Health & Food

This Holiday Season, Change Your Food Environment and Start Breaking Some Habits

Have you ever noticed that food is everywhere? Literally.  Every place you go there is food (they even make car seats with food trays now…really?! Is it necessary?).  Gas stations, Lowe’s, bookstores, without fail, you can find food. It’s as if we’re going to starve if we don’t have food in our faces at all times of the day (kids even have bags of dried fruit in their hands at the church I go to, because you know, they can’t go 30 minutes without eating).  I know we are already in the midst of the 2013 holiday season, but we’ve got a long way to go until it ends.  And if you’re like me and have a lot of family and friends with January birthdays, they really don’t end until February 14th, Valentine’s Day.  If you thought the food was in your faces throughout the year, to the point of complete annoyance, it’s worse during the holidays.  During this time of the year, we don’t just have food in our faces everywhere we go, but it’s almost always sweet, higher-calorie food (you know, “Traditional” holiday grazing food).Food Environment 2

You may not be surprised to find whole pies in the office break room. It’s the holidays…why not?!

So what’s the deal with holiday weight gain? Is it true the average person gains 5 pounds?  Nope… according to the New England Journal of Medicine, Americans gain more like 1 pound during the winter and the holidays. Not bad, right?  It makes you wonder how the heck we can eat so much and only gain 1 pound when it seems like gaining weight is so easy these days.  But of course, if you gain a pound a year, that can add up fast (and, also keep in mind that’s the average, some people do gain more than 1 pound).  So how do you prevent this dreaded one pound from being added to your “next year’s to-do list”?  Start changing your food environment, and breaking (or starting) some new habits.Food Environment 3

Click on the photo to be directed to this recipe for Sugar-Free Candied Nuts

I want to talk about the best seminar I went to while at FNCE (The Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo). The speaker was Dr. Jim Painter, an energetic man with an obvious passion to educate and help Americans change their habits and lifestyle.  Jim is a professor at Eastern Illinois University and I couldn’t help but think throughout his entire presentation that I wish I could have been in his class (I still consider asking if he tapes any of his lectures….) and how lucky his students were/are to be involved in some of the fascinating studies he highlighted in his presentation. Truly, fascinating.  Here are some highlights of his presentation;

1)  We all know that portion sizes have gone up, that much is clear, but did you know that the Nestle Toll House cookie recipe, written in 1949 to yield 100 cookies, now yields only 60?  Incredible.  No wonder we just can’t stop at one cookie when they are naturally “smaller” like Oreos, for example.  To us, that’s just not a normal size.

2)  We eat more, much more, from bigger containers.  A study done by another brilliant man in the world of, Brian Wansink, who is the mastermind behind the book Mindless Eating (take the Mindless Eating quiz here!), did a study that showed people ate 45-50% more from an extra-large popcorn container (why? Because Americans determine satiety not by when they are pleasantly full, but instead by when their plate or bowl is empty. Not good).

3)  Keeping candy on a co-worker’s desk, within reach, caused participants in a study to consume 3 times as many candies as they did when the candy was a mere 2 meters away. Remember, when that candy is within reach you are much more likely to mindlessly grab some throughout the day.

4)  A great thing to consider; Habits allow the brain an easy way out because they stop it from engaging in the hundreds of decisions we make daily.  Thus, it’s difficult to break a habit because it takes work.  Now consider; more than 40% of actions people perform everyday are considered habits rather than decisions (Neal, D.,  When a behavior becomes automatic it is more likely to be repeated.  This can be good, as in the case of always grabbing the whole grain version of your favorite bread, or bad, as in the case of always grabbing the salt shaker before you even taste your food.

5)  While willpower is important, it can buckle under pressure.  We have a “willpower reserve” and if we use it too much it might get depleted.  Those who are continuously depriving themselves of foods/drinks or anything else that they really want, will eventually cave and binge, especially when fatigued, stressed, or put in a challenging situation.  This, my friends, it why most diets just don’t work.

