Habits

2011-08-05 § Leave a comment

Humans are habitual creatures, in no area more than our eating habits.

It’s said that it takes a couple of weeks of doing something every day to form a habit. Do it three times a day for twenty years, it becomes ingrained. We are driven by a biological need to eat, but WHAT we eat, and when, and how, and how often — these are habits. They are reinforced by cultural norms surrounding us, so they are doubly hard to change consciously, but they can be changed.

For me, the change only happened after three things came together: information, motivation, and enforced changes in body chemistry.

I already knew I was overweight. My own kids referred to me as “fat”, not as an attack but just as a simple fact. They’re too young still to make snide comments about me, so it came out as an unvarnished truth, one I didn’t try to deny. Inwardly, I’d think “I’ll show them that’s not who I really am. I’ll lose 20 pounds, and they’ll see the real me.” But I didn’t, not then.

I gained some crucial information: reading Michael Pollan, then Marion Nestle, then Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”, then watching Lustig’s lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on Youtube. That last was key for me, because it identified a real problem area.

Then came motivation: seeing my brother, fit and trim from long-distance bicycle riding, and seeing my dad go to the emergency room with atrial fibrillation, resulting in a stent in his right coronary artery. He’s a lot fitter than I am, so where he goes at 70, I’ll probably go at 60 — or earlier.

That did it. I made some drastic changes.

Old Habits

1. At work, I ate everything I bring with me for “lunch”. It starts about 30 minutes after I arrive, and continues until about 4pm. It doesn’t matter what the food is, I consume all of it — even if I planned to keep part of it for the next day. If I bring 3000 calories in rice, pasta, or potatoes, I eat all of it.

2. From 9pm-1am, when all regular meals are finished and I am catching up on my reading or coding, my habit was to eat freely of whatever looks good. It frequently becomes a binge in which I eat the equivalent of 5 or 10 portions of dessert-like foods: ice cream, chocolate bars, chocolate chips, granola bars, sweetened cereal, cake, pastries, you name it. At 10pm my body should need to sleep, but I stayed up, keeping my blood sugar level elevated to maintain wakefulness.

3. Over many years, “Clean your plate” evolved into “never let food be thrown away”: that meant eating everything on myplate, any small amount of a dinner dish that wasn’t worth packing into the refrigerator, any leftovers in the refrigerator if they were getting old, everything that’s left sitting in the breakroom at work, and everything I could scarf at a party.

All of these, when I really looked at them, seemed pathological. But it was hard to change. “Old habits die hard.” But it became fairly easy after (you guessed it) about two weeks.

Making the Change

The first thing I actually did was to stop eating added sugar in any form. This was total abstinence, which meant no cereal or ice cream, obviously, but also fruit juice, ketchup, soup , and anything else that has sugar, HFCS, corn syrup, etc. in the ingredient label. Lustig really convinced me, and it didn’t take too many days of abstinence before my drive for sweets diminished radically. This allowed me to redefine what “food” was going to be, in a realistic way.

I have also become quasi-vegetarian. I still eat and enjoy meat, but only about three meals a week — the total amount of meat has probably dropped by about 80%. Knowing how the animals are treated (I’ve known for years, but now I act on that knowledge) made it fairly easy to make this change. I still haven’t settled on a moral direction for myself, other than reducing the harm I do; after I’ve proven to myself that my weight is stable and my diet seems healthy for the long term, I will worry about that last 20%. It’ll probably be locally produced eggs and grass-fed beef. I’ve already found a reasonable source of milk.

New Habits

1. I still eat everything I take to work, but now I take deliberate, rational steps to (a) provide only healthy food, and (b) provide enough of it so I’m not tempted to raid the breakroom in the afternoon. I take mounds of salad, lettuce-based but with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bok choy, olives, cheese, avocado, and anything else I need to keep it interesting. I don’t sweat the calories, as long as it’s at least half lettuce. I also take carrots, jicama, and lots of fruit. At the end of the day, I’ve got a big mound of peels and I feel full. I don’t even feel like having dinner, but I’ve only put away 1000 calories or so at the most.

2. For about two months I only ate fruit after dinner. Occasionally I still binged, but the effects of, say, two pounds of grapefruit are fairly minor. The desire to keep eating tapers off after a while, unlike with chocolate ice cream.

3. I don’t eat food that isn’t part of my diet, except when circumstances call for it. I’ll eat cake at someone’s birthday, of course, and smile and be happy with them. But the cake left on the breakroom table at work? It’s somebody else’s problem.

4. I measure my weight every day the same way. Our old scale had broken so I was out of the habit of checking, but this tracking is pretty important. It helps to know I’m making progress. Actually, after meeting my 20-pound goal, I no longer do it every day. I can tell whether it’s going up or down by a couple of pounds, based on how my belt closes.

5. I make my own granola. (Thanks for the recipe, David). I control the proportion of carbohydrates and fiber, instead of taking whatever General Mills thinks will get me to consume more of their product. A little goes a long way.

6. I take small portions of everything, and only take a second helping if it’s really good and if I’m truly hungry.

Tangent

A sugar habit is very much like a caffeine habit. I have watched people who had a caffeine addiction, and smirked inwardly at their weak-mindedness. Seeing them, I know there are some people who like the smell of coffee, the effect it has on their body and sense of well-being, the ceremony of drinking it, and the fellowship they get when they share a cup of coffee with friends. I have some of the same feelings, but I never developed a liking for coffee because my father expressed a dislike for it and I copied him. What I’ve learned is there’s nothing wrong with coffee…if you’re having a cup a day. But a cup of day, for some people, quickly develops into two cups, three, or even four. At four cups a day, you have a dependency. Your body builds a tolerance, and if you try to go without coffee for a day or two, your body insists on having its fix.

Sugar is exactly the same. Some people can enjoy an occasional pastry and think nothing of it, where other people start a habit of having a donut every day (with their coffee…) and soon they find themselves buying an extra donut every day to take back to work. Or they obey the Snickers commercial that tells them they need a 500-calorie chocolate bar when they are feeling run-down in the afternoon. (The Mars company doesn’t want them to know that their sugar dependency is the very reason they’re feeling run-down, or that the one bar contains THREE portions). This describes me pretty well. I suppose we all have weaknesses, and sugar is mine. Not everyone will handle their weaknesses the same way, but for me, abstinence worked. Now, I indulge my sweet tooth in a controlled way, once a week, in small portions.

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