Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bad Mantra, or "This is the blog where I say 'fuck' a lot."

As often happens, I was inspired this morning to write after reading a blog entry of a fellow CRON practitioner, Emily (, who was expressing frustration over her recent lapse into making some food choices that she felt regretful about.

First, I recognize this frustration, but just for a little reality check, let's consider the foods in which she indulged during her moments of weakness:

  • cereal
  • chocolate
  • almonds
  • tortilla with peanut butter and jam

These are hardly the food equivalents of a shot of heroin, so let's not completely freak out here. You wanna know what my recent binges included?

  • pizza (delivery)
  • donuts
  • Chinese food (delivery)
  • wine (lots of it)
  • more pizza
  • monte cristo sandwich (ham, turkey, cheese, on FRENCH TOAST!) and fries--FRIES!!!
  • even more pizza
  • did I mention pizza?

Aw, fuck it.

That's what the old me would have said. I have a long history of attempting some life-change, "failing," and saying "Aw, fuck it" and simply abandoning the cause entirely. I'd done it so many times that "Aw, fuck it" had become something of a mantra for me. Not the kind of mantra that helps organize and quiet the mind. No, this is a bad mantra. A self-defeating mantra. A self-indulgent mantra that serves the purpose of giving me all the excuse I need to head to Dunkin' Donuts for an old fashioned buttermilk donut, chocolate frosted cake donut, and glazed chocolate cake donut. I sure like me some cake donuts.

Not to sound all pop-psychology-self-helpish, but we shouldn't underestimate the power of our self-talk. Saying "aw fuck it" is just another tool for making sense of the choices we are confronted with. It's a poor tool for the job, but it is a tool nonetheless. I know, Emily didn't say "aw, fuck it," but she did say "I felt positive and great and totally in the CRON-groove, and now... I just don't know." That's close enough. It may say "I just don't know," but it whispers "aw fuck it." It's just a few slides down that slippery slope from "I just don't know" to "aw, fuck it."

We need to become more skilled at opening up our tool boxes, surveying what's in there, and then--with the job in mind--choosing the best one to get it done. When we stray from our plan, we can say "aw fuck it," and go completely off the rails--that's what I used to do all the time. Or we can say, "oh well, it's not like I can't try again. And again. And again. However many times it takes until it sticks." The tool of negative self-talk makes us feel badly, and still it doesn't get the job done. Like beating on our thumb with a hammer, when we're supposed to be using wrench to tighten down a bolt.

The other issue here, besides the unhelpful ways we talk to ourselves about what we are doing, is our notion of what constitutes success. I argue that an attempt itself is a success, and every attempt, regardless of its outcome, should be applauded. We should be all self-congratulatory AND self-satisfied whenever we make an attempt to do whatever the good thing is that we want to do. Not fully succeeding in any attempt just means we get the chance to try again. Each new try offers the possibility of success, even if that's just an incremental success.

Consider this gem from an article on smoking cessation from PubMed Central:

"The most important aspect to smoking cessation is maintaining the motivation to make multiple attempts. Thus, quit attempts should be thought of like practice sessions in learning a new skill—at some point one hopes to “get it right,” but one should not put undue hope on any single given quit attempt, and take solace in knowing the probability of success increases with each try. (read the article)

Hey--you need to read that sentence again:

"Quit attempts should be thought of like practice sessions in learning a new skill—at some point one hopes to “get it right,” but one should not put undue hope on any single given quit attempt, and take solace in knowing the probability of success increases with each try."

You know, that sentence is so smart, we all need to read it one more time:

"Quit attempts should be thought of like practice sessions in learning a new skill—at some point one hopes to “get it right,” but one should not put undue hope on any single given quit attempt, and take solace in knowing the probability of success increases with each try."

I'm not an addiction specialist or anything, but I've certainly wrestled with addictions throughout my adult life (a topic I'm bound to blog about eventually) and I find it all too easy to analogize the Standard American Diet with cigarette smoking. It's addictive, destructive, deadly. And I have my own theory about why repeated attempts to quit lead to success.

I think we learn a lot from our unsuccessful attempts to quit things (like the Standard American Diet). We learn about the pangs of withdrawal--what they feel like, what eases them, how long they take to pass; we learn about that ephemeral "pink cloud," that wonderful, carefree high we feel in the first days or weeks of abstinence that inevitably dissipates, leaving us to face the long journey ahead with clear eyes not blinded by the comforting fog of euphoria; we learn about the physical and mental pain of relapse. Knowing all that makes the next attempt easier. Knowing the course ahead makes it easier to bear the pains, and not be unsustainably seduced by the joys.

Future attempts are easier too because we already have a chest full of useful tools to put into service: we already know how to distinguish between good food and gak, we already know how to use the software (don't tell me you aren't using software yet--that's like going to the job site without a tape measure), we already know what our own patterns are, our triggers, we've learned tips and tricks, we have our blogs and our online friends--these are all tools we have immediately available to us as soon as we're ready for our next attempt. These are all tools we didn't have in the beginning, so we are already that much closer to success.

