“I couldn’t help it. I can resist everything except temptation.”
-Oscar Wilde, Lady Windmere’s Fan
The Holidays are upon us, huzzah!
I mean that. I love the Holiday Season, from Halloween to Hanukkah to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Years Eve—I love my way through the highs and lows. I used to eat my way through them, too.
Last Holiday Season, with great support, help planning and one more thing, I was able to lose weight from Halloween to New Years, and you can, too. Anyone can. This year I’m just trying to maintain weight—and we all know that’s just as much a challenge. But, I’m ready for the task. I have a tool box and I know my tools well.
Now it’s your turn.
Thinking Outside the Box
“I’m a Warrior Girl. This is my weapon.”
-My Ever Inspiring Daughter
The weapon that my daughter was hilariously gesturing with, in the quote above, was a screwdriver. Kids are great teachers; any tool can be a weapon and any fix, a fight. The “fix” for unhealthy behavior is usually focused on stopping or changing it but the research of Toby Jackson has found that, “unconscious psychological needs and organic pathologies drive much behavior formerly thought to be the result of deliberate choices” and thus complicate the fight.
He has found that “temptation is learned on the basis of…experiences. While biological characteristics make most people receptive to certain common temptations, human beings also learn to be tempted by a wide variety of activities, some socially approved of, at least in moderation, and some strongly disapproved…” (Jackson, 1998). If we can learn to be tempted, then with the right tools we can learn that we can also beat temptation.
What follows are some examples of my personal “Tools.” There are two types of tools; General and Specific. A General Tool is more of a concept that can be applied in many instances whereas a Specific Tool will fit better in certain situations. All these tools are personal, in that they work for me. The specific tool may not work for you, but it may help you discover your own.
General Tool: Knowledge
“Before launching into comments about how ‘sinful’ a dessert might seem, stop yourself…” says Registered Dietician Julie Rochefort, “‘we need to reform this whole notion around ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food’” because food is just a thing, a commodity, like money (Wahowiak, 2013). It all boils down to the same numbers; calories, fat, carbohydrates—whatever numbers are important to you, make up your health economy—and the value that you place on those numbers. I can feel “good” about eating a “good” food like fruit or popcorn, and then eat so much of it that I’ve blown my calorie economy.
I’ve found the idea of “good” and “bad” food does two things in the face of temptation. First, it helps us type people into “good” and “bad” based on what they put in their mouths and two it takes away the need for more thorough self-thinking, because if I eat this, I’m “good.” We deserve deeper knowledge of ourselves.
Knowledge of Ourself: (above).
Knowledge of the Situation: Know what you’re getting into; who will be there, what food, what chances for Diversion/Distraction (below) and how long you need to fight the temptation.
Knowledge of the Desired Outcome: What’s the point of the event—Food, Family Time, Fun? How do you want to feel about you and your goals at the end? Looking back on the event, what do you want to be glad you did?
General Tool: Power
There is this wonderfully horrific contradiction around healthy food living, and it’s especially true around the holiday. Gaining weight is socially scorned, but eating food is socially encouraged—to the point of offending those same scorners if you don’t eat what they offer you! A great holiday example: “Man, Bob. You’ve put on a few pounds, huh?!” (Later, same guy) “What do you mean you’re not having any of Aunt Edna’s sausage stuffing—It’s Thanksgiving!” Feel free to insert whatever you like into the scenario, Uncle Yusuf’s latkes, Cousin Jinny’s Christmas Cookies, the contradiction is the same. Though it’s most hilariously obvious around the holidays, the contradiction exists year round and is part of our fine American Obesity Epidemic.
According to Jackson, “what fuels the…epidemic is the belief that humans are powerless in the face of temptation. But human beings are not dominated by instinct, as lower animals are. We retain the ability, at our best, to override social, psychological, and even biological pressures.” We have the power to fight. In the moment it’s sometimes easier to believe that we can’t fight the smell of fresh-from-the oven kielbasa (maybe that’s my family) or pie, because then we get to eat it. I’ve been there. But the power still exists, no matter if we reject it or not. The problem with that tactic is that, as we practice it, it re-enforces the idea that we are powerless, just as the “good” and “bad” food concept re-enforces the idea that we are “bad.”
