Category Archives: eating well

Low Carb, No Carb, Sugar, and More

My mother used to follow a low-carb diet, right up until, as she put it, “that woman killed her diet doctor.” She was referring to Jean Harris’s murder of Herman Tarnower in the early ’80s. Tarnower advocated for a relatively low-carbohydrate diet for rapid weight loss (called the Scarsdale Diet, should you want to do more research on this). I couldn’t tell, in all honesty, that the diet did my mother much good. Of course, my mother also hid chocolate bars around the house so that she could find them when she wanted them in the middle of the night (I inherited her insomniac proclivities, but I don’t eat chocolate at night).

As anyone who’s been paying attention to this blog for a while knows, I’ve been working on slowly, steadily, painfully losing weight for the last almost-five years. I’ve been maintaining a sixty-pound weight loss for about a year and half now (after losing for three and a half years), but I dream of losing another ten or so pounds. Maybe fifteen. But… I’ve been steady for a year and a half, which is not nothing.

I eat very carefully these days. I rarely eat sugar. I don’t drink much alcohol, maybe once or twice a month. My preferred beverages are seltzer, tea (hot or iced, no sugar), water. I eat very little bread. Some potatoes, some brown rice. I even eat quinoa. I eat lots of fruit. I eat nuts. Green vegetables. Avocado. I eat meat. I use olive oil and butter to cook with. I ask myself if I’m hungry or thirsty before I eat. Mostly I avoid fried foods and mostly we cook at home, whole foods that aren’t processed at all. I try not to eat unless I’m actually hungry. This seems to work to maintain my weight. There’s that word: “maintain.”

Can you tell I’m a little frustrated to be stuck at this weight? Just a little.

I’ve been reading up on metabolic biochemistry. A friend recommended  Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surpriseas a study of the food industry’s influence on so-called scientific research on nutrition and health over the period since World War II. Some of it I knew because I was a biochemistry major (undergraduate) and Professor Gene Brown (of MIT) was a stickler for facts. I was advised, back in the early 1970s, that eating trans fats in the form of margarine and other hydrogenated oils were going to be a serious health problem. Prof. Brown was an advocate of liquid oils like olive oil and also for butter. His drawings of the membrane transport disruptions caused by trans fats have stuck in my brain ever since. (Of course, I went off to find illustrations, but could not.)

Teicholz covers trans fats. She covers the low fat high carbohydrate diet recommendations for the US government in detail. And she covers the reasons why low fat diets don’t work and are bad for you too. Very persuasively.

I went on from Teicholz to Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat, which also covers real science, very persuasively.

Both Teicholz and Taubes make convincing cases against sugar and refined carbs and in favor of a meat-and-fat-based diet with some greens thrown in for micro-nutrients. Taubes suggests that everyone’s tolerance for carbohydrates is different and that some people can eat lots and maintain a healthy weight, and others cannot. While I realize that this is a small-scale experiment, that’s exactly what I’ve noticed with Dancer and Rush. Yes, they’re dogs, not people, but dogs co-evolved with humans and pretty much eat what we do. Rush and Dancer get the same meat, the same oils, the same vegetables… and Dancer gets way less carbs than Rush. If I give her more carbs, she puts on weight.

I joke to people that, metabolically, I’m a Prius. I really don’t require a lot of fuel. I honestly would prefer to be a Suburban or a big truck, that burns a lot of fuel, but I’m just not. It appears, from these two books, that I may be better off further reducing my carbs (which means, mostly, less fruit) and increasing the amount of proteins and fats that I eat. It seems like something I can try.

One more post about diet, exercise, weight…

A few weeks ago, I wrote about leaving Weight Watchers in search of a program more appropriate for my goals. These days, at age 60, I’ve decided to take athletics and fitness seriously. I want to continue to improve in running; I am trying out the sport of triathlon (because I’m cross-training with cycling and swimming anyway, as a way to keep fit and balance my muscles without getting injured) (and because I’m hoping it will be fun). Yes, I’m sixty, so I’m late to this. (I regret having given up my competitive running back in my twenties, but I couldn’t run and have the jobs I had then–so the running went. Intriguingly, I’ve recently been reading a history of the early days of women’s running, and at the time I thought I was slow, but really, I wasn’t that slow, so I’m hoping I can become not that slow again. Back then, I was running with a pretty fast crowd. Some of the women I ran with went on to hold records.)