If you’d like to read more check out this article from Food Navigator; Why Did Americans Get So Fat, So Fast?Food Environment 4

Sad, but at the rate our portions are expanding, this plate might one day look normal and acceptable!

So, what can you do?  I highly suggest starting small and trying the following;

1)  Use smaller plates, glasses, mugs, bowls, everything.  I use salad plates for dinner.  Think I’m crazy?  It works.  My husband is now used to a smaller plate too.  And when we eat dessert you better believe I serve the ice cream (our typical dessert) in our smallest bowl, rather than our oversized ice cream bowls (I’ll use those on special occasions, not every day).

2)  Keep healthy food within reach, not junk.  One of my favorite foods to keep on the counter is clementines.  They are like nature’s candy, after all.  Notice: I’m not saying eat fruit instead of an actual dessert.  I hate that advice.  Please, eat your dessert for dessert, but don’t eat dessert-like foods throughout the day, mindlessly. That’s what gets you in trouble.

3)  Stop for a moment in between bites and actually savor your food.Slow down, allow your brain to register that you are eating, and allow it to catch up with you as you continue eating.  This will help you eat to the point that you should; the point of satisfaction, not overly stuffed and uncomfortable.

4)  Most important, start being more conscious of your habits.  If you believe they are not helpful habits, work hard to change them.  Be fully aware that this will not happen overnight, it takes time. Start with one habit at a time, and then move on to another.  One habit that I have worked on breaking is my tendency to come home from work and just start snacking.  I noticed it was an automatic behavior; walk in the door, put my things down, open the fridge and eat something (despite not really being hungry).  Now I am aware of this behavior and have found ways to change it; get home, put things away, and change my routine by first getting out of the kitchen and walking into the bedroom to get in more comfortable clothes.

5)  Remember all of these tips, especially when you’re out at holiday parties or other events throughout the year.  The rules still apply; use smaller plates, slow down and savor your foods and beverages, be mindful of what you are consuming (and be sure to enjoy it, not to think about it as “Bad”), place yourself away from the food table so you don’t mindlessly graze.

6)  Use your willpower as much as possible, but remember to allow yourself the occasional treat (or daily treat, for that matter) so as not set yourself up for failure (you don’t want to drain your willpower reserve!).  The holidays are a perfect time to indulge, but the key is not to indulge at every chance you get.  Sure, indulge on the holiday (Christmas, or other) and allow yourself a treat at the holiday work party and a couple others throughout the season.  What you don’t want to do is make the holiday season into one large indulge-fest, each and every day. This is where people get into trouble.

7)  Read the book “Taste What You’re Missing” (you can order it on my Amazon widget to the right).  And I really mean that. It’s fantastic and I can assure you it will help you, at least in part, eat less mindlessly.  Here are two quotes from the book;

 “If you can’t recall the sensory input you experienced at your last three meals, you’re probably eating mindlessly”

“Food is everywhere. It is presented to us on golden platters at work, school, cultural events, social events, birthday parties, and more.  It is hard to go anywhere in the developed world without encountering delicious food.  What you should do is an integral gut check to determine if your wanting for food is physical or situational, and in lieu of those cupcakes, remember your last meal, how it smelled, looked, sounded, felt, and tasted.  And take a pass (unless, of course, you are truly physically hungry).”Food Environment 5

You will be faced with decisions like this on a daily basis. It’s ok to choose the cake every once in a while, but train your brian to make the apple (or healthier choice) a habitual choice! Have a bite of the cake, after you eat the apple, if you want.

Want more?  Read this article from Fooducate; 7 Tips for Making Portion Control Your Secret Weapon.  And stay tuned for next Friday’s post with my top 10 Weight Loss/Management foods and products.  Then, the following Friday I will post an update about “Added Sugars” (the secret to weight loss).

About author


Hi, my name is Rebecca Houston and I am a writer. I write about health, healthy food and daily meal plan for various websites.
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