slices of wheat bread and slather with margarine, and voilà: 2,555 mgs of sodium in a single sitting! As for the other figures, that one sandwich had 2,336 Calories, 171 grams of fat, 70 of sugar, and 165 of carbs. But it was just so damn delicious!

Was it any wonder why my heart conked out on me?

I already mentioned in Chapter Seven my annoying habit of eating an entire pizza in a sitting, with 1,360 Calories, 60 grams of fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar, sometimes adding extra cheese to bring it up to 1,520 Calories, 72 grams of fat, and 3,180 milligrams of sodium. This was also at the same time that I was having those English muffins with cheese and butter every morning for breakfast at work that I mentioned in Chapter Six.

So I was essentially existing on a diet of cheese, carbs, and salt. And where did the habit for that kind of diet come from?

I hate to do it, but I have to blame my mother. In the same way that smoking seemed normal to me growing up because she did it, I swear that she subsisted on a diet of cheese sandwiches. That was her go-to lunch late afternoons when she’d finished up the housework, and I remember many times when I was a little kid watching her at the kitchen table with the same thing: American cheese slices on Wonder Bread, which doesn’t really qualify for either word, with some Miracle Whip (not even real mayo) and mustard — French’s Yellow, which, I’m sorry, but in my opinion, is one of the worst tasting mustards I’ve ever experienced.

By the way, I only ever knew Miracle Whip growing up and did not experience real mayonnaise until I got to college, but as soon as I did… OMG, what a revelation. See, Miracle Whip has always been classified as a salad dressing and not mayo. It also has more sugar and carbs than real mayo, which has none of either and is lower in sodium. On the other hand, real mayo does have more Calories because it has more fat, so it’s a trade-off.

Did I mention that real mayo tastes a hell of a lot better than the abomination that is Miracle Whip?

But, as a kid, I loved the cheese sandwiches my mom would often put in my lunch and the grilled cheese sandwiches (swap mayo for margarine, but otherwise the same) she would make and the mac and cheese, made with longhorn Colby cheddar and a can of cream of mushroom soup. Both of those combined, even divided by the number of servings, were still ridiculously loaded down with sodium.

That’s the thing about soup — it is ridiculously high in sodium, almost without exception and, quite often, the “light” or “healthy” options are almost as bad. Here are just a couple of examples of Campbell’s brand soups. Their Healthy Request® Italian-Style Wedding Soup does only have 410 mgs of sodium per one cup serving, but switch to either the regular or light version, and suddenly you get 790 mgs. Their light creamy chicken Alfredo only has 100 mgs less sodium than the regular version, at 690 vs 790. The same is true for their New England clam chowder, but worse, with 790 and 890 mgs of sodium respectively for the light and regular versions.

“Vegetable medley” sounds like a perfectly healthy soup, right? Nope. It has the same 790 mgs of sodium per serving as some of the others, and that’s according to Campbell’s own nutritional info site. And don’t forget that a typical can of soup actually has two and a half servings in it. If you’re the type to ignore that information and just eat the whole can, you can find yourself on the receiving end of as much as 2,225 mgs in one meal — or in less than one meal, if you have a sandwich along with your soup.

By the way, I’m only picking on Campbell’s because they are one of the top brands in America, with four out of the top-ten selling soups in the market. In 2017, the company is projected to have over $7 billion in sales and gross profit of $3.06 billion. That’s a lot of soup. However, the tide may be turning there, with soup sales in the U.S. actually showing a decline beginning in 2009, and then very little growth after 2013. It’s not clear, though, whether the problem is the soup or the can itself, and Campbell’s has been moving away from metal containers to market two different lines: Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in pouches, and Campbell’s Soup on the Go, which comes in a plastic container.

But don’t think that the packaging makes it healthier. The champion in this category for the Go Soups is coconut curry with chicken and shiitake mushrooms, weighing in at 830 mgs of sodium per serving — and the convenient pouch holds two servings. But, again, who’s going to split a container that seems designed to hold one serving?

