Depletion of Will Power

A great deal of my reading, both professionally and personally is in the area of ethics. Ethics is often described as “The study of ‘How should I live?’” It delves into issues of honesty, propriety, temptation, etc. It is fun when this interest sheds light on my own struggles with weight and food temptation. Don’t be surprised, because if it is unhealthy and harmful to eat to excess, then isn’t doing so unethical? If I should eat in moderation, then eating immoderately is to behave unethically.

One book I’ve been reading is Dan Ariely’s “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: Why we lie to everyone—especially ourselves.” It’s a fascinating look at honesty and the things that trip up our efforts to live as we believe we should. In a chapter I read this morning, Dan discusses Cognitive Depletion and its effect on temptation. It can be quite enlightening for those of us struggling with dietary temptations.

Just as a muscle can be worn out through use, our will power can be worn out through activity. We live stressful, tempting lives. All through our day we face temptations and make decisions. We exercise our will to overcome these temptations. Funny thing is we do this with all sorts of activities, not just our diet. We face decisions at work. Often there is a temptation to cut corners and we have to will ourselves to resist. We might face decisions on the road home and have to resist the temptation to react to other drivers. With each use of our will power ‘muscle’ it becomes depleted and by the end of the day we may find ourselves without the strength to overcome the next temptation. Often this “bridge too far” temptation is dietary. We know we shouldn’t have it. We know we will do better without it. We know we are healthier without it. However, we quickly find ourselves giving in to temptation and eating what we should not.

How can we overcome this? There are a couple ways. If you can manage your day to have the most stressful events in the morning or right after breaks when you are refreshed, this might help. But let’s be honest, if stress could so easily be managed we wouldn’t really be stressed, now would we? A better way is to be aware of what is going on. Be aware that after stressful times temptations take on new dimensions and what was once easy to overcome becomes harder. Prepare for this beforehand. For example, you can empty the tempting foods out of your house. Remove the sweets, the chocolates and the ice cream. Don’t keep them around to tempt. Perhaps you should remove the Pizza place’s magnet from your refrigerator door so you don’t get tempted to just dial up a large with everything—including double guilt. Keep a selection of healthy options quickly available so the choice is made beforehand. If you find it difficult to pass by a certain restaurant then on stressful days you may need to drive home a different way.

One of the best defenses is being able to recognize a problem coming on. Highly stressful days with lots of choices can deplete your ability to make good decisions. Be prepared. The good thing, also like a muscle, as you overcome temptations and get used to eating healthy it can become easier to make those good choices over time. However, it is unlikely you will ever be beyond the siren call of certain foods and free of any and every temptation. So make a plan and keep an eye out on those really stressful days.

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Emotional Eating

Before I started this journey, my doctor recommended meds to encourage weight loss. I have always been one who disliked being dependent on anything, especially something that come from a pill bottle that will almost always have unwanted side effects. Because of this, I asked him, “What does the medicine do?” He said it would reduce my appetite to help me be less hungry, reducing the amount eaten and lowering weight. I pointed out that I knew myself well enough to realize that my problem wasn’t eating when hungry. My problem was eating when not hungry. Even when starting a meal because of hunger, I seldom stopped when no longer hungry. I asked, “What will the medicine do for this eating problem?” He responded that it would be useless and that the only thing to help me would understanding why I was eating. This is why I declined the meds and eventually found a way to lose weight naturally. Many people use food, not to assuage hunger, but to soothe their emotions, or to cover other needs.

Recently I’ve been reading Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. The book has been very informative and I have put several things to practice. The author shares some guidance on emotional eating from the book Think Thin, Be Thin. Many of us think we are hungry, when we actually have some emotion inspiring us to eat. Many find it hard to tell the difference. The following list (from the book) shows information on each and offers a way to know if hunger or emotion is driving you to eat:

Physical Hunger Emotional Hunger
Builds gradually Develops Suddenly
Strikes below the neck (e.g., growling stomach) Above the neck (e.g., a “taste” for ice cream)
Occurs several hours after a meal Unrelated to time
Goes away when full Persists despite fullness
Eating leads to a feeling of satisfaction Eating leads to guilt and shame

Eating is supposed to nourish the body and encourage health. It cannot medicate other problems and should not be used as a poultice applied to every hurt feeling or every bad mood.

