Category: Health and Weight Loss

“Ugh,” Said the Rich Young Ruler

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.– Mark 10:17-27

One of the great joys of hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela in 2014 was that each of us in our team carried so few possessions.  I could tell you everything I had with me in my pack.  It was easy to run through a mental checklist to make sure I had packed all my things (though that didn’t stop me from leaving all my toiletries behind in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port just before the long hike

My pack.  Saint-Côme-d’Olt, France.  May, 2014

over the Pyrenees).   There was a mindfulness– an intentionality– about my things, a gratitude for the quality and utility of each thing I owned.  Although I put more care into packing for the Camino than I had for most previous trips, it was to a good end– I could travel lightly and be as unencumbered as possible over the hundreds of kilometers we’d hike.


My Camino pack was so different from the life I was living, with closets filled with stuff.  In the years before I did my pilgrimage I was already frustrated by the sheer number of things I owned, and was even more frustrated by the habits I’d acquired for buying things.  Mine were “respectable” habits– always within certain boundaries, never going into debt, selling things to buy other things– but the net result was that we had too many things, and I didn’t have any good strategies for getting rid of the stuff we had or for limiting the flow of new stuff into my house and office.  If a book looked useful or interesting for my work as a chaplain, I’d buy it.  If I kept running out of shirts, I’d buy more shirts (instead of, you know, doing more laundry).  If I couldn’t find the AA batteries because I didn’t know where they had been stored, I’d buy new batteries.

At a certain point, I started deviating from the normal reading of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (above).  What I’d heard countless times was that the young man was “too attached” to his possessions– that his possessions meant more to him than following Jesus.  For the last couple years, I’ve imagined the guy saying to himself, “This is all immensely attractive, but getting rid of my stuff?  That could take years!”   Maybe he hated all his extra stuff as much as I did, but felt too overwhelmed to do anything about it.

I have been surprised by how widespread the problem of possessions is in our culture, even for Christians who follow Jesus who had “nowhere to lay his head.”  The proliferation of storage facilities, the very common use of garages as overflow areas for stuff that doesn’t fit in closets (more than a third of all two-car garages in the US can’t house two cars because one or more bays is being used to store, well, stuff)– these phenomena reveal a culture that is awash in things but lacking a sense of purpose or reflection.

The good news is that it doesn’t actually have to be that way.  Throughout all of Christian history, there have been those who’ve found a way to be free of their stuff and to follow Jesus without the burdens of entanglement with possessions.  And in the contemporary era, there is a growing movement of so-called “minimalists” who can help provide strategies for getting rid of the stuff we don’t need.  One such person is Josh Becker, whose blog Becoming Minimalist provides great strategies for those looking to simplify, disentangle, and clarify.

What if we took Jesus’ words not just as an overwhelming and dispiriting  challenge?  What if he is offering us a grace-filled opportunity to let go of our stuff?  What if, following him more closely,  we decided to travel lightly?  What if we lived our lives like pilgrims, carrying only what we need to get to our destination?  And what if we believed that God was actually ready to help us live this way?





Eating and Food: Part 3

I hate sunny self-help stuff.  While I understand the need for a positive and hopeful outlook for making personal change, I also know that efforts at weight loss tend to produce a lot of negative feelings.  Managing those feelings by anticipating them and having strategies for dealing with them seem pretty key to me.  So that’s what this post is about.

Among the things I’ve learned so far in this weight loss struggle, I’d say the most important are these:

(1) Take my time. I didn’t get fat in a day and I won’t get skinny in a day.  Make small changes I can live with over the long-term and don’t do what the people on the reality shows do.   Leo Babauta’s stuff over at zen habits has been invaluable to me as I’ve tried to change my habits.  

(2) Assume that it will feel at least somewhat chaotic and difficult most if not all of the time and that most “public” eating at restaurants and catered meals will be challenging or even miserable for me.  Managing this is critical:  I try to eat as well as I can even if I leave the restaurant or meal hungry.  Have some backup foods with me always (nuts, apples, RXBARs, etc.) and eat those afterward.  Over the long months I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten better at being prepared, but for months it felt like absolute mayhem– like the ship had sunk and I was just swimming from one piece of flotsam to another.  

