In the Habit of Eating

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

In my last post, I discussed my change in food habits, especially my new abstentions. Here I just want to elaborate a bit.

Warning: I’m not saying any of this will help others facing similar challenges. Everybody’s different. But I’ve gained knowledge and inspiration from the stories of others, and so I’m sharing my own here.

Breaking the Chains of Habit

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

Samuel Johnson
  1. Let’s start with my abstention from processed sugar. This keeps me away from a lot of the things that trigger bad eating behaviors, especially foods that combine sugars and fats, including ice cream, baked desserts, milkshakes, etc.
  2. I now eat more salad and vegetables in general. By eating more salads (with lots of good stuff on them in terms of avocados, olives, regular dressing, etc.), I get better nutrition in addition to more fiber and roughage, which reduces feelings of hunger. 
  3. I don’t eat anything after 8 pm. This used to be hard for me. Now I’ve internalized that I won’t starve between 8 at night and the morning. (Sometime I vocalize this to myself, saying something, “You are not gonna starve between now and breakfast, so just chill out and work your plan.” When I first started down this road, I allowed myself a piece of raw fruit after 8 if I was truly hungry. The idea was that if I’m not hungry enough to eat a piece of fruit, then I know it’s my compulsion talking; that is, I’m not actually hungry, only craving food to fill some psychological need. Nowadays, I simply don’t eat after 8.
  4. I strive to eat three square meals a day with only a piece of fruit between meals and after dinner. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule yet. Sometimes I’ve been known to eat other things between meals, such as seeds or even cold cuts. But experience has shown me that if I can follow this simple plan, I’m more likely to lose weight or maintain my current weight.
  5. In the morning, I’ve tended to consume rice-based carbs (usually Rice Chex) and fruit. For some reason, rice carbs don’t make me crave other foods as much as other carbs do. There’s some science to this but I pretty much go with what works. In recent months, however, I’ve been able to eat shredded wheat without developing any other cravings.
  6. No eating in front the TV or other media playing device. This is a major one for me. I can’t break the chains of overeating without breaking the bonds between eating and television.

For a while, I kept a spreadsheet with checkboxes that I used to track my meals, daily exercise, abstinence from TV, etc.. It was kind of satisfying to check the boxes after I’d done something (or not done something). That helped me get through the first couple of months of more sensible eating but I stopped using it after that as the habits became more engrained.

Some Resources That Helped

Nearly every moment of every day, we have the opportunity to give something to someone else – our time, our love, our resources.

S. Truett Cathy

One thing that helped a lot when I first starting go down this road was listening to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) speakers because they share a lot of stories in which they tell of their own challenges and lessons learned. One app I found especially helpful was OA Speakers Free, which I downloaded from Google Play Store. I listened to these speakers quite often for a period of several months. There are a lot of interesting speakers (at least for me), many who have some version of the same problems I’ve suffered.

I also listened to the audio version of Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book”, which is like the Bible for AA members. No, I’m not an alcoholic, but part of the thinking behind OA is that some of the same principles that apply to alcoholics can apply to people who are overeaters. This book was written in another era from ours, but it’s a seminal work and I’m glad I listened to it.

So far, I’ve never been a physical OA meeting, partly because the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020. But I know how to locate local meetings and other resources, and I joined the Overeaters Support group on Facebook. That said, I’m not a traditional 12-stepper (so far), though I see no problem with that approach if it work for folks.

The Whole “Higher Power” Thing

There are some things you have to give up to the higher power.

Jimmy Smits

One of the tenets of OA is that you turn to a “higher power” to help support you in sticking to your abstinences and better eating habits. This originally stems from the religious component of AA. The idea is to pray to God (or some other “higher power” for the more secular-minded) to help alcoholics refrain from drinking. One of the tenets here is that a person’s unaided willpower is not enough to keep them abstinent.

So, how does an agnostic or atheist deal with this part of the tradition? There are various alternatives. One is to just ignore it, though this means not truly following one of the mainstays of the philosophy. Another is to visualize something aside from the traditional idea of God or gods as your higher power (that is, a power “greater than ourselves”). This could be nearly anything. The universe, the Earth, the network of humanity, love, etc.

Personally, I’ve found the higher power tenet to be useful. There’s something about taking the emphasis off ego-driven willpower that makes the transition to healthier eating more achievable. Is this just a bit of psychological judo? I’m not qualified to say. I only know that it’s helped me.

Food Journal

Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive.

George Bernard Shaw

Part of my approach is to write a food journal, though I don’t typically track food in it. Rather, I use it to write about my personal “food journey,” which is a fancy way of saying I write about how I approach food today and in the past. To put this journey into a larger context, I also research and write about obesity-related topics.

The journal helps me understand my own relationship to food and how my issues and habits reflect those of the larger culture. It turns out to be a surprisingly deep topic that goes well beyond the topics covered in a conventional diet book. I don’t really believe diets work. I believe healthy eating does.

In the end, no one gets out of life alive, no matter how healthy their diet. So, healthy eating is, above all, enjoying the life you have while you have it. If better eating happens to extend that life a little, that’s just a bonus.

Featured image by Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party; Français : Le déjeuner des canotiers

After Work Cometh the Dogman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

Back in early 2019, I tended to stop working around 5 pm, though often more like 5:30 or 6. If I’d been good that day after lunch, sometimes I’d had a mid-afternoon snack, something along the lines of fruit or a slice of cheese. If not, however, I’d had something more. Either way, though, by the time I’d knocked off work (keeping in mind I was working from home), I was pooped. 

