Behavior


Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. I find that very interesting, because children (particularly before they’re school-age) learn everything from adults. They’re not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough (because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that), they will like it and want it…and soon, may want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, will take them there. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded.

Kids learn through repetition. They learn by watching their parents. It does no good for a parent to nurture a bad habit by encouraging it, and then turn around and scold their kids for it. Let’s face it, the parent gets something out of it too. They get peace in the family, they get out of making a meal, they enjoy the food themselves. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that “healthy food tastes yucky, food that’s ‘bad’ for you is yummy”. You are setting up an association that your kids will take with them through life. And it’s easier breaking an association when you’re young than when you’ve been carrying it around for the past 40 years.

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the info that you’re placing before them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a lot more time if done right.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, and you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. Remember my comment about persistence? You just rewarded them for not giving up. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not fully cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Changing habits is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re not on-board yourself. Make a commitment to set your kids on the path towards healthfulness while you’re still their nutritional gatekeeper. It’ll be the best gift you ever gave them.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple of decades, you’re aware that we’re in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic. What you might not be aware of, however, is that we may unwittingly be perpetuating this problem even as we struggle to find a solution. Here’s an example of how this happens:

My 8-year-old took the California Standardized Test over the past few weeks. I had asked her if she was nervous beforehand, she said no…she was looking forward to it because following every test session her teacher was going to give snacks: Goldfish crackers. That’s a rare purchase for us at home because I’m not a fan of processed crackers. But what I’m even less a fan of is equating a job well done with a food prize.

Now, granted, Goldfish crackers aren’t the most evil of concoctions, and I’m actually delighted that the reward was merely crackers rather than sweets even though the idea that we need to offer snacks to mark a good performance (no offense to her teacher, whom I adore!). How about playing a fun game or offering extra recess time?

Great job! Here, have a cookie.

While the above is a mild example of a “food as reward” pairing, what happens when that’s taken a step further and kids are rewarded with unhealthy foods? I learned of a school from out-of-state that threw a junk food-heavy shindig as a spectacular end to their testing weeks. These celebrations are organized by adults who look back at what they ate as children and how many wonderful memories of youth it brings back, and want to share these good feelings with the younger generation. Sadly, these childhood memories don’t mesh with the reality of today, and the current state of our collective waistlines.

Equally important is the mixed message that this type of event sends. On the one hand, there are obesity awareness programs at schools, teaching kids healthy eating, encouraging them to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. On the other hand, they throw all of that out the window with such a festival, as if acknowledging with a wink, “You know all that healthy-food stuff we taught you? Well, we don’t believe it either.”

I freely admit that rewarding ourselves with food is not a new concept. Special meals for birthdays, graduations, promotions, etc. are to be expected. Sharing joy across the table is part of being human. Meals unite us. Food is pleasure in a small, legal package —  and a very powerful motivator. I’m neither disputing that nor trying to squash long-established mealtime traditions.

But you know those ‘special events’ that we chose to celebrate? Well, every day has become special. TGIF? Why raise the bar so high by waiting ’til the end of the week? “It’s Tuesday, lets celebrate!” Indulging yourself has gone from a once-luxury to something that’s commonplace. With food as accessible as it is, in the varieties in which it’s available, we really run the danger of rewarding ourselves into a host of health problems.

As a result, we do our children a disservice by rewarding them with food when the opportunities for rewards seem never-ending and the quality of food has degraded. And some of you might gripe that I’m taking all the fun out of eating. That may be, but with staggering childhood obesity rates that are NOT getting better, and the knowledge that these children are likely to grow into obese adults, it’s time to stop joking around.

Do you really know what you want? Do you know what steps you need to take to get it? If not, you’re going to be at greater risk of being swayed from your goals. What happens at the point when we’re faced with a decision whether or not to engage in a behavior that may or may not be detrimental to our goals? Our actions will depend in large part on how meaningful our goals are and how attractive the other option is. In a way, it’s a balance of those two factors. Knowing exactly what you want will help sway things in your favor and keep you moving towards where you want to be.

If most people have an opportunity to (1) eat a doughnut or (2) abstain in favor of their fitness goals, which one will win out?

Eat like Homer, look like Homer. (www.sfgate.com)

My money’s on the doughnut, and here’s why: most people don’t have a truly clear idea of what they want as far as fat loss goes. They want to lose pounds or “get into shape”. Some just want to “look good”. What do all of those mean? They’re very fuzzy goals, and as a result, achieving them will be difficult. How will you know you’ve reached the point where you’re “in shape”? What if you think you “look good” but then pass a mirror or see yourself in a photo and realize that you don’t look as good as the person next to you? What if you still “feel fat”? All these things make it hard to claim success…

And that’s why the doughnut is such a formidable opponent. In contrast to the uncertainties of fat loss, you know what you’ll get with the doughnut. The melt-in-your-mouth sweetness, the sugar rush…the desire for more. Those pounds you want to lose are so far away. The doughnut is here and immediate. It’s tangible. You can practically taste it.

