Thinking about eating

Yesterday I participated in a health screening at work, in order to get a $150 discount on my 2011 health insurance premiums. (Roughly $3 a week – it isn’t a lot but it’s something.) I was disappointed but hardly surprised to see that my cholesterol is still 204, my “good” cholesterol is still low, and my BMI is still high.

Then I had to input all the numbers in an online form which calculated my “health quotient,” a dismayingly low 30 out of 100, compared to an average score of 58 among my peers (though I don’t know what group is considered my peers). The program finished by recommending ways I can improve my health, through healthier eating, more exercise, stress reduction, and improving my emotional state.

Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest difference I could make to my score was with the latter two, not by diet and exercise. I don’t think of myself as “stressed out” most of the time, but there’s no question that financial difficulties create some stress in my life. Then there’s the difficulty of having a husband who works nights and sleeps days – or whenever he can manage to, my own sleep problems, dealing with a special needs son, the prospect of having to relocate if my husband gets a call to another church…

I read some articles on improving my emotional outlook, but didn’t find anything very helpful so far. Improving my eating habits and exercising more seem a lot easier projects to tackle – I have decades of experience with those, and some (obviously temporary) successes. If getting a CPAP machine helps me not to be so tired, I would find it easier to get up and exercise in the morning, and to come home and cook healthy meals in the evening.

But what really surprised me was an article I read this evening at futurity.com, reporting that thinking about eating a food actually results in eating less of it. If you’ve struggled with overeating, as I have, you probably can think of lots of times that you thought and thought about how good a bowl of ice cream would taste – or an order of French fries, or a candy bar, or a bag of chips – and then how you finally gave in and ate it, when you knew you really shouldn’t. (Especially if, like me, you found it hard to stop after the first one.)

It’s not just thinking about the food that makes the difference, though, the article says. You have to actually imagine eating it. Imagine putting it in your mouth, chewing it up, savoring that delicious flavor. And keep thinking about it over and over (in the study they had subjects repeat it 33 times). People who did that were then given the opportunity to eat the food they had imagine eating, and they ate less than people who had imagined some other activity or eating some other food.

I do know that if I actually eat something I really enjoy, and then eat it again soon afterward, it’s just not as good the second time. Even a second helping never tastes as good as the first. Perhaps imagining it has a similar effect.

I also have tried to just enjoy the smell of certain foods. I used to have a co-worker who ate a bag of microwave popcorn every morning at 10 AM. My office was near the lunch room, so I could always smell her popcorn, and I worked at enjoying the smell rather than wishing I could have some. Today I could smell the Chinese food some of my co-workers were enjoying. I briefly thought how good it would taste if I bought some, but then decided to content myself with smelling the aroma as someone walked by with a plateful. Does imagining eating the food provide some similar kind of satisfaction?

Like most dieters (I think), I’ve tried not to let myself dwell on how good that Twix bar would taste, or that bag of Cheetos. Because if I do, it seems that sooner or later I find myself in front of the vending machine, and after enough trips to the vending machine to look at the snacks I end up buying one. And then maybe another. (After all, the Twix is so deliciously sweet, it needs the saltiness of Cheetos to balance it.)

But if this study is right, then instead I need to just imagine eating 33 Twix bars, and 33 bags of Cheetos. (Or maybe just 33 bites of Twix bar and 33 Cheetos – no need to make myself imagine getting sick.) Right now there are all sorts of treats coming into the office, mostly from vendors (yesterday there were three boxes of chocolates, three or four boxes of baked good, a dark chocolate bar, and a huge tray of cookies). Hmm, I do seem to be feeling full just thinking about it.

I suppose I shouldn’t think about eating vegetables, though, because I’m supposed to actually want to eat more of them.

One Response to Thinking about eating

  1. modestypress says:

    This post is quite interesting to me, in part because I am a self-obsessed person. When we moved to our island in Puget Sound I was fifty pounds overweight. I am now pretty close to my recommended weight. Do I have anything useful or helpful to offer you? I don’t know. People are quite varied, and what works for one does not necessarily work for another.

    The concentrate on food and you will less of it strategy is intriguing. I am skeptical, but maybe it works.

    In my case, here is what I can figure out:

    1) My wife nagged me quite a bit about losing weight. I resented the nagging quite a bit but it probably helped some.

    2) My wife became a fanatic about eating in a healthful way. This also irritates me, but also probably helped.

    3) We don’t have much money, so it is hard to splurge on junk food.

    4) I think I have a mildly addictive personality. I do not tend toward alcoholism; not from virtue; probably it’s my genetics. I am addicted to food, which is an odd addiction–we all have to eat. The trick is to eat without overeating.

    5) I think food represents to me a great symbolic meaning and seeking after emotional satisfaction. Perhaps I wasn’t weaned properly or raised properly? I don’t know. Although my weight and my eating is under control now; like an alcoholic, I will always have to be careful and watchful; I could easily blow up again.

    6) I began to exercise regularly at the gym and at home. Eventually, I became mildly addicted to exercising. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I plug along at it fairly consistently.

    7) I’ve read long ago (and heard some variation of it today) that one of the best ways to control overeating is to concentrate on eating. That is: don’t mix eating with reading, watching television, using the Internet, and other distracting activities. This is a variation perhaps of the imagine eating exercise.

    If eating cake or ice cream or whatever, say, “I am going to give this activity my full enjoyment and concentration and get as much enjoyment and satisfaction as I can out of it. As soon as my mind wanders to something else, I will concentrate on it and stop eating.”

    Whether any of this is helpful, I don’t know. I wish you well in your efforts.

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