Remembering Past Triumphs: No one gets gold medals for choosing a healthy appetizer over a less healthy one, but they should. You can keep a journal, or make a note or buy yourself a present. The point is that you remember you do have power.
It’s Not Discipline, It’s Choice: Remember your health economy. If you want that piece of cheesecake then eat the heck out of it! But fit it in to your health economy. Realize that you may need to balance it with exercise or more valuable (for me that means less calories for more volume) foods in your day. Love your food, but love yourself doing it. Therein is the secret.
General Tool: Skills
Now we get to the nitty-gritty. Here are some actual things you can do during events that may help you keep holiday healthy. Remember, with temptation, “repetition is required in order for it to become established in the individual’s behavioral repertoire,” and as such you didn’t begin life unable to pass the nut bowl without grabbing some. You learned that by doing. Using Temptation Tools are the same way. Find your joy in practicing them because just like building unhealthy habits, “pleasurable repetition reinforces the anticipation of future gratification,” with healthy habits (Jackson, 1998).
Balance: Balance anything which needs to even-out to making your event more pleasurable and easier to succeed. You can balance time by limiting the length you stay at an event. You can balance the health value of the food you eat by having a similar taste—like sugar free French vanilla syrup and peppermint extract in your coffee instead of peppermint bark, or pumpkin pie spice and cinnamon. You can balance the calories of food with exercise, even during an event.
Diversion/Distraction: As mentioned, exercise during the event can balance calories, but it can also get you away from the table. Simply taking a walk or playing a game like Dance Dance Revolution or Wii can be a diversion. Do dishes, or focus more on talking to the family. Popping gum in your mouth can divert you from putting other things in there, and keeping a drink in your hand can lessen the likelihood that you will pick other things up.
Acknowledgment: There’s nothing wrong with loving food! There’s something wrong with feeling like you’re “bad” if you do, or that food is stronger than you. You can acknowledge that a food smells awesome, and smell the heck out of it, without having to eat it. The truth is, most foods smell better baking and cooking—they fire up more of our brain circuits—than actually eating them. If you still want to acknowledge the food’s awesomeness by eating it, do it, but you control how large a healthy taste is, based on your preset goals, not the foods temptation power. Finally, you deserve some acknowledgement, too. Tell others about your fight. Tell others about your successes. They may become partners in it. When they say, “What, no pie?” You say “Yep, and here’s why…” If they respond that you’re so much stronger, better, blah, blah, blah (which they do) that gives you an opening to share any of the above that you chose.
“Food might have nutritional value,
but there isn’t a moral difference between quinoa and cake.”
-Julie Rochefort, MHSc, RD.
Stop feeling weak.
Stop acting like the stuffing is stronger than you. Stop thinking that you can be outsmarted by pie or ganged up on by the cheese plate. “Food shame can actually make things worse…” say Rochefort and Wahowiak, “it can have a backlash effect and cause a person to eat more in the first place” (Wahowiak, 2013). Food shame; the feeling of being a “bad person” who eats “bad food” but is powerless to stop. Food shame can be the reason why our well meaning family push the holiday treats they believe that they can’t fight at you. Food shame fuels the obesity epidemic.
Shame, discipline and judgment versus power, choice and freedom; that is what you gain from a Temptation Toolbox around the Holidays and every day.
Take your toolbox and let’s start building a world where every food—from brownies to Brussels sprouts—are judged equally, and so are the people who love them.
Jackson, Toby. Medicalizing temptation. Public Interest 130 (Winter 1998): 64-78. Retrieved from ProQuest Database 11/15/13
Wahowiak, L. (2013). Avoiding Food Fights. Diabetes Forecast. (December): 62-63
The cartoon is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show all about power, balance, freedom (even overcomming shame to be yourself) and sometimes, food.