Making Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Coincidentally, a local food retailer called Country Grocer which services the area in which I live, is now following on the twitter account attached to this blog, so this week’s topic is a natural fit.
For a lot of people nowadays – perhaps the last 20 years, the phrase “healthy lifestyle choices” has begun to become synonymous with people who like to lecture other people and give unsolicited advice ... and I personally don’t like being lectured, as I am sure nobody else does. It is somewhat along the lines of (again) my earlier post of “Just Get Over it (Already)... NOT!”
Saying this to a person who is struggling with an addiction to food or alcohol or drugs or wishing and wanting to make a healthy lifestyle choice is highly insensitive. And, as I mentioned in a previous post about relationships and change (Letting Go of the Life-ring: Trust and Change), change is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, despite the myth perpetuated by infomercials.
Finally, exercise and diet, i.e. “healthy lifestyle choices” have somewhat replaced religion as the new form of piety. They could be considered to be the new religion. In the olden days, people would “tsk, tsk” people who were on the “ungodly” side. If you didn’t go to church or the synagogue/shul or mosque or temple on a weekly basis, the pious, god-fearing would take note of your actions. It was a sin. Not so now, and indeed, it is an interesting comment on the turn away from some of those non-material values to the values we have today. But, unfortunately the innate human nature of wanting to feel better or superior (morally, ethically or this case nutritionally and physically) has been replaced. So, now anyone who leads a “healthy lifestyle” can afford to feel smug while pontificating to their fatter, smokier, druggier brothers and sisters.
Can I hear an AMEN!
(no, please don’t)
So, who doesn’t want to go the market and pick out this:
colourful fresh fruits and vegetables and drink only pure, healthy, mineralized (or unmineralized) water. Or be full of energy, physically fit and a babe to boot?
I personally defy anyone to find me someone who wants to go out of their way to do the opposite: be physically lazy, smoke, drink, take drugs, and have a nutrient-poor diet.
Okay, I know what will be said: “But, Steve, I KNOW people who are physically lazy, smoke, drink, take drugs, or have a nutrient-poor diet or someone who has all of these attributes. How can you say you cannot find someone like that? I KNOW someone like that.”
And I would respond: “Yes, it is true there are indeed people like that”. But they did not choose consciously and willingly to do so.”
“Hunh?” I hear you say.
They did not consciously choose to be that way. And here we get into the psychological.
Fate or circumstance or external elements combined in such a way that the person “fell into” a habit – or “lifestyle choice” that was the most emotionally convenient for them. If you have ever heard of “emotional eating” – eating to appease unhappy and miserable emotions, you will understand what I am talking about. And certainly anyone who is currently drinking or drugging or started into a lifestyle of drinking and drugging, started off by taking one first drink or hit or snort or whatever. However, they likely, but not always, continued with the habit, whatever the habit might be due to a tolerance to their addiction and/or an inability to emotionally self-soothe with something else. There is more to addictions than just that, but this is a good start for a basic understanding.
Okay, but we are talking about “healthy lifestyle choices” --- like exercising, eating right, reducing or stopping your smoking and so on. We are not talking about heavy addictions.
However, addictions, like habits are something that are hard to break.
Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens
made two interesting comments, which I think may be valuable here in understanding how to make that “healthy lifestyle choice”.
He said: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know, because I have done it thousands of times.” Of course he was being clever, but the paradox in his statement, underlines the ease of being able to make a real change and the difficulty with its long-term adherence or in this case abstinence.
Of course it is no different for any other “healthy lifestyle change” – again, referring to my post on trust and change, it is a process – 10 steps forward, 3 steps back or... to paraphrase AA: one day at a time.
Mark Twain also said another thing about habits, which echoes what I have previously posted. He said:
“A habit cannot be tossed out the window, it must be coaxed down the stairs, one step at a time.”
“A habit cannot be tossed out the window, it must be coaxed down the stairs, one step at a time.”
So, if you are trying to lose weight or go to the gym to get big muscles or stop smoking or stop drinking or even stop or start, really any behaviour, you need to work with yourself not against yourself.
A lot what I have talked about has to do with the concepts of moderation management, harm reduction, the general change process and even a decisional balance.
Now, dear friends, these are all fancy, schmancy words that psychotherapists use to describe ordinary activities that human beings do in order to change and improve their lives. In a future post, I may come back to them and expand and explain a little bit more about them. But for now, suffice it to say that change, as I have stated already, especially PERMANENT change is a process.
Now, let us get to some concrete examples.
Suppose you are an overweight fellow who smokes a pack (or two a day), eats sweet, fatty foods and drinks two, three or even four six-pack of beer in a weekend. Oh, and you absolutely HATE taking any exercise.
Your friends, your doctor, your mother, maybe even your wife or girlfriend nag you to change your ways.
Well, it ain’t gonna work. Nagging the person and making them feel worse about themselves, doesn’t usually help a bit. For some it does work though, but not most.
And besides which, you as this fictitious fellow already know what you are doing wrong, you just can’t make the shift to a “healthy lifestyle”.
