Five Secret Tricks to Regain Control Over Your Eating Habits
Let’s start with the beginning. Most people are overweight in the US. Recent studies show more than 60% of people 12 and older are overweight, and about half are clinically obese. It’s not getting better over time, it is getting worse.
But everyone already knows that, or if you don’t know that, I’m not sure where you are living. The US is big. Not just the size of the country, but also its citizens.
That concern was the origin of my blog and podcast. I wanted to help people reach their goals—any and all goals—including weight management. And my constant refrain is “calorie counting and move more than you used to.”
I still believe that to be the foundation of any successful weight management program. I use the LoseIt app on my smartphone to easily count my calories and wear my Fitbit One to keep reminding me to walk more.
But, that is not enough. Or rather, maybe that is too much, at least in the beginning. Learning to eat the correct number of calories, and then log them all, and then create a new habit of walking more are three very large goals. They are worthy goals, but it is possible they are too large, too aggressive, and too monumental to talk all at once.
I am working with a weight loss client. Let’s call him “John”. We connect about three times a week with email, video mail and Skype calls. Last weekend we were talking about his strategy, and while we chatted on Skype, a phrase came to me. I told him that while his goal is large, we are going to focus on Simple Small Successes. Small goals that can build on each other, creating a succession of successful actions. We are going to set John up for success, because each goal has a very simple threshold. Success breeds success. As we move further into his program, the goals will continue to be simple, but eventually they will result in very large changes to his eating and living habits.
I started to think about how I can help more people. I’d love to be able to meet with all of my readers and listeners as I do with John (and it is possible for some) but until I am able to become a fulltime consultant and coach, I will give your advice here.
There are five areas that affect our eating habits, five locations that we can make very small changes to help you make better choices.
But take note. With these five small changes, you will not:
- Buy different food
- Cook differently
- Eat at strange restaurant
- Stop eating at restaurants
- Count calories
- Weight and measure your food
- Perform exhausting exercises
- Attend meetings
- Buy special “fat burning, metabolism-revving, appetite suppressing” pills
In fact, there is only one thing you will need to purchase, and it will cost you only some spare change! But we will get to that in a bit.
But before I give you my ideas, I want to give full credit to Dr. Brian Wansinck. He is the author of two books about the habit of eating. “Mindless Eating” is an excellent discussion of our bad habits while eating. And we all have them. His newest book, “Slim By Design” takes his first book and adds many actions that will help the reader change their life. So to be clear, none of these ideas are mine. I am using his ideas. My words. His ideas. (By the way, you can buy those books using my Amazon affiliate links.)
These two books are my weight management bibles!
We encounter food in four general places: home, the grocery store, the work place and restaurants. I am going to give you specific steps for each of those places. Remember, I am focusing on Simple Small Successes and each one of these ideas are free, simple and effective.
What are they?
Let’s start with the first idea, which can and should be used anywhere. Let’s consider the plate you use to eat. The USDA has a complicated definition of how much of eat type of food to eat. And if you want to follow that, you will eat very healthy.
The “Official” plate of the USA!
But it is not necessarily simple to implement. Look at those four quadrants. Some are larger than others. Which food goes where? And is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is corn a vegetable or a grain? (The answer is vegetable and grain, respectively.) Remember, these five tricks are all about “Small Simple Successes”. So instead of the USDA plate with its four categories, I suggest an easier approach. It is simply eating with a “Half Plate Habit.” Take your plate—any plate—and visually divide it in half. That is easy enough, right?
Then—here comes the easiest part—when you eat, fill one half with fruits, vegetables and green leafy salads. Tuna pasta salad and potato salad do not count here. But all the steamed, roasted, grilled and raw veggies you like, your favorite fruits, and a nice salad with fresh greens, that will be how you fill half your plate.
The other half? Anything you want. Seriously. Anything you want, but with two rules: the food cannot extend over the edge, and you cannot pile food on top of other food. But otherwise, pizza, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, BBQ ribs, quinoa salad can all go on this half. This is where the tuna pasta salad and potato salad will go, along with the onion rings, French fries, and brownies.
