Chapter 10: The Virtuous Cycle, Level 1

Chapter 10.

The Virtuous Cycle, Level 1


Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.

Emily Dickinson


Holy crap, here we go.

I mean, HELL, YEAH! Here we go!

This isn’t going to suck as much as you think. Did you see the movie Castaway, with Tom Hanks? Remember the scene where he struggled to create a fire from the smallest of embers? Like Tom, you need an ember. You need a small spark of something that you can build on. A good place to start your search, for Level 1, is to experiment and discover an exercise that doesn’t suck.

Then you can take that infinitesimal spark of “doesn’t suck” and, with time and effort, nurture it into a small flame. With added learning and practice, the flame will become a raging bonfire of exercise awesomeness.

Exercise is cool that way. You can evolve from not hating it, to liking it, to full-blown Bridges of Madison County loving it. (My mom made me watch that movie with her. Anything she says about me crying is a lie.)

Enough movie analogies. Let’s do this.


Level 1, Exercise: Making Moves

This may not be you.

As I mention in chapter 9, you may be at a more advanced step than this in  exercise capabilities (and you may be more advanced on diet as well; one step at a time). However, if you’re like most North Americans, easy exercise is the place to start.

Everything you’ve read here has brought you to this point. We’ve doomed and gloomed the hell out of you—showing you just how much the deck is stacked against you in the current food environment—in order to convince you that some basic exercise is a critical first in order to control your desire for salty-fatty-sugary taste sensations.

But now I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to decide to make small dietary changes first, and leave beginner exercise for after. We’re suggesting exercise first because there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the hypothesis. You know, the stuff we buried you with in chapter 4. However, people are different. If you feel you want to try dietary changes first, go do that. We do, however, encourage you to change only one thing at a time—meaning, alter your diet OR integrate exercise. Both are challenging, and as we’ve established, humans have limited motivational resources.

            Feeling nervous? One day you’ll get to look back at what an uncoordinated exercise newb you once were and compare that with how awesome you’ve become. Keep that in mind. It’s a good motivator.


Step 1: Find Your Passion

If you’re not active, it’s likely because you haven’t found your passion yet. Often this discovery happens by accident. As I mention in chapter 4, your exercise soul mate doesn’t have to be the best muscle builder or calorie burner. It has to make you happy eventually (don’t expect to love a specific exercise right away; many don’t). It has to make you want to do it again and again. Finding this soul mate may require playing the field, so to speak. And when it comes to that, Google is your friend. Your real friends are also your friends. Also, don’t feel the need to be faithful to any one exercise. In the fitness context, polyamory = cross-training.

Spend some quality computer time researching prospective activities, but don’t be afraid to ask friends and family what they like to do. To start things off, here are a few activities I think are suitable for rookie exercisers.



I am a big, big fan of walking. It’s by far the most popular form of exercise on the planet. More people stay healthy via walking than anything else. It’s meditative, can be social, is practical and has minimal cost. Plus, you can do it anywhere. Remember chapter 8’s discussion of time management? Walking is excellent because it’s a great way to kill time if you just dropped the kids off at the mall or some other event, and it’s easy to do on a lunch break as well. And you don’t need a shower after. All this and it gets good results.

Notice I said “good” results. Not great. It takes a lot of walking to burn a lot of calories; the overall metabolic increase isn’t that high. As you saw from the chart in chapter 5, running a mile burns significantly more calories than walking it does. What’s more, higher intensity exercise does a better job of making the brain changes that lead to improved eating habits. Walking, therefore, is only moderate in its ability to make you a better eater.

That said, if you are sedentary, and the only exercise this book gets you to do is regular walking, that’s a victory. The health benefits are still significant, so don’t discount it.

If you want, it’s not a bad idea to get appropriate walking footwear and some good clothes. Take a friend. Walk briskly. Try to get faster. Join a walking clinic. Go farther. Go even faster.

And one day, if you feel you’re ready, run.



