Health and Wellbeing Exercises

Healthy eating behaviors: using stimulus control to help ourselves make healthy food choices

Sunday was Mother’s Day. I have two beautiful baby boys, a 3 year old and a 9 month old, who are the reason I got to celebrate. They are my heart and soul and I adore them more than I can possibly say.
I woke up Sunday to flowers and a beautiful card plus the super awesome and thoughtful gift of a Yoga Deck from my husband. (Side note, If you’re into yoga and you don’t have one of these, you should! They include pranayama, mediation, and asana cards to help guide your practice. Excellent gift for any yogi! P.s. This isn’t a sales or promotional post in anyway, I just actually love them and wanted to let you know in case you’d love them too!) Midmorning, my own sweet mama came over and we gave her the gift the boys and I made for her. We did some hand and footprint art to write the word love on a metal and wood sign she can hang in her house (you can see it in the pic for this post! Of course, I couldn’t help but also make one for myself, I mean, how adorable, right!?) Then, we all shared a yummy Mother’s Day brunch together before taking a walk to a nearby park where we got to check out the turtles sunbathing in the pond. After everyone left, I got to nap and snuggle with my babies in the afternoon. It was lovely and relaxing and perfect.

There was just one thing wrong, and it was nothing to do with anyone but me. It started with the brunch part of the equation. We had scrambled eggs, sausage, avocado and tomato slices. So far, so good right? But there were also blueberry muffins, cheese danish, and croissants with Nutella. I did okay at brunch, having just a little of everything. I was feeling satisfied and pleased that I’d managed to enjoy the sweet treats without going overboard. But then it wasn’t long before I stopped by the counter and grabbed another piece of
danish. Then half of a muffin, then the other half. Then after nap, my older son asked for a croissant with Nutella so, of course, I ate one too. You can see where this is going, and it isn’t pretty. I’m not sure how much sugar I consumed yesterday but I know for sure I ate at least 3 muffins, 2 croissants with more than a single serving suggestion of Nutella, and several pieces of Danish. I know that I felt sick and had a headache yesterday in the late afternoon. I know that I didn’t sleep well last night. I know that, still today (it’s Monday as I write this), I feel sick and bloated. And I know that it’s because of overloading my body with processed sugar and carbohydrates.

Here’s the thing, I know better than to have let that happen. I know myself, I know the choices that I typically make when presented with those kinds of foods, and I know the strategies that I’ve developed over time to help myself enjoy them in moderation when I choose to, rather than abusing them like I did Sunday and feeling sick and suffering for it. Now let’s be clear, I’m not advocating for you, or myself, or anyone to entirely cut out any one single food from your life entirely. What I am saying, is that some foods are much healthier than others and that we need to approach unhealthy choices with some knowledge, awareness, and caution. What I am advocating for, is that we all work to develop those strategies I mentioned to help us keep up healthier behaviors when we want to enjoy a certain food that we know we struggle with. This idea of creating healthier eating behaviors brings us directly to this week’s topic.

Today’s post is about using stimulus control to help us establish and maintain healthy eating behaviors. What’s stimulus control? It’s recognizing the circumstances under which we eat unhealthy foods or engage in unhealthy eating behaviors and altering those conditions and/or the environment in such a way as to remove the stimulus to eat the food or engage in the unhealthy eating behavior. For me, my go to strategies are simply not keeping a food in the house if I don’t want to eat it, buying only a single serving of something so that I can have the treat, enjoy it, and be done with it, or finding a healthier way to enjoy a typically unhealthy food, and keeping fresh, healthy foods on hand and prepared to limit the temptation to eat something unhealthy because it’s “easier”. For the most part, these strategies keep me on track, choosing healthy foods and feeling good mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. However, I’m human. We all make errors, we all have lapses. And that’s why it’s an equally important element of a healthy lifestyle to be able to identify potential lapses and avoid them or to be able to look back when they do happen and analyze them so we know how to handle something similar in the future. Let’s take a look at how that process goes.

For example, when my husband asked about the brunch, I did ask for the muffins, danish, and croissants because it was a special occasion and I love breakfast pastries. I also asked him to buy the smallest quantity available of each so that I’d face less temptation with the leftovers. He did his part, and I am in no way attempting to blame him for my behavior. He bought a small danish, 4 muffins, and 6 large croissants. This was to feed 4 adults and 2 children so I feel he definitely did his best to limit the quantity. It’s just that everyone was really good at making healthy choices during the brunch, which is great. However, it left us with 3 muffins, a quarter of a Danish, and 4 croissants. I knew it was trouble when I saw it. And I even thought to myself, “Just have him take it to work so that people there can enjoy it and you won’t be tempted to eat it!” Unfortunately, my tricky, already activated by brunch, sugar addicted brain spoke up and said, “Nah, you’ll be fine. You guys can enjoy them in small amounts over the next few days, and it’ll be no big deal!” And, of course, by the end of the day I had eaten most of it all by myself and now here I am writing this post.

So what happened, where did I go wrong? I had the right intention in asking my husband to only buy small quantities. That usually works for me. I can choose an individually wrapped cookie to enjoy, for example, rather than baking a whole batch or buying a box of cookies since I know I’ll eat them all at once. But in this case, I should have been even more selective. In hindsight, even the smallest quantity of 3 separate breakfast pastries was bound to leave us with an excess. So next time, I will choose just one type of pastry in the smallest available quantity. Another thing is that I really should have listened to myself and sent the leftovers home with my mom or to work with my husband. I knew the right choice, I just talked myself out of it. So, listen to yourself when you come up with these suggestions! Odds are you’re probably right.

There we have it. Those are the basic premises behind stimulus control. Step one is acknowledging the situation or environment where we make unhealthy choices. Where is that in your life? Do you keep cookies on the counter at home? Candy in the car? Chips at your desk? Step two is choosing a solution. Maybe you use my strategy and only buy one individually wrapped cookie to enjoy on occasion. Maybe you grab a piece of fresh fruit to keep with you to replace the candy you’re munching in the car. Maybe you bring carrots, celery, or bell peppers with hummus as a work snack. Step three is remaining mindful and aware and being able to get back on track when you experience a lapse. Let’s say your strategies are keeping you mostly successful and then you slip up like I did this Mother’s Day. It’s okay. Accept that it happened, shake it off, look at the situation to see how you can avoid it in the future and move forward with your stimulus control strategies renewed!

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