Take It or Leave It

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Now that I’m within striking distance of the end of my self-imposed year-long ban on drinking alcohol, I want to share my new appreciation for the surprisingly bifurcated nature of alcohol. A few weeks ago, I had quoted that 30% of American adults do not drink at all and another 30% drink less than one alcoholic beverage a week. Given how much time, energy, money, and everything else that the other 40% spend on alcohol (not to mention the negative consequences that result from drinking too much of it), am I the only one who is surprised to learn that for 60% of adult Americans alcohol is essentially a non-factor?

The info-graphic below does an amazing job of presenting the data on weekly alcohol consumption by breaking it into deciles or 10 equal sized groups of survey participants:

Drinking Info-graphic

This is how you read the graph: each group represents 10% of survey respondents, and, by extrapolation, 10% of all adult Americans. Starting on the left side, you have the folks who don’t drink at all – so you see “0 drinks,” meaning that these 10% chunks of Americans have no drinks in a typical week.  As you move to the right of the graph, you see the results for the next 10% of adult Americans, and so on, and so on. Since the first three deciles each report 0 drinks, this means that it is estimated by this survey that a full 30% of adult Americans do not drink at all.

The survey, just like all of the other stats I’ve seen about alcohol, refers to “drinks” according to the suggested serving size or the “standard drink.” That’s 12 ounces of regular beer (usually about 5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (typically about 12% alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol).

With that in mind, continue moving to the right of the graph to see the results for Americans who drink, starting with those who drink the least. This reveals that another 30% drink less than one drink per week — 0.02 drinks per week on average, 0.14 drinks per week, and 0.63 drinks. Keep moving right on the graph to discover that people in the 7th decile report drinking only 2 drinks per week and those in the 8th decile a little less than one drink per day.

Now we’ve reached the part where the graph gets very, very interesting. The 9th decile reports drinking slightly more than 15 drinks per week on average. As I reported in January, before my New Year’s resolution, I typically drank two glasses of wine a night with dinner. This means that I certainly fell in the 9th decile of respondents to this survey. To put that another way, 90% of the American adult population drinks less than I used to!

Now look at the results for the last decile on the graph. On average, this group reports drinking 73.85 drinks per week or more than 10 standard drinks per day. That’s more than the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine a day. And, if you do the math, the people in this top decile consume much more than half of all alcohol consumed by everyone. Although that’s extremely scary, I don’t doubt the veracity of the data.  Do you?

If this interests you, take a look at the post from the Washington Post Wonkblog where I found the information, the official results from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study from which the data originates, the Amazon page for “Paying the Tab,” the 2007 book that shed light on the study, and a review of that book in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And, for the 40% of Americans who have a few drinks (or more) per week and may, like me, have concerns about how that can lead to weight gain, the WP Wokblog also put together this helpful “Guide to Efficient Drinking” that ranks various alcoholic drinks by calories per ounce and calories per serving.

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Quarterly Report

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This is the first quarter status report on my dry year.  Believe it or not, three months have come and gone since I quit drinking as my New Year’s resolution, and started this blog to share my thoughts about that and other things. To be perfectly honest, I’m completely over the whole not drinking thing. By that, I don’t mean that I want to start drinking again. What I mean is that not drinking alcohol has become so ingrained in me that I just don’t think about it very much. And that’s making it difficult to find things to write about.

At the end of my first month, I reported that I had lost six pounds simply by not drinking, and that I was dismayed that forming a new habit was going to take a lot longer than I had expected. Then, at the end of my second month, I realized that my old habit of drinking wine every night had disappeared unnoticed, and I was 11 pounds lighter. In between those two posts, I revealed that a big motivator for embarking on my “dry year” was my belief that alcohol was preventing me from losing the 20+ pounds I had gained over the past several years, as well as from being a more competitive runner.

In chunking out my planning and goals into more manageable bits, I decided not to change anything else about my eating or fitness routine in January. And, in February and March, to focus on my diet first, mainly by using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as my exercise. I hoped to lose 15 of my goal of 20 pounds by that time. My plan was to then pivot from my diet to my running and race training in April, and to try for my personal best marathon time on my 46th birthday in late July. Assuming all goes accordingly, I would still have five months to complete my diet goal before the end of the year.

Even though there’s still snow on the ground here in Vermont, March is over. The inevitable question is: How am I doing? Drum roll please…..

I lost 15 pounds! I’m particularly proud of that, because I was on vacation the first two weeks of March. In just 90 days, my Body Mass Index dropped from 24.7 to 22.4. According to the U.S. Navy body fat calculator, my percentage of body fat dropped from 27% in mid-February to 24% today. I’m not quite in the “fit” category yet, so there’s more work to do. However, I’m really getting close to my ideal weight and fitness level, and feel very happy with my results.