Battle of the Buffet

Last night my wife and I went to a restaurant we have frequented for years. Raising kids on a limited pastoral salary meant learning to economize. One way to do this was to eat at buffets like Country Buffet or Golden Corral. This gave everyone a wide selection of their favorites and we could be sure everyone would get plenty.

A problem though is the difficulty with overeating. Being on a weight loss and health journey, meant either not going, or finding tools and techniques to help. In the past I have worked hard to only eat what was allowed and quantities that were appropriate. Avoiding carbs was always pretty easy. However, it was not uncommon to find at the end of the meal that I had consumed more meat than I should have. Also, to avoid having too much often required white knuckling it through the last few minutes of the meal—resisting temptation while waiting for my wife to finish her latest plate.

While in the past I’ve found personal techniques and tools to help get through such situations, lately I’ve been reading Brian Wasink’s book Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. It’s been a fascinating read and is filled with suggestions and tools to help with changing our eating habits. The book talks about the reasons we overeat and the things which contribute to this, though most of us may be totally unaware of them.

Rather than sharing all of the ideas, I’ll concentrate on ones I used at the buffet. When going, I have learned to start with a salad. In the past my usual plan was “eat the meat and dessert first, then if there is room pass slowly by the salad on the way to seconds on sweets.” Now I make myself a fair sized salad first and finish it. This gives me my greens and I work hard to keep it low carb—as low carb as possible. This time, inspired by my recent reading, I started with two differences: (1) I took time to talk to my wife and ask her questions about her day. Over the many years of being married we spent so much time monitoring the kids we got used to not really conversing when eating. Talking slowed me down and turned my focus off of shoveling food into my mouth. However, do not just mindlessly eat while talking. Before you know it you will have overeaten without paying attention. Instead, from time to time, put down your fork or spoon and talk for a few moments. Then return to your food. (2) I ate my salad slowly while talking to slow down, but also stopped after the salad and waited five minutes before getting my entre. This gave my body and mind time to register the eating and to sense that though my hunger was not satiated it was lessoned. Since it takes about twenty minutes for our mind to recognize satiety, this gave my mind time to catch up to what was happening in my body.

After my salad and the short break between courses, before getting my entre I walked through the buffet area, without a plate, looking at all the foods to decide what I wanted and what I could or should have. I had already decided before going in that I was going to allow myself more carbs, because today was a weightlifting day. My body needs more calories and more carbs on lifting days because material and energy are needed for building muscle. However, I was going to avoid the simple sugars, grains, fried foods and starchy foods. I looked for everything that offered protein, but was not breaded or fried: roast chicken, broiled fish, etc. I also looked for foods that offered more complex carbs: sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, etc. Then there was low carb greens, like broccoli. No bread, no pasta and no other grain products would be allowed. So, without a plate I walked through thinking, “I can have that, but not that. I could have that but should avoid it because I already had X today. That will be OK, but should be limited. A nice side benefit was that this slowed down my eating more. With my plan and decisions made beforehand, I grabbed a plate and went back through grabbing the foods I’d already selected.

After that plate was finished, I sat for a few minutes talking to my wife and having a decaf coffee. It was then that it struck me that I didn’t want anything else to eat—my hunger was fully satisfied, but I was not stuffed. Also, by doing it this way, I didn’t have to sit there telling myself “I must not have more; I must not have more.” I didn’t want more.

