Resisting Empty-Calorie Temptations

Junio writes, “Does anyone have tips for how to stop yourself from wanting something?” The temptation she’d like to avoid is a cold beer after a long workday. For me, it’s Ruffles potato chips (and other things). I’ve wished for a long time that I could manage not to want the empty-calorie foods, as have lots of other people. I have two ideas about this: one, some goals that are possible take so long to reach that they falsely seem impossible; two, sometimes you can find a way to allow yourself one of your major temptations and make up for it elsewhere. Together these two principles can go a long way toward helping to cope with temptation.
I get a craving for Ruffles every so often and I try to let myself buy them no more often than every five or six weeks. When I get a bag, I eat half of it in one day. I enjoy it. But the next day I have a weird feeling in my head and stomach—not quite a pain or ache, but just sort of yucky. I imagine I’m feeling the simultaneous dehydration and bloating caused by all the salt in the chips. For a year and a half during and after the time I was losing weight, whenever I was tempted to buy Ruffles, I reminded myself of the yucky way I felt after indulging in chips. It didn’t work. I relied on other tactics, such as avoiding that aisle in the store, eating baby carrots, or deciding to wait only until the next day (over and over again). And I decided eating too many Ruffles every five or six weeks would just have to be okay.
All of a sudden, this year, I realized my Ruffles craving had lessened. When I thought about eating them, or saw them in the store, most (not all) of the time I was put off by remembering the dehydrated feeling I’d get from them. It took a long time, but the frequent craving has subsided and become only a minor one. So for some people with food cravings, trying for a long time to consciously turn yourself off to the food can work (though not as quickly as one might like). It seems that everything having to do with getting fit, losing weight, and changing eating habits takes a long time, so we just have to resolve to keep trying no matter how long it takes.
My other idea, give in to the temptation and make up for it somewhere else, can work for empty-calorie indulgences that do not run in the many hundreds of calories. One of those big imperial pints of beer or half a cup of ice cream is probably not as outrageous as half a large bag of Ruffles. In that case, what I’d do is give in to it and do some extra walking on the way to and from work, or skip a couple of daytime soft drinks or other workplace treats. Since we’re all going to indulge in treats we love, we might as well look at the daily options. Give up where it hurts the least and indulge where it feels the best.
After spouting my own thoughts, I thought I better see what credentialed writers or health professionals have to say about hard-to-resist food temptations. A search on the term “resist food cravings” turned up nothing but three or four commercial or hospital sites. Those with something to sell took the “you can’t do it on your own” approach. The usual predictions of doom, coming from a doctor in this example, sound so discouraging that it’s no wonder if we all assume we have no power over food. Dr. Tate at tatehealthcare.com says:

You’re familiar with the “yo-yo dieting cycle:” you start a weight-loss diet. You do well for the first few days. Soon, however, your hunger and food cravings start to build…. You try to resist these food cravings but eventually you lose control…. Of course, you quickly regain any fat you’ve lost—plus even more. Most Americans are doomed to repeat this yo-yo cycle for the rest of their lives! The fact is—without medical help—you, too, are almost certainly doomed to repeat this cycle for the rest of your life. Almost every year, you’ll weigh more than you did the year before. Naturally, you’ll feel worse and worse about your looks and your health….