At least both types of Soup on the Go are more reasonable, at only 410 mgs of sodium, and those containers are single-serving.

If I seem to be overwhelming you with math, it’s only because it’s something I’ve had to learn to live with and get used to. It’s not always possible to avoid absolutely everything in the grocery store that comes in a box or a can, but it is possible to make an informed decision. That’s why, for example, I only buy one particular kind of hamburger buns and one type of cheese. They are the lowest sodium brands available that I’ve been able to find in the regular store.

There are ways to go lower, but that gets heavily into “make it yourself from scratch” territory — although that isn’t a bad thing and I’ve gotten very used to it myself. Not that I’m going to start making no-salt cheese any time soon, but I have made re-fried beans, corn tortillas, and bread, as well as prepared horseradish, sweet and sour sauce, a soy sauce substitute, and both traditional and tofu-based tzatziki using no sodium at all, and they tasted just fine.

If you thought that everything in boxes and cans in grocery stores was bad, then stay out of restaurants. The sodium content in a lot of restaurant and fast food is outrageous. According to Pop Sugar, some of the most heinous examples include the Quizno’s turkey bacon guacamole sub, with 2,470 mgs of sodium; Dairy Queen’s 4-piece chicken strip basket at 2,530; Panera Bread’s bacon turkey bravo on tomato basil, with 2,290; Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy entrée at 3,830; IHOP’s country fried chicken steak and eggs with sausage gravy, 4,210; and Applebee’s chicken fajitas rollup, with 4,290.

However, the most staggering restaurant item is the Jersey Mike’s Buffalo chicken cheese steak, with a literally heart-rending 7,795 mgs of sodium per serving. For comparison, the most sodium-heavy item on the entire In-n-Out Burger menu is the double-double with cheese, at a mere 1,440 mgs of sodium. That’s less than one-fifth the amount found in the chicken cheese steak.

In 2017, the American Heart Association created a series of video spoofs awarding “MilliGrammy” awards to restaurant meals with high sodium content. Perhaps Jersey Mike’s didn’t quality in the national competition. After “accidentally” announcing the Big Mac Value Meal (970 mgs) as the winner, they corrected their La La Land-esque mistake and awarded the real winner, P.F. Chang’s Pad Thai, at 3,720 mgs.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Seven or Chapter Nine, or start at the Prologue.

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 Six

In this excerpt from Chapter Six, I introduce three psychological tricks you can use to get yourself into the mindset for achieving a healthier lifestyle.

The first three steps to a new you

How did your first diary entry go? Because you did that, right? Good. Now this chapter is going to give you three specific things to do that will help you get into the new mindset necessary to go on this journey and make it easy. We have a lot of old habits and lifetime programming to undo, and a lot of new ways to learn until they’re second nature.

Don’t let that sound daunting to you, because it isn’t as scary or difficult as it seems. I’ve got a nice analogy to explain the process to you, and it comes from my summer camp adventure as well.

We jammed a lot of activities into that weekend, and two of them were things that I’d never done before: canoeing and zip-lining. Now, the old me would have just said, “Well, I don’t know how to work a canoe and dangling on a cable is scary, so I’ll be in my cabin.”

New me was all about it, and a funny thing happened once I got out on that lake. It was a three man canoe, with me in the front, another paddler in the back, and a passenger in the middle — and I found that being able to control that boat was almost intuitive. Before we got out there, I’d thought that it was going to be difficult, we’d hardly move anywhere, maybe we’d wind up going in circles. Nope. We got that canoe going a lot faster than I’d thought possible, and I was doing most of the steering, maneuvering around the lake and avoiding other canoes and people who were fishing.

When that experience was over, I was let down only by the fact that it had been way too brief a trip. I could have paddled all over that lake all day long.

So the lesson there is don’t judge the difficulty of an experience before you’ve tried it, because you may be totally wrong. But the bigger lesson came in the zip-lining.

That experience was somewhat like my first time on Space Mountain — a lot of build-up to the big moment. The staff at camp had to teach us about safety, fit the harnesses and helmets on us, make sure everything was secure, then send us on our hike around a meadow and up to the launch platforms.

