A Mostly Nice (and slightly naughty) Holiday Season

Ah, the holidays. When sleeves get longer as days get shorter. The hours are crammed with activities and faces are crammed with edible delights. Each year I strive to strike a balance between enjoying what the season has to offer while not throwing healthy habits to the wind. Here’s how I spent the merry month of December.

For the second year, my boyfriend Ross and I competed in the Anthem Holiday Triathlon. It’s a short, beginner-friendly event, and the men and women race separately. It makes for wpid-dsc00657.jpga long morning, but it also provides a rare opportunity for us to cheer each other on and play photographer. It was snowing when we left Flagstaff and raining in Tucson, but overcast and pleasant at the race site.

The swim is a 200-yard serpentine that’s completed twice. This year they started the oldest swimmers first (last year we organized ourselves by swim times), and the pool got congested very quickly. At one point my lane was so clogged that I stood and walked. People were also resting on the walls between laps, so there were a few times I stopped short and changed direction. I hope they change back next year.

It was windy, which made for an interesting bike ride. It was a three-loop course, complete with climbs and descents. I hadn’t ridden my tri bike much lately, so I stayed out of the aero bars when flying downhill and during the narrow and twisty sections of the course. Ross, who is a beast on the bike, stayed in them the whole time. I was passed by three women, and he wasn’t passed at all.  wpid-dsc00700.jpg

The run is a loop, with a short out-and-back part. The first half is a net downhill, which makes it rough toward the end when you’re already tired. Ross had finished his race in 1:05:29, and I figured I’d be about 10 minutes behind him. My time was 1:15:36. It was nice to see his smiling face at the finish line.

We had decided to relax after the race, and booked a Jacuzzi suite. We ended up with three bathtubs: a Jacuzzi tub in the bedroom itself as well as normal tubs in the two bathrooms. Pretty flippin’ fancy.

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A few days before Christmas, I got a special surprise. As I was getting ready for work, I looked out my back window and did a double-take. The weeds that had overtaken the yard during the rainy season were gone, and several herbs, vegetables, and flowers had been planted. Ross and his parents had come by the day before and transformed my backyard into something beautiful. I can’t wait to prepare meals with food from my own garden. It was by far the best Christmas gift that I’ve ever received.

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On Christmas Eve, my friends Keith and Shokofeh, who head up the Tucson Runners Project, hosted a hot chocolate run on Mt Lemmon. It was chilly when we arrived, but the combination of sunshine and uphill running warmed us quickly. We did 6.6 miles with a couple of other friends while stopping for a couple of picture breaks. Afterwards, we hung out for a while and enjoyed treats, views, and conversation.

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One of my blogger friends, Shannan, tagged me in a cookie recipe challenge. I enjoy cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, but I don’t bake that often. In the spirit of my blog, I wanted to make something fairly healthy. I had made black bean brownies in the past, and wanted to see if I could find a bean-based cookie recipe. Google showed me how to make peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with garbanzo beans.

Here are the modifications I made to the basic recipe. I used sunflower seed butter instead of peanut butter because it’s a little easier to stir and is already slightly sweet. I replaced half of the honey with liquid stevia, and found the cookies to be sweet but not overpoweringly so. I also multiplied everything by 1.5 to use the full can of wpid-2014-12-30-14.07.02.png.pnggarbanzos. The recipe warned against doubling because it could ruin the blender, but my Ninja Prep Pro handled it with ease. The batter was tasty, and with no eggs, I didn’t have to worry about eating it raw. Confession: I have eaten raw batter that contains eggs. Just one of the ways I live on the edge.

The cookies were a little soft after ten minutes, so I baked them for another two. It didn’t change the texture much, and I decided to stop there rather than risk burning them. The outsides had a hint of normal crisp-cookie texture, but the insides were very soft. I prefer a soft cookie, though, so it wasn’t a big deal. They were delicious and not beany at all. The original recipe is gluten free, and can easily be made vegan and/or sugar free. I would definitely make them again.

My holidays weren’t all exercise and bean cookies, though. I did enjoy some cheesecake, brownies, and chocolate treats. The evil geniuses at Trader Joe’s hooked me with their Taste Test of Caramels. Indulgence meets guessing game? You win this time, TJ’s.

It’s been a wonderful holiday season, and I am grateful for all of the friends and family that I got to celebrate with. I am enjoying some time off work, while I catch up on some R & R and much needed housework. Marathon training has also begun.

I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday season and I look forward to seeing what 2015 brings.

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All That You Want – In A Weight Loss Strategy?

Becoming a consistent, healthy eater has a lot to do with what’s inside our heads – and I’m not just talking about taste buds. I’m always interested in learning what drives our eating habits. The March issue of Fitness Magazine introduced me to the concept of “habituation”. The basic idea is that the more a person is exposed to something, the less appealing it becomes. The article profiled one woman who kept 10 pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter in her freezer and gave herself permission to eat it at any time. After a few months of giving in to her cravings, it no longer interested her and she eventually lost 50 pounds. Another woman, whose weakness was cookies, allowed herself to indulge and found that she was satisfied after a few. After four days she said, “I realized that they are just cookies and don’t have special power over me.”