So, here are my steps for dealing with the buffet:

  1. Start with salad.
  2. Eat slowly, by enjoying the company of others—occasionally put down the fork and talk.
  3. Wait between refills to give time for the brain to sense the body’s sensations.
  4. Browse through the buffet foods without a plate to prepare a plan of action.
  5. Get only the foods you planned in the amounts you planned.
  6. Repeat step 2.
  7. If still wanting more, repeat step 3, then reevaluate.

Rough Week! Important Choices!

This week, I don’t have a weigh-in to share. As I shared before, I followed my doctor’s orders to drop off my original plan because of some issues with abdominal pain. We now know the pain was not from the program, but from the doctor—or at least from the strong antibiotics he had put me on for an ear infection. The antibiotics worked with some other stuff to inflame my liver. After some changes and the ending of the series of antibiotics the pain is gone.

After it cleared up, I decided to experiment and see how my weight loss would do without going back on program. For about a week and a half I did fine. However, this week, according to my scale I am two pounds heavier than last week. This convinced me to once again make a choice for my health and go back on the original program.

This brings me to two experiences this week I want to share that have to do with temptations and with managing food intake. Earlier in the week, my daughter came over for supper and I really felt like doing something special. I grilled steaks. For the three ladies (my wife, my mother and my daughter) I picked thin steaks—as they prefer. Of course, I like manly steaks—at least 1 inch thick and grilled as rare as possible. If a steak doesn’t leave red in the plate it was ruined.

Of course, a thick porterhouse is going to be much larger than I am supposed to have in one meal. After I grilled the steaks, my daughter reminded me that it was too much for me to have right now. She was right. I appreciated her telling me—though part of me wished she had just shut up. I begrudgingly cut the steak in half to save for later. I enjoyed one half that night. I could still enjoy the thickness, but just had to reduce the size to make up for it. Eating to lose weight does not mean eating garbage. I didn’t have to choke down a “shoe leather” steak. Sometimes it just takes a bit of effort to make good foods fit.

The second episode happened the day I decided to go back on program. That day I had some errands to run around town. I kept feeling stronger temptations to eat unhealthy foods—stronger temptations than I have had since starting. My mind kept saying, “Oh go on! You are off program. You’re going back on tomorrow. Just enjoy today and tomorrow you can restart.” At one point I was passing by a small chicken shop that I knew carried really good fried gizzards. At that moment I just wanted some gizzards—those glorious breaded, chewy, chunks of fried chicken flesh! I could taste them from a hundred yards. I had to have them, so I whipped the car into the store and ran in to order. I was, at that moment so tempted I ordered a double order (16 gizzards). It took about ten minutes for them to get my order done. I’m glad it took that long.

While I stood there waiting, I kept thinking about what I was about to do. Yes, I could go back on tomorrow. I didn’t feel any guilt because I was making a choice that I had a right to make—there was no moral failing. However, I thought about when I dropped off of another famous low-carb program, years ago. I was on that program for two months and lost 50 pounds. I dropped off, because it was so easy, I figured I’d drop off for the holidays and then just restart later. Unfortunately, I went into major carb binging and just stuffed myself. I gained all the weight back and an additional 25 pounds over the next few months.

As I stood there in the store I kept thinking about this and feared I was setting myself up for a bad failure. I didn’t want to start gorging on carbs and lose control. I didn’t want to risk being unable to finish my yearlong commitment to healthy choices. I also did not want to get back to that old fat, lazy, tired, dying self that I once was. I feel good. I enjoy being told how much better I look. I love knowing I have a future and hope for a healthy life. Did I really want to risk all that for a sack of greasy gizzards? Why yes, I did! But I wouldn’t. Instead, I took the sack and gave it to someone I knew would appreciate them. I didn’t eat a single one. Instead I went back home and ate a meal replacement. Did it taste as good as the gizzards? Don’t be silly. But it was chosen by me.

Hard work, but worth it!

Before-afterI promised to cover some of the difficulties of traveling while dieting. I don’t like to point out a problem without offering solutions, so I’ll also offer some thoughts on how to prepare and deal with taking a trip. Whether you use them or not is up to you. What I share here will be what has helped me.

