There is no doubt, I am and always will be a Hungry Dude. Not just in terms of working in kitchens, hitting the bars, or photographing and blogging about it. I love the food and beverage industry, period! I love how a chef’s passion for an ingredient can be broadcasted to thousands on a menu. I love how a bartender can mix together concoctions that seem to transport you to a remote vacation-like location, while never having to leave a bar-stool. I love the culture, the artistry involved, the camaraderie and competition. I crave the adventure of trying out new things, having new favorite drinks, dishes, and places. I love the opportunities to tell everyone I know how much I care for the people in the industry, from the bar-backs and dishwashers, to the back of the house, to the front of the house, the chefs, the bartenders, the owners, …everyone and everything!
That’s why I think that writing this story is so important. It’s possible to love all of this, but still make some dramatic life-altering changes. In fact, it had to be more than possible in my case, as I really saw no other way.
I’ve been a bigger guy all of my life, from early childhood to the present. I reached the edge of my own personal cliff, so a few months ago, I underwent Laparoscopic Vertical Sleeve Gastrectomy, a variation of Bariatric surgery, in which approximately 80-85% of my stomach was removed.
Sounds crazy, huh?? A Hungry Dude with most of his stomach taken out. How could this happen? What lead to this? How will I ever enjoy the things I love so much?
Let me start with some particulars. First, I had the surgery here in Michigan, performed by one of the leading Bariatric surgeons, Dr. Kevin Krause, the Section Head of Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery, out of Beaumont Hospital. Beaumont was an easy choice for me. All of their facilities are certified as a Comprehensive Bariatric Center and is accredited by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program, out of the American College of Surgeons. Of course, that was important to me, after all, I’ve heard stories of people having surgery and then dying. (In fact, friends of mine were telling me such stories up to the date I had surgery) Most famously in our local area, Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Scott, who was 47 at the time, died in September of 2002 after undergoing a LAP-BAND System procedure (another form of Bariatric surgery).
But, the practice has come a considerably long way since 2002, and as I’ve mentioned, I was very confident in the hospital and surgeon I chose. It wasn’t something that I could jump right into, however. My insurance, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, has certain restrictions before they will cover the procedure – 6 months under a medically-supervised weight control program. Fortunately, Beaumont has a Weight Control Center, which covers this requirement. On a monthly basis, I met with dietitians and a great doctor. My blood was tested regularly to identify nutrient and macronutrient levels. I had to see and be cleared for surgery by a psychiatrist.
Surgery should always be the last resort after exhausting all other methods, whether that is diet pills, exercise, dieting, or a combination of all of those. Obesity levels and weight, of course are a factor. I can’t count how many times someone said to me, “you aren’t big enough for the surgery,” or “you don’t weigh enough…don’t you have to be over 100 pounds overweight?” Looking at the Body Mass Index (BMI) chart, I was clearly obese, and depending on the date, either in, or borderline, extreme obese. Anyone who wants to check their own BMI can do it from the Center for Disease Control’s website.
There were other prevailing issues. I had been on two blood pressure meds for many years, treating high blood pressure and hypertension (the silent killer). I was re-diagnosed with sleep apnea, something that I thought I beat out in the late 90’s. The medical issues were growing and growing, and I was just about to turn 41.
And then, most importantly, it also wasn’t about me. We were about to have a baby. I didn’t just need to keep up with him in my later years as he grew older…I needed to be there – alive! I knew too many people that have suffered heart attacks, have joint issues, you name it, because of obesity and weight problems. Moreover, I needed to be a positive role model. I thought to myself that I would be an irresponsible dad, giving out marching orders on proper dieting that I never followed myself. Do as I say, not as I do, is not quite the message I want to send.
So how did I get there? Sure, a lack of regimented diet and exercise was no doubt a contributor. Too much beer and spirits? Possibly. But these were not the root causes. No, I think that you’d have to start at my childhood years. Probably somewhere around 1981, to be exact. You see, I was what you would call a husky kid. God, I hated that term. Even now it makes me cringe to hear it. Shopping in the husky section with mom for school clothes. Not exactly picked first for dodge ball, if you know what I mean.
