Sunday, January 26, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere

Diet: Week 12, January 26, 2014
(today’s Diet Challenge ‘report’ is at the end of this post)

I rarely drink bottled water, but I’ve been drinking it almost exclusively for almost three weeks. No, that’s not a new part of my weight loss strategy. On January 9, an aging tank sitting on the bank of the Elk River leaked 7,000 gallons of a noxious chemical a mile or so upstream from the intake pipes of West Virginia American Water Company, which serves Charleston and nine surrounding counties. It’s interesting to be in the heart of a disaster reaching ears around the world, to see the effects on the people around you, to engage in discussions and arguments about the meaning, the solution, and appropriate responses.

Outrage. Anger. Fear. Disgust. Skepticism. These are understandably common reactions.

Nothing much was known about the chemical, crude MCMH, used in the process of preparing coal for market. It was not classified as hazardous, but it is a skin irritant, drink enough of it and it will kill you, smaller amounts will certainly make you ill, producing nausea and I’m guessing cancer if exposed to enough or for long enough. No one has died, hundreds have gone to emergency rooms for treatment of skin ‘burns’ or irritations, nausea, and a few were admitted, but I’ve not seen reporting on anyone seriously ill. People are scared…of the water coming into their homes. Some 300,000 of us live in the affected areas.

Freedom Industries is a small company in way over its head. They didn’t report the spill, and it took hours for the water company to realize how serious the problem was. The chemical tanks are old and rusted looking. The containment system, which it was reported Freedom Industries had plans to fix but hadn’t begun, didn’t work. The Republican mayor of Charleston, who knew the owners apparently, said Freedom Industries was “run by a small group of renegades.” A founder, no longer with the company, had felony convictions for cocaine. Pictures surfaced of the company’s apparent CEO and his girlfriend in furs living large at a posh resort.

Seems just a month ago Freedom Industries was bought by one Cliff Forrest (not the CEO) owner of Rosebud Mining, the 3rd largest underground coal company in Pennsylvania. Forrest put Freedom Industries into bankruptcy last week to protect it from a growing number of lawsuits. The WV Department of Environmental protection and the governor have ordered the company to remove all chemicals from the tanks and dismantle the facility. The U.S. Attorney for the district has opened a criminal investigation.

Investigations will be ongoing to establish causes of the leak, which the bankruptcy filing suggests may have been caused when water from a broken pipe on a street above the tank got under the tank pad, froze during the “Polar Vortex” and punched a hole in the bottom of the tank.

American Water Company is a private company. I can’t remember when they took over our municipal water system, but it hasn’t been that long, maybe ten or fifteen years. As a public utility they are heavily regulated, but our excellent journalists at the Charleston Gazette have pointed out that they only reluctantly hire the minimum number of employees they are required and resist spending money to replace pipes and such. The question of whether private industry is better than government owned utilities at delivering safe water is not one I want to get into, but they did make mistakes in planning, judgment, and execution that have worsened this crisis.

They’ve known there were chemicals in tanks a little more than a mile upstream, but never bothered to find out what they were (state government agencies also either knew through filings or should have known and should have alerted the water company: Department of Environmental Protection, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services). When they started smelling the telltale licorice smell this chemical exudes prodigiously they made the assumption that their filtration system would handle it. They were wrong. Had they closed their intake pipes immediately, the spill would have continued downstream, as it did, into the Kanawha, the Ohio, on to the Mississippi, passing communities prepared with the information that a spill was passing and causing no discernible impact: no fish kills, no known long term effects. Crude MCMH it seems, compared to many hazardous chemicals in our world, is not that toxic. I’ve read, but can’t seem to find the source or confirmation, that it has a “half-life” of two weeks, when it will basically dissolve or dissipate or something.

There has been much made in the reporting and in the voices of an angry and frightened populace about the levels set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) within a few days of the spill. Very little is known about this blend of chemicals, but based on an industry study on effects on rats on the main element of it, and extrapolating for various risk factors, such as how little is known about it, they set a level of 1 ppm (part per million) as the level below which no adverse health effect is expected. No guaranties, but the best estimate of the scientists whose professional lives are dedicated to making these kinds of determinations.