The Dogman

That’s when it got harder for me to make good eating decisions. I could hear the scratching, scratching of the “other” Mark wanting to get in the door of the wheelhouse. I call that version of myself the Dogman.

The Dogman is kind of like the Wolfman, except not as scary to anyone but myself.

Let me start by saying I love dogs. I grew up with a black Lab who was, as the trope goes, my best friend. His name was Spiro. He was a character, and I could write a book on him alone. He was also a big eater and a bit of a drooler who would lay his jaw on my thigh when I was sitting down for a meal. 

I fed him from the table, of course. How could I not? This was back in the days when having a trained dog just meant you could get him to “shake.” Screw discipline. We were the Vickers family. We ate what we wanted and we damn well fed our dogs what they wanted as well.

Hank the Dog

Later in my adult life, my wife and I got a yellow Lab named Hank. It was a different age and we lived in the city, so we trained Hank. It was easy, except when it wasn’t.

Like so many members of his breed, Hank was smart but impetuous when he was a young dog.  We taught him to stay, heel, wait and a bunch of other commands. He was a natural, learning so fast you’d think he was just remembering commands rather than hearing them for the first time. We were grateful to have such a brilliant student. Or, at least, he was brilliant in the backyard

In the “real world” it was a different story. I’d take him for a walk off the leash on the local college campus where I worked.  We’d be soaking in the scenery, the grass expanses, the hibiscus and azalea, the palms and the tall oak trees. If I asked, he’d heel like a champ, like there was an invisible lead between us.

Until, that is, he saw a squirrel. I was, of course, usually able to see the squirrel first because of my height advantage. So, I’d tell him to heel, which he did…right up to the time he saw the squirrel. Then his eyes would light, his ears perk up, his feet start to dance. 

“Hank, heel,” I’d say in a low, alpha-dog voice, practically a growl.

But, then, he just couldn’t take it anymore, and off he’d dash, running the squirrel or squirrels up the nearest tree. 

It’d burn my ass. He knew better. He just wasn’t listening, damn it!

I’d bring him back and tell him what a schmuck he was. He looked truly repentant, as if saying, “Sorry, Mark, I’ll never do it again. Cross my heart and hope to…”

But then there’d be another squirrel and off he’d go.

Eventually, I learned to get him on the leash before he could see the squirrels. He’d yank on the leash at first but then realize he was stuck with me. At that point, he’d heel properly, though focusing all his attention on the squirrel.

“Good boy,” I’d tell him. “Good boy.”

SKERAAAATCH!

So, what does the Hank story have to do with my eating issues? Well, there were two Hanks. There was backyard Hank who never failed to obey a command, and there was college-campus Hank, who sometimes gave my commands a big “screw you.”

Same dog. Different behaviors. 

Hank could also be two different canines when it came to eating. He loved to eat, a true Vickers. He could wolf down a can of dog food in 30 seconds. He could even devour a dried pig’s ear (yes, those are a thing) in only a minute or two.

When it came to eating, there was Hank when you were around and Hank when you weren’t. When you were around, Hank wouldn’t beg at the dinner table, or eat the cat food, or even grab meat off the kitchen counter. 

But when you weren’t around, he’d chow down on the cat kibble, beg from any houseguest who didn’t know the rules, and give into the temptation to pull down Publix slices of roast beef off the kitchen counter (which, in his defense, he only did once or twice–as he got older, he really became quite disciplined).

Well, you get the picture. As with the squirrels, Hank had impulse-control issues, especially as a younger dog.

And so it is that I refer to my “other” self as Dogman, the beast inside me who also has impulse control issues. 

Oh, I don’t mean all the time. Not even usually. But enough of the time to get and keep me fat. 

And it was usually after work that I could feel the Dogman scratching at the door of my mind in the same way Hank would use his big paw to scratch at the back door when he wanted to come in. It was a scratching sound that started off as a low sound, but got progressively louder as he grew more impatient.

Before long, it was a loud, drawn out SKERAAAATCH! A grating and subliminally frightening noise, something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. 

It was also a sound that would drive my wife into a fury. She’d jump up, fling up the door, and yell “Enough already!” at the Hank, who with a slightly sheepish but secretly triumphant look, walked by her and into the living room, where he’d jump up on our (increasingly worn) brown couch, deeply sighing as he sank into a comfortable sleep.

In the meantime, my wife would be examining the ever deepening gouge marks on the outside of the door and bemoaning her fate as the long-suffering owner of a “bad dog.” Which he wasn’t, really. But the scratching, oh, that scratching, was monstrous.

And so was the mental scratching of my hunger after work. It started as a low, barely perceptible scratching, but it grew progressively louder and more demanding. My wife couldn’t hear it, but she could hear me rummaging. What could I eat? Popcorn, perhaps. A piece of cheese, some fruit, a slice of salami. Maybe each of these, though not all at once. Just enough food to tamp down the inner, relentless scratch-scratch-scratching of the Dogman.

It was worse when I sat down or, usually, lied down on the sofa to watch some television before dinner, which my wife usually cooks. (Yeah, I know, traditional sexist role assignments. We’ll get to that.)  This was part of stress relief after work: watching television or, to be precise, streamed television since we don’t have traditional cable, a distinction without a difference in this case.

This habit goes back, way back, to my childhood, where my big, fat-craving brain was first trained and nurtured, setting me on a road which I’ve since traveled for far too long. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Feature image from magazine illustration of Lon Chaney Jr in makeup as The Wolf Man. From Horror Monsters, volume 1, number 1, page 2 (inside cover). Edited in Photoshop to be black-and-white. Wikipedia.