Weight Control Infocenter
How to Change Your Conditioned Responses to Certain Foods
By Caryl Ehrlich
When trying to lose weight, there are certain foods that each person is more attracted to than other foods. Some find the morning cup of coffee quite addictive. To others it is bread. Many cannot have dinner in a restaurant without having an alcoholic beverage. With me it was always something sweet.
A good first step is to tally the number of times you consume each category of food in a seven-day period. Then, after the next seven-day period, do it again. Making a list of foods such as bread, salad, starch, dessert, beverage, and alcohol is a good idea. You can compare each week with the previous to see if you are achieving some of your goals.
You’re not only trying to lose weight and to feed the smaller person you are becoming, you are also trying to reverse the progression of the addiction model here. In a progressive addiction, the portion-size and frequency of usage keep escalating each time you build a tolerance for a particular food. The amount you need increases and the usage becomes more frequent. As you begin to lose weight, the portion-size of food and frequency-of-usage diminish in size, and number of hits.
Diminish Number of Times Each Day
The most frequently chosen items are bread, beverage, dessert, and alcohol. Some items may tally anywhere from zero to 15 and even 20, each week, or, anywhere from one to four times each day. If, for example, you choose any one item four times a day, cut it to three, then to two, then to once a day.
One of Four Or None
Strive to achieve having either Bread or Beverage or Dessert or Alcohol, picking only one of four or none per meal. If you are trying to eat a wide variety of foods, much of this will happen naturally.
Talking to yourself is helpful as you choose each item less and less frequently. Think: “instead of another piece of bread, I’ll have a vegetable.” Or, “Instead of another cup of coffee, this time I’ll have a cup of hot water.” Remind yourself, hourly if necessary, “I want to weigh __________ pounds.” Remember some of the action steps you can take to help you get there. The moments do pass. A helpful goal: Be pro-active rather than re-active. If you weren’t thinking of an item two minutes before seeing it, you’re responding to a visual stimulus rather than an actual physical hunger.
Get rid of that oversized mug and pour your coffee into a regular-sized cup. Perhaps you’ll feel fine with a few segments of grapefruit; a few bites of coleslaw. As you lose weight and your stomach shrinks, you should be filling up sooner and will require less of everything than you did when you were a bigger person.
Pick One No-Coffee Day
As item usage diminishes to once a day, the next step might be to pick one no-coffee day and/or, one no-bread day and/or, one no-alcohol day and/or, one no- __________ day. (Fill in your most frequently chosen item.) Writing your intention into your agenda book (or calendar) will be a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish. If there are many items you choose more than three, four, times each week, pick one at a time and practice not having it one day a week before moving on to the next item. For example, Sunday could be a No-Coffee Day, Wednesday a No-Bread Day, and so on.
Another technique to aim for is No Multiples – no second cup of coffee, no second drink, not another piece of bread after the first, and no second or third helpings, even if it is Thanksgiving. Remember, in a restaurant, you’d never say to the waiter: “Maurice, is there another chicken leg in the kitchen.”
As you lose weight and become smaller, your food requirements will be smaller, too. The next level would be to Skip-A-Day. If you had one category of food yesterday, don’t have it today. And if you have it today, don’t have it tomorrow. Skipping days will force you to seek more variety and ultimately lessen the hold some items have on you. Choosing any item three or four times a week works out well for most people, but for good health, red meat (beef) or cheese should be your choice no more than once a week.
If you are sensitive to refined flour most often found in bread and pasta, choosing it once every third or fourth day might work best. Choosing a baked potato, corn, or a yam every other day in lieu of pasta might be a better choice still.
Some days having a dark vegetable instead of another salad may be exactly what is needed and will help you achieve the Skip-A-Day suggestion.
If you select the same category of food every day, you’re eating it 365 days a year, and at the end of the year you’ll have eaten loaves of bread, vats of coffee, pounds of chocolate, gallons of soda, troughs of salad. By choosing these items every other day, you’re only having them 182 ½ times a year. That shows up as a noticeable loss of weight and inches. Choose an item every third or fourth day and the results will be obvious that much sooner. Choosing the same foods all the time cheats you out of valuable nutrients you’d find in a wider variety of food.
Shake it all up. If you have coffee at breakfast one morning, select it for lunch or dinner the next time, or not at all. This reduces your reliance on coffee to get you up in the morning. By Skipping and Scattering, you’ll get in the mind set of sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t. This helps prove that the opposite of “I love this food,” is not “hate,” but rather indifference.
When I drank alcohol regularly and frequented a restaurant near my apartment, the bartender actually knew my usual drink. I was embarrassed to know that someone was watching what I was eating and drinking, that my compulsive, ritual, behavior was noticed by someone else. More embarrassing was that the cashier in a local health and beauty aids shop knew my usual choice of candy.
I remember deciding to have a no-dessert (candy for me) day, and as I stood at the checkout counter, the cashier reached down to my favorite candy. He put the foil-wrapped bar on the counter, and said: “You forgot your candy.” I was so embarrassed that I meekly paid for it along with my other purchases and left the store. Charting these foods might show this type of behavior but it might also show that you’re not having enough salads, starches, or dark vegetables, and those items might need to be increased.
Yes, I ate the candy, but the next time – there’s always a next time – I had repatterned enough that I was able to leave the store sans unplanned food. I kept reminding myself (mental repatterning): “I’m not hungry, I only eat when I’m hungry, and besides, I want to weigh __________ pounds.
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This article is an excerpt from the book Conquer Your Food Addiction published by Simon and Schuster. Caryl Ehrlich, the author, also teaches The Caryl Ehrlich Program, a one-on-one behavioral approach to weight loss in New York City. Visit her at