A Different Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

Here we go again…..just one day left until you start, right? Whatever thing you are doing that you don’t like about yourself (or whatever thing you think you should be doing to make yourself better), this is the time to commit to change. Overnight, from the time you go to sleep on December 31st to the minute you wake up on January 1st, your life will be different. Because you made a “New Year’s Resolution” it will be so. If only it could be that easy, that simple.

I don’t mean to be negative, and I think it is great to think positively because the way you think definitely affects your actions, and what you choose to do in the moment. If you think you can’t then you won’t even try, whereas when you think you can you are more likely to be successful. Unfortunately, it is not that easy, not that simple and you know that because you probably have done it before. As I am sure I posted in the past when talking about resolutions, motivation to change something typically revolves around not liking the way you look or the way you feel. And to be clear, the way you “feel” has as much to do with what you do physically (what you eat, drink, how much you move, sleep, etc) as well as how you feel emotionally about where you are in your life (your relationships, job, lifestyle, stress level etc). Thinking about changing things is a great thing.

But if you think you are going to change without doing the research work first, chances are you might repeat your typical cycle. In my work and in my life I have noticed that people (including myself) repeat patterns. People repeat patterns of choosing the same type of relationship, even if it is toxic, over and over. They may resolve to stop working 80 hours a week yet choose a new job where that is exactly what they have to do. Since I am not a relationship or career expert I won’t say much about this. It is just a reminder that it is not just unhealthy eating and yo yo dieting that are hard ruts to get out of.

One of the most common and typical New Year’s Resolution cycles, however, involves behaviors around eating and exercise. People resolve to “stop eating junk food” or “exercise every day” or “lose 10 pounds”, etc. I will contribute my 2 cents on this because I may have some insight that may help you look at things a bit differently, and that may help you accomplish your goals, whatever they may be. First, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. If you have made a resolution to diet in the past (in order to lose weight), did you lose the weight you wanted but then gained it back?
  2. If you have ever made a resolution to exercise more, were you able to maintain what you originally planned on doing for the entire year?
  3. If you have resolved to drink less alcohol (or soda, or coffee) in the past, were you able to maintain your goal?
  4. If you committed to decreasing eating fast food last year, where are you at as we speak?
  5. If your goal was to cook healthier meals, how many healthy meals did you cook this week so far?

There are some individuals who are able to make a goal and stick to it, but most of us struggle. For most of us our behaviors and what we end up eating and drinking, as well as how much we exercise are very complicated ordeals. That is because we human beings are quite complicated creatures. We do what we do for many reasons, stemming back from our memories, interactions, experiences, knowledge, our genetics and most importantly, what we have practiced. What makes it even more complicated is that our brain stores everything, remembers everything (even if you don’t) and each part of the brain communicates with the other parts. What is stored in our complicated brains, and what it communicates to our conscious thinking affects our behavior. Our behavior then eventually creates pathways that our brain ends up remembering. So much so that we don’t even have to think, we just act.

Have you ever driven home from work and wondered how you got there? You don’t remember taking your exit, you don’t remember sitting at the light, you just have arrived. That is because you repeated that behavior so many times, your brain does its own thing and gets you home. It is automatic. Well, the same thing happens with eating and drinking. I remember years ago I would pass a Dunkin Donuts on my way to work every day. I used to love their hazelnut coffee and I would go through the drive-thru and get one. I did this almost every day, even though I never drank the entire coffee, it just became so satisfying to get it. Eventually, I could not drive by that darn Dunkin Donuts without pulling in! Then one day I decided to start tracking my expenses for a month. I just could not understand where my money was going. Long story short, it turned out I was spending a good 40 dollars a month (translate to almost 500 a year) on coffee that I was not even finishing! I started to bring my own. It was hard! My brain was already mapped out to go that way, not drive by…it felt wierd! And I wasn’t happy. As it turns out, eating and drinking actually increases our happy chemicals in our brains (dopamine), so much so that we just want (and need) to repeat the very behavior that makes us happy (but typically has a negative consequence, for me, draining my budget).

It gets even more complicated. We know with alcohol, for example,our brains eventually change over time to actually need to drink. At first, having that cocktail or glass of wine after work just may relax you. But, if repeated over time, the brain starts to make you crave/need that alcohol at that certain time because your own “happy” chemicals are not enough. Your habit has begun, and it is not easy to change. We do know that when you pair drinking (or eating) with a specific environment or activity, that environment or activity will eventually become a “trigger”or a cue to eat (or drink). You become a robot. A robot eating or drinking just because you have repeated the behavior in the same place at the same time.

To complicate matters further, enter your emotions into play. Do you eat when you are stressed? Bored? Upset? Angry? Tired? If you repeatedly use eating or drinking to numb feelings (or just to feel better, since both of these things do increase your happy chemicals), chances are over time these feelings become the trigger. It feels almost automatic, that you just can’t stop. But, happy as ice cream or a glass of wine seems to make you, now your feelings ON TOP OF your environment become just one more trigger. It is much more complicated than this of course. But you get the message.

Oh wait, there is more. It is called homeostatic hunger. That is when your very own body knows it needs to eat or drink something. Dehydrated? You get thirsty. On a low carb diet? You crave sweets. Didn’t eat enough at lunch time? You need a snack. Yes, “listen to your body” as I always say…..but, when you add in the habits and repetitive messaging to the brain, the automatic responses you taught yourself and practiced to perfection, well, it is not so easy to just listen, is it?

