Well, today marks a month since I started my wee project. So, what have I learnt from a month of trying to eat healthily to a timetable?
1. It helps to plan in advance how you’re going to get your healthy meals. There were two times when I totally missed my target because I hadn’t actually bought in stuff to make healthy meals or devised a plan for where else I would get them. Yes, planning is nerdy, but if you don’t do it you’re relying on luck to see you through, which is never the bestest idea. So I haven’t got time to make a healthy lunch from scratch in the morning? That’s ok, I can take in a couple of slices of bread to toast and a mini tin of baked beans, or buy a healthy ready meal on the way in to work.
2. I am rubbish at eating healthy meals when I’m hungover.
Shut up, sarky koala! I’m actually getting way better at it than I was when the month began, but I have to keep ready-made healthy meals in for the morning (as well as Nurofen Express).
3. I will absolutely use the softly-softly approach to justify having a whole chocolate cake as a snack. Not really in the spirit of the thing! For the last week I’ve been cracking down on myself a bit, making sure I’m doing my best to eat healthy as much as I can but only counting it as a failure if I don’t hit my minimum target for the day. But trying not to eat all the cake as well.
Huzzah! You’ve got the impetus to make a change in your life! But what to do first?
Eat really healthily? Start a new exercise programme? Quit smoking? Start saving money? Drink less? Master astrophysics and solve the photon underproduction crisis? How about doing them all at once!
No, you dafty. This is why most New Year’s Resolutions fail. Sure, you may feel all gee’d-up and ready for anything on the first of January, but if you’re trying to change four separate things all at once, you’ll get overwhelmed. And what happens when you get overwhelmed?
This is particularly important if you’re trying to eat more healthily or at a calorie deficit so you lose weight. One of the most fascinating things that has emerged recently in psychology is the finding that willpower is a finite resource. Professor Roy Baumeister at Florida State University has named this phenomenon ‘ego depletion’ and it is stunningly consistent in how it works.
In experiments conducted by him and his colleagues, people were made to sit alone in a room next to a plate of freshly baked cookies with the smell wafting over them, and either allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted, or to resist the temptation and eat nothing. The test subjects were then taken to another room and given puzzles to do that were technically impossible to complete. Those who had been allowed to eat the cookies persisted at the puzzles for far longer than the test subjects who had been denied any snackage.
That’s right, sarcastic cat. It turns out that willpower can be drained by doing tasks that need it, leaving less available for other tasks. Hence why when you’ve had a stressful day at work involving kowtowing to your boss’s idiotic demands, you feel much less inclined to go to the gym later and much more inclined to neck a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a giant pizza. There’s only so much willpower to go round and you can’t use it for everything.
‘But Hel,’ I hear you cry, ‘ isn’t there some way to build your stores of willpower back up again?’
I’m glad you asked, person reading this blog. There is indeed a way to build up willpower when it’s been depleted but it’s bad news for dieting. Basically, you have to eat something.
Yeah, it’s what Baumeister calls the ‘dieter’s catch-22’. Willpower is fuelled in the body by glucose – your blood sugar levels. If your willpower is low, a glucose hit from having a snack will bring it back up again. Cut down your diet and your glucose levels drop, and with it your willpower. But you need willpower to diet! Hence, the dieter’s catch-22.
So what can you do if you want to eat healthily? Are we basically all doomed to be fatties once we’ve put the weight on? No, not if you’re careful. Just don’t blitz your whole lifestyle all at once – you need to concentrate your willpower on forming good habits within one area and one alone. And the best way to conserve your willpower if you’re trying to diet is to structure your life so that eating healthily is easy.
Pack your lunches before you go out rather then running the gauntlet of the chocolate aisle in the supermarket later. If you’re eating at a restaurant, have an idea of what you’ll order in advance so you can eliminate the need to expend precious willpower on deciding once you get there. And start small and slow – you really don’t have to be Superman/Superwoman right from the get-go.