In my youth, I was also a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club. Anyone else a part of that? Anyone have his or her child a part of that now? If so, please STOP IT! For those uninitiated to the membership, it goes something like this. The parent (or guardian) puts plate in front of child. The child then eats what he or she wants, after which the child says that he or she is no longer hungry. The parent (or guardian) says that the child cannot leave the table until the plate is empty. The child then stays at the table for hours until the plate is eventually cleared of food (or at least until Mom says it’s ok to leave, and that we won’t tell dad).
Now, it wasn’t because my parents were overlords. To the contrary, they were (and are) very nice and loving folks. No, I think it had much more to do with the notion that resources are valuable and should not be wasted. My dad used to quote a saying that he commandeered from an Air Force base in Florida, “Take all you want, eat all you take.” It was about being thankful for what we had, waste not, want not, regardless if it was a Midwestern one-pot meal that was overcooked to prevent bacteria or salmonella, or whatever.
Psychologically, it had an effect on me, as I know it does for all kids. Children fail to learn both self and portion-control, as it relates to their food. This, in turn, increases the odds of childhood obesity, which more often than not, translates into adult obesity. Also, parents often reward this overeating with more food – dessert! And we get bigger and bigger and….
But it’s not just me, and it’s not just in Michigan. The statistics are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity state that “more than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese.” As with my story, it’s not just limited to adults. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) states that for children and adolescents ages 6 to 19, one-third are considered overweight or obese, and one in six are, in fact, obese.
“But VATO, people in the food industry are supposed to be big. Remember never trust a skinny chef.” Well, to answer that, all I have to do is quote Anthony Bourdain from his 2010 book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook:
If you think you might be too fat to hack it in a hot kitchen? You probably are too fat. You can get fat in a kitchen—over time, during a long and glorious career. But arriving fat from the get-go? That’s a hard—and narrow—row to hoe. If you’re comforting yourself with the dictum “Never trust a thin chef,” don’t. Because no stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you’ll see a group of mostly whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes: they look like escapees from a Japanese prison camp—and are expected to perform like the Green Berets. If you’re not physically fit? Unless you’re planning on becoming a pastry chef, it is going to be very tough for you. Bad back? Flat feet? Respiratory problems? Eczema? Old knee injury from high school? It sure isn’t going to get any better in the kitchen. (p. 52-53)
Included as a contributing factor towards my obesity was the lack of connection I had with food as a kid. While there were times that I remember helping my grandmother in her garden, we never really discussed food, ingredients, farming, or anything like that at home. I can recall eating some of the same dishes over and over, but I am sure that had more to do with scarcity of resources, versus making health-oriented decisions. But that would really be the extent of my association with meals.
So, how’s it working out, you may be asking. First off, let me say that this was the EASIEST procedure that I’ve ever gone through. The fastest recovery, the smoothest surgery, everything, due in part to the surgeon, hospital and staff. But also due to the advanced preparation I received from the Beaumont Weight Loss Clinic. I was both physically and mentally prepared for everything that I was to face. Moreover, I had a very close friend of mine have the same surgery a few months before I did. We’ve been sharing stories ever since.
I’m completely off all of my blood pressure medicines. I will test soon to see if I no longer have sleep apnea. While being operated on, the surgeon found and repaired a hiatal hernia. I am 15 pounds away from my target goal of 190. When I started the program in September of 2014, I was 265. I was a ridiculous 285 in the beginning of 2014.
I lost 6 inches on my belt size and have gone down two sizes in my clothes. I had to donate everything in my entire wardrobe. (A special thanks goes out to Great Lakes Crossing for being a nearby outlet mall…can’t beat outlet pricing when you need to replace an entire wardrobe).