Whoa! Thanks for the encouraging words. We might as well give up right now and go lie on the couch with some bon-bons.
Eventually I found some constructive ideas by searching for “food cravings.”
This weight-loss coach advises a basic healthy diet that can help prevent cravings from getting out of hand.
This article by a nutritionist offers insight into cravings but ends by saying you should eat what you crave in moderation. The problem for me was that there were too many astronomical-calorie foods being eaten in moderation, amounting to almost the whole diet. (Pizza in moderation, peanut butter in moderation, pastrami sandwiches in moderation, ice cream in moderation, french fries in moderation… you get the picture.)
This tough-talker says it’s all about mental strength! I have to admit I kind of like this site in spite of its in-your-face attitude. I bet this guy’s an ex-Marine. Sample quote: “Don’t give me your little stories.” Hoo-rah!
Doreen Virtue, Ph.D. says cravings are generated by emotions. Guess what: she’s a psychotherapist!
Weight-loss coach Jennifer R. Scott advocates “stalling” to stave off a craving. Sometimes if you can wait twenty minutes, have a glass of water, and get involved in another activity, you can forget the craving. I use the twenty-minute rule a lot in the evenings when I want to munch.
Dr. Dorie McCubbrey says cravings can arise from habits and that introducing variety into your routine and your diet, you might be able to break the pattern of daily empty-calorie temptation.
MSNBC’s Nutrition Notes says to eat frequently enough to avoid overwhelming hunger and a blood-sugar drop, and don’t be so strict with your food rules that you create cravings of what’s forbidden.
So, I think we do have power over food temptations. Exercising this power just happens to take a lot of effort, time, and practice.
What’s worked for you? It doesn’t have to work every single time to be a great idea.

Safety Tips

Found this list of safety hints for women via this week’s Carnival of the Vanities. I think they’re good ones and a few of them are new to me. Unfortunately for the daily calorie burn, one of the tips is “always take the elevator, never the stairs!” It’s a good reminder to balance conflicting priorities; I loved taking the stairwell in the office where I worked, for the exercise, but if somebody had hit me over the head there’s no telling when I would have been found.
These safety tips don’t directly address a need for fitness or strength. Most are tips for good judgment. But I think making good decisions and being fit can help any person stay safe by being able to run away faster; by keeping your balance long enough to use a knee or elbow and get away; by being better able to save yourself in an accident; and by possibly being less likely to be attacked or to have certain types of accidents (falls or ankle sprains) in the first place.
I don’t know of any statistics on fit people fending off attacks, but I feel more capable and safer from being in good shape. Our neighborhood is an unpredictable one, but rather than limit my activities out of fear, I choose my routes, look around me, and walk as if I won’t be stopped. I know I’m still vulnerable, but I’m doing what I can. With regard to accidents, there have been plenty of times when I’ve come close to twisting my ankle or falling during a steep hike. In those instances I’ve been thankful for the stability, flexibility, and agility that comes from strength and balance exercises.
Unrelated to fitness, another thing that helps me feel safe on the street is the fact that I never wear shoes I can’t run in. Even when I was much younger and not as safety conscious, I could never bring myself to wear heels or open shoes of any kind. They made me feel hobbled. Sandals have to have an ankle strap; loafers have to have a sole with some grip; dress shoes have to be flexible, comfortable, and impossible to kick off.
Do you have any favorite safety tips? Do other women share my avoidance of fragile shoes?