Weight Watchers is not a good place for an athlete. That’s my opinion. Feel free to ignore.

I like to read blogs, and my blog reading lead me to SwimBikeMom’s blog. SBM is a triathlete who started out at 265 pounds and is now way more fit and way less heavy than that. And a lot faster than she used to be. She’s way younger than I am, and probably cuter. None of that matters, since she is also obsessive about becoming more fit. She’s teamed with a nutritionist to create a whole-person-nutrition approach for triathletes, for any endurance athlete, including cyclists, runners, long-distance swimmers. It’s my opinion that we dog agility handlers also benefit from endurance training. Agility is a long day of walking interspersed with sprints.

The program is called SwimBikeFuel (because we need fuel for our endurance endeavors). It’s a one-month series of daily lessons and a very active Facebook group where the nutritionist answers questions early and often. It’s very expensive, probably overpriced… but.

Why but? Well, because I haven’t felt this good in months, I’m running and cycling and swimming strong, I’ve lost three pounds in the last month, and I’m eating more food, too. There are subtleties here, and the program deals with the subtleties. It’s not (really not) one-size-fits-all.

If you’re interested, you can check it out at this link. If you decide to sign up, use my name (Diana) and tell them I sent you, please.


Yesterday I cancelled my monthly Weight Watchers plan. I’ve considered doing that for months now–since December–but I wanted to be sure. In December, Oprah (who apparently no longer needs a last name) announced that she was buying 10% of Weight Watchers and she was endorsing their newest plan (their plan changes fairly regularly, usually about five years behind the current research) and she had lost 26 pounds. Amusingly, announcing her weight loss has now made it relevant investor information and she has to disclose her weight loss to everyone or no one, because it has become insider information. After all, if she were to gain some of the weight back, Weight Watchers stock would then go down, in theory. It gives public accountability for weight gain a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? I mean, a few people read my blog and a few of those people might be sad for me if I gained some weight back, but it’s not like I have to disclose it in my quarterly earnings statement.

But I digress.

When Oprah took up WW and the newest plan was announced, suddenly it was all about “a new healthy you” instead of about practical weight loss. The information sessions weren’t about fitness and nutrition, they were about checking in with your inner needs and psychological health. There were a few minutes at the end of each meeting where the leaders got to try to sell us WW snacks and crackers, all in lots of crunchy plastic that divided them into “two-point treats” and similar processed bullshit. Costco sells 100-calorie snackpacks, too, but they don’t try to claim they’ll help you lose weight and that they’re secretly good for you, even if they do contain quinoa.

I hate processed food. It’s mostly designed to be addictive, lots of sugar and salt. Here, for example, is one such product. Note that the first ingredient is sugar.

What a brilliant idea WW has! They sell you food that is bad for you while they are pretending to help you get healthy. It makes sure you keep paying those membership fees, even while they make it harder for you to reach your goals.

And meetings? You come to a meeting, you sit down in a chair, you listen to a conversation about food, and you leave. Will someone explain to me why meetings don’t include a group walk? Why WW’s centers don’t have walking groups?

The meeting that tipped me over the edge was a half hour on how to use spices when cooking. Seriously? This is not a good use of my time.

The problem I had then is that I’ve enjoyed having a support group–I like some of the people in the meetings (not the ones that are in denial about their food issues, but the ones who are actually trying to change their lives), and I like the Monday morning accountability.

I went looking for something to take the place of WW, and I found an online sports nutrition group aimed at female tri-athletes (and other serious female endurance athletes–cyclists, swimmers, runners). It’s been a joy. I hate this cliche, but it applies: “I have found my tribe.” If I say that I’m struggling to figure out what I can eat before I bike and swim so that I don’t bonk, there are actual answers, that involve real food. I even asked for advice about those long agility days–and got an answer I’m looking forward to trying.

There’s a month-long (quite pricey) introductory program. I will be posting details once I finish the program.

