Monday, August 1, 2011

Fitness over food. Doing stuff vs. not doing stuff.

New trip, same story (but perhaps a new insight)...

I returned home on Thursday night after a week long trip to China.  2011 has proven to be a tough travel year with (so far) three Asia trips, multiple Europe trips and I don't know-how-many domestic trips under my belt.  I feel like every time I get back from a trip, I say the same thing:  "I was good about exercise, but not always so good about food choices."  How did this trip compare?  Remarkably similar!  It's almost as though there is a pattern at play here!  I'm feeling like quite the detective.

So how did it go?

On the exercise front...

Bless me, I'm disciplined!  I almost wrenched my arm cleanly out of its socket patting myself on the back after all my exercise this past week.  I arrived in China on Monday night after a 15 hour flight.  I somehow managed to get some (maybe four hours) sleep, and I was ready to roll the second the gym opened at 6 AM.  I lifted weights for an hour and then headed over the exercise bike for 30 minutes of additional cardio.  I did the same thing on Wednesday morning.  By Thursday morning, I had already finished my four day weight split for the week, so I was in cardio-only mode.  I cranked in another 45 minutes of reasonably intense action on the bike.  I arrived back home Thursday night, and I was back in the gym again for more cardio on Friday morning.  I even made myself workout again on Sunday even though I was feeling kind of sick.  It was truly a display of sheer willpower.

Or was it?  In truth, I was waking up on my own in China around 3 to 4 AM each day due to heinous internal clock issues.  What else was I going to do at 6 AM?  I had already done a ton of work, email, calls from my room, and I didn't feel like watching yet more CNN.  It was easy to make the decision to jam in a workout because simply stated, that's just what I do these days.  It's pretty automatic.

On the food front...   

Typically spotty food behavior reigned once again.  I tried to be good at the breakfast buffet and choose healthy stuff (on balance, I may have had a bit too much healthy stuff).  I was pretty solid on my choices during the day because I was too busy to be bad.  Dinners degraded a little bit, but I guess they could have been worse.  However, what's up with the Budweiser & Snickers mini-bar routine right before bed time?  Very NASCAR of me.

Some other lucky person's airplane meal.
Is this worthy of Clean Plate club status?
Airplanes are, as always, a completely different and altogether worse story.  The only way to get to Shanghai from JFK non-stop is via China Eastern.  It's a relatively newer airline that was spun off of the Chinese national airline.  I give them credit for flying a fairly new aircraft on their NY route, so the seats aren't bad.  I cannot, however, give them much credit yet for the quality of their cuisine.  The food wasn't still moving when I ate it, but it was several thousand miles away from being haute cuisine.  Yet I ate it all.  Everything.  Every crumb.  Pieces of the serving tray.

Therein lies the story of my life.  Mindless grazing after meals and gorging on aircraft.  How many times have I decried my own inadequacies in these situations with bold promises to fix them?  Right now, my best solution is to never fly again and to eliminate all snack food from existence.  This would obviously be a great plan except for its divergence from reality -- unless I flee society and open up a small shack somewhere in the mountains of Montana.

All of this got me thinking?  Why so good about exercise and yet still so stumped about food?

My latest theory!  I'm wired to do stuff.  I have a hard time not doing stuff.  Huh?  It's easy for me to get a spark of motivation or a whiff of impulse to jump off the couch and go do some exercise.  I've got lots of nervous energy, so this feels like the most natural action in the world.  Exercise and I were made for each other.  True love!

I have a much more complicated relationship with food.  If it is on a well-worn habit tread, like breakfast or lunch, I can nicely make the proactive decision to order up something healthy.  A good breakfast is no longer a decision, it's merely something I do by habit.  However, not snacking requires not doing something.  Not eating wholly unappealing food on an airplane requires saying "no thank you!" and then watching someone else eat it.  It requires not doing something.  As I said, I have a lot of nervous energy, so not doing something does not come naturally.

I guess I am the human embodiment of entropy.  This works well for exercise but not so well for food restraint.

This got me thinking even more.  What if not doing something, like mindless eating, could be reframed into doing something?  How can I make the act of not acting on a food impulse an actual action?  I'm starting to wonder if I should identify these not-so-healthy habits and create some kind of tracking mechanism that allows me to get credit for not falling prey to them.  I'm not sure how this is going to work, but I'm going to give it a try.

Does anyone else relate to this, and if so, what's worked for you?




  1. I've only done one very long trip from San Diego to Tokyo and back. My daughter and I vow never to do it again. It added up to almost 24 hours in airplanes. Ugh. I have to hand it to you for doing those long trips regularly. The sad truth is that flying is BORING and getting to eat is at least something to do even if the food is nasty. In Tokyo we had no trouble finding healthy food choices. Airplanes -- not so much. :(

  2. It makes sense that if you usually eat all the food on the airplane, you're likely to do it again. In my life, I've noticed that if I've done something once, there's a high chance I'll do it again. Twice? even higher chance. But it works both ways - if you can manage not to eat the airplane food just once, you'll find it easier to do it again. Good luck!

  3. The last time I flew, granted it wasn't around the world, I packed food in my carry-on; fruit, sandwiches and baked chips.

    I don't think they actually served a meal on the airplane, but in any event, I wasn't at the mercy of the fast food places or the junk food places in the airport. It took some planning (want to say I wrapped a roll from dinner the night before into a napkin and stuck it in my purse) but it was doable.

  4. Thatyana BensoussanAugust 2, 2011 at 12:47 AM

    Thank you for sharing. It's nice to read your story and know that food is a struggle that many of us face, and that it doesn't just go away. We are a work in progress! Congrats!

  5. Hi David,

    I agree that doing something is much easier than not doing something.

