November 2, 2012

FTF: Food With No Brakes


“Foods with no brakes.”

Four little words for such a powerful concept.

What are foods with no brakes? According to Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, authors of It Starts With Food and the forces behind the popular “Whole 9” and “Whole 30” concepts, they’re exactly what they sound like:  foods that you can’t stop eating. Once you start, once you take that first bite, you’re like an out-of-control bullet train barreling down the track while some innocent little creature is taking its time crossing those tracks. There is no stopping you. The end result? Total disaster.

You + family-size bag of M&Ms = speeding car + tree?

Call them what you want—trigger foods; gateway drugs…er, foods—we all have them, and they all translate to the same thing:  foods that we are physically and/or psychologically incapable of eating in moderation. (Never mind that no one seems to be able to tell us what, exactly, moderation is.)

When I read It Starts With Food, the concept of food with no brakes blew my mind. It very simply and succinctly defined the trouble I have with eating “just a bite” or having “just a little piece” of certain foods. Like I said, we all have foods that fit this description. For some of us, it’s sweets, for others, it’s salty snacks. Whatever the particular taste sensation that lights up your tongue like an 80’s arcade pinball machine (do they make those anymore?), you know exactly what I’m talking about. (The Hartwigs say it’s like the Las Vegas strip in your mouth. Wish I’d thought of that…)

The magical fairy will put the rest
of the package away for you.
You tell yourself you’ll have “just one.” You’re sure you can do it, even though every time—Every. Single. Time.—you’ve tried that in the past, you’ve failed epically. You’ll take one piece, one spoonful, one individually wrapped package, and you’ll put the rest back in the fridge, freezer, or cabinet, and forget it’s even there.

Right. How’s the weather over there in La-La-Land?  

Now let’s talk about what really happens. You tell yourself you’ll have just one. So you do. And then you have another, because hey, two’s not really that big a deal, just so long as you don’t finish the whole bag like you did last time. And the time before. (And the time before that.) So you eat the second one and then dutifully put the rest out of sight. But there’s a disconnect between out of sight and out of mind, isn’t there? You can’t see the cookies/cake/ice cream/insert-your-poison, but you darn well know it’s there. And you give yourself all the reasons why you shouldn’t. You’ve already had two. You have that party on Saturday and your dress does not have any wiggle room. You have an interview tomorrow and it would be nice if your suit pants weren’t cutting off your circulation the whole time. And most of all, you swore to yourself you wouldn’t, and dammit, YOU ARE IN CHARGE. Who’s gonna win:  YOU, or the CHEEZ DOODLES?!

You do every trick you can think of:  you busy yourself with something else. You get back to work. Read a book. Watch TV. Go for a walk. Brush your teeth.

But that package is still calling to you, isn’t it? Louder and lovelier than anything you’ve ever heard.

The old line is right:  resistance is futile. You can not win this battle. You’re disadvantaged from the start. These foods are scientifically engineered to make you want them, and to make you unable to stop once you start.

So what’s the solution? Well, you could try to get to that elusive place where you really can have just one and not spend the next three hours thinking of nothing but how badly you want another. (And yes, it can be done. It takes a long time, but it’s possible!)

Or, you could go the easier route and not have any at all. I know, easier said than done. However, I have learned—via many, many failed attempts at the whole “just one” method—that even though having none can be difficult (and no damn fun if you’re at a party), it’s a heck of a lot easier than trying to stop after you’ve taken that first bite. Because once you do, all bets are off. Game over. Wave the white flag.

There is no stopping.
I won’t claim to speak for any of you. I can only tell you what my own experience is like with “foods with no brakes.” Until I came across that phrase, I used to think of it as having no off switch. Once I get a hit of whatever it is, it’s like someone flips a switch and I can’t flip it back. (And yes, I’m totally comfortable calling it a hit, since it might as well be crack cocaine as far as the pleasure centers in my brain go). And I suspect that many of you can relate.

The way to avoid falling face-first into the corn chips, gelato, cheesecake, or what-have-you, is to not expose yourself to it in the first place. Remove it from your environment. Just don’t buy it. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition has what he calls “The Berardi Corollary” – If something makes it into your grocery cart, you will eat it. In other words, the moment you set the item into your cart or basket, you’ve admitted defeat. It’s going to go home with you and it will get eaten.

