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Changing the Way We Think About Food

Going Mind-to-Table


I’m going to come right out and say it: The way we’ve been thinking about New Year’s wellness resolutions is deeply flawed. Like clockwork, every January we vow to subsist on salad and protein, to steer clear of sugar and alcohol, and to exercise like maniacs.

But what we’re missing is the real groundwork to make lasting, sustainable changes; to execute new behaviors that become habits, and to keep honoring them after that tropical vacation or much-anticipated social event. I think about this a lot because I’m in the business of helping people make healthy changes for the right reasons. Changes that really stick because, over time, the behaviors take less effort to execute. Eventually, it feels pretty good to keep them up.

Researchers have examined the success rates of New Year’s resolutions and found that people tend to crush it in January, but start dropping off after that. By the next holiday season, we tend to be right back where we started…sometimes a step or two behind. We scold ourselves for lacking self-control, and then, as if the prior year was a fluke, we recommit to the same resolutions all over again.

How can so many of us be so tremendously motivated to lose weight but not follow through? (Hint: It’s not because we’re the worst.) I’d argue we’re actually stacking the odds against ourselves because you can’t change your weight or your lifestyle until you change your mindset.

Knowing What You Need to do Is Not Enough

I realized something career-altering early on in my practice: Most of my clients could immediately rattle off all the things they ought to be doing—limiting added sugar, exercising portion control, making better choices at restaurants, and not self-sabotaging. The biggest problem was not knowing how to make the changes. So, while I still make meal plans and talk portion sizes, a big part of my practice is not just about what to change, but how to change. And not just for a week or a month.

Willpower: A Misunderstood Skill

Have you ever come home after a grueling day with every intention of whipping up a healthy meal, only to find yourself eating cereal over the sink? Or put off a morning workout for “later” only to be burned out at the end of a brutal workday? This phenomenon is called ego-depletion. We all have a self-discipline fuel tank that we use throughout the day—checking off our to-do lists, moderating emotions, making big decisions. Once our tanks are empty, we’re much more likely to make impulsive decisions that aren’t consistent with what we really want. No wonder we throw in the towel on our wellness goals!

Before you get discouraged, I want to clear up a couple of things. For starters, willpower is not a trait some of us are born with and others are not. It’s a skill. In this context, it’s the ability to pause and consider our wellness goals before jumping on an impulse (for instance, choosing berries for dessert instead of a decadent baked good). Yes, it’s hard, but the good news is willpower is like a muscle—it can be built up.

Making Your Mind Fit

Weighing short-term wants (like sugar) against big-picture wellness goals requires a good deal of focus and attention. A lot of this work goes down in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which regulates thoughts, emotions, and decision-making. Although this area is the most evolved region of the brain, it’s also the most vulnerable to stress. Even periodic instances of unchecked stress can dramatically impede its functioning. This is why so many office dwellers end up hitting the communal pantry for stale-ish pretzels when their inboxes feel insurmountable. Luckily, it’s possible to adapt our conditioning toward these types of triggers, giving us more flexibility and perspective when the s%&# inevitably hits the fan.

Until 20 years ago, it was assumed that only young brains were able to form new connections between nerve cells. Thankfully, we’re actually much more flexible than that. Our brains undergo constant structural and connective changes throughout life in response to experiences and specific, directed thoughts through a process called neuroplasticity. This means we can develop favorable skills and behaviors (like better self-control, for instance), even if those skills and behaviors don’t come naturally to us.

“Mind-fitness” happens by focusing on skills that make us feel more in charge of our decisions. Skills like self-regulation are especially important for sustained weight loss because they help us remain clear-headed under pressure. This gives us more objectivity when considering short-term wants versus big-picture goals, and better impulse control. You can imagine how helpful this ability is when you’re over-tired or post-breakup at a portion-less dinner.

Slowing down and focusing on moment-to-moment experiences improves self-regulation, which is why you can’t walk five steps without someone talking about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. But I’ve found that simply telling someone to eat more mindfully is usually eye-roll-inducing at best. People know they should be more present while they’re eating, but many don’t know-how. So I started recommending techniques that help remedy that.

