It was a Friday evening, and my friend came into the restaurant as if she was blown in by a hurricane. She collapsed into her chair, dropped her phone into the overflowing bag on the seat next to her, and grabbed a menu. “Finally, Friday! It’s my cheat meal, so I can eat whatever I want!” And she proceeded to order something that felt indulgent, scandalous, and satisfying. As she ate her reward for being good all week, I thought about the pendulum she was on, swinging from closely monitoring her nutrition and meals to eating whatever she desired in whatever amount she desired. I wondered if she was enjoying the ride or hanging on for dear life. I’ve done both, as I suspect you have as well.
As a wellness coach, I hear a lot of stories of being “good” during the week and “bad” on the weekends. It wasn’t long ago that my weekends felt like that, too. I was eternally ticked off that I seemed to always be taking three steps forward and two steps back. Weekends are a notoriously difficult time to be healthy and stick to a routine. The whole essence of the weekend begs for something different, a break from the norm. But if you are working hard on making progress on changing your health risks, consistency over the weekend can be the element that takes things to the next level. Over time, I have created some strategies to get over the weekend hurdle and come out the other end feeling much, much better.
First, Decide What You Want. Yes, you get to choose! When you look forward you’re your weekend, how do you want to feel at the end? Energized? Relaxed? Rejuvenated? Prepared? Put some adjectives on your mood for Sunday night. Then, consider what needs to happen on Friday and Saturday in order for you to feel that way on Sunday. Also, consider what needs to not happen. You know what I’m talking about.
Adjust the Dial. Once you know your desired outcome, it’s time to look at the big picture and determine how realistic that outcome is based on you are willing to do or not do to achieve it. I often hear of goals to not drink as much beer on the weekends. A goal of drinking no beer is not usually realistic, but a goal of drinking less beer is. Be honest with yourself about what that means for you, and adjust the dial to something that feels like you’re making progress without swinging the pendulum over too far.
Do a Gut Check. Any good wellness coach is going to challenge you to go deep. Why is this outcome important to you? Why do you want to change your weekends? What are you missing out on if you don’t change? What will you gain if you do work hard for change this time? This is important, because when the going gets tough, you’ll need a reason that really pulls at you.
Clear the Obstacles. Make it easy to achieve your goal by removing the obstacles in your way. If your goal is to maintain good nutrition, keep as many meals the same as during the week as possible, and log them in advance in a calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal. This gives you an opportunity to see potential slip points and correct for them ahead of time.
If you're going out, check out the restaurant menu online and decide what to order before you arrive. Then, once you are there, order first before you lose your resolve and get sucked in by other people's plans.
Workout on the weekend! Starting the day with exercise helps reduce your appetite for splurges and revs up your metabolism.
Chop fruits and veggies for snacks all at once or buy them pre-chopped. It's easier to grab them out of the fridge than take out a piece of fruit, knife, and cutting board.
Put a white board on your fridge and write out your menu for the weekend. Seeing it in black and white will not only keep you organized, but also serve as some extra accountability when you try to open that door and grab something to snack on.
Don't buy junk. If it's not there, you won't eat it. And don't say you're buying it for the kids or your husband or wife or whatever. They don't need it either.
Be loud and proud! Sharing your intention to be healthy over the weekend to a buddy, family member, random people at the coffee place, gives you extra accountability and makes you feel more in-charge of your weekend! Plus, you may inspire a friend to follow with you, and then you can keep each other honest.
Here are some great ways to voice this goal:
Keep it positive. Focus on what you're doing for yourself (having a healthy weekend), not what you're missing (I'm skipping dessert).
Keep it present-tense. Talking about being healthy in the future is great, but the difference between, "I'm having a healthy weekend," and, "I'm going to have a healthy weekend," can be huge. The second one could have the word, "tomorrow," added way too easily!
And finally, remember: a cheat day only cheats you. You deserve better! You work hard all week to establish healthy behaviors and fuel your body, and you can take it to the next level when you maintain consistency over the weekend. Decide what you want, move the barriers aside, and make it easy to jump off the weekend pendulum and over that hurdle.
Congratulations! You’ve been working hard, making great choices, exercising regularly, and feeling the changes in your body as a result. You deserve a reward, so go ahead and treat yourself! Whatever you want. But here’s the catch: it can’t be food, and it can’t be expensive.