You may have noticed by now that my tone in writing lacks outrage, anger, frustration, and sounds, I think, at least somewhat objective. And that’s how I feel. Perhaps it’s the fact that I lived without running for several years in my younger days. No, I wasn’t from a poor “hard scrabble” West Virginia farm as they are always described; I was a “back to the lander” in the 1970’s. I lived in rural Maine and rural WV for twenty years. For about five years I had to haul water or dip it out of a well. It didn’t seem like that much of hardship to me to be told not to use our water except to flush toilets. I felt a certain sense of adventure going out in the early morning to the water distribution site to fill up jugs with water that had been trucked in from somewhere else and get free bottled water. I worried about what people without cars or who were homebound were doing to cope, and learned from one grocery store bagger that one way was to just go ahead and take showers. I worried about the poor, the infirm, single mothers with children, people with sick relatives, parents to take care of and the effects it would have on them. I wondered how many were drinking the water despite the warnings. And I figured that with relatively few people going to the hospital (on average, in the first three days under 60/day) and all but a couple being treated and released, that at least the short-term effects of exposure to levels above the established “safe” level weren’t that severe.  Of course, as the story of the irresponsibility of the company and the holes in the regulations regarding above ground storage facilities came out, I was gratified that our legislature immediately began discussing a bill to strengthen protections.

Within 5 days of the spill, cleanup efforts and efforts to flush the system had reduced the levels of the chemical at the intake and outflow pipes of the water company to “non-detectible” (ND) levels of 10 parts per billion or below, or 100 times lower than the level deemed safe. In a process of testing at fire hydrants and other sources in various areas, they began to declare the water safe by “zone” and asked customers to flush their systems by running water for prescribed times. What they could have done better (and still need to do) is explain why, if the water is safe to drink, in many areas, despite repeated flushings, there is still an odor of licorice. The answer is, as the U.S. Agency for  Toxic Substances and Disease explained, that there is no established "odor threshold" below which the chemical’s odor is not detected. So even at ND levels, you are still able to smell it. I've read posts on Facebook by people who now believe the odor means they are not safe, that the chemical has stuck to their pipes, remains in their hot water tanks, will be with us for years. More needs to be done to allay fears if they are based on misconceptions, or to expose the truth if there’s more danger than public officials realize.

So the big winner here is the bottled water industry and installers of high tech water filtration systems. And, also, if you take a glass half-full approach as I am, we got lucky. Lucky it wasn't in fact a highly toxic chemical. Lucky that it wasn't a second Bhopal, a threat we in this valley used to live with every day when we called it Chemical Valley or Cancer Valley; it used to produce and store the same chemical as killed thousands in Bhopal: chemicals that could kill us by way of air. 

A lot of people have sworn off the water completely, at least until they can’t smell it anymore. Some of us continue to drink and cook with bottled water, but bathe, wash clothes and dishes with water that we believe is most likely safe. As the odor recedes more will begin to use it to cook with and even drink, but like a dog that has once snapped at you as you reached to pet it, they will always think twice before filling their glass.

Here's how I'm doing on the 2 Day Diet. One more pound and I'm half way to my goal!
Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in.
Current waist size: 40 in.
Weight end of week 12:  188 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week: -1 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -21 lbs.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Writing and Health
Week 11: January 19, 2014

Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in. 
Current waist size: 41 in. 
Weight end of week 11:  189 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week: -1 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -20 lbs.

“His connection between writing and self-knowledge, even spirit-knowledge is just right, at least for me. One's own writing is the true Book of Revelations, as much for the writer as the reader, I think.  Time for writing/contemplation is tied to making right choices (like food)-- again, at least for me.”
--Marie Tyler McGraw

My last post, long and rambling though it was, garnered some very satisfying feedback from some friends, including Marie, as well as some friends who credit me with inspiring them to try this diet. I assure you, this week’s post will be much shorter! At least two, maybe more of you, appreciate the connection I made in my stream of consciousness between writing and health. In the post, I posited that writing about my efforts to lose weight these last couple months had aided the loss. I am by no means the first to have made the connection between writing and improved health. A quick Google search brought up this recent BBC article,, which references Professor James W. Pennebaker’s 1986 research linking “expressive writing”, or writing about emotions, with better health outcomes. Interestingly, the article goes on to cite a recent study by Professor Azy Barak and others in Israel, which achieved similar results with students writing in online blogs. Barak is quoted saying, “I think online writing is individually perceived and felt as a private experience, despite its actual openness and publicity.”

