Confronting Your Boogeymen: Practical Strategies for Preventing Overeating
I hope you read last week’s post, “Trigger Foods, ‘Clean’ Eating, and Leveling the Moral High Ground.” If you haven’t, check it out! It will give you context for today’s post.
This week’s article is the other side of the coin. While there are no “good” and “bad” foods, there are practical strategies that will help you self-regulate better and reach your goals faster and with more ease… no shame, no diets, and no “cleanses” needed.
You know that, even when you remove the moralistic, black-and-white thinking around food that creates the toxic shame, there are still foods that give you trouble. You approach moderate eating with the best of intentions, but find that you simply have a difficult relationship with certain foods.
Today, we’re going to talk about what to do about those foods – the hyper-seductive “trigger foods” that make moderate eating difficult for you.
In other words, leveling the moral high ground doesn’t mean that you can’t take effective and meaningful action that makes a huge difference in your life.
Note: be easy on yourself. Just because you have cognitively changed your thinking doesn’t mean that it didn’t take years to build a negative relationship with a certain food, or foods. Those relationships and associations – which can be extremely powerful – don’t change overnight, or with the flip of a switch. It takes time and patience.
Green, Yellow, and Red Lights
This is essentially Leonard Epstein’s “Traffic Light Eating” model, adapted from his child-centered approach to a more adult-centric model.
I truly love the original, child-like language – we can all relate to it. Green means “go,” yellow means “slow,” and red means “whoa!” Cute, right? I like the spirit of it.
I recommend that your make your own list in three columns. The magic of this list is that you decide which foods go on which lists, because this is your personal list, not a generalized master list of “shoulds.”
Green light foods are the ones that – for you – promote vibrant physical health, meet your nutritional needs, and encourage better eating habits overall. Most importantly, however, green light foods are the ones that don’t elicit overeating or otherwise somehow make you feel bad (like a food sensitivity). In some ways, foods that will be on the green light list are foods that are actually difficult to overeat. Note – “green light foods” are not ones that you are “allowed” to eat ad finitum. We are looking at behaviors, not calories. A green light is not a blank check.
For me, classically “healthy foods” like greens like spinach, broccoli, and lean chicken breast make the list. But some other foods that don’t get such good press are also on the list for me, like pasta, rice, and bread. This is why it gets to be your list. I don’t personally overeat on pasta, especially when it is pre-portioned (which is how I store it cooked).
This is an essential first step to your inventory – you must remove “good” or “bad” meanings from foods and simply boil it down to your behaviors. Which foods do you not overeat, that also support health? These are your green light foods.
These are foods that you may not keep in your house, because you know they could elicit overeating. Or if you do keep them at home, you have safeguards in place (like pre-portioning for storage) that help prevent mindless consumption.
For me, this applies to pretzels, popcorn, ice cream, and even peanut butter. I do keep these items in my house, but I have strategies in place to help me self-regulate. I bag pretzels and popcorn into individual serving-size baggies, and I only buy ice cream in bar form (instead of pints). I am mindful about measuring peanut butter when I eat it with apples.
There are foods on my yellow light list that I do not keep at home, however, and only eat at restaurants or parties – like cake, cookies, chips, among others. These are foods that, if I kept them at home, I know would create difficulty for me in self-regulation and dietary restraint, and even when I eat out, I still use the original “slow” idea from Dr. Epstein’s model.
They’re foods that I know I must be “cautious” in implementing into my diet – they are difficult to eat mindfully, especially if portion sizes are unlimited or uncontrolled. They just require a little extra mindfulness (and maybe measuring spoons or cups). Because of this, some of them are simply not worth the trouble of keeping in my kitchen.
You probably already know what your red light foods are. These are foods that you have great difficulty not overeating, when given any opportunity. For me, this list includes chocolate, peanut butter cups, and doughnuts, among others. These are foods that I don’t keep at home, and don’t even usually eat at all. Reduced to the simplest terms – these are foods that do not feel good. They may taste good, but I don’t like how I feel when these foods are a part of my diet.
