Posts Tagged ‘root causes’

5 places to start making eating changes

March 6, 2009

So you’re ready to make some changes.  You’re convinced an overall eating plan is the way to go, and that it will be created one step at a time.  You want to make some tangible goals to guide your efforts this week.  Where to start?

For some people this may be obvious, as they have a good sense of what they need to cut back on or change.  For others, it’s an overwhelming question because there are so many areas that could be changed that it is difficult to pinpoint the best place to begin.

Generally, most people are doing well in some aspects of their eating habits, but could make improvements in other areas.  It is very, very rare to find someone who has no area for improvement.  In my experience, there are five general areas where most people start to make changes, and when I performed diagnostic assessments in our first meeting, I would usually ask about all of these at some point.

If you’re not sure what area to tackle first take a look through this list.  Even if you know what you want to start with, read through this list anyways.  It will point out areas you aren’t yet focused on, and will give you ideas down the road.   Again, don’t feel pressured to make more than 1-2 changes right now.  I’ve worked with plenty of people who built up their weekly routines to hit all of these after 3 months, and they felt better doing it in a stepwise fashion because it was a gradual, controlled process.  Better to train for a marathon than to go out and run 26 miles on the very first day.  These are not listed in any particular order.

1)    Getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables.  5-A-Day, 5-9 servings, we all know we should be getting a lot, but most of us don’t get quite enough.  Don’t know what one serving looks like?  For now, don’t worry about that.  Ask yourself: do I get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with every meal?  More than one?  If you’re not then that’s a great place to start.  Generally speaking, swapping fruits or vegetables for other foods in your diet results in eating fewer calories, because the high bulk (from fiber) means that for the same space in your stomach, they pack in fewer calories.  Note this doesn’t mean to eat fruits or vegetables on top of what you normally have, it needs to be a substitution to be effective.

Possible SMART goals include:
-Get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with [pick a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midafternoon snack, midmorning snack, etc.], and do it [choose a frequency: daily, each day of the workweek, every other day].
-Have a salad with [pick a meal: lunch, dinner], and do it [choose a frequency: twice this week, a small salad daily, on the weekend].

If you choose a non-daily frequency, think through now which days to make your change.  Do you want to space it out, say Tuesday and Thursday?  Does it make more sense to do this on a weekday, when your schedule is more regular, or on a weekend, when your schedule may contain more free time?

2)    Not eating at regular intervals.  To keep your body’s metabolism most active it must be fed every couple of hours.  Otherwise it becomes unsure when the next meal is coming in and goes into conservation mode, burning fewer calories, storing more calories when you finally do eat.  This is the idea behind the “eat many small meals” mantra touted by nutritionists and celebrities alike.  Also, spreading meals out through the day helps reduce large spikes in blood sugar.

So what does this look like?  It might mean not eating breakfast (more on breakfast in a later post), skipping lunch, going more than 4-5 hours between meals, having a tiny breakfast and lunch and consuming most calories during dinnertime.  This can be one of the hardest areas to change because food habits start young and stay with us for years.  Still, if you are open to building in a midmorning piece of fruit or 100 calorie snack bar, or a similar midafternoon snack, the results can be dramatic.  No rumbling stomach when you get home that prompts you to overeat at dinnertime, reduced afternoon drowsiness, more energy all day long, these all can happen when blood sugar levels are evenly distributed through the day.

Just remember, the idea isn’t to add more food on to what you eat daily, but to redistribute the calories over an additional “snack” or small meal, or two.

3)    Eating too many sweets or other junk food, including soda.  This is huge.  Junk food and soda are empty calories because they provide no nutritional benefit, but take up calories anyways.  They also tend to be pretty dense in calories, so cutting out a few will have a big effect.  One soda has 150 calories.  One soda per day is 900 calories each week, which is about a pound per month, or 12-13 pounds every year.  Cutting out that one daily soda is a small change with a big impact.

Again, if you find yourself eating too many sweets or junk food, ask yourself:
What do I tend to eat?  Salty?  Sweet?  A favorite?  Anything that’s around?
When do I tend to eat these?  For breakfast?  To stave off late afternoon drowsiness?  After dinner?
Where am I at this point?  Home?  Work?  In front of the TV?
Why do I tend to eat them?  Boredom?  No time for a real meal?
How am I feeling when I eat them?  Am I stressed, tired, angry, sad, frustrated?