Funny how much higher up those platforms seemed from on top of them, but by that point I’d committed. If you’ve never zip-lined, it works like this: You’ve basically got your legs in a harness, and that’s what’s holding you up. This is connected to a rope that has a huge carabineer on the other end, and that carabineer hooks onto the zip-line itself.

All of that’s the easy part. The hard part is literally a leap of faith, because nothing happens until you step off of that platform, and that’s the bit that really takes trust, courage, and maybe a little bit of stupidity. The first time I went, I hesitated for a second or two, and then just let go.

And that’s where the real lesson comes and the magic happens, because once you start going on that zip-line, everything else is physics and gravity. The hard work is done, and your only job is to enjoy the ride and hit the ground running.

I must have liked it, because I went around five times and, again, would have gone more, but we’d hit the time limit for the event. And while taking that first step was always a little weird, it got a lot less scary, but the fun and the adrenaline rush was entirely worth it.

Following the steps I’m going to give you is just like zip-lining. I’m going to provide the instructions and the harness and point you on the way. Then it’s up to you to step off that platform and enjoy the ride. The first step is the hardest, but once you take it, the rest of it follows right from the rules of nature.

For the impatient sorts, so you don’t have to peek ahead, here are the short forms of those steps:

  1. Get out of your routine
  2. Get out of your space
  3. Try something new

One important thing to remember: Some of these may work very well for you and some of them may not. You don’t have to use all three. If you can, great — but if you find one that really does the trick, then stick with it and don’t worry about the others.

Are you ready? Okay. Strap on your helmet and let’s step off the edge.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Five or Chapter Seven, or start with the Prologue.

Chapter Four

In this excerpt from Chapter Four of The Amateur’s Guide to Do-It-Yourself Miracles, I discuss the big roadblock to self-improvement: ourselves.

Change your mind, change your life

You’ve probably heard this old joke:

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the light bulb has got to want to change.

It’s a glib quickie that trivializes something that happens to be completely true. Change only comes from within, and it only happens once you decide that you absolutely want it to. Anything else is coercion, and there’s one thing that most people hate: being forced to do something by somebody else. Nothing will make a human being resist and fight back faster than that, especially in terms of lifestyle changes not related to addiction.

When it comes to people involved in addiction recovery, though, there’s still a lot of disagreement on the best way to approach treatment — voluntary or forced. The two extremes of the argument are summarized this way in a 2015 New York Times series on the subject. Robert L. DuPont, President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., believes that “Programs with effective coercion and serious consequences… often produce excellent outcomes for most participants.” Meanwhile, author and journalist Maia Szalavitz states that, “It’s hard to create the warm atmosphere necessary for addiction treatment if participants are legally mandated to be there… To improve both addiction treatment access and success, we need less coercion, not more.”

The hardest decision a person can make is the one to change — especially when they don’t think there’s a problem. Remember what I mentioned previously, about my attitude even as my health was failing? I didn’t think it was really serious and I was sure I was going to get better on my own, until someone else flat-out told me I was going to die if I didn’t do something.

But this wasn’t a case of someone telling me I had to change and I complied. I’d heard that advice many times before, but had chosen to ignore it. Often times, it had to do with how that message was delivered. True story: A few years ago, a doctor took my blood pressure and it was ridiculously high. His response was to give me a dirty look and practically shout in my face, “There is something seriously wrong with you!”

Gee, thanks, doc. Mind telling me what that is?

But do you think that I did anything about it then? Nope. All I was thinking in my mind was, “Well, doc, there’s something seriously wrong with you, too.” Not the best way to foster communication and healing, now is it?

What was different this time was, first, that the prognosis was delivered non-judgmentally by my doctors. It was given as a simple statement of fact. This made it a lot easier to not only accept that advice, but to finally make the decision to make the necessary changes in my life.

So the question is this: How do we wind up in that place where it’s easier not to make a positive change? It’s a process that practically begins at birth, it’s happening all around us, and it’s very easy to not see it because it’s so prevalent.

