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DIET DETECTIVE

Nutrition advice: Tips for changing problem diet behaviors

Monday, November 5, 2012 - 12:01 am

G. Alan Marlatt, former director of the University of Washington's Addictive Behaviors Research Center, had a wonderful metaphor about behavior change.

He said it should be viewed “as a journey that includes both easy and difficult stretches of highway and for which various 'road signs' (e.g., warning signals) are available to provide guidance.” According to this metaphor, “Learning to anticipate and plan for high-risk situations during recovery from (fill in what you need to change) is equivalent to having a good road map, a well-equipped toolbox, a full tank of gas and a spare tire in good condition for the journey.”

Here are a few key stumbling blocks you should understand and watch out for when changing any behavior, including the way you eat and exercise, along with the tools that will help you prevent or overcome them.

Triggers

Problem: These are direct links to your past unhealthy eating and exercise behavior. They can be events, people, places, things and rituals, such as when you sit on the sofa in front of the TV and it triggers a craving for a snack even if it's right after you've eaten dinner.

The fix: Check out your personal food environment. Those who make successful weight-loss work review and change their surroundings by removing the cues that cause them to overeat and not exercise.

They use stimulus control: For instance, not getting their morning coffee at the bakery or removing “diet buster” foods and take-out menus for unhealthy restaurants from their home. That doesn't mean overhauling your entire life. To change eating and snack behaviors, come up with Calorie Bargains healthy foods that are lower in calories than what you typically eat, but still taste great.

And don't just remove negative stimuli or cues, increase positive ones. For example, hang out with people who are supportive of your weight-loss efforts, surround yourself with healthy foods, post reminder notices that you “can lose weight,” buy a pedometer, join a gym and make your environment weight-loss friendly.

High-risk situations (HRS)

Problem: There are several types of high-risk situations you need to look out for in order to cope with lapses that can lead to relapses, including negative emotions, food pushers and good news.

The fix: Analyze each of your HRSs and try mapping out a solution before they occur. See the three common HRSs below, along with their fixes.

Negative emotions

Problem: Negative emotions occur when you're anxious, depressed, in an argument or simply because you think you deserve it — you've had a rough time and should get something to compensate you for your troubles. When stressed, we long for comfort foods such as brownies, doughnuts, ice cream, pizza and fried chicken. One reason is that your parents probably gave you an ice cream or a piece of candy when you had a bad day at school or when you lost the big game, so these are what you're used to having in times of discomfort.

The fix: Come up with healthy comfort foods. Try www.eatingwell.com or purchase the book “Cooking Light Comfort Food” by the editors of Cooking Light Magazine.

Other tips: Create a “stress snack” kit filled with portion-controlled low-calorie snacks to keep in your office or at home so it's available when needed. Keep unhealthy snacks out of sight. Try to find enjoyable, non-food related activities that will distract you: exercising, shopping, going to the movies working, chatting with friends, reading a humorous book.

Food pushers

Problem: There is social pressure to eat in office situations, at family gatherings, on holidays and in other situations. There are a variety of cues that can pressure you into making unhealthy choices leading to a relapse.

The fix: Have your answer ready for diet saboteurs. Rehearse a few phrases like, “Oh, no thanks. I couldn't eat another thing.” Or try the truth: “I'm trying to eat healthfully, and that piece of cake will throw me completely off track.”

Try writing down three typical scenarios when you were around family, friends or co-workers and were made to feel uncomfortable saying no to food.

The key is to prepare responses to these situations so you're ready next time. That way, you'll be armed with an automatic response — one that rolls off your tongue because you've thought of it ahead of time, and it makes sense!

Good news, celebrations and excitement

Problem: These are positive, exciting situations that encourage you to enjoy your good fortune with unhealthy food. The stimulus could be something as simple as repeatedly seeing food ad on TV, billboards and magazines. Or it could be a joyous occasion such as a birthday, anniversary, party or any occasion when it feels like “this one time” is not so terrible, and makes you think, “why not enjoy life — I only live once.”

The fix: One key tactic is mental rehearsal. The idea is to rehearse an upcoming food event in your mind to trick your brain into having an experience you didn't actually have. Rehearse your eating behaviors and choices before you eat at your favorite restaurant, before you go into the office knowing that it's “doughnut Friday.”

It's important to note that there are many “key” and “important” moments in life. Add them up and it could mean 40 overeating occasions per year.

Cravings, urges and nudges

Problem: These are thoughts that create the desire for immediate gratification. Examples would be craving something sweet or salty, or having the urge to eat a big fattening unhealthy meal. They are often driven by high-risk situations.

The fix: Surf the Wave — the idea is to ride the craving wave by coming up with other behaviors to focus on in advance so that when the craving comes you can let it ride for 20 to 30 minutes without indulging. Come up with alternatives — like deep breathing, meditation, taking a walk, calling a friend — something you know will make you feel good and pass the time. If you do that, before you know it the craving will pass.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.