The avoidance strategy is, of course, much more difficult when it comes to the office, where you might be surrounded by coworkers’ candy dishes or even free goodies supplied by your company. (And kudos if your company is doing well enough right now that they can give you free goodies.) It’s not as tough as being at home, though. You have at least some built-in control mechanism, in that you don’t want your coworkers to see you scarfing down 15 of those miniature Snickers or Kit-Kats. But if your office is anything like mine, you face other landmines, like the endless stream of farewell parties, baby showers, and holiday pot-lucks. Still, there’s a certain degree of built-in control.

So what’s a guy or gal to do at home, especially if they’re single and there’s no one around to see them gettin’ down and dirty with their chosen delicacy? I stick by what I said earlier:  just don’t buy it. Make it difficult for yourself. Most cravings aren’t so strong that you’d actually get in the car and go to the store. (I guess maybe we are a little better off than drug addicts, since we’d just be able to go down to the corner in that case. Well, not in my neighborhood, but somewhere nearby, there’s a corner I could go to. I live near DC, after all.)

On the other hand, I do think there are times when those cravings are so powerful and so all-encompassing that no amount of walking, teeth-brushing, or television is going to shut them off. If you’re going to end up eating tons of everything else in sight in an attempt to kill those cravings, I honestly believe you’re better off just letting yourself have whatever it is you’re jonesing for. Because chances are, you’d exhaust your supply of all the sub-par foods trying to approximate that taste or texture, fail, and then still go after what you wanted in the first place. You’d end up eating a lot more sugar, fat, and  hundreds—maybe even thousands—of calories, that you wouldn’t have eaten if you’d simply given yourself permission to not be perfect.  

BUT…there are caveats.

If you know you have a massive wheat allergy, it’s probably best not to go for cake, know what I mean? (Maybe you can find some good gluten-free stuff, albeit at three times the price.) If you’re dairy intolerant, maybe you want to lay off the ice cream. So my advice to indulge once in a while assumes you’ll steer clear of foods you know will have you out of sorts for days. (Unless you want them so badly that you’re willing to deal with whatever consequences you know will ensue. Am I recommending this? No. Just acknowledging that maybe—just maybe—you’re human.)

I also wholeheartedly believe that if you are going to give in and let yourself have whatever it is you can’t stop thinking about, you ought to have the good stuff. That means if you want cookies, don’t get a bag of Chips Ahoy that’s been sitting on the store shelf for a month. Go to a bakery and get fresh cookies, with ingredients you recognize. Flour, butter, sugar, chocolate, peanut butter, etc. If you’re gonna treat yourself, then treat yourself. Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and corn syrup solids need not apply! Pardon my language for a sec, but if you’re gonna cheat, you don’t do it with some two-bit whore; you hire a high-end call girl and do it right.

SO: To sum up, if you know you can’t stop, don’t start!

P.S. Here’s a friend’s strategy for stopping the almost unstoppable. (And yes, this really is a friend I’m talking about, and not trying to pretend it isn’t me.) If she realizes she’s on the sixth piece of whatever she was supposed to have “just one” of, she throws the rest in the trash. Maybe it’s not the best financial move, but it’s smart for other reasons and it doesn’t happen often. But you know what? (And here I am talking about me, and I have no shame admitting it, ‘cuz hey, we’re all friends here…)  Sometimes that’s not enough. I (and probably some of you, too) have been known to EAT FOOD OUT OF THE GARBAGE CAN. You know how it goes:  you put a bag or box of ______ in the garbage, but it’s still in its own packaging. You can easily pull it out and take some more. Or you place the remaining big piece of something in the trash, but 10 minutes later it’s still sitting right on top. You can totally take some of it out; it’s hardly touched anything else. So I’m the one who’s eaten things out of the trash, but my friend is the one who came up with the ingenious idea of destroying it. Not to conceal the evidence from her husband, but to prevent her from dumpster diving in her own home. Her modus operandi? Windex. Douse the stuff with Windex and no matter how badly you still have a taste for it, you are not gonna put it in your mouth. I haven’t gone the Windex route yet. I generally just mash it up and mix it with the rest of the garbage so it is touching all the nasty stuff. Thank goodness I do draw the line somewhere.

Taking the trash out of the house altogether
could also work. You don't want your neighbors to see
you rooting around in your own garbage.
Saving face is a perfectly acceptable strategy!

What are your strategies for jumping off the train before it derails and plunges into a ravine? Share your stories in the comments section. And in future posts, I'll talk about some concrete, real-world ways to steer clear of the disasters before they start.

Disclaimer:  Amy Berger is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition. 

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