So It Turns Out I’m A Stress Eater


In the past eight months, not a single person has said, “Hey Jeff, you’re letting yourself go a little bit.”  This says a lot more about the quality of people I associate with than it does about me, because the fact is, I did let myself go a little bit.

I made a startling discovery this year: I am a stress eater.  The reason it was startling is because you don’t expect to learn such basic things about yourself in your late 30s.  I assumed I knew all there was to know about my own personal weaknesses and vices.  But as it turns out, I had never had occasion to learn that I was a stress eater because the old me never differentiated between emotions — I was an all-the-time eater.  So yeah, I ate when I was stressed, but I also ate when I was calm or bored or excited or happy or sad.

I’m usually pretty good at dealing with stress, but earlier this year I encountered some pretty major work-related pressure that knocked me for a loop.  I endured that for about four months, until I left my job, at which point the stress was gone.  Unfortunately, during those four months, I had reacquired some of the bad habits that got me to 400 pounds in the first place.

So I spent four months stress eating, and then a few more months battling to break the bad habits again.  In that time, I regained about 40 of the 110 pounds I had lost.  I went back over 300, which I never wanted to do again.  I got to the point where only about 20% of my clothes fit me, and even those don’t fit as well as I would like.

The good news is: I’m back.  I’m not back down to my pre-stress weight, but I am back on that path.  The habits have been broken.  The weight is slowly but surely dropping back off.  And I’ve learned a few things along the way.  Some of those lessons:

Information is not enough

French-born marketer and psychoanalyst Clotaire Rapaille wrote this in his book “The Culture Code”:

Years ago, Tufts University invited me to lecture during a symposium on obesity…

Lecturer after lecturer offered solutions for America’s obesity problem, all of which revolved around education. Americans would be thinner if only they knew about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, they told us. Slimming down the entire country was possible through an aggressive public awareness campaign…

When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t help beginning with an observation. “I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”

There were audible gasps in the auditorium when I said this, quite a few snickers, and five times as many sneers. Unsurprisingly, Tufts never invited me to lecture again.

I know how to lose weight.  I know how to eat healthy.  I lost 110 pounds in a year doing it.  And yet … I gained 40 pounds in six months.

Knowing what to do is not good enough.  You have to set yourself up for success.  Here’s an example of a simple little trick I learned: when I go to bed at the same time as my wife, I don’t cheat on the food.  When I stay up after she has gone to bed, the craving and temptations often get to me.  Not every time, but they get me exactly zero percent of the time that I’m asleep in my bed.  So I made that my system — I go to bed when she goes to bed.  If I’m not tired yet, I read or watch something on my iPad or (like right now) sit up in bed and blog on my laptop.  It’s not because when I’m in bed I have a firmer grasp on the science behind weight loss and gain — it’s that when I’m in bed, I’m not close to the kitchen where all the food is.

It’s hard to see slow, gradual process — but it’s vital that you do

At my low point, I was down to 282 pounds.  That is 120 pounds lower than my high from the summer of 2008, 110 pounds lower than when I started this particular journey in October 2012, 50 pounds lower than I had been in nearly 20 years, and 30 pounds lower than when I graduated high school.  It was amazing and wonderful.  But when I looked in the mirror, all I could see was the 40-ish pounds I still “needed” to lose.  I was shopping in regular clothing stores instead of Big & Tall stores, but I was buying the biggest clothes the regular stores carried.  I was pleased with my progress, but I wasn’t “there” yet, and that fact was always on my mind.

A couple weeks ago, I came across a photo from October 2013, when I was right around that low point.  And holy crap, I looked good!  With the benefit of perspective and an extra 40 pounds, I can look at that version of me and really appreciate how good I looked.  Not perfect, not at my “ideal” weight, and not poised to battle Thor Hemsworth for the Sexiest Man Alive title — but I looked good.

I hit a plateau at 282-285 pounds.  If I had had the perspective to appreciate my progress, how far I had come, that plateau wouldn’t have been a problem.  As it was, the plateau was extremely frustrating for me, because I was focused on the 40 pounds I still needed to lose.  If I hadn’t been frustrated, perhaps I would have resisted the cravings and temptations the stress brought with it.

