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Weight loss: Retrain your mind and avoid winter weight gain

It’s winter – and you would not be alone if you found yourself slipping into old habits that are a recipe for weight gain. So what can you do to avoid this? Jo Joiner gets advice from the experts, and inspirational readers.

If you work with a computer, you will know all about default settings. Unless you make a conscious decision to choose your own typeface, you’ll end up with Times New Roman. However, with a few clicks, you can set a new default that works for you – something that fits with your values and feels good.

We all have our default settings, just like a computer, particularly when it comes to food and exercise. The settings are usually linked to a particular context. At buffet dinners, default settings could be ‘a little bit of everything’ and ‘always go back for seconds’. Friday nights might be ‘have a greasy takeaway’ or ‘drink several glasses of wine’ as our default. Restaurant occasions could be accompanied by an irresistible command from your brain to order the chocolatey dessert. A work day default could be to get up in the nick of time so that the only exercise you get is rapid chewing on a piece of toast as you run out the door.

When winter rolls around, it is easier to slip into our winter default settings such as enjoying a bit too much ‘comfort’ food and spending more time curled up on the couch than outside moving around. But breaking out of a winter rut is possible if we pay a little attention to what is really important to us personally and link those things with our actions.

According to Auckland behaviour-change expert Dr Mary Grogan, the first step to reprogramming your default settings is to consciously identify your personal values. A value is a principle or quality or state of being that is important to you. Your values form the foundation of who you are (or want to be) and what you do (or want to do). Write your values down somewhere, so that you can refer to them easily.

Values checklist

Below is just a sample of values – factors which you consider an important part of your life. Add your own.

  • Acting with purpose
  • A sense of adventure
  • Being a good role model
  • Being decisive
  • Being enlightened
  • Being family-centred
  • Being informed
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Efficiency
  • Excellence
  • Feeling connected with people
  • Freedom
  • Fun
  • Generosity
  • Getting results
  • Hard-work
  • Health-focus
  • Honesty
  • Independence
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Inventiveness
  • Knowledge
  • Leadership
  • Open-mindedness
  • Orderliness
  • Perseverance
  • Personal growth
  • Pleasure
  • Resourcefulness
  • Respect for others
  • Romance
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-improvement
  • Self-reliance
  • Service to others
  • Solving problems
  • Stability
  • Strength
  • Success
  • Teamwork
  • Tolerance
  • Trustworthiness
  • Variety
  • Wisdom

With your values in place, you next need to identify the habits that don’t fit with those values. Study yourself, as if you were Jiminy Cricket standing on the shoulder of Pinocchio, and write down those unhelpful default settings. Then choose a new setting to replace the old defaults to end up with something like the charts below.

Choosing new food defaults

Sugar and milk in teaHealthy living
Role model for kids
Trim milk and artificial sweetener
OR trim milk and weaning off sugar
Ice cream every night in front of the TVSelf-discipline
Occasional fruit-based dessert (at the table)
Spending time on hobbies/interests in the evening
Friday-night takeawaysFun-loving
‘Gourmet night’ for you and your partner – taking turns cooking something special and new
Serving potato chips and sour cream dip when friends come aroundHealth-focused
Respect for others
Offering tasty, healthier treats such as hummus and rice crackers

Choosing new exercise defaults

Instead ofChoose Adds
2 teaspoons Marmite with 11mg magnesium1 tablespoon peanut butter with 37mg magnesium26mg
1/2 cup cooked white rice with 6mg magnesium1/2 cup cooked brown rice with 44mg magnesium38mg
1/4 cup mixed nuts with 63mg magnesium1/4 cup raw almonds with 101mg magnesium38mg
1/2 cup cooked chickpeas with 27mg magnesium 1/2 cup cooked black beans with 64mg magnesium37mg
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds with 10mg magnesium1 tablespoon pumpkin kernels with 44mg magnesium34mg

Make exercise value-driven: Tie your exercise activities into your values. For example, if one of your values is ‘connection with people’, walk, run or play tennis with friends.

Don’t beat yourself up: You can know everything there is to know about nutrition and food and still sabotage yourself. When this happens, don’t let the self-deprecating thoughts take over. Instead, talk to yourself: “I’m doing this instead of this – what do I intend to do about it?”

Plan and practise for challenging situations: When an occasion or circumstance is coming up that could challenge your new behaviours – you need to plan ahead. Work out what you’re going to do: “If this happens, then I’ll do this”. Role playing with yourself is a way to practise new default settings.

Be creative with replacement defaults: You don’t have to replace food with food. If you are in the habit of a wine and potato chips when you get in the door, recognise that it’s a habit linked to your need for a reward at the end of the day. A replacement reward could be 10 minutes of meditation, some time in the garden or reading a book with your feet up – something that fits with your values.

