“Why do the things that are so bad for us make you feel the best?” moaned Thor, a wedding-cake-addicted nurse on HBO’s “Nurse Jackie.” Thor’s angst struck a chord with me. Is there a way to find comfort without relying on your favorite comfort food?
When I was a teenager attending Weight Watchers meetings, my group leader talked about “red light” foods—the ones we shouldn’t have in the house because, once we begin, we can’t stop eating them. Weight Watchers was much more restrictive in those days, and they had just announced that peanut butter had been added to the “allowed” foods list.
I remember how excited my fellow weight-watchers were, but very soon they were also complaining: “There is no way anyone can stop at one tablespoonful,” they said. And so, we learned about red light and green light foods. Green light foods are the ones you can eat all day without gaining an ounce: Think, “lettuce, carrots and broccoli.” I don’t have to tell you about the red light foods—you know yours!
How do we handle these red light foods? If you live alone, you can probably keep them out of the house altogether. But if your non-weight-challenged spouse loves ice cream, and your skinny, active kids love Yodels, what do you do?
My red light food is sugar. I adore sugar! When I eat it, I can’t get enough of it. I wake up the next morning, and my very first thought is, “What can I eat today that is sweet, and where will I find it?” My solution is to treat sugar as if it were a drug. To me, it is a drug. When I allow it into my life, it takes over. I drew the line last September, and I stopped eating sweets. I know if I have the slightest taste, I will fall off the wagon with such a thud, the pain will last a long time. And the pain of my tightening waistband will make me feel worse.
I find it hard to think of living the rest of my life without ice cream or my favorite Hershey Easter eggs (which I buy in bulk when they are available). I haven’t stopped thinking about sweets (yet). To compensate, I push them on my husband and enjoy them vicariously. Watching him consume two pieces of chocolate and calling it quits (“I’ve had enough.”) both inspires and maddens me. How do people do that?! It doesn’t surprise me that people who can do that don’t have a weight problem.
I think there is some sort of a trigger switch within us. While I tend to have the switch locked in the “on” position, I think the solution to moderation is to learn how to turn the switch on and off at will. I know the answer is not etching a line in stone about a particular food group, but for me, that works the best while I continue my search for how to use my on/off switch efficiently.
Geneen Roth has stayed at her natural weight for a few decades. She’d had a major weight problem in her youth, and now she coaches people on how to manage theirs by changing their relationship with food and life. She insists that “no change will happen without consistent effort over time…. As you develop new ways of being with food, they eventually replace the old ways. It doesn’t happen all at once.” Change isn’t an event, she says; it’s a process. The average time to break a habit may be 66 days, but for some people it may take as long as 254 days.
In Ms. Roth’s article “Transformation 101” (Good Housekeeping magazine, April 2010), she discusses the failure of sticking to a diet and how we then agonize over that failure. Focusing on the failure makes you an expert on failure rather than a champion of change. Instead she made it a habit to tell herself each day that change was possible while she recorded what she ate, ate only when she was hungry and paid attention to her feelings before and after she ate.
By repeating the same new behaviors each day, her brain was able to develop new pathways and new habits. She recommends that you “focus on a positive vision of yourself and decide on specific food-related actions you can take (ones that don’t involve punishment, shame or guilt) to enact that vision.” I think her approach and attitude are exceptional, and someday I hope to attend one of her workshops. She’s written several books if you want to learn more.
I feel positive and proud of my abstinence from sweets. However I still think about sugar, so I must be one of those people who needs 254 days to change a lifetime habit. The good news is that I have already made it to Day 222! In 32 days, I should be cured! Yeah, right….