The secret to eating what you want and staying thin

“How can I just eat whatever I want all the time but stay thin?”

As a dietitian, I hear a lot of questions, and this one in particular captured my attention. The person who asked was trying to be funny and did not expect an answer, but it got my wheels turning.

I love this question because, even though it was meant to be satirical, it really speaks to the heart of body-weight issues. The fact is, obesity is rampant not because of our lack of knowledge about how or what we should eat, but because, at the end of the day, we do what we want to do and not what we know we should do. Let’s face it, cake tastes better than carrots!

In spite of that truth, guess what?  There is an answer to this question.  It is possible to eat whatever you want and stay thin. 

The answer is changing what you want! 

I know it doesn’t sound revolutionary, but the good news is it can be done. Here’s how:

1. You start by assessing your behaviors around food, as well as your attitude toward food and your body.  What triggers cause you to eat or to overeat?

For example, perhaps every time you feel stressed you find yourself mindlessly grabbing candy out of the candy bowl at work. Or you realize you might go all day without eating because you’re so focused you can’t be bothered to eat. Later, you find yourself eating your way through the entire snack content of your pantry while you sit mindlessly in front of the television from 8 to 10 p.m.

2. Once you’ve assessed your own behaviors around food and figured out what those limiting factors or mindless habits are, make a plan to change.

The plan must be one that makes sense and is realistic for you. Having a plan makes it easier to stick to. The plan should find a way to tackle those limiting factors, and it should include changing negative self-talk to positive self-talk.

Here are some examples of what that plan might look like:

SUBSTITUTIONS TO SOOTHE STRESS: If you are one who mindlessly grabs candy from the candy bowl at work, and now you’ve related this behavior to stress, find a way to resolve the need for stress relief without food. Perhaps a walk around the office coupled with deep breathing would do. So, now the plan is every time you find yourself drawn to the candy bowl, walk around the office and breathe instead.

HEALTHIER SNACKING: Or if you go all day without eating, then find yourself overdoing your intake later at night, make a plan to fix that habit by eating more during the day and find a new method for unwinding at night. Perhaps, you can set an alarm on your phone to go off every four to five hours as a reminder to sit down and eat (and while you’re at it, plan healthy meal options to eat).

AVOID TRIGGERS: Recognize the need to vegetate from 8 to 10 pm. If the TV is a trigger to eat, then don’t turn it on. Train yourself to relax in another way – a hot bath, a good book or take a walk around the block.

3. Next, expect to fail. Don’t be afraid of it – we all fail. Instead, own it by learning from it.  Treat these changes like practice. You’re not going to master it at first – just like someone picking up a tennis racket for the first time. They may know everything about the game of tennis, but if they’re learning to play for the first time, they’re probably not going to be that great at it. So, accept that failure will be a part of the learning process. Identify the path that led you to fail. Then adjust.

It helps to stay positive.  Do not underestimate the power of self-talk. Practice taking your thoughts captive. Identify what words you use and find replacement words. For example, if you find yourself saying, “Of course you failed, again. Why did you think you could do this? You’re never going to change.” Identify that thought as soon as it comes into your head and then correct it. “No. That’s not true. Yes, I failed, but it’s OK to fail. This is how I’m going to learn! I will keep working at it until I get better!” What you say to yourself can be the difference between long-term success and failure.

4. Lastly, set a goal with a timetable.  Once you feel confident with your progress, check the calendar. Give yourself six weeks of perfecting the behavior change. By six weeks, you have developed a new habit – it’s now a part of your lifestyle that doesn’t require thought and intention. It’s now second nature. And that positive behavior change is now a choice you prefer. You’ve changed what you want!

You now feel relieved from stress by walking and breathing and you don’t even think about the candy bowl anymore. Not only that, but you actually look forward to it. Maybe you even crave it.

Now, you’re in a routine of eating healthy during the day and feeling satisfied that you’re no longer starving at night. You find that you actually prefer a hot bath, good book or walk for relaxation after a long day and the TV has become just unwanted noise. You don’t even want to eat junk food late at night, because you feel so much better without it, physically and mentally. And you love it!

Now that you have mastered that one change, you can add another change while keeping the new habit in place. Then you can add another and another. By six to 12 months, you’re taking your thoughts captive, choosing healthier foods and not eating to the point of being uncomfortably full.

Your taste buds have actually changed and you’ve become more aware and responsive to your hunger cues. Before you know it, you’re at a restaurant ordering the grilled chicken sandwich (hold the sauce and cheese, please) with a side of vegetables instead of the loaded burger with fries, because that’s what you WANT, not because it’s what you “should” have.

Plus, you’ve trained yourself to recognize when it’s time to stop eating before it’s too late. You stop eating when you start to feel slightly satisfied. No more making yourself miserable because you’ve discovered that you don’t actually enjoy the feeling of being stuffed. And now, you’re eating whatever you want all the time and staying thin.