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New Year's Resolution

Here we are at the end of January – did you set a New Year’s Resolution to eat better or lose weight? How is that going?

Let’s be honest. This can be the worst of time of year to make such a change. It’s the depth of winter. We gravitate toward comfort foods rich in steaming fats and carbohydrates. We are bombarded with advertising from restaurants promoting their winter menus. Many of us prefer to cozy up in the house rather than be active outdoors. Those icy, slushy streets make a lunch-hour walk at work less than appealing.

So, we stay at our desks, stay on the couch, nibble away at snacks and those treats that arrived under the tree.

It’s easy to lose track of how much you eat. Before you know it, that first handful of potato chips has left you clawing the bottom of the bag for the crumbs.

Why we eat more than we think

Cornell University consumer behaviour professor Brian Wansink summed up the challenges we face with food in his 2006 award-winning book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. He found that we each make about 20 times more decisions about food each day (around 200) than we think.

At a psychological level, our decisions are driven by small cues we may not even realize are influencing our choices, such as what other people are doing, what we see on packaging, what a product is called, smells and other distractions that make it easy to forget how many times our hand has dipped in for another helping.

Even our environment can be a factor, depending on how a room is lit, which cupboard the food comes out of, and what size of plate we use. And then there are settings like a movie theatre with that tub of buttery popcorn and gallon of soda.

Our society, it seems, is geared toward making us obese. So, what can you do?

Baby steps, not giant leaps

Wansink doesn’t counsel crash or fad dieting that leaves you feeling deprived and vulnerable to cravings. Instead, he advises what we always have – make a series of small changes that are sustainable over the long term. His research found that consuming 200 fewer calories a day would help the average person avoid nine kilograms, or 20 pounds, of weight gain in a year.

So, what small changes could you make that would lead you to consume 200-300 fewer calories a day?

That’s a trick question. Why? If you don’t measure and track what you eat in a day, you can’t effectively cut back.

Trying to count calories is a pain. Even more so when you consider that you should also be tracking within that daily allotment of calories how many grams of good fats, lean protein, and healthy carbohydrates you should be eating.

Knowledge is power. If you have a smartphone, the power is in the palm of your hand.

You can’t change what you don’t measure

Maybe you’ve heard of MyFitnessPal, or Lose it!, or FatSecret. These are calorie counter apps that help you track what you eat.

MyFitnessPal is one of the best. Just fill out a short profile with your age, weight, gender, height, activity level, weight loss goal, and the app will give you a daily calorie target along with daily consumption targets (and limits) for fats, carbohydrates, protein, sugar, salt, and some vitamins and minerals. The app’s database contains millions of food items found in your local grocery store or on the menus of chain restaurants. It’s easy to keyword search or to scan a product package barcode to log what you just ate. It’s also helpful to have a kitchen scale for measuring food portions.

This makes the painful truth about what you are eating and what it adds up to in a day hard to ignore. But it also makes it easy to be more aware about what you are eating and whether you should take a pass on those doughnuts in the office kitchenette.

The right tools make it easier

Changing old habits is hard. But the right tools can make the job a whole lot easier. The first step is to have a handy way to keep score. Then consider your triggers – what emotional states, environments, or other circumstances lead you to over-indulge? For example, eating while working, eating in front of the TV, eating when you are upset about something. How can you avoid these pitfalls?

If you slip, don’t beat yourself up about it and don’t use that as an excuse to throw all restraint out the window. Instead, limit what you eat next time.

And remember, tomorrow is another day.

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