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It’s Not You, It’s Our Environment…


Let’s face it, we are social beings and are highly influenced by what is around us.

And there is no denying it...food is all around us…it is absolutely everywhere!  Food is a part of everything we do and is a HUGE part of our culture and environment.

There are the candy jars, snack rooms and vending machines at our workplace; ultra-processed snack foods in our "home offices;" donuts at our church services and concession stands at our kids’ sporting events.  Convenience food options are on almost every street corner -- have you ever noticed while getting gas, there are soda, snacks and candy in the gas pump area…no need to go inside the store!

That is just our everyday environment!  Add to that, the start of sweet treat season is gearing up this week!

That’s what willpower is for, right?!

Shouldn't our willpower and self-control be able to protect us from all the unhealthy food choices?  Unfortunately, our willpower is typically not that strong, and it becomes fatigued as the day goes on, just like a boxer in a 10-round heavyweight fight!

Needless to say, eating well with healthy choices can sometimes feel like we are swimming upstream.  Unhealthy options are so incredibly convenient!  And, we all have TRIGGERS…you know, those things that affect our habits:

  • Stress -- This is a big one.  At the end of a stressful day, do you just grab chips, ice cream or a piece of pizza, because you are stressed, don't care, and have had enough?
  • Routine - you don't think much about it, it's just what you do.  Researchers believe up to 99% of our decisions are made unconsciously - we are operating on autopilot.  Many of our food decisions occur simply as a result of our habits!  Maybe it is going through the drive-thru on the way to work or grabbing a piece of candy every time you pass the candy jar, or getting a snack or soda at the same time every day.
  • Boredom -- potato chips or a few handfuls of M&Ms can disappear fast when watching TV or surfing the web!
  • Hunger – if you go 5 or 6 hours without eating, your body will demand food…NOW…and it's often those readily available ultra-processed foods that come to the rescue.

 

So, how do we change these habits and shake up the "triggers" that cause them?

Here are a few things to think about...because that is the key, to STOP AND THINK…before we act!

  • Replace existing habits with new ones!  In order to change a habit, you need to replace it with something else.  If you reach for a soda or snack at a certain time each day, do something different!  Go for a short walk and have a healthful snack when you get back.  It may not be the soda and snack that you need, but just a change of scenery for a few minutes and something to satisfy you until your next meal.  The new routine may leave you just as satisfied (if not more satisfied) than the prior routine!  If you go 5 or 6 hours between meals, try eating a healthful snack every 2 or 3 hours so you are not starving, and then you are more likely to make good choices at your next meal.

 

 

  • Concession stands can be a huge temptation.  We are still in a stage of life where we are frequently at kids' sporting events.  And, what do they have to make sure you don't go hungry...concession stands!  And what do concession stands have?  Of course…hot dogs, nachos, candy, buttery popcorn, pretzels, soda, among other not-so-great options!  To avoid the unhealthy choices, we pack snacks from home.  Air popped popcorn is one of our favorite go-to ballgame snacks, along with nuts, sunflower seeds, and fruits.  And for what it's worth, we have been known to pack salads and the Southwest Stuffed Sweet Potato for dinner for those evening games!

 

  • Separate food from electronics!  While this could be a topic for an entirely separate coaching tip, there are many, many (did we say many?) great reasons to turn off the TV, computer and electronic devices at mealtime.  Eliminating snacking during TV and computer time (except for special occasions) can also help.  We live in a world where approximately 37% of TV ads promote some type of food.  We recently saw a study that showed, when given crackers to snack on, kids who watched TV with food commercials ate 45% more than those who watched TV with no food commercials!  Try to avoid mindless eating while watching TV, especially since most of us would want to grab foods similar to the ads we are seeing, which are typically unhealthy, highly processed foods.  Better yet, turn off the TV and engage in some activity…it's surprising how those “cravings” seem to disappear!

 

  • Make good decisions convenient and poor decisions inconvenient.  In our experience, it helps us to get unhealthy snacks out of the house altogether.  If you do have some not-so-healthy choices (for the occasional indulgence), make them more difficult to get to.  Put them at the back of the pantry or in the back of the fridge so they aren't the first thing you see and grab.  At work, replace the candy jar with nuts (get crackin' -- pistachios would be a great option) or a bowl of fruit!

 

  • Change WHAT you are snacking on!  One of our habits is munching on something while we cook (surely we are not the only ones who do this?!)  We used to grab chips, but now our go-to is carrots, grapes, nuts or a little cheese and whole grain crackers.  Delicious and much better for us -- we eat much less, and it still satisfies our craving.

 

  • Choose wisely when eating out.  This is a tough one, especially when eating out with a group of friends or family.  Of course, it can be a treat to eat out and enjoy something you don't normally eat -- don't deprive yourself…occasionally this is OK!  If you frequently eat out, this can be challenging, so pick your destination based on variety and choices of REAL food.  Can you really be expected to go to Red Robin and eat just a salad, when everyone else is ordering burgers and shakes and they drop off an endless supply of fries at your table?

 

  • Create personal accountability!  If you are going out to eat with coworkers, why not send a message in advance?  Then when you get to lunch and everyone starts ordering the burgers, fries and indulgent mac-and-cheese, you already have your mind made up so ordering the kale salad will be a snap!  Then afterwards, no post-meal regrets and you can be satisfied and proud of your choice!

 

  • Rewards!  Of course, it is super important to reward yourself or your kids for accomplishments and jobs well done.  Often, these rewards include ice cream, donuts, cookies, cupcakes or some other sugary treat.  But we have tried to be mindful of this, why do rewards always have to involve food?  Why not reward with an activity or event instead?  This one can become a habit for life…and, remember, our kids are likely to model this behavior with their own kids!

 

Fresh or stale?

An interesting experiment was done by USC researchers.  Moviegoers were given buckets of popcorn.  Some were given fresh popcorn and others were given stale, week-old popcorn.  Those who didn't normally eat popcorn at the movies said the stale popcorn didn't taste as good.  However, the moviegoers who were used to eating popcorn at the movies ate the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale.

This just goes to show our brains associate the food with the environment and, as long as the environment cues are there, this illustrates our automatic eating behavior!  This is why we keep eating when we are not hungry or even if the food is not very good!

Funny twist to the experiment...

the researchers gave the fresh and stale popcorn to a control group watching movie clips in a meeting room rather than a theater.  In the meeting room (not normally associated with popcorn), it mattered much more to all participants that the popcorn did not taste as good.  "The results show just how powerful our environment can be in triggering unhealthy behavior," said David Neal, USC Psychology Professor and author of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Neal sums it up well:  "Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead."

 

Start with one change to your environment and see what happens!

 

Please share with us...what are your best ideas to make the healthy choice the easy choice in your life?

 

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2 Responses to It’s Not You, It’s Our Environment…

  1. It is true once you change habits ,and this doesn’t happen overnight ,everything becomes easier.
    Some things I used to eat without much thought I now wonder what was I thinking? Example:
    Red licorice. It is corn syrup, artificial color and artificial flavor. Does it really taste like strawberry or cherry?Not really. Why would I put that in my body? Just one of many changes.

    • Great observation Theresa. So true how this “behind the scenes Eat REAL” way of looking at things really helps us make better choices innately. Now you wonder what you were thinking! (Fat-free
      but full of sugar and food colorings!??? You are not alone!) Congrats to all you and John have accomplished showing your doctors “whose boss!” by eating TRULY SMARTER with REAL Food!

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