Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Little epiphanies from my vacation

I'm always a little amused with myself, as I continue to live my healthier life.

I'm on vacation this week with my family, on a ski week in Utah.  As I have written about many times, I like active vacations that hold the promise of both activity and relaxation.  I suppose it is a little odd and obsessive that I need activity when I take a week off, lest I suddenly gain 53 pounds in seven days.  In truth, I could easily take the entire week off of exercise, and my world would continue to spin on its axis.  However, it's not only obsession that makes me appreciate an active vacation as I truly do love to run around for a whole host of reasons beyond the size of my midsection.  Among other things, I do believe that ski vacations are among the best ways to get truly quality time with my family.  There is nothing like being stuck on a ski lift to make a 14 year old daughter talk to her dorky dad.

But what about the food on vacation?

Our first day here, we went to a nice restaurant in Park City for lunch that had a pretty spectacular and fairly indulgent menu.  My first reaction was to pull on my body armor and get prepared to make the proper Calvinist self-denial choice.  My eyes quickly went to the "cold seafood sampler" consisting of very sea creatures untouched by heavy sauces, served with a cocktail sauce on the side.  Safe choice!  Meanwhile my family was debating between cheese burgers, quesadillas, and other seemingly less responsible routes.

At this moment, I had a sudden bolt of recognition:  I was being a complete downer. I'm at goal weight.  I've been good all January/February.  Really, was a cheeseburger going to be the end of me?  I remembered my advice to myself:  when you are going to splurge, make it matter.  This restaurant was a place where I could definitely get a lot of bang for my splurging buck.  I "boldly" changed my mind and ordered the cheeseburger.

I am a pretty cheeseburger.  You can love me.
Just don't love all of me.  
Let me be clear.  This particular cheeseburger was a sight to behold.  It was made with high grade beef, a Gucci bun and a side of thick cut fries coated in parmesan cheese.  I had chosen well, and I was glad that I was able to let go and act like a normal person on vacation.

Then something else interesting happened.  My normal course would have been to inhale the meal in about 73 seconds, and then spend the next four hours feeling like crud with a case of bad indigestion (not to mention holding myself in disregard).  Instead, I reminded myself that swallowing the burger whole would make me feel pretty nasty afterwards.  So I took my time, and I stopped eating at about the 60% complete mark (of both burger and fries).  I actually managed to not clean my plate.  On vacation no less.  This is no mean feat for yours truly.  

Afterwards, I felt great.  I got a great, indulgent meal that tasted unbelievably good.  I was also rewarded with not feeling physically ill afterwards.  Finally, I had ZERO remorse.

This little experiment is giving me a new idea on how to manage my clean plate club habit, which I would really like to shed.  There was a super interesting article in the NY Times magazine this week "How companies learn your secrets" , talking about how retailers use information to learn how to get their shoppers to change habits.  What caught my eye in this article, however, was a section on habit change.  It argued that one key to establishing a new habit is to create a new reward the follows a new routine so that your brain will be pleased when you follow a new habit pattern.

So here is my thinking on a new No-Clean-Plate-Club habit profile:

  1. Cue:  knowing that when I sit at a restaurant, I will be given a plate with too much food
  2. Routine:  go through a mental process where I try to imagine what it will feel like to over-eat and/or eat too quickly
  3. Reward:  thinking about how I will feel when I don't over-indulge
This is a little over-simplified, and I think I need to put some more meat on the bones (so to speak).  However, this little vacation lunch was a nice reminder that I can still live in the world, and not have to choose between crazed food binge and monk-like chastity.  With practice, I can continue to learn a middle way...



Friday, February 10, 2012

Size matters redux

Our brain is a funny device.  It holds a surprising sway over us, often in ways we cannot imagine.  I read with interest and curiosity a few weeks ago an article in the WSJ talking about the curious benefit of placebos (Why Placebos Work Wonders).  Sometimes when our brain thinks we are getting better or are satisfied, it instructs the rest of the body to follow suit.  It seems that when our mind plays tricks on us, those tricks can impact much more than what's bouncing around our noggins.  In the article, they referenced one particular study from the journal Health Psychology.  Here is the excerpt from the WSJ...

Another study, published last year in the journal Health Psychology, shows how mind-set can affect an individual's appetite and production of a gut peptide called ghrelin (GREL-in), which is involved in the feeling of satisfaction after eating. Ghrelin levels are supposed to rise when the body needs food and fall proportionally as calories are consumed, telling the brain the body is no longer hungry and doesn't need to search out more food. 
Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed. When told a milkshake they were about to drink had 620 calories and was "indulgent," the participants' ghrelin levels fell more—the brain perceived it was satisfied more quickly—than when they were told the shake had 120 calories and was "sensible. 
The results may offer a physiological explanation of why eating diet foods can feel so unsatisfying, says Ms. Crum, first author on the study. "That mind-set of dieting is telling the body you're not getting enough."
So there you have it.  This study suggests that if you think you are getting a lot of food, then it can instruct your hormones to pipe down and let you feel full.  If your brain thinks you are getting gipped, then it asks your hormones to scream for more.  There is clearly a bizarre circular logic being used by our neurological systems, but what I suppose it is what it is.

One example of how we can use this curious effect to our benefit is in the use of low energy density foods.  These are foods that have relatively few calories per cubic meter, often filled with water, air, fiber, etc.  It goes back to one of my personal rules of eating:  bulk up your food.  If I go back to my staple breakfast:

  • Regular oatmeal with blueberries and sliced banana
  • 0 fat Greek yogurt with grapes with a little Fiber One
By the time I'm done with these concoctions, they completely fill two pretty decent sized bowls.  It's enough food that my family looks at me slightly aghast by the quantity.  Yet these two bowls add up to about 6 PointsPlus per serving.  It's my little version of cheating the devil.  My brain clearly thinks I'm getting a decent amount of food because I'm not really hungry until lunch.  You might now ask the following question:  if this hypothesis is true, then why aren't I destroying this phenomena by asserting it?  In other words, the fact that I am acknowledging that I'm only eating 6 PointsPlus values should signal to my brain that I'm still hungry, yet this does not happen.  Why?  Simple.  My brain isn't very smart and/or is quite gullible.  

The above WSJ excerpt also reminds me of a Charles Barkley quip from the Leno show:  "You can't give a fat man a little meal and expect him to be happy."  Amen to that.  

Big food indeed...
There is more than a fair bit of research out there to suggest that visual cues can go a long way to convincing us that we are either being well fed or starved, regardless of actual calorie content.  Personally, I view this as a gift because it allows me to imagine strategies to mentally cheat (i.e., by bulking up my foods).  I'm perfectly happy to outsmart my dimwitted brain.  

This is also a good reminder for me of one of the cardinal rules for sustainable, healthy eating:  don't go through life deprived!  I've never met a person on Weight Watchers who didn't love food.  I've also never meet a person on Weight Watchers who has kept their weight off for a long time who still doesn't love food.  The trick is to love food that loves you back.