Stress Mastery : Nutrition - Use Behavior Modification Strategies to Change Your Eating Habits

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There are many useful tips for helping you to get control of your eating. Some of the following recommendations will no doubt be quite useful; others may not apply to you. Review these suggestions carefully and try out the ones that are relevant for you. The first category of suggestions involves tips for reducing your triggers for eating. This is about breaking the associations between eating and certain places or activities.
  • Eat in the kitchen or dining area only.

  • Do not eat while watching TV, reading, or studying. If you tend to get hungry while watching TV in a specific room, such as the family room, switch to watching in the bedroom if possible. Avoid watching TV commercials about food or snacks. Play with your remote control.

  • Avoid restaurants or snack shops where you are prone to indulge.

  • When at a restaurant, do not read the menu. Order from a plan you have prearranged.

  • Go to the grocery store after you have eaten, when you are no longer hungry.

Take steps to prevent yourself from caving in to the impulse to eat. Response prevention involves minimizing exposure to tempting food cues. Hunger can be triggered by external stimuli such as the sight of food. Overweight individuals seem more responsive than people of normal weight to external cues, such as the aroma or sight of food or the approach of the dinner hour. Normal-weight individuals are relatively more influenced by internal sensations, such as hunger pangs. The following response prevention tips may help:

  • Keep fattening foods out of your house. If you must have snack foods around, purchase those that have to be prepared as opposed to just popped into your mouth.

  • Prepare only as much food as you need.

  • Use a smaller plate. It will make your portion seem larger.

  • Do not starve yourself or skip meals. Avoid fasting all day and eating a big meal at night. This is a common eating pattern among people struggling with their weight. Skipping meals throws you into a deprivation state, which can trigger an impulse to overeat or binge.

  • Eat only when you are hungry. Attend to your appetite rather than the time of day or whether others around you are eating. Lean individuals sometimes eat a lot, but only when they are genuinely hungry. Heavy individuals tend to eat for the sake of eating, whether they are truly hungry or not.

  • Mentally rehearse your next visit to friends or relatives who usually try to stuff you. Visualize yourself politely but firmly refusing seconds or that fattening dessert.

Engage in competing responses. Do the following things instead of eating. Remember, you always have a choice in the matter.

  • When hungry, snack on celery, carrots, grapes, and other high-water-content foods rather than on sweets or chips.

  • Substitute fat-free snacks, such as fat-free potato chips. Take out a small helping and put it on a plate. Put the bag away before you begin eating.

  • Ride your bicycle or jog for half an hour instead of eating. It may just kill your appetite; if not, the exercise will help burn up the calories you may later consume.

  • Pick up the phone and call a friend. Go visit your neighbor. Play solitaire. Turn on your computer. Pick up a good book. It's amazing how hunger, especially hunger that is tied to boredom, vanishes once we are engaged in something interesting.

Learn how to feel satisfied with smaller amounts of food:

  • Eat slowly. We can't emphasize this enough. It takes about twenty minutes after the beginning of food intake for your blood sugar level to rise to the point where your hunger diminishes. This is a function of time, not how much you have consumed. Therefore, if you eat slowly and lightly, you will feel satisfied in about twenty minutes. Individuals who are overweight tend to eat very quickly.

  • Take small bites and chew your food thoroughly.

  • Put your utensils down between bites.

  • Take a five-minute break during your meal or talk a lot to your tablemates.

  • Start each meal with a filling low-calorie appetizer such as clear broth, celery sticks, or salad with olive oil and vinegar or lowfat dressing.

Build your desired habits through a process of successive approximations:

  • Set reasonable goals for yourself in terms of how much weight you want to lose and how quickly. Targeting an ambitiously low weight usually dooms dieters to eventual defeat. Do not try to lose more than one to two pounds weekly. It is much easier to maintain weight loss achieved slowly. When selecting a reasonable weight goal, you can use the standard height/weight charts, but your ideal weight also depends on how much muscle mass you have, because muscle weighs more than fat. Did you know that a pound of muscle takes up half the space of a pound of fat?

  • Decrease your daily caloric intake gradually—for example, by 100 calories each week, so that you will not feel deprived by a drastic change.

  • Allow yourself to have frequent low-calorie, healthy snacks (for example, fruits and other low-fat foods) as your dieting gets under way. Then gradually space them out and eliminate one or two. Research shows that we metabolize our food more efficiently when we eat several small meals as opposed to one or two big meals.

  • Eliminate high-fat foods from your diet one by one. Learn to substitute (for example, ground turkey in place of ground beef, or olive oil in place of salad dressing or butter).

  • Increase your exercise routine by a few minutes each week.

  • No matter what diet plan you choose to follow, give yourself one day off per week where you can eat more, but still stay within the guidelines for good eating. The reason for this is twofold. First, we are much more likely to binge or give up good eating if we are in a “deprivation state.” Scheduling a day off prevents our frustration levels from building to the binge point. Secondly, many dieters, once they have given in to temptation and break the diet (even slightly), feel that they have failed and often give up completely. If a day off is part of the plan, it will prevent you from giving up because you feel you have broken your diet.

  • Track your progress in ways that will not discourage you. Do not weigh yourself daily. Weigh in on a weekly or preferably monthly schedule. An alternative is to track your body circumference measurements every three to four weeks. Many times you will be losing inches (particularly if you are exercising and converting fat to muscle) but the scale won't change drastically. The bottom line is this: If you are fit and look good, it doesn't matter what the scale says.

If you are a woman, you no doubt feel the strong cultural pressure to be slim. Our society glamorizes unrealistic levels of thinness. For example, fashion modeling actually requires women to maintain weights at anorexic levels. No wonder eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, virtually unheard of fifty years ago when societal standards were more realistic, are so prevalent today. It is far healthier to accept oneself as slightly plump than to diet and binge, bear the health risks of fluctuating weight, and feel continually out of control and guilty.

Lastly, avoid rigidity in your diet plan. The worst diet, no matter how superficially healthy, is the one that you are continually worrying about. Chronic ruminating about what you do and do not eat creates so much stress that it can counteract the benefits of eating healthy. Don't make dealing with food a threatening ordeal. The key is moderation. Remember the three C's. Take on healthy eating as a challenge; commit yourself to change (but not to perfection); and you will experience increases in your sense of control over your weight, your health, and the stresses in your life. Maintaining good nutrition and staying physically active (see the next chapter for more detail on this) will provide the essential vitamins, nutrients, and energy necessary to manage stress effectively. It will also boost your immune functioning, which will greatly reduce your chances of developing debilitating illness or physical problems. This will help spare you from the stress of dealing with poor health.

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