I’ll give a plug for weightlifting right off the bat. This may seem like an odd activity to recommend for a rookie but it’s a good starter exercise for a number of reasons:


  • It is proven to strengthen connective tissues to improve performance and reduce risks of injuries in other activities.
  • It can be integrated slowly and steadily.
  • It allows you to take breaks, which is a big plus if you’re overweight and in poor cardiovascular shape. You lift and you rest. Then you lift and you rest. Over time, you lift harder and shorten those rest periods, but you can start off at a pace you can handle.
  • When the fat does come off, you’ve created an awesomely sculpted body to show off.

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What about women and weights?

“One of the main reasons to lift weights is that it’s a great way for women to increase self-confidence,” Nia Shanks told me. “It’s not a perk that comes to mind when they first start strength training, but it absolutely spills over into the rest of their lives.” Nia is a strength and conditioning coach in Kentucky, and co-founder of the popular Facebook group Girls Gone Strong.

“I encourage them to use a challenging load of weight,” she said. “None of this soup-can-for-500-reps crap. Women greatly underestimate their strength capabilities.”

“It ends up changing everything,” Jen Sinkler, who until recently was editorial director of fitness content for Experience Life magazine, told me. “You might start to get a rounder ass or be able to pick up groceries, but you stick with it because you realize the potential of you. Your emotional and mental strength increase in tandem with your physical strength.”

But what about getting too bulky?

“Muscle bulk is dependent largely on testosterone production,” Dr. Sue Pedersen, an endocrinologist, told me. “But no woman makes nearly as much testosterone as a man. It really is a hormonal issue. Men have an average of 15 to 20 times more testosterone than women do.”

Even if they adopt a hard-core weightlifting regimen, women gain muscle at a comparative snail’s pace. For postmenopausal women, whose testosterone levels are even lower, it’s even harder to develop muscular size, Dr. Pedersen explained.

“And if you do gain some bulk it means you’re doing good things for your health,” she said. Having extra muscle mass helps in injury prevention because the added strength reduces your risk of accidents or falls. “There are metabolic benefits as well. Heavier weightlifting improves insulin sensitivity, so you’re less likely to get type 2 diabetes.” It’s also good for blood pressure control, Pedersen said.

What’s more, “Loss of femininity is a horrible myth that scares women away from lifting weights,” Shanks said. “It’s not going to happen. When clients tell me what they want to look like, the images they point to are women who achieved it with a challenging lifting routine.”

Sinkler gets the bulking-up question all the time as well. “No one ever became a bodybuilder by accident,” she told me.


The Gym Route

As you learned in chapter 8, the social aspect of exercise can be a powerful motivator, so getting out of the house and around other people can help. Even so, not everyone likes the idea. In 2004, the American Council on Exercise surveyed 1,500 people on why they don’t go to a gym. The results:

  • 46 percent say it’s too crowded
  • 21 percent say they don’t know what they’re doing
  • 19 percent feel they’ll be the only one who isn’t “buff or already in good shape”1


What are we really dealing with here? When it comes to crowding, I think most of these people are fibbing. In reality, it’s an excuse for being intimidated (which is really what the second and third bullet points are all about). Yes, there are times that crowding can be a pain, but this should not get in the way of a dedicated exerciser. I’ve trained in some of the busiest gyms imaginable, and if you have the right attitude it can feed your energy levels. Empty gyms are boring.

Let’s talk about that third bullet point.

There is a chance this is an issue for you. Maybe you’re thinking that you don’t want to go into a gym full of fit people because you aren’t fit. Some people think they should get in respectable shape before they start at a gym so they can fit in better. If you’re a big person, maybe you fear others will look down on you.

I don’t know how overweight you may be, but I’ve got something important to tell you about the gym: no one cares.

Seriously, I’ve worked out in several dozen gyms across five countries and two cruise ships over the past two decades, and I can’t think of one single time when I got the impression that an overweight person was looked down on for being there. It never happened to me when I was overweight and first starting. Gyms are accepting environments. If anything, people may see you working hard and think, Good for him. I hope he succeeds.

