The most basic truth about permanent weight loss is that you must change your behavior. We hear that over and over from all kinds of experts: “diets don’t work because they are temporary behavior changes! Losing the weight and keeping it off needs lasting lifestyle changes!” That means we have to make a new habit and we all know how much fun that can be (ugh).
The actual practice of making a new habit is one thing, but here’s a little trick that will help you with that: you need to change your thinking. All our behavior starts in our head, whether we consciously think about it or not. It’s been programmed in, usually through years of reacting the same way to the same triggers. I realized this a few days ago when I was at work and my boss sneezed. The first thought that popped in my head was “you can’t get sick!” This is a joke leftover from the Job From Hell: whenever anyone sneezed or coughed at that office, my boss would automatically respond with that exact phrase. The meaning behind it was obviously we all had to work until we literally dropped in our tracks and it became a joke among my co-workers since our boss’s concern wasn’t our health but her inconvenience if the office was short-handed.
I have not worked in that office since 2014, but still, whenever someone sneezes or coughs, the same thought still pops in my head. It’s a response programmed over seven years of the same triggers and it’ll probably take a while longer before it disappears entirely.
This is what makes changing behavior so difficult, because in order to change the physical actions, we first need to change how our brain reacts to various triggers. This is how I ended up staring into the fridge after a stressful phone call from my mom. I had just eaten dinner and I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but the trigger went off (stress!!) and the brain went into reaction mode (eat something!!) and the next thing I know, I’m in the fridge wondering “what the heck…..??” It’s a lot harder to stop your thoughts and send them in a different direction because they are so fast and so automatic. If I were to order you “stop thinking!” your brain would still be going forward, probably along the lines of “great! how do I stop thinking about not thinking?” Even when meditation gurus mellifuously tell you to “empty your mind,” how empty does your mind really get? Your brain is a lot like a modern day computer: even when it’s off, it’s on. The screen may be blank and it may not look like it’s doing much, but the battery is still holding a charge and the clock is still running, the memory is still there and if it’s connected to wifi, it’s probably downloading or updating something.
If you want to change your responses to triggers or even just build a new habit, you need to start in your head. I’m not going to give you the “you need to see a hypnotist/ shrink / behavior modification therapist,” but you do need to be a little more aware of how you react to things and how you can begin making changes. It’s not just about triggers (certain situations that cause certain reactions): it’s about changing how your world view and maybe even how you think about yourself.
Way way back when I was in college, I took a women’s health course that required us to do some outside learning, and so I took a self-defense seminar. One of the things the instructor told us was that, as women, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as victims. When we walk out into a dark parking lot, if our attitude is “I’m a scared little rabbit trying to get across this big empty field before a mean vicious coyote eats me,” then that’s what others are going to see. He said we need to walk out into that parking lot with our heads up, aware of our surroundings and if there is a potential threat, we need to make sure we look them in the eye and are not afraid. Many of us, men and women, think of ourselves as victims when it comes to food and eating. We go to the grocery store and keep our heads down as we pass the racks and racks of potato chips. We do the same thing in the candy aisle and the bakery and wherever else we see food we used to eat with such pleasure and abandon. We are the scared little rabbit trying not to see the vicious Doritos coyote and slip past without getting caught, but if we look those Doritos right in the label and tell them, “I’m not afraid of you and you can’t make me eat you,”- yeah, I know it sounds silly- but it’s the beginning of changing our thinking and ultimately changing our behavior. There are some things that are obviously beyond our control, but there are many things in our lives that we can control, and we let them take control over us. Food is one of those things. We hate it when we show up at a potluck and someone has cheesecake on the buffet or if someone brings cookies to the office: OMG! they’re just going to call my name all day! This kind of thinking has already programmed you for several things: 1) it is preparing you to fail at ignoring/ not eating the food; 2) it is telling you that the food controls you; 3) it is telling you that you are helpless to change. None of those statements are true! We just need to remind ourselves of that.
I know it’s hard to look at or smell something you really enjoy. When I came to work at this office, almost every morning my cubicle neighbor made crunchy sourdough toast in the office. I’d smell it and hear him crunching it almost all morning and truly, bread was my hardest craving to break (sometimes it still is!) But now when he makes it, it’s not as big a distraction as it used to be. In fact, I made it into a game: we’d swap cooking stories or discuss the various jams we both like. Yes, the warm bread smell triggers a biological reaction in my digestive tract because that’s what food does, but when I don’t focus on it or eat anything in response to it, it eventually goes away. The food does not control me because I have changed how I think about it. It takes a long time, because thoughts are hard to change and on top of that, we are working on building a new habit, but it’s work worth doing.
