By L. Raynes, MS, RDN, CDE
In our hectic world, if it’s four o’clock and you are only just beginning to think about dinner, it probably feels like you are massively behind. It is usually poor planning skills rather than a lack of motivation or effort that will sabotage your healthy habits, which means that getting ahead is the secret to achieving success. So how can you do it? Believe it or not, this challenge isn’t as overwhelming as you might think.
It’s usually a good idea to start by determining what exactly is interfering with your plans to eat in a more healthful manner. If it is indeed a lack of forethought, start planning before the week even begins. If that sounds completely impossible, take your ahead-of-schedule organization one day at time — think about tomorrow the evening beforehand. Make an appointment with an ice-cold glass of sparkling water in a quiet area of your home, and take note of what tomorrow holds for you and your family. Think about the timeframes you have, the meals that will work within them, and prep food ahead of time when you can. Split at-home duties among all members of the household to limit the time lost to meal-making. If grilled prawns, zucchini, and salad are on the menu, consider giving your children the task of making the salad, while one parent grills and the other prepares the prawns and slices the vegetables (or do so in advance).
But food prep and planning aren’t the only elements you need to concern yourself with. It’s also important to focus on what you want as well as what you intend to accomplish with your improved eating habits, then plan what steps you need to take to get there. Know that you do have the power to change your life, your eating habits, and your body image, provided that you first identify what is blocking success. Most interferences have a habit of reoccurring, so being proactive and identifying the problem will help you plan more effectively for the future.
No test is more challenging than the workplace. Despite our best efforts, this is where we are likely to spend the majority of our time. When we’re on the job we often find ourselves facing food-prompting external cues that are reinforced by daily habits. Breaks, for example, are commonly associated with food. Your 10-o’clock coffee may be accompanied by a donut or bagel, while the mere sight of the clock reaching 12 (and that overwhelming need to escape the boredom of your current tasks) can set your stomach growling. Or perhaps your cue is scent-related rather than visual. Your coworker in the next cubicle may have opened a delicious-smelling lunch, or perhaps another colleague has walked by with a fast-food treat that’s left a tempting smell lingering in the air. Regardless of the exact source, these external triggers can leave you hungry and ready to give in to temptation — which means your next action is often automatic. Boredom and frustration can already increase your urge to engage in inappropriate eating, but when you combine those factors with your new, emotionally charged state, you may be overcome by a desire to eat, which has absolutely nothing to do with actual, physical hunger. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance you alter the options that are available to you, so that you can build the appropriate cues to control and monitor your food-related behaviours. The good news is habits are changeable because they are essentially learned behaviours.
This concept is not a new one — it was demonstrated most famously by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. At the turn of the century, he conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a ringing bell, as they had learned that the sound of the bell was always followed by food. Though we are not dogs, of course, we can still draw on Pavlov’s example and use a learned response to create new habits and also identify the current habits that are most detrimental to our goals. Conditioned responses can be unlearned.
The first step is to start off on the right foot and begin each day with a healthy and filling breakfast. Include a good source of protein, which will help you resist the urge to indulge in a mid-morning coffee break with those pesky, pound-inducing donuts and bagels. Try a smoothie made with beets, apple, and cinnamon or, if you’re feeling less adventurous, serve yourself a combination of low-fat cottage cheese, egg whites, plain yogurt, a glass of nonfat milk, and some good old-fashioned oatmeal. And if you can’t part with your morning bread fix, try to at least trade in your bagels for toast, topped with a high-protein pick like non-fat cream cheese, peanut butter, or wheat germ. One bagel can easily add an additional 350 calories to your otherwise skinny breakfast — and that’s not even counting the cream cheese!
Ultimately, developing healthy eating habits requires you to understand the fundamentals of good nutrition. Sustainable good health hinges on understanding food composition and the body’s use of the foods that you are ingesting. Learn about what you’re eating, plan ahead, and work on carving out that path to success — you know you’re worth it.