Everyone who works out at a gym knows what it’s for. Many there used to be overweight as well. With two-thirds of North Americans being overweight, there’s a good chance that a lot of big people are already there (just don’t pick one of those bodybuilding gyms where steroid users hang out).

Trust me. Pick the right place and you’ll do fine. How do you pick the right place? I’m glad you asked.

The most important things to consider when choosing a gym are location and fit. By fit I mean a place where you feel comfortable; you fit in.

If there’s a gym in or near your office building, that’s awesome. Community centers are good choices, too, and higher education institutions often have gyms that are open to the public.

When you’re trying to decide if a gym is right for you, consider things like who the clientele are (do you mesh with them, or do they make you feel uncomfortable?), hours of operation, change-room and shower facilities, and classes available (more on that below). Take a tour. Ignore most of what the tour guide wants to sell you (especially the personal training—more on that below too) and just look around. If an opportunity presents itself, speak to a person or two taking a break between reps or just finishing on the treadmill. Are they happy? What do they like or dislike about the facility? Don’t be afraid to be picky when it comes to this decision, and know you can take time to think on it. In order to make your gym membership worthwhile, this has to be a place you want to come to several times a week. If it’s not, you’re throwing money away.


Group Fitness Classes

If you’re seriously considering a gym membership, this feature can be an added bonus. Some gyms have great classes, taught by qualified instructors, that they offer at no cost.

If you belong to a decent-sized gym, your menu of choices is likely to include everything from yoga and Pilates to step aerobics, cardio boot camps and Spinning (indoor cycling). Experiment and see what you like. All are great for fitness, burning calories and, most important, for motivation.

These classes create a collective group and can be a place to make friends—friends who expect you to show up again and again and will ask you where you were if you skip. This is positive peer pressure; try to create it.

You can start with beginner classes and up the intensity over time. Spinning classes are a particularly good choice because no one will know if you go easy on the bike tension. As you get more fit over time, you can crank the tension higher and work harder.


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Gym-goer Beware

Never let a gym deduct from your bank account. Never give them any banking information at all—not a blank check, not an account number, not even the name of your bank. And be reluctant about recurring credit card payments, as these can be difficult to stop. A better route is to negotiate the best contract terms you can for one year (which many gyms are going to want to lock you into as a minimum time period; you’ll pay a premium for going month to month) and then pay the whole year up front, in cash. At the end of that year you can walk away if you’ve moved on to another activity (or to another gym) with no fear of ongoing payments.

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Home gyms

I’m going to gently discourage you from the “home gym” route, for the following reasons:

  • There are many distractions at home (partners, kids, television, laundry, telephone, errands, etcetera). And you can consider time away from home at the gym your “me time.”
  • As I pointed in chapter 8, exercise adherence rates are at their lowest for people who work out at home, alone.
  • Home gyms take up a lot of space, and they can’t rival the equipment in a good gym.


That being said, some of us have brains that are just wired differently. Your life circumstances (babies at home, for example) may make it difficult to leave the house. Or you may live in the middle of nowhere (i.e., a place that doesn’t have a decent gym within driving distance).

If you really think that a home gym is the best way for you to go, it’s possible to make a small investment in some basic equipment, integrate bodyweight exercises (TRX—Google it), get a Swiss ball, dumbbells and some exercise bands and make significant progress. What’s more, if you have someone at home to act as a workout partner, it’s possible to make the experience even more motivating through a team approach.

2021 update: I’ve been using a home gym for several years now, ever since I started working from home full time. I love it. 


A Word or Three about Trainers

I urge AGAINST using any trainer at a franchise gym. I have investigated the personal training industry in depth and learned that these gyms value their trainers’ sales skill over their abilities as trainers. They have quotas to meet and use high-pressure sales tactics to get you to buy far more training than you need. Two people I interviewed stated that the gyms they worked for focused on pitching an entire year’s worth of training—worth around $10,000—to every prospective client regardless of goals and needs. You can use a franchise gym as a place to work out, but I repeat, do NOT use their trainers. You are viewed by management as a cash machine, and once they get their personal training hooks into you they are loath to let you go.

Motivated yet?