This is certainly how I felt as I wrote last week. The downside to publishing such first draft writing online is that, at least in last week’s post, I tried to cover way too much ground, and, as some writer friends of mine pointed out, should or could have made three or four smaller, more concise entries out of all that material. When I saw one quote that another writer friend pulled out of my piece and posted on her FB page, I wished I’d spent some time revising. And that’s what I’ll do now to the passage she liked to end this week’s abbreviated message: "I am a writer. I believe in the power of writing to change lives—of readers as well as the writer. To me, the power of writing is the power to reveal deeply held beliefs, Truths, unconscious desires, emotions, issues, self-knowledge."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

I Couldn’t Have Done it Without…

Week 10: January 12, 2014 
Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in. 
Current waist size: 41 in. 
Weight end of week 10:  190 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week: -2 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -19 lbs.

I dream a slender version of me dressed in black t-shirt and jeans like Steve Jobs, standing on a stage, explaining to an eager audience to what I attribute my successful transformation, “I couldn’t have done it without my wife, without the Facebook community giving me encouragement, without the inspiration of the research leading to the wonderful book written by Dr. Michelle Harvie and Professor Tony Howell The 2-Day Diet: Diet Two Days a Week, Eat Normally for Five, and without the help of…” I stop, and realize I’ve run out of people and things to thank…there is an impulse to say what everyone says, I couldn’t do it without the help of God, but in my dream, I can’t say that. I wake up, not scared, but curious. To what do I attribute my success in steadily losing weight besides those things already mentioned?

Religious people (which seemingly includes nearly every college and professional athlete, okay, in WV, where I live, nearly everyone) always end such stories this way: without the help of Jesus or God, or Allah, or, in the vernacular of 12-Step programs, a power higher then themselves without whom they couldn’t have done it.

That doesn’t work for me. Call me a Secular Humanist or a Sciencist (did I just make that up?) or a skeptic, or an atheist, I have not the felt the support or intervention of anything outside myself (or inside that’s not ‘me’). I understand that some of my religious friends are thinking, “God is guiding him, he just doesn’t know it or admit it.” Fine, I have no problem with you believing that—or maybe you prayed for me and now you believe that made the difference. Fine, I can’t prove you wrong. Thanks! I realize I’m treading dangerous ground and could lose friends over explaining this, so let me make some disclaimers before I go on, and, hang in there if you’re religious; I won’t try to change your mind, I won’t mock you or try to present irrefutable arguments—you are entitled to your beliefs, and there may be great benefit in having those beliefs: to health, to attitude, to success, to relationships, to life. What many religious people don’t understand about non-believers is that many of us say that higher powers or unknown creative or controlling sentient forces in the universe are not impossible, just extremely unlikely. And furthermore, scientific studies have shown that in many, probably the majority of cases, being religious is good for you! So please don’t let me interfere with your beliefs J.

It’s not that I don’t believe in anything, it’s that I only believe that which I can verify or that (I believe) has been proven through rigorous study, research, testing, i.e. the scientific method. I put the words I believe in parenthesis because, going back to my 7th grade Math teacher, Mr. Checkley, one should “believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” And that includes some science, because scientific knowledge is constantly being challenged and revised and yesterday’s Truth and Facts are recognized as being outdated and no longer true. Science 'evolves' because part scientists continually challenge existing theories in order to advance knowledge. It’s no wonder that some people of faith claim that science is no more provable than their ancient religious texts or their visions or dreams or intuitions or “signs from God” or whatever belief system they incorporate into their lives.

But returning to what I attribute the growing sense of success in my new paradigm regarding food (add that to the list of alternates to the word diet I’ve come up with), I’ve been wondering why this time, at this time of my life, I have been able to succeed in mastering my appetite, steadily reduce my caloric intake, lose weight in a steady, slow, and healthy way and experience only a few moments of anguish and frustration. Because my purpose in writing this weekly blog is not only to record my experience, but, I hope to be able to share it in such a way that you, the reader, my friends and family might apply some things I’ve learned to your life, whether it be your struggle with weight or cigarettes or drugs, or relationships, or just that you might experience an “aha moment” in which you think, “Yeah, I’ve felt that way too!” I know, that’s a tall order. Maybe I should just stick with hoping that you’re not bored to tears. Anyway, here’s what I attribute my success to:

This journey of mine has been made possible in part by my retirement. I wish I didn’t have to admit that (because I’m confident one could do it while working), but I can’t deny that life is much slower, less stressful, and I have more time to buy, cook, and eat healthy food. I’m less exposed to temptations I used to have in the workplace and back and forth to work each day (I well remember stopping at a convenience store or drive-in window on the way home from work at 3:30 or 4:00 pm). Of course the flip-side is that I’m always home with all the food I want (including chocolate that my wife keeps on the top shelf of the pantry to help her keep from eating too much of it).