    I've recently returned from 2 weeks in Paris. Those flights ( to and from JFK ) are only 7 hours going and 8.5 hours returning, so they're not as daunting as those endless hauls to Asia. But they're still challenging in terms of coping with irrational eating. I tried to recast resisting ( not doing ) the truly lousy food ( XL Airways ) as an achievable goal ( doing something ), something I could check off on my To Do list. So not eating junk became 3 active tasks: 1) Bring healthy snacks ( that became overpriced carrot sticks and green apples, purchased at the deli near the boarding gate because they wouldn't let me bring my prepared edaname beans through security ); 2) Eat Clean, which meant just eating the clean parts of the meal service ( just the protein and the vegetables ); and 3) Stay out of the Kitchen, which translated to not wandering to the galley for additional bags of peanuts, pretzels etc.

    It worked on the outbound flight. I think 2 key points in my favor, were that I arrived at the airport very full from a large ( and Points-friendly meal ) and that there were no significant delays or other problems with my travel. On the return I was informed that the flight was delayed 7 hours when I checked in - immediately triggering certain emotions ( anger, anxiety, frustration ) that I have historically anesthetized by eating certain foods ( junk, junk, and junk ). The 3 To Do list tasks were forgotten.

    I guess the moral of the story is that reframing CAN work, but that it's a fragile construct. The slightest hitch in travel plans
    were enough to wash away my good intentions.

    Flying is so unpleasant, even under the best of circumstances, that for me the more effective approach is to do what I can to limit the appeal of lousy foods before I arrive at the airport. This means planning ahead: by having extra Points available for in-flight emotional eating, by eating a full meal before arriving at the airport, and also by extra-intense exercising before getting to the airport - this last being helpful because for me, exercise re-calibrates my appetite and reduces anxiety.

    There's one other solution: taking a sleeping pill. That's been the single most effective way of resisting bad food - sleeping through the meal service. But those pills create new problems, at least for me: I'm typically so groggy that when I land I'm useless, and that means the chances of getting to the gym on Day One in Paris, or wherever, are just about nil.

    Thanks for the great post David. I think eating sanely en-route is still a work in progress for many of us.

  6. As a special education professional for 17 years it is a known maxim of behavioral intervention: all behaviors in a person's repertoire serve a purpose, have a function. You cannot eliminate the behavior effectively if you leave the need it satisfies unmet. Undesirable behaviors are not eliminated, only replaced with more desirable versions that meet the need. The only other way is complete environmental control... Aka penitentiary lifestyle. Food, nicotine, etc are VERY hard to replace with something that can compete effectively.

  7. Tahiya: I love the way you articulated this!!! Makes perfect sense!

  8. When you are on a plane you are at your most vulnerable. Long flight short don't matter. All I can say is my plan for planes is request special meals like vegetarian or allergen friendly (aka dairy or gluten free). Even a kosher or kids meal is better that the regular trays. Not to mention I bring my own power foods (fruit and veggies) to keep me from going a bit frantic.

  9. I found this post very interesting because I feel I'm the opposite! If I had my way, I'd spent all my time sitting on my bum. It's much easier for me to eat well because it involves NOT eating something, whereas it's more difficult for me to exercise because it involves me DOING something. I think this has a lot to do with the differences in our personalities. Thank you for pointing it out. It's something to be mindful of.

  10. I just have to say I think Tahiya's comments are probably the most concise definition of Reframing I've ever heard.

    So often, I think we assume that to overcome a counterproductive behavior, we have to embrace the behavior's opposite. If the issue is 'eating on a plane', then clearly the answer is 'not eating on a plane', right? I think this is indicative of the black/white, good/bad, on/off dichotomy that typifies a diet mentality. It's sometimes so hard to find the balance point. I think it's the strength of our program (by which I mean ALL elements - Tools for Living, Helpful Habits, etc. - not just the flexibility of the food plan) that allows us to have room for these moments of enlightenment and personal development.

    I hope next time you're in a meeting room, you claim a Bravo for this!

  11. I've also been traveling a lot this year and my conclusion in this process (especially when I would find myself eating horrible airplane food) is that I needed to stop myself and recognize that I am not really hungry. I wasn't. There was only one incident where I hadn't eaten anything for 9 hours where I could legitimately say that eating airplane food was then a consequence of hunger.

    I think too, the problem that I am discovering is that I am eating food (snacks that I wouldn't eat at home) because I need the energy to be "on" for work (most of these trips were work related).

    By asking myself if I was really hungry or if I was tired, bored, feeling lonely, feeling overwhelmed, I was able to stop some of the excess snacking and overeating.

    But it's a process, isn't it?

  12. To avoid airplane eating disasters on short flights, I 'just say no' to the snack bags (processed crackers, sugary peanuts) and bring my own: granola bar, dark chocolate, fruit - easy things that are tasty, but not to the point of driving me to mindlessly munch. I stick with fresh bubbly water to stay hydrated and low on cravings. I haven't done international travel in years, but I do remember ordering the veggie meal gives a WAY superior plate of food.

  13. What I do on long and short flights is always to bring my food with me. I buy a subway sandwich and maybe a bag of pretzels, and I always take some fruit like an apple.

    That way when everybody eats, I take out my lunch.

  14. I think you'll be more successful by phrasing it around what you WANT to do, not what not to do.  Maybe something like: "I will order the veggie plate and take enough healthy snacks to substitute for each of those high point landmines offered by the airline." 

    Our brains just don't process the negative versions right. For example, what comes to mind if I say, "Don't think of a pink elephant?" A pink elephant, of course!  Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes around a two year old knows the futility of "no" or "don't."  ;-)

    There's a great little book on this phenomenon and how to rephrase how you speak. It's called Dropping the Pink Elephant by Bill McFarlan.