Weight Loss & Cravings: The Pause Before You Go Over the Edge

Raise your hand if this has happened to you: you make a well-thought out decision to share a dessert with a friend and then a few days later, you start craving something similar and before you realize what’s going on, you’ve eaten way more sweets, desserts and other not-so-good for you foods than you have in the last few months! Can you all see me waving my hand in the air like Hermione Granger in class? Except my answer is actually the wrong answer! No one wants to be in that situation, like a car skidding out of control before sliding into the ditch. It’s a disaster waiting to happen!

You would think that the problem was that well-considered decision to share a dessert: “if only I hadn’t had those three bites of cheesecake!” That may be one way of dealing with it. I know there are lots of people who just say no to things they consider triggers.  They choose to view it as an addiction and anyone who knows addicts knows “you can’t have just one [fill in the blank here.] If you were okay with never having cheesecake or chips or whatever your particular weakness is ever again, that would solve your problem. If you don’t want cravings for bread, just don’t ever eat bread again.  Never ever.

For some people, that can be a pretty bleak view, looking at the rest of your life without ever eating things you like, such as cheesecake, brownies, bread or cookies along with a host of other things! On one hand, it’s just food. It isn’t like you’re giving up electricity for the rest of your life! There are thousands of people who’ve lived their entire lives without ever tasting a brownie or cheesecake! (Come to think of it, there are thousands of people who live their lives now without electricity!) Seriously, it’s not the end of the world, but it is something that brings a little bit of happiness into your life.  At least it does for those few minutes you are eating it!

If we are being truthful, it also brings a lot of pain into our lives too. I remember in college there were times I’d come home from the store with a frozen cheesecake and as soon as it was thawed out, I’d eat the whole thing.  Of course, I didn’t intend to, but…. We all know how that story ends: “I just couldn’t stop once I started eating it!” And once I was stuck holding the empty tray for a seven inch cheesecake, I’d feel awful. Not only did I feel horrible emotionally, but physically, I felt like a beached whale because obviously I wasn’t hungry when I ate it! I ate it because it was there!

This is what most of us are afraid of when it comes to cravings: once we start, we can’t stop, so it’s easier just never ‘starting.’ The problem is that we blame our cravings on self-control and that’s only a small part of the problem. When we don’t have cookies in the house and we start craving cookies, how many of us are going to leave the house to buy cookies? But, if the cookies are in the house already, it’s all too easy to ‘wander’ into the kitchen and grab one or two. Or three or four.  If they’re small, maybe five… And that’s where we blame our lack of self-control or we blame the cookies for being so good or we blame the family member who brought them home!

Part of the problem is the craving, especially if it’s something sweet.  Sugar really is addictive (Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar is a great resource!) Foods like bread (my own private weakness) are simple carbs, which the body metabolizes like sugar, so even if it’s garlic bread, to my body, it’s a ‘sugar’ and just a leetle bit addictive! So blaming self-control for not being able to stop ourselves eating a whole bread basket or cheesecake can be a legitimate defense.

However, the plain simple truth is that we knew better when we ate the cheesecake or bread that started our latest sugar binge! If you know that you’re going to be craving sugar within a week of sharing that dessert at lunch with your friend, is it really so difficult to tell your friend “no thanks” when she offers? A friend will understand when you say no to the dessert and you are under no obligation to indulge in something that will cause problems later.  So not starting is one way of dealing with the cravings: no trigger = no craving = no binge.  Problem solved! Yeah…riiighhhttt!

