Author’s Note: I am not a nutritionist nor am I a fitness expert. The information I’m providing is simply an insight into what works for me. Certainly, there are experts in each of these fields of study and I encourage you to consult with them as well as your own personal physician. Additionally, I am relaying information I found helpful, but I am not endorsing a specific product, book or supplement. Since I have blended together information I found personally helpful with regard to my specific circumstances, I am not specifically attributing information to any single author, expert or co-worker.
Ahead of an AAR in Indiana, an NCO and I were killing a little time when the conversation took on the topic of fitness, weight loss and diet. We spoke for a short time and he recommended, “You should write something called ‘How the colonel did it.” I have thought about that conversation many times over the last few weeks and decided to relay what works for me in an effort to spur some personal reflection for you.
I serve as the Missouri National Guard Chief of Staff, but realize that few among our 11,500 really know me. So here’s some background. You can skip the next several paragraphs if you like, I’m only including them to describe the evolution in my thought and fitness and nutritional habits. If you’re in a hurry, skip all the way down to the heading “How the Colonel Does It.”
My family and I moved to Missouri in July 2006 to assume the role as Director of Operations on the Joint Force Headquarters staff. My fitness level was average. I passed all my APFTs. I am 72 inches tall. My weight then was exactly 203 pounds (the cutline for may age group on the Army height/weight chart to determine if a body-fat worksheet is needed.). I have been subject to “taping” since just after I received my commission in 1988. Beginning in 2006, my weight was about to substantially increase.
I threw myself into the work of the J3 and did not establish a good battle rhythm. One day – the first day, after I ran during a lunch hour in Jefferson City, a colleague called me from St. Louis. “Hey. Just a word of warning… The Chief will chew you for doing PT when you’re supposed to be working.” Word gets around. So I stopped.
Arriving early and leaving late every day, working nearly every weekend, my normal PT routine (if there ever was one) slowed to a near stop. Then, a year later, I simultaneously assumed the role as Chief of Staff while my wife deployed with her unit, leaving me with one-and-three-year-old boys — a geographic bachelor dad. I’m not the busiest guy in the organization, but I did get a lot busier than just the year before. I began eating whatever was quickest to grab and eat while driving from home to the Montessori School, work and return. I consumed high volumes of processed foods and hardly cooked at home other than to heat something up.
My weight at the end of her deployment in 2008 topped 235 pounds. My fitness level was at an all-time low. I was motivated to do something about it, but was deeply frustrated with my condition and the mountain I was surely going to have to climb to get out of this mess.
Later in 2008, the pressures of my job began to build and I suddenly found myself in a deep emotional crisis. Thank God I have a strong wife and loving family! The stress, frankly, was killing me. The blood pressure medicine I’d taken since my mid-30s had to be adjusted. I considered – even discussed with doctors medicine for depression and did take a high-powered prescription sleeping pill every night for over a year. Something else happened as well.
Because of the stress, I had no appetite for anything. The result was unbelievable and visibly-pronounced weight loss. I fell from 235 to 175 in a matter of months. Concerned colleagues began to inquire whether I was feeling ok. A few bluntly asked if I was sick. Did I have cancer? Of course I told everyone I was fine. I did not, indeed, have cancer. But, truth be told, I was sick. I had to get a handle on things and I had to get control fast. Stress was going to drive me to the depths of depression and I had to be doing damage to my body. This isn’t a column about stress management, but suffice it to say, I had to adopt a different philosophy—and I did. It is definitely intertwined, but that’s a subject for another time.
Thankfully, body fat, when burned, supplies a good deal of energy. I lived on energy from body fat and whatever I could bring myself to eat as I regained control of this situation. Years ago I once joked with a skinny, cigarette-smoking NCO who had the task of taping me for the body-fat worksheet calculation. He said, “You know sir. The best thing about all that body fat is that if you and I were stranded on a desert island, you’d live longer than me.” I replied, “That’s true. Because, I’d kill you and eat you! Besides. You’re already cooked.” Excess body fat, sort of, saved me during this time. Now, I don’t need it anymore.