Dealing with Feeling Discouraged

It’s Monday morning after a fourteen-run three-day AKC trial, and I’m feeling more than a little discouraged. In fact, I’m thinking cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate (it’s cool this morning).

Why so discouraged? Well, I’m still struggling with those last five pounds, but this morning, because I ate rather less carefully over the weekend, it’s not those last five pounds–it’s those last seven pounds. Yes, my weight is up, not down. I have reasons (not excuses, which are different): I had the flu, my weight was way down (3 pounds from these last seven), I felt horrible, I nourished my soul and I ate too much. The flu kept me from running much (not at all for multiple days, in fact). I’m pretty much over the flu, and now I have to get “back on track”… Back onto my I’m-losing-weight-so-fucking-slowly-I-can’t-stand-it track. Seriously, I know losing a pound a month is better than gaining a pound a month, but really? I want it to be easy (don’t we all?!) and it’s just not. (Screaming in frustration.)

And then there was the agility. Okay, I’ve spent four years now working toward being the handler Rush needs and requires. And on Friday, I managed it for two runs, one in FAST and one in Jumpers. We won Jumpers, beating border collies and fast Dobermans. That was great, and the run was a pure pleasure, but I had three runs with multiple faults and stupid mistakes and sometimes Rush makes me feel like a complete idiot. And then Saturday was worse, with the only clean run being in Time to Beat, and even there, we’d have had a refusal if refusals were called in T2B. I just wasn’t there for him. And Sunday was worse than that. I felt like a train wreck, dropping old rusted pieces on the tracks as we went. Rush jumped over the a-frame contact for maybe the second or third time in his agility career; he had not one but two flyoffs from the teeter, which he has never done before. (Sunday he did a perfect teeter.)

Sooooo…. not on track on the diet part, dropping rusted parts on the train tracks in agility. Feeling old and fat and slow. And unsuccessful. And did I say slow and fat? And old? Especially old. (My son reminded me that he’s turning thirty–which he considers old–in September. Yeah, if he’s old, what am I?)

Feeling desperately discouraged, in fact. Like what I’m doing just isn’t enough, and I don’t know what else I can do. I log every bite I eat and I mostly eat pretty carefully, and I’m running and swimming and biking to get fit and fast enough for Rush, and he just keeps getting a little bit faster and a little more insistent on perfect handling.

I can catalog a few really good things about the weekend: my knees held up, despite walking a total of 72000 steps over the three days (and I biked and ran on Thursday too). I was fast enough to make it to a blind cross before the last jump–a triple–in Jumpers on Sunday (but I only pushed for it because I’d already blown the Q). I successfully sent Rush to his leash on every single run of the 14 runs. I won a free three-day entry to another trial. Pieces of every single run were good. Our last run on Sunday, despite not Qing, I managed to set a really nice line for the first 15 obstacles. Of course, then he took an off-course tunnel and then missed his weave entry, but… fifteen obstacles is pretty good, right?

From here, where? Well, I guess I’m back to doing what I’ve been doing. I’m going to go for a run, to burn calories, keep Rush fit, try to get faster, and enjoy some time in the woods on my favorite bit of trail. A short run, then off to the barn to try to get Rush to fly off the teeter again, just so I can remind him that he’s not supposed to do that. And then reward him when he does it right the next time. At least, that’s the plan for this morning. I can plan for success, right? Even if I’m old and fat and slow, with a fit fast dog who needs me to be a much better handler than I am.

Going hungry

We all remember the scene in Gone With The Wind where Scarlett swears that she will never go hungry again (as she digs up yams in the dirt of her palatial estate that has been ravaged by the Yankees). If you haven’t seen it, here you go. I sat through a Weight Watchers meeting a few days ago, as woman after woman said they hated being hungry and tried to avoid being hungry, and honestly, I couldn’t help thinking that we all worry way too much about being hungry, when (really) none of us–at least none of us at a Weight Watchers meeting–are in any danger at all of starvation.