Even if you know exactly where your weakness lies when it comes to junk food, these questions identify additional factors that come with this eating habit.  We never act in a vacuum.  Our environment, the people around us, our life histories all impact what we eat, when we eat it and why we eat it.  If you always have a bag of chips or popcorn immediately after work and before dinner, is it because you’re starving because you didn’t eat lunch or go 6 hours between lunch and dinner?  Is it your way to unwind after a long day of work?  Do you associate popcorn with certain emotions or times of the day?  Or do you just really, really like popcorn?

Once you answer these questions it becomes easier to see what accompanying changes need to be made to support a change in this early evening popcorn habit.  Maybe a small snack on the way out the door from work to home will satisfy the munchies until dinnertime, eliminating the need for popcorn.  Maybe there are other ways you like to unwind, like a bath and a magazine, gardening, or otherwise tinkering with your hands.  If popcorn is associated with certain emotions, think about where that link comes from.  In the past, what other activities have helped when you feel those emotions, and can you incorporate one of those into your early evening routine?  And if you just really, really like popcorn, my suggestions are twofold: healthier popcorn, and smaller serving sizes.  You can buy the no butter individual –serving packages and then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, which acts like butter but is healthier for you, and is certainly healthier than the artificial butter they use.

As you can see, some food habits require “supporting habits” or accompanying changes.  If you set a goal to stop eating popcorn after work but don’t create any supporting habits, this creates frustration and

4)    Portion control.  Even if you’re eating the right foods, if you consume too many of them, weight control will be an issue.  More tips on portion control in a later post, but possible SMART goals include limiting seconds to a couple times a week, ordering smaller portions when eating out, serving food in smaller plates or bowls,

5)    Frequently eating out or eating impromptu vending machine meals.  This generally speaks to lack of time or lack or advance planning so that we are forced to grab food from the nearest available source.  Restaurant meals and vending machine snacks are higher in fat, oil, sugar and salt than foods prepared at home.  If this is a problem area, if the goal is to cut down on the number of impromptu vending machine meals or meals eaten out during lunch or dinner, a supporting habit is advance planning around grocery shopping.  Half an hour a week of planning results in healthy meal or snack items that can be stored at work or at home.  By stocking up on healthy alternatives, there eliminates a major driving force behind the problem.

Pick one or two items off this list to try, or maybe this post sparks thoughts of other eating habits to tackle.  Set a goal for this week for yourself.  Be specific, right down to the time of day.  And let me know how it goes!

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Steps to Creating an Eating Plan

March 2, 2009

Believe it or not, this is not the first time I’ve engaged in such a challenge.  Back in 2007 I embarked on Operation Cold Turkey where I ate no junk food and no unplanned snacks for 31 days.  Throughout my life I’ve been a health maniac on one hand, closet snack junkie on the other.  Seriously closeted, seriously a junkie.  I love nutrition, healthy eating, fresh fruits and vegetables but I also had a bad habit of sneaking little snacks now and then, and as the years went by I started indulging more and more.

By the time I started Operation Cold Turkey I was working at a non-profit that had candy and chocolate out in multiple locations.  I would nibble on sweets several times each day, sometimes while chatting to coworkers, sometimes as a “little treat” after lunch or to give me a boost before my teenagers came in for the day.  When I got home each night, still feeling the residual effects of the refined sugars in my system, I would put off dinner until I felt hungry around 8 or 9, or I would eat dinners that consisted of hummus spread on celery, or a single-serving package of Raisin Bran cereal doused with chocolate milk, dipping into the box from the food bank that I’d brought home from work because nobody wanted to eat anything that healthy.  It was such a slippery slope – that first mini Snickers or chocolate graham peppermint bark, and next thing I knew I’d thrown off the balance of my entire day.  The situation was so dire I knew I’d have to take drastic measures to set myself back on course.  Operation Cold Turkey was born.

I remember telling my boss Michelle about the month long challenge.  “And I have two exceptions –”

Michelle burst out laughing.  “Talking about exceptions already?  I see how this is going to go!”

“No really — !!!”  I was so busy blushing my usual shade of fire engine red, I didn’t even have time to finish my thought before the conversation turned in another direction.

Before the month started I had decided on two occasions when it would be best to break the oath and ingest the refined sugars.  One: if a friend, coworker or family member came running in terribly excited because they just baked a pan of scrumptious sweets, there was no way I could turn that down.  Two: if a piece of birthday cake was passed my way, and I happened to like the birthday girl or boy (OK really, anybody’s birthday would suffice to break O.C.T., except, perhaps, mortal enemies).

