Habits of Success

I want to state very clearly, right from the start, that these are what work for me. They may, or may not, be right for you. In nearly 36 years of trying to live a healthier life, these “rituals” have become routine for me. (This post is mostly about habits related to food and eating.)

I weigh myself every morning. This was a habit I adopted way back in 1981, when I first made the wager with my friend. Every morning, first thing, before eating or drinking anything, I step on the scales, and record the number. For me, keeping an eye on this number provides me with an indicator of how I’m doing. It is not the only thing I consider. And I’m looking at a weight range, rather than one specific number. For example, I presently weigh between 162 and 166 pounds each morning, and mostly between 164 and 165. Early in my weight-loss journey, this thinking about a range, rather than a number, helped to prevent an unhealthy obsession about whether or not the number was always going down. As long as the overall trend of the range was downward, I was perfectly content (and it’s much more natural for the body to experience this) with a 3-5 lb. fluctuation within the range on a day to day basis. Numerous factors can contribute to the daily fluctuation, such as level of activity the day before, current state of hydration, how late in the day one ate the evening before, bedtime, rising time, etc. (If you’re not aware already, my practice does not align with the recommendations of most “experts” in the field, who suggest weighing oneself only once a week or so.)

I record everything I eat, but I do not count calories. I’ve found that simply making a record of everything that I eat throughout the day keeps me mindful of what, and when, I’ve eaten. I use the notes app on my iPhone, which automatically syncs with my iPad and MacBook. Each day has its own note, and in addition to the food I eat, the note includes the time I get up in the morning, my morning body weight, and details of any exercise I do that day. While I hardly ever go back and look at notes from previous days, I have the information, should I want to go back and examine trends and connections between food, body weight, exercise, etc.

I eat a variety, yet a fairly limited range of foods. By now, I know what’s good for me, what I like, and the foods that meet both of those criteria. That’s why I say that the range of foods is fairly limited. Examine your food list, your treats list, and plan accordingly. Grocery shopping goes hand in hand with this, as you’re doomed to stumble if you don’t have the necessary foods on hand.

I always eat breakfast. My morning begins with a couple of walnut kernels, some medication I take, and a cup of tea with honey. One to two hours later, I’ll eat a more substantial meal. This meal is usually rich in carbohydrates, in the form of old fashioned oats, 100% whole wheat flour, and/or oat bran, and often includes up to a tablespoon of sugar (sometimes white, sometimes brown), and coconut oil or heavy whipping cream. I’ll sometimes make pancakes, and with those come an egg, buttermilk, and maple syrup. I’ve recently added 2 tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed (I use a cheap coffee grinder for this) to breakfast. Occasionally I’ll have a more traditional breakfast of eggs, bacon, and whole wheat toast. It all depends upon my planned level of activity for the day, and sometimes also takes into account any special occasion meals planned for the day. Lately, my “go to” breakfast has been a bowl of spicy porridge made with oats, oat bran, and ground flaxseed (recipe available upon request).

I try to always have food available. Packing food for work requires some planning, and a little extra time, but it’s worth it in the long run. I never have to worry about getting hungry. Getting hungry puts you at risk for making “not-so-nutritious” choices, or, even worse, becoming ravenous, which usually results in eating too quickly and over eating, even if the food choices are nutritionally sound.

I rarely eat out. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy eating out, but I’ve gotten to the place where if I eat out, it’s almost always a special occasion, or I’m going to go somewhere that I can get something that I can’t make on my own at home. An exception to this might occur if I find myself in unexpected circumstances, without food that I’ve brought myself. In those cases, I’ve learned where to go and what to get. Nutritious options are always available but you need to educate yourself.

I rarely drink alcohol, and never drink soda pop. Water, tea, and coffee are my beverages. Once in a great while I’ll have a glass of wine, or maybe even a shot of good brandy, but these occasions are quite rare; 2-3 times per year, usually. During the Christmas holiday season, we make a homemade “cooked” eggnog, that I’ll drink as a special treat. Another uncommon treat is hot chocolate. These drinks go into the same list for me as “treats” which are discussed here.

I exercise regularly, but we’ll save details about that for another post.

I sleep 6-7.5 hours each night.

Finally, in keeping with the “three factors of healthy living,” I take advantage of regular health checkups provided by my employer, visit my doctor regularly (usually 1-2 times per year, or as needed, and take prescribed medications.

These habits of mine may or may not seem right for you. That’s fine! But it’s my hope that, even if they are not, they will provide you with food for thought, and help you to get started figuring out what WILL work for you.

Best regards,

Ron M.

Treats, Triggers, and Temptation

Four Strategies for Coping with Cravings.

