It’s not all-or-nothing

In my own struggle to be simultaneously slim, happy, and physically and mentally healthy, one of the most important things I have learned is that wellness is not all-or-nothing. Rather, it’s more of a dose-response relationship. In other words, the more healthy behaviors and practices you adopt, the healthier you will be. For example, just because you do not have time to exercise as often or as intensely as is recommended does NOT mean you might as well not exercise at all.

I have had a hard time accepting this concept, especially at times when I have less time to work out or at times when I’m tempted to indulge in a very decadent meal or dessert. My closest friends and family know that I am not the most flexible when it comes to nutrition and exercise, but I have gotten a lot better.

Usually, when I am prevented from working out for any reason, I become frustrated and worried about gaining weight. I hurt my foot running a few weeks ago, and was told to stop exercising until it healed. There was a time when I would have run with the injury, but now I accept that having a functioning foot is more important than a week without cardio.

As another example, the other night I went to Chipotle, which had run out of brown rice. I had an internal struggle about eating white rice instead that would probably seem ridiculous to most people. Not so long ago I probably would have waited the half an hour for the brown rice, or insisted on eating somewhere else, but I did end up eating the white rice. I don’t think I’m any worse off for it.

Summer brings lots of occasions that test my resolve to be fit yet flexible. Eating healthy on vacation seems to be a universal struggle. You eat out for every meal, and working out is often not as convenient on the road as it is at home. I am actually leaving for Israel this week for a 10 day trip. The last time I went overseas to Italy, I was extremely nervous about eating too much and not being able to work out. But now I’m not so nervous. Why? It’s one week and a half of my life. My favorite part of traveling is the food, and I’m not going to deprive myself of experiencing any of it (except the meat, of course). I won’t get to run or work out in a gym, but I’ll be hiking and walking and being generally active the whole time. I’ll be so exhausted I probably won’t be able to lift a finger to do any additional exercise. When I went to Italy, I ordered whatever I wanted and stopped before I was full, and didn’t gain any weight. So I feel confident that I can enjoy myself without going overboard. It’s not all-or-nothing! 

If you’re having a big holiday meal tomorrow, or if you’re going on a trip this summer, these are my tried-and-true tips:

  • try to fill up on fruits and vegetables–make sure you’re nourishing yourself before you have treats
  • ask yourself how much you need of anything more indulgent to be satisfied, and only eat that much
  • be active as much as possible
  • accept that your normal routine will probably get off track, but your health and figure do not have to be completely derailed as a result
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Smaller pieces, smaller waistline?

In honor of being done with spring semester and sophomore year (how scary is that??), I want to tell my dear readers, few though you may be, about the healthy eating tip I learned while researching my final paper.

The instructor of my research seminar called this phenomenon “Eating the Numbers.” I will demonstrate it with an example: you’re having a party and you have a pizza.

You could cut it into 8 slices or 16 slices. If you serve the 8-slice pizza, your guests will eat significantly more pizza than if you served the 16-slice pizza. This has been demonstrated many times in empirical research. Essentially, the more units into which a food is divided, the less absolute volume of food will people eat. So if you serve half oz fun size candy bars, people will voluntarily eat less total chocolate than if you served regular size 2 oz bars.

This occurs, we think, because people judge quantities in terms of number of units much more automatically than weight or volume. That is, if you see the same quantity of chocolate in one piece versus five pieces, you will tend to think there is more chocolate when it’s divided into five units. “Five is more than one” is the most automatic judgment you can make to compare the quantity. And some researchers think we have a “unit bias” which makes us feel that a unit of food provides a benchmark for the appropriate amount to consume. So the more units we eat, the less appropriate it becomes and the more full we expect to feel, so we stop eating sooner.

How can we use this to our advantage? Obviously, we can divide things into units. Cut the cake into smaller pieces. Or better yet, make cupcakes. Make mini cupcakes! Repackage that box of crackers or cookies into smaller servings. You get the idea. Set yourself up to eat less without even noticing!

Happy summer!

A Call to Action on Food: What Can You Do?

I received a comment on my last post asking what was my call to action for individuals in terms of what can they do to change the food system. This post is my reply.

If what I write about inspires you to take action to change our flawed and backwards food system, this is what I challenge you to do:

  • Adopt Meatless Mondays, or any meatless day or days, really. Any systematic reduction in the amount of animal products that we consume will have a positive effect on human health (including cancer, antibiotic resistant infections, and other foodborne pathogens), animal welfare, natural resource use, greenhouse gas emissions, and worker justice.
  • Only buy products that you can feel good about eating. This particular challenge is quite overwhelming, and I certainly don’t know that everything I eat was produced by an establishment whose practices I completely approve. But I gradually try more and more all the time. Websites like http://www.humaneitarian.org can help you find out where you can purchase meat you can feel good about and help you decipher label claims like “cage free” and “humanely raised”. As far as worker justice is concerned, you might have to do a little more research; one great organization that can point you toward socially just shopping is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
  • Buy locally, which will also mean seasonally. Don’t be fooled by some modern farmer’s markets where the produce actually comes from far away. Try to buy it directly from the farmer. A farm share (assuming its local) can be a great way to eat whole, seasonal produce and prepare it yourself. If you don’t know, a purchasing a farm share entitles you to a certain amount of produce, and sometimes dairy or meat, each week from a particular farm or farms. It’s a lot of food each week usually, but you don’t get to pick what they give you, which actually encourages you to cook new healthy foods!
  • Vote with your fork. This means that you should encourage your lawmakers, locally and federally, to take a stance on important food issues, and vote for the politicians that will represent your food values. Many non-profit organizations that work on food issues, such as Center for Science in the Public Interest and Center for Food Safety send out “action alerts” to subscribers to let them know when there are petitions they can sign or critical moments to contact legislators, and they usually give you a template message to send.
  • Most importantly, spread the word. The only way to get more people to care about these issues is to make sure they know about them. Start a dialogue with the people you care about, tell them why you choose to eat real. If you’re going to encourage them to make changes, start with small ones. Or, if you’re verbally inclined, you can write about food, like I do. It’s not very difficult to start a blog these days.

I acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, any one individual adopting these practices won’t tip the scales of the food movement; however, if more and more people move in this direction it could really make a difference. As I always say, you have to start somewhere.