But other than that, no exceptions, no matter what.  As painful as the detox might be, I wanted to recalibrate my internal sweet tooth so that I could better enjoy the sweets I ate without the little nagging clutter of little pieces of junk.

I made it through the entire month without encountering a single homebaked good or birthday event, which is surprising given the woman who worked in our development office used to own her own bakery and regularly showered us with mouthwatering treats.  Still, those clauses were important, even if they went unused.  Life is unpredictable.  There is some degree of variation that we can count on, like the candy tin at work occasionally becoming populated with our very favorite Hershey’s miniature assorted chocolates, or that Thanksgiving is coming up and the in-laws will bring 3 types of pie, as they always do.  And then there are the unexpected moments, like when we bombard friends with an entire chocolate cheesecake right after exams, and then they turn around and expect us to finish it together that very night (we made it through two thirds of the cake).

When starting up a new eating plan, it is best to think through as many “what if” scenarios as possible, and to create contingency plans for each one.  Most eating plans are derailed because they are broken once and then abandoned.  Contingency plans are part of The Plan; they’re Section 1B Clause 4.2.  There are two types of contingency plans: ones for specific events (such as my two Exception Clauses listed above), and ones for general events, like the general guideline to opt for either wine or the bread basket at a fancy restaurant, or no seconds at the buffet table.

Contingency plans keep our eating plans moving forward.  They also ensure that if we do encounter an unexpected situation, we are better equipped to handle it with moderation, rather than plunging in wildly and digging ourselves deep into the I Blew My Diet hole.  They keep us flexible yet firmly on track.  And they ensure our chances for success.

How successful was Operation Cold Turkey?  There were no birthday parties or homemade goodies that month, so I did indeed make it through an entire month without junk food.  Having a firm absolute rule (with two exceptions) in a defined time period really helped me focus instead of falling into the wishy-washy trap.  That wishy-washiness, in fact, created the problem in the first place, because I could never hold my resolve to have just one mini Snickers or egg custard tart.

Operation Cold Turkey also worked because it paired two objectives: no junk food, and planned meals each day.  I had healthy substitutes on hand to replace the junk food, and I knew roughly when I was supposed to eat what.  So if it was achingly difficult to walk by the plate of Betty Crocker brownies that had been sitting out since yesterday, I knew 1) I had some wedges of pomello in my bag (a delicious Chinese fruit that pops up in grocery stores around lunar new year), 2) those were supposed to be eaten roughly halfway between lunch and dinnertime, not gobbled down 15 minutes after I finished my lunch.  In other words, Operation Cold Turkey attacked the twin root causes of my junk food nibbling addiction: mindless grazing on junk food, and lack of healthy alternatives.

At the end of 31 days, what amazed me most was not the fact that I made it all the way through an entire month without junk food.  At the end of my challenge, when I finally indulged in fun size candy bar or a couple pieces of chips, I was immediately hit with indigestion.  I no longer craved junk food, and if I went ahead and had some anyways, my body protested loudly.  Refined sugar can be addictive, and breaking the cycle lowers the cravings “set point.”  In my case, there was even a physical component to the addiction, and one that protested loudly when junk food was reintroduced to the system.  Sadly, that protest has faded with time, as evidenced by my latest junk food spree.

If you decide to play along with the junk food ban, ask yourself if Operation Cold Turkey is realistic for an entire month, or if it is more appropriate to spread it out in several phases.  This will depend how much junk food you currently consume and how attached you’ve become.  Phase I could be to limit junk food to one piece per day or twice per week; Phase II, or complete elimination, occurs a couple weeks after Phase I.

Some guidelines to create your own Operation Total Elimination:

1)    Identify when you tend to eat the most junk food.  Between meals?  In the afternoon?  Right after dinner?  Right after staff meetings …?  In lieu of breakfast?

2)    Take this one step further and ask: What’s the pattern here?  Usually junk food consumption is symptomatic of an underlying issue, so to eliminate the habit we need to identify the root source.  It could be any number of issues, such as:
*Maybe you tend to grab some candy when you’re stressed or bored at work, or need an excuse to get up and stretch your legs.
*Sometimes we use junk food as a meal stand-in.  This points to the need for advance planning to make sure a healthy meal or snack is on hand.
*Some people need to end a meal with something sweet.
*Others crave munchies when they’re studying or watching TV.