On my latest trip, since I was flying for the first time in almost a year—and the first time on this program—I wasn’t sure if my bars and other supplies could be taken in a carryon bag. I didn’t want to check a bag since it was a short trip and I always pack as light as possible. I decided I would have to leave my supplies behind, and see how I would deal with “living off the land,” if you will.

In doing this, let me first share the difficulties. It is important to keep your metabolism active and well fueled with small, appropriate meals (really more like snacks) every 3 hours or so. Since I did not carry them with me, I decided to limit myself to what was available. Neither was I able to prepare my own Lean & Green meals to make sure I stayed within the limits of my program. A third problem can be difficulty with proper hydration. It is essential, in a low-carb program, to get enough fluids (spelled w-a-t-e-r) to keep everything operating efficiently. Well when you are in meetings where copious amounts of coffee are available it can be easy to overdo the caffeine, underdo the water and get dehydrated. A fourth problem of such a meeting filled trip can be the temptations on location. Donuts, sugar-filled fruit bars, chips and candy are often abundant. Our table in these meetings always have small bowls filled with mini-chocolate bars. In the past, I would consume almost a whole bowl by myself. I have to admit chocolate can be tempting still today. This problem of temptations can also be compounded when trying to find food in an airport. The gate for my flight home was right across the hall from a popular chicken place with glossy displays of fried chicken, fried shrimp and fried potatoes, promising great pleasure from their Cajun spices.

An important part of my program has been schedule and structure. An alarm on my phone goes off every 3 hours of the day reminding me to eat something. It can be hard when the alarm goes off and there is nothing for you to eat, or everything available will torpedo your program.

So how can we deal with these? One of my interests is ethics, and I’ve been reading a book called Blind Spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it, written by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel. It discusses situations where we know what is ethical (the right thing to do), but fail to either notice that we are facing an ethical choice or simply fail to choose the ethical action. An important point in the book is the difference between what we know we should do and what we want to do. Many who give one answer when asked what they should do, will often do the exact opposite when faced with what they want to do. The authors offered several ways to help with such tempting times and to prepare for doing better. I could easily see many of these applied quite well to the situation I found myself in on this trip—the temptation to eat what I know I should not.

One recommendation is pre-planning, as I have spoken about in the past. However, preplanning for a meal out at a restaurant and preplanning for a two day trip away from home are very different. However, the preplanning here goes beyond simply “I will eat this and not that”, since I have no way of being sure what will and will not be available. The authors recommend thinking through the reasons a course of action will be tempting. I knew I would face temptations to break my diet. I could easily foresee that. However, rather than simply accepting the fact of being tempted, I thought about why these temptations would be so powerful, and what would actually cause them. Let me list a few reasons this trip would be fraught with temptations:

  1. I would be spending two days with friends who were in no way limited in what they ate. It would be wrong to expect them to choose restaurants, snacks, etc. based on my dietary needs. The temptation comes from thinking, “It would be easier on my friends if I just broke my diet—after all I can just go back on it later.” I could cheat for the good of my friends.
  2. There is no way to eat only what I should in the amount and at the times I need, so it would be better to just drop the whole thing during the trip and pick it up later.
  3. “I’ve done so well for the last few months, lost lots of weight, so I deserve a break; I deserve a treat; I can relax and enjoy what I’ve already done.”
  4. “Nothing encourages good conversation and good fellowship like a meal shared, so it would be better to just eat like my friends.”
  5. There will be piles of candy, sugary bars, and cans of soda and juice.
  6. “Hey! Juice is healthy! Right?” This one is quite common when others don’t understand the impact of sugars—“Oh, you’re on a diet? We have juice (or fruit, or…).” It would be easier to just eat whatever is offered rather than dealing with all the questions that come up.
  7. “I’m going to break my diet one way or the other. Either I won’t eat on schedule, or I won’t eat the right things. Doing without will be harder.”
  8. “This diet has been so easy. I can just drop it for a couple days and pick it up later.”

