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

No More Sugar for You!

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

#Weight 246 lbs or so September 2019

Bad Name, and That’s the Point

Overeaters Anonymous (OA) had been on my radar for a few years. I can’t remember exactly how it got there, though I think it just occurred to me one day that, since I had a kind of addiction to food, maybe someone had started applying the lessons of Alcoholics Anonymous to foodaholics. 

I do remember thinking, when I first uncovered the name and existence of OA, “Really? That’s the name? Whomever came up with that awful name was definitely no marketing genius.” Organizations such as Weight Watchers and, more recently, Noom, definitely have less insulting brands. In fact, I used to be a Weight Watchers member some years ago.

“I’m not an ‘overeater,'” I thought, “just someone who has a bit of a problem stopping eating sometimes.” So, what’s the difference? Well, really, in my case, there is none. I was, in fact, a person who ate too much, who binged at times, who, once I got on a real roll (i.e., a binge) had a hard time stopping. 

But as I learned more about OA, I realized that the terrible name is, in ways, part of the point. If you can get past the name, then maybe you’re actually ready to get serious about your condition. You eat compulsively, and therefore you overeat.
Now, there are other types of related eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, and OA helps with those conditions as well. But, in my own case, I exactly fit the bill of the organization: a guy who at times just plain ate too much.

Tell like it is.

The Virtual Member

I’ve never officially joined OA and, as of this writing, haven’t attended an actual OA meeting, either real or virtual. Yet, if not for the resources created by OA, I doubt I would have lost any real weight. 

Okay, so what were my steps as a kind of stealth OA member? Well, I started by going to the OA website, figuring out when and where the local meeting would take place, and put some of those meeting on my calendar. Did I go? No. I had every intention of going…someday. But I was always too busy, or too tired, too reticent, etc.

Things went on this way for a quite a while. I added the “Find a Meeting” page on the OA website (oa.org) to the home screen on my smartphone. Even then, though, I didn’t go.

What I did do, eventually, however, was look for OA-related phone apps. The first one I found was “OA Speaker Tapes & Workshops.” It’s one of those freemium apps that have some free stuff and then, if you want to get the premium stuff, you buy a subscription.

This was the app that taught me the basics of the OA philosophy and methodology. How? Mostly via the recordings of multiple OA speakers, all suffering from the same kind of “insanity” (their word) as I have had during periods in my life. Their stories are often darker and more dramatic than my own story, but I recognized them as fundamentally the same.

And it gave me my first experience with the common threads and concepts that run through OA talks: 

  • the idea that we collectively suffer from a kind of compulsion that makes us do things (such as binge eat) that are consciously and explicitly bad for us
  • the controversial (to me) notion that there is a “higher power” that can help us accomplish things that we couldn’t accomplish on our own, a concept inherited from Alcoholic Anonymous
  • the (to me) fantastically useful idea that there are certain foods from which we must entirely abstain because, otherwise, they send us into spates of binge eating in the same way a first drink can cause a true alcoholic to lose control of their sobriety.

Eventually I found another app called “OA Speakers Free” which contains scores of speakers telling the stories of how they began eating compulsively, how they eventually sought help at OA, and their ongoing journeys toward recovery. Like the members of AA, the members of OA seldom claim to be “cured” of their disease/compulsion/anxiety or whatever you want to call it. They know they’re only one good binge from going back to compulsive eating.

Don’t Pull that Trigger

For me, I think the single most useful insight I gleaned from listening to all these speakers is the concept of abstinence from “trigger foods.” What’s difficult to understand, at first, is that everyone has their own trigger foods that, once you consume, lead you down the road of eating ugly quantities of other foods. For me, ice cream is definitely a trigger food in that, once I start, I have a hard time stopping.

It isn’t just that I have a hard time stopping from eating ice cream itself. It’s that consuming ice cream makes me hungry for everything else in the fridge and cupboards.

Why ice cream? I think it’s the combination of fat and sugar. Either very fatty food or very sugary foods are profoundly tempting to me. Put them together in the form of ice cream, cake, pie or lots of other baked goods, and I’m lost. So, I decided to abstain completely from those kinds of foods.

I eventually went further, abstaining from processed sugar generally. That includes, of course, any type of candy. I also try to avoid foods with high fat content. For example, I don’t eat buttered popcorn because I know that’ll set me off (and I don’t eat unbuttered popcorn because, well, what’s the point without the butter?) Same goes for junk foods of all kinds. That combination of salt, fat and carbs (perfected in the form of a potato chip) is my road to ruin.

And Lose the Boob Tube

My other trigger is not a food at all. It’s the activity that, from a young age, I’ve associated with food: television. TV is, as I’ve already made clear elsewhere, a psychological trigger for me. Abstaining helps me read more and do other stuff worth doing. When I do watch TV, I won’t allow myself to eat in front of it. Not ever. I know where that road leads.

My one exception is when my wife wants to eat dinner in front of the TV, which seldom occurs. This is dangerous for me and there may come a time when I find I can’t even do this, but so far I’ve walked that fine line.

That’s Madness!

Now, you may be thinking, “Why that’s madness! Gain some self-control, man!” But that’s exactly my point. My self control is in NOT eating things that make me lose control. For other people, if they have a eating disorder at all, it may have nothing to do with TV or ice cream or sugars. Instead, they may have other triggers such as bread or rice or butter or potatoes. But I think every compulsive eater has a trigger.

I’ve had people make fun of these abstentions, which have been my rule for the last two and a half years. I just smile and roll with the ribbing. Heck, it sounds a little silly to me sometimes. I think about Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi and think about myself as the Sugar Nazi: “No more sugar for you!”

Still, I know I just need to live a different way from most other people. The good part is that it has made my “food life” so much better that it can be hard to describe. In essence, I’ve largely been set free from the Dogman, and I’m willing to give up any dessert on the planet for that freedom.

Of course, it’s not really that simple. I developed more of a plan than that, which I’ll get into in the next post.

Featured image: V.O. Hammond Pub. Co., Chicago - Postcard scan. Children in Chicago surround an ice cream vendor in 1909.