Category: Diet & Health

The Importance of Posting Nutritional Values

I am sitting at my favorite coffee shop, Peet’s, sipping a cappuccino like I used to in the old country and eating a pastry. It’s my afternoon treat, has been for years. Only that back in Italy they’d think me weird for drinking cappuccino after lunch, without sugar, and in a 16 ounce cup. There are definitely lots of advantages to living in the United States.
While I could always figure out the calorie content of my drink (which I shouldn’t drink, but sue me), things were dicey with the pastries. Peet’s in Northern California posts the nutritional information on their web site, but the Souther California region has different pastries and I had no idea what I was eating.
You might jump to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be drinking coffee and eating pastries in the first place. Well, feel free to think that way. I have found that depriving myself of things I love doesn’t help manage my health at all: it just makes me resent health in general and healthy nutrition in particular. In general, I find that I am able to manage what I eat much better if I don’t consider anything off limit, letting my cravings build into frenzy.
But back to the original post. As I got into the store today, I saw they had little flyers with the nutritional information I had been looking for. And there I had the best proof possible of the importance of that info.
Here I’ll give you a few pairings, and you tell me which in each has more calories:

Caramel Pecan Brownie vs. Oatmeal Cookie
Peanut Butter Cup Cookie vs. Walnut Brownie
Honey Bran Muffin vs. Cherry Almond Scone
Dried Fruit and Nut Scone vs. Strawberry Muffin
Rustic Apple Tart vs. Rustic Cherry Tart
Seeded Bagel vs. Banana Nut Bread
Cinnamon Roll vs. Bear Claw
Ok, now I am hungry… Or I should say: I have an ugly craving. Well, the pairings have the following calorie counts:
384 vs. 410
[yes, I know, who would have thought a cookie could have more calories than a brownie?]
440 vs. 384
[same story – stay away from regular cookies!]
440 vs. 440
[Who would have thought, the healthy sounding bran muffin is a calorie bomb!]
480 vs. 470
590 vs. 510
[Go for apples, add 80 calories – more sugar]
450 vs. 420
[Bagels are bad for your waist line]
490 vs. 400
[Yeah, that cinnamon roll packs quite the punch. The fat free cinnamon roll, by the way, is 410 calories]
There are some interesting surprises in the list. The Vegan cookies, for instance, are almost half the calories of the regular cookies, thanks to lower fat contents. Muffins and scones, in general, have gobs of fat in them: 26 grams in the Chocolate Chunk Walnut Scone, 25 grams in the Chocolate Cream Cheese Muffin. More surprisingly, something healthy-sounding like Apple Cinnamon Muffin is a real hog, at 510 calories and 25 grams of fat. The Multi-grain Scone is another horrible choice at 450 calories and 23 grams of fat.
What’s the take-away? If you are eating a pastry just out of pleasure, follow these simple rules:
  • stick with the low-fat variants (not reduced-fat, that means close to nothing). A blueberry muffin has half the calories of the apple cinnamon version!
  • go for small. None of the things on the menu is going to be any good for you, so the smaller the portion the less damage it will cause.
  • breads and cakes are generally better than muffins and scones. The exception is coffee cake, which is so laden with fat, it’s scary
  • try to avoid places that don’t post nutritional information. The differences in quantity and quality of foods in one single establishment is amazing. Things that sound the same can have vastly different nutritional contents, and things that sounds vastly dissimilar can end up being equally bad for you.

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Recovery and Weight

Well, tomorrow my accident will be exactly a month old. To mark it, I’ve been following the snowboarders at the Olympics, and I’ve enjoyed both the competition and the attention it has gotten. Between Seth Wescott, Shaun White, and the marvelous Hannah Teter, there is a lot to watch and get excited about, and I hope the sport will benefit from this rush.

That’s of course despite the fact I am grounded for the time being, at the very least until the end of the season. And that I blame snowboarding for my injury. But that’s beyond the point.

Whatever happened, it has had an impact on my body. I have been forced to forego my favorite workouts, including cycling, and for a time I thought I would be forced to accept the end of my physical fitness, doomed to a life of premature obesity. (Wait, there is no such thing as premature obesity – because there is no natural onset of obesity).

