Friday, April 30, 2010

The Final Straw!

I have a confession to make. I had no intention whatsoever to use this site as a way to rally against the large multinational food companies which I and many other people see as the biggest problems facing the health of North America. Nor had I any intension of saying which fast food chain restaurant I worked as a General Manager for. But as they often say, enough is enough!

To understand my sudden outrage I have to take you back with me to the scene of the crime I witnessed unexpectedly in my living room. My wife and I were sitting on the couch after a long day of work. We had gotten the kids fed, bathed, and in bed - no easy feat with a one- and two-year-old. Exhausted, we elected to watch a little television to unwind before heading to bed and starting the cycle all over again the next day.

As we sat there watching one of our favourite shows, a commercial came on the screen: the very reason for this post. It was for KFC’s newest gift to the world of culinary delights: The New KFC Double Down Chicken Sandwich. If you haven’t heard about it yet, here’s what it is: A sandwich with bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, Swiss cheese, the Colonel’s Sauce, and two (2!!) Original Recipe Fillets of Fried Chicken as the bun! That’s right, they’ve replaced the already unhealthy white bun with 2 pieces of fried chicken. The commercial has a bunch of different guys holding one of these monstrosities beaming with excitement about it, and one even exclaims “Colonel, you da man!”

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke, but I had seen enough of these commercials to know the truth. This was for real. My wife sat silently beside me gaging my reaction which was the aforementioned moment of disbelief followed by a rant of epic proportions. One that she was good enough to sit through with full empathy and without complaint.

From October 2007 to April 2008, I was a Restaurant General Manager for Priszm Ltd. Canada. Priszm owns the largest chain of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Huts in Canada with over 300 locations. My restaurant was located in the west-end of Ottawa; it was a KFC. Day in and day out, I made and sold Kentucky Fried Chicken to the people of that community and prided myself with putting out nothing but quality chicken full to the standard that was laid out by the Colonel himself.

I can remember people who came in after seeing a similar commercial for the then-new Chicken Bowl. Instant mashed potatoes, topped with corn, Popcorn Chicken, gravy and cheese. My staff nicknamed it the “heart-attack-in-a-bowl”. One particular customer seemed extremely excited to come in after seeing the commercial on TV. Unfortunately (or fortunately), she came about 2 months too early, as it had only just been rolled out in the US and would take another couple of weeks before we would offer it in Canada. She was a regular customer who came in often. A woman in her late 50s who walked with the assistance of cane. She told me that she had limited mobility due to medical complications with her type 2 diabetes. When I told her that it would be a while before we carried the Chicken Bowl in Canada, her disposition became sour and even barked out something about maybe driving down to the border (a three to four hour drive) to get one. Instead, she got her usual 3-Piece-Meal with coleslaw, gravy and a large Pepsi to go.

It’s hard for me now to think back about the people I used to serve. I often feel like I was contributing to the continued downward spiral that our general health has seen here in North America. I was no better than a drug dealer. My products were at best unhealthy; one could go further to say they could make people sick or, even worse, if used irresponsibly, they could be fatal. It’s no secret that eating foods high in saturated and trans fats, as well as being over processed, as a staple part of your regular diet, will lead to a long list of health complications which may end in needing life threatening surgery or, at the very least, a reduced capability to enjoy life to the fullest.

Like a drug dealer, the products I offered were very addictive. Pumped full of chemicals which are engineered to taste “just so”, not to mention MSG, which is a key component to the Colonel’s secret recipe. Apart from a hand full of items like tomatoes, lettuce, and the salads, everything we made was deep fried - and I do mean everything. The chicken used for the Original Recipe Fried Chicken was the same chicken that you or I would buy at the grocery store before being marinated, breaded and, finally, deep fried. All of the other chicken products (Big Crunch, Chicken Strips, and Popcorn Chicken to name a few) came packaged in boxes and were delivered straight to the freezer.

Also, there are differing degrees of “users”. Some people we got to know by name and we would have their order together before they could walk from their car to our front door. Others, we would serve once a month and others once and then never again. One could argue that not everyone that eats KFC is unhealthy or even that it is only a minority that are. But the same can be said about drug users. I have known many recreational drug users (and in my youth, I was one, too). These people are fully functioning members of society that, on occasion, like to get drunk or high. I, in no way, want to use this platform as a way to endorse drug use of any kind, but that fact remains that not all drug users are dangerous menaces to society or even unhealthy. I believe that drug abuse of all kinds is a horrible epidemic that has ruined many lives and families. In the same way, I feel that fast food restaurants, like the KFC that I managed, has cost us in North America more than we care to admit.