In an era that has discovered how much people love reality TV, reality shows that centre around health and diet have boomed. They are the perfect combination of grotesque look-at-the-fatties freak-show viewing and emotional, inspirational heartstring-tugging. They’re also a very dangerous model for how (or, rather, how not) to change to a healthy lifestyle.
The Biggest Loser is a case in point. The whole premise is ‘get a load of morbidly obese people, isolate them from their families and friends for weeks, drastically reduce their calorie intake and make them do extreme workouts for six hours a day, then make them compete to lose the most weight each week’.
Let’s skip over for a moment the frankly horrible idea of separating vulnerable people from their loved ones for weeks at a time (one contestant had a son who was reportedly seriously ill in hospital during filming, but had to make a choice between going to see him in hospital and carrying on with the show, as he wasn’t allowed to go home for even a short period). Even putting that aside, this idea of making contestants reduce their calorie intake to under 1,000 calories a day and complete gruelling workouts while carrying vast amounts of excess weight, is frankly so close to torture that I’m not even sure where you draw the line.
You could argue that it’s all agreed-to by participants, but this is to ignore the immense pressure put on fat people to get thin and conform immediately. One contestant was told by her doctor that she was exhibting signs of Stockholm syndrome, and it’s easy to see why. Locked away for weeks on end with only shouting trainers and other ‘losers’ (as they refer to themselves) for company, it’s a case of fit in or get out. And deep down, most of us want to fit in.
And after all that, former contestants have come forward to say that ‘almost all’ Biggest Loser contestants put the weight back on. Being cooped up in an artificial environment, away from job, family and friends where all that matters is to starve yourself, work out and lose weight, it’s no wonder that the changes are not sustainable back in the real world.
The worst offender on TV, in my opinion, isn’t even The Biggest Loser, but a UK reality show called Supersize vs Superskinny.
The idea of this show is on an Orwellian level of creepiness. Get two people with eating disorders – one who is morbidly obese, and one who is worryingly thin – and get them to swap diets for a week. The thin person has to eat the mountain of food that the fat person eats and the fat person has to cut down to the starvation rations of the thin person. And that’s kind of it, to be honest. There’s not even really any attempt to disguise it as anything other than look-at-the-fat-freak-crying and look-at-the-thin-freak-crying.
But this doesn’t matter to the producers of these shows. They’ve taken their pound of flesh (so to speak). Reality shows about extreme weight loss may manipulate participants into crying and revealing their personal stories, but what they are not is health programmes. They aren’t concerned with making people’s lives better, only with making compelling television and selling merchandise. Who cares if the participants are left mentally shattered and physically damaged afterwards? At least the ratings are good.
Yes yes, alright Dwayne, I’m getting to my point. The problem is, you see these extremes all over the place in health and fitness now. The extreme diets, the extreme exercise regimes (I’m looking at you, CrossFit, you big daft cult), the fitspo slogans, the insistence that all you need rely on is willpower to carry you through and you’ll emerge on the other side a transformed and radient butterfly flapping off into the sunset.
Real change does not come through extremes. Real change comes slowly, and in an atmosphere of learning. Just as you cannot expect to go to Moscow and engage people in fluent conversation in Russian with no prior experience of speaking it, you cannot ‘just be’ healthy without learning slowly how to eat, how to exercise and what strategies to put into place to make healthy living easy for you. And you must be able to slip up sometimes and to learn from those slip ups without feeling judged or a failure.
You definitely, definitely don’t ditch a binge-eating disorder by simply swapping it with anorexia or orthorexia. Sustainable change comes slowly, but slow change does not equal compelling TV. Nobody wants to watch a show in which people gradually make sensible, sustainable changes in their diet without beating themselves up over their slip ups.
When it comes to finding role-models for your diet, perhaps the best idea is to turn off your TV and look to people in your own lives who’ve turned their health around long-term. How did they do it?
Without even knowing them, I’ll make you a bet: I bet it didn’t happen quickly. 95% of crash dieters regain the weight they lost within three years.
The message has been out there for years, but been drowned out by the likes of The Biggest Loser: it’s not glamourous, it’s not dramatic, but if you want to lose weight, slow and steady is the way to go.
