Sunday, January 5, 2014

Me and My Calories

A short while back I had to go through a bit of a wringer in the form of a hospital rotation. I worked for 3.5 weeks at Madigan Army Medical Center, partially to maintain currency as a medic, but mostly as part of my civilian education. At the same time I was doing 11 credits of college coursework online, and preparing for a deployment with my unit. During one of those weeks I clocked 100 hours at work!

I noticed a strange thing during that time, and in the months since. I did not have time to work out, but I kept eating as I always did and my weight went up. It crept up from 210-ish, to 215, then 220, and finally topped off at 225 right before I deployed. More interestingly still, it did not spontaneously drop on its own!

Now, I have always despised dieting. I have never needed it before. When I was 19 in Korea, I used to order a 21 inch, 6 topping meat lover’s pizza and a dozen wings from Anthony’s Pizza on post, eat the whole thing in one sitting, and then go out and run six miles the next morning like it was nothing. I did this every weekend, and never weighed more than 205.

Now at 28, almost 29, I do not have that ability anymore. Ironically, I would not for anything in the world go back to being the 19 year old me. 19-year-old Ryan was a bit of an idiot.

However, now I have to think about things realistically. I have diabetes, hypertension and high-cholesterol on both sides of my family, with a tendency towards overweightness I get from my mother’s side. My fiancée keeps insisting that I am not allowed to die at 55 or 60. Additionally, I have always been active, and I enjoy being active. I like to be able to run up a mountain to see the view at the top, I like to be able to pick up heavy things without breaking my back, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be caught in a tight spot and not be able to give a good account of myself without passing out from exhaustion. All this to say, I have had it easy up to now, but from here on out if I want to be healthy and active for the long haul, I am going to have to pay for it.

So I have started counting calories. L

It isn’t as bad as all that. Wouldn’t you know, there is an app for that! I simply type in what I eat, use the drop down menu to select the closest match, and all the calories and most of the nutritional data are added for me. If it has a US barcode I can scan that, but not many things in the Philippines come with US barcodes. I guesstimate a lot. I can also add my workouts, and that gives me a ballpark of how many calories I am burning. Having used it for a month now I have gone from 225 to 220, while also bulking up quite a bit from heavy lifting. It is neither as difficult nor as time consuming as I thought it would be. The only downside is the hit to my pride, but as my mother would say, a little “humbilification” never hurt anyone.

There are two things I have learned from it so far. As Aristotle would say, errors come in pairs. On the one hand it would be very easy for me just to let it slide a little here and there and eat a little bit, and not plug it into the app, as if I was fooling anyone but myself, but in the end my body doesn’t lie. It either is a lean, strong 215, or it is not. The iPhone does not control that.

On the other hand, it is also easy for me to get obsessed with things, and start looking at food as simply numbers, just nourishment to be shoveled into my mouth. It’s like budgeting money. I can become obsessed with budgeting to the point where I become stingy.

As with everything, this has a spiritual dimension as well. The old monks used to practice asceticism in food by eating only enough to maintain life, but denying themselves any pleasures of the sense by eating not one scrap more, and denying themselves anything tastier than dry bread, bitter herbs, gruel and so forth.
There was a touch of Manicheaism among some of those practices. The notorious contempt for the body and physical creation so often caricatured was more of a remnant of old pagan notions than an authentic Christian tradition. However there is some truth in their philosophy. The body should master food, and not be mastered by it. (I am not talking about fasting. I am talking about establishing a baseline daily diet that is mastered by reason.) The idea of a daily calorie and nutritional allotment is a way of tailoring their spiritual discipline to my personal vocation. I eat enough to maintain my bodily health and strength, and then I say “No.”

On the other hand it is also true that the pleasure of eating is a legitimate gift of God which we ought to take care not to despise on the grounds that it is “unspiritual.” We may choose to give it up for a time, short or long, but, I think it should only be because we hope to receive a greater gift. This is why the Church calendar revolves around both fasts and feasts. But we are a Resurrection people, so the feasts outnumber the fasts.

So I find it is best if I maintain two simple rules:
1)   Eat tasty food. Do not sacrifice taste for quantity, i.e. go by the “I can eat as much as I want as long as it tastes like cardboard” mentality. Instead I look at it as a spiritual exercise. I eat good tasting food, I enjoy it as much as I can, and try to glorify God in my enjoyment of it.
2)   Just like with my financial budget, it is important deliberately to blow the budget once in a while. Once a week I have a day, usually the Sunday, where I celebrate by eating whatever I like (although still within moderation for spiritual reasons.) When I get back to the states I will still be throwing pizza parties, and I will still be making my pizza with all the verve and pizzazz I can muster, serving the best beer I can afford, and rejoicing in the magnificent prodigality of gifts God has given me.
On the whole, so far it seems to be a sensible and maintainable habit to build. We will see how I modify it as time goes on.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:32

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