(3) The considerable amount of time I spend in prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer) seems to help in learning to turn away problematic or self-defeating thoughts and in learning compassion for myself.  This is probably a whole series of future blog posts!  

(4) Assume that obesity is a chronic condition that needs to be managed forever.  That’s right:  Chronic.  We are all terminal patients anyway, fella.   Deciding that I am not going to be fat is a decision I am making about how I will live out the rest of my life, and it’s a decision that involves making the uncomfortable claim that matter and that this is a form of suffering that is ultimately– even if at times ambiguously– redemptive.  But this redemption does not resolve itself at my goal weight.  

(5) Accept frequent failure as part of the game and learn from it. I probably do something wrong Every. Single. Day.  That’s less true now, five months in, but the first few months felt like a minefield.  I had to accept that.  You should, too.  

(6) I had to realize that you can be hungry and not die.  You can learn to observe and distract yourself from hunger until you can get to healthy food.  It is not optimal to skip meals, but if I’m at a thing and they’re serving pizza and sodas and that scene is unavoidable, I just don’t eat anything.  I’ve also learned to anticipate such scenarios and to apologize and just tell hosts that I’m on a very restrictive diet by doctor’s orders.  Which is true.  If you need that excuse, call your doctor and ask, “Can you please tell me to eat food that’s good for me?”  I’ll bet you’ll get the answer you seek and then you’ve got doctor’s orders.  

(7) Deal with the fact that “success” won’t happen when I meet my weight loss goal. That is the first battle in a long war.  The victory in that battle is absolutely worth celebrating, as are the small successes along the way.  They all are.  It’s just that I need to string together a lot of victories.  Accept that the success of this endeavor will only become really clear 5-10 years from now.  In fact, I’ll be honest that during the last month I’ve been drifting away from my big “goal” (lose 100 lbs) and toward the idea of continuous improvement and long-term health.  Weight loss would be one of many markers for my well-being.  

(8) If the food that’s presented to me is just really bad for me but it’s unavoidable and I have to eat it, I’ll use portion control as a strategy.  But here’s the key:  I didn’t get to be 100 pounds overweight by having a good eye for portions.  So, I have made it my strategy to take smaller portions than look adequate to me.  I need to walk away from a buffet line a bit disappointed.  I’ll try to see what some skinny person put on her plate before me and try to get about that much or even a bit less.  

(9) I had to realize that in a sense I am choosing my suffering: It’s either the suffering of trying to be healthy despite my desires OR the suffering of obesity and its complications. During weight loss, I get both.

(10)  The way the American food system is set up right now is that it’s expensive to eat well.  But when I’m at restaurants and I want a salad instead of fries and they tell me it’s a five dollar upcharge for the salad, I’ll still get the salad.  Get rid of your cable or sell your Beanie Babies or whatever you need to do, but go all in and realize that this is the cost of being healthy.  

(11) There’s an old saying that I think is true:  We get to heaven together, but we go to hell alone.  I think this is true for a big change like this.  I have benefitted so much from the kindness of others.  But that kindness has often been given in a pretty passive way:  They put up with me eating strange stuff, turning down invitations, etc.  They wish me luck.  They compliment me even when the changes aren’t really noticeable.  And maybe this is why prayer has been so foundational for me:  Everyone else has their own problems, and there are few human “guardian angels” with the time or energy to take you on as a project in an active way.  

But the good thing is that all the tools are already there within, given, I think, by God.  If you are overweight, you are probably already suffering in some sense.  The basic shift that change requires is the willingness to suffer differently.  

Eating and Food: Part 2

Still with me?  OK, so now I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned so far about losing a lot of weight in as non-technical and simple a way as I can.  This is the game.  I can’t say that it’ll work for you or for anyone else, but this is what has worked for me so far.   I think I’ve distilled everything I’ve learned down to something that seems workable and in line with common sense nutritional advice.  This one is deliberately short and offers no recipes or shopping lists or any of that sort of thing.  And I want to be frank and acknowledge this at the outset:  This is somewhat costly and inconvenient, but it’s focused entirely on “real” food that you can get at most grocery stores.  Eating this way doesn’t eliminate the suffering of weight loss,  but it manages it in some useful ways, I think.

