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By Jennifer Ward, RD, LDN, CLC, CPT

How many times have you heard that losing weight is just about burning more calories than you consume? The reality is that weight loss and better health goes far beyond a simple math equation. In fact, focusing on changing your environment can be the most powerful and effective tool in reducing temptation, forcing thought before action and reducing reliance on willpower. Here are six ways to conquer the most challenging food-related issues:

Don’t Skip Meals

Skipping meals often happens due to lack of time. But some people incorrectly assume that doing so will launch us ahead in our weight loss efforts. The truth is that skipping meals leads to a slowed metabolism followed by a ravenous level of hunger. A better solution is to follow a structured eating pattern, assess your hunger levels before you eat, eat when you are hungry and stop just before you feel full. The meal pattern that works for most people is eating three meals a day with two healthy snacks in-between. Eating more consistently will speed up your metabolism. Most importantly, not reaching the point of starvation will take away the urge to overeat.

Identify What Leads to Eating for Other Reasons than Hunger

Note the time of day, who you are with, where you are, the mood you are in and what types of foods you crave when this happens. For the times you are not actually hungry, coming up with a list of other things you can do that are constructive as well as distract and relieve you from stress in a more positive way. Stop bringing the foods or products that you crave or cannot eat in reasonable amounts into your home. If this is not an option because of the other people you live with, then store the more tempting foods out-of-sight and in locations that are inaccessible.

One of my clients and her family decided that they all wanted to eat healthier. They moved all of their junk food into the back of the top shelf of a corner cabinet. If anyone in the family wanted it they had to go to a closet down the hall, get a step stool, bring it into the kitchen and set it up. The whole family knew that when the step stool was out – someone was going for the junk food. Another family member would walk by and ask if going for the junk food was really what they wanted to do, so they were able to keep themselves accountable for what they ate.

Designate Specific Eating Areas

In our fast-paced world, we are constantly multi-tasking and distracted. As my relatives from Ireland observed, “Americans eat everywhere. They eat while they are driving, working, watching movies and walking down the street. In Ireland, we sit down at a table to eat.”  Try designating one specific eating area at home (I suggest the kitchen instead of the couch in front of a TV) and at work (I suggest the break room or cafeteria, not your desk). If for some reason you have to eat at your desk, at least stop working and just eat.  Picking an eating area creates more thought and work to get to that location. By not multi-tasking, it means you have to choose eating or something else, and at least sometimes the something else will win.

Eat Better, but Not to the Point of Deprivation

Brian Wansink, Ph.D. (the author of Mindless Eating) suggests using the “if you want to do X then you have to do Y first”. What does this mean? Basically, we all want to indulge, but it works better if we have to work for those indulgences, delay our gratification or become more mindful about them. For example, two years ago, my family and I vacationed in Cape Cod. My favorite coffee shop was a 15-minute drive round trip. So my rule was that if I was going to drive that far to get a coffee, I would have to wake up early and run an hour first.

View Tempting Food Products for What They Really Are

The sad truth is that, in spite of what the packaging say, most food product companies don’t care about your health. They care most about making profits and to ensure that they do, which is why so  many items in the grocery store contain such high levels or combinations of sugar, fat and salt. Our natural born satiety signals don’t work on those particular products. During my 18 years as a dietitian, I’ve listened to clients say that they have a lack of control over chips, crackers, cookies, pretzels, cake, ice cream, soda and other items to innumerable to name. Yet, no one has ever really confessed problems with carrots, spinach, apples, oranges, peppers or bananas. When we eat real food, we eat what we need then we move on. The more you choose natural foods that have been in existence for years versus the latest “carb-control” product, the less often you will find yourself wanting to eat more than you need.

Spend More Time with those Who Support Your Health Efforts

Choosing to spend more time with people who are supportive of you will make being healthy so much easier. A few years ago, I traveled to Florida with a friend. Before the trip, we were bike riding and weight lifting together several times per week. Once we made it to Florida, she got lazy on me. When we planned on going to the gym during the middle of the day to get out of the sun, she downright refused. She gave the common excuse of not wanting to exercise on vacation. Lucky for both of us – I had the keys to the rental car, so I told her I was going anyway. She caved in and ended up working out with me every day on that vacation. She dropped four pounds and thanked me at the end of the trip. Prior to that, she had never lost weight on vacation.

If you don’t have anyone to support you, then don’t wait. Start working towards better health on your own.

To sum up, consistent meal timing, eating for hunger, eating only in designated eating areas, thinking first or having to “work” to indulge, choosing real foods (not products) and spending time with others who are healthy can make eating more satisfying and diminish the urge to overeat. Changing your eating environment works because if you do it, you won’t need to rely so much on willpower.

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