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In my previous post I shared a press release reporting the results of the 2011 F as in Fat report on rates of obesity in America. In a nutshell, the trends are depressing, and a lot of great thoughts were posted in the comments section, many of which I agreed with strongly. Based upon the response to that post, I wanted to share my thoughts on the topic – let me be clear at the outset that I am neither an expert on nutrition nor a particularly shining example of someone who has an ideal diet.
Weight control is a constant battle for me. I have a moderately large framed body type that seems to build tissue very easily – this applies to both muscle, and unfortunately, fat. I have found throughout life that I build muscle very quickly when I do strength training, but I also seem to lose it quickly when I slack off. Same goes for fat. If I let my diet slip, I can pack on the pounds seemingly overnight, but if I maintain control, I can take the weight off pretty quickly as well. My suspicion is that much of this is genetic – for example, my brother is a weight lifter, and his biceps are the size of my quads!
Given my apparent physiology, I have to be very careful about balancing my food intake and exercise output in order to maintain or lose weight. I fluctuate a lot, and typically go through an annual cycle where I gain a few pounds in the winter, and take them off as I get more generally active in the summer. Last summer into early fall I reached a post high-school low of around 162 pounds (I’m 5’10”), and I attribute my Boston Qualifying performance at the Smuttynose Marathon last October in large part to the fact that I was running pretty light compared to any of my previous marathons. Much of the energy expended while running is involved in supporting and propelling body weight (74% by some estimates), and shedding pounds can make a big difference in your efficiency. Right now I weigh in around 170, which is still almost 20 pounds under what I was when I became a serious runner back in 2007 (I’ve run on and off throughout life, but never with the regularity or intensity that I do now).
For me, running has surely played a part in my ability to lose weight, particularly when I first started running big miles. However, nowadays it seems to play a bigger role in weight control, and tweaking my diet is the bigger factor when it comes to gaining or losing pounds. Running serves as a counterbalance to my dietary lapses more than anything, and has helped prevent me from reverting back my condition of 4-5 years ago.
Putting all of this into the context of the obesity epidemic that is gripping this country, the big question seems to be why we are gaining so much weight. Many are now pointing the finger at refined carbs as the big evil via their role in spiking insulin and stimulating fat deposition – if you haven’t read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, it’s an eye-opening book. My wife is a staunch advocate of the Michael Pollan, whole-food approach to eating – I’m working through Pollan’s In Defense of Food right now, and it’s another fantastic read. She has a dietary willpower that I could only dream of – in our 15 years together I don’t think I’ve ever seen her eat a french fry or potato chip (the two biggest dietary offenders according to a recent study out of Harvard).
Personally, I think the amount of refined carbohydrate in our diet is a huge culprit, and a lot of the blame can be place in the hands of the government’s dietary recommendations from the 1970’s and subsidies provided for corn production. However, from a personal standpoint, I think it unwise to simply point the finger at carbs and not continue to emphasize that many of us simply tend to eat too much. From personal experience, my greatest successes when it comes to weight loss have been when I have actively counted my calorie intake. There’s a great app called Lose It! for the iPhone that allows you to track your intake by inputting the caloric value of everything you put in your mouth. I don’t use this regularly because I lack the discipline to keep up with it, but I find that doing it for a few days every now and then really helps to get me back on track with my intake. When you are completely honest (and I mean completely and brutally honest!) with yourself about just how much you put in your mouth, it’s amazing to find out how quickly your intake can add up. It’s very easy for me to accumulate several hundred additional daily calories by finishing off my kids’ table scraps or having a second helping at dinner, and this can quickly negate or even outstrip the several hundred calories that I might burn on a run. More than anything, portion control seems to be my bugaboo, and I constantly need to remind myself that every scrap of food I eat counts.
The national obesity epidemic is a problem with a fairly easy solution – eat less, eat better, exercise more. The problem is these things are incredibly hard to implement, and all of them take immense effort for most people. I’m pretty well convinced that lifestyle change is the answer to the question of how we combat the obesity epidemic, but how we get there on a broader scale is the challenge. Each of us can start by trying to be the best example that we can, and I finish this post with a renewed commitment to eating better – I simply can’t continue to keep relying on my running to save me from my lapses.