Elizabeth Benton likes to remind her listeners that between the stimulus and the reaction, there is a pause, even if it’s just a microsecond, and in that pause is the power to change our reactions. I admit, that it’s hard to stop our automatic reaction and decide to do something different (hence, my staring into the fridge), but once we know what our triggers are and we learn to use that pause, we are the stronger for it and it’s the beginning of changing what we used to think of as “helpless” reflexes. Knowledge really can be power, if when we feel the urge to do something we know it’s good for us, to make a thoughtful effort to use that pause to stop ourselves and do something more constructive.
Easier said than done, right? It always is! This is what makes it so hard for people to change their habits. We need to learn what our triggers are and plan a response that is different from what we normally do. For example, instead of eating something when I get stressed, I make a conscious effort to do something other than eating that relieves my stress. This can be posting a rant online, playing with my dog, calling a friend or cleaning something. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it distracts me from my stressed out situation and it doesn’t involve eating something.
The triggers also don’t have be stress-related. Sometimes they are in response to a celebration or just plain opportunity, as in the cookies at the office or the cheesecake at the buffet. Those can be a bit harder to counteract, since it may involve more than just distraction, but we know ourselves better than anyone else. The key to success in these cases can be something as simple as reminding ourselves that we are not helpless when it comes to food, that it does not control you and that you are more than capable of making changes. If you choose to eat a cookie or piece of cheesecake, it does not mean you are weak: it means you made a considered choice. Choosing to eat something is very different than helplessly giving in because “I know I’m going to eat it anyway!” I have noticed that when I was struggling with things like cheesecake and cookies, it helped if I had one or two bites and then threw the rest away. It reminded me that I chose to have only those two bites and decided not to eat the rest. When it comes to cookies, I get mine from a store that sells individual cookies, so I buy two and only two. I don’t want more than that and I’m not stuck with ten more cookies growing stale in the cupboard. This way, I get used to eating only two (actually one and a half, since I split one with the dog) and I only get the cookies I think are really great, because why waste the calories on a treat that’s only so-so? And if the bakery is out of the great cookies that day, oh well, no cookies for me!
As I said, it takes a little work and a lot of repetition before we finally manage to change our programmed response. It took me a long time before I was able to look at the cookies, cupcakes and breads and make a considered choice rather than slink by without getting caught by the bakery coyote. My automatic response was to start choosing what I wanted most and how many calories is it and what can I swap out to make it fit? Or worse yet, start rationalizing why I needed or deserved it: “it’s one piece of cake/ cookie/ bread!” Very true and even if I ate it, it’s not the end of the world or a catastrophe. It just means that I need more practice. For a long time, I didn’t eat any of those things and even today I still don’t eat them very often. The difference is that now, when I eat them, it’s not because I gave in or that I couldn’t control myself, it’s because I chose to eat it and enjoy it as the treat it was meant to be. These are treats for me now, not major portions of my diet like they used to be. But slinking by them in the store didn’t really help me change my response to them. It took a lot of looking at them, agonizing over why I was choosing not to have them, and walking away without them before I was able to walk by the bakery without even noticing. Now when I look at them, most of the time I walk away without them without the agonizing, because I really don’t want them, no matter how stressed I am, no matter how much I want to ‘celebrate’ or whether I ‘deserve’ them or not. They don’t taste as good as they used to, mainly because, for me, the whole ‘stress relief’ aspect is no longer there. They no longer have the same ‘rush’ they used to have because I am no longer eating them in response to a trigger. They are regular food to me now, and not the sweet taste of stress relief. This is actually a good thing for me, because when I do choose to eat them, they don’t have the same pull and as a result, now it’s easier to ignore them in the stores.
Changing your thinking can take a long time, but it’s definitely worth the effort. In changing our thinking, we change how we view ourselves and our reactions to food (among other things) and this is the first step in developing healthy new responses to old painful triggers. Be patient, be consistent and the changes will come. Too often, people give up in the middle because they think they aren’t doing it right or that it’ll never come, but we learned these responses over years and it may take nearly as long to undo those learned responses. Seriously, it’s taken me almost two years before I could not look at carrot cake and really really want it. Was it worth all that agonizing in the grocery store? YES!! Now when I have it, it’s because I want it- not because it was a bad day and I need it or “it somehow ended up in my cart.” I know the urge is to make changes as fast as we can so that we can lose as much weight as we can in the shortest amount of time, but in order to make the results last, we need to make the changes permanent. We need to make the healthy new responses as automatic as the unhealthy old responses were. We are worth the effort and the agonizing. After all, it’s a really just a piece of cake.