It’s hard to lose weight. I’ll say that right up front. You can achieve this goal, though, if you set yourself up for success. Are you constantly setting yourself up for failure, without realizing it?
Birth of a food ritual
I’ve struggled with addictions to various foods since I was about 9 years old. The first habit that I remember was tied to Tuesday afternoons. On Tuesdays, my mom went food shopping.
She always brought home a big bag of freshly baked white rolls, and the weekly “TV Guide” magazine. As soon as she got in the door I’d grab the magazine and a bun and go into the living room alone. I’d eat roll after squishy delicious roll until I’d read all the articles. It didn’t really matter what they were about, as long as they kept me snacking. I began a lifelong habit of associating unhealthy, addictive foods with reading, as a way to relax and self-soothe.
I experienced other food-related disorders as the years went by. When things were at their very worst, a dietitian sorted me out. She had such an impact that I got a degree in Dietetics (before my M.D.). I was determined to help other women stop being slaves to food and dieting, just like she had helped me.
For over a decade now I have been working with women from around the world as a life and wellness coach. Though they come from diverse backgrounds, “lose weight” and/or “make better food choices” are on almost every goal list.
The Power of Stimulus Control
“Stimulus control” is a really important tool to lose weight and create a better relationship to food. Your environment will set you up for success or failure. The sights, smells, tastes and organization of your surroundings help you make good choices or make it likely that you will fall. You can control many elements of your environment, so that you no longer feel (or act) out of control with food.
Right now, do you feel hopeless and blame yourself for your poor willpower or failure to lose weight? Your environment could actually be the primary problem. What a relief to discover this!
Stimulus control is based on the fact that a particular stimulus or trigger in your environment causes a predictable response.
Practical Applications of Stimulus Control
A dimly lit, quiet, clutter-free bedroom which is used solely for the purpose of sleep will come to be associated with a restful night’s sleep. That carefully crafted stimulus will produce the response of being able to relax, fall asleep quickly and sleep more deeply.
If you put a desk piled high with work responsibilities next to your bed and light the room with bright fluorescent bulbs, you will predictably feel stressed and mentally alert. You won’t sleep as well. Setting up your bedroom with sleep-promoting stimuli is a really important strategy if you want to get a good night’s sleep.
Some of my favorite ways to win the stimulus control game and lose weight:
1) Know your specific food triggers and weaknesses
What foods make it hard or impossible for you to stop eating, once you get started? I have a really hard time with popcorn. It’s about ten times worse with kettle corn (salty sugary popcorn, oh dear). Once I get started on a bag, I will typically eat it all. And if I manage to stop at some point, but it’s still in the house, I will usually finish it off within the next 12 hours.
Make a list of foods that you can’t stop eating. It’s critical to know what these are. Stay away from them as much as possible. This one action alone will make it so much easier to lose weight. And there will still be lots of other foods you can enjoy, trust me on that.
2) Be realistic with yourself about trigger foods, and decrease your exposure
I know that I cannot eat just one cookie when I get started. It’s a law of nature. If I want to be kind to myself and set myself up for success, I don’t put unrealistic expectations on myself. I don’t knowingly set myself up for failure.
So. I don’t bake cookies (I will eat them all before they cool, or within a day or two anyway), and generally don’t buy cookies (when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t buy cookies). I don’t participate in Christmas cookie exchanges.
3) Commit to keeping these foods out of your house, your desk at work, etc.
If I can keep popcorn, tasty chips, ice cream, cookies and chocolate out of my house to begin with, I’ve won 90 percent of the battle. Of course, you may live with people who bring this stuff into the house, making it harder to control. See if you can get them on board with you to keep these things out. If they must have them, figure out how to deal with this problematic stimulus.
One of my clients had a locked cupboard where her husband and kids kept their junk food. Her husband had the key.
My husband makes comments like “you’ll regret it later” if he sees me eyeing a bag of popcorn at the store (he has been authorized to do this). Once he threw out a free chocolate bar that came in the mail. He took it right out of my hand, saying “you’ll thank me later” ( again, authorized to do this). I did thank him later.
If your break room or lunch room at work has tempting foods on display, stay out of that room. When there are pastries on the table during a meeting, choose a chair that isn’t within arm’s length of a pastry. Really, it can be that simple!
4) Keep only the healthiest foods in plain view
Visual cues are common triggers for bad choices.
If we leave an opened bottle of wine on the kitchen counter, I will mysteriously feel like having a glass of wine, all the time. I’ll pour one when I get home, to unwind. I’ll have a glass while I’m cooking. We’ll have wine while we watch a movie that night. On the other hand, if that bottle of wine goes into our pantry, we forget it’s there. Unless we really actually want a glass of wine, in which case we remember that it’s there.
Make the healthiest choices the most visually available. No tempting snacks on the counter. Push the junkier stuff, if it must be there, into the back of the fridge. Bury it at the bottom of the freezer, make it hard to get out. You might even forget it’s there, if you can’t see it.
Avoid watching food shows on TV if they make you feel like eating. They probably do.
5) Keep your kitchen tidy and clean
Research has shown that messy kitchens are associated with poorer eating habits and more out-of-control eating. Some of this is thought to be due to stress. A messy kitchen is stressful, and stress is a stimulus for (comfort) eating for most people.
Also, if your kitchen is messy it’ll feel more overwhelming or difficult to take the time to make a healthy meal or snack. You’ll be tempted to grab something processed or quick instead. Which you’ll regret later.
6) Reduce the available food choices
An excess of food choices stimulates you to overeat. Avoid a stuffed fridge and cupboards that overflow with different foods. Keep your options as simple as possible. If there are certain meals (even if healthy) that are so pleasing in sight, taste and smell that you always eat more than you should, limit the meals you prepare to a smaller roster. Your meal options should be healthy and reasonably enjoyable, but not too delicious. Sorry about that, but we want to give you a fighting chance here!
7) Make note of your rituals, and deconstruct them
There was nothing particularly good about my Tuesday afternoon white bun reading ritual. I didn’t find the articles that interesting, and all that white bread did me zero favors. The stimulus was that it was Tuesday, and my mom came home with those groceries rattling in those paper bags.
What are your rituals? Do you habitually eat when watching TV, even when you aren’t hungry? If so, TV is a stimulus for mindless snacking for you.
Make a list of other stimuli that trigger you into food behaviors that would do you good to change.
You can do this!
I don’t know that I’ll ever break the habit of TV snacking, but I’ve modified it to minimize regrets. I might snack on some crunchy veggies or hummus, or a bowl of blueberries, or a handful of dry Cheerios. That way I still enjoy the relaxing ritual, without the damage.
What rituals or responses to stimuli could you creatively change?
What rituals or responses do you need to ditch, right now?
A final tip: ask for support from people around you who want to see you succeed in your goal to lose weight. Brainstorm ways that they can help you create a healthier, more successful environment for yourself, and allow them to step in and help when you’re having a moment of weakness.
Once you’ve got your environment under control, you’ll be amazed by how much easier it is to keep those promises to yourself.