Guest Post By Donna Smith
Call it what you will, munching, carb loading, fulfilling a craving, snacking, having a treat … it’s all the same thing …. Taking on excess calories. Of course, if we only reached for carrots or apples to meet this “need,” then it really wouldn’t be a problem. But the food that usually appears in our hands and subsequently in our mouths is more typically chips, ice cream, cookies, candy, etc. Do we enjoy this? Yes. Have we been inundated since early childhood by advertising to do just this? Absolutely. Is it smart, thoughtful, useful, beneficial to our bodies in any way? Hardly! Other sources address the “why” of this behavior. This article addresses ways to control it so that it no longer subverts our efforts to achieve fitness.
First, take a close look at what you eat every day. Just write down all that you eat. Next, look at what you are doing while you’re eating, (e.g., sitting at the dining table, working at your desk, watching TV, browsing the web.) Your list might look something like this:
- Cereal, coffee and juice, 7:00 a.m., sitting at the dining table
- Coffee and doughnut, 8:00 a.m., grabbed in the break room and taken to my desk
- Soda, 9:30 a.m., at my desk
- Sandwich and chips with soda, noon, eating with colleagues
- Soda, 1:00 p.m., taken back to my desk after lunch
- Coffee and M&M’s, 2:30 p.m., at my desk trying to get an energy boost
- A beer and a couple of jalapeño poppers with friends after work
- Chicken, rice, squash and broccoli, 7:00 p.m., sitting at the dining table
- Popcorn and soda, 8:30 p.m., sitting on the couch watching TV
- Milk and cookies, 10:00 p.m., getting ready for bed and watching the local news
Looking at this all written out makes you want to say, “I don’t eat like that. That’s way too much food!” But I am willing to bet that if you’re concerned about those pants which just don’t fit like they use to, that your list, if you’re honest with yourself, will be very similar. Pick up an old grocery receipt and really look at what’s on it. Look at what’s on your kitchen shelves or in your refrigerator. Large or small, the behavior is there.
Once you’ve made such a list, cross out the meals and then look at what’s left. This is the part that contains most of the excess empty calories (i.e., the calories that have little to no nutritional value and serve no purpose for your body except to pack on extra weight.)
Once you clearly recognize and acknowledge this behavior in yourself, then you can work to change it. Here are some tips that can help you make this change.
- Keep a list going every day. Believe me, your conscious mind doesn’t want to keep seeing that junk on your list.
- Start reading the nutrition facts about the extra foods you choose to put in your mouth. Read the package or check it out online.
- Once you know what’s in the food you are thinking about eating, ask yourself, “what does this do for me?”
After you have repeated the above steps enough, you can boil all of this down to one simple question. “Is eating this food a smart choice?” If the answer is “no,” then consider taking another action. Here are some tips on other actions.
- Choose to eat something else to which the answer to the “smart choice” question is “yes!” Try fruit, yogurt, nuts or seeds, a protein drink, an energy bar or some other small snack that you know to have nutritional value (i.e., something that feeds your body with protein or vitamins.)
- If you’re not really hungry, then do something else. A lot of this munching behavior is driven by the need to be doing something in addition to or other than what you’re already doing. Find something to do with your hands … crafts, crossword puzzles, games, web-surfing, etc. At work I keep a star-shaped slinky on my desk and when I feel the need to reach out and grab something, I pick it up and run it through my hands till the urge passes. It’s much better for me than M&M’s and co-workers love to play with it, too. At home I crochet to keep my hands busy while watching TV. It’s all about finding something to do instead of picking up worthless food and putting it into your mouth.
Here are a couple more tricks to break this unconscious behavior.
- Don’t keep that kind of food in the house or office. This can be a problem if you live or work with others who don’t have the same commitment to improve eating habits, but see what adjustments you can make. You don’t have to stock the foods that really tempt you. If chocolate is your thing, then buy cookies for the family, but don’t buy chocolate cookies. Minimize your bad options so that at 10:00 at night when you find yourself in the kitchen looking for something to munch, there just isn’t anything there that’s bad for you.
- Choose the time when it’s okay (i.e., the least damaging to your fitness and health), to eat the things you really like. If you really love ice cream, then use it as a treat for yourself after you’ve gone a whole week without excess eating. I definitely like sweets and so I limit myself to only eating sweets that are really very good and therefore worth expending the empty calories. This means that I don’t munch doughnuts just because someone brought them into the office, but if we go out for lunch to a restaurant that has great tiramisu, then I let myself have it. But it has to be really great as opposed to just on the menu!
Finally, no discussion of consuming empty calories is complete without discussing alcohol. When, where, what and why you drink alcohol is your own business and not the topic of this article. Being aware of calorie intake when you drink alcohol, is. Hard liquor ranges from 25 to 110 calories per shot, and liqueurs are closer to 150. Mixed drinks really start to escalate caloric intake and those with several kinds of alcohol, sweeteners and whipped cream start to rival rich desserts for calories. 16 ounces of beer averages around 200 calories and 4 ounces of wine ranges from 65 to 100 calories. The important thing to remember here is notwithstanding claims of benefits to health from wine, these are all empty calories, and should be given the same choice test above for eating snack food. Any perfectly nutritionally balanced day topped off with consuming 500 calories of alcohol will result in weight gain. But don’t take my word for it, just step on your scales!
We’re talking about replacing a bad habit with deliberate action to improve fitness. It’s not easy, but it is the smart thing to do. There are basically three steps:
- Identify and define the behavior of consuming excess, empty calories for yourself.
- Identify what triggers this behavior.
- Either eliminate the trigger or replace the behavior it triggers with something more beneficial to your health.
The goal is to be able to say, “I make smart choices about what I eat!”