American’s Love Affair With Food: How can we break the cycle?

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 Fact: For most people, food is plentiful in our country. It is not always the best food for us, but in general, it’s out there. Except in remote areas, Americans are bombarded with opportunities to buy food through fast food restaurants with drive-up windows, convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and vending machines.    

Fact: Obesity is a rising problem in America, which brings with it long-term health problems, the most prominent being type-two diabetes mellitus.    

Fact: David Kessler and many others have found that certain foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, trigger an addictive food cycle, that makes it difficult for people to avoid eating those foods, or to eat them in moderate amounts.    

So what do we do about it? How do we break the cycle that frees us from overeating or eating the wrong kinds of food? We know it’s not easy. David Kessler wrote a whole book about it, after an arduous quest to find his answers. The plethora of other diet and weight loss solutions available through books, videos, weight loss centers and online programs tell us that many are trying but not all are succeeding. With obesity rising towards epidemic proportions in our country, it seems that Americans are losing the battle.   

Where to start? Here’s some tips that may work.   

Identify your food triggers. Kessler did this by diving into the dumpster behind a restaurant to find the ingredient list for the food served there that he found addictive. Hopefully most of us will not have to go to that extreme. Think about what foods you crave when you’re stressed, lonely and depressed, and what restaurants you frequent at those times, what foods you just can’t pass us adding to your grocery cart, and what foods you eat even when you’re not hungry.  This will give you a pretty good start. What’s next – never eat these foods again? Avoid driving by your favorite restaurant (and all the signs advertising it too?) Probably not practical solutions and likely will lead to a sense of deprivation. Try something moderate instead – keep your favorite can’t-resist-food out of sight on a high shelf, and allow yourself one day a week to indulge it. In a restaurant, share the favorite dessert with someone else, or ask the server to remove it after you’ve eaten half. (Seems wasteful I know, but these are desperate times.) Try chewing gum or brushing your teeth after you’ve allowed yourself an indulgent taste of your addictive food. Take one bite and throw the rest away. Only allow yourself to eat your addictive food in the presence of others, which makes it less likely that you’ll over-indulge. All of this takes planning, motivation and some self pep-talks. You may need to start a reward system for yourself, whether it be new shoes, a day off, etc. Find something to replace the pleasurable sensation that you get from your addictive food. The trick is to not replace it with something worse, like alcohol, tobacco, or online gambling.    

If you’re able to exercise and not already doing it, start. Many people find walking a good way to start. Start slow and increase gradually according to your own ability. If you can’t walk but have access to a gym, an alternative is a seated machine called a Nustep – the user sits in a comfortable chair with feet extended onto pedals, and hands on handles, sort of combination stair-climber and recumbent bike motion. Add weight lifting on alternate days, or use resistance bands at home if you can’t get to a gym. (More exercise tips in previous posts in the “exercise and fitness” category.) Exercise, in addition to helping with weight loss and maintaining bone mass, can provide a sense of well-being similar to what one gets from eating pleasurable foods. In fact, some excessive exercisers have found this to be so true that they become “addicted” to exercise. Something to discuss at another time.   

Find a buddy. If you partner with someone else who is working to avoid addictive foods and improve weight, having an ally can be a life-saver. You can encourage each other and hold each other accountable. Can’t find a buddy? Try an online program, attend a class, or meet with a dietician.   

Avoid fast food restaurants – probably the biggest source of addictive foods. This takes planning. Pack a lunch to take to work. If you miss going out with your coworkers, limit yourself to one lunch out per week. Bring food along when you’re traveling. After my recent bad experience eating Subway food while traveling, (see “Do you want a gallon of soda with that?”) my husband and I planned ahead on our next road trip. We knew we’d be on the road at lunch time, so on the way out of town, stopped at a grocery store and picked up salads, snacks and water. No fast-food debacle and about half the cost of a fast-food meal.      

Avoid check-out impulse buys. The latte when you run into the gas station. The gallon of popcorn at a movie. The candy bar in the check out line. The pretzel at the mall. Make a rule for yourself – only buy what you originally went into the store to buy.   

Avoid diet soda. For many people, the artificial sweetener in diet soda triggers an addictive food cycle, that   

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leads to overeating other foods. If you’re a big consumer of diet soda, you’ll probably have to cut back gradually. The worst idea ever? The invention of Diet Coke. It seems to be the biggest culprit because it has the great Coke taste, few calories, addictive caffeine, and is the drink of choice of celebrities. If you’re old enough, think back to a time before diet soda was invented – aka the 1950’s and 60’s. Do you remember seeing so many overweight people back then?   

Get help. If you find yourself frequently treating feelings of sadness and loneliness by eating pleasurable foods, consult your health care provider.  You may have an underlying depression that would be better treated medically or cognitively (talk therapy).   

What else? Share what works for you.     

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