Some of this is adapted from the book Minimalism: Lead a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, but only because of how succinctly they summarize what I had already been doing for months before I read their book:  


(1) I avoid these things:

  • processed and packaged foods and just about anything that can’t spoil
  • sugar and corn syrup.  This is critical.  At the same time, this stuff is ubiquitous. Whole books have been written about the topic.  Some of those books seem absolutely crazy, so be prepared.
  • bread, pasta, and anything made of flour.  Yeah, I know.
  • Dairy.  Really.  All of it.  I’ve even given up on most substitutes except unsweetend almond milk with my cereal.
  • any drinks with calories (including booze except on rare special occasions when one serving is OK)

(2) I eat these things

(3) I drink a ton of water.  I don’t even know how much.  But I aim to go to the bathroom at least once an hour.  I’m guessing I drink somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-100 oz of water on a normal day, more when it’s hot.  

I think that the very simple equation is this:  You have to eat fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight.  So, at its core, weight loss is about calories.  But although at one level, a calorie is a calorie, the way your body processes certain kinds of foods results in some foods leaving you feeling full sooner and longer.   Most of the successful weight loss programs seem to suggest some variation on what I’ve written above, leaning heavily on lean (even non-animal) protein, mounds of vegetables, healthy fats, a little fruit, and little or no processed foods or things with sugar/corn syrup or refined flour.  As Michael Pollan sums it up:  Eat real food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  

At a practical level, what this means is that you’re always, always shopping from a shopping list.  You avoid almost every damn thing in the aisles of the grocery store.  You check carbs and especially added sugars on everything. If you don’t know what the ingredients are in something, don’t eat it.   

Snacks:  You need some snacks that you can live with but not over-indulge in, and you need to stash them everywhere you are just in case– some at work, one in the car, some at home, maybe even something in your bag.  I prefer roasted, salted cashews and raw almonds.  I like both because I find a handful to be exactly the right portion for me, and I almost never want a second handful.  Carrots are good, too, and so are apples.  

Shopping:  I’ve recently learned that I prefer Trader Joe’s, and it’s for a pretty straightforward reason:  They don’t have many things, but they have all the things I eat.  So, a trip to the grocery store doesn’t feel like a hunting expedition.  It’s all right there, and I can get in and out before temptation gets the best of me.  

Money:  This way of eating is more expensive and less convenient.  I have deliberately reduced expenses in other areas of my life so that I can afford to eat this way.  But, still, my way of eating requires a certain amount of privilege and money on my part, which is disturbing.  I am hoping, over the next few months, to grow in my understanding of how to do this inexpensively.  

Bad Situations in Travel:  We all get into situations where all we have are bad options.  Here’s how I handle those:

  • Eating at gas stations:  This might be the absolute worst.  I almost always just go for nuts with no sugar added.  Some type of jerky with the least amount of sugar is usually my second choice.  I always just try to quiet my hunger for long enough to get to real food.  Strangely, I’ve gotten a couple decent apples at gas stations.  It’s amazing what you find when you’re looking carefully at the things a store has in stock.
  • Subway:  These guys are ubiquitous on the American landscape, so you might as well have a strategy in case you need to eat there.  Chopped salad, double meat (roasted chicken) spinach, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, and some pickles chopped in for flavor.  If you keep asking for more spinach, most places will keep giving you more until it gets ridiculous.  I have never had anyone refuse me more spinach, though I’ve gotten some real funny looks.  
  • McDonalds:  Salad, no dressing if you can handle it.  Add a grilled chicken sandwich or two, but get them with no sauce or mayo, throw out the buns, and cut the meat onto the salad.  It’s kinda disgusting to do this, but I consider it an emergency situation.  