So now, my current goal is to get back down to the 282 neighborhood.  And when I do, I will take a minute to appreciate it and know that if I spent the rest of my life at 282, I’d spend the rest of my life looking and feeling pretty darn good.

The weekly weigh-in is a blessing and a curse

On one hand, if I had weighed in weekly, I think it is highly unlikely that I would have allowed the weight gain to go on as long as it did.  If nothing else, the 300-pound mark would have been a slap in the face and got me back on track 20 pounds sooner.

On the other hand, knowing that I am weighing in on Saturday morning, if I mess up and cheat on (for example) Tuesday evening, then the rest of the week is shot for me.  “Well, I screwed up this week, we’ll start again on Sunday.”  Not every week during my backslide was bad — but if I gave in to cravings early in the week, you can bet that I would give in the rest of that week, too.

Everyone is on a diet

I hate the word “diet.”  It carries an implication of temporariness.  People ask me, “Are you still on your diet?”  Well, I never started this with the idea of it being temporary.  This is what I do now.  Sometimes I am more successful at it than other times, but it’s not because I have stopped.  So yes, I am still on my “diet,” and I will be forever.

But I have learned to stop being annoyed by that word.  The fact is, we are all on a diet.  Diet just means “what you eat.”  I used to be on the “I eat whatever I want whenever I want and I don’t really think too much about it” diet.  Its results, like all diets, were quite predictable.  Now I am on the “Slow-Carb Diet,” which is just a buzzwordy way of saying I don’t eat foods that spike my insulin levels, and one day a week I eat whatever I want to reset my body and my brain.  Knowing that I have always been on a “diet” and will always be on a “diet” makes it easier to remain committed to the “diet” that has helped me lose a ton of weight and drastically improve my health.


So that’s it.  I don’t know if it will take me a month or six months to undo the damage I did in the middle of this year, but I don’t really care, either.  I am excited to get back to a size where I can wear all the clothes in my dresser, but being back on the right path really is rewarding on its own.

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Identity … Boon? Advantage?

I looked at a thesaurus to find the opposite of “crisis,” but nothing fits perfectly.  The fact is, I am having a bit of an identity crisis, but in a good way, so it’s not really a crisis.

When you’re fat for as long as I was, it becomes a part of your identity.  I was always the funny fat guy, and it was not at all uncommon for the “funny” and the “fat” to go hand-in-hand.  I have a lot of good fat jokes in my repertoire, and I have always enjoyed putting people at ease with self-deprecating jokes.  (Of course, I’ve also gotten secret enjoyment out of occasionally making people uneasy with my self-deprecation, but not as much.)  I’ve always had a ton of different nicknames — it seems like everyone I know calls me something different — but a lot of those nicknames have something to do with my size, either directly or indirectly.

So for nearly 30 years, my size has been a part of who I am.  Back when I was huge, when I would fantasize about losing weight, I’d picture it happening suddenly, going from fat to not-fat in a drastic change.  It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t know when I wasn’t fat anymore.

But that’s where we are.  I don’t know if I’m fat or not.  In part of my mind, I still am.  I still make fat jokes once in a while, but I’ve realized that I have to be careful of offending people who are bigger than me.  People bigger than me?  That concept didn’t make any sense to me a year ago.  I was always the biggest guy in the room, so I could say anything I wanted to.

I’m not at my target weight yet.  I probably want to lose another 40 pounds of fat, or thereabouts.  According to BMI (which I don’t believe in even a little bit), I am still Severely Obese or some garbage like that.  According to body-fat percentage (which I do believe in), I am still Obese, but I’m getting closer and closer to average.  So yeah, technically speaking, I am still “fat.”  And when I look in the mirror, I still see a fat guy.  I can see the improvement, for sure, but I think I see it worse than it is.

But what I am starting to accept, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, is that I am kind of normal sized.  I’m overweight the way most Americans are, instead of the way most guests on daytime talk shows about obesity are.  You know when they do a story on the news about obesity, and they’ll show footage of fat people walking on the street, but they don’t show their faces?  I used to be so scared that someday I would show up on one of those.  But now, that won’t happen, because I’m not that kind of fat.

