Making a Difference in the Mindless Margin

May 10, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Psychology of Food, Weight Management, Whole Grains by Joyce Bunderson

Many people start a weight loss program in January; the runner-up weight loss time is the approaching swimsuit season. It’s a bit easier to change eating habits in the spring as the weather warms. Whenever you do it, the idea of a short, crash diet is not an effective approach. This post is about a slower, but much more certain approach introducing easy little behavior changes that slowly add up to a permanent solution.  This approach uses a term coined by a noted food psychologist, “Mindless Margin”.  Before explaining it, let us consider the downside of many diets.

My guess is that some of the same people that started ‘dieting’ in January are back in the spring with new resolve; the January effort may have had a problem - it didn’t work perfectly – they ‘slipped up’ and then they were discouraged and ‘gave up’. This cycle is why I’ve encouraged my readers to make permanent changes – redesigning eating style and food choices - not ‘going on a diet’.

I’ve read about hundreds of diets in my decades of ‘weight watching,’ most of them strike me as deprivation – you’re not allowed to eat any comfort foods; and often entire food groups are restricted. I’ve tried to convince patients, that those types of diets don’t usually last; they may last long enough to take some weight off, but not to keep it off. The first time that the dieter chooses to have ‘birthday cake’ (fill in the space with your own ‘forbidden’ or ‘off the diet’ treat.) they feel that they’ve ‘blown it.’ They’re off their diet. So the whole roller coaster method of weight management goes – the dieter fails and must get up their increasingly strained resolve to try again.

In addition to the psychology of “I’ve blown it”, dieting is flawed in other ways. One big physiological reason is that deprivation makes the body think it needs more food, so the appetite-suppression hormones are turned down and the body is alerted to look for food. Another physiological reason is that the blood sugar runs low because you didn’t eat enough, especially fiber-filled foods that will release sugar into the blood over a longer time span, reducing hunger. Finally, it is a bad tactic to go on some punishing plan for a limited time. With all the punishment it offers, when you have lost the weight you “go off it”, and relax your efforts.  It does not lead to lasting behavior change. There is evidence that it makes it even harder the next time.

Our weight will always fluctuate a little because of water balance (think about the day after the Chinese restaurant), but a little fluctuation doesn’t require us to enlist for the newest, latest, greatest deprivation plan. Making gradual changes that slowly but surely get you to permanent weigh loss/management is not as exciting as the promises that you can lose 30 pounds in as many days, but those crazy diets just don’t work at keeping the weight off – some of you already know that by sad experience.

In my years of working with the morbidly obese, my most challenging ordeals were in trying to convince people that losing the weight was not the main goal – learning how to keep the weight off, that was the goal. I would explain that losing the weight was useless, if new behaviors couldn’t be designed that would help them make changes that would keep the weight off. But regardless of the hours that I spent trying to help them understand this truth, many really believed that they would never again overeat once they got their weight off.

If you hang out with people maintaining a healthy weight, you may notice that they have personal rules and techniques to help them maintain the weight they want. That’s what this post is about – developing small doable changes that help with weight management.

Last week I finished reading Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. He has a fairly well developed sense of humor. It’s a fascinating book and an enjoyable read. There’s much that I like about the book. He really focuses on controlling the environment, which has been one of the factors I’ve embraced for decades. I’ve thought of it as making it easier on the weight manager – it’s much easier to control your environment than to control your battered will power.

In addition, Dr. Wansink, a psychologist who studies food, eating habits, and marketing of foods has clearly explained a weight management phenomenon that I too have recognized. It is what he calls the “mindless margin.” This is how it goes: He describes first what the mindless margin is not.  It is not the weight gain that results from what I would call “Thanksgiving Day” eating – clearly there’s no surprise when weight gain follows that type of eating. Instead, the ‘mindless margin’ is when we eat 200 or 300 calories more or less – a 10% margin -- than the day before. His contention, and I believe it is absolutely true, is that if you eat say, 200 calories too much it’s not noticed for quite a while, until the scale gives you the bad news. On the flip side of that coin, if you ate 200 calories too few you also wouldn’t notice it. This is the really splendid news. If you were used to eating 2000 calories a day and ate only 1800, your body wouldn’t send out strong hunger signals and you wouldn’t feel deprived. So he calls the 100 or 200 calories more or less the ‘mindless margin.’ Taking advantage of the body’s insensitivity at the low range (100 – 200 calories) and helping you not to feel strong hunger pangs and feel deprived is really a great boon to comfortable weight loss/management. It’s turning mindless eating around in a way that helps you eat better. He says that we can reengineer our mindless margin. I am delighted by these simple, workable ideas.

He takes the knowledge of the ‘mindless margin’ a step further. He makes the point that if you can find some ways to cut out a ‘mindless margin,’ say 200 calories per day, it would be equal to maintaining 20 pounds of weight loss in a year. What is great about this way of managing weight is that it is not just about weight loss – yes, you’re losing weight while you’re changing behaviors/habits. But the real beauty of using the ‘mindless margin’ is that while you’re learning new habits, learning how to handle the new situations, you’re developing the behaviors and skills that will keep you where you want to be – essentially sustaining the weight loss.