Maybe the analogy of a KFC manager being the same as a drug dealer is a bit strong. But it always gives me pause to think of the damage I possibly did being a part of that company. After I saw the commercial for the new KFC Double Down Chicken Sandwich, I knew that I had to say something, even if no one reads this and my words fall on deaf ears. Things need to change! No longer can I stand by and play “nice” while we continue to allow ignorance and laziness to lead us down this collision course of unhealthy eating and living.

Some will no doubt label me an extremist. This is nothing that I am not already used to. Friends and family are still wondering if I’ll ever eat “normal” food again. A question I have learned to just laugh at. But if the new Double Down Chicken Sandwich is what we are willing to put in the category of “normal”, then I never want to eat “normal” again and, I hope, neither will you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Story-Part II-The First Two Days

April 9th may be my anniversary of going raw, but my real start date was 2 days earlier.

By the end of working as a restaurant manager I had began to feel really ill. I told myself at the time that it was just do to the stress that I was going through at work, but really it was much more than that.  My body was trying to send me a message: enough is enough.

More and more often I was feeling light headed and often felt pain in my chest, like someone was sitting on me suffocating me. I had to take prolonged breaks sitting down to do “paper work” or excusing myself to go outside for fresh air which was more than not a smoke break. The long hours had finally caught up to me and the stress of the job had broken me down. I no longer recognized who I was and despised who I was becoming. I was conscience that my choices where leading me down a path that would end in my becoming more and more unhealthy and unhappy, but I could not stop it. I was stuck on a self-destructing path that would only change if I made a drastic move.

My last day on the job couldn’t end fast enough and when it did, I left behind everything that I had allowed to destroy me. I quit smoking cold turkey and I turned my focus to finding a healthy way to eat and live.a

I had no idea where to begin, until my wife, Samantha, suggested to try a Leek Soup cleanse that she read about in the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. The idea is to eat only leek soup for two days. Apparently, it helps to cleanse the palate of your tongue from all of the processed food and sugar as well as restart your metabolism.

That first morning I woke up with excitement to get started. My breakfast consisted of a cup of leek soup broth...and that’s it. This was a stark contrast from just days earlier when I had fast-food: a deep-fried chicken burger, fries and cola. I felt good, a little hungry, but good. A wise man once told me that “A mile into the forest is a mile out”. I had brought myself down a path deep into the “forrest”. I needed to act drastically.

The first day past quickly. I was relieved to know that I only had one day left. That night I went to bed feeling that the worst had already past. I was wrong. The next day I woke up in a cold sweat. My bed was soaked beneath me from tossing and turning all night. I felt like a truck had run me over and I was left to scrap myself off the road. Making my way down the hall to the kitchen, I had to stop and rush for the bathroom. This is something I would have to do often over the next 48 hours. My skin had broken out in blotches of acne all over my body as I sweat profusely and uncontrollably.

Making my way to the kitchen I felt a mixture of intense hunger and fear of throwing up. I stared down at my breakfast, a bowl of leek soup broth, just like the morning before. This time my excitement vanished at the sight of it but I knew I needed to eat something. Reluctantly, I ate the entire bowl and felt a moment of satisfaction before rushing to the bathroom.

This was indeed a detox. My body was expelling everything that was hindering me and it wasn’t pretty. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this was not at all what I had in mind. At moments I found myself entertaining the idea of eating something “normal”, nearly breaking down to make myself some Kraft Dinner (Mac and Cheese for those of you outside of Canada) or a peanut butter and jam sandwich with two slices of white bread, sugary crunchy peanut butter and super sweet raspberry jam. To finish the sandwich off, I would put slices of cheddar cheese in the middle! A snack I perfected as a child, and used to smother with butter after every bit then dip into chocolate milk! (I’m not making this up.)

The second day was literally the day from hell. I tried to keep positive but I hit the wall early and didn’t know if I would have enough in me to see this through. As the night closed in on that second day, I can remember lying on the couch, useless in any other function, and holding my 9 month old daughter in my arms. As she lay there I could feel her breathing in and out, I felt her quiver and move on me, still learning to master muscle control in her tiny body. I knew then that this decision I had made, to find a healthier way of living, was bigger than me and that if everyday should prove to be as difficult, that it would be worth it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Note On Dieting

Before I get back into more of my story; a word or two on dieting. I am a firm believer that diet, is a “four” letter word. I mean, I’ve tried too many times to count. Everything from low carb, high protein, to low sodium vegetable juice as a meal supplement. All of them left me hungry... I mean starving, craving, and dying for REAL food. Sure it felt great to lose weight, but at what cost? I felt at those times that I would never be happy again until I could sink my teeth into a juicy hamburger and bucket of fries.