I try to think of hunger as a good thing. It means I am running a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit is required if you want to lose weight. It’s okay to be hungry. It’s more than okay, it’s inevitable. I so wanted to stand up and say “yes, you’re going to be hungry, learn to live with hunger, learn to decide how much you want to eat and then eat that much, instead of eating too much, and yes, I know you’re eating too much. How do I know that? Because you weigh more than is healthy.”

I may have to stop going to Weight Watchers meetings. They bring out my nastiest inner curmudgeon.

Struggles with weight loss, part 77.83

Back in January, during what I think of as “New Year’s Resolution Season,” I ran across a website called, which is intended to help you keep said New Year’s Resolutions. You can, with a referee or not, bet against yourself as far as keeping your resolutions. If you bet $100, for example, that you’ll lose ten pounds in six months, you can keep the money if you’re successful, but if you’re not, it goes to an organization that you name, presumably one that you do NOT want receiving your money. There are choices like the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, etc.

You can also just use it to nag you once a week as to how your progress is going–without putting up any money at all.

So I signed up for a weekly report on whether I was meeting my weekly weight loss goal toward losing 11 pounds in 24 weeks. Now this is a fairly small weekly loss–about six ounces–and mostly I find such a tiny weight weekly loss very frustrating. I’d love to lose poundage faster and more easily, but it really is hard to even lose such a small amount (that’s less than an ounce a day).

However, once a week I log in to Stickk and I log my weight, and so far I’ve met or beaten my weekly goal for 7 weeks now, and I’m finding that ridiculously satisfying, because it’s a steady reminder that I *will* get there, even if it’s slower than I’d like.

I was thinking about this long effort to lose weight recently–July will be four years!–and I was mentally comparing it to a long road trip. When you start a road trip, you have to get organized, plan, pack, load the car–and then off you go, swooping over to the interstate and cruisin’ on down the road. You stop, walk the dog sometimes, walk yourself sometimes, sometimes you stop overnight. Then you’re back on the highway and speeding along. But eventually, you get close to your destination and you’re on local roads, and you’re searching for the address, and your forward progress is slow, and maybe you have to circle the block to find the right driveway.

Right now? I’m looking for my exit from the highway–but I still have some distance to the destination. It’s okay that it’s slow–I’ll still get there.

A rant (please ignore if you don’t want to be offended) (includes swearing) (as usual)

I’ve been told lately that I have a tendency to be harsh and blunt and should be kinder and more gentle. Apparently some people have been offended. I’m contemplating whether the appropriate response is “fuck ’em” or whether I should try to be more … well, more filtered. I’ve never had much of a filter, and of late my filter has gotten perhaps a little too porous.

Losing weight–slowly, painfully, one ounce at a time–seems to have triggered my inner curmudgeon. I hear certain phrases and they trigger an instant internal response. It’s like pressing a button. “I need to go on a diet” or “I should go on a diet” triggers “no, you need to change your life, because what you’re doing now is making you fat and a diet is temporary and you’ll just get fat again when you stop ‘dieting’.” “How did you lose all that weight?” triggers “Move more, eat less.” and if I actually say that, then people say “I want it to be easier than that” and I want to snap. Losing this weight has been hard, and I’ve accumulated opinions about what it takes, and really, I’m pretty sure what worked for me would work for anyone, if you stop making excuses and decide you actually will do it (because that decision is the most crucial step), not just make excuses.

I’m not sure why my weight loss seems to anger other people. My working theory is that I’m taking away a lot of their excuses. After all, I’m sixty. I’ve had cancer. I’m female. I was really overweight. All of that was fine, and no one ever criticized me for the weight–other than the orthopedist who told me I was heading for double knee replacements by sixty (four years ago). Even the doctor who referred me to the nutritionist–the one who told me I’d “be hungry sometimes and that’s just fine”–didn’t actually criticize me. She just wrote “obesity” in the list of medical problems I was facing. But now that I’ve lost almost all the weight I set out to lose (six pounds to go, as of this morning), apparently people are worried that I might have become anorexic (and my filterless brain says “would you like to see my food diaries? no? then please be quiet.“).