However a trigger food like that shared dessert is not the only reason we develop cravings.  In my case, a lot of the cravings come from boredom. How many of us binge in the evenings? (Hermione Granger here again!) I’m watching tv and I’ve got nothing to do with my hands, so let’s wander into the kitchen and see if there’s anything to snack on! Danger, Will Robinson!  Believe me, if I had a robot, it’d be stationed in the kitchen door each night after dinner! I’m obviously not hungry because I just finished dinner; my problem is I’m feeling bored! Somehow my brain equates boredom with the need to eat something, preferably sweet! “Find something sweet to eat and eat it until it’s gone or you feel like you’re going to throw up!” Really, that was my evening operation for most of my life! In the event I had nothing sweet in the house, Plan B substituted ‘salty’ for ‘sweet’ and the Last Ditch Back Up Plan was substitute ‘salty’ for ‘anything in the house!’ I really really wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I’m not.

But the good thing to come out of this debacle is that since I know what triggers my cravings, I can take steps to stop it before it skids wildly out of control. If bored and feeling the cravings start, I look for something to do other than eating! Even if it’s something like scrolling through Facebook or Instagram or– even better– My Fitness Pal! It can be logging my food and reminding myself how much I’ve already eaten, so how can I be hungry? It can be writing notes for this blog, playing with my dogs or doing my nails (my most recent distraction). It just needs to be something to keep my hands busy so I’m not eating to satisfy a craving that has nothing to do with hunger.

Another trigger for a lot of us is emotion.  How many of us have heard and used the expression ’emotional eater’?  Again, it’s a legitimate issue but once we realize it’s our trigger, we need to take steps to cut off the craving/ binge before it starts.  This issue is obviously more complex than just alleviating boredom.  If emotion or stress is a serious problem in your life, you might need to meet with someone to help you find constructive ways of dealing with it that don’t involve eating. For most of us who find ourselves staring into the fridge after a fight with a loved one or opening a surprise bill not in our budget or some other stressor, it can be less problematic. We have to find a way to alleviate our anxiety that doesn’t involve eating. In some ways, it’s easy and in other ways, it’s not so easy! Suppose your method of ‘coping’ with a problem is eating an entire bag of chips. While you’re eating the chips, you’re not feeling anxious or stressed (as much), but when those chips are gone, the anxiety and stress come back, usually coupled with the guilt for scarfing down a whole bag of Ruffles! Now what do you do? This is where some of us will find something else to eat and  repeat the cycle while others of us will either find a way to deal with the cause of our anxiety or we find something else to soothe it.  In my case, after eating a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s or the bag of Ruffles or King’s Hawaiian, I’d turn to my pets. My pets are a huge source of comfort to me! Depending on what the problem is, there is also venting on Facebook or calling a friend to share the anxiety and frustration.  Most of us who have normal every day stress and anxiety in our lives have methods for dealing with it; the problem is our knee-jerk reaction to eat our emotions first! What we need to learn is to cut off that reaction to ‘soothe’ our anxiety with food.

You’re probably thinking, “Duhhh!  So tell me something I don’t know!” It’s not rocket science, but it does take patience and practice. We all know the trick about not losing our temper by counting to ten and this isn’t much different.  It involves taking a couple minutes to see into the future: “I’m emotional and I want to eat something, but how am I going to feel when I’m done eating?” Usually the answer will be “pretty cruddy!” or “worse than I do now!” The object is to step into those few seconds between feeling the anxiety-eating trigger and the actual eating! As I said it takes practice and it takes patience. It’s a seemingly simple behavior modification technique. The actual action is simple: stopping the knee-jerk reaction to eat by switching it with another action; it’s ‘seemingly simple’ because changing behavior can be a difficult process. This is where the patience and practice come into action.

We have to remember to ask ourselves that question when we feel like eating because of our emotions and then simply skip the eating! Instead of eating all the potato chips and then holding my dog, I just pick up the dog! Or I start venting online or to my friends or whatever I can do to relieve the anxiety and emotion without eating.  The good thing about this technique is that is also works with those sugar-addiction cravings I mentioned at the beginning.  When we feel the urge to eat whatever it is we’re craving, we need to remind ourselves of how cruddy we’re going to feel after we’ve eaten it.  It can be we feel guilty or ashamed or physically terrible.  In my case, sugar or simple carbs like bread really cause pain in my hands. When I stop eating the sugar, I can feel the improvement within a couple of days. When I start craving something either because of boredom, anxiety or just wanting that not-so-healthy forbidden food, I ask myself how I’m going to feel after eating it. Remembering how bad my hands felt is an obvious deterrent!