Screeech! Did your creative wheels just come to an abrupt halt? I often ask my clients if they have rewards built into their weight loss plans, because they can serve as an incentive and because they’re fun.
We all work hard, and building in opportunities to let loose and have a little fun is healthy and smart. But, it’s important to make sure those rewards are helping your progress, not hindering it.
Food is often our go-to reward because it’s so easy and inexpensive. Going out for a celebratory meal is the default when you finally get that job offer. Facebook abounds with pictures of happy children eating frozen yogurt on report card day. It’s easy to let food be a reward because it simply feels good to eat! It really does feel like love sometimes to share a meal with friends or indulge in something reserved for special occasions.
But, when your goal is weight loss, rewarding yourself with food can mean eventual sabotage. After all, you’re going to be wildly successful, so you’ll likely be celebrating quite a lot! Celebrating with food can be part of a balanced life, but if you are using it as an incentive or a reward, consider whether it is truly helping you succeed.
If you reward every milestone with food, it won’t be long before the diet mentality takes over and you’re digging yourself out of the “I worked so hard, now I deserve to eat,” trap. That is not a good place to be!
After we eliminate food as a reward, the next most popular idea is usually something indulgent like a massage, new clothes, or some other luxury item that feels a little bit scandalous. These are fantastic ways to celebrate an accomplishment if you have the budget for it, but for most of us, that party would get expensive pretty quick and then we would have to set a new goal for better financial management. That’s not a good place to be either!
Here are some ways to reward and celebrate your accomplishments calorie-free and under $15:
The best place is somewhere between the two types of rewards that motivate us: external and internal. The external rewards, like fitting into a smaller size jeans or getting a pedicure after losing ten pounds, are fun and exciting. But ideally, the reliance on these incentives to prod us into taking steps towards greater health should decrease over time as we become more connected with the internal rewards of increased confidence, greater life satisfaction, and plain old feeling good.
Enjoy every step of your healthy journey, and when you stop to high-five yourself, do it in a way that supports the big picture. As you hit your stride and establish habits that will stand the test of time, you’ll find that making healthy choices are their own reward. The external stuff – the new shoes or the massage – just won’t shine with the same luster because they can’t hold a candle to how you feel on the inside.
My almost-kindergartner inherited a lot from me. His blue eyes, his love for pajamas, and his hard-headedness are all legitimate hereditary gifts from good old mom. There’s one more thing that he comes by honestly, but he might not consider it a gift as he gets older: a sweet tooth.
It got real last week when he wanted to have orange juice with his dinner and I told him that he could have some after he ate the carrots on his plate. I had just sat down and didn’t feel like getting up to pour orange juice, and honestly, I didn’t expect him to actually eat them. But he totally called my bluff, and a few minutes later interrupted his brother to point out that he had eaten his carrots and was ready for his orange juice.
I’ll admit I was stunned. Despite my credentials as a health professional, I have never been very successful at getting my children to knowingly eat vegetables. So of course I took all of the credit and congratulated myself for being such a good example. Then I was impressed by how quickly he had responded to the right motivation. But the wellness coach in me couldn’t ignore what had been a strong enough motivator to get him to actually eat a vegetable: the reward of sugary sweet orange juice.
Well, he’s five years old. Of course he wants sweets! We humans are hard-wired to crave sugar; we all have a sweet tooth on some level, and the reward of dessert motivates good behavior at every age. But, that natural craving is playing a larger role in the health of our nation, as we add more sugar to our everyday foods and consume more calories as a result. Sugar is blamed by researchers as a contributor to obesity, type-two diabetes, some cancers, and plenty of regret after an ice cream binge. It’s for that reason and more that kicking the sugar habit is a common health goal.
The thing is, kicking the sugar habit isn’t just about sugar. If it was, then artificial sweeteners would be the perfect antidote to our problems. A sweet craving is not necessarily for sugar, but for sweetness. That means our goal isn’t necessarily to avoid sugar, but to eliminate the craving for sweets. And that, my friends, is tough.
But so are you, and if reducing your sweet tooth is a goal of yours, here is your guide to kicking it for good.
Read the Ingredients, not the Label
Just because the package says it is free of high-fructose corn syrup does not mean it doesn’t contain sugar. There are many names for sugar, and it doesn’t take long to discover that almost every packaged food in the grocery store contains some form of it. Ingredients like syrup, cane juice, dextrin, malt, or anything ending in –ose is a hint that there is added sugar. When you see these ingredients, you’re looking at a food that will make your sweet tooth stronger.