You cannot see yourself cruising the aisle at the grocer’s, looking for that “just right” avocado/mangosteen/celery root salad ingredients with a tangy sesame seed dressing.
Please. But here is an image of something similar, just in case:
|Celery Root /apple/avocado salad.
You’re a meat and potatoes fellow. However, you know you need to change.
So what do you do? Work within your comfort zone. Work with yourself and not against yourself. This is what every good nutritionist does, when they rework someone’s diet. Look at it this way: if you aren’t going to eat it, what’s the point?
However, and here is where the fancy term “harm reduction” comes in, if instead of having the meat and potatoes, you also now add in some fresh, green vegetable cooked or otherwise, (drum-roll, please) then you have just made a “healthy lifestyle choice”. Now, just keep doing that for 5 or 6 months, with lapses and slips back to your traditional “meat and potatoes” and you should be on your way to a different diet. But you have to keep at it.
Okay, now I hear you say:
“Yeah, but Steve, I love my chocolate-covered sugar-bombs for breakfast! I don’t want to give up my chocolate covered sugar-bombs.” For any of you who know the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by artist Bill Watterson, there is an appropriate strip for this idea:
Okay, so two things here. First of all another fancy-schmancy word: decisional balance. Ultimately you DO want to give up your chocolate-covered sugar-bombs or CCSB for short. You know you do, but you can’t bring yourself to do without them.
Don’t. The point is, you like, you love, you enjoy your CCSBs, but you know that ultimately, they will make you diabetic, unhealthy, overweight, etc. So how do you let go of them? Slowly. Do as Mark Twain has suggested: coax the habit down the stairs. This is why I personally am such a strong opponent of making New Year’s resolutions. Making changes, yes. But New Year’s resolutions, no. New Year’s resolutions can indeed be useful for some people, but for most, they are useless.
So, getting back to your CCSBs. Do not try to suppress your desire for them. You see, there is a part of you that wants the CCSBs. But there is an even greater part of you that does not want them. However, just like when a person goes on a flight and has no cigarette for four or five hours. What is the first thing they do when they disembark? They light up a cigarette. So acknowledge your desire for your CCSBs, and if you need to have them, throw the beast within you some, to quiet him for another day. Eventually you will feed the beast less and less and it will disappear. This is what “coaxing down the stairs” is all about. And yes, it can be applied to many habits, but I would not say all.
The other thing to keep in mind is, what is behind your desire for the CCSB’s? And no, I am not talking about a psychoanalytic moment where you are fulfilling an internal need for love, caring and warmth that you first associated as a child at the breakfast table.... but we could.
What I am talking about is the desire to have something sweet. A few years ago an interesting woman by the name of Mirielle (pronounced: Me-ray) Guiliano
(www.mirielleguiliano.com) came out with an interesting, if not provocative title called: French Women Don’t Get Fat.
Effectively, what she claims is that when you eat well and present your meals in a visually attractive manner, you subsequently savour your food more, have higher quality ingredients and eat less. When I personally had first read her book, I was somewhat skeptical. Without doubt there are people in France who are obese. No question. But, indeed, if you are satisfying your hunger, for example for CCSBs with something far superior in taste and quality then the quantity you consume will be diminished. Moreover, if what you are consuming looks more like a collection of chocolate roses attached to a sugared stem like this,it is likely you would only need one, rather than 12. You are satisfying your visual and physical hunger. And if we take this further, you may indeed be satisfying your internal, psychological hunger (for love or sex, or affection or (fill-in-the-blank) and then we can look at that childhood association at the breakfast table!
Now, unfortunately I have just read that Guiliano has received some not-so-desirable press, however nonetheless it does not detract from the content of what she actually wrote. The principal still remains. And being fat (or slim) is not the point either. One should ideally love one’s body however it is. And then from there if you wish to change it, go right ahead because then you are not desperately trying to change yourself (life-ring) to go from one state of existence to another. Love yourself as you are now.
Finally, if you are this fellow who absolutely abhors physical exercise. Not to worry. Again, work with yourself not against yourself. Do what you enjoy physically and start from there. You don’t run a marathon in one day. You take it bit by bit until you can work up to that 26 miles. Remember: it’s a process. Also, don’t get stuck in the “perfect body” gym trap. A number of people who I have talked to in the past seem absolutely terrified about going to the gym, or joining a club or joining a sports team unless they are absolutely perfectly in shape already with a buff bod or are a seasoned athlete on the field. Nonsense! What is the point of going to the gym? To get a buff bod (or improve your health and get in shape). And if everyone was in perfect shape, then what on earth are they doing at the gym????
Equally, it’s a pretty sad sports team that disallows people with two left feet and no sense of hand-eye coordination NOT to join their team. It may border on anti-social. At that rate the team will end up with a total of one player. So if team sports aren’t your thing, don’t do it. Do something else. And if they are elite, snub your nose and go somewhere else. You are child of this universe, just like anyone else.
So, that having been said, make those “healthy lifestyle changes”, be good to yourself, gentle with yourself, discipline yourself and if you fall off the horse, get back on again.
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