But I have to admit, it throws me off a little bit.  Being fat wasn’t necessarily a part of my identity that I loved, but I didn’t really hate it either.  I hated the unhealthiness of being fat, but I didn’t hate being fat.  (I don’t know if that makes sense anywhere outside my brain or not.)  So while I am super pleased and excited to be experiencing all the benefits that come from being healthy, the identity part is pretty weird.  There are people I’ve met recently who are blown away to discover that I used to be 400 pounds, but their blown-away-ness blows me away a little bit.

I don’t know if there’s a grand thesis to this post or not.  This is something I’m currently grappling with, not one of those situations where I explain the issue and then explain how I resolved it.  I’m apparently not fat anymore, at least not abnormally so.  And that is going to take some getting used to.

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Ninety Percent is Half-Mental

Yogi Berra supposedly once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.”  No one knows if he really said it; heck, even Yogi himself probably isn’t sure, as he also supposedly said, “I really didn’t say everything I said. … Then again, I might have said ‘em, but you never know.”  But whether he said it in a funny way or not, the point remains that there’s a whole lot to the game of baseball that has nothing to do with the physical gifts and talents of the participants.  I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a disagreement there.

As I’ve talked with people lately about my Health Journey™, I’ve come to appreciate how much Yogi’s truism applies to my situation.  Sure, I talk about the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, the physical changes I’ve made to my diet and exercise, etc.  But more often than not, we end up talking about the mental part: the psychology of cheat day and why it works for me, the mental and emotional improvements I’ve seen along with the physical changes, etc.

I’ve realized one simple thing: every time I’ve tried to lose weight by making physical changes, I have failed.  The reason this one has worked, and the reason I am 100% confident it will continue to work long-term, is that this is not a physical effort.  There are physical aspects to it, but they are byproducts of the mental changes, and not vice versa.

As I’ve mentioned before, the past 11 months are the first time in my life I’ve ever had a healthy relationship with food.  I’ve had many kinds of relationships with food, but they all combined to make me 400 pounds.  But now, my relationship with food is healthy and easy to summarize:

I like food, and that’s okay.  Food is not bad, even “bad” food.  I have a healthy plan, and that plan includes allowing me to eat the “bad” foods I like once a week.  That gives me two huge benefits: 1) I can easily make good choices the rest of the week, and 2) I can enjoy the “bad” foods when I do eat them.

Positive mental changes build on themselves like a snowball rolling down a hill.  Coming up with a plan you can stick with forever is a mental change.  Recognizing the improvements you make in following that plan is a mental change.  Developing the confidence to challenge yourself physically with more demanding exercise is a mental change.  Sharing your success with others is a mental change.

If you are trying to get healthy via physical changes, I think your chances are slim.  (Pun not intended, but I’m not going to use a different word that doesn’t work as well just to avoid it. :-))  Most of the mental changes bring physical changes with them, but it is absolutely essential that you start with the mental.  No weight-loss pill or magazine article is going to do this for you.  Even reading “The Four-Hour Body,” the book that got me started, won’t do a thing for you.  It’s not until you make that first mental change — “I have a plan that I really believe I can stick with long-term” — that things will start to change for you.

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The Perks of Being Normal-Sized

This past weekend, I spent 19 hours sitting either on a plane or in a seat at a baseball stadium.  Those two scenarios used to be really tough on me — in order for me to only take up one seat, I had to sit in really uncomfortable positions, generally with my arms crossed tightly.  Between the contortion and the arms of seats digging into me, I’d end up with sore shoulders and sore hips.  Not to mention the people who had to sit next to me, for whom it couldn’t have been very comfortable because I wasn’t very successful at only occupying one seat.

Well, I was about 15 hours into the Weekend of Sitting before I even thought about it, and even then, the thought was, “Wow, this would have been really uncomfortable a year ago.”

I still have a hard time thinking of myself as being somewhat normal-sized.  I look in the mirror, and while I can see that I look better, my natural instinct is still to see the 40 pounds that needs to come off.  So it still catches me by surprise a little bit when I discover that I’m not huge anymore.

