Changing Habits to Resist the National Drift to Obesity

August 21, 2012 in Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Each year when the statistics of the obesity rates by state – the percentage of obese residents by state are published, I picture a collective sigh of relief by those in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. Whew!!!  I’m sure glad I don’t live in Mississippi (even though it’s so much fun to spell). It seems especially silly to take that sigh because the notorious first half (25 states) is only seven or fewer percentage points away from Mississippi. When you divide the states into regions the South leads (29.5%); the Midwest (29%) the Northeast (25.3%); and the West 24.3%). Plus, you may note that no state has an obesity rate of less than 20%. The statistics are based on the 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It saddens me further to learn that the data is based upon self-reported height and weight; it’s been long known that people tend to underreport their weight and some over report their height; so the obesity numbers are very likely worse than what the CDC publishes.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I can laugh at many things. That fact and the fact that my imagination is still functioning fairly well, leads to lots of laughs – some thankfully only in my head. Feeling secure and being relieved that we don’t live in a certain state is, in reality, a bit comical. Take a couple of moments to look at the numbers. They range from 20% to just about 35% obesity within a state’s population. As a nation, we’ve got a big problem, and it’s a problem that must be solved. Public programs are being advanced, but they depend on individual consent and individual actions. Taking junk foods out of schools will not work if the kids and their families desire to purchase the junk somewhere else. (In CA, it has worked overall, despite initial ‘I’ll show you’ reactions. So if we’re looking at the numbers and saying to ourselves something like; “At least I’m not alone.” certainly, that’s not going to help solve the problem. The first step is solving this problem is confronting our obesity/overweight as a problem; and then next begin designing new habits.

Have you slipped over that hazy line from overweight to obesity? Or the obscure one from normal to overweight? Obesity is becoming more and more accepted; more people are learning not to be rude (maybe not enough, but some are gaining greater understanding of how difficult it is for the obese). Aside from the psychological damage of obesity, it is an enormous problem (one of the most serious contributors of health problems), which contributes to higher health care costs and poorer quality of life. Extra weight raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, and other problems.

Defining obesity (and overweight)

Obesity has a fairly technical definition. Working definitions usually include the use of Body Mass Index (BMI).  Using BMI is not perfect. For example, visualize an Olympic Athlete, male or female, pumped up with lots of heavy muscle. They will not appear in a healthy range on a standard BMI chart, but they are demonstrably healthy specimens of high-performing individuals. The BMI chart is simple enough to hope for public understanding, and it can give each of us an idea of where we are with our weight. Undressing in front of a mirror is another method of observing whether you have escaped the overweight or obese category.  It’s fairly painful for some, and requires an objective comparison to published standards and a minimum of self-deception.

Can we solve the overweight/obesity epidemic by adding a walk?

I’ve heard normal weight people claim that they exercise and then are able to eat anything that they want. I think this exercise idea can be deceptive for those who are struggling with overweight or obesity. I know that those who are managing their weight are not having a 12-ounce Ribeye steak, a stack of French fries, and a 20-ounce sugary soda pop; topped off with a hunk of cheesecake (or the equivalent), every day. Yes, you may have witnessed a normal weight someone doing that, but they’re not doing it every day. And if they do eat this type of dinner, they find ways to deficit eat (eat less than is necessary) at other times.

A new study published this month finds what most of us already know – that exercise is not the entire answer to the obesity/overweight problem. The study suggests that over-consumption of calories is the biggest culprit. Certainly we want the health benefits that increased physical activity offers, but what the study is clarifying is that for the vast majority of us, it’s impossible to maintain normal weight without controlling calorie intake.

If we take a moment and look at an example, maybe that will help us see how important it is to control intake. Think back to my example two paragraphs above: 901 calories for the steak; 500 calories for the French fries; 239 calories for the sugary soda; 710 calories for the cheesecake – total 2,350 for this one big splurge – not even regarded as a calorie splurge by some who are well-overweight.  If your calories needs are say 1,800 to 2,000 for the day and you make the decision to eat two other meals during a that same day, and these other meals total about 800 to 1,000 calories, then you’d have to walk at 3.5 mph for about 5 hours to burn off the surplus calories that you ate that day. Because many of us don’t have 5 hours to walk to burn off those extra calories, we may consider running (not possible for all ankles and knees) but it would still take 2.5 hours to run it off (12 minute mile). It’s still challenging. Take a look at this link listing calories burned for various activities.

You may be fortunate and have a very active job where you burn lots of calories, or you may be an elite athlete, but for many of us, there are only so many hours available for physical activity. We, therefore need to remain diligent in monitoring our eating habits and must keep pulling ourselves back to the reality that calories do matter.

Creating new good habits and losing the old bad ones is not always a snap, but with effort it is possible. If you write down what you eat for a while it can help you identify habits that are counter-productive to managing a healthy weight. Once you’ve identified the habits that are tripping you up, the following are some ideas for replacing those habits.

