Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Indulge. Sometimes. Don't Go Nuts

"Last week you told me to just eat the thing..." She blinked. Last time we had talked Melinda had been obsessing over the little bag of M+M's in her pantry for a week.
"Just eat the thing and get it over with." I had advised. This week as we sat at our once weekly post run yogurt fitness workshop I cautioned that "studies show giving in to cravings actually makes them stronger and more frequent." ( Among others).
So which one Was it? More confusing eat-carbs-don't-eat-carbs-only-eat-foods-that-begin-with-the-letter-R type of advice. The kind certain TV doctors indulge in all the time. Eat this don't eat that but we'll switch that around a week from now and in the end you won't know what you can safely eat and feel a little better off for just throwing up your hands and ordering a complete meal from the drive through menu. If the nutrition's bad and it makes you fat at LEAST it was a good deal.
So which was it? The story goes that feelings of deprivation lead to binge eating. But studies show that indulging cravings just makes the cravings more frequent. So here the theory:

Every time you do something habitual, you lay down neural pathways that you then have to alter if you want to break the pattern. This is especially hard if the habit involves something as important as food, because of the happy hormones food produces - seratonin and all its happy pals. SO if you're in the habit, say of eating dessert, or adding lots of sugar to your coffee or having yogurt with your favorite fitness guru every Tuesday night you'll start to feel deprived if you don't. Your brain will miss it. It's not just you - it's certainly not your weak will or lack of self control. It's not your inability to hold yourself accountable or your lack of self discipline. It has, I guarantee nothing to do with whether you are hard working enough or serious enough or whatever.

It is merely your brain functioning quite the way brains are supposed to function: we are as alive now as we always have been. Therefore whatever we've always done seems to be working just fine. Food related neural pathways are your brain's way of saying, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

If you are overweight, clearly something IS broke and you Should fix it. It's your prefrontal cortex - your conscious humanny self (the bit of your brain that has advanced not-for-monkey thoughts) that looks in the mirror or reads the scale and realizes that culture, socialization, upbringing, TV advertising, that devil known as convenience food WHATever has got your neural pathways headed in the wrong direction.

So the question is, if abstinence causes binges and obsessive food thoughts and indulgence reinforces bad neural pathways WHAT do you do about cravings?

Indulge. But don't go nuts.

In other words: all things in moderation. So here's the magic formula:

1) Sometimes cravings are just impulses. I go into a 7-11 and literally everything is begging to be devoured. EAT everything. I feel a little like Alice in wonderland. These are things you can wait out. Give them 10 minutes. You'll probably forget what they were.
2) Resist cravings whenever you can. Maybe you can get your mind off them by doing something that really engages your brain word puzzles, a mystery novel, even scrubbing out the kitchen sink. Sometimes. That doesn't work. So rather than obsess over the thing until you end up eating 15 of them, just eat the thing. Don't beat yourself up. Just go for a walk and burn off some of the calories. Trade out tonight's steak dinner for chicken. Say no to that second glass of wine.
3) Resist cravings whenever you can, but still eat the foods you crave sometimes. Just don't eat them as a response to the craving. My worst cravings are usually for sweets and I eat sweets on a fairly regular basis, but I try not to reward every "EAT SWEETS NOW" impulse with the corresponding food. Sometimes I even try to satisfy a craving with something different - a pickle, some popcorn, a cup of coffee. It usually works, and I can successfully avoid building hard to undo goat trails through my gray matter.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


1) Of course running is uncomfortable. All exercise is uncomfortable. Anything you do after you get off the couch is uncomfortable. If you're going to get up for a beer you might as well go for a run while you're at it.

2) Don't beat yourself up when you make a mistake. Enjoy your meal. Put down the fork. Pat your tummy and decide what you're going to do about it now.

3) Don't go nuts.
Yeah, gramma says, "all things in moderation." And she's totally right. Eat whatever you want. Just not everything you want, all the time. Have dessert sometimes. Just don't go nuts. The same even applies to salad. If you ate enough of that, it'd make you sick. Annnd-deh all those B vitamins would make you weirdly.... Happy... Like some kind of... Fitness guru or something.

