Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can't fight the burger and fries lust. Better to avoid the fight in the first place.

I continue to be fascinated by my recent readings from behavioral economists (Thaler, Wansink, and Lowenstein) around the topic of the unbeatable force of the environment.  Every time I see myself failing, it is in the context of a lustful bought of food love.  The concept of a "Hot State" (Lowenstein) is something I wrote about a couple of months ago.  In such a state, one finds oneself overtaken by a gripping frenzy in which no food can be saved.  I sometimes mock my dog, Gabby, who goes through a similar process every time she eats.  See my post from April 2009 to watch a music video of her in action:


As I noted then, I'm no better than she is when I find myself in the grip of the food frenzy.  There is no doubt that there are particular trigger foods that bring out the frenzy in a way that makes me feel like I can relate to meth addicts (this simile inspired by one of my fav shows, Breaking Bad, which is back on the air).

Last week, my youngest daughter was in town for a week between sleep-away camp sessions.  We were doting on her with reckless abandon, and we had her in town to see some live music (Gomez).  Her only request pre-entertainment was to go for a proper burger, so we headed off to a place called 5 Napkin Burger, just off of Time Square.  5 Napkin is not a place for PointsPlus lovers.  All burgers clock in at 10 ounces, and something tells me that they are not shy about marbling their meat with fat.  What's a man-on-maintenance to do?  Lighten up, be a good sport, and make my perfect little girl happy on her night out in the town.
The original 5 Napking burger:  not for the faint of heart,
but definitely able to cause the heart to become faint

I put my program-related reservations about restaurant choice to the side, fired up a beer and placed my order.  I tried to tell myself that I wasn't being completely debauched by ordering the "Burger Salad" and the sweet-potato fies.  I knew perfectly well that the dressing on the salad was worth at least as many PointsPlus values as the bun that they replaced.  I also knew that the fried sweet potatoes were not really that much better, if at all, than their yellow Idaho counterparts.  I was happy to bask in my delusions of health and pretend that I was being kind of responsible.

After the meal, I made it a point to think about how my brain felt while I was eating.  The answer was that it was locked in a temporarily state that prevented me from recognizing any external stimuli not emanating from the food in front of me.  Conversation and external noise disappeared from my consciousness.    I felt like a Major League pitcher blocking out distractions while standing on the mound.  My fork, knife and fork did not finish their furious dance until there was not even a tiny scrap of food remaining.  I blew through it just as fast as my dog would blow through a bowl of her food.

I finished my meal with the slightly remorseful feeling of having gone through another food bender.  I was irritated with myself for losing control and not pacing myself.  I was again slightly frustrated that I could not remember to not finish everything in front of me and save a little for the restaurant trash can.  I was bluntly forced to reckon with the fact that I didn't have the will power to master my situation.  I put it all in the back of my mind and went about the rest of the night and had a good time.  However, I wanted to make a note for myself to try to find the object lesson.

So what is the lesson?  The lesson is that yet again, my belief in my willpower is my undoing.  It's hard to fight the hot state.  At least in my case it wasn't a hot state causing me to send an inappropriate text message (is sending a picture of a naked burger -- no bun -- inappropriate?).  Nonetheless, I don't particularly like falling prey to the feeling of being slightly out of control.  

In contrast, I was at a business dinner last week in Minnesota.  I found myself talking quite a bit, as one does at these dinners.  I ordered on-plan food, and I clearly had more on my mind than just eating.  Lo and behold  at the end of dinner I hadn't finished my entre.  My mind never got into food vapor lock.  Same basic environment, but a totally different outcome.

What are the lessons for me?

  1. Be focused on something other than eating.  Examples might include socially-oriented activities such as taking an interest in the people around me.  Engaging in conversation while eating seems to work well rather than pretending the food on my dish is slop in a trough.  
  2. Know that certain foods will always bring out the worst in me.  Saying I'm only going to eat half my fries just doesn't work for me.  Better to not order them in the first place.  
The biggest lesson for me is that the kind of willpower necessary to be healthy is in being willing to plan and create an environment that reduces temptation for falling to food lust.  Better to focus my energies on avoiding hot states than to try to fight them once they set in.  It's kind of like avoiding the riptide instead of trying to swim against it.  




