Last week’s record high temperatures forced me to abandon the layers of sweaters and loose tops hiding the extra winter pounds around my middle and break out my warm weather wardrobe. The tight waistbands made me uncomfortably aware of a need to take corrective action.
I’m no fan of crash diets—or, for that matter, of any overly rigid dietary regimen that eliminates whole categories of foods such as carbs, gluten, or dairy products. Unless there’s a medical reason for such restrictions (which often can lead to backlash bingeing), I think a more effective and sustainable approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is to make gradual changes.
To that end I recommend picking one problem behavior to work on at a time. If you’re making unhealthy choices or consuming too many calories, eventually you’ll be able to adjust what you eat to boost weight loss. But you won’t have as much trouble sticking to a nutrition plan if you’ve already put better habits in place and started to eat more mindfully.
Mindful eating means paying full attention to your food and the process of ingesting it—to the smells and tastes and to how your body feels before, during, and after a meal. It means tuning into your hunger and noticing when you’re just full enough, stopping before you feel stuffed.
Grabbing food on the go and unconsciously nibbling can be major obstacles to mindful eating. It’s easy to consume an entire meal’s worth of calories without realizing it if you’re scarfing down your breakfast on the way out the door, tasting while you cook, popping handsful of M & Ms in your mouth as you pass the candy jar on your coworker’s desk, or polishing off your toddler’s mac and cheese as you carry the plate to the garbage disposal.
My solution to these mindless eating habits is to implement just one rule: eat only when you’re sitting down. When you remind yourself to sit before you take a bite of food, you may be surprised to discover how often you nosh, taste, and nibble without even knowing it.
Of course, if you’re prone to frequenting the MacDonald’s drive-thru, munching on a vat of buttered popcorn at the movies, or digging into a bag of chips while you watch TV, sitting down won’t eliminate all your mindless eating. But it will help you pay more attention to what you’re putting in your mouth. Later you can add the step of sitting at the table to enhance your mindfulness.
Take this first step and you may notice your waistbands feeling a little looser before bathing suit season (though with the crazy weather fluctuations we’re having in DC, that could be tomorrow, at which point nobody will be ready).
In the bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We all have too much to do and not enough hours. So this isn’t the optimal time to start a diet (or work on getting more sleep or initiate a new exercise regimen or stop smoking or cut down on drinking or make any changes you’ve thought about and tried unsuccessfully to implement in the past).
Or is it?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s no perfect time to begin building healthier habits. In fact, the very notion of a “right time” often prevents would-be self-improvers from taking the first step. If you’ve ever told yourself, “I’ll get back on track tomorrow” (after you’ve eaten the package of Oreos and are about to dig into the pint of Ben & Jerry’s) or “I’ll start my diet and exercise program on January 2,” you know what I mean.
Right now—whenever now happens to be—is the best time to lay the groundwork if you’ve decided you really want to change.
Thinking about how modifying unhealthy behaviors would improve your life is the first—and most important—step. Most people skip over this part. They jump right in and try to make drastic changes without really considering the costs and benefits of the work involved. This all-or-nothing approach inevitably ends up backfiring because, if you’re not absolutely convinced the outcome is worth the effort, you won’t stick with it.
So take out a piece of paper or your favorite electronic device and start making a list. Ask yourself, “How would my life be different if I could reach my health goals?” Be as specific as possible. So, for example, rather than saying, “I’d be happier,” itemize the reasons you’d feel better: “I’ll feel proud of myself for sticking with this commitment,” or, “I’ll be able to play with the kids without getting breathless,” or, “I can save the money I spend on cigarettes and buy the iPad I’ve been wanting.”
After you’ve come up with as many reasons you can think of, read them every day for the next week. In my next post, I’ll share my Five Minute Rule for developing new habits.
While I was driving into work this morning, I heard an ad on the radio for a weight-loss product “guaranteed to help you achieve your New Year’s resolution to lost 20 pounds or more.” It made me cringe.
If you read my last post about setting SMART goals, you may be wondering what’s wrong with resolving to lose a specific amount of weight. After all, a numerical target meets most, if not all, the criteria I talked about: it’s specific, measurable, and timely; and it might even be achievable and realistic, as long as you’re using medically established weight ranges rather than your own ideal of what you’d like to weigh. Even so, it doesn’t pass muster with me.
Call me picky. But I don’t like evaluating success by outcome alone. When you’re focusing only on the end result, you can lose sight of your progress along the way and miss out on valuable opportunities to feel good about the steps you’re taking to chip away at bad habits.
Consider one of my patients, who’d lost thirty pounds in five months. His pants actually fell down in the supermarket when he bent over to pull a box of cereal off a bottom shelf. Yet he persisted in thinking his dramatic weight loss was “no big deal” because he still had twenty more pounds to go.
Rather than measuring your progress by pounds lost, use behavior change as your yardstick instead. Here are just a few examples of SMART goals you could strive for if you want to lose weight:
Did you notice I didn’t use any “don’ts” in my goals? When we’re trying to eliminate counterproductive behaviors, we often create rigid rules for ourselves. The internal wagging finger usually has the unintended effect of propelling us right into a petulant rebellion. Word your goals in terms of positive changes you can make rather than negative behaviors to avoid.
Get the idea? Record your eating habits for a week and use the information you’ve gathered to identify your personal problem areas. Be creative and have fun. The possibilities are endless. And remember, what’s important is the journey, not the destination.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.