* * *

You can read an excerpt from Chapter Three here, go to Chapter Five, or start at the Prologue.

Puff, puff, past…

Today has been 420 days… exactly 60 weeks, or a year and two months since I quit smoking and… I don’t miss it one damn bit. And it has made life so much easier in so many ways. Herein, I’m going to tell you a few of them.

It’s kind of becoming more true than not, but the quickest way to spot either a tourist or a Baby Boomer in L.A. is to look for the smoker. And the quickest way to spot the ex-smoker is to find the person who is most vocally and vehemently against the habit.

The nasty, nasty, expensive, disgusting, filthy habit.

Guilty as charged. I quit smoking. It was the best thing I ever did for myself, and here are some things I learned in the process.

  1. I can breathe. I don’t get winded. I can run up and down stairs, walk for miles, exercise, dance, sing, whatever. I can breathe.
  2. I don’t waste time smoking. I don’t remember how many breaks I used to take every day at work — it was a lot — but I realize now that I may take two outside breaks a day, or maybe one, but that’s about it.
  3. I’m not as antsy… because I’m not sitting somewhere thinking of the next time I can go smoke. This has made everything easier, from work in general to meetings to public transportation to… well… everything.
  4. I don’t stink. But I can smell smokers from half a mile away and… damn, do they stink. It really is gross as hell guys. You smell like an ashtray’s asshole. Every last one of you.
  5. I have saved probably more than $2,500 to date (pre and post $2 per pack tax that went into effect on April 1, 2017) and will continue to save well over $200 a month. What could you do with an extra $200 per month?
  6. YMMV, but it actually turned out to be remarkably easy for me to quit. Sure, I had a huge bit of incentive to start (“You gonna die if you don’t!”) But I did it cold turkey, without meds, patches, gum, herbs, woo, etc. I did it by figuring out what triggered me to want to smoke, and then playing personal bomb squad and defusing those triggers. Turns out that my addiction was psychological, not physical — and I didn’t replace it with anything, either, so I didn’t eat my way to quitting or take up heroin or start watching reality TV or any of that shit. I just kind of… walked away.

What’s really interesting is that I have a lot of friends who have or did or who are trying to quit in the same time frame — yay, you all! And I just want to tell you all this: You can do it. It’s easier than you think. I’d been a smoker for longer than some of you have been alive. In under a year, I’ve managed to rewire to the point that I cannot even imagine wanting to light up a cigarette ever again. So if you need any advice or moral support or whatever, you know where to come.

It can be done. And, once it’s done, well… it’s pretty awesome. Smell better, live longer, save money, be more attractive to the non-smoking majority. What’s not to love about it?

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.

The one-finger memory aid

I started using the following trick when I was just a kid, and it’s worked since then and through my entire adult life. I didn’t learn it from anybody, but do any of you already do this, too?

I don’t know why I started doing this as a kid, but it’s always worked for me as a simple way to remember something in the morning when I think of it in bed but don’t feel like getting up and hunting for some way to leave myself a note. It’s going to sound stupid but, like I’ve said, it does work.

All you need for it is your dominant hand and one part of your body — no, not what you’re thinking. In my case, I always used my right hand and my forehead, although I’ve tested it with my right hand and my left forearm and that works too.

All you do is this: Use your index finger to “write” out what you want to remember on your selected body part and after each phrase — i.e., as much as will fit — “wipe” the space with your hand and continue to write and wipe as necessary.

The important part is that your finger makes the shape of the letters and that your body feels it. It’s very similar to taking notes in class helping you remember what you were taught, whether you ever look at those notes again or not. The physical act of forming the words helps cement the memory in place for later. I always thought of the wiping part as pushing the words into my head rather than erasing them, by the way.

And sure enough, in the morning, the idea will pop back into your head all by itself. How do you think I reminded myself late last night to write this article in the first place?

Have you ever used this trick before and, if so, how did you learn it? Do you have your own memory tricks that help you? Share in the comments!