Hey, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Just find a good trainer elsewhere (and if you want to work out at a popular gym and need training, you’ll have to find it elsewhere; a franchise will not permit outside trainers). There are many trainers who have their own studios, and there are other “mobile” trainers who will come to your house. Whatever route you choose, I recommend that you pick someone with a degree in kinesiology or at least a two-year personal training diploma from a community college. In addition they should have a quality personal training certification. In the United States, NSCA and ACSM are the best certifying bodies, whereas in Canada it’s CSEP.

Also, find someone you like. There should be a good personality fit. Some of us like to be yelled at until we beg for mercy, others not so much. Choose accordingly.

Whether you opt for the home or traditional gym route, if you have no or little experience, I highly recommend that you consult a trainer. For how long is up to you. Personally, I’d suggest minimizing the total number of sessions for two reasons:

  1. You spend less money, and I’m cheap.
  2. You develop greater confidence when you learn to go it alone.


That second point is an example of self-efficacy. If you always have a trainer holding your hand, your ability to develop intrinsic motivation to go it alone suffers. A good trainer will help you develop this kind of motivation, but you have to make it clear that this is what you want to do. You have to tell them you want to “graduate” from needing them after about six or 12 sessions (or however many you are comfortable with), so can they please teach you to be independent?

Of course, if your boat is worth more than my house and you can afford some sexy person to motivate you for every single training session from now until doomsday, and this makes you happy, then go big, but know that a program does not need to be complex to be effective.

“Consistent practice combined with good nutrition and practicing good form and working to fatigue—no matter what the [amount of weight]—is what makes up the majority of results,” says Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I think a lot of the variables in a resistance training program—rest, sets, loads and other variables—are largely redundant in their capacity to bring about strength and [bigger muscles].” More important to Phillips is that you “get to the weight room, consistently practice, work to fatigue—this is 80 percent of the job.”



Zero impact, good calorie burner and lots of fun. It’s great to do with the family too. Go for it.

And don’t be ashamed to buy a power-assisted bike for the hills. These are becoming more popular all the time and making cycling for fitness more inclusive of people who don’t yet have the stamina to handle tough hills. You still get a good, fun workout, but when facing a steep incline you can let the electric motor help you out or even do all the work.

There’s a guy in my city in his 80s. He has emphysema from years of smoking, and he can barely walk. But he rides his power-assisted bike all the time. I’ve seen him out on the paths. He quit smoking 20 years ago and took up cycling, and the motor helps him keep active by doing the parts he’s no longer capable of.

If that’s not enough of a motivator for you, consider that cycling is also an excellent source of transportation.

“I’ve always loved cycling,” said Eric Goebelbecker, a 48-year-old dog trainer and computer programmer. “New York is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US. It was a way to make me get 45 minutes of exercise each way. I have a road bike for the nicer eight months of the year and a crappier one with more appropriate tires for the other four months.”

Eric had knee surgery a few years ago, and his desire to lose weight was partially motivated by knee issues. Cycling became an obvious choice because running was painful. Now he saves on parking, tolls, the bus and subways, gas, insurance and car maintenance. Also, “driving in traffic sucks,” Eric said. Now he avoids that.



This is another great activity that has a lot of possibilities for beginners. It can be done with the family in a local area, or you can Google your local outdoor pursuits organization and go on a group hike.

And it doesn’t just have to be a fair-weather activity. A trip to a mountaineering store can get you outfitted for any and all conditions, even deep snow if you rent a pair snowshoes.



Yet another activity that’s good for beginners. A lot of people love this sport, so consider giving it a try.

“Every swimmer I know who has made it big is extremely passionate about the sport,” said Matt Grevers, an Olympic champion who attained gold for Team USA in London 2012. “It’s not just competitiveness but about loving the sport. It’s not about beating someone else but about being the best you can be. Swimming has defined me as a person; I feel like I’m a better person all around because of it.”

Matt Grevers really loves to swim. Maybe you will too.

To prepare, all you need is a suit, goggles, maybe a bathing cap and a pool with lap swim hours that meet your schedule. With the availability of indoor pools, bad weather is no excuse not to go. Check your local recreation center, college or university for a place to get wet.