Eventually, I would break down and go back to what was the real problem, my lifestyle. Our lifestyle is the sum of our habits. We are all creatures of habit. Some habits elevate us while others bring us down. Knowing these habits and acknowledging the power that we give them by our actions, is the only way that we can begin to move forward and change those habits which are holding us back. No diet plan can so this for you, and no amount of wishful thinking. It has to be a conviction, not just a matter of self control.

For me, this came after years of struggle; the only answer for me was to get militant on my health. I needed guidelines that were strict enough to get me where I needed to go, but flexible enough to keep me satisfied. For me this was going “raw” (I know what your thinking... “Where’s the flexibility is being a Raw Vegan?! Well I will definitely get to that in my next post, I promise! It would take too long here.) For you it could be some less dramatic, but as anyone who knows me well will tell you, for me dramatic, is always my style.

I always used to say “you only live once” as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted or felt like. I comforted my choices with old saying like “It’s what’s on the inside that makes a man (or woman).” I still hold to these old saying but from a different point of view now.

“You only live once”- So why not live it to the fullness in everything you are and do: physically, mentally and spiritually. Just the other day I saw someone that I used to work with. She hadn’t seen me in a few years and was shocked by my transformation. After a little bit of catching up we started to reminisce about the past, when suddenly she started to laugh out loud. She remembered that after a really busy rush at work how I would just prop myself up on the counter, out of breath, wiping the sweat pouring from my forehead. I laughed with her because I could remember that like it was yesterday, but I didn’t realize that it was so noticeable to everyone else. That wasn’t living my life to the limit, I was hindering myself from living the life that I only get one shot at.

“It’s what’s on the inside that makes you”- I think you’d have to be pretty daft to dispute this. But I find that the goal of every single diet out there is the same. To get you “looking great”. And I will admit, I am not above this pursuit. I myself do and have always cared about how I look. But believe me when I say with every fiber of my being that EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL!

You are beautiful! Period.

If I were a motivational speaker I would make you run to the nearest mirror, look deep into your own eyes and say it, shout it, whisper it, just proclaim it! I AM BEAUTIFUL!!!

Diets have it all wrong, you already “look great” it just time that you showed it. Do you know what people say is more attractive than all the “good looks” in the world: confidence. For years I believed that people would only take me seriously if I looked a certain way, but the truth is that I was the only one with a problem with me. Sure people were worried about my health, but I was and am very much loved, for who I was not how I looked.

The best example of this would be the birth of my daughter McKenzie. When she was born I was on my way to becoming the biggest I would ever be. I can remember the first time I locked eyes with her like it was this morning. She gazed up at me in the stale hospital room moments after she was born. I could see her eyes examining my face scanning it back and forth, back and forth, until for just a split moment, they locked with my eyes and a slight grin came over her face. It was love at first sight. She didn’t care what I looked like or what size my waistline was, I was her daddy and would be forever. In that moment I knew that, at least in her eyes, I am beautiful.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Story

April 9, 2010 marked the 2nd year Anniversary of the day I started this journey of trying to find a healthy way of living. It has been an emotional roller-coaster of a ride that has ultimately seen great personal success. To date, I have lost almost 200 lbs and have kept it off. I have gone from living an inactive lifestyle full of unhealthy eating; to living an extremely active lifestyle (next month I will run my first marathon!), full of nothing but healthy eating (with a few exceptions).

Looking back now, it seems to me that I was always meant to be this way. I feel better than I ever have; I have a new lease on life. For a while, I never really believed I would get to where I am today. In the past, I have lost weight and always gained it back, shattering my self esteem with every trip around the horrid cycle: Lose weight - feel great -feel like you've arrived - start slipping back into old eating habits - gain weight - get depressed - gain back all the weight lost - get depressed - gain more weight. So what made this time so different? Did I finally grow some self control? Or did I discover "the secret" to losing weight and keeping it off?

To know why and what worked for me I think a little background information is needed.