It used to be that when I got on an airplane, the first thing I’d do is ask a flight attendant for a seatbelt extender.  Or, if I was flying alone, that’s the second thing I’d do, after making a lighthearted apology to the poor soul who got the seat next to me.  This weekend, there were no seatbelt extenders — in fact, there was almost 10 inches of extra seatbelt length.  (I didn’t have a tape measure, but it was the height of my iPhone 5 times two.  I also didn’t take a picture of it, because no matter what angle you try, it always ends up just looking like a guy taking a picture of his own crotch.)

This trip was amazing for a lot of reasons, mostly the fun of going to three baseball games in 26 hours.  But realizing that I can do things normal people can do was pretty great, too.

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Retirement Planning

A few months ago, Beth and I were meeting with our financial planner to go over lots of boringly important (or importantly boring) stuff like retirement accounts and life insurance and blah blah blah.  It’s not the first time we’ve thought about it, and it won’t be the last.  But I noticed a very interesting difference this time around.

In the past, when we’d think about retirement planning, my subconscious thought process was basically this: get good life insurance so that when I die young, Beth and the kids will be taken care of financially.  Not that I was expecting to die in my 30s or anything, but I definitely didn’t have high hopes of getting to 65 or 70.  It’s like they say, you don’t see many 400-pound 80-year-olds.

But this time was different.  As we talked about retirement, I found myself very interested in making sure we have enough money when I’m 70 and 75 and 80, because, for the first time, I expect to be around then.  It was a startling thing for me, almost a slap upside the head, and it was a big moment for me in my Health Journey™ as I realized how my mindset has changed.

Other than robbing Beth of millions in potential life insurance collections, it’s a pretty awesome thing.  And according to her, she’d rather have me around than the millions, so I guess it’s a win/win.

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Younger than I’ve ever been

You’re older than you’ve ever been,
And now you’re even older,
And now you’re even older,
And now you’re even older.
You’re older than you’ve ever been,
And now you’re even older,
And now you’re older still.

Time is marching on,
And time is still marching on.

Older,” by They Might Be Giants

I realized something today: I am younger than I’ve ever been.  I mean, sure, TMBG are technically correct when they say I’m older than I’ve ever been.  But other than actual chronological age, I am definitely the youngest I’ve been in my adult life.

I played softball tonight.  I am 36 years old, I’ve had two back surgeries, and I used to weigh 400 pounds.  But I played softball tonight, like I do every Wednesday night, and I feel great.  I am not fast by any means, but I move pretty well out there.  I am one of the older guys on my team, but I don’t think I play like an old man.

And now I am sitting in my bed, blogging on my laptop, and I don’t have a single ache or pain.

When I weighed close to 400 pounds, I would come home from softball and feel miserable.  My ankles would be screaming at me.  My back would be threatening to kill me.  I’d spend the next two or three days walking around like an arthritic old man.  I loved playing softball, but nearly every week I would question whether it was really worth it.

But now I am young again.  I was talking to a kid on my team after our games tonight, and he was surprised to learn that I am 13 years older than him.  He never knew me as a 400-pounder.  He has only known the healthy version of me, and this version doesn’t seem like an old man.

This version of me is younger than I’ve ever been, and tomorrow I’ll be a little bit younger.

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Recovering from a Weight Problem

You hear people say there’s no such thing as an ex-alcoholic, that even if he hasn’t had a drink in twenty years, he’s still a “recovering” alcoholic.  Cancer is a bit more forgiving — you are in “remission” for a few years, but can eventually be declared “cured.”  And then there’s something like athlete’s foot or bronchitis, where you have it, and then it goes away, and you no longer have it.

I wonder where weight problems fit in the spectrum.  I was recently reading the blog of a guy who has lost over 200 pounds.  His name is Tony Posnanski, and the only reason I have heard of his is because his brother is my favorite baseball writer.  Anyway, Tony wrote a blog post called “What Successful People in Weight Loss Rarely Say…,” and he said this:

I know how to lose weight. But I also know that I will struggle.

I thought once I was there, it would be easy. But it was not. It never will be.

… I will struggle with food.