The truth is that, the longer you eat like this,  the more “natural” it feels, and the more clear you get about what is and isn’t good for you.  And really, what you’re shooting for is not perfection.  It’s getting it right almost all of the time.  You’ll know you’re getting it right most of the time when you cheat with a fast food burger and fries and find that it makes you feel disgusting.  After eating healthy food for a while, your body really does adjust to it and comes to prefer it.  A burger and fries used to be my favorite meal, but I haven’t had one now in months and don’t miss it.  But if you’re sneaking with sugar and Doritos most days, that’ll never happen.  

Eating and Food: Part 1

Note to the reader:  Before I start, I should say this:  My effort to take better care of myself is very much a work in progress.  I am not an expert on anything except maybe my own experience.  Some aspects of my experience are really difficult to admit and write about, but my hope is that my honesty will be helpful.  I would welcome conversation, criticism, and comments.  

PART 1:  “You Are Not Fat Because You Are One of Us” and Other Obstacles

Maybe all good stories are redemption stories.  And maybe the narrative arc of every human life, no matter how wrecked, is full of a thousand stories of things turned right:  the lost dog coming home, the reconciling of estranged lovers, the healing of the body or mind after an illness or loss.  But redemption implies an ending, a resolution.  Maybe, more honestly, we can say that circumstances or moments can be resolved, but people, being perpetually “in progress,” can’t. Not in this life, anyway.  

I have been trying to lose weight since January 15, 2016.  I have had some success, losing approximately 55 pounds since then.  I am, at the moment, a hopeful person whose life and body are beginning to show signs of healing, restoration, and progress.  I have no guarantee of long-term success, but I have hope for it and commitment to it, and both become more natural and less effortful the longer I am on this path.  Of course, the human condition itself is decidedly terminal.  As a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope in the resurrection, a new heaven, and a new earth.  But also as a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope for possibilities in this life.  But the possibilities for renewal in this life, it seems, are inevitably laced with suffering, struggle, and work.  

Fat and Suffering

To choose to lose weight– to focus one’s attention and energy on changing from being a fat person to being a skinny person, or at least to being a less-fat person– is to choose one particular form of suffering in place of another.  You don’t choose between suffering and not suffering.  Weight loss is a bitch, and all the sunny stories of wholesale conversion to a persistently, utterly happier life just don’t line up with actual experience.  It’s not how people work.   But the suffering involved in weight loss (and, I will assume, maintaining weight loss, though I am not there yet) is suffering that has a potentially redemptive character in its benefits for longevity, health, and psychological well-being.  

The path of suffering with obesity is perhaps obvious, or perhaps not.  There are the familiar comic tropes– the broken chair, the embarrassment at the gym, all that.  But a lot of us experience it as being awful in other ways, too.

It’s often been said that being fat is one of the personal flaws that’s most difficult to hide– assuming, of course, that one sees fatness as a flaw and not as a difference.  One could be an alcoholic, a chronic masturbator, a compulsive liar, a racist piece of crap.  All these things can be hidden.  Fat?  Fat is right out there.  

But the amazing thing is this:  Obesity is impossible to hide, but the overwhelming majority of people pretend that it doesn’t exist in the people they encounter personally.  I have actually had people talking  critically to me, an obviously overweight person, about obesity and other “fat people,” not acknowledging at all that I happened to be fat myself.

Maybe there is some sort of strange parallel here between the claim that one “doesn’t see race” and the way many deal with fat people.  There’s an unwillingness or inability to process otherness in a way that accepts it and the challenges it creates.  So, the way we usually deal with it is to just not speak of it.  Who?  YOU?  Or, let’s say you’ve acquired the courage to call yourself fat.  People will, upon hearing you say the word, immediately deny that it’s true, or will fall all over themselves to adjust to your boundary-violating speech.  

“You’re not fat.”  

“I am 5’9” and weigh 300 pounds.”  

“Well, you don’t look fat.”  

“There are mirrors in my house, bro.  And everyone’s got a camera.”

And so it goes.

The Inner Game

Yogi Berra is reported to have once said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.”  I am inclined, at this point, to say something like the same thing about trying to change habits to eat well and to lose weight.  The “inner game” is, I’m learning, immensely significant, and in the end it’s the inner game, the mental game, where the struggle is either won or lost.  But when you turn to the “physical” side of things– what food to eat and when– Yogi’s unorthodox arithmetic makes intuitive sense.  There’s a lot to deal with.  It feels like a 140% effort is required.  