If you’ve been following, you might have the list available that was described here. In this post, I want to discuss some tactics for dealing with those foods near the “10” rating on the treats scale.

I remember being a 300 lb. teenager, and mindlessly eating whatever I wanted. Remember “trigger foods?” Here’s an example from my experience. You know those bags of individually wrapped chocolate-covered peppermint patties? Back then, they were each wrapped in foil, and not the little packets I’ve seen recently. Anyway, I’d eat one, and roll the foil into a little ball. Then I’d eat another, and wrap the foil around the foil from the first one, and so on, until I’d have a ball the size of a golf ball or larger! Here’s another one: those big bags of spicy corn chips? I’m talking about the big ones you buy when you want to set out a bowl full of chips for a party. I’d sit with one of those, eating away, while watching television, and, before I realized it, nearly 5/6 of the chips were gone! I’d never eat the whole bag at once; I mean, that would be gluttonous, right?

Perhaps you can tell some stories like these yourself.

Now, feeling it necessary, for whatever reason, to do something about your eating habits, you’re wondering how to cope with these binge-inducing trigger foods. Here are some suggestions that I’ve found helpful in my own life.

  1. Keep yourself removed from them. Out of sight, out of mind, as the old saying goes. This is probably the simplest, and yet most challenging, of the options, especially if you live with others, and they don’t share your dietary goals. But, insofar as you’re able, simply don’t have these foods nearby. If you must be around them, do whatever you can to distance yourself from them. Lots of families live quite casually, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the storage space for an open bag of chips happens to be on the kitchen counter or even table, make an effort to get your cohabitants to put them behind closed doors! Store them in a kitchen cabinet, get a bread box for the countertop, anything to get them out of sight.

2. Don’t deny yourself; delay yourself. This has been a “go to” tactic for me, for years. Rather than telling yourself, “Oh, I can’t eat that,” say instead, “I can eat that any time I want it; I don’t need to eat it right now.” Years ago, before cell phones, most homes were equipped with a now old-fashioned land line, and perhaps only one telephone. When it rang, I remember feeling an immediate, reflexive urge to stop whatever I was doing and answer it. Trigger foods (or any food, for that matter) can have this same effect on us. When they “call us” we immediately feel compelled to “answer” and start eating them. In my experience, attempting to resist the urge actually enhanced and strengthened the craving! Using the approach described here was like the home phone ringing, and someone immediately exclaiming, “I’ve got it!” from the other room. The urge to drop everything and answer the phone disappeared at once. Another way of putting it: “I know what that tastes like, I don’t need to taste it right now.” More often than not, when I use this approach, the craving passes, and I end up not eating the food at all. Sometimes I actually follow through with the “eat it later” idea, but at that time I’m more inclined to follow the strategy in the next point…

3. Eat intentionally. Now we’re getting into more challenging territory, as we’re actually going to eat some of the desired food. You really want some of that ice cream in your freezer? OK. Eat it. But don’t sit down in front of the television with the whole carton and a spoon. The problem here is two-fold: you have in your hands the entire carton, multiple servings just inches from your mouth, and you’re going to eat while watching television—distracted from the act of eating. Further, this scenario hardly makes the ice cream a special treat. Instead, get a nice dish, preferably a small sundae or custard cup (chill the cup ahead of time, if you wish), and measure out a single serving. If you have a melon ball scoop, use it. It might take 3-4 scoops of ice cream to make a serving! Get the smallest spoon you have in your drawer to eat the ice cream. I like to use an iced tea spoon, or regular tea spoon. It’s just natural to take smaller bites with a smaller spoon. Next, sit down at your dining room table, with a cloth napkin (if you have one), and, without distraction, enjoy every single bite, taking your time to focus your attention on the taste, the texture, even the aroma. Eat slowly! Transform the experience into a special occasion to be enjoyed, rather than a thoughtless, guilt-ridden experience of gluttony. You come away from the former feeling satisfied on multiple levels, whereas the latter leaves you ashamed, overly full, and feeling defeated. To summarize, control the portion size, eat slowly, and give your attention to the act of eating, enjoying the food rather than just “scarfing it down.”

4. Know when you are vulnerable. Things get a little tricky, here, and some thoughtful self-examination is required. This point applies to all aspects of one’s eating habits, not just coping with trigger foods, but it bears repeating as part of this list. It’s this: know when your defenses against cravings are at their weakest.

A. Waiting too long between meals.

B. Failing to fuel your body with the proper amounts of macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates). More about this in a future post.

C. Allowing yourself to become hungry combined with virtually any negative (or even neutral) emotion (anger, frustration, disappointment, and being tired all come to mind).

