Half your cake and eat it too – 8 ways to eat less this holiday season

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

This week, I had three speaking engagements, back-to-back, in different cities. I’ve learned (the hard way) that travelling drains my willpower and then I make bad decisions.

Like the serving of pecan pie a la mode, no less, I just wolfed down. 

We’ve all done it – overeaten. 

Question for you: what’s easier, to eat less or exercise more?

Obviously, the answer is eat less. But, do you know how important this is? Here’s seven examples of how hard you’d have to work to burn off an additional 500 calories (the equivalent of a rich desert, medium serving of french fries, or two slices of french bread):

  • brisk walking for 90 minutes
  • running for 42 minutes at 10KPH (6MPH)
  • golf for an hour and a half (only counts if you walk)
  • kayaking for an hour
  • one hour on a stair climber or rowing machine (boring!)
  • six hours of kissing (really? who measured that one?)
  • running stairs for 45 minutes.

You can entertain yourself with 43 other ways to burn off 500 calories here. The point is, if you want to lose weight or maintain your weight, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you start by EATING LESS. 

Here you go again

Here you are, about to eat your way through the Christmas holiday season and, for desert, you’ll made resolutions about eating less. Sound like the definition of insanity? Well, for what it’s worth, you’re not alone.

Year, after year, diet, losing weight, and health are tops on New Year resolution lists. Nice aspiration, unfortunately not usually met with great execution. Gyms selling memberships plan on only 18% of memberships sold actually get used on a regular basis. And according to Gary Foster, Ph.D., nearly 65% of dieters return to their pre-dieting weight within three years. 

There’s a better way.

Instead of hoping next year will be different, use a different strategy. Here are my eight best tips for surviving everything from breakfast to the buffet.

1. Smaller plates

In one study researchers, themselves, served up 31% more ice cream when given larger bowls and 14% more when given a bigger spoon. Either way, large cutlery and dishware leads to large servings. The solution is to simply use a smaller set. If that’s not an easy fix, imagine your plate divided into thirds – leave one third empty.

2. Keep a Journal

What we focus on we get more of. That axiom explains so much of what we notice (“Hey! There’s that iPad mini I’ve been thinking about getting”) and what we create. 

In a study of 1,800 obese men and women, by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, researchers found a dramatic connection between recording what you eat and losing weight.

After 20 weeks of journaling, the average weight loss was six kilos (13 pounds). More remarkably, those who journaled their meals religiously lost an average of 8 kilos (18 pounds) – twice their non-journaling colleagues.

“Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior,” Keith Bachman, MD

3. Chew for ten Mississippi’s

Chewing your food more times slows the eating process (part of the “Hara Hachi bu” strategy – see below) and improves digestion. Researchers from Texas Christian University found that after a slow-paced meal, people had consumed about 100 calories less in their meal and felt less hungry an hour later. 

4. Eat nuts first

A small handful of nuts, about 10-30 minutes before you sit down to eat is a safe way to stave off hunger. You can still enjoy a full meal, but won’t have ravenous hunger that can lead to over eating. I travel with a small bag of mixed nuts and nibble from it between meals. By the time the buffet line is forming, I’m ready to enjoy a small meal.

5. Wait 20 minutes

I wrote about this in my post “Lose weight fast by changing your mind (really)!” The principle is pretty simple: it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to radio the brain the tank is full. When you pace yourself and eat more slowly, you allow the full feeling to happen, before you over indulge.

Sipping water and enjoying a conversation are both good strategies to overcome the unwanted gobble and refill cycle. A little more time will serve you well.

6. Drink water first

This is a simple hack I use when cooking dinner, and as soon as I sit down at a restaurant. I drink one or two full glasses of water (about 16 ozs). I still enjoy my meal, but I tend to eat more slowly and eat less. You can never err on the side of too much hydration.

7. Hara Hachi bu

Dan Buettner brought the term “hara hachi bu” back from his study of gerontology on the island of Okinawa island. Okinawa the-blue-zones-by-dan-buettneris one of the oldest living populations on earth. Hara hachi bu simply means eat only until you are 80% full. Okinawans enjoy 80% lower rates of heart disease, lower blood pressure, cholesterol and rates of cancer, as compared to Americans.

“A long healthy life is no accident. It begins with good genes, but it also depends on good habits.” Dan Buettner

8. Swap pie for tea

I have a sweet tooth. Minutes after enjoying a meal I’m looking for something sweet. Now, I sip tea instead of taking on the 300-400 calories in a bowl of ice cream, or piece of pie. A hot cup of herbal tea can satisfy my desires and, an hour later, I still feel great.

There you have it, eight ways to eat less and take better care of your health. Let me know in the comments which one you are going to use, or suggest a new one.