There are many phrases that make me roll my eyes. ‘Go hard or go home.’ ‘No pain, no gain.’ ‘Hel, I’m pretty sure that’s not drinkable but if you want to take the risk then, I don’t know, go for it I suppose…’
But none is more annoying than this little gem.
‘Just eat a bit less and move a bit more.’
In the UK there’s a nationally sponsored health campaign for which this is pretty much the slogan. (Eat well. Move more. Live longer.) The thing is, on the surface it sounds like the easiest, most practical advice ever. It’s just common sense, right? Everyone can get behind this!
No. It’s damaging and impractical. But let’s unpack precisely why this well-meaning phrase is really so rubbish.
It is incredibly unspecific. It gives you absolutely no goals to work towards or indication of how to achieve what it says. Eat less? Great! How much less? Like, half portions? 600 calories per meal? Eating from a smaller plate? Three raisins a day? What does eat less mean in terms of getting healthy and losing weight, and how on earth do you quantify it? And how about ‘move more’? What does moving mean in this context? Going for a 10 minute walk? Running five miles? How much moving do you have to do and what movement counts?
The reason that most people find it easy to start on diet plans is that that is what they are: plans. Not very workable plans, for the most part, but at least they give you a place to start from and something to aim for. What our annoying little homily assumes is that upon hearing the magic words ‘Just eat a bit less and move a bit more’ a common-sense plan for how to do this will magically form in your brain of its own accord and no measurement will be necessary for its success.
And that’s the main reason this is the world’s worst advice to people looking to be healthier. There is no means of measurement lurking behind this advice. Now, I know I bang on about plans all the time, because I love them. But they really are essential to the accomplishment of a goal.
Without a plan, you’re just pissing in the wind. Sure, maybe the aim of your stream will just so happen to be perfect and you water your mum’s flower bed, but it’s far more likely that you’ll just end up failing and feeling worse (and more covered in wee) than when you started.
It’s true though. You don’t just have to believe me either. Dozens of psychological studies have shown that planning and tracking are essential in the accomplishment of goals. Dr Roy Baumeister, Frances Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University (who wrote an excellent book called Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength) wrote in The Atlantic regarding following through with resolutions:
‘The most important thing is to keep track, day by day, of what you are trying to control.’
This is something that our nemesis ‘Just eat a bit less and move a bit more’ assumes you don’t need to do. And we all know what happens when we jump feet-first into a scheme and find it’s failed. We get really, really discouraged from trying it again.
So, if you really want to help yourself, stop listening when people tell you this. And find a nice simple plan to follow!
Ok, if I were to give you a simple choice between succeeding at your goals or failing, right now, which would you pick? Go on, it’s a simple choice. Winning or losing? Go.
Well sure, winning seems like the obvious choice but right now I’m going to (completely expectedly, given the title of this post) go with the losers. Why? Because failing is way, way more important than succeeding in the long run.
Just take a quick look at my slow change timetable:
The first thing that meets your eye here is the lovely long series of ‘Target met’ notes. Hooray! The system is working. Except… Hang on, what about those two days where my targets weren’t met? Oh well, those are anomalies. They mean nothing, right? Everyone slips up. And in general I’m doing really well!
Yes and no. Yes, I am doing really well and yes, those days are anomalies. But anomalies can tell us a great deal about what may or may not be working in a system.
As you can see, the two days when I didn’t meet my target were Saturdays (uh oh) and involved being hungover and hanging out with my friends. Now, these days were failures because I didn’t do what I set out, but already they are very interesting failures because they have things in common. They have gone from being anomalies, to data that I can use. So, what do I do about them? Here are a few options:
a. Stop drinking.
b. Stop hanging out with my friends.
c. Descend into a pit of self-hatred and tell myself I’ll never meet my goals.
