Saturday, January 10, 2009

June 2006: 3rd Annual Health & Fitness Letter

In June 2004, I wrote the “First Annual Health & Diet Letter.” The main message of the letter was that to lose weight one simply had to “Eat Less.” The 2nd Annual Health and Fitness letter came out in July of 2005. It was about my love of cycling as well as honoring Lance Armstrong who was headed to unbelievable seventh Tour de France victory.

This year I certainly wanted to write another Health and Fitness Letter. But, I had to decide is it a June or July letter? Is it ‘Health and Fitness’ or ‘Health and Diet’? See how we can confuse things on this side of fifty? Obviously, I opted for June and to call it the “Annual Health and Fitness Letter.” Having firmly stated this, I can see the 4th Annual letter come out in August of 2007 and be called something like the “The Wellness Letter.”

Upon writing the June 2004 letter with it’s seemingly brilliant premise that to lose weight one must simply Eat Less, Greg Postian wrote back and said that he heard one of the Unilever executives, where he works, add to this by saying one had to not only “Eat Less” but also “Move More.” His addition was equally simple and compelling. So, Eat Less and Move More became my mantra for the next year and half.

The results were unspectacular. I certainly kept riding and exercising. I did try to Eat Less but in reality it was more pretending and procrastinating than actually doing. I ended up actually gaining weight. Also, in that same June 2004 letter, I also coined a term and acronym: Chronically Unsuccessful Dieter or CUD. I was definitely on my way to not only being founder of this club but also lifelong president and poster child.

Another reason to make June the month for the Annual Health and Fitness Letter was an article in the June 6th USA Today entitled “Obese boomer face immobile future” settled it. In reading this article, I realized that my desire to be leaner and healthier was really motivated by a deep desire to be self-sufficient for as long as possible and to be as minimal a burden on my family and society as long as possible. Also, the trend today is for children to get married and have children at increasingly older ages. It is quite likely that I will be in my 70’s or 80’s when my grandchildren, that are barely a twinkle in my minds eye, graduate from college and in my 80’s or 90’s when they get married. Will I even be around then? What kind of shape will I be in? If I want to be around and even consider dancing at their weddings, I had better start taking exquisite care of myself.

There were three statistics cited in the USA Today article. First, by 2030 there will be 71 million senior citizens in the US. The baby boomer generation, those born 1946-1964 will all have turned 65 by then. One third of the adult population is currently obese i.e. thirty or more pounds overweight. Lastly, the number of obesity related disabilities in people 30-60 years old has risen dramatically in the past twenty years.

Quite simply the human body can be viewed as a biological machine. Speaking like a former Reliability Engineer, the various moving parts can and do wear out. They wear out much faster when under the strain of operating under an increased workload. This includes knees, hips and organs including livers, kidneys and blood vessels in the hearts. There are replacement surgeries and as magical as the results can be, they are non-trivial or cheap. The recoveries can be long and painful proportional to how obese one is going into the surgery.

We all know the story of blood chemistry and diet. Poor diet and obesity raise blood pressure, lower the good cholesterol, raise triglycerides and increase blood sugar. These five factors

1. Weight
2. Blood Pressure
3. Amount of Good Cholesterol
4. Triglycerides
5. Blood Sugar
are used to predict heart disease as cited in a recent University of Michigan study. Warning alarms should sound if any three are above the upper limit of what is considered normal. (

On December 22, 2005, I went for a long overdue medical exam. That day, Dr. Syed Reza told me that he would prescribe hypertension medicine if upon my next visit the readings were in the same range: pre-hypertension. This triggered something. Snap! I was already taking Lipitor and I didn’t want to add another “lifetime” type medication. I also didn’t like the trend of adding a new prescription medicine every three-four years.

But, it was just before Christmas and that is not traditionally good time to change one’s lifestyle. I decided to do what every good CUD would do: postpone and procrastinate. I enjoyed the holidays, con mucho gusto as they say in Latin America. Somewhere around December 27 or 28, I got a phone message from Dr. Reza in which he relayed the results of my blood tests. Of the five factors in the University of Michigan Study, I had negatively pegged the needle on all but blood sugar.