I want to snap when I hear excuses that people think are reasons. I want to record their excuses and play them back to them, over and over and over (and then one or two more times), until they realize they are excuses. I had a reason I couldn’t run well, why it hurt to walk, and I had that reason for maybe ten years, and now that I don’t have bone cancer (chondrosarcoma, left distal femur, now considered cured) any more, I’ve spent nine years (nine fucking years, folks) losing weight, getting faster, working on my health–and you want an easy answer and to make excuses? Yeah. You can make excuses all you want, but if you took the energy you put into your excuses and put it into changing your life… well, in a year, you’d be a little further down that path you say you want to follow.

“I wish I could run faster but my knees hurt” is an excuse when it comes out of the mouth of someone who is fifty pounds overweight. My snappish curmudgeonly brain wants to say “Lose weight, try Couch-to-Five-K, and maybe you’ll run faster and I’m pretty sure your knees will hurt less. It worked for me. Or you could try swimming. Something. More exercise than trotting around the ring with your dog.” I try hard to shut up but don’t push me, folks. Really. Following that excuse with other ones about how you don’t have the time or energy or whatever? You’re making excuses. Stop lying to yourself. It’s not just that you’re lying to me, it’s that you’re lying to yourself. Curmudgeon says: “You don’t really want to get more fit–if you really wanted to do it, you’d be doing it, not making excuses.

I don’t know anyone whose dog is competing at the upper levels of agility who has a fat dog. We all know how to keep our dogs at a healthy weight. Many people I know have treadmills for their dogs, to keep the dog fit. We all know what it takes to have a fit, lean dog–and my first thought when someone with a fit, lean dog says “I wish I could lose weight” is that “you should manage your own diet and exercise as carefully as you manage your dog’s diet and exercise. That would work.

Musings on weight loss

Musing on weight loss: I had an interesting conversation with a woman at the pool today. She was commenting that she needed a new bathing suit, as she had lost fifty pounds. My curiosity was instantly aroused, of course, and I asked her how long it had taken: seven months. She eliminated “seven food groups” that she had food insensitivity to, at the recommendation of a doctor. (Note that I managed not to snort at the idea of being advised to eliminate seven food groups, although now (of course) I’m wondering if “cake” and “soda” count as food groups.) (Seriously, are there seven food groups? I really wish I’d asked what she can eat.) She complained about the cost of a whole new wardrobe. She complained that her doctor now wants her to add in more exercise because her weight loss has “stalled.”

As most people who know me know at this point, it’s taken me three-and-a-half years to lose 57 pounds. I didn’t need to replace my wardrobe all at once–I’m still wearing some clothes (stuff that was *really* tight when I started) and others I replaced as I wore them out. I’ve gotten really good at shrinking sweaters just a little bit (they get warmer when you do that, too).

I have been impatient with my weight loss from day one. But I have come over time to see my very slow weight loss as a huge advantage. Because it results from small incremental changes in what I eat and how I spend my time, I don’t see those changes as temporary. I find myself thinking that I’ve kept those first twenty pounds off for 2.5 years; thirty-five total for 1.5 years… It’s not the loss that’s hard, it’s the keeping the weight from sneaking back–and I’ve gotten really good at that.

Ruminations as 2016 approaches

While ruminating on change and New Year’s Resolutions, I ran across this article in the New York Times. The two questions “why don’t I do this already?” and “why do I feel the need to do this now?” seem to me to constitute a very useful approach to life changes. In the case of “why don’t I do this already?” it should lead to problem-solving around the answers. If (for example) you’re not eating healthfully, why not? Is it grocery shopping? Time to cook? Lack of ability to cook? The three problems have different solutions.

When people ask me how I’ve managed to lose weight, a lot of it has been problem solving, one new habit at a time.

There are a lot of messages about weight and fitness going around as New Year’s Day approaches. I have mixed feelings about all of them. I am well aware that many resolutions are not kept–but I am also aware that *decisions* made about making a life change can be a very good thing. I ran across an article about “body positivism”. This appears, at first glance, to be about accepting your body, whatever your weight, but there seems to be an undercurrent of “don’t bother trying to change, because you should love your body no matter what you weigh.”