But, fortunately decades of healthy habits kicked in, and I started working around my shoulder issues. I got myself a shoulder brace (which the doctors strangely hadn’t even talked about, let alone recommended) and checked how far I could go.

The results are encouraging. I have enough stamina to do as much cardio as I want (stair climbing, running, elliptical), and I decided I would build slowly after missing out on two weeks of workout. I cannot do any weights, but I can do passive resistance exercises like ab crunches and the like.

While I will have to slowly work my way up on the weights, trying not to bother the collar bone prematurely, I can safely say that I am back to almost normal on the cardio front. For that, I thank a life time of good habits and a great environment.

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Why is Exercise So Important in Weight Management?

I was just talking with a friend of mine who is trying to lose weight and doesn’t have the time to work out. She has family, cleans up, feeds kids, drives them around, and has what we call a full-time career on top of that. Not an easy life.

Of course, with all that stress and the temptation that comes with feeding teenagers and with power lunches, she is not losing an ounce. She complained to me and she asked me the simplest question:

Can’t I just lose weight by eating less? Why do I have to work out?

Well, I had to think about it for a moment. Eating less is great if you can manage to do that, and despite the benefits of a workout, it shouldn’t be mandatory. I mean, I know plenty skinny people that never work out – why shouldn’t she be able to, as well?

Well, it’s not that easy. You see, working out does very important things to your diet and weight management:

  • There is the caloric benefit from the workout itself. You can burn 500 calories an hour quite easily, which is as much as a full lunch. Imagine, after a spinning class, you can eat a second lunch with no downside!
  • Your body reacts to a workout with added burning throughout the day. Part of it is that you are building more muscle mass, and your muscle is hungry. Much hungrier than your other body parts!
  • The cardiovascular stimulus that comes with a good workout stabilizes your metabolism. You are less likely to feel sluggish, especially in the afternoon, when a lot of us overeat to compensate for lack of energy. I realized how important this effect is when a colleague of mine told me she always fights jet lag by working hour in the early morning – the workout resets her internal clock.
  • There is a definite effect coming from the beautiful people in your environment. Being surrounded by fit people that are working out makes you want to be more like them, makes you compare yourself to them, makes you watch out more. It’s the reverse effect of posting a picture of yourself when you weighed 100 lbs more on the fridge.
  • Your workout will frequently come with social interaction. You might meet new friends, and they come with the built-in advantage of having (at least one) healthy habit. You have something in common with them, which is: trying to be a better, fitter you.
  • If you go and look at the math of it, you realize just how much the workout allows you to eat more: if you burn 500 calories in a workout, that’s a full quarter of your daily intake (for a woman, one fifth for a man). Imagine the food you eat, now imagine a quarter more – that’s what an hour of cardio does to you!
  • Last but not least – as long as you are working out, you are not eating! That makes a huge difference, especially if you end up working out at precisely the time you would dig into that gallon of Haagen Dazs!!

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Snowboarding (II)

It seems just fair that after stopping this blog with a post on snowboarding, I’d start it again a year later with another one on the same topic.

This time, though, the reason is less fortunate: I was snowboarding in gorgeous Breckenridge when a silly fall caused a shoulder separation. I’ve been not only kicked off the mountain for the rest of my time there, I haven’t been able to move much except to the grocery store to buy calorie bombs. As a result, it’s time to lose weight again.

For those of you that don’t know and are interested (the rest skip the paragraph) a shoulder separation is what happens when the collar bone slips out of its resting space on the shoulder blades. It looks ugly, it is supposed to hurt terribly (it didn’t in my case, thankfully) and it heals pretty much on its own in 6-12 weeks (I seem to be much faster than that).

It’s the usual routine: get as much workout done as time and work allow, and eat more sensibly. So far, I managed to get 4 lbs off in just a week without trying and without calorie counting. But if there is anything good that came out of this, it’s definitely this restart.

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Those of you that know me even in passing have an acquaintance with my enthusiasm for snowboarding. I just can’t get enough of it, and I get as much of it as I can.

This year, I went on a two week trip to Whistler, Canada. It’s close to Vancouver, has gorgeous scenery and two beautiful mountains just ready for the shredding fun. That’s how hip boarders refer to the activity of snowboarding: shredding. Go figure.

