To remain motivated, committed and disciplined to train for triathlon or any bigger-than-life event requires characteristics commonly recognized in Type “A” personalities. These characteristics are great for completing to-do lists, setting and attaining goals. When it comes to diet and food decisions, these characteristics can be helpful or they may create parameters that limit our chance of success.
Almost all of us, experience a moment in time each day, when a decision is made to commit or stray from a diet, or eating plan we consider ‘healthy.’ I refer to this as the “Crossroads.” For some of us it’s simple: Should I eat the slice of banana chocolate chip bread after my long run? I didn’t work out today, but I’m hungry and couldn’t resist two bowlfuls of tortilla chips. Is eating two scoops of peanut butter/chocolate frozen yogurt acceptable if I biked 50 miles?
For others, this moment in time, when a choice to eat a handful of M&M’s or a piece of fruit, can somersault into a cascade of ‘bad’ food decisions the rest of the day. The danger in this cascade effect is not the actual consumption of unhealthy food, but the mental judgement that begins and becomes difficult to turn off. Making one bad decision, can quickly elicit feelings of failure, and instead of brushing the instance off, a little voice in their head, continues the conversation, reminding them of their bad judgement and daring them to falter again.
Join me in this “day in the life” of a typical person on a typical day, at the crossroads.
It is Monday morning. You woke up early with your day mentally planned, and ready to execute. You completed your 75 minute bike trainer workout, which in itself is cause for a pat on the back and then ate a well deserved breakfast. You have snacks and lunch packed for work, and plan on getting in an afternoon swim. As long as things go as planned, the day should be easy and the world will be bright.
Driving to work you are feeling ready for the day. Workout one is behind you and now its time to focus on what lies a head. Your plan is to get to the pool after work for a short swim and then call it a day. You arrive at work, and it is status quo until lunch. Work crosses your desk but you are able to manage and re-prioritize it, keeping on schedule to leave work on time. You ate your lunch and are looking forward to your afternoon snack to fuel your swim. Your eyes are on the clock. Lap hours are limited at your pool and getting there after 6:00 pm isn’t enough time for the workout.
It’s 3 pm and you get a call from your supervisor explaining that one of your clients is unhappy which requires you to schedule a phone call at 4 pm to discuss. The phone call lasts 45 minutes during which time you commit to revamping the portfolio for them before tomorrow morning. You hang up the phone, look at the clock, and sigh. You knew this would happen; regardless of how much you try to get in your workouts, something always gets in the way.
This is the gray moment; right here and now. You woke up and exercised, which made you feel good about yourself, motivating you to eat a healthy breakfast and stick to your planned meals for the day. Then, the curve ball comes – beyond your control, but it still comes and forces you off your planned routine for the day. Prevents you from feeling the sense of accomplishment from completing your plan – completing two workouts for the day.
This is when the cogs in your mind begin to turn and for some people it is the make or break part of your day. You begin to recalibrate the day with new outcomes. There are only two options: success and failure. You enter that place in your mind that you know too well. It’s the place in your psyche where you aren’t your usual, rational, purposeful self. It’s the place where you feel irrational, a bit out of control, anxious, and vulnerable.
You have been here before, so you should have it figured out by now. You should have a strategy in place, or a plan “B” for these situations. You’re smart and you know yourself well. Then why can’t you get through these slices of time, maintaining control; not feeling like you succumbed to your old habits and defaults? You know if you just got in that second workout you would have been motivated to eat a healthy dinner instead of the take-out which has become too frequent. You are at the crossroads.
Scenario #1: recognize that the situation is beyond your control, and continue on with your day. You have your emergency stash of somewhat healthy snacks in your drawer that should hold you until you get home for dinner. You decide to get a tall decaf latte with whipped cream to feel better. If you have the energy after dinner, maybe you will do some stretching at home to feel like you did “something.”
Scenario #2: recognize the situation is beyond your control, but even knowing this does not make it any better. You had been eyeing the chocolate muffins sitting on the table in the employee kitchen all day, but purposefully did not eat one because you had the confidence and motivation not to. Now, your day has completely derailed as expected, so you might as well have a chocolate muffin. At this point, what difference does it make?
The chocolate muffin is tasty and a nice reward for the aggravation that lies a head. Back at your desk, the taste of chocolate still on your mind, you begin to feel tired and distracted. The lightbulb in your mind flashes – you need to wake up and focus to get this project done as quickly as possible! You might as well get a venti mocha latte with whipped cream. After the client call, while you work on the project, you snack on a bag of tortilla chips and without even realizing it, the bag is empty. Seeing the empty bag on your desk, you are in disbelief and angry with yourself for eating so mindlessly. You get a diet coke from the vending machine, clear off your desk and finish the project.