D. Putting yourself in circumstances where you’re very happy and/or excited, with friends, or other social settings where you’re distracted, and surrounded by these kinds of foods. No need to avoid these situations, but don’t go hungry, and stay mindful.

Do you have coping mechanisms that have worked for you? Or do you use some of these? Feel free to discuss!

The food list: getting a handle on treats.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need to attend to three big factors, if we want to live a healthier life:

  1. General health (which includes mental/emotional health, rest/sleep, stress management, and any physiological issues)
  2. Nutrition (all aspects of diet; food choices, and quantities consumed)
  3. Exercise (cardiovascular and strength training)

Next, I asked you to gather some information about yourself: compile a list of all the foods that you eat, and take a look at how you’re spending your time.

I want to emphasize that I believe that each individual will need to figure out what it is that works for him or her. While general principles may be applicable for everyone, it’s not necessary that everyone observe the same specifics. This is my problem with most of the diets and exercise programs that I’ve encountered—they tend to take a cookie-cutter approach, making the same recommendations for everyone.

Have you already acquired a fair amount of information regarding health, diet, exercise, and related subjects? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if you answered yes. Most of the folks I meet who struggle with excess body weight have already tried multiple diets and exercise plans (whether the information is good or not), and have perhaps even spent money on personal trainers, facilities, or commercial weight-loss organizations. It’s important to make sure that your information is good. Do some homework. The U.S. government has nutrition information available here, and it’s as good a place as any to start learning about the subject.

Food provides your body with fuel and the resources necessary for building muscle and repairing and maintaining cells. It’s also a source of pleasure, appealing to the senses of taste, smell, and touch (you probably have some favorite foods that you can “feel” in your mouth, even as you think of them). For many of us, this “pleasure” aspect of food is what has gotten us into trouble with it.

It’s time to take the first hard step toward healthier eating. Remember the “treats” category I asked you to make? This is where some people would simply tell you to eliminate these foods from your life altogether. Be done with them. I don’t know about you, but that’s never really worked very well for me. Instead, let’s work with this category for a bit. Write something about each of the foods you have listed as a treat. Maybe some of these foods are only eaten at certain times. Popcorn, for example, may be a food that you only eat if you’re watching a movie. Make a note of that. In addition to the annotation, assign each food a number, using this scale, or one of your own devising: (if you can’t think of anything specific to write about a food, just give it a number):

1=I don’t even really like this food, but I eat it if it’s around.

2=I could live without this food, but I like it if I start eating it.

3=I only eat this food if someone gives it to me, or I go somewhere it’s being served, but I seem to have access to it fairly often.

4=I only eat this food when I’m around it, but I look forward to those occasions, and sometimes seek them out.

5=I like this food, but don’t usually buy it; I only eat it if I go somewhere and it’s available.

6=I like this food, and eat it 2-3 times per week, or more.

7=I like this food and keep it on my shopping list. I eat it 4-5 times per week, or more.

8=I like this food and eat it 6-7 times per week, or more.

9=I like this food and eat it almost every day of the week.

10=I feel like my quality of life would be diminished if I couldn’t eat this food, and always have some of it around.

One more thing: put an asterisk beside any and all of the foods on this list that are what I call a “trigger food,” which may be defined as any food that, if you take one bite of it, you will want to keep eating it until you’ve gorged yourself on it, or eaten all of it that you have on hand (whichever comes first). Spicy corn chips and chocolate covered peppermint patties are examples of this in my life.

Hopefully, this exercise has provided you with new insight about your relationship with food, specifically, foods in the “treats” category. You might be feeling down, or even guilty, about these insights. Please don’t. The purpose here is simply to examine and establish a starting point. Don’t judge yourself! But do be honest with yourself. Identifying habits, preferences, and patterns of behavior are all important steps in forming new ones.

Physician, Heal Thyself.

Getting organized for the journey toward better health.

The proverb seen above has been around since the time of Christ, at the very least. Usually intended as a rebuff to someone’s unsolicited advice, I’d like for us to examine it from a different point view.

Here’s the thing. When it comes to your own life, YOU really are your own primary-care physician. Put another way, you have to take care of yourself; nobody’s going to do it for you. Whether it’s improving your eating habits, exercising, taking care of illnesses, regular dental checkups, etc. YOU are the only one who can make those things happen. Beyond matters relating to health, like an Executive Director, you are constantly making decisions about how you’re going to spend your time.