Feeling better about a lot of things, I began to pay attention to diet and exercise. Exercise relieved stress in a productive way. Diet began to focus on fueling my system instead of making me feel better and things began to work for me (or so I thought). I regained a little weight, but my body mass index, which dipped into the “normal” range for the first time since 1988, remained normal. I really looked forward to running and ran a lot – sometimes as much as eight miles a day, but never less than four miles – four to five days a week on any day it was above 10 degrees – heat doesn’t matter too much to me. I had no idea how to work out except for push-ups and sit-ups (guess where I got that workout plan?). Then I consulted a nutritionist and a personal trainer (both assets we have and make available to our MONG Soldiers). My weight and fitness levels began to stabilize and I felt (and still feel) great.
Then it happened. A difficult setback…
As a brigade commander, while on State Emergency Duty in Southeast Missouri in April 2011, I contracted a lung affliction, diagnosed as a reaction to black mold. The official diagnosis was pneumonitis, which is non-bacterial pneumonia-like inflammation of the lungs. Though I used to be able to run six or eight miles a day, I could barely run two miles. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t run. Doctors prescribed steroidal drugs, breathing treatments, and antibiotics for spinoff infections. Finally, in about late August, I took a turn for the better. But while I was still eating a “very healthy”, calorie-correct standard American diet of high fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low fat protein, my weight began to CLIMB. For months, I had lost my high-calorie-burning activity: running.
Then it happened again. Another setback. My wife deployed again. A geo-bachelor parent with boys now six and eight, full-time chief of staff and brigade commander—and with my weight on the rise, I had to do something. My weight in November 2011 topped 200 pounds. I was on the edge of hitting my screening weight of 203. I began to investigate a solution.
Because of my research, I came in contact with a number of studies and began to find that I, like millions of Americans, have been led astray.
The best part of being an American Soldier is not the standard American diet. In my opinion, it’s holding us back and spinning off new epidemics of diseases once confined to a small minority of people. The introduction of high-fructose corn syrup into highly processed foods appears to be directly attributable to the substantial obesity crisis in America, including early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and other weight-related ailments, such as increased stress on joints such as knees, ankles and hips. Corn syrup and other processed sugars are in most prepared foods. Finally, I understood. I can’t eat lower calorie, low-fat, high carbohydrate, packaged foods with nutrition labels on them, telling me how good they are for me.
A frequent theme among top-rated research efforts in the field of diet and nutrition is that we need a radical departure from the official standard American dietary guidelines. Another common element are warnings against processed foods, high fructose corn syrup and other processed sugars. Counting calories does matter. I’ve done that for several years, but the right kind of calories matters more. Frustrated, I needed something simple. Having the benefit of a neighbor who is a professor at Mizzou focused on the nutrition and fitness field, I began to understand the benefits of a diet rich in lean protein and unprocessed carbohydrates. Yet I needed something clear-cut. Counting calories, guessing about caloric counts, fretting about how many calories I have left in my day, etc., wasn’t efficient.
I adopted a simple, “one ingredient rule”. In a matter of weeks, with no significant adjustment to the physical fitness regimen I can squeeze in with my wife deployed, my weight began to drop to its normal level. As I write this today, I am at 182 pounds. I’m usually around 180 +/- a pound or two, which is a very healthy weight for me. I’m still in the rebuilding phase of my fitness regimen, held back primarily because of an extraordinarily heavy travel schedule beginning about mid-January. Still, knowing and proving 80% of body composition is determined by diet, I have successfully, maintained my weight where I want it. By the way, I have eaten at dozens of restaurants on a near daily basis over the last four and half months (and restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, are typically a common foe of anyone trying to maintain a healthy weight and fitness routine). At the end of that long travel period – I weigh the same.
Additionally, my motivation shifted. Originally, I did things – whether the techniques were right or wrong – to comply with Army standards, period (emphasis added). Now, I focus on living as healthy as I can because I want to live long enough to enjoy my children and grandchildren. Living longer includes an emphasis on stress management. Good health and fitness goes a long way toward reducing the stress that our high operational tempo environment places on our leaders.
So… Here’s what you’ve been waiting for… Here’s what works for me. Here’s “How the colonel does it.” Again, study first and then consult your physician and fitness experts before you do anything drastic.
