In 2008, at 6’3” and approximately 270 pounds, Dr. Howard Yang knew he weighed too much, but he didn’t get around to doing anything about it until he met his avatar on Wii Fit, the Nintendo exercise challenge game.
“[The game] weighs you and makes your avatar big if you’re overweight,” Yang says. “When I saw the Wii Fit version of me, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”
Yang, 40, who grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Dulaney High, attended med school at Washington University in St. Louis then returned to his hometown to practice seven years ago. He’s a family medicine doctor with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians at the Water’s Edge location in Belcamp, Maryland, a gregarious music lover who especially enjoys developing a good long-term relationship with his patients. Another thing Yang especially enjoys, and is extremely well versed in? Food, food of nearly every variety, from every geographical region. He serves on foodie boards and participates in several dining groups; he delights in the cuisine at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, Cinghiale in Baltimore, and BonChon Chicken in Ellicott City. Yang says, “I’m happy that Pabu is in town because it’s real Japanese,” and he recommends Hersh’s for the pizza crust. He’s not above the occasional trip to McDonald’s.
Despite his commitment to staying trimmer – he now fluctuates between 215 and 220 – the doctor doesn’t restrict his ambitious dining options. He simply makes a commitment not to overeat — well, most of the time. A vow easier promised than kept for all of us, he admits.
Yang’s refreshingly straightforward strategy for losing the pounds and keeping them off: counting calories day after day after day, at least for a time. Learning how to master the practice. Consider: If you follow Yang’s fun-minded approach, instead of ordering pricy, pre-packaged dietetic meals, you can eat whatever you like, as long as you measure it out.
Exercise Your Options
After he spied his chunky avatar, Yang became semi-addicted to Wii Fit. He did yoga guided by the game – often enough to achieve good form later approved by real, live yoga instructors — and ran in place with dedication. Soon he joined a gym because his body needed a bigger challenge. Not that he has ever learned to love exercise, he says, but he accepts its necessity.
Meanwhile, he learned more about his nutritional needs online — Howard aims to consume 1800-2000 calories daily — and made that sticking (and rather tedious) commitment to tabulate them.
“You can find online different information and online calorie counters, like LiveStrong.com and CalorieKing, or you can buy a book – CalorieKing has a good one,” Yang says. “If you want to lose X, based on your age and weight, [the program] tells you what to do. I proceeded to lose one to two pounds a week. It required discipline.”
Don’t Obsess, Mindfully Assess
Of course, it’s virtually impossible to know the exact number of calories in much random restaurant food, but as a dieter becomes more familiar with food labels and chain restaurant brochures he or she has a better sense what’s contained in the plated serving at any undocumented eating establishment. When Yang lunches on spicy Korean fried chicken at BonChon, for example, he says he guestimates calories using logical comparisons.
“I probably pick the worst fried chicken KFC or Popeye’s [to compare numbers],” Yang says. “If you want to get Korean fried chicken, it’s probably about the same calorie load. McDonald’s was an easy place to eat. All fast food places have the calories listed.”
Eat Often, Offer Yourself Rewards
Yang lost his weight during summer and fall 2008 and early winter 2009. Hunger pangs weren’t a problem because he planned carefully and ate regularly, three or four meals each day. In a sense, he was retraining his body to be satisfied with what it needed rather than to hunt for what it craved.
At this point the doc doesn’t have to count calories to maintain his size – based on those careful (less than carefree) months doing food math, he knows how to recognize reasonable servings. Still, his approach is always intuitive and relaxed. He doesn’t freak out because his BMI could be a tad better, he says. He doesn’t worry about piling on veggies or cutting out carbs. He consumes everything he likes in moderation. And certain days he splurges spectacularly to prevent boredom and the plateau effect.
“Each meal should have a good combination of protein, some carb, and a little bit of fat,” Yang explains. “Veggies are technically a carbohydrate. You need all three components of energy. The protein and fat will tide you over to your next meal.”
It’s now Yang’s regular habit to discuss weight loss options with overweight patients who seem keen to change, a dialogue he didn’t attempt before he faced his own avatar’s abundant face.
“It’s important for us as providers to mention weight,” Yang says. “It is the root of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure — all of those things can be managed better if people get their weight down.”
It’s not enough to say, “Control your portions.” That’s something like inviting patients to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. People cannot fully understand the important numbers inside portions until they begin to seek data and measure meal components.
“We cannot learn to eyeball portions,” Yang says. “You have measure and add it up. I did it for six months… [Later] you can then start eyeballing it. When I was eating [before my weight loss commitment], I didn’t realize how small a single serving of pasta is. At my worst I could eat about six servings. One box is eight servings!”
So the next time you’re in a fit because you want to be more fit ASAP, don’t once again opt for the low-carb pseudo fix or the grapefruit-juice cleanse. Try something new (and old school) that you can adopt forever. Eat the foods you love…but learn about them before you scoop a first helping.
“I think that you’re always on a diet,” Yang says. “It’s a lifetime thing. A fad diet often doesn’t work. You stop. The truly effective diet is the one you’re doing for your whole life.”
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