It still takes a lot of patience and a whole lot of practice.  There are some times I really really want it and eat it anyway, and when I end up regretting it, I remind myself there’s a reason it’s on my not-to-be-eaten list, especially if my hands start hurting! The craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is followed by “is it worth your hands aching for a week? Remember how smushed and stale the last ones were? Not to mention 400 calories!” Changing our behavior takes time and we have to be patient with ourselves.  Remembering to pause before grabbing the King’s Hawaiian takes practice and when we screw it up (because we will!), we have to be patient and forgive ourselves. Cravings are what kill most weight loss practices and that’s what this is: it’s a practice!  We won’t get it right the first time we try it but the more we do it, the easier it is to remember and the longer that pause becomes. The knee-jerk reaction to eat our boredom, anxiety and cravings becomes less of a reaction and more of a decision.  That’s what we are really looking for: the ability to make a decision instead of being out of control.

 

 

 

Indulgences: The Cost- Benefit Analysis

Brace yourself- the holidays are coming! For most of us, it begins with Halloween and buckets and buckets of candies and other sweets, followed by the Thanksgiving gorging and then a month-plus of Christmas cookies, cakes, and candies and the alcohol-fest that is New Years.  It pretty much has us surrounded until 2018! For me, this Food Fest actually begins in September, when our community has a pastry filled food festival followed by another one between Halloween and Thanksgiving, so once fall gets here, I’m surrounded by food!

I hear a lot of people complaining about all the treats around them and how hard they are to resist.  I see a lot of posts about how family members keep bringing these temptations into the house and how they keep giving in; how the Halloween candy they bought at the beginning of the month has all been eaten; how they went out for coffee with friends and ended up drinking a ginormous sweet drink with a cookie or muffin or scone.  If only people stopped shoving food and treats at them! How can they resist!

I know I ate my fair share of pastries at the food festival in September, and no one put a gun to my head.  I decided to eat them, and my ‘rationale’ was that I wait all year for this festival.  Were they worth it? They were really really delicious and I enjoyed every bite, but as for being ‘worth it?’  That’s still up for debate!

Basically, this is what it comes down to with every food choice we make.  Some of them are more obvious than others: the hamburger combo or the roast turkey with veggies; the iced tea with sweetener or the regular sugar soda; the bowl of berries or the bowl of ice cream.  Which is going to be better for us?  Which will make us feel better about ourselves and will help us reach our goals? Yeah, those are the ground-ball kind of choices!

The hard part comes with the ‘special’ foods, like the pastries we wait for each year, the bags of our favorite candies just lying around the house and the plates full of holiday cookies, etc.  It’s a holiday (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever!) and it’s time to celebrate! Why not indulge? It’s only once a year! For most of us, it is only once a year, but the ‘season’ lasts for about three months! There’s a ‘holiday’ a month for the rest of the year and there are countless opportunities to indulge! It’s not the ‘one cookie’ or the ‘one holiday drink/ coffee’ that is going to be the problem: it’s the pattern of behavior it can create.

I’ve been eating healthier for a couple of years now, and this will be my third ‘healthy holiday season,’ but it still takes practice.  The first year was pretty much an unmitigated disaster: all the ‘holiday indulgences that come once a year’ set me back about three months.  It was beyond disheartening.  Last year was better: I was pickier and indulged less, but the treats still did damage and set me back about a month or so.  This year, I have already noticed that the food festival pastries, while really good, were not worth the setback they always bring with them.  I indulged less (only a certain variety of pastry) and I was rewarded for my discretion: only a minor delay.

