Opportunistic eating: every opportunity presents a challenge!
Opportunity is a potent force driving our eating. This is recognized and understood by many of us and often managed by undermining it by simply not having tempting and fattening foods available in our homes. Another alternative is to keep these types of foods relatively inaccessible, for example, high up on a top shelf in the pantry. Human nature being what it is—with a tendency towards gravitating towards the path of least resistance—causes us to be less inclined to eat something if it is not readily available, particularly when access is difficult and especially when hunger is not the motivating force. The adage about the low hanging fruit getting picked before the high hanging fruit is very relevant here.
Unexpected and unanticipated food opportunity can simply ambush our good intentions. When opportunity coexists with desire, eating will inevitably occur. The problem is that even if opportunity exists without desire, eating may often be the consequence. If we confront a box of enticing doughnuts that is readily available and accessible, even if we are not hungry, it will take some willpower to avoid indulging in the opportunity that has presented itself. If we do cave in, we often feel that we are innocent victims of circumstances beyond our control.
During the course of our day, many of us have numerous opportunities for food consumption, particularly at work, where there may be plenty of available and tempting food for the taking. It may be a colleague’s birthday and a great big piece of birthday cake with gooey icing is sitting there, just begging to be consumed, with the peer pressure to indulge being almost palpable.
What to do?
Option A: Enjoy the piece of cake and delight in the camaraderie of helping our colleague celebrate.
The problem is that the indulgence is unhealthy processed goop, and if we are concerned about our weight, health and wellness, consuming it is a poor choice.
Option B: Decline the cake, demonstrating our ferocious willpower and agonizingly watch our colleagues joyfully devour their pieces.
The problem with this approach is that it will likely engender a sense of deprivation and denial that might just backfire, resulting in over-compensating later with an even higher caloric indulgence. Additionally, it makes us look like anti-social ascetics!
Option C: I like to use a tactic that I refer to as vaccinate and inoculate. We are accustomed to getting vaccinated and inoculated with a small dose of virus or bacteria to prevent an infection at a later date. The same concept can apply to eating. Take a small piece, a teeny but satisfying taste—a vaccination if you will—a small dose that will preclude us from coming down with the disease—the obesity disease.
The benefit of this compromising approach is enjoying the moment and the camaraderie without deprivation, yet maintaining an overall healthy eating style by a very moderate indulgence.
Vaccinate and inoculate works for me—a real coup, if you will, but it will not be successful for everyone. There are some of us who have such a profound addiction to certain trigger foods that even a small exposure to that food can set off a cascading cycle that demands more and more of that particular food. For this subset of the population, total avoidance is the key, being similar to an alcoholic not being able to have even one drink.
A very useful strategy when we anticipate being in a situation that will expose us to opportunistic eating is bank and burn. Say, for example, that we plan on attending a celebration, a holiday dinner or go on vacation. Very simply, prior to our “event,” we show caloric restraint (this reduced caloric intake is a “deposit” in your “bank,” to be used at a later date), and ramp up the exercise (burn) so that we can have a moderate over-indulgence and feel no remorse about it.
We may be watching television and see a food or beverage commercial that whets our appetites and entices us to consume even if we are not hungry. Food or drink was not on our minds, but just the sight of it is enough to drive desire. Reading about food, talking about it, or even thinking about it can tempt us—as can the actual sight and scent. This might happen if we are walking past a restaurant and imbibe the smell of burgers being barbecued or if we are strolling by a bakery and the aroma of sweet, buttery cookies tantalizes us. The bottom line is that any form of sensory stimulation brought upon by food itself or food cues is simply enough to trigger eating, regardless of our hunger status.
What to do? It comes down to options A, B and C as delineated above. It is not a good idea to have a big indulgence when we are not hungry, yet the tempting indulgence may be too difficult to resist completely, so certainly the “vaccination” alternative is reasonable…have a little taste and get on with our lives! If push comes to shove and we must succumb, portion control rules.
Another option is food swapping—substituting a healthy, low-calorie food for an indulgence that is likely laden in calories, fat, sugar and salt. This exchange can result in satisfaction without the calories, guilt and remorse that can ensue from a bout of intemperate eating. That stated, swapping might not always be satisfactory if we are having a carnivorous urge and try to slake it with carrot sticks!
Another possibility is activity swapping—instead of eating, occupy ourselves with an alternative, equally compelling activity that will get our focus off food. This substitute activity for eating might be sleeping, exercising, reading, phoning a friend, getting out of our home, taking a walk, bathing or showering, participating in hobbies, doing household work or errands—anything to get our minds off the craving. Sex is certainly a healthy alternative!
A pragmatic strategy when eating occurs due to opportunity or temptation is acceptance and compensation. This means that we willingly acquiesce to our eating desires but do so with the mindfulness to indulge in moderation and to not beat ourselves up too much over it. We can compensate by accelerating our physical activity and exercise thereafter, as well as being more attentive to healthier eating following this overindulgence.
This is just a taste of what you will find in Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. The website for the book is: www.promiscuouseating.com.It provides information on the book, a trailer, excerpts, ordering instructions, as well as links to a wealth of excellent resources on healthy living.