Sometimes Lessons Come Looking For You

Where did my 15 lb. go? Or the Marcia Wallace incident...

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone

Do you remember Marcia Wallace? She was all over TV for 50 years. First time I noticed her, she played Bob Newhart's sarcastic receptionist in his first series. Most will remember her as the voice of Edna Krabappel, Bart Simpson's school teacher. For me, it'll be the insight she shared, something like 40 years ago.

Marcia Wallace's character, Carol, marries on the The Bob Newhart Show
Marcia Wallace's character, Carol, marries on the The Bob Newhart Show

Going back to the 60s, Marcia Wallace was a talk show regular, starting with Merv Griffin. She appeared on his show dozens of times, her flakey personality a lighthearted treat for couch potatoes. Later, a familiar if never quite famous face, she held down a seat on almost every game show aired through the 70s and 80s.

But between all that,  an appearance on The Tonight Show, in shouting distance of 1972, left her unforgettable for me.

And I can't really say why.

I was never a Marcia Wallace fan and was consistently disappointed with every character on Bob Newhart's show, except Bob. I've never seen a single episode of The Simpsons, un-American as that may be. I didn't know she was a breast cancer survivor who heroically held that disease off for almost 30 years.

Everyone who knew and worked with Marcia Wallace loved her. She was fun and a bit eccentric. Found that out later, too.

All that's irrelevant, though. The way she slipped sideways into my life was completely other.

Marcia Wallace Message

Wallace sat in Johnny Carson's guest chair, one night after 12:00, and answered a question about her weight loss.

"Nothing after 6:00," she told Johnny, was the only rule.

Why that stuck in my mental library for four decades is anyone's guess. It sounded like typical, bad diet advice, something of which there's always been plenty to spare.

As a big time Carson fan, I saw literally thousands of his interviews and can barely recall the contents of a half-dozen without memory seeding on YouTube.

Where did my 15 lb. go? Or the Marcia Wallace incident...
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Wallace told Carson, with comedic flourishes, that just by eating nothing after six in the evening, she lost something like 20 pounds.

This was at least ten years before worries about weight got me into aerobics. I'd always been a skinny kid. So, why bookmark it in my gray matter?

It might've floated near the surface a time or two over the decades, but it wasn't until January, 2015, when an article in The New York Times, A 12-Hour Window for a Healthy Weight by Gretchen Reynolds, showed me that science had finally caught up with Marcia Wallace.

It was only mice, but researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego made some surprising discoveries about fasting. Their rodents, they reported, lost 5% of their body weight when restricted to eating only during a 12-hour window each day. (They were allowed a little weekend binging, though, to break up the monotony.)

This happened even though they ate the same food, same calories, as a control group without time restrictions that became obese.

So, that's weird. Weren't we always told that calories were the key to weight gain and weight loss? This suggests calories have little or nothing to do with it. Instead, it's something that happens metabolically because of those 12-hour fasting intervals.

"By the end," Reynolds wrote, "the mice eating at all hours were generally obese and metabolically ill... But those mice that ate within a nine- or 12-hour window remained sleek and healthy, even if they cheated occasionally on weekends."

You know how mice are, unfaithful.

“Time-restricted eating didn’t just prevent but also reversed obesity,” Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor who oversaw the study, told The Times.

Fascinating stuff, I thought, but what's in it for me? 

Eating late's a New York thing to which my family's happily accustomed, and I'm not eating alone. My standard 3:30 a.m. wake up time (perfect for writing) made a 12 hour break a fantasy.

Then, the Marcia Wallace affect kicked in.

Charlene Prickett, an aerobic fitness guru with whom we worked out via video until she retired, advised ignoring bathroom scales and gauging your fitness instead on how your clothes fit. Weight wasn't as important as body shape, muscle weighing more than fat and all that.

About six months ago, with my clothes starting to feel a little loose and my ribcage gaining visibility, I chucked the first half of her advice and dragged out our scale.

I'd lost five pounds I knew not where.

How was that?

A fluke, I figured. During my days as a long distance runner, intensely focused on my weight (less = more speed), I knew that at the weight of someone my size - 6 foot 2 inches, 205 pound range - can vary by several pounds per day. All kinds of factors come into play.

(I confess, full disclosure-like, that I tried to figure what my low weight point was likely to be - first in the morning, after lunch, before dinner...? - so I could get the most encouraging result. And failed.)

But my weight loss wasn't a fluke. Soon, I also lost the distinction of being a 200 pound slugger. I had to change the narrative when I found myself nearing ideal BMI range for my height.

Why?

I wasn't sick. My exercise program didn't change, and I was eating my wife's sinfully delicious cooking in the same sinful amounts...

Then, I realized something had changed. Here's where Marcia Wallace, five years deceased, reactivated in my mental zone.

After getting out of bed - at my usual pre-dawn 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. - the only thing I do before feeding the cats, the only thing they allow, is fire up the coffeemaker waiting with a brew mixed the night before while my brain still functioned reliably.

My creative juices are spiked with two mugs of caffeine before most of you are out of bed. That hadn't changed, but something about it had. Tired of sugar in everything in every package I checked at Trader Joes, I decided to get even by cutting it out of my coffee.

Truthfully, I'd bee losing my taste for the thin sweetness of refined sugar for a long time. My coffee wanted to go nude.

Now, a teaspoon of sugar has nowhere near the amount of calories most people think, only 16. Kicking that much out of my five or so daily mugs isn't consequential enough to shed ten pounds in just a few months - or at all, probably. Added sugar in processed foods and soft drinks is a big issue, but not that spoonful tipped into your caffeine.

That's when I thought of Marcia Wallace, and it all kicked in.

Because I didn't give my stomach anything to digest with my coffee, cutting sugar flipped me unawares into a 12-hour daily fast. Breakfast doesn't stir my digestive system until around 8:30, just about exactly 12 hours after dinner.

Coffee alone won't trigger a serous metabolic change from a fasting state.

It seemed almost too good to be true, and sure enough, after ten pounds lost, my weight stabilized at around 197, still a good number, especially when achieved without sacrifice or even knowledge.

But then, after a period of months while I kept to my new 12-hour accidental fast, I had to start using a belt to keep my pants from falling off, a vision I can laugh about only because it never happened.

Sure enough. I dragged out our bathroom scale, tapped and stood watching...

Another five pounds gone.

And I've gotten to like sugar-free coffee while continuing to enjoy the social benefits of eating late and well.

Today, when I tipped in at 190.5, territory I hadn't visited since I regularly ran 10K races in Central Park, I decided to write about it.

And it's not just the weight loss. There aren't a lot of studies yet, but indications are that intermittent fasting, and especially the weight loss that comes with it, have additional downstream healthful benefits.

And there's this caveat.

I can't prove that 12-hour fasting made me lose 15 pounds and counting, but what else could it be? And no one knows if it works for everyone as it did for Marcia Wallace, the Salk Institute's mice and me, but what could be easier and more worth a try?

If you do, let me know how you make out.

 

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