Of course, the bulk of the holidays haven’t gotten here yet, but I have noticed that the treats that were always so appealing and irresistible still look and smell appealing, but when the choice presents itself (coffee with cream or pumpkiny coffee drink; cinnamon apple cake or no cake), it’s not as hard as it used to be.  After a couple of holiday seasons of indulging, for me the ‘treat’ isn’t worth the setback and disappointment.  Just dealing with the delay from the September food festival was frustrating enough: the delay and frustration aren’t worth the few moments of eating the pastry, no matter how delicious they might be!

The same thing happened yesterday: while grocery shopping, I bought some Halloween candy, which included some caramels that my friend is fond of (and me too!) I bought them because we are having a get-together this weekend and I planned on bringing them, but I was hungry last night after a busy day and a busier weekend….. and I heard those caramels in the kitchen calling my name about 9:00 p.m. last night.  I actually got up and picked up the bag! Once I looked at it, however, I realized right away that eating even one or two of them- and face it, it wouldn’t be one or two!- they weren’t worth the few minutes of ‘yummy’ since I be disappointed in myself.  Even worse, giving in once or twice opens the door for making a new bad habit! This is where we justify our indulgences: I’ll go back to eating good after the holiday! Except there is always a reason to indulge! It’s a holiday; it’s a special occasion; it’s someone’s birthday! There is ONE reason not to indulge: our health; and there are a million reasons to indulge, but are any of them as important or as valuable as our health?

For me, this is another ground-ball question! I remember not being able to turn the wheel of my car without it rubbing against my belly or being tilted all the way up!  I remember my shoes being so tight my feet looked like they were going to break the straps.  I remember being short of breath just walking around Target- forget going to Costco! For me, there is a clear link between my eating choices and the ginormous improvement in my health already.  For a lot of people, the connection is not as clear or obvious because not a lot of people eat themselves to 400+ lbs.  When you weigh 250 and can still get around and be pretty active and pain-free, the ‘consequences of a cookie’ are less obvious: it’s a cookie! It’s not a bomb! How bad can one cookie be?

It wouldn’t be bad, if it were only one cookie! One cookie leads to another, like the bag of caramels in my cupboard! Making an excuse to indulge once makes it easier to indulge again and again. It leads to a pattern of indulging that gets in between us and our goals.  We trade the treats for our health, even if we don’t end up weighing 400 lbs; the weight of our own recrimination and disappointment are bad enough.  We’ve all been the person who ate a box/ bag/ pack of something we regretted and then beat ourselves up over it! Over time, I’ve learned the hard way to avoid the regret: the treats are not worth the delay, the frustration and the disappointment they really cost me! Even though I was tempted by the caramels last night, as soon as the bag was in my hand, the answer was clear to me: I’m not going to enjoy them, even if I eat them! Put down the candy!

No one is going to tell me not to eat the candy or the scones or the pumpkin loaf. No one except me, and that’s what makes it hard! If we were lighting up a cigarette in a bookstore, a dozen people would jump all over us and throw us out! But if we decide to drink a venti pumpkin latte, have a scone, a cookie and another treat in that same bookstore, no one would tell us “that’s enough calories and sugar! Put a stop to it now!” We have to decide if the indulgences are worth what they really cost us: slow or no progress, maybe a weigh gain, disappointment, increased cravings and all the other baggage they come with.  Only you know what baggage they bring for you and only you can decide if the payoff is worth it.  As for me, the pastries in September were good, but were they worth it? I think the price was a bit higher than I planned on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sugar: The White Death

It is no secret that we are addicted to sugar.  Most of us are pretty good at recognizing the obvious sources of sugars in our diets: candy, soda, sweetened coffee drinks and sweet pastries.  We all know they’re bad for us and so most of us try to limit those.