I think that part of this is an excellent message–“celebrate what your body can do!”– but I disagree that excess weight is okay. I spent a lot of years with more weight than I’d really want to admit (here or anyway) and I feel much better now than I did when I was heavier. My knees hurt all the time, now they rarely do, even with all the running I do. I’m no longer developing insulin resistance: my fasting blood sugar has dropped from a very slightly high 105 to a nice 92. I’m not nearly as tired at the end of the day. I don’t wake up felling unhappy about my clothing choices and the way I look in the mirror (when I had the courage to look in the mirror).

When I decided to lose weight, more than three years ago, it wasn’t about looking better (that really has been a huge bonus!), it was about performance. I wanted to feel better, lose the knee pain (and avoid knee replacement surgery), run faster, get my borderline blood sugar down, run faster so I could keep up with Rush, and not hear my knees make that crunchy noise when I went up the stairs. I wanted to fit into airline seats. I wanted to cross my legs comfortably. I wanted to feel fast and lean.

It has not been easy. I have made my contributions to Weight Watchers (an organization that makes me want desperately to change it) in pursuit of a place to discuss food issues. I track everything I eat (and very rarely eat anything wrapped in crunchy plastic); I cook my own food most of the time and take my own food with me when going to dog events. It requires planning and thought and making big batches of soup for the freezer so I always have something healthy to eat, even when I am bone-tired. I swim and I run and I bike so I can have occasional treats. It’s not easy.

But… My knees don’t hurt. I’m not going to need those knees replaced at 60 (my current age), as they warned me five years ago. My blood sugar is normal. I ran a five-K race and placed first in my age group two weeks ago–beating eight women. I still have seven and a half pounds to go, an amount that should make my five k time 49 seconds faster. And it’s a lot easier to keep up with Rush, too.

In the last few days–New Year’s Day is tomorrow, after all, a few people have asked me about the Couch to 5k running program. So here’s a fuller answer. Yes, do Couch to 5k (c25k). But… do it very slowly if you’re starting from not doing much. Repeat each week until it feels easy and comfortable and even pleasurable. C25k was written for thirty year olds. When I started (two years ago), I did each week twice–it took 6 months instead of three. Then, once I reached the ability to (mostly) run three miles very slowly (I was doing 13-minute miles–tall people can walk that fast!), I went back and started over again, trying to run the running intervals faster, really run. But doing it gradually has meant that I’m stronger, uninjured, find running a pleasure.

And keep records of how you’re doing. Progress is slow–but you can see it if you have a record.

If you’ll find it motivational, sign up for a race. If you’re local to Portland (Oregon), and want me to run with you or do a five k with you, just ask.

BUY GOOD SHOES FOR RUNNING before you start, especially if you’ve ever had foot problems. I *love* my Hoka One One Clifton 2 shoes, but YMMV. My daughter loves her Altras. A good running store can help you with shoes. BUT, if you’re like me and too intimidated/embarrassed to go into a good running store when you’re forty pounds overweight and 58 years old (all those skinny young people? scary), Zappos is your friend. Free shipping both ways. Just buy four or five pairs and return the ones you don’t like. Hoka has free returns too, with a thirty day trial, so you can wear them to actually run in.

Finally, New Year’s Day is tomorrow (as I’ve mentioned), and it’s got me thinking about accomplishing small goals with a little bit of work toward them, every day. For many years, when the kids were small, I tried to spend 10-15 minutes every day working on a quilt, because that worked stayed done. In a world with small children, most things don’t stay done: there’s always another meal to prepare, another mess to clean up, another pair of shoes to buy–it was endless. But I have quite a few quilts that I finished during that time–and they’re still done.

Last year on January 10th, Jay’s friend Kurt Searvogel started riding 11-12 hours each and every day (more than 200 miles) in his quest to set a new world’s record for most miles cycled in a year — the record will fall in just a few days now, as he is now over 74000 miles (the record is just over 75K miles). He got a lot done with a lot of time every day.

My goal for 2016 is to spend a little bit of time *every* day drawing. I admire people who can sketch and have it not look like a grey blob, and it occurred to me a while ago that this was about practice NOT about “talent.” My intent is to spend ten minutes a day practicing sketching, with the goal of being better at it by the end of 2016.

