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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Column: Die Hard

Old habits, that is.

Even if you have access to perfect information, the gap between thinking about a problem and doing something about a problem is more like a chasm. Nowhere is this truer than in health. Most people know and agree that it’s important to exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep – common sense, right? Less common: people who act on that knowledge.

In the past couple columns I’ve been writing about exercise, something that’s pretty easy to adopt and fit into your schedule. But it’s only one side of the health equation, and the lesser side at that. What really makes the difference is what you eat. And sure enough, it’s much, much more difficult to change your diet. Unlike exercise, which is an activity that you can add to your lifestyle, manipulating your diet is tantamount to reprogramming your way of life. It’s for this reason that a healthy eating public service announcement would be ill conceived. This-is-your-brain-on-french-fries won’t change the way anyone eats. Diets are deeply ingrained habits.

Not to beat a dead KFC-chicken, but research also shows that habits are self-reinforcing. Old habits discourage change by inducing fear in the emotional side of our brain, triggering a flight-or-fight response. This is the logic to running away from our problems.

But there is a way to stop running. A Japanese philosophy called kaizen is a system for changing habits by tricking the brain. The idea is to use the thinking side of our brain to bypass the emotional brain’s fear of big change by introducing deliberate, continuous change, little-by-little. Baby steps. By the time you successfully reprogram your habit, your flight-or-fight won’t know what hit it.

It actually helps that food is so complex, because this allows you to introduce change infinitely. You can change what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, where you eat, what you buy at the supermarket, where you buy groceries, etc. In the same way that nobody eats quite like you now, the changes you decide to introduce are endlessly customizable.

I’ll suggest three changes to introduce in as many weeks. Before I go into detail, do yourself a favor and sign up for an account on About.com’s CalorieCount (or a similar service online or a Smartphone app). The following advice is virtually impossible to follow without it.

1. Record everything you eat. You won’t enjoy this, but you have to do it. Every time you eat anything, note how much and when. Record that brownie you had this morning because your roommate’s mom baked them for your apartment. Record that CoHo bagel. Should you decide to indulge, at least attempt to record the massacre known as Davis Sushi. CalorieCount and similar programs turn this process into something as easy as a Google search. Spoiler alert: you may find that the process of recording your food is motivation enough to change what you eat. Michel Foucault would have called this knowledge-power: recording something grants you the power to manipulate it.

2. Design the perfect meal plan. With the sophisticated tools of CalorieCount, you don’t have to have a degree in nutrition to design a healthy eating guide (though it helps, a lot). Once you add foods to a hypothetical day, these websites can simulate how many calories you’re getting, what nutrients you’re lacking, and even suggest foods to make up the difference. Have fun with the customization process and make a couple perfect plans if you require variety. Once you design the perfect meal plan(s), don’t do anything for a day or two. Use those days to revisit what you ate last week. Decide what you can reasonably expect yourself to change (even if the changes are small, some small changes are unreasonable). Then, tweak the perfect meal plan to make it more perfect still.

3. Introduce change meal-by-meal. Depending on how much willpower you wish to exert, focus on changing one meal a day to move closer to the perfect plan. Maybe you’ll end up overhauling your current diet to perfection in three days of changing breakfast-lunch-dinner. But I hope you’ll focus on each meal for a week. Remember that small changes still require commitment; there’s an art to eating the same lunch seven days in a row. By week six, you’ll be a food all-star.

Who says old habits die hard? Old habits die slow.

If you need help figuring out the websites, shoot RAJIV NARAYAN an e-mail at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu and he’ll respond one. word. at. a. time.

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