Yet, there was something different this time. I knew I had maybe one last chance to make a permanent change. Somehow filling a prescription for hypertension medicine and swallowing that first pill would be admitting defeat. I really had to do something.

I remembered watching a television documentary on a Dr. Dean Ornish back in the late 1980s. I never forgot his name. He shocked the medical world by reversing heart disease by only diet and exercise. All I remembered was that his diet was strict and vegetarian. I remember being quite impressed but also thinking the fix was too extreme truly believing that I would never be able to adhere and sustain such a seemingly dramatic lifestyle change.

I went to and looked at books authored by Dr. Ornish. One entitled, Eat More, Weigh Less caught my eye. These are the magic words every dieter wants to hear. It is the stuff dreams, and late night infomercials, are made of. Eat More, Lose Weight While You Sleep, Lose Weight While Sitting on Your Incredibly Fat Butt watching TV and Eating Twinkies. What could be better… or worse? Still, it was Dr. Ornish, so I ordered the book and had it delivered to my office.

I enjoyed New Years Eve. I ate and drank. I had a great time. I awoke on New Years Day to the reality of my resolution. I was determined and scared at the same time. Every CUD in the world resolves to begin anew on January 1… every January 1. The New Year’s Resolution is a cliché and fodder for jokes of late night monologues. CUDs last a day, a week, maybe a month before settling back into their well worn and most comfortable and unhealthy dietary patterns. I began with what I thought I knew quite well. I began Eating Less. Was I following Atkins or South Beach? Well, yes, kinda sorta. But I was eating less.

I returned to my office on January 3rd. The Ornish book was there. I laughed again at the title and tucked it in my brief case. I began reading it on the train on the way home that evening. I was fascinated, engaged and intrigued. Dr. Ornish based his entire program on things I had either theorized or heard bits and pieces of over the years. Basically, the foods, processed foods, we have available to us today have emerged faster than our digestive systems have evolved.

Processed foods rich in fats and refined simple carbohydrates, i.e. white flours and sugar, digest quickly and result in the wild swings of blood sugar or the glycemic index in the South Beach Diet lexicon. Simply stated Ornish’s program is to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and to eliminate as much fat from ones diet as possible. These foods consume more calories to digest and digest more slowly. As a result energy is metered more evenly between meals. This regulates the metabolism and decreases the hunger pangs that accompany the wild undulations of the glycemic index. Ornish says that up until recently, the past eighty to one hundred years, this is how people ate. It is the true old world diet for which our bodies are well adapted.

The best way to minimize fats is to become a vegetarian. I chose to try this for this year. I also decided to eschew alcohol since it plays havoc with blood sugar and has a historical tendency to whet my appetite and destroy any dietary self-discipline. Vegetarian for me means no meat, poultry or fish. I eat no nuts, olives or avocados since they are relatively fatty. For the same reason, I eat only non-fat dairy.

I eat until I am full. Vegetarian full, while still being full, is different kind of full than I had been used to. It is not that I want to take a nap, lethargic, fullness. The energy release is more metered. If I get hungry, I have a piece of fruit or some dried fruit.

I sometimes call this my grandparent’s diet. I have eaten more vegetarian Armenian dishes in the past six months than I have the past six years combined. I eat hommus, tabuleh, green beans over bulgar pilaf, vospov khema (a lentil paste with scallions), and roasted vegetables of every kind. Calling it my grandparent’s diet came to me when I began eating leblebi (roasted chick peas) instead of nuts as a snack. It is a very old Middle Eastern thing to do.
Ornish provided testimonials from elated adherents to this lifestyle. The all claimed they were eating very well and weight just fell off. At the beginning, I looked at this as more infomercial nonsense. But, now six months into it, I am writing exactly that. I cannot believe how quickly the weight fell off and how well I have been eating. I have not denied myself and I have lost 48 pounds.

