A couple of months ago, I decided that I needed to make some modifications to my diet and lifestyle in order to develop more heart healthy habits. I began my process by identifying healthy habits that I already had. Then I went on to analyze areas that could use some improvements. These not so healthy habits fell into a number of different categories. Some of these include: salt, the pervasiveness of hidden sugars in the diet, my love of dairy fats, and the way that my personal identity and lifestyle has been wrapped around cooking and food.
Now, before I tell you about my method of tackling the goal of developing some different habits, I want to talk about a couple of my views on health and diet. First, I am an active person, and I love the outdoors. I have always engaged in a variety of sports and activities, because I enjoy them and being outdoors and active makes me feel good. Also, I have always been interested in topics related to health. I worked in the health field for a number of years and I find the intersection of science, social practices, and human beliefs and psychology interesting. I continue to read a lot on various health topics. Although bodies age, and predispositions to certain illnesses can be genetic or due to environmental exposure, most individuals in North American societies do have the ability to make behavioural choices that can have a big impact on their long term health. For example, people can choose to smoke or not. They can choose to be sedentary or not. They can choose to eat a varied diet or to eat a lot of fast food.
Finally, I do not believe in dieting. I believe that the cultural pressures on women (and increasingly men as well) to have a certain appearance and body weight are primarily fuelled by the corporate greed for money. This includes the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the weight loss industry, the entertainment industry, and even many offshoots of the health system. I have never been on a diet, and don't intend to ever go on a diet. I do not own a scale. I generally eat what I want, and try to pay attention to my body's signals of satiation. However, now that I am a little older and not as active as I used to be, I don't need to eat quite as much as I used to. Also, I have a very sedentary and stressful job that takes many hours out of every day, leaving less time to plan and cook healthy meals, so some bad eating habits have crept into my routine, just out of convenience. Hence I have done a little reflection on my lifestyle habits and identified some that are not so healthy that I want to change. But even these changes will be incremental and not absolute. So for example, I might decide to eat less butter, but I will not ban butter altogether.
So here is the overall framework of Dr Sock's Heart Healthy Habits for Life:
1. Decide on your overall purpose. Write it down.
2. Identify the heart healthy habits that you already have established. List them.
3. Identify the areas or behaviours that are not so healthy. List them.
4. Choose a goal for Week 1. This should be a tiny goal that will be very easy for you to accomplish.
5. Write the Week 1 goal down and post it in your kitchen, or wherever you will be sure to notice it several times a day (Facebook? Sticky note on your computer?).
6. All week, do the thing that you said you would.
7. At the end of Week 1, give yourself a sticker (if you accomplished your goal - no cheating).
8. Set a new, different goal for Week 2. This should also be something that is easy to accomplish. Post it beside the Week 1 goal.
9. In Week 2, do both things - the Week 1 goal and the Week 2 goal.
10. At the end of Week 2, give yourself a sticker for each of Week 1 and Week 2, if you did them.
11. Set another new goal for Week 3. This week you will be paying attention to all three goals and trying to accomplish them.
12. At the end of Week 3, if you have three consecutive stickers for your Week 1 goal, you can consider yourself successful in establishing a new habit, and you no longer have to monitor that goal. If you miss meeting the goal any week, then give yourself an X instead of a sticker, and start over until you have three consecutive stickers in a row.
13. Continue on like this, setting a new very easy goal each week. At any given time, if you are successful in achieving your weekly goals, you will only be having to monitor three goals at a time, which is quite manageable.
14. If you find that you are not meeting your weekly goals, take another look at the goals you are setting. Probably they are too hard. Choose goals that are really easy; you want to be successful, not to punish yourself! You also want to set goals that you will be able to stick with for the long term. Over time, the little tiny changes will add up to an overall lifestyle change.
I have followed the Dr Sock plan for ten weeks, with a two week break over Christmas when we were travelling, and right now I am taking a break from adding new goals. So what did I do, and how did it go? Here are my goals:
Week 1. Water for lunch weekdays instead of juice.
Week 2. No transfat snacks at home.
Week 3. Limit of 1 sugared soft drink per week.
Week 4. One vegetarian supper per week.
Week 5. Drink skim milk or almond milk at home (instead of 1%)
Week 6. Use Becel margarine (instead of butter) on toast and bread at home.
Week 7. Leave work by 5:30 pm one day per week.
Week 8. Eat one piece of fruit or serving of berries (fresh or frozen) 5 out of 7 days per week.
Week 9. Eat a maximum of 40 grams of full fat cheese 5 out of 7 days per week.
Week 10. Drink 8 oz. water every day.
I am happy to report that I received 3 consecutive stickers on every one of my goals. The one that I struggled the most with was the Week 7 goal. It took several tries before I was able to accomplish it three times in a row. The goal that made me feel the most sorry for myself was the Week 6 goal. I like butter, so I felt sorry for myself every time I spread margarine on my bread instead. But you notice that I did not ban butter entirely. I was allowed to eat it when I was not at home, and I continued to cook with it. However, now that I am into the habit of using margarine, I don't seem to miss butter anymore.
Have I backslid on anything after I stopped keeping track? Yes, a little, but for the most part the new habits are there. The change to skim milk was not successful. I have gone back to one percent milk. However, I am now also buying almond milk, and I have discovered that I really like it and it has replaced some of my milk drinking.
I would have predicted that the Week 9 goal of reducing my cheese consumption would have been the hardest. However, because I allowed myself a fairly generous portion (40 grams), and also because it is not that hard to buy fat-reduced cheese, I actually haven't found that change hard to make at all.
So there you have it. Make little tiny incremental changes to set yourself up for success, and persist long enough to turn those changes in behaviour into long term good habits.