My age and experiences have contributed. I’ve tried other diets including starvation (in high school, I just pretty much stopped eating except for soup once or twice a day), Atkins, Weight Watchers (did an online version—never went to a meeting), South Beach (sort of) with varying degrees of success and always by eventually gaining the weight back (and I have yet to prove I can get this excess weight off and keep it off for a few years), so I know the elements of a healthy diet and also the elements of a regimen I’m willing to maintain. If you told me I was guaranteed to lose weight if I ate nothing but grapefruits or cut all protein out of my diet or became a vegan I might believe you, but I wouldn’t do it. When I read the 2 Day Diet book, I knew immediately that it could work for me not only in the short term, but in the long term: The diet was rigorously and scientifically studied, it is low carb a couple days a week, which I know I can do and I know is a metabolic ‘trick’ to jumpstart weight loss, and the 2 Day Diet allows healthy balanced Mediterranean style eating the rest of the week, which I know I should do. Also, I have high blood pressure and sleep apnea, both conditions that can be caused or aggravated by obesity, so I have strong health reasons to add motivation rather than a general, “it would be better for me” or “I’ll likely live 5 years longer.”

These factors combined to provide a moment of decision and inspiration in early November. A religious person might say I had a message from God, but when I heard about this diet I just felt strongly, “I can do this, I will do this.” I found myself thinking about it for a day or two, remembering the radio interview I’d heard with one of the authors, went online, bought the Kindle version of the book, read two chapters, made the decision and decided to announce it to the world (or at least to my hundreds of Facebook friends). I didn’t even tell my wife. Which is interesting, isn’t it? She asked me about why a couple weeks later when she saw my Facebook postings (she’s not on as regularly as I). I told her that I didn’t want to be scrutinized or helped or assisted, I wanted it to be all my own initiative to eat or not eat, to cook special food or avoid certain food if necessary, and I didn’t want to talk about it. A weekly blog posting shared on Facebook was going to be my way of sharing my progress or lack of it, and she could read it if she wanted. In that way, I hoped to be motivated to succeed so as not to disappoint my (nearly imaginary) audience of friends and family, but I wouldn’t be too closely monitored by anyone. Rita took me so seriously about my not wanting to talk about it that during week three or four when I was starting to feel successful and wanted to talk with her about it, she was tight-lipped, “But I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk to you about it. I’ve been afraid to say anything!”

Then there’s the diet itself, of course. I’m not completely restricted from anything. The diet even allows for a very small amount of chocolate, wine, or whatever, each week. As I’ve written about extensively, the restriction of carbs and the small portions of healthy balanced meals the rest of the week have eliminated my “carb addiction.” Ending the carb addiction and smaller portions allowed me to learn to distinguish between true hunger and simply not being full. It doesn’t hurt that over the last 20 years I’d already increased vegetables and whole grains in my diet and reduced the amount of red meat, so the biggest change for me has really been portion sizes, especially of carbs. When I had a stir fry or ate at an Asian or Indian or Italian restaurant, I used to nearly cover my plate in rice or pasta, putting probably a cup or even two on before covering it with the stir-fry or sauce (and I usually had a smaller 2nd helping). Now I put about a ½ cup of rice or pasta on my plate and rarely have seconds. I will still eat almost the same amount of vegetables and some of the meat if there is any.

Finally, there’s the process of these weekly blogs. Taking the time each week to reflect on how things are going, my struggles and my successes, has helped me remain committed to the long-term goal. In the process of writing and posting, I read over each of these essays several times, and that reinforces the ideas and continues the reflective process into the next week. As I write this, in this very moment, I have had a flash of inspiration, because as a writer, I did not have a plan or an idea where I was going with this essay exactly, Why did I feel it necessary to bring up my lack of religious belief and what do I believe in? I thought to myself a moment ago. I am a writer. I believe in the power of writing to change lives (and I’m not talking about the lives of the readers, though that also can happen). In a sense that is a religious statement. It contains no inherent morality, but to me the power of writing is the power to reveal deeply held (I don’t know what to call it here) beliefs, Truths, unconscious desires, emotions, issues, self-knowledge. Though unrelated to my eating habits, I also believe in Music. I believe that the experience of engaging in music, listening deeply, dancing to it, singing, playing an instrument, creating and composing, has the power to refresh the spirit. Spirit? Is that an acknowledgement of something other than the physical? Something like a soul? Something from God? I may have to leave this for another time and another essay, but what I meant by spirit is whatever the yogis or meditation gurus or perhaps bio-feedback proponents call it when you enter other states of consciousness that are somehow energy producing or refreshing.