There were others as well, but these are a good sample of why we are tempted to eat what we know we shouldn’t. So how does one prepare for facing them? There are steps to take and decisions that must be made before the temptations hit.

After considering all these, I made some decisions:

  1. When faced with either eat something not permitted or eat nothing even though my schedule says I am supposed to eat something, which will I choose? I decided that eating something forbidden meant dropping out of fat burn, risking carb cravings, and then dealing with days of trying to white knuckle my way back into fat burn. Refraining from eating when supposed to meant slowing my metabolism (and weight loss), but this could fairly quickly be corrected upon returning home. Because of this I decided when making such a choice I would choose right foods over right schedule.
  2. Is it worth risking my choices and returning to unhealthy practices for a few hours of enjoyment with my friends? Absolutely not! On this trip, my diet would take priority over my friends.
  3. I am not done with weight loss, so I do not deserve a break. Besides, the very thought that I can take a break and eat what I want shows I have not fully integrated these choices as a way of life. Since this is true, I cannot choose to break my program. If these were my way of life, then the things I am not supposed to eat would no longer be as appealing.
  4. It is better to deal with the questions about why I can’t have ‘healthy’ things like juice, rice or fruit than to deal with the difficulty of turning my own mind, emotions and body back to good habits.
  5. The diet may have been easy, but this does not mean it will be easy going back on it. Besides, this thought itself shows I have not fully integrated these choices as a lifestyle. If I break it now, I am starting over and it will take even longer to ingrain these habits in my life.

On the trip, I stayed as close as possible to permissible things. Believe me, when you go out and chicken fried steak is available (in a place you know makes a good one) it is hard to order grilled fish. It is also hard to scrape the rice off of that fish—since everything healthy in that restaurant included rice and the fish was laid over the top of a pile of rice.

I often went many hours without eating any real food or what I should. Right next to the bowls of candy there was a bowl of pistachios. I ate pistachios to curb my appetite and to try to keep my metabolism where it should be. I had more coffee than I should and tried to force myself to grab the occasional bottle of water—I did better some times than others.

In the hotel breakfast I stuck with scrambled eggs and sausage. I figured if I was going to splurge on sugar/carbs or on fat, it was better to have too much fat and not deal with carb cravings or with falling out of fat burn. I was burning fat, so it made since that it would just mean it was better to have more of what I wanted to burn than what I didn’t want to burn.

So, you might wonder how the trip went. When I got home, the first thing I did was check my urine with a Ketostix to see if I was still in fat burn. I was. This hadn’t changed even though I had just spent two days with very limited resources and making careful choices while traveling and sitting in meetings. This morning I weighed myself and between the day before the trip and the first weigh-in after the trip I had lost one pound. Better to lose just one in two days than to gain one. My energy level is fine. I was quickly able to get back to schedule and will continue on.

Dieting is hard. Keeping on plan takes effort and hard work at times. But it’s worth it. If you don’t think it is, then look at the pictures of me before I started and where I am right now. It is hard, but that change took me 3 and a half months. Am I glad I did the work? You had better believe it!

Pizza!!!!

IMG_20140729_115802This week I experienced a strong case of lust that was just driving me crazy. No. I was not lusting after another woman (or any other person, for that matter). This lust is far harder to resist. It shames me to admit I have been seriously lusting after pizza. I know. I can feel your judging eyes on me. I can hear the talking behind my back, “He’s the one with an unnatural attraction to pizza!” I feel such shame, such guilt.

Not really. But I do have to admit I truly love pizza. Think about it. Put together bread, sauce, meat, cheese, veggies (if you must, gag!) into a big circle; cook it; slice it, and pick up a portion to walk along eating happily. If there is any food that must have been invented by angels it has to be pizza. Of course, if you eat too much of it you will meet the angels far earlier than otherwise. It isn’t exactly health food.

