Do you ever get good ideas you love thinking about, but are unlikely to act upon? I am thinking about writing a diet book called, The Good Habit Diet. No, this is not a diet book written by nuns. It’s a book about losing weight and keeping it off. For most people, dieting is largely a matter of changing bad habits into new, healthy ones. I’ll provide a couple of lists to show you what I mean. I know the bad and good lists would be more exciting in a countdown format, but these lists are not given in terms of priorities, they have to be worked on simultaneously. Those unwilling to produce effort and exercise willpower at this time need not apply.
The first bad habit is snacking. Snacking is not inherently bad, but we tend to snack on the worst kinds of foods, like potato chips, cupcakes, bologna sandwiches, pig’s knuckles, ice cream, and ten pound bags of candy. We also tend to eat a snack until the bag is empty or until a family member says, “Hey, how about sharing some of that deep-fried, bacon-coated, sugar-topped brownies with me? Supersize me!” That is exactly what snacks will do–supersize you.
The second bad habit is sitting or laying around watching TV or just sitting anywhere like a blob for more than an hour at a time. This bad habit goes well with the first one since we need time and free hands to shovel all that food down our throats. When we don’t exercise, our muscle turns to fat, which burns fewer calories. Thus we get fatter as we age, which increases the odds we’ll stay planted on the couch, calling to our spouses to bring us another cold beer.
I’ve already touched on the third bad habit, which involves choosing the wrong foods. Did you know the food pyramid has been relegated to the pile of ancient artifacts? The USDA replaced it with the FoodPlate. Check it out at www.choosemyplate.gov if you like, but I’ll bet you already know what the USDA recommends. Eat fruits, grains, vegetables, and proteins in about the same proportions along with a smaller amount of dairy products. What kinds of things are included in each food group? In the protein group, the USDA recommends eating small portions of lean meat, poultry, nuts, beans and safe-to-eat fish. Not on the list are deep-fried foods, foods (like ice cream) with high fat content, and sugary soft drinks. I’m sure you already know about eating fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains. Studies indicate that many fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants so they help prevent cancer; whereas, foods with carbon on them from grilling increase the risk. Down South, we have a BBQ joint on every corner and a guy with a smoker in the parking lot at half the gas stations. The South also has states with the highest rates of Type II diabetes and the most overweight children. We know these foods are bad for us, but we eat them anyway. We also know what foods are good for us, but most of us don’t do so. I can tell this is true by seeing what’s stocked in the grocery stores. We need to eat more foods that have been shown to lower cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart attacks. Many of the good foods already mentioned have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The Huffington Post article at the following link provides a good summary of recent medical research on the food-Alzheimer connection (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/23/alzheimers-prevention_n_2734550.html.)
Fourth, we need to not only eat the right kinds of foods, but eat them in the right amount. Portion control. We may think it’s difficult to give up eating some of our favorite foods, but my experience indicates that after giving up some bad food, I preferred the foods that were better for me. I gave up beef and pork and every other meat but fish and poultry back in 1992. I missed Big Macs for a few weeks, but I discovered lots of foods I liked better. Today, the thought of eating a Big Mac makes me sick. In 2007, I gave up the fish, chicken and turkey as well. I’ll eat some of these meats on the holidays or other rare occasions, but there’s no craving. It’s true that our bodies crave foods loaded with sugar and fat. We have been genetically programmed to prepare for the worst, so our body encourages us to overeat in case we can’t find food later. But, in most parts of this country, food is abundant. Nonetheless, our bodies are programmed in continual survival mode. Some bad food is not so bad if we just eat a little of it. We can lower the “set point” by developing good habits. What are the good habits we need to develop to replace the bad ones?
First, eat slowly. It takes time for the brain to catch up with the stomach. We can eat ten courses before the brain knows we were already full by the fourth one. Chew. We need to chew our food slowly. This helps with digestion as well. Enjoy eating. Drink plenty of liquids. Drinking water helps us to feel full. How much food should we eat? We have different rates of metabolism, expenditures of energy, starting weights, and ratios of muscle to fat, but we can estimate how many calories we need to cut out of our diets to lose a pound of weight. My estimate was that I would need to eat 500 calories less per day to lose a pound a week. Take a look at the nutritional labels on the food you buy.
Setting short-term goals of losing a pound a week, if you are overweight, is the second good habit. Losing much more than that probably indicates a loss of fluids or muscle, not fat. We’d like to lose 5 pound a weeks so we can hit our ideal weight quickly. What is your ideal weight? Find out. Conduct research. Patience will be required if you lose a pound a week. While it’s true that people have lost lots of weight quickly, rapid weight loss can be dangerous. Anyway, the weight usually does not stay off when it’s lost quickly. The body rebels. The old habits return.
Third, we need to get on the scale every morning and record our weight. The weight will fluctuate, so we can’t get discouraged by a rise in weight, but we should look for a trend and adjust our eating and exercise to maintain that pound per week loss.
While standing on the scale, we should think about why we want to lose weight and why we need to increase our exercise. Keeping our goals in mind is the fourth good habit. Losing weight is not just for us. It’s for our families. We live longer and healthier when we are fit. We can recover from illness and injury better. Our lives will be richer and so will the lives of the people we love. We need to praise our accomplishments and visualize the benefits of achieving our goals. We have to make getting healthy a priority. Don’t rationalize away missed workouts or extra meals.
Yes, fifth, we need to have a goal weight in mind and a fitness level we will achieve. Determine how to measure your fitness level. Track it. You can’t get to where you want to go without knowing where you want to go and plotting a course to get there. Okay, you can travel without much thought if you have GPS, but let’s think of GPS in this case as meaning a Good Plan for Success.
Sixth, develop good sleep habits. Most adults need eight hours a night. When we don’t get enough high quality sleep, we will eat more and exercise less. Cranky makes us Chunky.
Seventh, consult with a doctor before starting a weight loss program and beginning to exercise. Guys, if you are like me, you have no problem visiting a doctor a few days after breaking an arm if it really starts to hurt and turns green. But, if for no other reason, you need tests to receive information about your current level of fitness. Baseline data. Six months later you can get your cholesterol, weight, blood sugar, and blood pressure checked again. The doctor can help you figure out your ideal weight and help you proceed safely. For those of us who are older, one of the biggest challenges to starting a new exercise program is keeping ourselves from getting injured. Go slow.
Last, involve people in your social network in your plans. Tell people who care about you. Can you find someone to walk with you in the morning? Will your spouse, parents, and/or children start buying and eating healthy, low-fat to help you out? It’s easier to accomplish your goals if you can find others to work with and to encourage you.
Those are long lists. We are talking about two big parts of our lives. Changing habits is not easy. If you are thinking about reading some of the other books on the market or joining a weight loss program, that could be a good step for you. Many of the weight loss programs on the market today are largely a means of changing our habits. If you count points on Weight Watchers, drink protein shakes instead of eating meals, or eat frozen pre-prepared foods, your eating habits are being modified. In these good diets (there are many bad ones and some dangerous ones), the changes in how you are expected to eat are accompanied by an encouragement to exercise. The goal of a good program is steady, incremental weight loss. But, you don’t necessarily need to pay for these programs. You can lose weight on your own if you are determined to change your habits. Once you change your habits, the weight will come off and stay off. You’ll feel better, have more energy, think more clearly, and live longer. So, find an exercise you love. Exercise 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. Learn to enjoy eating new, high quality foods. Develop higher self-esteem. Set realistic goals, plan ahead, monitor your progress, and ultimately change your bad habits to good ones.
Losing weight and exercising are two good ideas we should not just think about, but should act upon.