So far, my theory that losing weight will make me run faster appears to be correct. I took part in the Run for the Border Half Marathon on the New Hampshire coast this past Sunday.  It was raining, windy and cold – I got hit by foam and sea water from waves that crashed against the seawall and sprayed onto the race route! Because of the crazy weather and coastal flood warnings, the race was shortened to 10.19 miles. I surprised myself by racing at a 9:02 per-mile pace, much faster than expected. Last year’s half marathon results were all slower than this, ranging from a 10:27 per-mile pace in Middlebury in May, to a 9:20 pace down in Manchester, Vermont, in early September. I felt very comfortable the whole race and definitely had more in the tank when I crossed the finish line.

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(My vantage point running the Run for the Border Half Marathon in coastal New Hampshire on March 30, 2014.)

Over the past three months, the most important thing is that I had decided to reward myself early with a trip to Laos. Since I was saving well over $4,000 this year by not drinking, and it was burning a hole in my pocket, I deserved a big reward for all of my efforts. My 10-day trip was unforgettable and under budget — around $2,500. Later this year, when I reach all of the other goals I’ve outlined, maybe Bruce and I will take another trip together to celebrate.

Pushing Past the Plateau

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The connections between drinking or not drinking alcohol and gaining or losing weight are obvious and well-documented.  As I previously stated, one of my motivations in pledging to not drink for a solid year was to drop a few stubborn pounds.  Thus far, not drinking has helped me to lose eight pounds with relative ease. Yet, for the past month, I’ve been going up and down in a range of two-three pounds, at the same “weight plateau” that has irked me since before my 40th birthday.  Having given up so much this time, I am determined to break through and, once and for all, return to my goal weight. This raises two questions with me: Why am I at a plateau? And how do I push past it?

The Mayo Clinic does a great job of describing this plateau. It happens when your metabolism slows as your body gets used to the new level of reduced calorie intake, something they refer to as a “new equilibrium.”  Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to push past it, according to the Mayo folks: “To lose more weight, you need to increase activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss.” Translation: losing 12 more pounds is going to be hard work. 

Luckily, there is by far more helpful advice on this topic than for any other I have researched for this blog. Let’s check in with Jillian Michaels, weight loss and fitness guru, and the star of the “Biggest Loser.” She thinks the plateau is a myth, so I need to honestly ask myself a few questions. First, am I keeping track of my daily calories? Yes. I’ve been using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as all of my exercise. Secondly, am I trying to lose vanity pounds? To answer this question, I need to understand how much of my body is actually fat.

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Previously, I calculated my Body Mass Index (BMI). For my height of five feet, seven inches, a “healthy” BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Checking my current BMI at my weight plateau of 150 pounds, I see I’m in that range, with a BMI of 23.5. However, after reading more about BMI, including this NPR article with 10 reasons why BMI is bogus, I understand that BMI was developed over 100 years ago and is a straight formula based only on height and weight.  It doesn’t really take into account anything important – such as gender, age, or musculature.

Sadly, this means I had to take out my tape measure so that I could estimate my actual body fat. I used this calculator from the U.S. Navy. I took three measurements: my waist at the narrowest point (29 inches), my hips at the widest point (39 inches), and my neck at the narrowest point (13 inches).  This estimates my body fat at 27%. I know that is too high. According to this chart, it’s in the middle of the “average” category for women. I don’t want to be average. I want to break into the top end of the “fitness” category, which is between 21% and 24%. Some of you will, no doubt, debate this. However, my answer to Jillian’s second question is, no, I am not trying to lose vanity pounds.

Given that, I need some solid strategies to lose 12 more pounds to get to my goal weight of 138. Among several other suggestions out there, WebMD has 10 tips for moving beyond the plateau, as do About.com and ActiveBeat.com. I don’t know about you, but 10 things seems like a lot to keep track of. The solution to this, as with all things, is to create a spreadsheet. I tracked the tips from these three sources and found they contained a total of 22 different tips. I was able to scratch off a bunch of these, because I am already doing nine of these things, and, frankly, another five of them just seemed lame.

My analysis left me with eight things to focus on, five of which are diet-related and three about exercise. On the food side, I need to beware of calorie creep, celebratory calories, and restaurant overeating, and try to manage my hunger with low-fat protein and by eating more fruits & veggies. This seems like solid dieting advice. At the same time, I need to add in more exercise, particularly by trying to be more active during the day and by adding strength training.

Like I said, this is going to be hard work. Wish me luck!