I decided to find a way to scratch this itch before it drove me nuts. Most of the things I would want on the pizza would be fine. The two problem areas were the sauce (usually full of sugar—at least if made right) and the crust (a major carbohydrate bomb—primed for a glorious carb explosion). Since I’ve been forced to change my program around a bit, I’m getting more creative. However, I have to be careful to not carelessly introduce foods that will throw me off course. Once I reach my goal weight you can believe I’ll have the occasional slice of really good pizza (pardon me while I close my eyes and dream of that day for a moment or three). Right now, it’s just not an option—or is it?

I am familiar with cauliflower pizza, but must admit when it comes to food I suffer from what my mom used to call “lazy butt” syndrome. It just seems like too much work. I wanted pizza. I wanted it now! I did some research and found a great recipe for a pizza using a large portobello mushroom cap for a crust.

Here’s what I did:

  • Large Portobello Mushroom cap, cleaned, stem removed and gills scraped out with a spoon
  • Place the cap on a baking pan; brush on some olive oil, then salt and pepper
  • Roast the caps at 425 degrees for 10-20 minutes depending on the size
  • Remove from oven
  • Brush in Walden Farms pasta sauce
  • I added a couple slices of pepperoni to each and some sliced olives
  • Cover with Mozzarella cheese
  • Return to oven and cook until cheese is melted and bubbly

I have made these on two different occasions. I love it because it is like having a pizza with extra mushrooms (a sign of really good pizza).

I could eat these every day. I have satisfied my burning desire for pizza. Mine doesn’t look nearly as pretty as the original site’s pictures, but it looks a lot worse now. I can guarantee that!

Weekly weigh-in, a bit late

IMG_20140714_072034This week was a wild roller coaster ride for weigh-ins. On the Fourth of July, I visited a friend’s house for some celebratory fun. The place was full of food and drinks—almost all of which forbidden on my program. I decided before going, that even though I had already eaten my Lean & Green meal for the day, to allow myself a splurge, but only items that had zero carbs. High fat would be allowed, but not carbs because I wanted to have some relaxed fun with my friends, but did not want to pay for it for several days trying to get back into fat burn. Though the table was spread with delicious food, I limited myself to several pieces of brisket—this is Texas after all, and we have special dispensation from the governor to include brisket on any diet plan and it doesn’t count against you, neither will it ever make you gain weight. That last was a joke, but I might talk to my representative to get that law passed in the next session.

However, during the week before I hadn’t been hydrating properly. To be honest I just didn’t want to drink that much water. I should have made myself though, because my weight loss suffered, and so did my body. Dizziness, constipation, etc. all were my rewards for not drinking enough fluid. All of this was stacked on top of not losing much weight during the week. Of course, the weight could have been because I am down lower and going into a more normal weight loss pattern.

The important thing to keep in mind though is that all of this happened with my free choice. I chose to eat far more fat one day, and that is fine. It just means I have to make adjustments to my expectations. There is no guilt; no concept of having cheated; no making up for it.

Friday I weighed 302 lbs. which would be a one pound loss from the week before. However, a couple hours later I weighed 300 lbs.IMG_20140714_071954 That would be a three pound loss. I’ll take the latter as the official weight for the week, since (1) it was closer to the usual time for me to weigh each week; (2) it was in exactly the same physical condition in which I weigh each week, while the earlier one was not; (3) it’s my program and I can do that.

I have over the last few days been very careful to fully hydrate—or as close to it as possible. I have also reevaluated to make sure I am exactly on program. My program has been altered by the nutritionist because of my own body conditions—for example, I am to have 3 more ounces of protein a day than usual in the program because of my build and certain other health concerns.

IMG_20140714_072110This morning I weighed again and was at 296 lbs. We’ll see over the next few days how accurate that number is and if I am lower than this by Friday—my next weigh-in day. The nice thing to consider is that this is the first time I have been under 300 lbs. since 2004.