Why is the inner game complicated?  Well, ask any fat person who’s able to verbally acknowledge his or her obesity (and again, the irreality of American social engagement makes this incredibly difficult), and you’ll find a whole bunch of things:

  • Fat people are treated differently than thin people.  This is true for men, but it is especially true for women.   As a person who’s been both fat and of average weight, I can say: You’re treated better when you’re thin.  You get away with eating or drinking stuff and not being scrutinized..  You get away with being “lazy” or even with not exercising at all.  People are nicer when you’re thin.  It’s true.  
  • Ever been in a medieval castle?  People were shorter back when those castles were built, and so now when an average-sized person walks through doorways and tunnels she’s constantly bent over, hoping not to smack her head.  When you are fat, the whole world feels like a medieval castle, and not in a good way– you don’t imagine yourself as a king or lord or whatever.  “Will I fit?” becomes a constant concern.  Maybe a more accessible comparison is this:  Have you, as an adult, ever tried to sit at the kids’ table or do a kids’ activity in an elementary school?  You know that feeling of, “Am I too heavy for this chair?  Will my legs fit under this table?”  To be fat is to have that experience in all situations.  You may avoid certain social places or restaurants because they have small booths.  You may avoid even walking into certain clothing stores because you know that their sizes stop two or three (or eight) sizes below yours.  Will the kneelers in this church accommodate my belly?  How about the bench on that picnic table?  How about the seats at that theater?  
  • Most overweight people have tried a million times, often with grand self-inflicted gestures, to lose weight.  And sometimes it works for a while.  I’ve lost 10 pounds a million times.  Each one of these changes feels a lot like choosing to write with your non-dominant hand.  You can do it for a bit, but very quickly it starts being immensely time-consuming, unnatural-feeling, and thus difficult.  Under stress to get other things done (because hey, life goes on), you revert to your dominant hand– your usual way of doing things.  Some of the people I’ve known who were most successful at losing weight were able to make it more or less a full time job.  Few of us have that luxury.  
  • Being fat just physically feels lousy.  The baseline experience of my body 50 pounds ago was just discomfort.  My skin felt tight even while I was flabby.  My digestive system was a mess.  I experienced weird pains and occasional mental “fog.”  I went to the hospital multiple times over the years because reflux can give the very compelling impression that you’re having a heart attack.  You skip events– or want to skip events– because they’re outdoors in the heat and you know you’ll sweat through your shirt or because the seating is such that it’ll put your fat, sweaty body close to other people.  
  • The “gym rat” persona– which, it seems, a lot of weight loss programs set as the new, alternate persona for the poor, fat SOBs they work with– just seems like such a capitalist, hyper-narcissistic and self-serving goal. It’s also a goal that seems comically remote to my experience.   Is this really the only end game?  Whatever I want to become, it’s not the guy with the lycra pants and the waterproof iPhone arm band.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and plenty of my friends pursue that– I just don’t want it.  To the extent that I want to change in this regard, I want to slowly grow stronger and more capable.  This sort of corporatized, commodified, fetishized human body seems to abnegate everything that is useful about suffering and humbling and ennobling about the awareness of mortality.  The more expensive the yoga pants, the more undesirable it seems.    But OK– maybe that’s just my own issue.  


To make it real:  Consider what a complainer you are when you’ve got a cold or when you are hungover or grieving and someone asks you to do something significant.  Now, imagine that, while sick or hungover, someone says to you, “You have to utterly change everything about the way you’re doing things, enduring all sorts of hardships, and you have to take a journey that almost everyone fails and that will be uncomfortable for a long time before it starts getting more comfortable.  And along the way there will be a thousand explanations that well-meaning but often ill-informed people will give for how you achieve the changes you seek, many of them utterly contradicting each other.  Oh, and the hangover won’t go away for at least a month.”  

There you go.  That’s, as far as I can see it, where a lot of fat people start.  That’s where I started.