Note that this is a behavior, NOT a result. The behavior is “draw ten minutes a day”; the result would be “get good at sketching.”

A quick summary of 2015: 20.0 pounds lost, 595.6 “official” miles cycled (rides for ice cream dropped), swam 23.2 miles (started in September), ran 528.6 miles. 5.58 million steps, 2600 Fitbit “miles” (some of which were run), 12.3K floor, 778K calories torched. Patting self on back. Smugly patting self on back.

Finally, I will note that I’ve been planning my 2016. I have two 5K runs in January, another 5K in February, a 10K trail run in March, a 10K road race in June, and a sprint-distance (0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike, 3.1 mile run) triathlon in August. I am entering CPE trials in hopes of qualifying for CPE Nationals in California in 2017; I am entering AKC trials with the intent of getting better at AKC courses, since I find them challenging.

Shaping: Behaviors vs. Results (human edition)

I just wrote a very long post–one I’ve been thinking about for days–about shaping dog behaviors. This post is about getting results through shaping human behaviors. It’s no secret to anyone at this point that I’m trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster and that I’ve been trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster for more than three years. It started when I realized that running Rush in agility was going to take way more than I was capable of at that point, and the effort–the one where I lose weight and get in shape and run faster–has continued since then.

That’s the easy part. I identified the result I wanted: to run Rush in agility successfully. Note that that’s a result, and that it’s a result that comprises many many steps. It requires training Rush in independent obstacle performance; it requires training him to follow my lead, to have a good startline stay; it requires that I run faster than I could run then, that I handle more effectively (no time to correct mistakes!)… and more.

So I knew what results I wanted, but I struggled with identifying the behaviors that would lead to those results, and I struggled then–and continue to struggle–with how to reward those behaviors. Just as there are some rewards for Rush that are so rewarding that he loses his brain (which is why I don’t carry frisbees into the agility barn but I do carry squeaky tennis balls), there are some rewards that I just can’t use for myself. For example, I’ve identified keeping a food diary as a behavior that significantly helps with weight loss, but rewarding that behavior (writing down what I eat) with chocolate (one of the highest quality rewards for me) would require that I control myself successfully around chocolate. That’s as difficult for me as it is for Rush to control himself around flying frisbees. I do keep some chocolate in the house (on a very high shelf, at the back, where Jay can reach it, but I can’t) (unless I get out a ladder), but the chocolate itself is a reward for not eating the chocolate. That makes sense to me, even if it sounds completely nuts. (I note that Rush’s highest and best food reward–chicken liver treats–leaves me cold. But he’s not that interested in chocolate, so we’re good.) Mostly these days, I’ve developed a habit around keeping a food log, and the months and months of food logs and the consequent data availability and the resultant weight loss have become the reward. (It has helped enormously in identifying just what foods help me to control my lust for sweets and starches.) Initially, though, my rewards were things like a manicure after N days of logging. I still keep lemon creme body wash–ridiculously expensive–as my reward for running.

The real problem with shaping human behaviors is that the reward is rarely (if ever) a surprise. If I say to myself “I will reward ten days of food logging by getting a manicure,” that’s perilously close to being a lure rather than a reward. I have tried to persuade Jay that he should get me a new cashmere sweater every time I lose ten pounds, but I’ve failed. Besides, predictable rewards are not as successful with humans as unpredictable ones. (Las Vegas has built an entire city around unpredictable rewards!) I’m not really surprised (any more) when I lose weight–although I do find it very rewarding–when I follow all the behaviors that I’ve identified, because at this point I know what works.

There are some rewards that do come as surprises, though. When I realize that my Q rate has improved significantly, even though I’m competing at a more challenging level, that both provides a reward and provides an indication that I’m moving toward my goals. I ran faster over five kilometers last weekend than I have since I quit running competitively in the early 1980s–a new PR for me, and progress toward my goal of achieving the same age-group percentage (70%) that I achieved back in my twenties. I’ve moved from an age-group percentage of 42% to 61.6% over the last two years. That’s significant progress. It feels really good–very rewarding–when I check that on the age-group percentage website. It helps, too, to discover that keeping up with Rush is just not as hard as it used to be.