In some ways, I am very lucky when it comes to eating healthy. I live alone, aside from some really picky pets who most days don’t care what I am eating. For most people, they would think that is completely awesome- no one else is complaining about “mom’s healthy food kick” or “dad’s eating organic again!” Plus, the chances of my dog or cats dragging bags of potato chips or blueberry muffins into the house are practically nil (although the dog might try with the muffins!) Living alone means I don’t have to tailor what I want to eat around what everyone else wants to eat, so no “making two dinners” or dealing with a junk food junkie. When it comes to deciding what to eat, my decision is the only one that counts: I can eat whatever I want, because I am accountable only to myself.
It also means that if I want to scarf a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in front of NCIS, there’s no one to see me do it. There’s no hiding the empty carton in the trash can or even stuffing the new pint in the back of the freezer. The same goes for Pop Tarts, chips, or cupcakes. No one else is going to go through the groceries, the fridge, freezer or the cabinets: I can eat whatever I want, because I am accountable only to myself.
And therein lies the problem! I can fill my cart with fresh veggies, grass fed meats and free range eggs, or I can fill it with ice cream, crackers and boxes of processed foods. It’s all up to me: no one is going to look in the cabinet and say: “I didn’t know Cheez Its were on your diet!” No one is going to shame me into behaving myself and no one is going give me disapproving look if I decide to eat a whole box of fried chicken. It’s all my call what I eat or don’t eat, or if I work out or don’t work out. I am the one who’s keeping track.
This is why so many people like to have a diet buddy or as they call it now, an ‘accountabili-buddy.’ This is usually someone who meets you to go work out, but even then, if you live alone, you can still go home and eat your way through a box of donuts. Many diet and fitness apps (like My Fitness Pal) do their best to hold you accountable, but again, it requires your being honest about what you are actually putting in your mouth and how much you move your body. Being accountable only to yourself means that no one else is going to push you to get up on Saturdays to take your run through the park or check that you made your work out class on your way home from the office. No one is keeping count but you.
I once heard integrity defined as “how one behaves when no one else is watching,” and that’s what it comes down to in this case especially. I was having a really stressful day recently (there’s been a lot of those lately!) and I had stopped at the pharmacy to pick up some cough medicine. I was tired, stressed, feeling sick and while I was waiting in line with my bottle of cough syrup and my bag of sugar free cough drops, the woman ahead of me was arguing over her coupons the cashier couldn’t take. Right below the counter in front of me were racks and racks of candy, including many of my favorites (pretty much anything with peanut butter!) and the more I looked at them, the more I thought “I can pick one. Or two. Two wouldn’t be bad.” There was no one to know that I ate them or even how many I had. No one was going to check my trash for candy wrappers and when I logged my food in my journal and in my MFP app, I could just leave them out so it would look like I ate really good that day. No one would know…. but me. When I finally left the pharmacy, I had my cough syrup and my cough drops and the candy stayed at the store.
It wasn’t really a case of white-knuckling it past the candy or having an iron will: it was a combination of things actually. 1) I would know I ate the candy, no matter what I put in my journal or app. 2) Eating the candy would not help my weight loss and could lead to sugar cravings later on. The biggest factor was- honestly- number 3: the last time I had candy, it didn’t taste very good! After running through all those in my head, the candy wasn’t worth it. It’d be a lot of calories, a lot of sugar but not a lot of enjoyment. This is where people like me, living alone, need to develop our own accountability system, and it comes not from white-knuckling it or having an iron will, but from habits and learning from mistakes. I’ve had candy not so long ago: it was a similar situation and the candy was a complete impulse buy. It was on the counter and rung up before I really thought about it, so once I got home, you bet I ate it! And yep! wasn’t very good and yep! I regretted eating it! This is where the Learning From Mistakes part comes in. When faced with a similar choice, I remembered that it wasn’t yummy or worth the calories and so it was easier to leave it behind.
The Habit part takes more work, because it means that you have to build a new or different habit over time, and we only do that by making the same decisions over and over again. For me, this was things like keeping my hand out of the bread basket at restaurants, and not going by the bakery in the grocery store, and staying away from the chips aisle too! This is where a lot of us give in, mainly because we approach it the wrong way. I know it’s been the downfall of a lot of my diets: I go cold-turkey and give up everything I love to eat all at once. I go from eating my “regular diet” to “steamed broccoli and skinless chicken breast” overnight and usually after a couple of weeks (if that long!), I give in and devour a whole box of Stove Top Stuffing. This time I took the time to build my habits: I gave up one or two things at a time (like bread and pasta) until I didn’t have to sit on my hands to keep from putting them on my plate. Then I moved on to another food and another food until I had built a healthy habit around eating whole foods that are low in carbs and high in nutrition (this is just my own healthy eating plan). By the time I had reached that point, things like automatically eating bread or putting a couple bags of Peanut Butter M&Ms in my cart were no longer ‘automatic.’ I didn’t crave them anymore, and I also discovered the reason that Snickers bar didn’t taste great: I had lost my taste for those kinds of foods.
This is the heart of holding yourself accountable: you know the return on your investment is there, but you have to put in the work to get it. Staying the course to build your new habit is the hardest and most important part because it requires integrity. You have to hold true to your goals even though no one else is watching.
You have to be your own accountabili-buddy and figure out what motivates you to stay on track to your goals. There are a lot of people who use their Why to keep focused: Why do I want to be healthier? I have a spouse and kids;” or “I want to be healthy enough to have a long and active retirement!” Other people focus on the goals themselves: “If I eat that or skip my workouts, I’ll fail to achieve my goal!” (This is the one that works for me!)
Whether you have a family or live alone like me, finding ways to hold ourselves accountable can be a bit tricky. I know I am as good as talking myself into eating a cupcake as I am at talking myself out of it! We have to work to build the habits that will get us where we want to go and remember the mistakes that took us off track. We need to keep our own account and keep the books honest!