OR I could just be a bit more realistic, see that I’m very likely to get pissed on Fridays and be hungover on Saturday mornings, and build my healthy eating targets around this as this is showing itself to be my weak spot. In practice, what does this mean? Just a very slight shifting of tactics. What I’ve decided to do is:
Not rely on myself to be healthy on Saturday mornings. At all. Maybe this will change at some point, but in reality it’s unlikely because I like going to the pub and drinking pints on Friday evenings with my mates.
Have a plan on Friday for precisely how I will be healthy for lunch or dinner on Saturday. My plan worked this weekend. I went out and got hammered on Friday as usual, and had a plan to get a healthy ready meal from Marks and Sparks on Saturday afternoon when I was out, and have that for lunch. And I did. The even-more-sensible thing to do would be to have a ready meal in the fridge waiting for me on Saturday, but because I went straight from work to the pub this didn’t happen.
And that’s it. These very small adjustments to my expectations meant that this week I met all my targets. I’m feeling pretty good about that.
And I’m absolutely indebted to my failures, because they taught me how not to fail again.
I’m feeling pretty full today. ‘Why’s that, Hel?’ I hear you ask. ‘Did you have a lovely breakfast of egg white omelette and avocado slices washed down with caffeine-free green tea?’
Nope. I had a very stressful day yesterday. Between getting stitches out from minor surgery last week, running around to collect clothes to ship off to the refugees in Calais, making and sending a birthday card for my mum and doing about 10 hours’ very challenging work I just piled on the anxiety.
And when I get anxious, I don’t want to eat salad and rye bread. I want to eat total rubbish.
Breakfast was crisps and ginger beer. Lunch was healthy (still met my healthy lunch target!) but then I had a ‘snack’ of a whole croque monsieur and then a massive pasta dinner accompanied by Wotsits and followed by a family pack of Revels.
That’s right, shocked cat. When I get stressed, I eat and eat and eat.
At the moment this is fine. My goal for yesterday was just to have a healthy lunch, which I absolutely did. It’s going to be interesting to see what strategies I can develop for coping with stress eating when my meals are more restricted in a few months’ time though.
I read an awesome book by Charles Duhigg a while back about habit change, where one of the points was that you have to replace old (bad) habits with new (good) ones. So I’ll start having a little think about what habits could replace stress eating.
The problem is, very few things are ever going to be as easy as buying a load of junk food and stuffing it in my face. I’ve got a while to try a few different strategies though, and for now my goals are very modest so it’s not impacting me much. It’s good to be aware of this stuff though so I have time to ponder it.
Smug mindfulness cat is smug, and mindful. (And really, really full.)
That old chestnut. You’re taking some faltering steps towards a healthier diet, but what does a Healthy Meal (™) look like? For me, it generally looks something like this:
I know, ok? I know. It looks like primordial ooze. It looks like that kind of black mould that grows in student showers. It’s actually a pretty tasty lamb stew I made yesterday, and polished off this lunchtime.
This is the kind of stuff I like eating. One-pan recipes, like stews, casseroles and curries, or anything involving pasta or rice. Total carb junkie. You might be more a meat and potatoes person, or all about the sandwiches. Everyone’s different.
Most diet-diets, however, have a pretty strict list of stuff you’re supposed to either eat or avoid. Eat more protein, avoid starchy carbs! Eat loads of veggies, avoid fruit juice! Eat carbs, but only ones with the skin on! Eat babyfood! (Seriously.) Drink some weird sodding combo of lemon juice, chilli and maple syrup and poo out your small intestine every morning! (Still serious.)
You definitely, definitely have to be weirdly specific in order to achieve some magical super-combo of macro- and micro-nutrients that will finally make you healthy and give you abs!
Well, you do have to be kind of specific, so here’s the Golden Rule. Ready? Ahem. Here we go:
EAT WHAT YOU LIKE EATING.
Well, not quite it. That’s not to say you should stuff your gob with 15″ pizzas and triple-maple-bacon-cheeseburgers and giganto-fries every meal. But seriously, if you like pizza and you try to avoid pizza, all that’s going to happen is you’re going to really, really miss pizza.