What Tony seems to be saying, I think, is that he will never be cured.  He will never reach a point where he can stop being vigilant.  He will always have a weight problem, even when he weighs the perfect amount.

I can understand that point.  And to be honest, Tony has lost a lot more weight than I have, he is currently in better shape than I am, and I admire the heck out of him for what he has accomplished.  I find his blog inspiring and motivating and intriguing.  I think he is great.

And I hope he is wrong.  Or, I should say, I hope what is true for him will not be true for me.

I’ve been going for ten months.  In the grand scheme of things, ten months is not very long.  But in the life of a guy who has never before stuck with anything health-related for more than three months, it is an eternity.  In those ten months, I’ve lived a normal life.  I’ve had ups and downs, major life changes (both good and bad), frustrations and joys and tons of different emotions.  I’ve been through every major holiday that involves food — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, my birthday, and the birthdays of my wife and all three kids.

And I have succeeded.  I have not cheated.  Every single day the past ten months, I have followed the plan I laid out for myself.  Every. Single. Day.

So when I look to the future, I don’t see it as a struggle.  I don’t see myself as someone with a latent weight problem just waiting to unleash itself if I’m not careful.  I see myself as a healthy person who is still following the healthy plan I laid out for myself on October 29, 2012, every single day.  Not because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t, but because I am excited for what will happen because I do.

Maybe it’s semantics.  Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference.  But it is important to me, because I want to be cured.  Like I’ve said before, I’ve spent enough of my life as a fat person — I sure don’t need to be fat even when I’m skinny.

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Methods vs. Principles

As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

I believe that there are countless ways to successfully lose weight.  A lot of them are even good ways.  I was hesitant to go into too much detail on this blog about the specifics of how I have done it, for fear that people would think I was saying, “This is the only way to do it.”  I ultimately decided that my methods are useful, but I try to tie them to their parent principles as much as possible.

For me, there is only one principle a person needs to grasp, and then everything else is methods to fit within it.  That principle is simple: in order to have permanent weight loss, you have to make permanent changes.

I don’t know if there are other solutions that could have worked for me.  What I do know is that nothing I’ve tried in the past 25+ years has worked, because I couldn’t make those changes permanently.  Run eight miles a day?  For a few months, sure, but not forever.  Stop eating ice cream entirely, forever?  Not gonna happen.  Etc. etc.

Having a grasp on the principle of permanent change allowed me to be receptive when I finally came across the methods that would work for me.

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Self-Development and Health

I believe in self-development.  I like to read books and watch videos and listen to podcasts that help me be a better person in one way or another.  That’s how I eventually found Tim Ferriss and the book that helped me solve my weight/health problem.  I was referred to Tim by Ramit Sethi, whose book and blog (both titled “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”) have helped me achieve great things financially.  I was aware of Tim, having heard him speak and met him briefly at South by Southwest a few years ago, but I had never read any of his stuff.

One thing I have loved about both Ramit’s stuff and Tim’s, is that the things they teach have broad implications and influence.  When I read Ramit, I am technically reading about finance, but I am learning about psychology and why I do certain things and how I can influence other people and all sorts of good stuff.  With Tim Ferriss, he doesn’t even pretend to be focused on one topic, unless that topic is “being awesome.”  I don’t mind super-focused books, but I love the things that I can implement in any number of ways.

That is all by way of introduction to the book I’m currently reading.  It’s called “The Slight Edge,” by Jeff Olson.  I watched a talk that Olson gave from a few months ago, and the things he said were impressive, but to be honest, the thing that struck me the most was: “Holy cow, this guy is built!”  Here’s a screen capture from a speech he gave:



I mean, he’s no Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you can tell that he takes good care of himself.  So as I listened to him speak, I was impressed by the things I heard, and I could tell that he applies the principles of success to other areas of his life — like his health.  And that is why I hopped on Amazon right then and bought his book.

I have not been disappointed.  Because of where I am in life and what I’ve been doing, I am naturally applying a lot of things to being healthy, and this book is full of principles that apply perfectly.  I just wanted to share a few things I’ve marked as I’ve read.  More of a brain dump than a cohesive blog post, but I hope it will be useful to someone.