As you can see, there’s no shortage of activities suitable for a person new to exercise. And I’m barely scratching the surface here. You never know what’s going to grab your attention and make you want to get up and go. And keep track in this experimentation stage of what works for you and what doesn’t. If something isn’t working, make the necessary changes. You can adapt.


Step 2: Implementation

Once you’ve zeroed in on some exercises you want to try, you need to take the final steps toward getting active. This is more self-efficacy stuff: building up your situation-specific self-confidence in advance of the activity. These are things like more research into your chosen activity, arranging for lessons, checking walking and cycling routes, talking to people who engage in these sports and buying the appropriate gear and clothing.

You also must consider the time and scheduling factor. Remember that morning exercisers have the highest adherence rates for regular fitness regimens, so try that. Also recall that the later in the day you push it, the more likely you are to bail and hit the couch (or drive-through) instead of the gym, bike path or pool.

You need to take a close look at how to make adherence happen. Things like time of day, location, finances, child care, spousal support, gear and more all need to be figured out to reduce stress and boost confidence. Writing things down helps.

So prep first, sweat later.

There’s an additional bonus to thorough preparation, and that’s the building of excitement. If you’re a rookie, consider this: I’ve just told you not to exercise for the next week or so but instead to get ready to exercise. By the time you start you could be feeling revved up and totally gung ho. Anticipation is a wonderful thing.


Step 3: Form a Habit

You’re ready, you’re set, now GO… form a habit. THIS is the number-one goal of the “easy exercise” level. The calorie burning isn’t that high. The effect on your muscles and health is moderate. The physiological and psychological changes as they apply to eating behavior are also moderate. BUT! You get into a routine. You take those important first steps toward exercise becoming a habit. Even if you never feel the love, exercise can become habit forming. It can become something that you just do, period.

            Do you recall, back in chapter 7, our discussion about “if-then” planning? A large part of getting over your unwillingness to exercise (if, indeed, you are unwilling) is about habit formation. Yes, feeling the love for exercise is important, but don’t disregard the power of just doing it because it’s what you’ve programed yourself to do. You may see getting up early to run most mornings with a big smile and saying “I love running!” as an unattainable goal—or masochistic. But it’s easier to imagine it becoming something you get up and do when the alarm goes off because you’ve strategized it into your life as a regular routine and have just become used to it.

“The first few months it was a grind, but I had a couple of revelations,” Darlene Bordin, a 42-year-old mother of two in British Columbia, told me. “There were times my alarm went off and I decided not to go, and I lay there in bed for an hour. I decided I wasn’t going to do that again. The easy part is setting the alarm, and I have never regretted getting up and going for a run, but I always regret not having gone. It’s routine now. You just do it. It’s like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”

So stick with it. Get used to it. Get a little better at it. Before long it simply becomes a habit.


Step 4: Take Measure

Ever heard the expression “what gets measured gets done”? This is an MBA-ism and I can attest to its veracity.

In previous chapters we learned about research that shows how tracking progress is a proven motivational tool, and we discussed process versus outcome goals. I remind you here to write out your process goals and stick them on the fridge. Seeing them every day, and seeing the progress you’re making in achieving them, is powerful.

Many are fans of writing down your outcome goals as well, but I don’t see this as necessary. Some will quote the “Yale Study of Goals” to bolster the claim, asserting that in 1953 a Yale graduating class was asked if they had specific, written goals for the future. The 3 percent who did this had accumulated more wealth than the 97 percent who did not.

Cute story. And a myth.

The study never took place. It might make a difference to write down your long-term/outcome goals, or it might not. At the very least, get a solid idea of them in your head. That should suffice.


Step 5: Be Ready for the Epiphany

Shinedown singer Brent Smith was on his way down. It was two years after the Kathie Lee Gifford Today Show debacle mentioned in chapter 3, and he was in bad health: overweight, eating junk and drinking far too much.