But there are other sugars in our diet beyond the mochas, cookies and Pepsi: they are the orange juice and bagel we had with breakfast, the whole wheat bread in our turkey sandwich and the pasta we have with dinner.  “But,” you say “there was no jam on the bagel and nothing at all sweet in any of those!”  That is true but there was still sugar just the same, in the form of starches.  This is where most of us make our mistakes (including me) because we haven’t learned how the body processes what we eat.  We’re told to eat low fat and avoid “sugar” so we think we are “eating healthy” when we have juice instead of soda and a whole wheat turkey sandwich or whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce: “I’m eating my healthy whole grains with lots of fruits and vegetables!” But you are still getting sugars in every bite.

Most of us have been told that we can eat better if we give up anything “white,” like cream, whole milk, cheeses, white flour, bread, potatoes, pasta and sugar. While it’s true that “white” usually means highly processed, which is not the best for you, it’s also true that whole wheat breads and pastas are also made up of the similar starches that make up the “white” varieties.  What most of us don’t know is that starches are simply long chains of sugars (polysaccharides)  and while they may not taste as sweet as more recognizable forms (monosaccharides and disaccharides), the body treats them the same way.

[This is where I remind everyone that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. I just did my own research to educate myself and I’m sharing what I’ve learned.]

I recently read The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, mainly because I wanted to learn more about what sugar is and some of the problems it causes.  His book is quite shocking: health professionals have been complaining about sugar since before we even started refining it into the granulated white crystals we are familiar with! He mentions how Hindu doctors in the 4th Century noted how those who ate more sweet foods were more obese, had bad teeth and more health problems.  Since then, he points out how, as sugar usage continued to grow across the world and people began using more and more of it, so did health problems like obesity, heart disease, gout, dental caries, and of course diabetes. Most Americans are used to demonizing the Tobacco Industry for their concerted campaigns to defend tobacco usage as healthy and not harmful despite the overwhelming evidence; what we should be demonizing the is the Sugar Industry because their concerted offensive to keep us believing that sugar is healthy and nutritious has worked despite the mounting evidence that sugar causes all the problems listed above: heart disease, dental caries, obesity, gout, and diabetes.  Doctors as far back as the 16th Century were telling people to limit sugar usage, but because the Sugar Industry was and still is profitable and powerful, these facts were suppressed.  FYI: several of the studies that ‘proved’ saturated fat causes heart disease were funded by the Sugar Industry, which successfully buried the studies that showed heart disease was more closely linked to carbohydrates (such as sugar). Another FYI: the Sugar Industry actually taught the Tobacco Industry how to launch successful ad campaigns; the head of one sugar research association went to work for Big Tobacco.  They were already in bed together: those blended American cigarettes that became so popular after WWII are a blend of sugar soaked tobacco and air cured tobacco.  The sugar allows the smoker to inhale the smoke more deeply: without the sugar, the smoke is too irritating to be inhaled as deeply into the lungs.  Less smoke, less nicotine, less chance of becoming addicted.  Talk about a Demonic Duo! 

The aspect of The Case Against Sugar that was so shocking was the coordinated effort by The Sugar Industry to hide the harmful effects of sugar consumption from the public and at the same time, encourage increased consumption as a “healthy energy source.”  Most of us know that sugar isn’t good for us, but it’s the different ‘hidden’ forms of sugar that trip up most of us. The three easiest ways to limit sugar in your diet is to: 1) avoid processed foods; 2) avoid fruit; and 3) avoid starches. 

Avoiding processed foods is the easiest  way of avoiding sugar and while I’m a huge fan of fruit (“Nature’s candy”), the sugar in fruit is fructose which isn’t metabolized like glucose & sucrose (table sugar) and doesn’t trigger the satiety hormone leptin. Starches, whether natural like rice,  potatoes, etc or man-made like breads or cereals, are actually just long chains of sugar and the body treats them like sugar. 

While I highly recommend everyone read Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar, I have to say it reads like a history book, outlining sugar’s continued spread into our diet across the world, mainly fueled by greed/ economic gain and status. The scary part is how every attempt is made to keep us buying sugar despite its dangers.