While hyperpalatability is the essential principle of overeating – and if a food contains a combination of fat, starch, salt, and high caloric density, it’s going to be more tempting – this is where personal tastes play a huge role. Whether a food makes it onto your yellow light list or your red light list is largely a matter of personal preference.
For example, there’s no real logic for why ice cream – even peanut-butter-cup-flavored ice cream – is on my yellow light list, but actual peanut butter cups are on my red light list. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way my behavior shakes out in reality. I don’t overeat ice cream bars when they’re in my freezer. However, I do overeat peanut butter cups if they’re around – and when I’m not eating them, I’m thinking about them. So I can keep one at home, but not the other. I respect my body’s (and brain’s) relationship to these foods, even though I don’t completely understand it.
Be extremely judicious in deciding whether a food should be a “yellow light” or a “red light” for you. I want to recall last week’s three-step evaluation model:
- How do you feel eating this food?
- Is this food working with your lifestyle?
- What are the results of eating this food?
If this food is not adding to your quality of life, and is actually actively detracting from it, it may be a “red light” from which you could take a break (even a temporary break).
Is This Just Another Dysfunctional Way of Looking at Food?
I have thought about this many times, but the reason that I recommend this for my clients is that I have confidence in the personal, flexible and dynamic qualities of this system.
You have the power to adjust and edit your lists, switch foods around, and experiment with what I call “safeguards” to make your eating more enjoyable and sustainable. It’s completely personalized, because you know yourself well.
Also important: this system focuses on specific foods and your behaviors rather than sweeping food groups. Never would I let a client put “sugar” on a red light list, for example. I would ask: “So you sit at the sugar bowl and just eat sugar by the spoonful?” We’re not broadly cutting out carbs or sugar. Instead, we examine how you relate to these foods. Similarly, I would keep your red light list very, very short. If you’re not sure about a food, move it from the red list to the yellow list.
Finally, this system helps to reduce shame. When people struggle with overeating, it is often a destructive cycle of totally preventable failures followed by toxic remorse. Instead of setting up unwinnable situations (like leaving ice cream in the freezer when you know it’s a “thing” for you), it allows you to create little victories for yourself and safely nurture new habits while they’re still in a fragile stage.
Action Plan Time
Time to make an action plan. Now that you have your list, your goal this week is to shop with your list in mind. Fill your house with green light foods, create safeguards for your yellow light foods, and consider cutting your red light foods from your shopping list.
When you’re creating your action plan, keep in mind: what you decide now is not necessarily forever. Your relationships with foods do change – sometimes significantly – over time.
For example, over the last seven years or so since I initially lost 50 pounds, fried food has gradually shifted from my red light list to my yellow light list. Even though it’s not something I never eat anymore, it’s something I hardly ever eat, and I don’t buy for home.
On the other hand, my husband and I used to keep chocolate chips in our refrigerator to put on yogurt at night. Over the years, our relationship to the chocolate chips gradually changed – they went from being an innocuous yogurt topping once a day, to being grabbed by the handful every time one of us opened the refrigerator door. By the end of our chocolate chip career, we were eating more than a bag of chocolate chips per week between the two of us. It was a food that was initially a green light (dark chocolate is good for you, right???), but eventually shifted to a yellow light that I just can’t keep at the house. It’s just too tricky.
When you make your list and execute your action plan, keep in mind that implementation may require experimentation.
Each time you make a list, it’s only a rough draft, because edits will keep coming as your lifestyle naturally shifts over time. Any transition – a move, a job change, a relationship change, a schedule change – can seismically change the way you eat.
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!
Last week in “Trigger Foods, Clean Eating, and Leveling the Moral High Ground,” we talked about how we can change our perspective so that we look at eating just like we look at financial budgets, releasing our thinking from black-and-white moral paradigms around food.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:
- Question 1: What have been your experiences with “clean eating” in the past? Did it work for you? What aspects were helpful, and which aspects were not helpful?
- Question 2: Do you find that you have a tendency to group foods into “good” or “bad”?
- Question 3: How has it changed your thinking to consider eating from the point of view of a financial budget?
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