3)    Figure out a plan of attack.  During the first round of O.C.T., banning junk food was actually my starting point.  It was only upon examining my life that I realized I would need healthy substitutes on hand at all times, and to have them planned out in advance to circumvent the “just one” mentality I had fallen into.

Also, remember my conversation with Michelle?  The more detailed your plan is the more likely you are to succeed.  One of the main reasons people fail at diets is that they do well for a couple days, weeks or even months, and then they slip up.  Rather than hopping back on the bandwagon and continuing at full force, they give up and slip right back into their old habits.  In addition to anticipating potential weak spots in your plan, create a plan for if you happen to slip up.

4)    Hold yourself accountable.  Chronicle your efforts in a journal or in a visible location (my favorite is to mark days or weeks on the calendar when I am successful, after awhile you don’t want to break your own momentum!), tell friends and family what you’re up to, keep a notebook filled with dreams, goals, resources, ideas, contact information of useful contacts, etc.

formation of useful contacts, etc.

Lessons from the Great Depression

January 19, 2009

As we prepare for the historic inauguration of our 44th president, another moment from history weighs heavily on the minds of many Americans.  Although few predict a downturn whose magnitude rivals that of the Great Depression, there exists great uncertainty over just how much deeper the crisis will plunge before it bottoms out.  The Great Depression saw unemployment rates of 1 in 3, the demise of numerous businesses small and large, economic scarcity.  It was a time of frugality and thrift, imparting lessons the generation of the 30’s carried with them for the rest of their lives.

Today’s young people are several generations removed from the lessons of the Great Depression.  We’ve never experienced a major economic downturn, never known what it means to be thrifty or frugal.  Growing up, “thrift” and “frugality” were negative terms associated with poverty or with being a cheapskate.  The cultural landscape had changed much in the intervening decades, and we missed out on the lessons from our grandparents so that even if we thought we knew what “frugality” meant, it meant nothing to us compared to it they meant to those borne in times of true economic hardship.  I may willingly cut back on dinners out with friends and beef up my cooking repertoire to save money, but how can that compare to my grandmother at twelve in wartime China, shelling peanuts to support herself, her mother and her cousin?

Many of the tips that helped our grandparents survive the depression are strikingly relevant today.  In fact, they are universally relevant, in both prosperity and in malaise.  And so, as I anticipate tomorrow’s inauguration I take a moment to reflect on some of these universal principles.

Spend less than you earn.  It may seem so basic it isn’t worth mentioning, but with the average American household in roughly $8,000 of credit card debt, as a nation we haven’t been doing very well with this.  The glut of cheap credit in the past two decades has certainly contributed to the rise in living beyond our means, but so too has a shift away from savings and buying on credit.  The concept of saving up for a major purchase seems almost foreign in the current cultural landscape; so much easier to just put it on plastic and worry about it later.

The difference, though, is that putting it on plastic means racking up 20% or more interest, which creates a snowball effect of debt.  Down the road as the interest from the initial debt causes the debt to grow faster and faster, mounting debt payments mean even less money left over to cover basic necessities, let alone emergencies or other major purchases.  Thus even as the original debt accumulates interest, we are forced to take on even more debt to cover daily needs.

Saving up for major purchases solves this problem of snowballing credit debt.  It also creates a cooling off period that tempers the impulse purchase, allows us to search for a true bargain, and avoids buyers remorse.  Without this, we have become an instant gratification culture, and one that pays through the nose for the privilege of instant gratification at that.

Some argue that credit card debt has become necessary to deal with the great economic pressures on the middle class.  Car payments, school loans, personal computers, iPods, fancy cell phones and cable TV deals … never before has the definition of “middle class” included so many material possessions.  Items once deemed luxuries became inflated to necessities, and we’ve had to work harder than ever to spin our hamster wheels and stay afloat.  Yet this, too, is symptomatic of an entire nation that has lived beyond its means, if the material definition of “middle class” is truly beyond the reach of those it is supposed to encompass.

Part of the scope of this problem lies in larger societal forces that are invested in the creation and propagation of a nation of consumers.  Part of the solution lies in individuals taking a stance to living within our means, as generations before us once did.  To paraphrase my dad (a quote worthy source if I ever saw one), the difference between spending $1 less than you earn and $1 more than you earn is peace of mind.

