You Are How (Not What) You Eat

July 8, 2010  
Filed under Food

By Jean Harvey-Berino, Ph.D., R.D.

My motto for weight management is simple – eat less, move more. What I’ve learned in 18 years of research, though, is that it’s easier said then done. Diet restriction can result in short-term weight loss, but sustainable, long-term weight loss is best achieved by conquering the everyday habits that hinder us from eating right and exercising.

How many of us mindlessly snack while watching TV? I’ll wager that you can think of five more unhealthy habits right now. For those who have retired and are spending more time around the house, the temptations are even closer – and no one sees you snacking on food with every pass by the pantry.

At the core of these behaviors are triggers, the events in daily life that set off responses that derail our best attempts at weight management. Being aware of triggers and developing healthy responses results in streamlined weight loss and helps you feel and look better. It’s never too late to get your health and weight back on track, especially when weight gain can affect blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and increase the risk for diseases such as Type II diabetes.

Let’s explore how behavior change can empower you to embrace habits that keep you healthy, satisfied and in control.

Understanding Behavior Change
Behavior change is the act of altering your reactions to stimuli—emotional or environmental—through positive and negative reinforcement of a new behavior, or reduction of an unhealthy behavior.

You have likely heard the term “emotional eater.” We learn to associate certain emotions with our habits: comfort, stress, happiness, boredom—you name it.

Likewise, certain environments trigger us to take certain actions. If your morning routine is to order a large latte from the coffee shop you pass by every day, then it’s become a habit. Environmentally triggered eating behaviors like seeing food, smelling food, or getting together with family or friends may also cause you to eat more.

The good news is that, though eating behaviors are learned and ingrained over time, they can be un-learned by developing an awareness of your emotions and environment – and understanding how they influence your eating.

Break the Chain
The cornerstone of behavior change is self-monitoring—a clinical term meaning journaling, or simply writing down the foods you eat, how much exercise you do, and noting triggers that trip you up. By journaling, you become accountable for it, and you have evidence of your behavior.

Journaling helps you uncover unconscious eating and why you do it and what’s tripping you up so you can create a plan of sustainable action.  Recognizing your eating cues—the “when,” “why” and “how” you eat—is the first step to figuring out how to break the unhealthy habits.

I see participants in my Vtrim Online program struggle, yet ultimately succeed, with these changes all the time. Consider Cyndy. In the early evening, she would start snacking while she waited for her family to come home for dinner. She snacked on almonds, cheese, and crackers – anything in the kitchen, adding 300 to 500 calories to her daily intake. Then, a light bulb went off in her head. She wasn’t craving a snack per se; she was bored, frustrated or tired. Now, instead of eating a calorie-heavy snack, she goes for a short walk, reads an article, or finds another constructive use of her time, like emailing or calling a friend.

When it comes to problem-solving, remember this: it’s not about eating carrots instead of buttery popcorn in front of the TV; it’s about not eating in front of the TV. Don’t replace one food choice with another. Learn to choose an alternative activity to eating, unless you truly are physically hungry.

Stay on Track
Slip-ups happen. You’ll eat too much at a wedding. You’ll sneak one of your friend’s French fries while she’s in the restroom only to realize you’ve finished them all before she makes it back. The most important thing is learning to get back on track quickly when you lapse into old behaviors. The sooner you react, the easier it is to recover. Do nothing and you may relapse (fall into a pattern of old behaviors) or even collapse.

Behavior change takes time and practice. Though it may seem tough at first and there will be moments when you don’t think you can do it, the long-term results will be well-worth the effort.

Jean Harvey-Berino, PhD, RD, is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Vermont. She is also the lead researcher and founder of Vtrim Online, a behavioral weight loss program, available at www.uvm.edu/vtrim.

 

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