From a caloric perspective, snowboarding is an odd sport. If you put your body in position and go down as fast as you can, you barely consume calories. It’s the slowing down and braking that makes you sweat – or the turning and twisting you’d do in trees and glades. So the more advanced you get, the less you burn.

Since I am a total geek, I ended up putting on a heart rate monitor and checking the caloric expenditure. I went up on the first lift at 8:30 and stayed until 3:30, for a total of seven hours, and I burned 2500 calories. That’s like four brutal spin classes in a row, which makes snowboarding an excellent way of losing weight.

From a dietary perspective, Whistler is a good mountain. It offers the usual junk food that all snow resorts have, but there is a healthier selection, too. The big Asian community in Vancouver has left its culinary footprint in delicious noodle bowls and rice broths, and you can even get sushi on the mountain (not my thing, but really healthy).

With 2500 calories burned on exercise, though, your eating habits change. Suddenly, you have a hard time keeping up with your caloric needs. You end up eating everything in sight, especially after hours, since time on the mountain is precious.

It is no surprise that one of the most popular dishes in the lodges is poutine, a French-Canadian invention consisting of a soup bowl of French fries topped with cheese and gravy. There is more cholesterol in one serving than is needed to give half the population of Vancouver a heart attack, but the kids love it: salty and fatty, it replaces the electrolytes that smell up your clothes and gives you back the energy you just lost.

But that’s not it for snowboarding! There are two more interesting facts of note:

1. Snowboarders are fit people, and typically young. So when you hang out on the mountain, all of a sudden everybody seems to be fit and young, motivating you to get in shape even more. I recall how odd it felt, after two weeks solid in the resort, to go to the airport in Vancouver and see the average population turn older and fatter. The distortion of perspective is just baffling!

2. Caloric expenditure over time is very odd: you go from the run, where you race down the mountain and spend all your energy to the lifts going back up. Typically, you board for about 15 to 30 minutes in one go, and then about as much to go back up again. You alternate sweaty periods with chilly ones, which feels really strange, especially on a cold day.

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Recovering from Catastrophe

Ok, you’ve been good about your diet, have been following every step of the way, have seen your weight drop, have bought new clothes, and then – boom! – you’ve had a bad day. Suddenly, you find yourself eating 5000 calories, gorging on cookies and chips and chocolate and prime ribs. What do you do?

First of all: breathe slowly. It’s not a tragedy. Even if on one day you bust your diet, you don’t have to fear the worst. You may get set back for a while, but you are going to be fine if you just stick with the original diet. And don’t even think about “making up for it.” You shouldn’t, or things are going to get a lot worse for you.

Next thing: analyze what led you to overindulge. Ask yourself how you got into a state where you overate, and what you can do to mitigate. This wondering is not easy, because you have to figure out two distinct possibilities:

  1. your diet is too hard for you
  2. you got lured into habit

If your diet is too hard, then you’ll just find the way to fall for it. You will figure out circumstances that allow you to overindulge and go back to them every time your body wants and needs more. For instance, for me it was evening calories: I would be fine all day with my allotted calories, and most of the time I could handle an evening workout just fine. Once in a while, though, I would come home after a spinning class or a football game and just eat everything in sight.

My body learned the trick. It would keep quiet all day, waiting for the late day workout. When I’d come home, it knew it could get whatever it wanted, and it just started throwing me into fits of hunger and craving. I learned the hard way that the only way to stop the overindulging was to combine an empty pantry with a substantial snack on the way home.

The other option is that you fell into an old habit. Such old habits can come in the strangest forms, sometimes as simple as a celebration. You might be invited to a birthday, say, and just eat what you’ve always eaten at a birthday. How could you not?

It takes a ton of work to get over these habits, and the less frequent the event, the more likely you are going to fall back. Things are not made any better by the fact that other people fall into their habits, too. They will stack your plate with cake even when you ask them not to. They will offer seconds even if they know you shouldn’t get any.

The only way to counteract habits is to create new ones. For instance, you could make a habit of bringing something nutritious to a birthday party – an apple, for instance. Eventually, people will get used to your weird new habit and will get over it.

Remember: the only effective way to get rid of a habit is to replace it with a different one!

