Monday, April 26, 2010

Writing and walking

Yow! I just returned from a writers conference, the Festival of Faith and Writing, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The most practical thing I learned was this: A blog doesn't have any impact if you post to it too infrequently. And look at the date on my last post! I'm a slacker.

So, before I get back to the weight loss success stories, let me tell you about the conference. The featured writers were phenomenal: Mary Karr, Wally Lamb, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Avi, Kate DiCamillo. My absolute favorites were Rhoda Janzen (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress) and Michael Perry (Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting). I also loved taking in the photographs of Steve McCurry (Afghan Girl), with all their color and intriguing stories.

Beyond the headiness of walking among literary legends, I just plain enjoyed this conference because I didn't have anything to sell! I attend one or two conferences a year, and usually I'm pushing some manuscript or other. This time, though, I went off with a light heart, a contract on its way for my latest manuscript, a collection of stories told by military chaplains. So I just went to relax and enjoy!

Let me tell you, though, it was quite a workout physically. The workshops and sessions were spread out over the college and seminary and we conferees hiked for miles every day. I was exhausted by the second day. I must admit, I chose one session merely because it was in the lecture hall I was sitting in at the time.

So, this situation brings up the topic of weight. I am not at my lowest weight. I gained five pounds over the winter when a succession of pulled muscles in my legs and back limited my exercise. I've successfully lost one pound -- one pound! -- with a lot of work at the gym and close attention to my food choices. It's so hard to lose just one pound! The body is evil -- it remembers its former shape and wants to go back there. I'm working on the four pounds, and I'm determined to get back to my lowest weight.

Hurrying along to my workshops, hefting my heavy briefcase, I felt those extra pounds. It may not sound like much, but pick up a five-pound bag of sugar to give yourself an idea of the extra work it takes to drag that weight around.

All around me, I saw people struggling with far more weight than mine and my heart went out to them. This was a conference of literary richness, yet so many people couldn't enjoy it to the fullest, hobbled by their excess weight. I passed unhappy people huffing along, arriving late to the workshops and settling heavily into uncomfortably small chairs. They avoided the cafeterias and snack shops whose entrances were at the top of stairs, missing their chance to meet and talk with other writers. And, like me, many people chose the workshops that required the least effort.

It hurt my heart to think that these people whose spirits were committed to heady ideas and elegant language were constrained by their physical selves. Many people I met were writers working as hard as they could to get published. I would love to see that steadfast resolve applied to their own benefit. How I wish it could be.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Food Police: Failing!

At age 11, my son barely weighs 90 pounds. He's moderately active, plays baseball three seasons of the year, plays outside with friends. So, I figure I'm not doing so bad as the food and exercise police, right?!?

I decided to find out how I stack up as "the nutritional gatekeeper" that author Brian Wansick (Mindless Eating) identifies as the person in charge of family food choices. So I piled the kitchen table high with boxes, bags, bottles and packages. Here is a day's menu:

Breakfast: buttered toast or kids cereal, small handful of peanuts, ½ banana or apple, ½ cup of 1% milk
Lunch: 6 oz. low-fat yogurt or ½ cup sweetened applesauce, snack crackers, 1 pack fruit snacks, bottle of water
Snack: handful of red grapes, or celery stalk with 1 tbsp. peanut butter, toaster tart, ½ cup milk
Dinner: 6 homemade chicken nuggets with 1 tbsp. catsup, ½ cup mashed potatoes with butter, ¼ cup peas
Dessert or snack: 4 Oreos and ½ cup milk or ½ cup ice cream
During baseball season: one 20 oz. sports drink

I picked just one ingredient -- sugar -- to gauge how I was doing. On food labels, ingredients are listed by weight, in grams. Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Counting only the added sugars—that is, not foods’ natural sugars—here’s the total:

Breakfast: 2 ¼ -5 ½ tsps.
Lunch: 8-8 ½ tsps.
Snack: 6 ½ tsp.
Dinner: 1 tsp.
Desserts or snack: 6 ½ tsps.
Sports drink: 8 ¾ tsps.

TOTAL: 23-37 teaspoons

Pretty bad, huh? And Dr. Wansink estimates that parents control only 72 percent of a child’s diet. Add in birthday cupcakes, pizza parties, lunch trades, team celebrations and other splurges, and his total could increase by almost 30 percent. At its worst, that’s about 48 teaspoons a day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says to eat no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar a day!

I took out a measuring cup. Those 48 teaspoons pile up to more than a cup of sugar. Going from bad to worse, I converted the sugar into calories, 16 calories per teaspoon. The total now? About 770 calories!

Estimate that a child under age 14 should consume 1,000 calories a day, plus 100 calories per year of age. That means my son's diet is about 2,100 calories a day. So, if his daily calorie count approximates this figure, he’s getting about 35 percent of his calories from sugar!

I'm not even talking about the fat and sodium in his diet, which I can see is considerable. It’s clear that we have some work to do before we're nominated for Best Nutritional Gatekeeper!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Obesity and family food choices

I've been to two high school productions recently. One was a musical, the other a choral event. Let me tell you what I noticed. In the musical, of the performers who didn't have lead roles, I'd say about 1 in 4 was overweight. In the choral production, the ratio was even higher -- nine of the 13 singers were overweight and probably five of them would be considered obese. I was shocked.

But maybe that's just the way it is today. Bill Baroni, a well-known New Jersey politician who told me about his 132-pound weight loss, said that when he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the target of cruel comments and hurtful exclusion by other children because he was “the fat kid” in his class. But today, he speculated, kids might not have it so bad.

“Today, you’re not the only fat kid in the class,” he said. “You’re just one of many fat kids.”

In fact, that’s just what health researchers have found. In a 2002 survey, the National Center for Health Statistics calculated that about 17 percent of children over the age of six are overweight or obese—that’s around 13.5 million children. That number has more than doubled in the last few decades. And who knows what’s happened in the years since the survey.

Having a child myself, I don’t want to believe that the blame lies solely with parents. And, in fact, I don’t think it does. Read up on the food industry—Don’t Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser—to come face to face with the powerful corporate forces that are battling us for our children’s health.

But we are not blameless. One Cornell University researcher has quantified just how much responsibility we as parents bear. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink examines the influence of the person in the family he calls “the nutritional gatekeeper.” That's the parent who does the menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking. Through extensive studies, Wansink found that this person is responsible for about 72 percent of a family’s food choices.

I was heartened by that number, because it means that in our own house we can control all but 28 percent of the food our child eats. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that the decisions we make aren’t always good. Grilled sausage-and-cheese sandwiches. Donuts. Cheese puffs. Pepperoni pizza. Of our own volition, we abdicate some of our responsibility on a daily basis.

I recently laid out on the kitchen table the typical foods my son eats during an average day. I checked labels, looked up nutritional information online and added up his intake of just one ingredient: sugar. I'll post the results soon.... as soon as I pick myself up off the floor!