Let’s do some self-examination. You know that there are 24 hours in a day, right? But did you ever convert that to minutes? It’s one thousand, four hundred and forty. 1,440 minutes in a day. On a weekly basis, we have 168 hours (10,080 minutes). What are you doing with all of that time? Since you’re probably reading this because you’re interested in making some positive lifestyle changes, let’s treat this little exercise as if it were an initial physical exam with a new doctor. Be completely honest with yourself. In a previous post, I asked you to list the foods that you’re currently eating. Here, we’re dealing with time. What are you doing with yourself?

Think about the necessary things that take up time in your life: eating, sleep, exercise, work, social (includes family) interaction, etc. How much time goes to these activities during the course of a day (or week, depending upon how you want to do your self-assessment)?

Now consider the leisure time you have. How much time do you spend on these activities, and what are they? Leisure includes recreation, entertainment, watching TV, etc. It does not include sleep. You may also have periods of rest that belong in the “necessary” category. The same is true for social interaction—I believe that it’s a necessary component of one’s life.

Just as with the list of foods, you may find some surprises here. Again, be honest with yourself. The idea here isn’t to judge (yet), but to simply examine your current routines and lifestyle, and, literally, see where your time is going. This, along with your diet (remember—that refers to what you’re currently eating on a regular basis), is your “constitution.” It’s a work in progress, and can be changed. That’s where the job of Executive Director, and being your own physician come in.

We’ll be considering food and exercise in the posts to come, but for now, take some time to gather the information discussed here, along with the food list talked about here.

Making a list and getting started. The first step toward healthier eating.

Since I haven’t stated it yet, let me begin with this: I am not an expert. I have no formal training in nutrition or exercise. If you are considering lifestyle changes involving diet and/or exercise, you should consult your personal physician.

Having said that, what follows flows from 35 years experience maintaining a 135-pound weight loss. As I stated in my introduction page, I’m simply sharing my thoughts on the subject, and what has worked for me.

In a recent article http://www.businessinsider.com/david-ludwig-always-hungry-diet-plan-most-scientific-2016-1 author Rebecca Harrington reviews the work of nutrition and obesity expert, Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard Medical School. His forthcoming book, Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently describes a plan wherein one essentially learns how to eat. Harrington describes the plan in some detail, and I’m not going to repeat her work here. Follow the above link, and read for yourself. Really. It’s well worth the time, and, in essence, describes my own way of thinking about food. Whether you’re approaching the subject of weight loss/healthy eating for the first time in your life, or you’ve been fighting the battle with excess body weight for years, this article provides excellent information and “food for thought.”

When it comes to food, I think in the macronutrient categories: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (which includes sugars). In addition, I think about each food’s nutritional value. For example, protein from a good steak is, in my view, a more nutritious source than a protein from a bar or shake. An apple is a better source of carbohydrates (natural sugars, in this case), than processed “fruit rollups.”

Here’s my advice for the person who’s getting started on the path to losing weight, and learning how to eat.

Make a list with three columns:

Proteins          Fats          Carbohydrates

Begin to list the foods you’re currently in the habit of eating, placing them in the appropriate column. If you’re not sure where to put a food, see if you can find a label, or look it up online. The macronutrient (protein, fat, carbohydrate) with the largest number will be where to list the food. Some foods deliver high amounts of two macronutrients. Cottage cheese, for example, may be high in both protein and fat. If the numbers are close, you may want to list the food in both columns. Probably the best way to do this is to simply write down everything that you eat, as you eat it, over the course of a week or two, and you may wish to list approximate amounts, as well. You may be surprised, both in the types (quality) of foods you’re eating, and the quantities. Since many of us have a tendency to eat “mindlessly,” we’re shocked to see it listed all in one place.

Once you’ve got your list, the next step is to assess its nutritional value. At this point, consulting labels is helpful, but I also recommend simply considering the source—is the food highly processed? pre-packaged “heat and serve?” Is it a fast-food item? etc. Mark foods that you consider higher quality with an asterisk or check mark. Don’t worry about being perfect at this point. Adjustments and corrections can always be added later. The important thing now is to simply “get the ball rolling.”

Now, make another, separate list, and give it the heading: Treats. Under this column, list anything already on your list fitting the description for treats. This includes cookies, candies, potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, soda pop (regular and diet), alcoholic drinks, sugary coffee drinks, popcorn, etc. Oh, and cross these foods off of the list with three columns as you put them in the treats list.

What you have before you at this point is your diet— what you’re currently in the habit of eating. (Please note that this is the way that I will always use the word.) Any surprises? More treats on there than you realized? What are the sources of foods on your three-column list? More fast food and restaurant food than you realized?

Having your diet laid out before you in this way makes you aware of what you’re eating, and that, my friends, is the first step toward real, lasting, lifestyle changes in your eating habits.