“How The Colonel Does It”
1. I do my very best to eat foods comprised of just a single ingredient. Generally, this means I rarely buy anything with an FDA nutrition label on it. As a result, I’m always guessing about how many calories, fat, sugar, etc., is in the product, but there are guides available to get me close enough. I don’t buy low-fat products – yogurt for instance… I get the full-fat kind. The low-fat kind has to be processed and other ingredients are added to compensate for lost flavor. Dairy comes naturally with fat in it – so be it. I buy lean cuts of meat, such as steak, fish, turkey and chicken (although, I’m going to research and refine my diet somewhat based upon additional analysis regarding red meat and my blood type – you can and will refine your intake based upon increased knowledge and confidence in the data presented as you learn who can be trusted, who’s being funded by whom, etc.). When I shop, I buy organic – whenever possible – raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, meats, yogurt, cheese, olives, olive oil, etc. I focus a lot on unprocessed foods. That leaves out multi-ingredient foods like: cereal, bread, desserts, crackers and other snack foods – even popcorn. Pretty much, based on research I believe in, I’ve given up all grains, including beans, peanuts, oats, etc. I missed these foods initially, but find I easily do without them.
2. I limit calorie intake to solid foods. I don’t drink soft drinks, juices or other high-sugar, processed drinks. It’s easier to list what I do drink: primarily water, coffee, wine and light beer (very light – 3.2% alcohol– 55 calories). If the alcohol in my diet surprises you, don’t let it. I’m German by heritage and I’m the Chief of Staff of this place – there will be beer. Plus… wine tastes good. I plan to actually live and enjoy some of the finer things in life. Dry red wine is a single ingredient item and the drier the wine the lower the residual sugar. Some studies tout health benefits. I’d drink wine anyway.
3. My daily diet is very consistent from day to day. Whether I’m forced to eat out a lot or not, here’s what I eat. I view food more as fuel with therapeutic values, but I still love to eat. Therefore, I have built a consistent menu of things I love to eat. No matter the meal, I strive to balance higher glycemic foods (foods which will raise my blood sugar quickly), with protein. There’s a reason for this, but I’m already way long on this blog entry.
a. Breakfast. I typically eat three eggs fried in olive oil – over medium, a strip or two of bacon for flavor only (there’s no nutritional value in bacon), regular plain yogurt flavored with fruit that I wash and peel or chop myself such as an orange, blueberries, strawberries (sometimes all of these together and usually a half to full cup of fruit). On the weekends, or if I can get it while traveling, I add steamed asparagus (I love the stuff). I drink one large cup of a bold-flavored coffee with real half and half. Fried eggs? Yes. Over-medium. A good deal of the yolk stays on the plate, but flavors the meal. About 50 to 75% of the time (100% when at home), I remove the yolks from two of the three eggs and just cook the egg whites. One yolk is flavor enough (the dog loves the extra yolks). My neighbor published a study last fall showing protein intake in the morning staves off morning hunger until lunch. That’s my experience exactly. My children eat a similar breakfast when I’m home to prepare it for them, except the eggs are scrambled and one loves strawberries, while the other loves apples.
b. Morning Snack. None. I’m busy and not hungry. Maybe a small amount of nuts if I do get hungry, but that’s not too common.
c. Water. A decent amount, but not what I’d describe as “a lot” throughout the day.
d. Lunch. Salad. Lots of single-ingredient items like lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, olives, turkey, chicken or tuna, (yes… sometimes, but not always, a little bacon for flavor only), some cheese for flavor and, depending upon mood, salsa and jalapeño peppers or another kind of dressing ranging from balsamic vinaigrette (my favorite) to even a ranch or bleu cheese (but again, never the “lowfat” varieties of either). I stay away from high-sugar-content dressings s like Thousand Island and French. I drink water for lunch. My children are likely eating a horrible concoction of processed foods while at school. I’ve eaten with them a few times. The meals there are high sugar, high starch, processed foods of their choosing. Given a choice of healthy foods or peanut butter and jelly, chips, Rice Crispy Treats and milk, it’s pretty easy to figure out what an eight-year-old is going to choose.
e. Afternoon Snack. Rare, but sometimes done… Olives and high quality cheddar cheese is my favorite. Nuts are most common and easiest to store. Again, I drink water as I feel like it.
f. Dinner. Dinner basically boils down to very simple meals. Four to six ounces of chicken, primarily, lean fish or beef (red meat as a rare treat.). I grill or bake the meats, grill or steam vegetables with my primary emphasis on asparagus, broccoli (generally raw), or my meal might be a salad with grilled chicken (except that I like to put it in buffalo sauce). Sometimes I just eat lean tuna with some dill pickles and a little cheese and tomatoes. It just depends. One of my favorite meals is zucchini sautéed in olive oil with mushrooms, kalamata olives and parmesan cheese with spaghetti sauce (another thing I can’t get enough of… I just have to be selective about the sauce I buy – can you believe many sauces are loaded with sugar?). I drink water (Perrier is a favorite for dinner) and either wine or beer. My kids generally eat the meat I prepare, but prefer raw fruits, carrots, raw broccoli and milk or orange juice to drink.
g. After Dinner Snack. None. With a 0400 wake up, I’m too tired to stay up past 2100 and I eat enough at dinner to leave me very satisfied for the night.
h. I tossed out most processed and multi-ingredient foods that used to fill my kitchen cupboards and refrigerator. The place looks pretty bare a lot of times, because fresh food spoils quickly, so I don’t buy in bulk anymore.
