Kicking the Dessert Habit

March 6th, 2012 · 113 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

You want to know what’s fun about being an editor? You get to live vicariously through people who are smarter, better traveled, and more interesting than you. Charles Duhigg is one of those people. Charles is an investigative reporter at The New York Times — if you haven’t been following his series on Apple, it’s really worth your time — as well as the author of a book I worked on, just published last week by Random House, called The Power of Habit. I know I’m not an objective source on this — I’m probably closer to a cheerleader — but the book was a total blast to work on and is full of ideas and stories and case studies that make you think about your life — including the way you eat, exercise, shop — in a different way. More than 40% of what we do in the course of any given day, it turns out, is not the product of rational decision-making; it’s habit. And that’s scary. Charles was kind enough to take a moment from his all-out media blitz to guest-post for us today about a particular DALS weakness, dessert. Tell us how to be better, Charles…

Let me be completely honest with you: I like dessert.

Not just a little bit. A lot. Basically, I would rather eat dessert than dinner. In fact, I have often had dessert for dinner. I’ve become accustomed — scarily so — to dessert every night. And it turns out I’m not alone.

This wasn’t a big problem before I had kids. Now, however, I have a 3-year-old (or, as he points out, a three-and-three-quarters-year-old). And guess what? He loves dessert, too! And not just a little bit. A lot. What a coincidence! We once went to Costa Rica so that he could see some monkeys and a white sand beach, and all he remembers is the chocolate I let him have after dinner each night. I am not kidding: if you ask him about Costa Rica today, he will tell you it’s a place where you can eat chocolate every night.

That isn’t good.

So, a few years ago when I started researching the science of habits for my book, one of my goals was to figure out how get a handle on my dessert habit (and my son’s). Not to go all Official Book Summary on you here, but in the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. In particular, we’ve learned that every habit has three components: a cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward. Scientists refer to this as the “habit loop.”

When we’re talking about dessert, the habit is pretty obvious: There’s a cue (“dinner is over!”) a routine (“ice cream time!”) and a reward (“oh my god, this chocolate chip crunch tastes good, oh my oh my god”). What neurologists have learned is that habits are powered by cravings. In fact, if we could stick electrodes in my brain (which I wouldn’t recommend – very messy), we would see that as soon as dinner is over, my brain starts anticipating – which is another way of saying craving - that chocolate chip crunch. And if the ice cream doesn’t arrive? My brain gets unhappy, and starts giving off patterns that look a lot like anger — or even depression. (more…)

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Redemption Salad

January 5th, 2012 · 23 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner

I’ve been so good. Seriously. On Friday I took one last bite of an oatmeal-brownie-butterscotch sundae (true story) and vowed That’s it. That was the last piece of junk that was going down the hatch until…when? That’s always the question, isn’t it? Does it speak to my pathological optimism or my deep-seeded denial that every year I vow to tweak my dietary habits — not the kind that involve a piece of homemade apple pie with the family; the really bad kind that involve shaking the kids’ carseat to unleash the last few nickels I need in order to uncoil the Milky Way Midnight from the vending machine. And every year, I come up short. As in, after few short days, I am right back to my I-hate-myself habits. I mean, how is it that I am already a little less excited by the whole-grain-packed cookbook that arrived on my doorstep today, which I one-clicked in a fit of steely resolve only five days ago. I was going to do it this time! I really really was! (Charlie Duhigg! Where are you when I need you?) This is not to say I have given up…entirely. All of this is merely an attempt to stay one step ahead of my worst self. This year, I’m embracing her instead of pretending she doesn’t exist — keeping my enemy close and all that. In the meantime, my best self has been enjoying some majorly healthy dinners — like this incredibly flavorful shredded salad with chicken that was spiked with a clean Asian-ish vinaigrette. I thought your pathologically optimistic selves might appreciate too. At least for the next few days. (more…)

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