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Food and Mood

Most people change their eating habits based on the mood they are in. Many eat more when stressed, when they are bored, or when they have company. Some react the other way around, losing weight when stressing out or eating less when in a party. In general, feelings of euphoria make us less hungry, while less enthusiastic times see cravings and compulsive eating increase.

You can see this play out in a great many different places. Are you one of those that gain weight in the winter and shed it in the summer? Then your mood probably reacts to changes in the amount of sunlight you are getting. People whose mood is affected by the seasons have Seasonal Affective Disorder, something you should think about when considering a diet.

Many people have starter syndrome: they experience a sudden drop in weight in the first week of a diet, and then things go slowly. While that’s mostly because the body can shed a few pounds easily, but then puts up a fight against any further reduction, a part of this behavior is readily explained by the sense of euphoria that comes with the start of a diet. As you plateau, the euphoria gives way to the diet blues, which in turn get the cravings started for good.

Another example is the sleepless circle. When you can’t sleep at night, your mood tends to go down. You can manage fine during most of the day, but when it comes to the evening and night, you overeat to mask your tiredness. Eating food late, especially sugars and salts, worsens your sleep. You end up causing your own tiredness, and making it worse.

A reverse example of mood favoring weight loss is the exercise boost. When you exercise, you do three things at the same time: (1) you burn calories, (2) you increase your muscle mass and heart rate, both of which burn calories long after the workout, and (3) you cause your mood to improve, reducing cravings.

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Protein Bars

Have you ever gone to the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon? When the lines are long enough that you have no hope of getting out without having developed a serious craving by the time you get to see the candy bars?

Let’s face it, it would be wonderful if we could always eat healthily. We should always have fresh, raw foods with us; foods rich in proteins, “good” carbohydrates, vitamins, and a good balance of minerals. Instead, we opt for the convenient, and that mostly means fats and sugars.

I learned to use protein bars as a convenient, but healthier alternative to candy bars when the craving strikes. I know some of them are billed as meal replacement, but a lunch consisting of a candy bar pretending to be healthy is not my thing. I’d rather have something cooked and reserve the protein bar for the treat segment of my eating day.

Selecting a protein bar has been tough for me. A great many of them taste terrible, are not healthy at all, and they all seem to be ridiculously expensive.


Frankly, I’d rather have a more expensive, less healthy protein bar if it just tastes good. That’s probably mostly because in my case it replaces the candy bar or pastry I would have otherwise eaten – and if it doesn’t match the quality of what it replaces, then it doesn’t do me any good.

I’ve been trying dozens of different bars from lots of different places. I tend to prefer those that have a rich chocolatey coating, crunchy nuts on the outside, and caramel inside. In short, I want a healthy Snickers bar.

On that front, my clear winner is IIS Research’s OhYeah! bar, chocolate & caramel. But I’ll continue this thread as soon as I taste a new winner.

Nutritional Value

A protein bar is a work of science as well as of culinary art. It needs to pack plenty macronutrients in a balanced way, it needs to have a pleasant texture, it needs to have enough vitamins and minerals to supplement the rest of the crap you are eating.

Reading the labels of the bars is not amusing. The terms thrown out there can be quite puzzling and it’s really hard to find the information you need and want in a quick and easy way.

From my perspective, the important things to consider are:

  • how many calories does the bar contain in total?
  • how many of the calories are from proteins?
  • what is the source of those proteins?
  • how much sugar does the bar contain?
  • does the bar have a sufficient amount of fiber?

I usually don’t care much about the fat vs. carbohydrate content of bars, ever since my low-carb diet taught me that carbs are as bad for me as fat. Besides, I don’t really like most fatty foods, so I rarely have to worry about over-indulging.

Total Calories

Given their status as snacks in my world, I prefer bars between 200 and 300 calories. Less than that and they keep me hungry. More than that and they are dangerously close to a meal.

There are plenty bars that are below or above my thresholds. 100 calorie bars are all the rage right now, but if my hunger can be stilled with 100 calories, I’d rather go for a piece of fruit (which contains water, which none of the bars do). You should really think about what the protein bar is going to do for you, what function it has in your nutrition, and choose it accordingly.