“I’ll never forget the day my girlfriend, Teresa, sat me down—it was the first of November—and said, ‘Listen to me, I love you and I’m not going anywhere, but this lifestyle that you’re leading is not going to work,’” Brent told me. Five days later he was meeting with his trainer for the first time. And he was hung over.

“I was in really bad shape,” he said. “I’m five foot eight and weighed 222. Teresa had told me it was time to get my life back. I felt like I’d been in a death spiral, and I realized I needed to be healthy and strong for my family. I have a four-year-old boy and he was a huge motivation, and so were the fans. I had an epiphany working out with my trainer that day, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

That epiphany led to 70 pounds of weight loss in a year. Walking into that gym, seeing all those healthy people working out made Brent realize he wanted to be one too.

I’ve had my own series of epiphanies. The first came when I saw a photo of myself taken during summer vacation. I was fat. It didn’t look like the me I was familiar with. I have obesity in my genes and I didn’t want to go any further in that direction.

Learning to get good at weightlifting was another, and the first step in becoming fit. Once weightlifting became ingrained into my lifestyle, I began tasting the fruit and vegetable rainbow instead of the Skittles one. I even attempted running. And I hated it, and I quit.

Then I tried running again, and I hated it, and I quit.

Then I tried again, and I hated it, and I did not quit. And one day I was running through horrific weather conditions with sideways precipitation while U2 was blaring on my iPod telling me it’s a beautiful day, and I thought, It sure is.

Exercise is locked in your genes. We’re programed for it. You’ve likely buried the impulse deep, but it’s still there, lying dormant, waiting to come to the surface.

It doesn’t always happen on day one, or even on day 100. But if you’re paying attention, if you seek it out, the epiphany that physical activity is something you’re born to do will speak to you.

Make sure you’re listening.


Level 1, Eating: Nutrition Newbie

There’s merit in keeping things short and simple: simple is easier to follow. So I’m going to keep this part as basic as possible while still being informative.  You may remember from chapter 9 that the Virtuous Cycle eating plan is built around the concept of replacement. We remove one thing and replace it with another. These replacements are healthier, lower in calories, fuel exercise performance better and are more satiating. And yes, they do lead to weight loss. Simple, right?

Unlike the exercise section, this one has no particular order to the advice within each diet level. We provide a list of recommendations that may or may not apply to you. Your goal is to tackle as many as you can without getting too uncomfortable. It should be a bit uncomfortable, though.

As you proceed to Level 2 and Level 3, however, the dietary changes will be more challenging. Level 1 features dietary changes that are the easiest to accomplish—not just from a “resisting junk food perspective,” but also from a time management (taking time to cook) perspective. The next levels may be more challenging as the reward value of food declines, as well as in the work required to replace those ultra-delicious “foods” with healthier choices.

Here we go.


CUT Sugared Soda and REPLACE with Diet Soda

I can hear the sharp report of hippie brain aneurysms from here. Grab your torches and pitchforks!

Do I think diet soda is good for you? No, I don’t.

Do I think sugared soda, sports drinks and energy drinks are light-years worse? Yes, I do. Diet soda is a far lesser evil than any of these. It’s like methadone for weaning you off the sugared stuff. If you want to go to club soda or water instead, great. You go. But if you need something sweet-tasting as a replacement to get you off sugared soda, the diet varieties are the way to go. They make kinds now that don’t taste like an ashtray.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s tackle a few diet soda myths. First, the satiety issue. Some claim diet soda doesn’t help with reducing caloric intake because there is a compensatory effect, but Purdue University professor of nutrition Richard Mattes explained that it’s all about how you use the drink. “It’s not a product of the artificial sweetener, it’s more of a cognitive effect. If you think that you’ve earned more food by drinking diet soda, it’s not going to work. You have to make a conscious effort to not go hog wild later on.”

Swapping sugared soda for diet is about cutting calories. If you drink two Cokes a day and switch to diet, that’s 300 fewer calories you’re drinking each day. Don’t screw it up by thinking you’ve earned a food reward.