4. I exercise. I love to run and am currently rebuilding my routine and distances as geo-bachelor parenthood allows. During the week, I have a high school student come over at 0500 every school day to wake the boys, feed them and get them ready for school. This gives me the time I need to run and costs me $8 an hour for about ten to twelve hours a week. I also lift light weights, do plenty of push-ups and pull-ups and several different kinds of abdominal exercises. The abdominal exercises were prescribed by a physical therapist years ago to strengthen my core muscles to keep my lower back in line and eliminating chronic, sometimes-debilitating back pain. Because of previous injuries and my injury-prone nature, my wife has issued a lifetime ban on organized sports such as softball and rugby. I have never had a cavity, but thanks to rugby, I’ve had thousands of dollars worth of dental work and thanks to baseball and softball, I have broken a collarbone twice, fractured the ball joint to the same shoulder and broken fingers, sustained a concussion and have had plenty of stiches in my chin and above my eye. You should see the other guys!
5. I sleep. I sleep as a priority. I sleep between six and eight hours a night with a high majority of sleep periods nearing eight hours. This is an absolute must. I have carefully arranged my schedule and routine to make sure I get the sleep I need. I’m a dad. Kids wake up in the middle of the night. That happens. I just try to recover and go to sleep on time the next night. I go to bed on days off, when I get them, at the same time as I do on days I work.
6. I self-monitor. I weigh and record my weight every day. Now that I have a predictable diet, as long as I stick to it, I don’t track calories much anymore. I do from time to time, but if I generally eat exactly the same things every day, I don’t. I know my net daily caloric intake (total calories minus those burned through exercise )is around 1200. That’s far less than the standard American diet recommendation of 2000 calories (I try to never intake 2000 calories in any given day – exercise or not). In fact, when calculating my resting metabolic rate and deducting calories burned from physical activity, the standard American diet recommendation and the wrong kind of calories via multi-ingredient foods, demonstrably caused me to gain 3.2 pounds a month from May 2011 to November 2011. The math matters. Calories matter. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
7. What I am not; what I don’t do.
a. I am not hungry.
b. I am not a vegetarian.
c. I do not abstain from alcohol.
d. I don’t avoid fat for the sake of avoiding fat. Lean does not mean fat free. “Fat free” things are processed and have multiple ingredients.
e. I do not have nor have I ever had cancer or any other chronic disease – except for back pain caused by a degenerative disk disease.
f. I do not lift heavy weights.
g. I am not training for a marathon or another single event. I’m training for long life.
h. I am not a rabid health nut. I don’t condemn others for their choices. I just try to lead by example – take it or leave it.
i. I cannot eat whatever I want and run it off later. That works for young people, gives them a misleading sense of overconfidence and allows them to build the kind of habits I suffered from for 20 years.
j. I am not on a kick. After nearly four years, I think my initial weight loss is going to stick – not rebound upwards.
k. I am not perfect. I do not have the perfect diet and I work in a place where there’s cake or candy available on a near-daily basis. I do my best not to become the “accidental fat guy” by avoiding these temptations as much as I can – but I do succumb to them sometimes.
l. I am not an expert. I am continuously researching and evaluating. Therefore, I am evolving. If I can’t find an empirical connection I can demonstrate by my own experiences, I continue to research in an effort to refine and sustain progress.
m. I am not terribly disciplined. That’s the reason I have to have simple rules to follow.
Ok. That’s how I do it. Find out what works for you. Be ready. Live for life. I’m interested to know if you have any tips or if this is helpful for you. If you don’t do anything else, take a small amount of time and do some research. If the lawyers let me, I’ll return to this blog with a list of references I have consulted. Keep in mind though, I have blended and tailored a plan to fit my personal needs and lifestyle.
Thanks for what you do.