  1. Having had a 5 napkin burger myself I can attest that there is no resisting it! It has to be about a gazillion pointsplus but it is one of the best burgers I've ever had in my life! Don't be to hard on yourself. I can't help but suck it down either. Thank goodness I only eat there once in a very, very blue moon!

  2. FWIW Dave, when I need to indulge a craving, like, for fries and burger, I immediately take half of both and either put them directly in the trashcan, or smother them in something that will make then inedible. I went out for breakfast a few months ago and poured half and half, a few sugar packets and a whole bunch of salt on most of my home fries. I wanted more, but couldn't. Oh...and everybody needs to go of off plan once and a while. It's what you do next that counts :)

  3. It was very unkind of you to also post a picture of said indulgent burger. Meanie!

    And, because I am a wordsmith, I wanted to point out the proper spelling/use of the phrase "faint of heart" in the caption below the burger pic. This is only to get back at you for posting that picture when I am hungry.

    I'll quote from Common Errors in English Usage:
    "A feint, whether in chess or on the battlefield, is a maneuver designed to divert the opponent’s attention from the real center of attack. A feint is a daring move. Do not use this very specialized word in the expression “faint of heart” (or “faint at heart”), which implies timidity.

  4. First of all, Gabby is adorable wolfing down her food. Secondly, I sometimes find myself in places I would not choose because I asked my daughter to pick a place. There are only a few places that I can't find something that's okay for me to eat. Your burger place might be one of those. :)

  5. I feel like 5 Napkin Burger is one of those places you just can't order a salad. I went and let myself have the "5 Napkin Burger" about a month ago. No fries (salad instead)--that was my compromise. I couldn't finish the whole thing, but what I ate was fantastic. I walked out of there calling it 20 pointsplus and moved on. Certain foods are worth it. It was definitely one of the best burgers I've had in a long time. That's something WW has made me realize. If it's not THE BEST "insert guilty pleasure here" I don't want it. I would rather have one really amazing burger that I have dreamed of than a crappy McDonald's Big Mac on a whim.

  6. Hi David,

    It's uncanny how appropriate this post is for me. Five Napkin has been the scene of many Waterloos for me - it's a popular between-show destination for my colleagues and myself and I know the Dance of the Half of My Fries intimately. I am writing this from Paris which is like an entire city of Five Napkins in terms of the hot spot factor - it's relentless.

    I'm trying to take Wansink's ( and your ) advice and put my efforts towards controlling the enviornments I enter into in the first place, and the main one I can control in Paris is my apartment - there is nothing to eat here. Just a healthy supply of Badoit. So, when I come home at night, after a full day and evening of hot spots, I know that at least I will not eat until the next day - so that's 9-10 hours of safety. Once I'm back on the streets of Paris, I'm back in Five Napkin Land and as Wansink notes, the battle is over before it's begun.

    Thank you David, once again, for the healthy dose of solidarity, not to mention practicality, of your blog. It's just great.

  7. Love your post, have had these experiences but never analyzed and learned in the way you shared. Thank you!

  8. I just watched the video of your dog, felt pity on the poor thing that some mean human had left a big red obstacle in her bowl, and then, when I realized it was there on purpose, tried to figure out what I could use for the same purpose. Like you, I can have normal healthy meals, and at other times the world disapears as I am blinded by the glory on my plate, which I feel compelled to hoover in to my mouth like it was only going to be available for 7 seconds (please refer to Audrey's food nightmare from National Lampoon's European Vacation for a visual). Add to that I now have two small children, and my meal times have gotten significantly shorter. I no longer have time for self control. I have to retrain myself again. Do you think I will look silly with a chew toy on my plate? lol

  9. "Feint of heart" should be "faint of heart".

  10. So I kinda have a question...when did WW turn into Alcohol Anonymous. I feel like especially with the topic this week that all they talked about is alcohol. Aren't you supposed to limit alcohol?

  11. I can relate to not putting oneself in certain situations but sometimes it's unavoidable. My sons birthday was yesterday and I inhaled two pieces of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate ice cream :-) Chocolate cake or any cake is a major weekness of mine not to mention the homemade ice cream - It felt like I couldn't eat it fast enough. Yet a week ago I was on vacation with my family and I lost weight :-) As frustrating as those moments can be no one is perfect and as long as we move forward in a positive direction it's all good :-) Great blog!

  12. Mary in BirminghamJuly 27, 2011 at 11:17 AM

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