Jul 6, 2019

Just Do the Math

Overweight and obesity have become national and world problems that do not seem amenable to easy fixing. My experience with the problems reveals an easy concept that obviously isn't easy to do. 

Since I can remember, I've often said "just do the math." Very young, I came to trust math as a system that holds true regardless of time, space or life itself.

Most of my life, I've also been aware of my weight and the prevalence of diets. It seemed that my mother tried them all, including the Air Force Low-Carb Diet. I don't remember any of them working.

The diet plans are endless: Grapefruit diet; low-carb, low-fat, low-proteins diets; Atkins, zone, fasting, Keto, Weight Watchers, South Beach, vegan, paleo, and of course, the Subway diet.

Tens of millions of Americans are on a diet each year. Amazon lists thousands of diet books. My hunch is there isn't much new said in most of them and that they mostly don't work well. I suspect that our society - busyness, cheap and processed food, a focus on wealth and prestige, and the low cost and availability of food - lends itself to easily gaining weight.

From young, I was mostly tall and thin until middle school when I gained some weight. I vividly remember moving into the "husky" sizing at that time. I lost the weight before I entered high school and one of my life goals still is to be buried in the same sized Levi's I wore as a teenager.

Over the past several years, I had gained a few extra pounds, and set out to lose them. I found that technology has come up with some quite accurate and helpful health tools. Mostly, they can track your exercise ("steps" plus more specific activities), what you eat, your weight and lots more. I have spent over a year logging everything I eat, my exercise and my weight.

What happened and what did I learn? Most of all, I learned how amazingly accurate your body is at balancing calorie intake and calorie burn. Yes, your body does seem to have some different responses depending on the food source and timing, and how they are burned. But mostly, it is just simple arithmetic.

When you ingest more calories than your body burns, you gain weight. When you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight. Yes, it isn't much more than that. Most discussions to the contrary are seemingly justifications for bad behaviors.

I quickly learned that if I ingest less than 2300 calories a day, regardless of their source, I steadily lose weight. If I increase the calorie input a bit or reduce my exercise, I quit losing weight and if I increase my net calories just one or two hundred a day, I start gaining weight.

I'm tall with a small build. I have often been told that I have a tape-worm and that I'm lucky to be able to eat so much and not gain weight. But that is not what the math says. The math says I move a lot and I don't eat excessively. My protein and fats are high and my simple carbs are low. That is, I mostly eat what the computers recommend.

I did learn some other things that seem to be true. There is ample evidence that how your get your calories can be significant to your health and diet. High protein foods stem hunger more than carbohydrates. The saturated fat story is overblown. I returned to whole milk a couple of years ago and it has had no negative effect on my weight nor my cholesterol.

Finally, I've learned that for me, it's much easier to control what I eat if I have to log it. I'm a grazer and it's a bit shocking how many calories I can eat if left to myself.

There are scores or even hundreds of ideas for controlling our weight. Most of them probably have some merit and have surely worked for someone. But behind these diets is some simple math that your body can't fight: They either are trying to reduce your caloric intake, increase your caloric burn or some of both.

Jan 31, 2019

Life at -53 Degrees

Yesterday morning, the windchill at our house was about 53 degrees below zero. We live in a very nice refurbished old home in one of the original neighborhoods of Duluth, Minnesota, one of the coldest urban areas in the lower US.

I have lived most of my life in this climate. I remember getting bragging rights as a grade-schooler because we were in school with air temps in the thirties below zero.

At these temperatures, anything outside can be difficult. Putting out the garbage is its own chore. There are safety concerns, too. If you find yourself accidentally locked outside picking up the paper in your boxers, embarrassment aside, you only have minutes to get yourself into a neighbor's house.

A few years ago a local young woman died from hypothermia very close to her home. Inebriated, her friends dropped her off after a late-night party and drove away before she got inside.

So yesterday I took my own extreme measures to get to work. I wore my silk long underwear and flannel lined jeans, a warm Henley and a wool vest. Wool socks and winter boots are nonnegotiables in this weather.

I ran my vehicle for several minutes before leaving. Finally, I put on my ski jacket and mittens, grabbed a beanie and facemask, and headed out.

Vehicles do not like cold weather. Left outside, any vehicle, old or new, may or may not start at these temperatures. They require gasoline to vaporize, and that's a challenge in the cold. The best insurance that a car operates in extreme cold is to check the battery in the fall and check tire pressure before the cold arrives.

In a garage, almost any vehicle will start at almost any temperature. Windchills affect vehicles as they do people, and protection from wind is a big advantage. I initially keep my speeds low, but once warm, cars run fine.

I made it to work and soon realized that like many aspects to our lives, cold is another issue to deal with. But even at -53, once I accept my extreme cold routine, I can get through my life fine with about the same discomfort as walking in a cold rain.

When I was a kid, I knew nothing else and it never occurred to me that you could spend a winter without winter jackets and Sorels. Today it's -29 and, yes, I'm getting used to it.