How did I get to this point? Ten weeks ago I started a diet that I talk about as resetting my relationship with food. I am beginning to have a newly restored body that has more energy than it used to. I’m nearly 20 pounds lighter for goodness sake! I break into a jog just for fun sometimes when out walking. I go an extra 20 minutes on Stairmaster and push it to a higher level. And my sleep patterns, which have always been erratic, are changing a little, too. I find myself waking up extremely early: 3:30, 4:00 a.m. full of energy and ideas. And in this essay I am beginning to reflect more deeply on what I believe.

So, I’d better finish that speech I dreamed up, “I couldn’t have done it without believing in myself—that within me I have the power to control or overcome or mediate or face or understand my impulses, my appetites, my negativity, my hopelessness, my fears, my insecurity, to say boldly and decisively, Yes, I Can! Yes, I Will. So that years from now I can look back and say, I reached my goal, I changed my life, I maintained my health, and I enjoyed doing it!”

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What I Love About My Healthy Eating Plan

Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 42 in.
Current waist size: 40 in.
Weight end of week 9:  192 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week: -1 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -17 lbs.

It’s a new year. I want to start the year in a positive frame. Here are a few of the ways I’ve described the way I’ve been eating since November 1, 2013:
  • healthy eating plan
  • change my eating habits
  • new approach to eating
  • course on eating right
  • adopt a healthy relationship with food
  • new eating regimen
  •  healthy eating strategy

I plan to continue this “diet” not just until I reach my goal, but as long as my life and health allow. The word diet in its original and broad definition is simply what you eat. We are all “on a diet,” some more healthy ones than others. In most of my weekly posts since I began this dietary shift (for anyone coming to this blog for the first time, my plan is based on a book: The 2-Day Diet: Diet Two Days a Week, Eat Normally for Five ), I’ve focused on adjusting to the restrictions inherent in the effort to lose weight. Today, I want to focus on some of the things I’ve enjoyed!

The most restricted parts of this plan involve the two days each week when carb heavy foods are not allowed. Here are some of the foods I enjoy on those days (I can enjoy them on any day, but might have some crackers or a piece of bread with them). I am not labeling these as meals, any of them could be a meal or part of a meal; I’ve noticed that on some days I may have four or five small meals the size of which I would have considered snacks before I started my healthy eating plan:
  •  A scrambled egg (I use a yolk-free product to keep cholesterol down) with a sprinkling of cheese on top, topped by salsa.
  • An apple with hummus (I usually cut the apple—or ½ an apple if it’s one of those large ones) in wedges, put a couple tablespoons of hummus on a plate, and eat slowly, savoring each delicious bite)
  • An apple with cheese (a stick of string cheese, slice of swiss or some sharp cheddar)
  • Celery, bell pepper, and/or carrot with hummus or salsa.
  • Traditional tuna salad (tuna, fat-free or low-fat mayo, celery or relish and/or chopped apple}
  •  Canned sardines, kipper snacks, smoked oysters, or packaged smoked salmon in a garden salad with a low fat or fat-free dressing (I particularly like the Newman’s Own sesame ginger and balsamic vinaigrette).
  •  Roasted green vegetables that have been tossed with balsamic vinegar: brussel sprouts, green beans, broccoli (roast in the oven at 425 until browned, turning once).
  • Cauliflower pesto (yes, cauliflower instead of pasta—it’s awesome!).
  • And of course any fresh fish—talapia, salmon, cod— sautéed in a couple tablespoons of olive oil with garlic (after turning, I sometimes top with salsa or feta and chopped olives).

Okay, I’m not writing a cookbook (the 2 Day Diet book has some recipes, and there are a million low carb recipes and Mediterranean diet recipes online) and this is by no means a complete list of what I eat, but I just wanted to say that while changing my eating habits has been difficult, over time it has gotten easier, and while I’ve pined over foods that I must avoid, I’ve discovered new foods to love and come to love foods I dismissed as uninteresting before. I liken this to cutting salt or sugar completely out of your diet. If you do so for awhile, you will be able to taste the natural salt and sugar in foods which were there all the time, but in smaller quantities than you could detect with taste buds that were used to being hammered by them.

Though I like to pretend that thousands of people read my blog, the stats don’t lie, and I’ve had from 25-250 views on any given week. If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear from you through a comment or message. Are you finding anything I’ve posted helpful to you? What in particular? If you’ve read the 2 Day Diet book and are trying it, I’d love to hear about your efforts. What is working or not working for you?