As an example, the ISS OhYeah! bar I mentioned above weighs in at a whopping 380 calories – but since I eat it only after a spinning class (burn rate: 600 calories) it’s acceptable. I wouldn’t eat it if I hadn’t consumed a lot of energy before it.

Protein Calories

Many protein bars, especially the cheap ones, don’t contain a lot of proteins. Ideally, you’d like the bars to have more than 30% of their calories from proteins. Balance bars favor a 30-40-30 ratio of protein, carbs, and fat calories – but I think that’s too low, given you are likely to eat a protein bar after a workout.

To tell the number of calories from proteins, multiply the protein grams by 4. If your bar packs 26 grams of protein, that means 26 * 4 = 104 calories. That’s the value for the OhYeah! bars, and compared to the 380 calories total, it’s not a good deal.

Protein Source

Most protein bars source their proteins from soy or wheat. Animal proteins are much more expensive and hence not used for the most part. This has two side effects: (a) the ingredient lists sound like a biochemical manufacturing label, full of soy protein isolates and other unpalatable stuff, (b) the vegetarian protein mixes lack in a few essential amino acids that have to be either added back or are simply lacking in the bar. Check your labels to find out what’s the case.

Sugar Amount

I have learned the hard way that common sugar (and all readily digested sugars, e.g. fructose) has a horrible side effect: it causes cravings. The theory goes that, since sugars are digested quickly, they immediately flood the blood-stream. The result is a “sugar high,” followed by a “sugar crash” some time later.

That the language of sugar is not sweet but reminiscent of addiction is not coincidental, since sugar cravings are entirely analogous to withdrawal symptoms for any other drug. They come without rational explanation (e.g., you don’t need to be hungry to feel them), they require immediate and compulsive satisfaction, and they tend to cause overindulgence.

I used to eat more than 100g of sugars per day, mostly hidden in pastries, cereals, and condiments (yes, check how much sugar there is in that salad dressing of yours!). At the end of the day, depending on my sugar status, the only way to get through the evening might be wolfing down a whole chocolate bar, or eating a half pound of M&Ms.

I am in an enlightened post-sugar world, now. I eat at most one pastry a day in the morning and avoid everything that smacks of readily digested carbohydrates (starches count). I avoid the pasta at Italian restaurants, leave the rice behind in Asian ones, and do without the sandwiches I love.

And for a protein bar, I would never ever touch anything that has more than 10g of sugar. It doesn’t really matter how many calories the bar has, overall: if it has more than 10g of sugar, I get a high – which leads to a low.


Many protein bars have additional fiber embedded in them. Some of them can be so rich in fiber, they can be a ready substitute for fiber supplements. Atkins Advantage, for instance, has 240 calorie bars with 10g of fiber. Considering that’s about a third of my fiber allowance per day, that’s a supremely good deal!

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Calorie Counting – the Retrospective

On New Year’s Eve 2007, the worst job of my life was over. I hadn’t been there long, but pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong, except the stuff where my team and I had control. Still, the stress nearly killed me and the ten extra pounds I gained were nothing compared to the solace provided by a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie at the end of a long day.

As the job was over I was looking for new ways to lose weight – healthier ways. All the diets I had been on so far had been clearly unhealthy and forced me to eat a particular food over and over. Admittedly, my most recent experience with a diet stemmed from the time I was fat – almost two decades ago, so I didn’t quite know the newest fads.

I thought of the rational thing to do, and calorie counting seemed to be the best choice. You just determine a good amount of calories for the day, determine how many of them should come from each macronutrient, and then you adjust for extra workout.

Fortunately, in the era of the Internet, there are lots of sites that make it really easy to count calories online. The one I liked the best was – free, with amazing features, and very reliable. The one feature it lacked that was a deal breaker was sharing of added foods, but we’ll get to that later. After the deal broke, I chose a different site: It had fewer features, but added the critical one, so I stuck with it for a long while.

How does the day of a calorie counter look like? You can eat whatever you like, but you have to stay within the parameters you had chosen for yourself. You can have, say 2000 calories a day. These should be composed of x grams of fat, y grams of carbs, and z grams of proteins. You can additionally track fiber, sugar, water, etc.