Confront cravings: When you’re hit by a craving for an old behaviour, don’t push it away. Denial won’t solve the problem. Instead, observe the thoughts and feelings. Recognise what’s going on and affirm your commitment to the new behaviour. “There’s my mind doing its thing again… but I’m going to follow through with my plan”.

Take baby steps: Tackle your changes one at a time. Success comes from building mastery in one area first. The confidence you gain from the first mastery will assist the next change on your agenda.

If you are still struggling to make those New Year’s exercise or healthy eating resolutions feel like a habitual part of your day, take heart. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology designed to investigate the process of habit formation, 96 volunteers chose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘after breakfast’) for 12 weeks.

  • The time it took participants to reach ‘automatic behaviour’ ranged from 18 to 254 days.
  • Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.

The message from this research is that there is no magic number of days for change to become automatic. It might take you two or three weeks, or nearly a year. The secret is to keep going, knowing that automatically it will set in at some stage.

Saying one of these things to yourself may help when you find yourself struggling to stay on track with your health goals.

  • What I do most of the time is what matters most.
  • If I want something to change, I have to change something.
  • Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.
  • Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.
  • Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.

Weight-loss success: Alan Spilhaus

Alan Spilhaus is a Healthy Food Guide reader who has made enormous changes to the way he eats. His behaviour modifications have resulted in weight-loss of more than 50kg. He admits, however, that a ‘170kg fatty’ default still lurks in his mind.

“Because of who I am, if I had gone on the Atkins Diet, the Cabbage Diet or Weight Watchers for any period of time, it wouldn’t have worked because a diet is temporary. Right at the beginning, I acknowledged that I had to change my entire mode permanently.

“With smoking, it took me two years to change the default setting. Now, when I think of my persona, there is no longer a cigarette in my hand. With food, I’m still working on it. I am sure that within the next two years, the changes will become permanent – I just have to keep overriding the ‘170kg fatty’ default.”

Alan’s tips

  • Routine made it possible for me to change. I never ate breakfast or lunch, so I introduced a routine of two slices of Vogel’s with hummus for breakfast, and tomato or pumpkin soup for lunch.
  • You’ve got to have your ‘go tos’: meals that you can trust to be the right kilojoule count, that you can easily go to. When I started out, my go to was tuna salad. My latest go to is Beetroot, egg and onion salad (see below).
  • I’ve learned that one day off the rails can screw up a whole week of weight-loss. My ‘fatty default’ kicks in and starts pointing me back to 170kg. For me, consistency is really the key.
  • When I have a slip up, I get back on the horse by looking at what I’ve achieved before. My track record proves I can do this.
  • I’m an accountant, so accounting for what I eat in the day is important. I keep a food diary.
  • You need to be personally responsible for what goes into your mouth. Don’t blame your wife for putting tempting food in front of you, don’t blame the people at work for going to a nice restaurant, don’t blame McDonald’s for making Big Macs. Nobody puts food in your mouth except you.

Alan’s ‘go to’ beetroot, egg and onion salad

Serves 2

Mix together these ingredients:

  • 1 can cubed beetroot (juice drained)
    1 red onion finely chopped
    2 eggs, boiled, chopped (having a slightly runny yolk adds to the experience)
    1 avocado, cubed
    1 tomato, cubed
    1 cucumber, cubed
    1 head broccoli, steamed and added warm into salad (gives a nice warmth to the whole thing)

Exercise success: Kirsty Donovan

Healthy Food Guide designer and mother of two, Kirsty Donovan is (or was) a self-confessed avoider of exercise. Then she was offered the chance to do Fitness Evolved’s Boot Camp.

“I very nearly said no, just because I thought it would be logistically too hard – family, work, all those normal excuses,” she says. “But I knew that I needed to do it, so I said yes. That was the start of not coming up with excuses.

“With the first Boot Camp programme, the physical changes were undeniable and the emotional changes were massive. I broke through mental barriers I have had all my life.”

Kirsty’s tips

Exercising as part of a group makes you accountable: “At Boot Camp, we paired up,” says Kirsty. “We sent a ‘rise and shine’ text to each other at 5.30am and if our partner didn’t show, there were consequences: we had to do extra push-ups or sit-ups!”

Excuses go away once you begin to experience success: “The first time the alarm goes off at 5.30am and it’s raining, you have to make yourself go and do it… and you survive. So next time the ‘but it’s raining’ excuse pops up, you can remind yourself: ‘I’ve done it before in the rain and it wasn’t that bad’.”

Excuses are short term: “The trick is to refocus on further down the track,” says Kirsty. “Focus on the long-term benefits of making the changes you are trying to make.”

The past is just that – the past: “Maybe you were teased as a primary school kid for always being last in the running race so you’ve always thought ‘I’m not a runner’. Through Boot Camp I proved that I can run five or six kilometres. It is possible to become something you never thought you could be.”


Saved: go to meal plans