Wait a minute! Do I really think this will help you gain control over eating? It sounds like I am suggesting that pigging out is the answer to being overweight.
Yes. It will help. Think about it. First off, you only have half a plate to fill with the “pig out” food, and I limit it to not extending over the edges, and not piled high. So the reality is you will not get a lot on that plate. But the other half is full of the really good food, the healthy food. The fruits have sugars, which will satisfy your sweet tooth (and we all have one) while the veggies and their fiber help fill our stomach with bulk but not many calories.
But the real magic happens when you decide you want that extra piece of pizza. When you get up to go get it, you then remember that you will also need to eat a half plate of fruit and veggies, too. Many times, you will decide that maybe you really do not want that pizza that badly, and you will stop eating, and very likely eat much less than you normally would have eaten.
What happens if you cheat and take the pizza but not the fruit and veggies? Well, yes it is cheating, but the only person who loses is you. This “Half Plate Habit” will only work if you really want it to work. It will be the most difficult of my five suggestions, but it is the most important, because you will be able to use this everywhere: at home, at a family gathering, at an all you can eat buffet, and at work. This one habit will be the first habit to propel you to success.
Another place where you encounter food is at the grocery store. We all know that shopping on an empty stomach is a bad idea (but we still do it all the time). However, studies show that it is not that we are hungry when we shop, but rather that our good memory and imagination kicks in to tempt us. We walk past broccoli, cabbage and onions with no imagination input, but walk past the delicatessen, the aisle full of potato chips or the bakery with its fresh doughnuts, and we start remembering how good those donuts (or is it “doughnuts”?) taste, we remember the sound of crunching those chips, and we revel in the memory of the last time we ate those warm onion rings (at the last football game, right?)
(Side note: as I sit here and write this section, my stomach is growling and my salivary glands are working overtime. And I do not have anything in front of me other than my laptop. It is all my imagination and memory creating this physiological response, just as if I were standing in front of an endless sea of sweets.)
How can we short-circuit our imagination and memory? We are going to give it something else to focus on: Gum
It could be Bubbliscious, Juicy Fruit, or Bazooka Joe, but when we chew gum while shopping, it is more difficult to imagine the taste of those onion ring and sweet rolls. Please give this a try. This is the only suggestion that will cost you any money, and the price of gum will probably be offset by the savings when you don’t buy that bag of Cheetos.
All right! So far, we have a “Half Plate Habit” and chewing gum to distract our powerful brain from causing dietary havoc.
What about at work? Oh, that is a major challenge, right? I know coworkers who always have a bowl of candies on their desk. In fact, I have a bowl of candy in my cubicle, too.
There are two saying that could apply here. One is “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But the saying which really applies is “Out of sight is out of mind.”
Did you notice the difference with my candy bowl? Mine is not on my desk. I keep it in a cabinet drawer, locked, behind my chair. I only use it when I know I am meeting with students, especially at the end of the semester. I unlock the candy, and place it out just before the students arrive, and when they leave, I immediately lock it back up.
The time it takes to unlock my cabinet is just enough for my “decider brain” to kick in and remind me that I really do not want nor need that candy. Another option is to put the candy in a covered bowl (ideally not a clear bowl) and moving it a mere six feet away. Just six feet! Those few steps are enough to get your “decider brain” active and in control. Candy in sight and within reach is candy that will be eaten.
Something else to do at work is to lock you purse or wallet in another drawer. That will prevent the random wander past the vending machines or cafeteria. The other tip for the work place is to bring your own food from home. When you pack your food, you are in control of everything. You know exactly what you packed, and how much you have. (Remember, you will still use the “Half Plate Habit” even when packing your food.)
And don’t sit at your desk and eat. So many people do that (and I include myself here) thinking that it impresses the boss when the workers slave over their computers while gobbling sandwiches. It doesn’t. It does irritate your IT department when you keyboard gathers a a pile of crumbs! Go to the cafeteria or go outside and eat while enjoying the sun. But don’t bring your money with you, so that will eliminate the temptation of buying some food there. Enjoy your time away from your desk. Enjoy your food. Recharge your mind away from your desk.
