What’s the coolest thing about learning new things?
Hint: It has nothing to do with job advancement, resume building, winning on Jeopardy!, or outwitting the snarky smarty-pants in your life.
(Well, maybe it IS about outwitting the snarky smarty-pants in your life. Even if it’s just one time. Especially if that person is also a perpetual one-upper. You know, you tell him you took this awesome vacation to go zip lining in the forest, and he follows up with stories about how he tested the zip lining course before it was opened while simultaneously jumping out of an airplane and eating a banana.)
Really, what’s awesome about learning new things is how those new things often help to connect seemingly disparate parts of the universe, like a game of six-degrees of separation for ideas.
I’ve been contemplating writing a guide to help folks with binge eating and overeating for some time now. Every attempt I’ve made to write it, however, has felt fake. I couldn’t find ways to put my personal methods into terms that sounded both usuable AND psychologically sound. I felt like I was just saying things I’d heard before — like “have a glass of water first to see if you’re actually hungry,” or “go brush your teeth instead.”
Neither of those things ever worked for me, by the way. If I wanted to eat, I wasn’t going to choose the kinds of foods that’d be ruined by a good tooth-brushing anyway.
The closest I’ve come, so far, to getting my ideas successfully out of my brain and into text was this recent Facebook post:
I still couldn’t put together a definitive reason why these things worked, however, so I continued to put the guide on hold.
In the meantime, I read The End of Overeating by David Kessler and Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. Both of these books helped me better understand the food industry, our food choices, and how those choices are impacted by small changes in our food environment, such as food placement, plate size, etc.
But it wasn’t until I started a free, online course in Behavioral Economics — a course I signed up for to help me develop behavior change tools I could implement in my work as a health promotion specialist — that I realized what my tips and those two books were really talking about.
My personal history with binge eating, my passion for nutrition research, and my career needs all came together in a concept I learned about through this online course:
I’m going to oversimplify this a bit, and I am going to take some liberties in my explanation of what decision points are, so be forewarned that you shouldn’t go quoting my explanation to an actual behavioral economist, ok?
Decision points are any opportunity you have in the course of acting to pause and reflect on your actions. This applies to any action, not just food-related behaviors.
That moment when you have to decide to actually open the Oreo package?
That moment when you run out of M&Ms in your hand and have to choose to head back to the bowl in the other room for another handful?
That moment when you find yourself reading the Surgeon General’s warning on that pack of cigarettes as you unwrap it? (see? they’re not all about food!)
There are several different types of decision points, but they tend to boil down to one of 3 things:
1. having to pay a price of extra effort in order to act
2. having to be educated by information in order to act
3. having to endure an interruption in order to act
You might be familiar with some of the decision points that already exist in your life, like having to accept a transaction total when you purchase something with a credit card, or having to confirm your command to delete a file on your computer.
But you might not realize the ways in which decision points created by others might already influence your food choices:
Stores put certain products — not necessarily healthy ones — at eye level to make choosing them easier. And food companies pay extra for this prime real estate.
Convenience foods or junk foods come in large packages, and we eat the entire large package, even if we don’t intend to, because there is no division in the package to force us to reflect on whether we want to continue eating.
Food labels contain highlights of “healthy” nutrition contents, such as statements about whole grains or trans fat, to remind you why you should feel good about choosing that product, which may not actually be “healthy,” at the moment of purchase.
Obviously these are ways that your food choices might be influenced in less than healthy ways, but the concept of decision points can be used to sway us toward healthy food choices as well.
In fact, providing us with built-in decision points is really the concept behind those 100-calorie packs. We’re supposed to eat less because we have to take the time to think about opening a new package every time we want to eat more.
(Don’t delude yourself into thinking that 100-calorie packs are therefore healthy. Junk food is still junk food, even if it does come in a calorie-controlled portion size.)
The concept of decision points, however, sheds light on why the overeating and binge eating tips I posted on facebook were successful for me:
They are all about creating some kind of transaction cost, education or interruption that will force you to really think about eating before you’ve eaten too much.
For example, forcing yourself to eat foods that require preparation gives you time to think about whether you genuinely want to eat. I don’t have to prep a Snickers bar; there’s no active thinking time beyond opening the wrapper. If I had to cook that Snickers bar, though, I’d probably not bother eating it. Turn this in your favor; when you want to eat something that you might be tempted to overeat, make sure you have to prep it in some way first.
Choosing foods that take a while to eat does more than just allow your body’s fullness receptors to kick in. It allows you to consider your food while you eat it as well; thinking about your food is a transaction cost — an effort — that could keep you from continuing to eat when you should be finished.
Slow eating works the same way — more time equals more effort equals decision point.
Of course, you could create decision points any number of ways, including all the typical “tips” you might read in a magazine or self-help book: keep foods you tend to overeat out of the house or in an inconvenient place, divide tempting foods into small containers so you won’t eat all the food at once, even get one of those fridge magnets that makes obnoxious piggy noises at you when you open the fridge.
Or have a friend make piggy noises at you when you think you might be about to binge.
Or just get a pig.
All of those suggestions are ways to simple create a pause — a decision point — before consumption continues.
My personal decision point, though, the one that is most useful to me, is one that will probably sound ridiculous but totally works for me:
I took to making myself do push ups when I felt bingey.
It didn’t necessarily make me stop and think about the food I wanted or was about to overeat.
To be honest, the push ups are really hard for me right now — the more you weigh, even when that weight is muscle mass, the tougher push ups are.
I once was able to crank out 30ish push ups in a minute — when I was 25 pounds lighter.
Today, 10 push ups makes my chest pound.
Hence what the push ups actually make me think about: how difficult they are, how easy they used to be, and how easy they will be if I continue to stay away from binge and overeating.
I’m not recommending push ups as a decision point for everyone.
Though I do think everyone needs to do push ups. Frequently.
The point is, I found something that works for ME. And that’s what I’d recommend to others, too. No push ups, no fridge pig — unless those things would help you.
Instead, develop your own decision point. Consider a behavior or action that will remind you why you wish to change your behavior in the first place.
Push ups remind me of my performance and physique goals — and for me, those goals are stronger than my desire to binge. It’s not an idea that came from a generic magazine list or self-help book.
It’s something that came out of my sense of self, out of the things I hold important in that sense of self, and the fact push ups tie to the core of who I genuinely am is precisely why they work for me.
And that’s precisely why they won’t work for you.
You aren’t me. You’re you. And your decision point should come from that.
And frankly, that’s probably going to be WAY less annoying than that a fridge pig.
And more useful.