Do you think you have a “willpower disability”?

I have a client on my mind.  We met this morning, and the conversation was interesting.  “I am struggling,” she said.  I found myself asking lots of questions to understand exactly what the struggles are and what is causing them.

What I learned was that she is still having trouble controlling sweets at work. (People bring them in.)  After digging deeper, we discovered that she really doesn’t think she can resist eating the treats at work.  Although she avoids the room they are typically in, all it takes to trigger the “I can’t resist it” belief is the mention of cake or other treats by a co-worker.

She does feel conscious of the fact that there is a choice to eat it or not, but in reality it is not a choice at all.  The mindless part of the habit is in the deeper belief that she cannot resist  treats when they are available.  Checking with herself in-the-moment about whether or not to indulge is really just going through the motions.  The deeper (and less conscious) belief tells her she is not strong enough to really have a choice.  Call it a perceived “willpower disability.”

Add to this challenge the guilt that accompanies the inevitable “choice,” and it adds fuel to the fire of the belief:  “See, I knew I couldn’t resist.  I never can.”

Beliefs are strong.  And they are most often unconscious.  This can make a “conscious” thought a mere habit instead of a realization of actual choice.  There is a big difference between realizing on a superficial level that you can eat something or not, and really believing it.  In other words, it is possible to choose to eat something and also truly believe that there was a choice not to eat it.  In order for the latter choice to exist at all, one must believe that this is possible, at least sometimes.  And, of course, there are all kinds of choices that exist between the two extremes of all and nothing.

Being conscious of thoughts is important, but sometimes it takes looking deeper, especially when feelings of failure and disappointment keep popping up.  If the thought of an option to make a self-controlled choice is habitually followed by discouraging thoughts (“What makes you think you really have any choice at all, you spineless disappointment?”), those thoughts probably point to a deeper belief that keeps that habit going.

To be clear, it is still a good idea to keep from deliberately making choices too challenging by surrounding yourself with temptation.  Let’s face it – some kinds of food are just really, really hard to resist when they are too accessible.  There is no need to test your strength by leaving a whole cake out on the counter.  That’s just not very kind!

Choosing to eat any particular food is not the problem.  Knowing you could choose not to have something and having it anyway feels so much different than eating it because you feel too weak-willed to have any choice.  How much enjoyment can there really be in that?

Wish you thought about food less? Stop the tug-of-war!

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“When you resist you are giving what you don’t want power. When you persist you are empowering your choices.” ~Laura Day

I will not have that ____.  (Fill in the blank with any food you obsess about.)  I WILL NOT HAVE THAT _____!  I WILL NOT HAVE THAT _____!!

Can you feel the tension grow as you try to resist something?  We tend to focus lots of attention on those things we don’t want to do (or eat).  You know the feeling . . . the way you feel when a half eaten chocolate bar calls to you until you finally eat it just to stop thinking about the blasted thing.

Resisting takes a lot of mental energy!  Willpower is a great asset, but it is not usually available in abundance when called into action too often or too intensely.  I also believe that boundaries are necessary for a feeling of security in any area of life, but realistic boundaries we set for ourselves always work best.

So, how do we avoid eating everything that could potentially tempt us?  Here are some key guidelines:

  • Set reasonable expectations, so you will not be expecting your willpower to be constantly called into battle with one  powerful temptation after another.
  • Move on quickly if your choices disappoint you.  Trying to “make up the damage” is a setup for a lot of resistance.
  • Let go of the rope!  Just stop playing tug-of-war with yourself.  Instead, think about trying to meet your needs (your REAL needs, for food as well as emotional stability and calm).
  • It’s always ok to eat when you are physically hungry!  Never try to resist the hunger monster.  It will win.
  • Compromise with yourself on decisions about pleasure foods.  Allowing treats sometimes will help to keep desires in line and free your mind from constant food obsessions.

Reflections on REALLY Delicious Desserts (I don’t often eat cake, but . . . .)