To recap, we are going to use the “Half Plate Habit” everywhere, chew gum while shopping, and move temptations at the office out of sight or at least move them six feet away from us.
What about when we eat at a restaurant? How can you use the “Half Plate Habit” when you are not in charge of plating your food? I will offer a few simple actions.
Oh. You already know the trick about having the server pack up half the entrée before they even bring it to the table? Sure, Everyone knows that. But do you do that? Neither do I. I should, but I don’t.
And we probably should order all those “heart healthy” foods. You know, those foods with the little heart logo. But do we? Not usually. So what can we do?
I have three simple suggestions. One is seating location. Ask for a seat near a window or a well-lit location. When people sit in a booth, in the far corner, dark and isolated, people tend to order more and then eat more. Sitting near a window or on the outdoor patio, generally helps people make healthier choices. When you can be seen, you will usually do what you “should do.”
The second step is when you order a meal, remember to use the “Half Plate Habit”. Instead of a starchy side dish, ask for extra vegetable or a side salad. And when the server arrives, immediately ask for a glass of water with a lemon or cucumber slice, and ask him or her to not bring the dinner roll basket.
Lastly, you should try to limit alcohol consumption. Not only is alcohol empty calories, but one of the first effects of alcohol is to put our “decider brain” into a deep sleep. That is why we tend to eat when we drink. But if you are sitting near the window you probably will also not be sitting near the bar, so that decision will be easier.
If you really want to throw caution to the winds, order food while sitting at the dimly lit bar, during double-bubble happy hour, with 2 televisions going. If you really want to do that, we will need to have a one-on-one session.
We’ve covered grocery shopping, at the office, and in restaurants.
The last place can sometimes be the most difficult.
We are going to apply most of the previous lessons here. Treat your dining area as if it is a restaurant. Plate your first serving in kitchen, and do not forget to use the “Half Plate Habit”. But here we are going to divide all the food like we do on our plate. After we serve ourselves, bring the veggies, lettuce salads, fruits and milk to the table. Leave the entrees and starches in the kitchen.
All of those actions reinforce three previous tricks: “Half Plate Habit”, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and the “Six Foot Rule.”
You will usually eat what is easily obtained, so make sure the vegetables and fruit are always prominent. And this applies not just during a meal. Have a bowl of fruit out on the counter and hide the chips, cookies and crackers in the pantry (or get rid of them altogether.)
Make sure that everyone has water in a glass waiting for them on the dining table. Again, if it is already in front of them, it will more like be consumed. What you can reach, you will eat.
Make the dining experience enjoyable, not rushed. Ambiance is useful at home, as well as in restaurants. Dim the lights a little to help people bring focus to the food. Soft music in the background is excellent. The TV needs to be off. The TV is a distractor, and leads to mindless eating, instead of what we are trying to do here, which is mindful eating. And everyone stays at the table until everyone is done eating. Eating is a social event.
Those are the five “secret” tricks to gain control while eating, whether you are at home, in the restaurant, at work or anywhere. When you use these simple actions, you will begin experiencing controlled eating. You will start enjoying those Simple Small Successes. And that will give you the confidence to make other changes to your eating habits.
And you will enjoy life more than before.
Again, I want to acknowledge Dr. Brian Wansink and both of his excellent books, “Mindless Eating” and “Slim By Design”. His research and more importantly, his well-written and easy to read books were the source of these suggestions. You can buy these books using the affiliate links within the show notes.
Music composed and performed by Jason Shaw, courtesy of Audionautix.com
Voiceover courtesy of Matt Young. Matt is a professional voiceover artist. If you have any need of voiceover work, for your podcast, radio spot, or whatever, you can reach Matt by a variety of methods. He is on LinkedIn. On Twitter. And Google+. And you can read his really nice, contemplative blog.
Some links (but not all) within these show notes may be Affiliate Links, meaning that I may receive a small commission when readers click on them and then purchase something. This does not increase your cost at all, but it does help me cover some of the cost associated with this podcast. Thanks!