Eureka, Shazzam, Success! I lost 3% of my body weight since Thanksgiving by breaking an old habit and creating a new one. Curious about how I did it? Read on.
First, I bought myself a cool new notebook and started journaling everything I ate in great detail. I included what I ate, the portion size, where I ate the food, my hunger level and overall mental state. I did this religiously for 30 days. It wasn’t easy but it was very revealing! You might say to yourself “I know exactly what I eat, how much I eat and when I eat it”. I would have said the same thing when I first started this experiment but it just isn’t true. Through journaling I found that I eat a lot more often than I thought I did and the portion sizes were larger than what I would have estimated. My journal revealed that I consumed a large amount of food while I was preparing for finals and I rarely sat down for a meal without a book, academic or otherwise, when I was eating on my own.
This led me to realize I was eating mindlessly. It wasn’t always about hunger; it was often about appetite or worse, boredom. Brian Wansink, Director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, suggests that I am not alone. Wansink has written several books and countless articles on the idea of “mindless eating”. He says that “First, we are aware of only a fraction of the food decisions we make. Second, we are either unaware of how our environment influences these decisions or we are unwilling to acknowledge it”. In my case, I had a habit of never sitting down to a solo meal without something to read. If I wasn’t done reading then I needed to keep eating, period. Wansink calls this scenario eating distractions. Eating while watching TV or while driving would fall into this category as well. We eat without regard to hunger or satiety because we are distracted by another activity. He goes on to say that knowing you are eating mindlessly is not enough to make a change. The best way to control your eating is to control your environment.
Knowledge is power, right? I decided to take all solo meals at the dining room table without anything to read. I did not restrict what I could eat or the quantity served but I prepared the meal and plated it before I got to the table. Then I sat down to eat. It felt very strange to be at the table with food on my plate and nothing to read! The first thing I noticed is that I really concentrated on the food. I had nothing else to distract me. Sometimes this was very gratifying and I noticed how good the food was and other times I realized I didn’t really like what I was eating. The second thing I noticed was that I could hardly wait for the meal to be over. It wasn’t nearly as much fun to eat without a book to read. In many cases I didn’t finish all of the food I had plated. After a week or so, I really felt I was onto something. When I was eating I needed to focus on the activity, especially when I was on my own. By focusing on the food I was eating, without any other distractions, I was satisfied with less food. Amazing!
Making changes in your lifestyle is especially difficult because in many cases you are dealing with habits acquired over a lifetime and as I discussed in my last blog, habits can be hard to break. I am a nutrition and dietetics student who started out with decent eating habits and yet it was still difficult for me to make a positive lifestyle change. The point of this whole exercise was to be able to understand that asking people to make lifestyle changes, even if it will make them feel better and be healthier, is not an easy thing. It isn’t only about reducing energy intake and increasing energy expenditure. It’s about all of the social, environmental and emotional cues that surround our eating behaviors. If we are going to be effective in our roles as RD’s we need to understand how powerful these cues are and to help our clients find their own path to successful lifestyle change.