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I love cake, but I rarely eat it.  This is not because I think I shouldn’t.  I don’t even believe in the word “shouldn’t” when it comes to food.  I prefer “choose to” or “choose not to.”  I see no point in eating cake that isn’t outstanding, defined (by me) as homemade, delicate, and not too sweet.

This past weekend, I had two opportunities to eat cake, and both cakes were incredible.  My experiences with both turned out to be interesting and (I thought) worth sharing, since so many of us have trouble stopping when food feels hard to resist.  The hopeful message is that by paying attention and being truly present, whatever we do will at least be a conscious choice.

Insights from Cake #1:  The first cake was served after a barbecue dinner.  It was chocolate with dark chocolate frosting.  Homemade?  Check.  Delicate?  Oh yea!  Not too sweet?  Yes, perfectly sweet.

I ate the whole piece, somewhat mindfully.  I was aware enough to know it was really good, and I was also aware that I could have easily had another piece or 2 without feeling too full.  When I finished eating it, I wanted more.  Is that so interesting?  I think not.  Does it really surprise anyone when they want more of something good?

Does that mean eating more is the only option?  Of course not.  In my case, as I cleared the cake away, I grabbed one more teeny weeny little bite off the plate and decided more would just be that . . . more.  I think it is important to acknowledge that there is no right amount, just a choice of how much to have.

With no consequences (i.e. health, wearing larger clothes, etc.), it would make sense to eat tasty food right up to the point of avoiding physical discomfort, but there are long-term consequences that make this kind of habitual eating less than healthy.

With that in mind, what sometimes works for me is remembering that it will be at least a little hard to stop regardless of when that is, unless I am uncomfortably full.  Since I can eat quite a lot before I’m uncomfortable, stopping prior to that point with pleasure foods like cake is a very, very good idea!  If I’m mindful, I can decide when it’s time to end the eating pleasure and find something else enjoyable or useful to do.  When I’m not so mindful, oh well. It’s not my habit to eat pleasure foods mindlessly.  My logic:  Why would I eat pleasure foods mindlessly if I truly want the maximum pleasure from the experience?

Insights from Cake #2:  The second cake . . . ahhh, that was a wonderful cake!  It was a perfectly light and fluffy white cake with a light frosting and filling that reminded me of whipped cream.  This is actually my favorite kind of cake.  Having eaten a hefty amount of chocolate cake the day before, not to mention all of the yummy BBQ food, I was even more tuned in to the taste.  I wanted to make sure it was worth it.

Oh yes, it was!  So I ate it slowly and savored each bite.  The surprise to me was that by eating it very slowly, I had more time to consider whether or not I wanted more.  No different than the chocolate cake, or any other pleasure food, I could easily have enjoyed eating about 3-4 pieces without physical discomfort, but by considering what that would really be – simply more cake, not necessarily more pleasure – I could consider my long-term health as well.  Halfway through the piece, I put my fork down and enjoyed the company of those around me, and within a few minutes the server cleared my plate.

Mindfulness truly helps.  By continuing to make more mindful choices, habits become healthier over time, without deprivation.  In fact, the beauty of practicing moderate, kind eating – however you define it – is that it gets easier and actually is what we all truly want.

Note:  Very delicious treats like cake, ice cream, or donuts ARE difficult to resist for most people.  That is a good reason to limit over-the-top temptations on a daily basis.  Keeping these foods at home may make them too hard to resist, so why challenge yourself that way?  No one says you can’t eat whatever  you want – your choice! – but enjoyment is actually enhanced when a food is truly a treat and not always available in unlimited quantities.

Do you eat your way out of confinement?

My daughter has a new dog.  Dolly is sweet and cuddly, but there are problems with her roaming the house alone.  For one thing, there is another dog, one who is not exactly thrilled to have a newcomer taking away her status as “only child.”