Add to that, it’s easy to justify eating the doughnut, right? How much of a difference will one doughnut really make?

All of this is why it’s important to not only have clearly defined goals for fat loss, but also an understanding of the day-to-day steps you need to take to get there. Success is determined by your daily efforts. Your daily efforts are determined by your long-range goals.

When you know specifically where you want to go, and are aware of what you need to do every day, resisting temptation becomes easier. When the sun sets every evening, you can claim victory for another day, and the resulting changes to your body become your reward.

If you’re cleaning up after breakfast and come across this, what do you do?

C'mon, it's just a bite...

You’re done eating and not hungry…but there’s still a little oatmeal and PB&J left over. Not worth putting aside in the fridge because no one’s going to eat it later. So where does it go? Into the trash…or your mouth?

Consider your answer then read this.

I have to preface this post by stressing that I avoid sweets of any kind. Doesn’t mean I don’t have them, but the instances are few and far between, and that’s one of the reasons that I don’t crave them. Just as you may have heard people who have switched to clean eating say that after a few weeks, their desire for sugary/fatty foods disappears, I feel that my lack of exposure to that type of food is why I find it easy to ignore it.

However, even I am not immune to the siren song of the most addictive of processed hell- foods. Here’s a personal example:

"Difficult to resist, the Dark Side is."

My family and I were at a reception where coffee, juice and doughnuts were served. Now, an offering like that makes me break out in hives (even bagels & cream cheese would have been better), but until I have enough money to create “healthy food” endowments for the places that I frequent, I’m stuck. While I got coffee, my husband got that obscene fried frosted round thing. He offered me a bite.

I accepted, not sure why, maybe just because it’d been so long since I’d tried one. I don’t remember the exact order of the events that followed, but I think  saliva flooded my mouth, I got a tingling sensation, a major sugar rush that warmed my whole body…all of which preceded an Id-like need for another bite. I don’t know how much more I consumed before I came to my senses, but the intensity of my lustful reaction took me aback. It was then that I decided doughnuts were the creation of the devil and should be rounded up and burned at the stake.

For that moment that I was under the doughnut’s spell, I had an epiphany of sorts. I saw how easily one could, with minimal practice, polish off a half dozen doughnuts before realizing what happened. Those junky abominations are engineered for lightening-fast consumption. You hardly need to chew the thing before it dissolves! The rapid sugar delivery to the bloodstream is drug-like.

Food doesn’t twack me like that most of the time, but this one did. And then I thought, if it made me, a true sugar shunner, suffer a momentary lapse of reason, how much damage could it do to someone who is more susceptible to the influence of these foods? How much would it test someone’s resolve…and what are the chances that, hypnotized by the promise of a blissful sugar stupor, one would even remember to resist? In general I try to offer kinder, gentler suggestions for changing eating behaviors, but in this case I’d recommend that you never let one of these arteriosclerotic bombs near your lips.

No, not even into your line of sight. Stay away!

What message does this send?

As the primary food-shopper for my family, I catch up on all the latest gossip by the grocery store check-out counter where I have nothing better to do than read magazine headlines and contemplate my navel.

While I was standing in line today, the cover of Woman’s World caught my eye, specifically the diet plan that they’re peddling this week. Rejoice, America, it’s the Food-Lovers’ Diet! As a behaviorist, I don’t even know where to start telling you how wrong this is. And please, don’t jump on me for taking the fun out of eating. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know how I feel about pimping food as entertainment. That doesn’t mean meals can’t taste good and be satisfying, but part of our struggle with our weight stems from the fact that many of us are in LOVE with food and use it to soothe ourselves. We’ve taken our relationship with what we eat to a whole new level of emotional dependence.

I want you to consider the images on the cover. The toffee bars and frosted cupcakes seem so sinful and decadent, and if we can eat them and lose weight, YAY!!! Although the article itself may tout reduced-calorie versions of those desserts, what that cover suggests is that we shouldn’t have to cut back on the foods, laden with sugar and fat, that we’ve been told contribute to the obesity epidemic.

What if you need to lose more than nine pounds? 😛

We are clinging to the expectation that there’s no need to change our eating behaviors. The scammers will feed us that idea in order to sell “miracle” weight loss products (or copies of magazines) knowing that we so desperately want to believe there’s an easy fix.  Someone who doesn’t even read the full article will, consciously or not, register that there’s still some other “more permissive” way of dropping pounds than giving your body the nutritional respect that it needs through clean eating. People are dutifully waiting for the holy grail of diets to fall from the skies — or be delivered by aliens — and turn the weight loss world upside down.

For long term success in getting blubber to go buh-bye you have to inventory your eating habits. If you’re trying to shoehorn “treats” into your eating plan on a daily basis, you’re squeezing out more nutritious food. If you constantly tell yourself that you “deserve” to indulge, what are you saying when you try to limit the indulgences? That you don’t deserve them, that you’re not worth it. And feeling worthless is not a great mindset with which to embark on a fat loss journey.

What you do deserve is a fighting chance at improving your health. Not letting go of the behaviors that packed on the pounds will not get you there.

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