  • Once you identify a non-productive habit write it down. This is a technique to help reduce stress – just thinking about the bad habit can cause stress. When you write it down, it’s the first step in designing the new habit. Often, you can begin writing some possible ways of replacing the old habit with a new habit.
  • First, instead of making perfection your new habit goal; cut yourself a little slack. Consider making your goal for the old habit to become less and less frequent or even to use an approach to cut back a little at a time, until the frequency of the habit is no longer a problem.
  • Provide kind thoughts to yourself - even losing part of the overweight or obesity can have big benefits – so don’t give up if you think you can’t get all the way to some ideal weight you have imagined. Focus on realistic behaviors; keep finding more and more techniques that work for you, as an individual.
  • Notice the situation that you’re in when you make an unwanted choice; for example, I notice that personally, my husband and I do just fine with our eating habits when we’re at home. Our home environment is designed to support eating healthily. We don’t have cookies and chips sitting around tempting our taste buds. We don’t regard it as a virtue to over-challenge our willpower, so we just don’t have it available. But we notice that when we visit other homes that may not be the case. When we discover that, it’s time for designing a personal goal to make it easier to avoid popping unwanted goodies in our mouths. We’ll consider making it a habit to locate ourselves away from the chips and goodies that are so easy to grab during a conversation. Moving foods from arm’s reach is another habit that can help. Designing times that we’ll eat and times that we won’t is another example.
  • Notice the emotions that you’re feeling when you’re making the decision to repeat the bad habit. Once you discover that you’re using high calorie foods as a way of coping with an emotion, for example, you can find a food that you enjoy but do not tend to overeat, or better yet, treat yourself with a non-food treat. My friend polishes her nails or gives herself time to do an activity that she enjoys instead of eating as a response to emotion. Taking a walk around your garden or block is a nice way to redirect your thoughts and even boost your mood, which will have positive benefits and may even lessen the impact of the emotion. Listen to music, have a piece of gum if it will help keep you from putting something else in your mouth. Re-direct yourself.
  • Above all, don’t allow yourself to be overly hungry. A little something to cut the hunger is a powerful tool for control. Don’t skip meals or cut your calories so much that you’re overly hungry. It works very well to fill up on non-starchy vegetables, before or during the meal, and later as snacks when you are tempted.  What a blessing it is to learn to enjoy the flavors and textures of non-starchy vegetables.
  • Realize that you can, learn and learn, to use many hints about managing your environment and your eating habits from others, but do recognize that you are the one that has to be motivated and actually perform the new behavior. This recognition can be very empowering. When you really take charge of your new habits and position yourself to be successful, you can feel the power and joy of being the one that has led yourself to the success. This is one of the reasons so many weight loss programs connected with temporary diets help people lose weight, but the weight comes right back on. When you’re eating a pre-packaged meal, for example, and have committed to eat nothing else, it’s fairly easy to lose weight. But when you have to go back to the real world, food ‘x’ is no longer off limits and it’s right in front of you – that can be much more difficult. Making new rules and new habits regarding ‘what and where you eat’, your own personal, individual rules – designed by you; those are long-term lifestyle rules you can live with – you designed them. You work hard for these long-term habits, but you’re developed them and they’re much easier to make stick.
  • Setting short-term goals is very helpful for some people. I never encourage people to set weight loss goals; I’ll tell you why. Water weight fluctuates and can be very discouraging. If you focus on your negative eating habits and replacing them with positive habits, it eventually will show up in weight loss/management. When you cut 100 calories each and every day, for example, you don’t always notice an immediate weight loss, but those calories do add up to enough calories to support a 10-pound weight loss in a year. You can see how the habit of a nibble here and a bite there can add to those 30 pounds that are putting you across the line into obesity or across the normal line into overweight. Looking at your food records can be very helpful in confronting how calories are slipping into your mouth, even a little at a time.

Do not be depressed and lose your resolve when you have a setback. When we go on a trip; or eat in restaurants and friends’ homes, we almost always gain weight, even when we mix exercise into the days away. Part of the problem is that family and friends are offering goodies that are not even options on our table. Some of those foods are old time comfort foods; tasty dishes with nostalgic associations, or special cooking offerings that deserve savoring and compliments. Such dishes almost invariably have far more calories than we usually eat. My point is that we have to be aware that our warm and friendly social pressures to eat and play together have an effect, but we can anticipate it, try to minimize it, then go after it when we are back in control of our eating.  We just got back from a 5-day visit to Washington State with family. We came home with about a pound a day to lose again, and we will lose it, but not in a few days.

The new state obesity statistics are not a laughing matter, even though it is a natural human desire to lighten up a serious subject. Many of the pounds that are creeping up on the public are the result of habits that have quietly been formed a little at a time. New habits can be created and strengthened the same way – a little at a time. Keep discovering what works for you as an individual – it takes work, but unlike a crash diet, it can be a long-term solution.