Sound Bites! Vol.2 #1
Have you made a New Year’s resolution to eat better or “go on a diet”? Did you find yourself a little anxious and out-of-control with eating during the holiday season? It’s pretty common to find ourselves eating mindlessly when lots of delicious food is around and everyone else seems to be indulging. However, the recent start of Spring Crew season has shown us the error of our nutritional indiscretions—weight/fat gain, like blistered hands, makes it harder to row as well as we’d like.
But despite our resolutions, we may still be floundering a bit trying to get back to a more healthful, balanced eating approach. Although there are many diets one can follow to lose weight (or lower cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation, etc), there are three concepts which I believe are helpful in making a change in eating behaviors: mindfulness, food habit management and self-control. These concepts have very little to do with the actual foods we choose but a lot to do with how we make food choices.
What do these concepts mean to you? How might they relate to what, why, and how we nourish our bodies and minds? In fact, how might they relate to many of the actvities (including rowing) in which we participate every day?
According to Psychology Today, “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”
Regardless of what we eat, being mindful can increase our enjoyment of food yet decrease the amount we eat. By paying attention only to what we’re eating (instead of distractions like TV, newspaper, email, homework, etc),we become more aware of the characteristics of the food and it’s affect on us, and tend to be satisfied sooner–and can then get off to other activities.
In an interview, psychologist Dr Susan Albers, author of Eating Mindfully, gives 3 simple tips she uses to help clients slow down and eat more mindfully. First, use your nondominant hand when you eat; according to Albers, research has shown this decreases food intake by 30%. Second, eat favorite foods last; we remember best what we eat last, she says, and this tends to cut over-eating because the memory of the desired food lingers. Lastly, use a red plate; that stoplight color successfully triggers our subconscious mind to stop our eating.
Interestingly to me, the mindful eating suggestions given by Albers are totally reminiscent of the Food Habit Management approach used in a class I taught many years ago at Vashon Health Center. The techniques used to learn proper food habit management were much the same as the mindful eating strategies noted earlier. Food Habit Management, authored by Special Education specialist, Julie Waltz, provided individuals with the tools and techniques to accurately identify, assess, and replace dysfunctional eating habits. For example, the environment provides huge triggers for eating mindlessly. Disconnecting eating from environmental and/or emotional triggers like watching TV, using the computer, and boredom can result in less eating and a more mindful approach.
Another important concept that applies to food and eating (as well as many other activities of daily life) is Self-Control or Will-Power–or as I once heard someone say–Won’t-Power. In the past, based on knowledge of food habit management, I felt that environmental management made will-power unnecessary. Silly me. It was obvious in my own life that one cannot always control their environment–family, friends, and society often create demands that make it nearly impossible to arrange things the way we want. I could see that will-power was an important component to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But how to cultivate self-control was the question.
Recently, I heard an interview on National Public Radio (KUOW) of John Tierney that seemed to support this notion that self-control is important in addition to environmental management. Mr. Tierney, author, along with Roy Baumeister, of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, discussed studies that showed self-control is strongly linked with greater success and that starvation results in decreased willpower. Still, the tips which Mr. Tierney suggested were much like the tips given for developing mindfulness and food habit management–set realistic goals, aim for short-term goals, and monitor your efforts.
The bottom line is that Mindfullness, Habit Management (food or otherwise), and Will-Power all are enhanced by setting realistic, short-term and long-term goals, monitoring progress, and making adjustments as necessary to keep you on the course to your objectives–whether they be weight management, improved strength and conditioning, or improved rowing technique and success.
In future Sound Bites, I want to focus more on the food habit management process because I believe that it offers an important framework for managing not only your weight but other aspects of your life, including rowing, school, or work. You’ll be able to assess your habits and develop strategies that will allow you to make needed changes and reach your lifestyle goals.
Debby Jackson is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and member of the Vashon Island Rowing Club.