Its 8 pm and you are driving home tired and aggravated. You know the 7-eleven has Dunkin’ Donuts and you could use a pick-me-up from the sour mood you are in. You decide that you will buy a dozen, but only eat one and bring the rest to work tomorrow. At home, you heat up leftover chicken, toss it in mixed greens, and bake french fries. You eat the chicken and french fries and push the salad greens around the plate. When you walk into the kitchen, the donuts catch your eye. You are still hungry, your day went down the tubes, so why not have another donut? An hour later during a commercial on TV, you walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, and only see six donuts left. Enraged, you throw them in the trash, have a glass of wine, and then go to bed.
The two scenarios’ above are very realistic and common for anyone trying to revamp their diet, or lose weight. The stressors (causes) may be different, but the consequences/effect (stress, derailment of plan) are the same. The scenarios themselves are not individually good or bad, and neither of the subsequent reactions are better than the other. If the reactions to the situations are labeled generally as success/good or failure/bad, then it makes it extremely difficult for anyone to move on and start fresh the next day. However, the person in the scenario itself usually cannot think this way. They are standing in the middle of the forest within their own mind full of created realisms and judgement. I as the dietitian have an advantage because I am free of the judgement, and can place a client’s situation in a different perspective; instead of being in the forest with them, I am overhead.
The scenarios above target two very strong emotions related to self-worth: a) sense of accomplishment and control we feel when we exercise regularly and/or complete workouts as planned, and b) the effect of “A” on our food choices that day. In this particular example, the focus is on the close relationship between exercise and our ability to follow through on the second goal (eating well). For people who experience scenario #2 more often than #1, having a Plan “B” usually helps. It may not always work or be feasible, but creating a pre-set mental plan in advance is better than not having one at all.
If you work with a triathlon coach, and trust the workout plan, simply knowing that the missed workout is not going to ruin your training cycle can be sufficient reassurance to not feel like your day has ‘gone off the rails.’ If you don’t feel like your day has ‘gone of the rails’ then you may not feel compelled to sabotage your diet. If the reassurance from your coach will not penetrate your own mental rationale, planning a form of exercise that usually gets skipped due to lack of time (e.g. Bosu ball, Swiss ball, foam roller) are good alternatives because they work on weaknesses without expending a lot of energy. If your goal of training is performance, I would not recommend substituting a workout at the gym at 9 pm to compensate because this would most likely affect the quality of workout the following day. If your goal is weight loss I would still not recommend a workout at 9 pm, so that you do not get overly fatigued the remainder of the week. If you became overly fatigued or stressed the rest of the week, this could lead to more potential options for failure if you do not complete a workout. The goal is to prevent a ‘landslide’ effect of one bad day ruining an entire week.
As much as planning in advance (having healthy foods on hand) and having a plan “B” ready to mentally switch to, can relieve anxiety there is another reality. Even though we may not like our choices (eating pattern in #2) and wholeheartedly want to change, there is comfort in our identity and what we expect from ourselves. I explain it as a form of subconscious self-fulfilling prophecy, which is by no means a scientific definition. A person does not ‘want’ to derail their day; they do not want to lose control; they do not want to eat a box of donuts, and if they do, they will be upset with themselves. BUT they do like eating chocolate muffins and doughnuts and maybe they deserve to eat them considering the situation?
As a dietitian, not a psychologist or therapist, part of my job is to understand where a client has been in their weight loss journey and the implications of that. The amount of self awareness varies greatly between people, and where they lie along the Stages of Change Model, may be different for mental goals and physical goals. One person may already be at the ‘preparation’ or ‘action’ stage of change, implementing an exercise program into their normally sedentary lifestyle when I begin to work with them, showing they are very motivated to become active. However, their readiness to face mental obstacles that include identity, self-perceptions, judgement and permission to change, may be at the ‘pre-contemplation’ stage. It is completely fine to be at different stages of change, and actually may be advantageous so that a person is not overwhelmed with taking on excessive personal changes at once. Often, starting with a physical change can provide the self confidence —> to fuel the motivation —> to develop healthy coping strategies, needed to face mental obstacles.
Inner beliefs we may not even be aware of, take time to come to the surface and from my experience, this happens when the time is right and the person is ready. The difficulty for a dietitian comes when a person does not see or is not willing to see obstacles, and become defensive at any suggestion of such. Respecting where a person is at in their own journey is a priority and the goal is to provide the support and guidance to help them move forward.
Getting back to the scenario’s above, just like implementing a new exercise routine takes deliberate focused effort, so does changing our mental concept of ourselves. Implementing new mental mantra’s and recordings, to change the same familiar theme we hear when a bad decision is made, is crucial to getting over the hurdle between success and failure.
Good luck on your food and nutrition journey!