So work out a way you can include pizza but make it ok for your healthier meals. Maybe just have half or a third of a modest pizza with some salad. Or make your own pizza and keep an eye on the ingredients you use. Or if you really just want the stuffed-crust one that’s dripping in four types of cheese and pepperoni, keep it in as a once a week kind of thing.
There’s loads of ways you can be healthy and carry on eating your favourite things. Just don’t cut them totally out of your diet. If you’re tempted to because Mister Sweet-Gains-Bro down at the gym told you you’ll never lose fat if you don’t cut X-thing right out of your diet, think back to all the other times you’ve tried to do this. What happens?
You immediately want that forbidden thing way more. It becomes the Most Desired Thing Ever. Even if it’s something you don’t particularly eat that much. You’ll want it because you have decreed that you can never have it.
I’m a carb junkie and I tried following a diet a while back that was super high protein and quite low carb. And what happened? After the first initial rush of Hooray-New-Thing, I got bored of all these endless slabs of meat I was having to force down and went on a mega binge of pasta, cakes, biscuits, sandwiches and ALL THE THINGS. Then felt terrible, stopped trying to eat healthy… Blah blah blah. All the usual.
The point is, you will want your favourite foods. Full stop. If you learn how to cook them healthily, you’ll enjoy healthy eating way more than if you’re trying to shoe-horn in meals you’ve never been that keen about. And if you keep the option open to have the full-fat-cream-and-OMG-yes-I-want-extra-syrup version from time to time, you won’t feel deprived.
Oh, and don’t turn into Mister Sweet-Gains-Bro. He eats chicken breast and broccoli 24/7. Probably chia seeds too. I mean, come on. That’s no way to live.
The target I set myself (having healthy lunch every day this week) isn’t exactly an onerous one. However, just six days in and I’ve managed not to meet it.
Yesterday I was a bit hungover from an excellent Friday night of pints, pints, wine and pints, so I had a Magnum for breakfast (it’s one of your five a day, right?). Then for lunch my fella and I went to the awesome local Persian place for a late (and large) lamb stew lunch, mopped up with copious amounts of flatbread. Then dinner consisted of more beer, and leftover takeaway pizza from the night before. A sum total of zero healthy meals.
So how am I going to deal with this?
Well, my usual tactics for dealing with failure involve wallowing in self-hatred, starving myself as much as possible, then giving in and binging on all the junk food EVER while watching crappy detective series for hours on end. Now, even I can see that this isn’t an amazingly good example of how to react to a setback. So this time, I’m going to do something different.
I’m not going to react to it at all.
That’s it. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. I’m just going to carry on as if it never happened.
That’s right. If I react to every little setback – and casting my mind back to previous attempts to control my behaviour, there will be loads – by beating myself up, I’ll make precisely no progress. If I try to ‘make up’ for not meeting a target by being harder on myself the next day, I’ll get overwhelmed and stop enjoying the process of slow change. So I’ll just mark down in my calendar that I didn’t meet the target and the circumstances surrounding me not meeting it, and then carry on as if nothing happened.
Then if a pattern starts to emerge – maybe everytime I get drunk on a Friday night, or go out with friends on a Saturday, I’ll be unable to meet my target – I can look at how to deal with this. Perhaps I’ll need to make or buy some meals so they’re ready in the fridge to be warmed up in the morning. Maybe I’ll need to ban the corner shop from stocking Magnums (practical!). But for now I’ve missed one healthy meal, there is no pattern, so I’m not going to cry over it or second guess myself.
The nice change here is that, despite doing something that didn’t fit the plan yesterday, I don’t feel awful today because I’m not blaming myself for it. Which means I’ve gone right back into cooking my healthy meal for today without a sniffle. (Today was lamb stew, and it was pretty bloody tasty.)
Not beating yourself up: turns out, it feels pretty good.
The word ‘nerd’ gets bandied about rather too much for my liking. These days you only have to find the Big Bang Theory witty, post up a couple of memes from IFL Science or read a Ben Goldacre book to be able to self-identify as a nerd. (Also, just for clarity, if you like the Big Bang Theory, you are wrong. Sorry.)