Learning New Eating Habits

I’ve gone through phases in my attitudes toward exercise, fitness, and food. I went from blissful ignorance to a sense of dread when I saw I’d gained too much weight and couldn’t lose it. I needed to relearn how to eat. How did other people lose weight, other than by going on unrealistic diets? Small, discrete suggestions from people who’d been there were what I wished for. Eventually I found routines and meals that allowed me to get back the fitness I lost. I want to share some of the stages I went through and steps I took, in case someone else is looking for tips as I was (and always am).
I was an active kid and ate whatever I wanted, including unlimited quantities of the foods you’re supposed to have only in moderation. I was a miserable flop in gym class, never able to concentrate on organized games or remember the rules. Instead of playing sports, I climbed trees, ran sprints on the sidewalks and in the local vacant lot, skateboarded in front of the house, and rode my bike as fast and as far as I could.
In my twenties, I biked to work in summer and paid no attention to what or how much I ate. Although I noticed I was slowly gaining weight, I had no idea how to stop. Rather than make the effort to learn about nutrition or to fit more exercise into the cold months, I went into denial. I told myself I was still very active and had a long way to go before I’d have a weight problem.
By my mid-30s, I had gained 25 pounds. I had lost all of the muscle definition I’d had in my upper arms, shoulders, and thighs. I’d started a workout routine at the YMCA two years earlier and had continued to gain weight (though much more slowly). I was frustrated, but all I knew to do was to keep exercising. After all, what would I eat if my favorite, convenient, comfortable foods were off limits? I don’t cook and I don’t make detailed meal plans. Thinking ahead about the week’s meals is tedious and stressful for me, and I can’t make myself do it.
In 1999 I learned that my aunt, 30 years older than I, had osteoporosis. Because I knew I could still prevent this disease in myself, this event motivated me to change my diet. I changed one eating habit at a time, continued exercising, and finally started losing weight. I was stunned when I weighed myself after a two-week interval and discovered I’d lost five pounds. I actually asked the gym staff if their scale was out of calibration. In eight months I lost eighteen pounds and regained some of my muscle tone.
To lose the extra weight, I made the following changes one at a time, adding a new one every week or two, in approximately this order.
* Substituted sparkling water for Coke, both to cut calories and to try to protect my bones from calcium loss.
* Ate two pieces of fruit during each work day, whether I wanted them or not.
* Eliminated pizza for eight months, substituting smaller portions of Thai or Chinese food (also fattening but not as bad, either because I ate less of it or because pizza is so extremely high in calories).
* Eliminated ice cream for eight months.
* Bought small quantities of fruit home to eat each weekend and made sure I finished it all by Monday morning.
* Ordered only nonfat lattes and mochas if I wanted a coffee drink during the workday.
* Bought and installed a nutrition software program to help me count calories eaten and burned.
* Measured ingredients in my meals to make sure my calorie counts were accurate: exactly one tablespoon of mayo in the tuna salad, exactly half a cup of cereal and milk, and so on.
* Eliminated lattes and mochas completely (including nonfat) for five months after deciding to think of them as a snack choice. Instead if I wanted a snack, I’d have one handful of trail mix (nuts and dried fruit) or one ounce of smoked salmon. I kept these snacks at the office along with bottles of sparkling water.
* Reduced my consumption of peanut butter sandwiches from one a day to three a week. Substituted spicy, Asian-style frozen meals made by an organic brand.
Along with continuing to exercise at the Y every other day and to walk as much as possible, those changes to my diet were what finally tipped me toward weight loss. I never had to meticulously plan meals or cook ahead for the week; all I had to do was learn some convenient one-step meals and go easy on whatever ingredient was the most fattening. It also helped to tell myself, in a loud internal voice, that I could have the leftovers tomorrow instead of finishing the whole serving now, or that I could come back to the restaurant for dessert another time if I still wanted to.
What are the most useful changes you’ve made while building healthier routines into your life?

FitNotes’ Mission

Many choices and habits, some harder than others, add up to physical fitness. These choices require daily effort and attention, and even some creative thinking. Together they add up to a process that never ends—and that’s good. Talking with others about this process, and about the rewards of being in shape, helps me maintain better habits.
I want to use FitNotes to learn, and to help others learn, by talking to each other about how to get fit and stay fit through exercise and reasonably healthy eating. I’ll share my experience and my reading in short, upbeat articles, to let readers know why I think that if I lost weight and got in shape, you can too. I hope you’ll leave comments and send email that will spark conversations and allow us to learn from each other.
Some topics I plan to write about in weekly columns: enjoying exercise for its own sake; being proud of meeting small and large exercise goals; how exercise improves mood and attitude; building muscle without a gym membership; pros and cons of calorie counting; meals that are healthy and convenient; and more.
I’ll also list links to other websites that seem to offer high-quality help and information, whether free or commercial. Please let me know if you find any good fitness weblogs or sites.
Disclaimer: I’m not a healthcare professional; I offer personal experience, reading, and opinions as a basis for columns and discussions. Nothing I write should be taken for medical advice. See your doctor before starting any new exercise program or diet.