Self-Regulation Techniques

  • Switch hands: Eating with your non-dominant hand forces you to concentrate while you’re eating, and prevents autopilot-eating.
  • Get handsy: This may sound a little barbaric, but ditching the utensil middleman focuses your attention on eating, allowing you to experience the physical sensation of eating before the food even hits your mouth. (I think it goes without saying, but just to be safe, you probably want to reserve this for solid foods and non-judgmental company.)
  • Plate it: No need to go full French Laundry, but do yourself a favor and put your food on a plate. Being able to visualize how much you’re eating is an important part of the awareness process. Have you ever taken sneaky bites out of a pie box? Those bites likely add up to a little sliver, but you don’t get to enjoy your sliver because it was broken up into sneaky bites.
  • Positive self-talk: Would you let anyone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself? A growing body of research suggests negative self-talk not only keeps us down but also alters the structure and functioning of our prefrontal cortex, preventing us from making sustainable lifestyle changes. Research shows that positive self-talk can actually activate areas of the brain associated with self-relevance and value, making us more skilled at self-regulation and more likely to follow through with wellness goals.
  • Self-regulation includes accepting missteps as part of the process. It doesn’t matter who you are or how goal-oriented you are, at some point, you will be knocked out of the wellness routine zone. Someone will get sick or there will be a hiccup at work and you’ll wind up taking a step backward. “It’s all ruined,” you’ll say to yourself. It can certainly feel that way, but I assure you it’s not … if you don’t surrender to the disappointment. Acknowledge your disappointment for what it is, and move on.
  • The other piece here is accepting your body for what it is and being kind to it anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to go all Kimmy Schmidt or be amped about your cellulite. I’m a strong believer that you can love yourself and want to improve your body at the same time. But this does mean you have to be on your own team. Let’s face it, if we talked to our friends the way we talk to our bodies, we’d probably have no friends left. If you actively tell yourself you’ll never have self-control with food, never stop overeating, or never lose weight, you probably won’t do any of those things.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Since a significant part of making healthy choices comes down to considering your big-picture wellness goals, it’s crucial to understand what they are.

  1. What is it you want?
  2. What’s motivating you?
  3. Are your goals realistic?

Ask yourself these questions and dig deep. If you want to lose weight because your mother or partner hints that you should, I’d strongly consider re-evaluating. If you want to lose weight because you believe once you do you’ll finally land your dream job or dream partner, I’d urge you to re-evaluate again. But if you’re motivated to make lifestyle changes because you want to feel better, more confident, and to be a leaner, stronger, healthier version of yourself, you’re headed in the right direction.

The next important step is making sure your goals are within reach. Setting realistic goals helps you stick with them, rather than getting discouraged when you can’t follow through. Instead of making blanket declarations like “I’m quitting sugar,” opt for something more reasonable like, “I’m avoiding all added sugar in coffee, salad dressings, nut butter, etc., but I’m still going to have one fruit a day, and portion-controlled complex carbs, like 1/2 cup beans or lentils and 1/2 a sweet potato.”

Once your goals are clear, write them down on a notepad or on your phone, and keep them available to you as a reminder.

Know Your Roadblocks

Understanding and empathizing with your roadblocks is crucial because it helps identify specific strategies. One of my clients was having a particularly hard time with dinner. She loved cooking but felt overwhelmed by how many recipes she had pinned and screen-shotted. She felt pressure to constantly try out new recipes, but by the time she got home from work and decided on one, a Postmate was already en route. Also, she used to go to the farmer’s market weekly, but found she only used her produce some of the time, so she stopped altogether because she felt guilty about wasting food. So now there were never any fresh veggies on hand to whip up a healthy dinner.

The solution here was pretty straightforward: structure and self-compassion. Instead of worrying about the self-imposed pressure of whipping up new dishes every week, we sat down and made a list of her favorite dishes to rotate through. She could experiment once a week if she felt inspired, but it wasn’t something she had to do in order to feel successful. Since she knew what she was cooking ahead of time, she could Instacart the ingredients from work. Structure and planning always come up in my sessions because when we provide more structure (like having pre-determined recipes and groceries en-route) we don’t actually need as much discipline. The second part was about letting go of the guilt of wasting food. We can all agree that wasting food is a bummer and we’d rather not if we can avoid it but, in my client’s case, the guilt of potential food waste was preventing her from stocking up on fresh produce. Letting go of that guilt meant setting herself up for the week.

Make Your Life Easier

The simpler, more pleasant, and less emotionally taxing it is to carry out your goals, the more likely you are to keep them. Instead of focusing on simply eating healthier, expend your willpower on the habits and rituals that will automate healthy eating.

  • If you want to eat healthier at work, think about where you’ll get your healthy meal from. Are there places close by with options you’ll actually enjoy? Will you bring a favorite meal from home?
  • If you’re going to dinner with friends and looking to enjoy a delicious meal that’s in line with your goals, be proactive about the menu. If you go to an Italian restaurant and opt not to have a pasta entrée, will that make you feel like you’re missing out? If so, suggest someplace else.
  • “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” It’s not bad advice, but what if you’re not really sure? One easy way to gauge hunger is by keeping fresh-cut and washed crudités and hummus at eye-level in your fridge at all times. If it’s between a meal or snack time and you’re feeling like a snack, go for the crudités. If you don’t want them, you’re probably not really hungry.

TaylorRaeTeam:  wantbehealthy.com