You add the calories by selecting the quantity of the food you ate. If you ate a cup of almonds, you tell the application “1 cup almonds, raw,” the site will add 800-odd calories. The problem arises when you have to add a food that is not in the database – if you are eating at Mom’s, for instance, or if you are in a restaurant that doesn’t spell out nutrients (hopefully a thing of the past).

The available tools seem to all have three options:

  1. choose a food or recipe from a list
  2. create your own recipe using existing foods
  3. create your own food

If the site offers food sharing, then other people can see the foods you entered. You benefit from that the same way you benefit from Wikipedia: someone is likely to already have entered the food you just bought, but it might not have been available in the database of the site owners.

In addition to adding calories from food you consume, you can subtract calories for exercise you perform. If you have a heart rate monitor watch, then you can tell exactly how many calories you burned during an exercise session. Otherwise, you go by the calorie counts posted for various activities.

How did it work for me? At first, spectacularly well: in one month, I lost 5 pounds from my average weight, a sensational success for me. I looked leaner, more muscular, and my face looked smoother and happier. I slept better (but that was probably just the change of pace) and was overall in a better place.

Then, after a month, things leveled off. That was fine with me, since I had lost all the weight I wanted to lose and was in (for me) outstanding shape.

A little later, things started changing. There were more and more days when I’d pig out completely, especially at the end of the day. I was able to keep to my calorie counts all day, but in the evening, my body took everything back that it wanted. I ended up falling into the predictable seasonal pattern of weight gain in the fall.

The one thing that stood out about counting calories is how frequently I would have cravings for sugary stuff. Usually after a workout. Sometimes directly after it, sometimes the day after. And that’s my problem with calorie counting: it focuses you on entirely wrong behaviors, for technical reasons.

First, the calories are counted towards a daily goal. If you miss your goal and eat too much, no problem. Tomorrow is another day. If you miss it by eating too little, though, your body will crave the extra calories, but the sites don’t account for that. Additionally, if you have a particularly big workout in the evening of one day, you have to offset it by eating more after it – something that’s really bad for you.

Of course, these are not hindrances to the diet itself, but problems with the tools you use. I would really want to see the following advanced features in all calorie-counting tools:

  • new food sharing accompanied by a ranking by quality of entry; you should be able to share your newly entered food items with other people, other people should be able to combine duplicate entries and to vote on accuracy; inaccurate and duplicate entries should be removed
  • calorie over- and underages should be carried over to the next day, at least partially; you should be able to say you want, say, 75% of today’s excess carried over to tomorrow; there should be a cutoff to the excess calories you can carry over
  • quality of food items and daily intake should be displayed; this is by far the best feature in the site, and it gets you used to thinking of overall daily quality
  • mobile input should be easy; you should be able to enter foods on the go from your cell phone
  • food entering should take healthy eating habits into account; as it stands, most calorie counting sites allow you to enter “frequently eaten” foods more quickly, but that pushes you a little towards eating only a small variety of foods; healthy suggestions should accompany unhealthy foods
  • the site should track progress towards the goal on a constant basis; you should see right away whether you are on track for the day’s goal, or whether you have to slow down

The real problem with calorie counting, though, is that it tends to take over your entire day. You end up not eating in places where food is not labeled. You do not eat foods that are not labeled. You worry constantly about entering foods and exercises. It’s a lot of work, for sure, something you won’t be able to do if you do not have the full support of the people around you.

From a health perspective, there really is no downside. You don’t have the headaches reported with other diets, since you are eating a balanced selection. The only real issue is fighting off cravings – and finding a tool that helps you reduce the risk of falling prey to them.

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Low-Carb Diet

[Note: this is the first post in a new section, Diet & Health. As my pics prove, I used to be seriously overweight (108kg, about 240 lbs) and lost all the extra weight, replacing much of it with muscle. I felt I can add to the plethora of diet advice on the Internet, because I had to learn so much about weight management.]

It’s time for New Year’s Resolutions, and this year I decided to try a low carb diet. I am just human, and in the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year, there is a certain amount of risk I abused the ever-present cookies and sweets. Trader Joe’s, in particular, has a section devoted every year to Christmas candy, cookies, and chocolate that has almost magical syren song qualities.

I loaded up on carbs, especially sweets in the days leading up to the resolution, ending up about 9 pounds above my target weight. From there, I thought, it should be quicker to lose and hence to get motivated to continue.