The bottom line is, in order to make the healthy changes you want to make, you need to understand and accept the following:

  1. Your behaviors may have become “automatic” because the brain pathways you created through repeated practice remain, even when you truly want to change.
  2. You usually can change your brain to allow you to do what you really want to do (healthier habits) through the same repetitive practice that got you where you are. Only this time you will be consciously practicing the healthier behavior. It won’t feel right at first (driving by the Dunkin Donuts instead of pulling in) but it gets easier over time.
  3. It takes time and reflection to truly figure out your triggers. If you skip this step I might predict next year at this time you will be in the same place.
  4. It is helpful to think of “adding in” a healthy behavior verses “eliminating” an unhealthy behavior. For example, to just expect yourself to totally stop drinking 2 glasses of soda with your lunch is hard. Adding in 2 glasses of lemon water in place of the soda helps.

Let’s take an example of what this may look like in your real life. I have heard countless people complain about not being able to control themselves when it comes to sweets. They can’t have cookies in the house because they will eat them all. They can’t stop. What is going on here? Are some people simply “addicted” to sweets? As it turns out, researchers have been looking into the concept of “food addiction” for many years, and although the topic remains somewhat controversial, there is evidence that high fat and high sugar foods (such as cookies) involve “brain-reward” changes. In other words, they make us feel good, and can be just as rewarding to our brains as a glass of wine. The reality though, is that although most of us feel happy from eating a sweet dessert, not everyone feels compelled to eat the whole thing. (Food addiction is such and interesting topic, I hope to write on that topic next time).

This is where your “research” comes in. Remember, everything you did in the past regarding food and eating has been stored in your brain. The automatic pathways are there. So, if you were rewarded with sweets when you were a kid, that is there. Or, if you had a parent who restricted sweets (and you consequently had to sneak that cookie), that memory is still there. If you had a parent who cared about body size and dieted all the time, that message is also there. If YOU dieted in the past, lost and regained weight, put yourself in “diet jail” (eat this, don’t eat that) for any length of time, well that is stored in there too. And, if you have used food or have binged on food in the past (when you have gone off your diet on a Friday only to resume it on Monday, the typical dieter’s pattern) you can be sure that pattern is stored in there too. If you take the time to reflect on all you have been through when it comes to food and eating as well as exercise you will have a greater appreciation of why it isn’t so simple.

Once you do your reflecting on where you are, hopefully you can start to identify your “triggers”. It takes time for your brain to adapt to a new way of behaving, so in the meantime, it is important to adapt your environment to set yourself up for success. If you have a goal of cooking healthier meals instead of eating out, your fridge needs to have the food you need to actually cook! That means making a menu, a grocery list and planning when you are going to go shopping. If at this time you realize you can’t have just one (cookie, chip, ice cream, whatever) figuring out a way to “practice” may be helpful. For example, buy a small package of cookies or an individual bag of chips to have with a meal or as a snack. Pay attention to every bite and truly try to enjoy it. Notice the thoughts that pop up in your head. Are they negative, judgemental? Catch these thoughts and change them, even if you don’t believe it (fake it till you make it). “It is healthy and normal to have a serving of chips, it won’t affect me, this is OK “.

Sometimes, keeping a record is helpful. For example, if you think you might eat or drink because of emotional reasons, you may want to document what is going on, even for just a week. You can write down what you are feeling and thinking, what time you are eating, what and about how much you are eating, how hungry (or not hungry) you are, how full you feel, where you are, who is with you, etc. When you look back on this record you may learn something about yourself. Once you identify patterns, you might be able to name some of your “triggers”. Do you notice yourself eating when you are not hungry after an argument with your boss? Or maybe you notice you tend to get too full at dinner, but that you don’t eat much during the day. The trigger in this case is just allowing yourself to get overly hungry! Only when you identify these triggers can you come up with some strategies to move in a healthier direction.

So, when you start the New Year wanting to incorporate some healthier eating behaviors, you will surely encounter some challenging situations. When you do, how can you respond and be successful? Remember, the natural thing is to resort to old ways of behaving because those pathways are already there and automatic. Being aware of them is the first step. Accepting the fact that change is complicated is important. Respecting the complexity of how our lifestyle evolved to be what it is, well that is critical. Remember the saying “practice makes perfect”? That is because each time you do something differently, and repeat it, over and over, your brain follows. Eventually, you make brand new pathways that become automatic. Before you know it, it is easier and easier to have just 3 cookies instead of the entire plate. Over time, going out for a walk after work instead of plopping on the couch feels more natural (and eventually you will crave that walk instead of the couch). Or, for those who struggle with restricting or over exercising, starting to eat regular meals at first is not easy, but over time and with practice, it becomes more automatic. Limiting exercise also starts to feel more normal (note:always follow the advice of your doctor, therapist and dietitian as they know your specific situation and will safely guide you).

Finally, I totally understand there is so much more to say about healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle. Exploring the concept of “triggers” as well as developing strategies for dealing with them can be a whole new post. And, there are countless resources on strategies to eat healthy, nutrition, cooking, etc. which we have not even touched upon. Educating yourself is important, as long as you avoid the “perfect eating” trap. Be sure to stick to evidenced-based resources such as:

https://www.eatright.org/healthhttps://

www.usdairy.com/about-us/national-dairy-councilhttps://

www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/what-is-myplate

But all the knowledge in the world can’t undo what your brain knows all too well. How to make you do what you do. Only you can do that. Through reflection and honesty and practice. It takes lots of work. Picking the “right diet” is not the answer. It is not that simple.

And remember, if for some reason you truly run into trouble, or can’t change a habit that is harming your health (physically or psychologically), get help. You deserve it.

Here’s to a happier, healthier new year!!!! Wishing you peace and love, especially within yourself.