4) Secret to earthly health and happiness: Eat lots of leaves and run around.
Studies show that the B vitamins in folates- leafy greens - are essential in treating and preventing chronic depression. Studies also show that regular exercise is MORE effective in treating depression than paxil. Soooo: secret to earthly happiness: you got it! Eat lots of leaves and run around.

5) You get what you expect.
Turns out this isn't just a fitness/ lifecoach guruey theory. It's the real deal. Your brain patterns/ neural pathways actually form based on what you're telling yourself. So all those times when you were in 4th grade and you told yourself over and over that 4X4 was 16? You betcha, you learned that it IS in fact 16. All those times you tell yourself you can't lose weight? You'll never be a size 8? You can't... You don't... You betcha, your brain learns THAT'S true too. And THEN there's NO stopping it from creating what it knows to be a predetermined fact.

6) This is supposed to be NON-conversational
Yes. You've probably heard that doing something is better than doing nothing. My whole journey of 130 pounds started with just doing something. So definitely do SOMEthing. And as long as it works, keep doing it. BUT when it stops working and you wonder what you have to do? Well, non-conversational is kind of the next step. In running we talk about a singing pace - a pace that is so slow you are not exerted and could even sing - and conversational - a pace that is hard enough you can only talk. Speed runs and races though, are usually done at non-conversational pace - a pace so high you can barely say a word. And yeah. If you really want to keep making progress, you'll be conversational most of the time - exerting yourself hard enough that you could hold a conversation but not sing, and non-conversational once or twice a week.

7) I know, right?
I KNOW. The best advice I ever got when I went into business for myself was from my house mate. "Know what you know.". She said. "I just had to tell you that." And thank God she did. To me it means, stand by what you know, own what you believe, and be aware of what you DON'T know, too. So no, when someone says, "Boy, you sure are smart." I never pretend I'm surprised to hear it. When clients and friends and strange men at bus stops tell me I have great legs I never exclaim, "Golly gee, really?" I just say, "I know, right? I work ma' dang butt off for these gams. But the good news is, anyone can have these legs, all you've got to do is catch 'em."

8) HA! All for fun and fun for all
OK. I laugh like crazy. And take other people with me. It's good for the soul. Oh. Yeah. And studies show that if you enjoy what you do, love your sport, or game or whatever, you'll be more motivated to keep with it. AND more motivated to get back to it after that inevitable lapse.

9) RICE - Rest Ice Compression Elevation.
Yes. You have to take care of yourself if you are going to do exercise. If something hurts, you can't just ignore it. You have to take care of it. Otherwise you'll be out for weeks. Months. Ever. One of my clients told me he'd quit coming to the gym for 6 months because of an injury. I almost shot my muscle milk through my nose when he said it was because of an adductor injury. "Did you ice it?" I asked. His answer was the same as mine had been the first time someone had asked me that. "Who wants to sit on a block of ice?" "Anyone who wants to get better without taking 6 months off.". OK I'm to *#@! Helpful to say that last bit, but it's true. RICE - rest ice compression elevation is not only an essential step in your long term success as a weight manager, metaphore for self care in general. Whether physical or emotional pain needs to be treated. Sometimes it's rest ice (or in the case of emotional pain perhaps self soothing in the form of a nice run or a cup of tea) compression (emotional translation: help from your friends and family), elevation (ditto) and sometimes you even need a professional. Whatever the case, a little RICE can prevent a lot of LAPSE or even RELAPSE. Or worse.

10) I'm SO Freakin proud of YOU!
Yeah. I say it a lot. I get excited about people's progress. I know first hand the kind of effort they put in, and the determination it takes to accomplish their goals, so I get ... Excited. And people need to KNOW that. Great tip: if you are the friend or relative of anyone who struggles with anything do these 2 things if nothing else: take whatever you're feeling - whether it be excitement, worry, jealousy or pride in your role in their achievement - and turn it into sheer unadulterated admiration for that person and what they, on their very own, have been able to achieve. Maybe you don't know what a big deal this is for them, but there are some people for whom "I got off the couch today." Is a big deal. And if you see it that way too, you can help them be motivated to do more. And more. And more. And then "got off the couch." Becomes "went for a walk." Becomes "ran a marathon." Which nobody can help but have a little admiration for.

You can't always make everything good as new but you can always make everything good