“But VATO, what about food? Are there things you can’t eat?” That’s a tricky question to answer. No use of straws with a drink. Nothing carbonated after surgery. No caffeine or alcohol (in the early weeks). You have to wake up the stomach to eating food again. It starts with liquids only for two weeks after surgery. That means strained out soup purees. Sugar-free drinks like Crystal Light and Vitamin Water Zero. Meal supplement shakes, specifically the HMR (Health Management Resources) 800, which I was able to purchase in the product store at the Beaumont Weight Control Center.
For the high volume of blending, I opted for the Magic Bullet system. Nothing against my Vitamix, but I found that it is too much for an 8 ounce, everyday operation. With the Magic Bullet, I can add my liquid (in my case, soy milk, which is a great source of protein), some yogurt (Stonyfield no-fat French vanilla), some ice cubes and the powder.
Then onto purees for another two weeks. Mashed potatoes, scrambled egg (one egg only). High protein hot cereals and Cream of Wheat. Even baby food works in this stage. According to the Beaumont guidelines, “you can use any meat that you have baked, broiled or poached…meats cooked in a crock pot are tender and easy to puree.” Here is where I used my Vitamix, and it worked perfectly. I found that some of the better meat purees included tuna or chicken, sorta similar to a pâté, but without the toast points.
This is followed by soft foods, which consists of items like meatloaf, very well cooked vegetables, etc. I was never so happy to finally be able to have a single meatball again. So, of course, I called Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina in Southfield, MI, and made the strange order of “One side of meatballs please. No just that, nothing else.” It took me 40 minutes to eat one meatball! If I’m going to spend that kind of time to eat one meatball, it’s going to be coming from one of Chef Luciano Del Signore’s restaurants!
Finally, you graduate into regular foods, with some restrictions. No rice or pasta for 3 months. Still no carbonated beverages. Still no straws. You find out (pretty quickly) what is easy to digest and what is not. We all take that for granted. Most people eat and drink at the same time. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is just no room in the body for it. Things that are over dense don’t work well at all, including many breads. The first time re-trying some kind of food or ingredient is very exciting. And it seems to happen every day.
I’ve stayed the course with cutting out caffeine, which is interesting for someone who drank coffee every day to not even having decaf now. The only caffeine I get is from tea. This is all by my choice, though. One could drink coffee if he or she wanted to. I figured that I add too much cream and sugar anyways, so might as well keep that off the menu.
No beer, no soda, nothing with bubbles. The gas fills the stomach cavity and expands the stomach walls. I’ve been ok with that, though I do miss great Michigan beer. When I decided to drink alcohol again, I limited myself to the crafty cocktails, or the occasional bottle of Honey Jack or RumChata at home. Anyone who has gone through a Bariatric procedure must be very cognizant of any alcohol intake. After surgery, medicines and alcohol absorb considerably faster than before, and an individual could have a very high (above the legal limit) blood alcohol content (BAC) with just one drink.
I just recently crossed over into rice and pasta after reaching the 3 month marker. It’s been ok. Sometimes it’s hard to digest. Other times, not so much. Not being able to eat something is a good catalyst to having come up with fun alternatives, which is what I did with the Zucchini noodles, otherwise known as Zoodles, and some bolognese sauce from Papa Joe’s Market in Birmingham, MI.
When I eat, it’s probably much more frequent than most people do, but the portion is next to nothing. The size of a cup, for the most part. With emphasis on what has the most nutritional benefit, what gives the body the most protein, etc. After surgery, you become very cognizant of the nutritional labels, and tracking food. For a long time, I used the MyFitnessPal app to do this.
The portion control also helps out with the pocket book control. Grabbing a quick lunch from the prepared foods area of Whole Foods costs somewhere between $3.00 and $5.00. There is also a cost savings when I’m heading out to eat with friends, as I can usually split a meal with anyone (and still have left overs to take home).
If you are a follower of The Hungry Dudes on Instagram or Twitter, you’ll see that I haven’t stopped eating. Recently, I went to a 7-course tasting menu, with drink parings, put on by Chef Brendan Edwards and Joe Rob, previewing the upcoming Standby restaurant (which was absolutely incredible, by the way). Ultimately, I should have just shared my courses with someone, as I couldn’t finish all the drinks or food. But that’s ok. I am completely content with the understanding that there are going to be A LOT of times that I can’t finish something. No clean plate club here.