I invite those of us new to CRON to look at it this way: quitting lifelong addictions is hard, it requires many attempts, and since we are all in this for the long haul, whatever is happening today, or whatever happened yesterday, is just a tiny piece of a great big picture. All our many (perhaps frustrated) attempts to "get it right" are a necessary part of our future success, so what we are doing now is good, and helpful, and productive. We'll get there in our own time, some faster than others, if we keep on working at it. And I can assure you, we will most certainly not get there if we say "Aw, fuck it," and quit trying.

If, like me, you are starting CRON all over again today (or tomorrow, or the next day), then remember, the probability of success increases with each try. So keep trying. And don't even let me hear any of you say "Aw, fuck it." I promise not to say it too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ack. ACK! Gak-Attack!

First: how cool is it that my blog has now been commented by April, MR, and MR's Mom? The CR Power Dynasty has recognized my blog as something other than the unfortunate case of verbal diarrhea that it sometimes feels like to me. (And please, no cheery assurances that it's not all so much verbal diarrhea--my self-deprecation is part of my winning personality.) Now, of course, the pressure is on to continue, and I think I actually need some of that "peer pressure" to stay the course, so thanks y'all!

Now on to the Gak Attack

I ate about 2800 calories yesterday, thanks to poor planning coupled with the convenient presence of a Sbarro at the cafeteria at school. The 960-calorie slice of saturated fat basically obliterated my nutrition for the day. I'd been doing field work for my job all afternoon, which meant biking around town in temps in the 20s, getting really cold, and really tired, and really vulnerable. I already knew this was a risk from last time, but somehow hadn't learned my lesson yet, I guess.

Worse, this has been a regular occurrence lately as I struggle to keep up with competing responsibilities and find meal planning to be hard to fit in.

Get this: I spent Sunday planning and executing a working recipe for what I'm calling "MegaSoup," a recipe I engineered in CRON-O-Meter to provide 10% or better of all nutrients per 100-calorie serving (although I eat more like 200-calories worth in a serving). I got pretty close to that goal (it's much easier to engineer a soup than a baked good like the MegaMuffins), and it tastes delicious. The whole recipe provides 11 servings. Along with my MegaMuffins, it should have provided easy, convenient grab-n-go options to take to school with me for the week.

Did my plan work? No. Why? I don't have any food-storage containers suitable for soup (keep it from leaking in my bag, microwave safe, etc.) I forgot to buy some when I was shopping for ingredients, so the soup sits in a big pot in my fridge, waiting to spoil instead of getting eaten. Such SILLINESS!

It seems that when times are tough, the most recently instituted habits are the first to get tossed out the window in favor of the familiar.

I've been stuffing my gob with gak at an alarming frequency and it MUST stop post-haste. I feel terrible. Where's my energy? Where's my feeling of well-being? Where's my self-satisfaction at a job well-done? Arghhh! [As an aside, the Urban Dictionary defines "gak" variously as slang for certain extremely addictive stimulant drugs. Appropriating the term for horrible food, therefore, seems more than appropriate.]

With no good news to report on the nutrition front, I figured this was a good time to point out--to myself as much as to anyone else--one of the seemingly obvious yet wildly ignored hazards of the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Although I did consume impressive quantities of protein and most minerals yesterday, I finished a nearly-3000 calorie day (!!) with just 12% of my vitamin C, 32% vitamin E, and 26% vitamin K. Sound unbelievable? It should, but sadly it doesn't. If that huge quantity of food still deprives me of such important nutrients--and I was actually paying attention to eating good food for the first half of the day--it's really quite startling to imagine how most Americans are getting by.

But there's a bit of good news, a positive way to look at this: the only reason I know about my deficits and overages from yesterday are because despite my feeling gross about what I ate, I dutifully plugged it all into CRON-O-Meter (as you should all be doing), so I could appropriately assess the damage and remind myself why I'm doing all this.

Working with nutrient targets is sort of like working with a financial budget. I'm more likely to watch my spending when I know how much I have and how much things cost, and plan ahead, usually with the help of a spreadsheet or at least notes scribbled on paper. Ignoring all the facts and figures does not lead to financial health (or plain old survival, for that matter). It leads to over spending, late payments, bad credit, poverty, homelessness and death! (Or at least unwanted and unnecessary psychological distress.)

Food budgeting is the same. If we're not tracking our nutrient info in CRON-O-Meter (or something similar), we really have NO IDEA WHAT WE ARE EATING. It's just that simple. So the take home message of this entry is: record everything you eat, no matter how embarrassing or disgraceful it all seems. JUST DO IT. For people like me, seeing the damage in black and white is a very powerful motivator to make voluntary changes to diet.

The software also facilitates a powerful sense of accomplishment: I can't lose 40 pounds and live forever TODAY, but I most certainly can eat food that provides 100% or better of all the important nutrients I need in a relatively small number of calories.

Nutrition software: JUST DO IT!