I’m not a nerd in the traditional science-y sense at all, more in that I find odd things deeply pleasurable. One of these things is the act of making and sticking to timetables.
I’m reasonably disorganised in most other ways, so the fact that I really like following schedules was a bit of a surprise when I found it out.
The revelation occurred when I was training for the London Marathon last year (an uncharacteristically sporty endeavour which has landed me with knee pain forever more). When I started on my 16 week training plan I was focused on the big race day and the lovely medal (which I did eventually get). However, as my training progressed I found myself liking it more and more, and specifically the act of following the training plan.
When you have a plan set out ahead of you it makes your progress very easy to see. You tick off the runs (or training sessions, classes, whatever) and you can see where you started, where you have got to, and your target to aim for. By the end of my marathon training, the much coveted medal was very much an afterthought.
At the risk of spouting tired homilies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.
So that’s what I decided to do for my gradual healthy eating journey. I got my geek on and made a timetable. Here’s some of it.
The green boxes indicate where I should eat a healthy meal, the blue ones where I don’t have to worry about what I eat. (As you can see, I’m not busting a gut yet, effort-wise.) I’ve got a column for notes to show when I’ve met my target for the day (plus a little smiley face) or if I haven’t managed to meet it, and why. And as you can see, progress is made, slowly but surely.
I think a correct amount of structure is what’s missing from most traditional healthy eating advice. Either a diet is too structured, requiring you to cut out all manner of foods from the word ‘Go’ and not allow any aspect of the real world to encroach on your ability to follow it; or there is no structure at all, and you’re merely supposed to follow very vague advice like, ‘Just eat less and move more’ without any indication of how this should be accomplished.
What I’m hoping is my new method will provide the best of both worlds – clear progress without being off-puttingly restrictive. A gentle, gradual change to habits.
Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. (Speaking of which, I’ve had my healthy meal for the day. I reckon it’s pudding time…)
Have you ever decided you wanted to make a massive change in your life, thrown yourself into it, then given up after a month? Could be a diet, exercise plan, quitting smoking, learning a new skill, meditating, volunteering… Whatever.
Most people will do this at least sometime in their life. New Year’s Day is many people’s battleground. Feeling wretched after a month of gorging ourselves on turkey, Christmas Pudding and booze, we make resolutions to turn over a new leaf, visit the gym at least 3 times a week, live on grilled chicken and steamed veg… Blah blah blah. All that rubbish.
And then what happens? Our newly-painted virtue masks slip, we stumble into Chicken Cottage after 12 pints of lovely amber ale, stuff endless fried chicken in our faces, then wake up the next morning and decide that we can’t face the treadmill today. Or ever.
And then next year comes round and we do it all again.
I’m Hel. That’s me on the dinosaur. I like dinosaurs.
I’ve been stuck in this perpetual cycle of try-stumble-fail for years. And despite years of doing the same things and it not working I’ve never managed to take the leap of logic that says if you’ve done it 50 times and it hasn’t worked, it’s probably not going to work on time number 51 either.
So now I’ve decided to try something different. I’m still going to try and change the things I think need changing in my life. But rather than being the hare, I’m going the way of the tortoise. Even slower than the tortoise.
My rate of progress is going to be that of the saguaro cactus. Really, really, really slow.
I’m going to tackle my diet first, because I go through horrendous cycles all the time of binge-starve-binge-starve-binge while being deeply unhappy.
For the first week the only rule I have is that I have to eat healthy lunch, of around 500 calories per meal with tons of veg in it, every day.
That’s it. No rules about only having 1,500 calories a day, or cutting out chocolate or biscuits or booze. Nope. Just healthy lunch every day. Then next week I’ll add in a healthy breakfast. And the week after maybe one more.
And if I mess up? That’s ok. I’ll just forget about it and have healthy lunch the next day.
The idea isn’t to be eating virtuously tomorrow, or next week, or next month. The idea is to be eating reasonably healthily this time next year.
Slow change. Seems a bit too bloody sensible for me, to be honest.