Counting calories, and starting down a new path 

Between the Lines

Thanksgiving dinner for me has always presented an enjoyable challenge. My simple mission: eat as much as possible, relish every morsel and try to make sure leftovers are nonexistent.

Isn't that part of what Thanksgiving is about? Isn't that the one day when it's fine to go back for seconds, thirds and fourths?

Of course, when you're the heftiest person in the room, that behavior comes naturally. And so it has been for most of my life. You have to get used to being called The Big Guy.

I tried to change my ways once. For most of 1999, I embraced one of those gimmick diets: lots of protein, but almost no carbohydrates. The pounds came flying off, about 75 between January and October. It was awesome until I decided to "phase in" the carbs again, with Thanksgiving as the diving board. By the next summer I was back to my old weight.

That stayed virtually the same for the next 13 years — until Sept. 26. That day, I went in for a "heart stress test" at the urging of my longtime regular physician, Dr. Dennis Caldwell. He wanted me to consider lap-band surgery (think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), and the first step was making sure my heart could pass that test.

It did, but the rest of my body didn't. Only about a minute after working up to the desired treadmill speed, I had to stop. It was embarrassing, even humiliating. Your heart looks fine with no blockages, cardiologist Dr. David Albrecht said, but the weight could become a serious health problem at any moment, even for an otherwise healthy 61-year-old. He also pushed for lap-band surgery, but added that "you have to want to do it."

My response? No way. Not without trying another approach, which Dr. Caldwell mentioned. This would not be a diet, but a lifestyle change. He set me up with a health coach. We met, and she wasn't one of those super-trim fitness fanatics trying to understand and change overweight people. She knew what I'd gone through since playing Santa Claus in the grade-school Christmas pageant — as a third-grader. But she had lost something like 140 pounds, just in the past few years. And she had a plan.

Nothing to do with gimmicks, or spending hours every day doing strenuous workouts. My "program" is simply counting calories, religiously, starting with a difficult limit of 1,500 a day. I had been consuming about 2,000 a day, which had kept me in the same sizes of pants and shirts since that all-protein diet failed.

Dropping to 1,500 calories, I still could choose what to eat. But the portions would be smaller, and I quickly realized that cheese, bread and chocolate couldn't be staples.

This plan has another interesting component: Once a week, I can have a "cheat day" and break the rules.

There's no timetable for measuring success. After all, this is a long-term change. I set a goal of how much I hope to lose, knowing that it might take 12, 18, even 24 months.

This strategy began at the start of October. By late November, I had lost about 25 pounds, more than expected. My coach provided excellent guidance, encouraging a little more physical activity — even brisk walks during work breaks.

So when this Thanksgiving dinner arrived, I made sure it was a cheat day. But those cheat days aren't the same now. I did go back for seconds, but it was only about a half-plate. No thirds or fourths. And no pumpkin pie for dessert. I was full.

A few friends have begun to notice, probably because my pants are about to fall off. And those trips to the downtown food trucks have to come on cheat days now, which means only once a week.

At some point, as the progress continues, I'll reward myself and share the raw numbers: how much I weighed Sept. 26, how much I intend to lose, and more about the "coach" helping me start this journey. But not yet.

In a real sense, I can identify now with those who battle addictions. I've accepted my problem, and this column is admitting it in a public way. I have a long road ahead, but at least I've started. Now comes the hard part — staying with it for the long haul.

In other words, the rest of my life.


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