When you enter a darkened room, why does your hand reach out for the light switch?  Because you know that when you hit the switch, the light will go on.  You don’t have to give yourself positive self-talk about how you really ought to hit that light switch, or set up a system of rewards and punishments for yourself around whether you follow through or not with hitting the light switch.  You don’t need any rigmarole; you just hit the switch.  Why?  Because you know what will happen.

I read this just a day or two after I posted this, where I talked about how my future health is a foregone conclusion, because I am following the right formula.  That’s pretty much exactly what Olson is saying here — if you do the thing that leads to the light turning on, the light will turn on.  If you do the things that lead to health, you will be healthy.

There is a natural progression in life, which everyone knew intimately back in the days when we were an agrarian society.  You plant, then you cultivate, and finally you harvest.  Plant, cultivate, harvest.

In today’s world, everyone wants to go directly from plant to harvest.  We plant the seed by joining the gym, and then get frustrated when a few days go by and there’s no fitness harvest.  Taking recreational drugs is an effort to go from plant directly to harvest.  So is taking steroids to enhance athletic performance.  So is robbing a bank; so is playing the lottery.

The step we keep overlooking (and overskipping!) is the step of cultivating.  And that, unlike planting and harvesting, takes place only through the patient dimension of time.

I love that.  I mentioned before how in my previous attempts to lose weight, I would always try to lose as much as possible as fast as possible, because I knew I wasn’t going to stick with it for long.  In the terms laid out by Jeff Olson, I was planting and then trying to harvest as much as possible, because I didn’t have what it took to cultivate.  What I’ve really learned over the past ten months is how to cultivate, how to patiently wait on the results that will surely come from the proper efforts.

Believing in the “big break” is worse than simply being futile.  It’s actually dangerous, because it can keep you from taking the actions you need to take to create the results you want.

… Our entire health crisis is nothing but one set of little decisions, made daily and compounded daily, winning out over another set of little decisions, made daily and compounded daily.

We look for the cure, the breakthrough, the magic pill — the medical-scientific quantum leap miracle our press has dubbed the “magic bullet.”  But the solution already exists.  It always did.  Is it magic?  Yes — the same magic that caused the problem: the power of daily actions, compounded over time.

As I read this, it reminded me of something I had just written:

I shouldn’t speak for all overweight people, but I’ve been one long enough and talked to enough of them that I am going to anyway: fat people want a silver bullet or a magic pill.  We’re told all our lives that the key to weight loss is diet and exercise.  Well guess what?  I’m fat because I really like food, and how am I supposed to exercise when I weigh 400 pounds?  So we go along, losing the same 20 pounds over and over again, hoping deep down inside (but never admitting it) that some new breakthrough diet or medicine will come along and allow us to lose weight without having to do anything impossible like diet and exercise.

That’s enough for now.  If you are interested in improving yourself, I highly recommend this book.  Jeff Olson clearly knows his stuff, and he presents it in a pretty straightforward way.  And the best part is, whatever you want to improve, it applies.  I’m applying all these things to getting healthy, but it could be finances or relationships or anything else.  The principles are true regardless of what they are applied to.

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I’m dreaming in healthy!

Young Mormon men, of which I used to be one, generally spend two years in their late teens and early twenties on a mission, teaching about our beliefs and performing service.  This often requires learning a new language, which is done through a two-month crash course at one of 15 Missionary Training Centers throughout the world.

I served my mission in Montana, speaking English, so I don’t know about this firsthand, but I’ve heard many friends say that a big moment on their missions came when they started dreaming in their mission language.  “Three months in, I had my first dream in Portuguese, and that’s what I knew I was a really missionary.”  (I guess the equivalent for me in Montana would have been when I started dreaming about giving directions based on landmarks instead of street names and addresses.)

Anyway, that’s all just a long-winded back-story that leads up to this: I dreamed last night that I ate a bunch of pizza on a day other than cheat day.  And in the dream, I was extremely frustrated with myself.  And when I woke up, I thought of it as a bad dream.  That’s right, I’ve reached the point where I consider a dream about eating pizza a bad dream.  I’m dreaming in healthy!

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