I find that I need to either eat, or drink a supplement, every 3 or so hours. My favorite go to has been the Premier Protein drinks (available in Chocolate, Vanilla, and Strawberry Cream). They have 30 grams of protein, 1 gram of sugar and are low in fat. If I don’t make a breakfast, or blend a meal replacement drink, I will always have a Premiere Protein in the morning.
This new life course has other effects, other than my weight-loss. For one, I was compelled to write this piece and tell my tale. I hope my son reads it one day in the archives of gastronomy and the culinary arts. It’s really time that we turn the obesity problem in this country around, and start taking the meals of our children seriously, and I want to do my best to practice that at home.
Years ago, I was quite impacted by something that Chef Michael Symon said, an impact that has caused me to recall it with my own child now. On his facebook page in 2012 (January 16th) Chef Symon wrote “i have to be honest…i think a kids menu is life’s worse invention..have them share “adult” food..it makes them more adventurous..and is a hell of alot healthier then nuggets, soda & fries!!..if i asked my dad for special food at dinner he would of whacked me with the plate!!..lol.”
He’s not alone. A couple days after his post, a friend of Chef Symon posted an article on Chefswidow.com titled Kids Menus. In it she wrote, “How do parents not get/care/understand that what they are allowing to go into their children’s body affects their children LIVES? How does a mother or father convince themselves that it is ok that her four year child eats this on a daily basis? HOW? When you order off of the kids menu, you are most likely ordering the most UNHEALTHY thing you could ever order for your child. Kids menus are the antithesis of healthy. They are made up of foods that parents have programmed themselves and their children into thinking that they are good for your children. Well, guess what? They’re not good for your children, they are not got for you, they are not good for your dog, hell, they are not good for anyone.”
She went on to break down the caloric, fat, and sodium values of popular kid’s menu items from large-scale chain restaurants. The numbers are ridiculous.
Also in 2012, Bon Appetite (.com) polled some of the leading chefs (who are also parents) and had them talk about how they approach the family meal. The dominant theme with all of the chefs revolved around creating a climate where children formed some kind of connection with their food, along with good habits.
The message continues to grow. Organizations like Family Cook Productions are working to change the landscape with the Kids Food Reboot initiative, whereas they are working to get restaurants and families to change the way they serve children meals.
It’s disturbing, however, to see some come out with an attempt to counter the idea of eliminating kid menus and wholesome eating. One blogger posted in one of the parenting forums, Mommyish.com, “My goals when I eat out with my kids are a) no cooking, and b) no screaming. I don’t want to ruin my evening with negotiations and arguments, and I don’t want to ruin everybody else’s while they listen to me try to convince my child to eat tile fish with bean sprouts.” The comments following the post are just as scary to me, supporting the notion that parents need a break, irrespective of the expense it causes to the child’s health.
So I end with a thought of hope. It starts with us all. Let’s support organizations like Gleaners Food Bank and Family Cook Productions, or great initiatives like the SFSP, Kids Food Reboot, Forgotten Harvest, and Cooking Matters. It can start at home. Teach and practice portion control, and use good ingredients. Take the momentum of this wonderful culinary experience that we are all sharing and model it for the future.
I hope that parents and industry folk read this and see the opportunity to make a difference. It’s ok to realize that moms and dads have a rough job, and still know how important it is to make wise decisions for their children. We have to stop substituting healthy habits for conveniences. Otherwise, you’d just have them end up revisiting all of my bad habits. It may not be enough to just drive on with best intentions – you may have to take some proactive steps early on. My story illustrates that there are consequences to how we eat (and drink) and that obesity is a real thing that goes beyond a number on a scale.
And if you are one of those who, like me, felt that you need a restart to get your health moving forward properly, know that there is help out there. Whether it is with Bariatric surgery, or going through a medically-supervised weight loss program, it is never too late to start thinking about your health and future.