Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Plan: Stage 1 - Acclimate your body to less food.

Many people focus on the aspect of “will power” when trying to change their eating habits, but your body is accustomed to eating a certain amount of food. It's not about mustering up the mental power to withstand difficulty. It's about helping your body grow accustomed to changes.

Many of your organs expect you to follow the same level of consumption and offer them the same levels of energy and nutrients that you normally ingest. If you suddenly reduce your eating, you will have a strong physical response as your body will demand higher levels of food. This will radically increase the chances that you will fail in altering your habits.

In order to reduce the amount of discomfort that you will suffer from a reduction in calories and to ease the transition into changing your eating habits, it’s helpful to begin by gradually eating less rather than undergoing a radical alteration in habits. The first step in this process is to taper your consumption of both food and caloric liquids. In order to do this, try the following:
  • When you drink beverages, choose a cup or glass that is slightly smaller than the one you have been using. If you drink 16 oz. of soda normally, scale back to 12. If you drink a large cup of coffee or tea, scale back to a medium size one.
  • When you serve yourself food, put back or throw away two tablespoons (or two “bites”) compared to what your preferred serving size is.
It helps when you do this to use smaller dishes than normal. While it may seem silly, you do feel like you’re eating more when the food you consume takes up the entire plate and feel deprived if your plate has vast amounts of empty space. Use the saucers that came with your tea cups if you don’t have small plates. I tend to use several small dishes rather than one large plate. This caters to the psychology of eating and your perceptions of food quantities. You eat with your eyes more than your stomach in many cases. You need to give your mental image of "enough" food a chance to adjust as well as your body.

It also helps if you think about what you are eating carefully while you eat. That is, smell your food, feel the texture, and enjoy the taste. Be mindful of when you reach the point where you are simply eating for the sake of eating. You don’t have to stop eating if you stop enjoying the food, but you may find yourself wanting to stop at that point. Keep in mind that you are in control and can do whatever you want. This isn’t about deprivation, but about a slow change in how you approach and regard food. At the end of this process, food should be even more enjoyable than it is now, but you won’t have a guilty relationship with it.

Follow this plan for as long as you need to feel comfortable with scaled back portions (I did this for several weeks). Mainly, you want to follow it until you no longer have the sense that the reduced portions are “small” but feel that they are “normal”. If you feel comfortable, you can feel free to reduce the portions bit by bit until you are eating about two-thirds to half of what you were eating previously. Note that I'm assuming anyone interested in what I'm saying habitually overeats (as I did) and therefore any reduction in consumption will not result in malnourishment.

For meat or protein, you will want to aim for 3-5 oz. portions, eating larger portions of leaner meats like chicken and smaller ones of fattier meats like beef. For carbohydrates, chances are that half to one-third of what you were eating will serve you well. If you very much overeat carbs, especially refined ones like white bread, you may want to be at about 1/4 of what you usually ate. Vegetables are generally fine in any quantity that you can manage, but I wouldn't recommend increasing vegetable consumption to fill the space taken by other foods. The point is not to eat as much, but less in small increments.

This stage is to allow your body to physically grow used to less food in a way which is not dramatic or jarring. It will improve your chances of eating less later as the changes become more difficult. If you really attend to the experience of eating, you may find at this stage that it's hard to focus on the pleasurable sensations of food past a certain point. You may find that you actually grow bored or fatigued with thinking about how good a chocolate bar tastes and feels in your mouth and that you want to start eating it faster and more mindlessly. This is the point at which you are eating compulsively rather than for enjoyment and where you want to train yourself to stop eating foods which are for "fun" rather than nutrients.

You may also find it helpful at this stage to slowly alter your consumption of certain types of foods that are highly caloric in favor of calorie-reduced versions. For instance, if you drink regular sodas, switch to diet versions. If you have sugar in your coffee or tea, switch to an artificial sweetener. These changes are “crutches” to help you get along. Making too many changes or sacrifices early on will increase the chances that you will fail, and I found that changes like drinking diet soda haven't had any negative impact on my weight loss. These substitutions will reduce the number of calories you feed yourself without a sense of psychological deprivation.

In terms of binge eating or copious consumption of foods which you know are not good for you, it's helpful to begin a process which you will work on more later. This is learning to delay food-based gratification. When you strongly crave something and feel you aren't hungry and just want it for the pleasure, try to get yourself to wait 15 minutes to eat it. After you wait, if you still want it, eat a small amount of it. Give yourself just a few bites and really savor them. Wait another 15 minutes before you have more. If you want more after that, have a few more bites. Continue this process until you are satisfied. If you are able to wait 15 minutes and feel you can wait longer, try to extend the time by 5 minute increments. It's okay to give in and eat the food you want when the time is up. This is an exercise in learning to wait, not depriving yourself.

One point which many people recommend is to drink lots of water. While I do believe it is important to drink sufficient water, I don’t think it’s necessary to drink in copious quantities. One of the points of this stage is to reduce stomach capacity gradually (the stomach shrinks and expands based on the amount of everything you put in it, not just solid food). If you drink a lot of water (or other liquids), you will keep your stomach size large. Competitive eaters, who can eat many pounds of food at once, report that they stay trim, but keep their stomach capacity large by drinking lots and lots of liquids. If you overdo water or other beverages, you defeat the purpose of this stage. Drink water when you are thirsty. Drink small amounts throughout the day. Don’t drink too much at once or force yourself to drink water because you feel you should. I don't force-feed myself water, and it has not hindered my weight loss.

It is valuable at this stage to try and think over your eating habits and thoughts. Don’t consider them punitively or berate yourself internally for what or why you eat. Your goal is understanding yourself and how you deal with food, not to beat yourself up over your eating habits. In particular, every time you want to eat, consider the following when you want food:
  1. Is my stomach empty or rumbling?
  2. Do I want to eat because I’m bored and enjoy eating, or do I have a physical desire to eat?
  3. What is the nature of true hunger for me? Some people feel hunger in the stomach, others feel it in the blood as sugar levels drop. Whatever you feel as “true hunger” for you is real. This is not about invalidating your feelings about what you need.
  4. Do I extract pleasure from the mere act of putting food in my mouth and swallowing it as opposed to the taste, smell and texture of food? Is my eating a compulsive act rather than an act of pleasure from food?
  5. Do I derive comfort from eating when I am emotional (either happy or upset)? Note that I don't suggest removing this type of comfort eating at this stage, but being aware of it, and trying to reduce the amount of food you eat during such emotional eating. You can't abandon all unhealthy habits simply because you recognize them. You have to slowly build coping mechanisms and mental barriers that will replace food when you are in distress.
  6. Do I eat all of some foods until there is no more left? If so, why don't I eat part of it and put the rest away for later?
  7. Do I eat food because I don't want to "waste" it? Is my health less valuable than some wasted food?
Everyone has different answers and there are no “wrong” or “bad” ones. It does help to explore your relationship with food to consider these issues. Whatever the answers are, don't feel bad about them, just understand them.

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