I realized that all previous diets, there were two problems. First, I was not learning a new way of eating for the rest of my life. Secondly and somewhat related to the first, I was eating so much less that I was kind of always hungry. So, I was feeling really denied and creating a kind of tension that when I would stop dieting would catapult pretty quickly back to my bad habits and all the weight I lost and more would return. Some refer to it as the dieting yo-yo and is reported to be more dangerous than simply being overweight. The case of the late actor James Coco personifies this to me. James Coco wrote a diet book in 1984, The James Coco Diet. On the cover, Coco was standing inside of his old pants that were like six sizes too large for him. He was holding out the waistband with one hand and looking quite pleased. Upon publication of his book, he was the darling of talk shows. I saw him on another talk show in 1986, he had gained all his weight back. I was sad to learn that he died of a heart attack at the age of 56 on February 25, 1987.

You are probably wondering if there were any problems at all with this diet regimen. Well, switching to this diet involves a transition. The transition is mental, but there is a physical transition that takes place in the digestive tract. Increasing ones intake of vegetables, fruits and legumes (i.e. beans) makes for some interesting, even surprising, rumbles and gurgles as the digestive tract adapts. For me, methane generation increased to where, with all this news of increasing fuel costs, it might have been possible to power a small city. But after a few weeks, this too passed.

In January, I was in Brazil for some meetings. My colleagues could not believe that we went to a Brazilian barbecue and I only ate from the salad bar and didn’t drink. They started calling me Gandhi. I even started referring to this regimen as the Gandhi lifestyle.

In February some of the same gang was in Miami for another two weeks of meetings. As the weight loss was beginning to show, my colleagues were throwing the Gandhi moniker about even more. This trip involved a weekend stay in South Beach. The hotel offered all kinds of activities for adults and kids. One that caught my eye was a Saturday morning yoga class. Ornish recommended stress management like meditation and yoga. So, I quietly signed up. When I showed up, I was the only participant. This was good because I would get personal instruction as I had never done any yoga before. The class was usually held in one of the hotel meeting rooms, but as it was just the two of us, the instructor decided to hold the class poolside and enjoy the beautiful morning.

Conceptually, this was a good idea. Realistically, any of my Colgate colleagues eating breakfast in the restaurant would have a clear view of me… doing yoga. I would be called Gandhi for the rest of my life had anyone caught a glimpse of this. As a result, I could not concentrate on the instructor. This very nice lady could tell I was distracted. She had me doing this one pose where I was balancing on one foot with the other foot against the knee of the grounded leg, my arms were over my head palm to palm. I started laughing because if any of my colleagues saw me, I may have well have been wearing a white linen sheet wrapped around me instead of gym shorts. I really expected to hear some comments at any point. Luckily, everyone had slept in or had other plans… good luck, good karma. I was appreciative of either or both.

Another realization is that I am finally living like a Gavoor male. Every other Gavoor named male I have known took great pride in physical health and appearance. I didn’t know my grandfather Aram long enough to notice this about him though he looked trim enough of the few photos I have of both of us. His brothers Rouben and Sisak, who I knew much longer, were very focused and disciplined in this regard. My father and his brother, my Uncle Buddy, are shining examples of eating right, working out and fit. My first cousin David and my son Aram? The same. I was the exception. In a sense, I have just given in to my inner-Gavoor.

I am cautiously optimistic. I have lost 48 pounds, Dr. Reza no longer wants to prescribe hypertension medicine, my cholesterol is 150, and my triglycerides are down. Yet, I cannot claim victory. I have experienced too many dietary backslides. Yet, I feel this is different mainly because I don’t have to be hungry to be successful and it is a lifetime eating habit and not a diet.

Lastly, Dr. Ornish’s program was the right diet/book/lifestyle for me at the right time. I do not suppose or propose that it is for everyone.

I began writing a page a day on June 26, 2002. Losing weight was one of the goals I wrote about on that page. It took four years but I feel I am on my way. Hoping to report sustained success next year this time.

I attach these photos because I have always harbored a secret desire to become a before and after model for both weight loss and hair treatment. The first, with Armene, was taken in late December 2005 and the second at Aram's Law School Graduation in May 2006.

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