Improvisation. Growing up, my favorite books included the Little House on the Prairie series, in part due to the descriptions of the household items built by hand.  These days when we need something we go out and buy it; in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time and through the first half of the 20th Century, the first instinct to fill a need was to make an item or to improvise a solution.  Creativity comes not just from artists, musicians, or the “go to idea guy” at work; the word “create” lies at the root of “creativity.”  To create is to stimulate both hemispheres of the mind, to improvise is to meet the challenge of filling a need by alternative means.  Our economy may have evolved to the point of filling wants more than filling needs, but constant engagement in this challenge of creation keeps life fun, exciting, and produces amusing results.

Self-worth is not solely defined by material possessions.  This point is thrown into sharper relief during a time of economic scarcity, but it bears constant reminding that there are multiple ways to define worth: both self-worth and worthwhile pursuits in life, in both career and leisure.  In the last century we have created entire new industries.  As a result, the sheer breadth of career and leisure options are wider than ever, yet we’ve narrowed the scope of our leisure activities and measures of self-worth.  A job has become a major marker of identity, leisure activities are primarily dominated by the entertainment industry to the detriment of civic engagement, reading, interpersonal relationships, pursuit of personal interests.

A classmate once said to me, “‘Hobbies’ sounds so 50’s.”  I beg to differ; I love my hobbies far more than all combined products of the entertainment industry (and yes, you may include video games in that category as well).  Among other benefits, they allow me to define multiple parts of myself, so that I am not just a “student” but also a “crafter,” “baker,” “runner,” “reader,” “occasional writer,” “photographer,” one who loves to invite friends over to make a meal and share in the fruits of our labor.  Many of these pursuits have fallen by the wayside in favor of entertainment that must be consumed with hard-earned dollars.  In the process, we limit the avenues by which to create a sense of self and procur a feeling of accomplishment.

The tangible and intangible lessons of the Great Depression are many.  For me, wellness means bringing balance through development of multiple areas of our lives.  Money shortcuts this process by buying a product we might otherwise be forced to make or to improvise.  And yet often it is the process, more than the end result, that creates the greatest lasting impact on our selves and our personal well being.

Pinpointing the driving forces behind our goals

January 6, 2009

As I touched on briefly in my last post, if a goal is to reduce “retail therapy,” it is not enough to just resolve to stop shopping.  If we are to permanently reduce or eliminate shopping, we cannot succeed unless we consider the role it plays in our lives.  Frequently when we hit the malls after work or on the weekends, it isn’t out of strict need that we shop.  Although this economic downturn has dampened our enthusiasm for consumption, we are still a nation of shoppers.  We shop because we’re bored, to be social, because we’re stressed out and shopping calms us down, or just because we need to unwind after a long day.  We shop as a reward for a rough month or for pulling through a big project.  We shop for the thrill of a bargain.  Notice, then, that we don’t shop for the strict purpose of shopping; rather, we use shopping as a tool for coping with other emotions.  We turn to shopping to handle boredom, stress, decompression; we use it as a reward system; we even use it to socialize.

So what happens during an economic downturn and we can no longer afford so much “retail therapy,” or during sporadic bouts of budgeting or credit card diets?  Treating symptoms without curing the underlying illness does not prevent new symptoms from popping up.  So long as the underlying illness remains, symptoms will emerge in one form or another.

In other words, if we remove “retail therapy” from our life without identifying what need it is filling, we doom our efforts from the very start.  The distress will manifest in a different form, or how often have you gone on a strict diet for a few days, only to blow it on a large piece of cake with ice cream and whipped cream?

However, if we peel back the layers to figure out what underlying need drives our desire to shop then us can come up with new coping mechanisms to replace the old behaviors.  Keep it simple.  Pick one to three “replacements.”  Blend them into our life as seamlessly as possible.  This may mean keeping supplies close at hand, building a routine into daily life, or reaching out to friends for support.

In my case, shopping is one outlet for handling the uncertainty and anxiety of starting a new phase of my life.  However, it is not my only way to achieve a sense of control in uncertain times.  I also find it helpful to keep in touch with friends and family, read a good book, listen to music, explore my new environment on foot or by bus, photography, go for a run, engage in creative projects.  So in January as I take away one coping mechanism I must fill the void with a good balance of other activities.  I have a couple good books on my nightstand.  I already have plans to spend time with friends this weekend.  A couple friends are trying out a new collaborative photography project, so I will keep my camera on hand at all times.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are important.  They keep our goals feasible.  They keep us on track.  But to use them to greatest success we must also consider the context in which change happens.  Humans do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do our emotions, behaviors, and habits.  Everything from social forces to individual emotions influence our daily life.  Without them we would not be who we are today, but without factoring them in we cannot achieve the best possible version of ourselves.