Crating Dolly seemed like the answer.  It would separate the dogs while my daughter was away, preventing potential conflict.  Sounds like a good solution, right?  There was only one problem . . . a BIG one.  She cannot tolerate the confinement.

When she was left in a wire sided crate, she managed to open the door and get out.  My daughter found her loose in the house.  The next step was to try a plastic sided crate.  She couldn’t open the small door to it, but – believe it or not – she did manage to CHEW through the side of the crate!  She literally ate her way out.

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Can you believe she ate through the plastic on this kind of crate?!

Confinement in the house is fine, because it is a bigger space, but that little box was not at all OK with Dolly.  After consulting a dog trainer, my daughter was told that she probably cannot be crated.

I could not help but think about how this applies to setting boundaries with eating.  We all have a need for some boundaries.  Without them, there is no feeling of control at all, and that feels awful.  But boundaries that are too confining are miserable and ineffective.

And, like Dolly, when the rules are too rigid, we too will “eat our way out.”  We all are different relative to the amount of wiggle room we need, but we are all similar in our need for comfort within the boundaries.  Some dogs do fine in crates – in fact they feel cozy and comfortable – while others like Dolly just need more room.

If you often find yourself eating your way out of your eating plan, you may want to ask if you need a different plan.  It just makes sense.

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Hello, Dolly!

How did I miss National Donut Day?!

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Did you miss your free donut?

Did you know that Friday was National Donut Day?  I did not.

This was brought to my attention – alas, too late! – by a client who updated me on this very important holiday.  While giving an update about the past week, she mentioned that she and her husband had to have a donut on Friday for this reason.  She chose it, enjoyed it, and did not feel regret later, so this was viewed as a successful choice.

This got me thinking:  How many days like this are there on the calendar?  I was surprised, but now I am so much more educated on the subject!  Yes, there is a National Pizza Day, a National Cupcake Day, a National Cheeseburger Day, and a National Jelly Bean Day.  There are also days to celebrate chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate ice cream.  Is anyone surprised?

Hmmm.  Is there a National Carrot Day?  It turns out there is . . . AND a National Carrot Cake Day.  National App Day?  Sure, AND National Apple Pie Day.  There is no National Cauliflower Day, nor is there a National Collard Greens Day, but there is a National Brussels Sprouts Day.  Go figure!

Anyone looking for an excuse to splurge on sweets every day of the year is probably in luck.  Today is probably something like National Cinnabon Day, but don’t take this as a reason to run out and get one . . . unless you decide to consciously choose it, enjoy it, and not regret it later – and you don’t need a special day on the calendar to do that.

Dark Chocolate Is A Weight Loss Aid? There’s more to the story!

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People tend to believe what they read in the media.  Journalists wouldn’t give us bad information . . . would they??

A recent study pulled a bit of a fast one on the media.  The apparent results of the study, which were reported in many respected international journals and newspapers, reported that adding dark chocolate to a low carb diet increased weight loss by 10% when compared with the same diet without the chocolate.  People also kept the weight off better.

But wait!  Before you leave your computer and rush off to the nearest convenience store for your weight loss miracle, you should know just one itty bitty detail.  The study behind the study was intended to find out how difficult it would be to get bad science into the mainstream media.

It turns out that it wasn’t hard at all.  A strategic press release was all it took to get the journalistic world going.  The chocolate study, which had several major flaws, was picked up by major newspapers and scientific journals, apparently without much further review.

The lesson is this:  Be careful not to change your diet based on information you get from the internet and the newspaper.  Attention-grabbing headlines do grab us.  When you are checking out at the grocery store, read a few just to remind yourself what an art it is to draw us in.  Until you see several reputable studies that come to the same conclusions, just keep walking.

I have yet to find a “too good to be true” eating plan that isn’t just that – too good to be true.

Can you notice deeper changes?

Everyone I counsel has one goal in common:  health.  Beyond that the details vary a little, but for the most part, almost everyone wants to lose weight.