What motivates people to overeat and choose “bad” foods can be highly complex and very individual. My parents did not buy much junk food, but I’d spend my allowance on it and sometimes kept a stash at home. In junior high, my lunch money was often used to purchase ice cream bars. I’d eat Halloween candy until I felt queasy, wait for the feeling to subside, then dig in again. During my teenage years I worked at Dairy Queen and a shaved ice stand. I frequently partook of the goods without becoming “habituated” in the slightest. I spent a year and a half at DQ, during which I would swing between unfettered eating and diet soda and small amounts of fat-free yogurt. The shaved ice job only lasted for one summer. There were 20 or so different flavors to play with, and one slow day in August I made myself bowl after bowl until I felt sick.

There had been other times when I’d felt disgusted with myself after eating too much, but something was different this time. I vowed not to have any sugar (fruit was allowed) for two months and I stuck to it. When I started eating sugar again I still overindulged sometimes. I tried longer fasts. I mostly limited my sweet intake to the things that I really wanted, not just the ones that were available. Several years later, I was able to get to the point where I am now. I have special treats (cheesecake! Godiva chocolates!) a few times a year and a little extra dark chocolate every night. Sometimes I’ll eat more than I meant to, but it’s been a long time since I have gorged myself unto nausea. I don’t think that habituation would have been an effective strategy for me, but I wanted to learn more because it has obviously helped some.

Here are summaries of several studies on the subject1:

Specificity, Dishabituation, and Variety: Habituation is very specific and can be undone. When a habituating stimulus of lemon juice was introduced, there was a marked increase in saliva the first and second time, then the response lessened through the 10th trial. At this point, a “dishabituating” agent (lime juice or bitter chocolate) was introduced. The subjects were then re-exposed to the lemon juice and their salivary response returned to what they had been at the outset.

In another study, subjects were exposed to the sight and smell of cheeseburgers then given the opportunity to eat a portion at repeated intervals. After a short bump, the level of response dwindled until a new stimulus (apple pie) was introduced and interest in eating returned to initial levels.

Children who were repeatedly shown a variety of their favorite foods had a slower habituation response than those who only saw one. The study results were consistent whether high or low calorie foods were used. Even a small variation in the food, such as a different pasta shape, is enough to increased the amount consumed.

Distraction: Subjects who were given a complex computer task maintained a stronger response to the lemon juice stimulus than those who were given a simple task or none at all. Correspondingly, other research has suggested that watching television or listening to audiobooks will increase the amount of food consumed in comparison to a meal that it eaten without such distractions. Social settings can lead to similar results.

Obesity and bulimia: The habituation rates of obese children and adults were much slower than those of their thinner peers. Bulimic women showed no evidence of habituation.

Calorie content: Habituation can be independent of calories consumed or stomach content. Studies have shown that exposure to scents, visual cues, and calorically insignificant portions of lemon juice have been observed to affect people’s reaction to food. In one study, there was no difference in salivary response whether eating regular and artificially sweetened gelatin despite a 300 calorie difference.

And this affects me how? There is a limit to what researchers know. These habituation studies are all focused on the short-term and most people can control themselves around the lemon juice bottle. There are also many hormonal, emotional, and physical factors that play into what and how much we eat. Keeping the house stocked with junk food might lead to habituation for some, but could be a bad idea for others. Still, several practical insights can be gathered from this research.

Access to a variety of foods can make things much harder for a person trying to cut their consumption. Buffets, potlucks, the cookie aisle, and variety packs can entice us to overeat. Even after a filling, savory meal, it seems like there is always rooms for a sweet dessert. In our modern society, there is no shortage of food choices. How then can we re-stack the deck? One blogger found success by eating the same foods every day for a week2. I believe that one reason that the women in the Fitness article were successful was that they only allowed themselves unrestricted access to one single thing. Since the treat was allowed, they didn’t feel deprived, but because they only had one choice, they became habituated. On the plus side, the tendency to desire variety can be used to our advantage when it comes to healthy foods. A good strategy might be to allow ourselves very limited kinds of unhealthy foods while partaking in a wide assortment of nutritious ones.

Distracted eating is the norm. How many people haven’t started eating a bag a of chips while engaged in some other task, only to find their hands soon scraping the bottom of the bag while wondering where it all went. There’s a reason jumbo sizes are sold at the movie theaters. Some people have had success by eating meals without any TV, music, conversation, or reading materials. With nothing to focus on but the food, they find satisfaction sooner. It’s not realistic to eat like this most of the time, but it’s a worthy experiment. When I have dessert, if I pay attention, I usually notice that it’s the first few bites that taste the best. Habituation at work? When you do eat in a distracting environment, here’s something to try: serve yourself a measured portion and then put the rest of the food away to avoid mindless munching.

I don’t think there’s a single magic bullet when it comes to eating better, but I hope that some of this information has been helpful. I’d also love to hear what has (or hasn’t) worked for you.

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2703585/

2 http://blog.zocdoc.com/diet-habituation-could-you-eat-fish-tacos-every-day/