Intentionally Eat Different Foods
Taste buds can and do change, and one way to create that change is to deliberately feed them different things. Notice how often you reach for something sweet, and challenge yourself to choose something else. Give yourself time to acclimate to a different flavor expectation, and start slow. Choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit – with natural sugars and fiber intact – and some chopped nuts. You’ll enjoy some sweetness, but on a gentler scale. Try a tablespoon of peanut butter (no sugar added!), which researchers have found will zap cravings quickly by activating hormones that water down your sweet tooth. If having just one tablespoon of peanut butter is as much torture to you as it is to me, consider this next suggestion.
Stop Skipping Meals
Now we’re talking! Ravenous hunger, when we are most vulnerable to swings in blood sugar and cravings for a quick blast of calories, often occurs when we try to make it to lunch without breakfast or eat a measly lunch and then succumb to afternoon temptations. Stay satisfied and less likely to binge by eating every three to four hours, and make that meal or snack a balanced combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. For example, sugar-free peanut butter on simple crackers is a great snack and not overly sweet, making it another baby-step option for reducing the expectations your taste buds might have for sweetness.
Reducing a sweet craving doesn’t mean never eating it again, but it does take intentional effort to create enough room for a different craving. The only way to truly change a habit is to commit to being intentional and deliberate about setting boundaries for yourself and respecting them. Right now I set my kids’ nutrition boundaries, as futile as it may seem at times. I hope my little guy continues to surprise me with what he can do when his eye is on the prize, and that as a culture we can change what we see as the carrot.
It’s festival season! In this glorious time before the summer heat descends upon us, Tallahassee is buzzing with weekend events, each with its own craft beer, food truck, artisan-crafted baked goods, and perfectly understandable reason why the diet should start on Monday. It’s a fantastic time to see our beautiful and ever-changing city! Likewise, weekends are notorious for knocking us off of our healthy path. So go out and live it up, but as your wellness coach, I may whisper a reminder over your shoulder: “it’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore.”
If that matters to you, of course. It might not. But if you set a goal back in January of losing weight or gaining fitness this year, then this is for you.
Growing up in the New Orleans area, I learned pretty early on that if I wanted to eat healthy, I would have to work really hard at it. Holidays and festivals flowed from one right into the next, all of them centered on food. As a destination where people travel with the sole purpose of eating, living in NOLA meant facing food obstacles at almost every turn and feeling doomed in the process.
As I started getting serious about losing weight, I had to face the reality of how my social life affected my chances for success. Every interaction I had with friends revolved around food, my family cooked and shared large meals, and it just felt weird to plan a social event and not start with the menu. It wasn't until I moved away for college that I began to set the boundaries I needed to manage my weight.
Heading out to a festival and trying to stick to a “diet” is no fun, I know. Strike a balance by staying in touch with your motivations for healthy change and keeping them at the forefront of your attention. Before going into social situations where you may be tempted to overeat, take a few minutes to plan out how you will manage your hunger. Pack a healthy, portable snack in case options are limited, write down the reasons why you want to maintain healthy habits on the weekend, and be realistic about what can and can’t be avoided. Most of the time, it’s not as hard as we expect to avoid unhealthy traps.
Choose your company wisely, and plan outings with friends who share your goals. But be prepared to fly solo if they aren’t ready for change. If being around old habits is a slippery slope, look for new ways to socialize. For me, this meant meeting friends for walking dates during lunch instead of dining out, planning active outings, and being prepared at parties with something healthy. Eventually, people began to expect me to cheerfully stick to my guns in the face of funnel cakes and walking tacos, which is how I earned my nickname: Healthy Heather!
Many times, it’s the people we are closest to who get us through the ups and downs of weight loss. But sometimes, those same people are our biggest obstacle and we have to consider whether old relationships are compatible with new habits. Friends who sabotage you, undermine your values, or make you feel inferior because you are choosing a different path may feel threatened by the changes you are making and how they will affect your relationship. They may be jealous of your success, or resentful that they are not ready yet to make the same changes. They have the right to feel that way, but they do not have the right to undermine your efforts for change.
It is still hard to eat within my needs when I visit my family in the Big Easy, but I do much better when I stay focused on the real reason for being there. Living healthy when your social life revolves around food can be overwhelming. A combination of preparation, compassion, and downright stubbornness can help you change your lifestyle and still have a life!
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!