The goal seems simple on the surface:  be healthy, lose weight (the goal), and it’s all good, right?  In other words just follow the plan, whatever plan that is, and your success can be measured on the scale.

Not so fast!  There’s one not-so-little detail to consider.  Temporarily following a diet without actually changing the long-time habits that have driven eating in the past is bound to be a short-term venture.

Behavioral habits that lead to extra pounds are controlled by habits of thinking.  Thoughts like “Oh, just one more won’t matter.  They are so tasty, and I won’t be eating these again anytime soon, if ever!”  Or maybe “I’m up 2 pounds today and I was PERFECT yesterday!  I give up.”

There are endless habitual thoughts that play out like a well-worn tape, and the results we see in our behavior are predictable.  Outwardly it may seem like you just lost control and someone else – an alien perhaps? – is driving your choices.

Binges often follow negative or unsupportive thoughts – maybe after taking a bite of the cookie you told yourself you would never eat again?  If automatic thoughts were more neutral or positive, the binge would be much less likely.  Positive thoughts create more desirable actions.  Allowing thoughts to run wild without any awareness of them is simply not a good plan!

Changing habits of thinking is hard – really hard – but also really important.  Because so many thoughts are unconscious, and because thoughts affect feelings, it is easy to feel bad without knowing why.  When we notice the thoughts, it is possible to see how the feelings developed.  Then there is an opportunity to really change – from the root of the feeling – the thought.

As it turns out, we are better off when we just observe thoughts without judging the fact that we are thinking them.  We can then use a very useful tool – the brain – to work with us toward finding solutions to problems.  The brain is not very creative when it is judging.  It is too busy sending uncomfortable emotional messages that affect feelings.

With practice, different kinds of thoughts become more automatic.  New habits of thinking can develop – how exciting!  That means that healthier habits will play out in actions too, and the body will become healthier overall.

So let’s return to how we measure success.  Even when weight loss is the goal, the scale does not have to be the main focus.  The number is not entirely within our control day to day – too many opportunities for false conclusions and feelings of failure.  It is true that regular weighing is one of the habits associated with people who keep weight off, but I would bet they don’t take the daily variations too seriously.

Drawing attention, without judgment, to thought patterns that drive actions gets to the root of the problem.  The scale will take care of itself without a need to fixate on it.  This may sound like a subtle difference in focus, but it is really the key to maintaining weight loss.

A long-time dieter I know has been working on this.  She is still getting used to viewing progress with her thinking.  Her comments illustrate how shaky it feels to change over to a new way of evaluating progress, but the progress is obvious upon a closer look (my comments in bold).

The only thing I can think to say is, “struggling but not giving up.”  . . .  So I continue on. I am becoming much more aware of my hunger and of what I am eating.  (Awareness of hunger – great!  And not giving up – essential!)

Work has been stressful but just yesterday I convinced myself that I don’t need to get so hung up with it. It was making me sick . . . .  (Yes, other areas of life affect eating – good to realize that.)

I find it hard to understand why I am having so much trouble with this.  (At least she is trying to understand.)

I’m grateful . . . that I haven’t given up.  (Hooray!!)

Being able to see these glimmers of positive change are so important to moving forward.  It would be easy – frankly easier for someone used to thinking negatively – to throw in the towel.  That’s the old way of life that lines up with the old habit of thinking.  Here is what would have stood out:

The only thing I can think to say is, “struggling but not giving up.” . . . So I continue on. I am becoming much more aware of my hunger and of what I am eating. 

Work has been stressfulbut just yesterday I convinced myself that I don’t need to get so hung up with it.It was making me sick . . . .

I find it hard to understand why I am having so much trouble with this.

I’m grateful . . . that I haven’t given up.

It is likely she would have at least temporarily given up.

Picture yourself with a new pair of glasses – perhaps rose-colored ones that notice more positive thoughts developing.  Noticing them and giving yourself credit for that important progress is the first step toward long-lasting healthier eating habits.