Second, let’s address safety. Is aspartame good for you? Probably not, but all that sugar in regular soda is bad for a lot of reasons too. Ever hear of type 2 diabetes? Yeah, there’s that. It’s way worse than any potential problems posed by aspartame, which the alternative medicine crowd has blown way out of proportion.

I find it amazing that people will consume large quantities of unregulated and questionable supplements, yet rag on something that has been extensively tested for safety by multiple regulatory agencies.

The most common artificial sweeteners on the market (aspartame, sucralose) are classified as GRAS—Generally Recognized as Safe. The World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee on Food of the European Commission, the Joint Expert Committee of Food Additions of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, and the United States Food and Drug Administration were all involved in granting this classification. The available data about the use of a substance must be known and widely accepted by qualified experts in order for it to receive the GRAS classification. There must be consensus that the substance is safe under the conditions of its intended use. Over 100 regulatory agencies around the world are cool with this stuff in moderate doses.2

I read that aspartame can increase the incidence of bladder cancer in male rats, though. Hmmm … scary stuff. Actually, if you look at the data, male rats are highly prone to bladder cancer in the first place—it’s almost like if you sneeze on the buggers they get it—and they received 100 times the amount any human would normally ingest.3

Don’t mainline aspartame. Take it easy. Use it to wean yourself off sugared soda, and then wean yourself off the diet stuff too. Water is always your best choice.


CUT Most Juice and REPLACE with Fruit

Juice packs in more calories, has less fiber and is not satiating. So apples, not apple juice. Oranges, not orange juice. Grapes, not grape juice.

Most of the time.


CUT High-Calorie Coffee Drinks and REPLACE with Just Coffee (and Maybe Some Milk)

Gobs of cream, lots of sugar, and the Big-Mac-calorie-rivaling unpronounceable drinks need to go. A little 2 percent or whole milk in your coffee to take the edge off is fine.


CUT Stealth Sugars and REPLACE with Unsweetened Foods

I will remind you to Google this: “FDA Nutrition Facts Label Programs and Materials.”

You need to learn how to read labels. Many of the foods you buy—pasta sauce, soup, corn chips, granola, et cetera, can be loaded with what David Katz calls “stealth sugars.” If you check the labels, you’ll find them there under “Total Carbohydrates,” labeled as “Sugars.” Choose items with the number of grams of sugar lower than the other options.

When you switch to unsweetened varieties of various foods (like pasta sauce), you’ll barely notice the difference. An added benefit of this approach, says Katz, is that when you remove these hidden sources of sugar from your diet, your sensitivity to sweetness goes up. Therefore, those other sugary treats you consume start to taste a little too sweet. Cutting back on them at a later date becomes easier.


CUT Chips with a Million Ingredients and REPLACE with Chips with Few Ingredients

This is more advice from David Katz. Back in chapter 2, he spoke of certain chips being sprayed with a finishing layer of high-fructose corn syrup to make them more irresistible. That is so not cool.

He favors chips that have three ingredients: whole-grain corn, canola oil and salt.

You’ll eat fewer of them, and the switch will cut down on your sugar intake (and start retraining your brain to lower your sweetness threshold. Lowering your sweetness threshold is a good thing).


CUT Two Junk Food Snacks Per Week and REPLACE with Apples (or Some Other Fresh Fruit)

Pretty straightforward. Track this. Plan for it. Shop for it. Work it into your schedule. Be mindful of food.

Do it.


CUT Alcohol Intake by 25 Percent and REPLACE with Water

No explanation required.



That wasn’t so bad, was it? That’s it for your first dietary step. If you’ve read through this and are now sitting there thinking that not many of these apply to you, feel free to jump ahead into Level 2. The goal is to get a bit uncomfortable with these dietary changes and work at them until they become comfortable. Then you’ll be ready to get a little uncomfortable again.

Don’t beat yourself up when you fail (notice I didn’t say “if” here; you will slip up—you’re human). Everything is a learning experience, and better eating takes practice. Every failure is an opportunity to learn and do better next time.



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  3. S. Food and Drug Administration, “Artificial Sweeteners: No Calories … Sweet!” FDA Consumer Magazine, July–August 2006.