My whole life I have struggled with my weight, and for years I believed that I was just "made that way", that I would always be the "Big Guy" and aspiring to be anything but would be somehow going against nature. I grew up in a very standard North American home. Neither of my parents where morbidly obese like I would become. My older brother was fit and was a natural at gymnastics, and later football and rugby. My sister, too, was always thin. We were encourage and sometimes forced to "go outside" to get "fresh air" when they thought we spending too much time being sedentary.

We ate a standard North American diet, where the “4 food groups” where the pillar of conventional wisdom. We ate a lot of processed food; hamburger helper, canned food, frozen dinners. Very few of our meals were solely made from fresh ingredients. Fruit was a rarity which we were chided when we ate to much of; vegetables often went bad in the fridge. This was not for lack of trying on the part of my parents. We were a one income household with my mother staying at home to watch us kids. Money was, at times, scarce, just like food in the pantry. It is no wonder that my parents went for the inexpensive processed food over the more expensive whole, fresh food.

Millions of North Americans are forced to make the same choices everyday. The health of our families becomes a choice between a lesser of evils. When I was a manager of a fast food restaurant, I saw first hand the effect of this choice. The restaurant was in a perfect location to maximize profits. It was right between a local community college and a low income group of high-rises and row houses. Every day and night I would see single mothers of four, blue collar workers, “starving” students, all coming to my restaurant for a cheap meal that they didn’t have to cook themselves. Across the street, there was a grocery store, full of fresh produce and whole foods one could use to make healthy meals.

After almost 6 months of 12 hour days, often 7 days a week, I decided to quit my job as a manager of a fast food restaurant, with the knowledge that doing so would include a significant pay-cut and would set back the advancement I had already achieved. I had gone from an already obese 330 lbs to almost 400 lbs. I was unhappy and overworked. My health had been deteriorating rapidly. I no longer had the stamina to put up with my life. What was worse is that I had started smoking cigarettes and cigars, often up to a pack a day, stupidly thinking it would help with the overall stress of my job, while in reality it was adding to the overall problem. My mood was always sour, I barely laughed, I often cried, and I dreaded waking up each morning. I was tired and no amount of sleep or rest would help. My body was trying to cope with my busy life and just couldn’t keep up. I was frequently out of breath, often to the point of dizziness and coughed violently all of the time.

April 9, 2008 was, what I call, my Day One. The day that I woke up and decided that somehow this day was going to be different. I had to make a change. I finally saw myself for what I was: morbidly obese. The stressful job and long hours were behind me, all I had was, as Michael Jackson would have put it, “The Man In the Mirror”. I woke up that day. For the first time, I actually took the time to stop and see me: The Good, Bad and the Ugly. I was overwhelmed by what I saw but knew what I had to do and had determined to do it right. So, first thing that morning I got on my scale expecting to see an abysmal number. For all I knew I could have weighed 500 lbs. I stood there with my eyes closed for a moment, too scared to look down. When I finally did, I was shocked to see “ERROR”. Apparently I weighed too heavy for my household scale. This was a real wake up call for me, and later became a great punch line while telling my story to people. I have to admit, even at the time it did seem a little bit funny to me. But even still, it wasn’t for another two weeks before I would see a number on my scale.

My not-so-revolutionary idea was to detox my system for one month then simply figure out a healthy eating plan after. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was at least a start. I had just gone through almost 6 months of eating mostly fried foods and drinking almost exclusively cola. An average day for me would include multiple helping of fries and gravy among plenty of other fried foods (fried chicken sandwiches were my favourite) washed down by 7 or 8 large cups of cola (36 oz). So I decided that to even out whatever damage I may have done, I’d go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and eat just raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. This just came naturally to me, I mean, everyone knows that fruits and veggies are REALLY good for you and that most of us need to eat more of them. So I figured they would be a good start. Plus, it was only a month, I felt that it would fly by and I’d be back to eating “normal” food in no time.

So why raw? I get asked this question a lot. To tell the truth, I had no idea that people actually lived this way. I knew nothing of the raw/living food movement, I didn’t even think that it was possible to sustain as a lifestyle. I just knew what I wanted to eat (fruits & veggies, nuts & seeds) and I knew I didn’t want to eat anything fried - ever again! So that left me with boiled or steamed vegetables, which seemed to me like a month of eating mush; and a choice between dried (and often sweetened) fruit or fresh fruit, which I already enjoyed. So my mind was made up: raw would be the way that I would go, not knowing that my one month experiment was about to take me down a journey that is two years past already, and only just beginning.