Most readers who have been striving for weight management/weight loss know that if you cut a certain number of calories from your diet you will lose one tenth of the calories in a year. So if you cut 186 calories, each and every day, you will not only lose about 18.6 pounds but you will maintain that weight loss, so long as you keep doing whatever you did to deficit the 186 calories each day.

One of the helpful aspects of this technique is that it helps us to recognize that we can make a difference with a small change. It helps to concentrate on incremental and small steps. When you think of a 100-calorie pack of cookies/day as 10 pounds in a year; or a 160-calorie soda pop/day as 16 pounds per year; each individual can make the decision about what’s worth it and what’s not.

Certainly, we can make part of the change we desire by exercising – like walking. Walking a mile (for a 150 pound person) equals about 100 calories – walking two miles equals about 200 calories – so this is an additional way at looking at your 20 pounds of maintained weight loss. I really like looking at not making drastic diet changes or making drastic exercise changes.

Just working slowly, but making permanent changes is a powerful model. The ‘mindless margin’ is do-able and does not have to be an overwhelming change – making a change that doesn’t make you feel deprived.  A change you can live with permanently is motivating and powerful. Could you switch from a small bowl of ice cream (Maybe 300 calories – check the label) to a fudge bar (Healthy Choice 100 calories)? Or if you, the individual, love the full fat ice cream – would you be able to have ½ cup, instead of one cup? (Probably a 200-calorie savings) You make the decision of what will work for you – the individual. You’re building your eating style – observe what matters to you, commit to changes that you know you can live with – changes that you decide upon.

A Few techniques:

  1. One of the ‘mindless margin’ techniques is to dish out 20 percent less. Dr. Wansink’s research shows that you won’t miss it. He suggests that if you choose to cut back by 20% on pasta, potato or meat; you could eat 30% more fruits and vegetables and not notice that the net is a calorie reduction. Your body won’t signal you that you’re depriving it!
  2. Another technique is to resolve to throw away some of the French fries on the way to the table. Once you sit down and start nibbling fries, it’s too difficult to stop before they’re all gone.  This is an easy way to save 100 to 270 calories.  Small fries – half gone saves 100 calories; McValue French Fries half gone 160 calories; medium fries half gone 225 calories saved; large fries half gone 270 calories. Try to use the thinking 10, 16, 22, 27 pounds whenever you use this technique.
  3. I really like the ideas for making ‘trade-offs’ bargains with yourself. For example making a personal tradeoff like eating no potato chips unless I’ve exercised that day.
  4. Paying attention to the size of dinnerware. A large plate can lead people to fill it with more than needed. A tall thin glass can make a person feel more satisfied than a short wide glass. (More is generally consumed mindlessly with short wide glasses).
  5. Move those family-style serving dishes away from right in front of you.  This often leads to second and third helpings. Move the food across the room, to the stove – out of reach. Dish up the whole meal once, and do not go back for seconds! This is an easy way to cut 100 calories or more.
  6. Jars, bags, or bowls of food in easy reach – devastating for weight management – perfect for mindless eating. Serve what you should eat into a small dish and put away those tempting containers!

Being a psychologist, Wansink has learned through his research, that if a person decides upon three changes to focus on, it’s doable. It doesn’t mean that you will never work on a different behavior, but three at a time is enough for success. After you successfully do a new behavior for about 28 days, or a month, it is long enough to form a habit. This is great because it means that situations produce less anxiety – you’ve developed a new behavior – you are in power. It also means that if cutting 200 calories a day isn’t enough, you can add some more 10% reductions after 30 days and your body shouldn’t notice it.

My favorite quote from the book is: “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.” I can tell you that when I stopped dieting over a decade ago – it was one of the best anxiety reduction decisions that I’ve made. I started focusing on behaviors that I knew would yield fewer calories. One of the first changes was to begin to eat quite a bit more vegetables – it has paid off with a steadier weight management. I adopted Wansink’s ‘half-plate’ rule, long before it was ever published. It is just to strive to fill the plate half full of vegetables, one-fourth starch and one-fourth protein. Certainly, sometimes it’s not so clear, like stir-fry. But the general idea is still essentially in place.

Rather than just beginning a new ‘swimming suit season diet’ why not begin to make some changes that will be permanent, that will not make us feel uncomfortable and deprived? We can take advantage of the ‘mindless margin’ by making changes that can stick with us permanently, while we maintain a lower healthier weight.

Try substituting Banana Nut Muffins, a healthy, good tasting treat for a not so healthy treat.

These muffins are so useful in controlling the ‘mindless margin.’ Each muffin is 100% whole wheat, made with extra virgin olive oil, no added sugar, bananas and nuts – perfect for breakfast on the run, snack, or dessert at less than 100 calories. If you usually buy the 300-calorie white flour fatty muffins – you’ve saved 200 calories. Remember to redefine the 200 calories as 20 pounds in a year – I think that’s very motivating. No matter if your focus is Mediterranean-style eating, managing the ‘mindless margin’ or eating a healthy diabetic diet – you can accomplish it with these muffins.