Want to Change Your Diet? (It’s easier if you change your behavior first.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore leaving on vacation, my client, Sandy, had laid out a formidable plan to support herself in sticking to her new vegetable-rich way of eating. Her strategies included not only what to eat but how she would obtain said pabulum, daily healthy habits she would continue to employ (like emailing me her nightly food log), and tactics for resisting the inevitable temptations and irrational thoughts that never fail to present themselves.

The first couple of e-logs were promising—Sandy had mostly stuck to her healthful food plan, and even when she didn’t, she kept track of how much she was eating (by counting out tortilla chips, for instance), and continued eating only while seated. But then last night I received this missive appended to her nightly food log:

In addition to the above foods I also ate miscellaneous snack foods throughout the day.  My unhelpful thoughts are saying that I can get back on track when I get home . . . . . I will review my vacation plan and get myself back in gear! 

I was happy to see that Sandy was paying attention to the cognitions driving her indiscretions (i.e., “I can get back on track when I get home.). What troubled me, though, was the term “miscellaneous”. That word told me she hadn’t kept track of those “snack foods”, that she had let herself go unconscious with food.

I frequently reiterate to my clients that I don’t care what they eat. I have to tell that over food-logand over because they’re so afraid of disappointing me!  “What’s important,” I remind them, “is whether you stuck to the habits that will eventually lead to you making healthy food choices consistently for the rest of your life.”  In fact, I practically beg them not to try to stick to their food plan. In lieu of trying to stick to their diet (which never works), I want them to put their energy and effort into these tools:

  1. Make a detailed food menu.
  2. Eat only while seated (and not driving).
  3. Eat slowly and savor each bite.
  4. Know how much you eat (weigh, measure, count, etc.).
  5. Write it all down immediately after each feeding episode.
  6. Celebrate every time you utilize these healthy habits!
  7. It’s more than important than ever to do all this when you eat food you hadn’t planned to eat.

Everybody wants to scrap these disciplines when they eat bad food (that’s why #7 is so important). They tell themselves, “What difference does it make if I measure this? I’m not supposed to be eating it anyway. I’ll get back on track tomorrow (or Monday, or next January 1).” But there are so many ways in which using the above list of tools will keep you from getting too far off track to begin with. For one thing, they stimulate your prefrontal cortices—that’s where your inhibition centers reside—making it difficult to partake in protracted, unconscious eating.  Another reason these tools work is that using them no matter what strengthens discipline. The old you says, “I just want to eat as many M & M’s as I want and not worry about it.” The nutritarian you says, “I can have all the M & M’s I want, but I gotta measure them out and take them back to my seat and savor them.”

Which you do you think would end up eating the most M & M’s?

The bottom line is this—making some behavioral changes (in the form of the above healthy habits) will make it much easier for you to stick to a nutrient-rich diet in our nutrient-poor food culture, but it won’t happen overnight. So when you find yourself slipping off your healthy way of eating, do whatever it takes to get yourself to follow through on that list of seven—using these tools consistently will pave the way for a lifetime of nutrient-rich eating.

Well, actually, those seven tools will serve you much better if you start them today!

Caroline’s compulsive eating program helps people adopt a nutrient-rich diet by teaching them the psychology of permanent weight loss.

This post was first published on healthyfoodnow.com.

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