Substitutes get a bad name. When I was a kid, there was a substitute teacher at my elementary school that all the kids hated. Her name was Mrs. Smith, but everyone called her Mrs. Fishlips. Because, well, she was quite unattractive and had a mouth that closely resembled a fish. Sometimes the material presents itself.
I was terrified of Mrs. Fishlips. She was mean, and she yelled. Whenever I walked into my classroom and saw her, I was instantly sick with anxiety. Physically ill, and on the verge of tears until the clock mercifully struck 3:30.
I didn’t want Mrs. Fishlips. I wanted my teacher. She was a poor substitute for the real thing.
I have a similar relationship with food.
When I came to Ludus Magnus over two years ago, I had several unhealthy habits surrounding food. I enjoyed and consumed quite a bit of healthy food, but I also ate way more than my fair share of junk. I did not get to almost 300 pounds by accident.
The volumes of literature written on habits and how to change them could fill entire libraries, and different methods work better for different people and different types of habits. But most theories of habit change share one bedrock principle: in order to successfully change a habit, one must put something in its place. As Aristotle famously said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Something will always rush in to fill the void.
Substitution is a tried-and-true method of breaking an unhealthy habit. I have used substitution many, many, many times in my life since childhood in an attempt to replace unhealthy food habits. Problem was, they never worked long-term because they were too much like Mrs. Fishlips: a poor substitute for the real thing.
I’m like my dad when it comes to food: taste is really important to me. I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that it isn’t really important to everyone. Dad would go hungry rather than eat something he didn’t like. I’m the same way. I’m not going to choke something down that I think is gross because I’m hungry, or because it is supposedly “good for me.” I’m going to find a way to get what I want.
The substitutes I tried parallel the diet fads of the past two decades. Diet soda, “light” ice cream, sugar free chocolate, low-fat chips, fat-free cheese, low-carb cookies. In my experience, products like these tend to have one thing in common: they are made with garbage and have a taste to match. They fueled my cravings for junk food without actually satisfying the craving, thus perpetuating the cycle. They were incapable of successfully filling the void, and I eventually went back to what I really wanted with a vengeance.
Even substituting with certain kinds of “real” food didn’t work for me either. I’m a sugar junkie; a common piece of dietary advice for people like me is to substitute with fruit (or even worse, fruit juices) to satisfy the cravings. This is well-meaning, but misguided advice. Sure, a banana has fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but it also packs a high dose of sugar. And since it has no protein or fat, the result is a spike in blood sugar, a rush of insulin, the accompanying crash, and resurgent craving. If I eat a banana, or an apple, or an orange, I’m hungry again in twenty minutes. This may not be true for everyone, but it was (and still is) true for me.
When I finally got to Ludus, there were two habits in particular that had a vicious hold on me: sugary coffee and ice cream.
I talked about my problem with coffee and how I resolved it in my earlier post, “Leaving Precious.” The biggest factor in my ability to successfully quit flavored creamers, lattes, frappuccinos, and other assorted coffee-based sugar bombs was finding a substitute that I actually enjoyed: plain coffee with half and half. I liked the taste, and it had the same creamy mouth-feel and texture as the sugary stuff. Those who struggle with food get why that was so important. I was amazed at how quickly I rewired that habit.
Ice cream was another story. I had only been drinking coffee since my late twenties. Ice cream had been my drug of choice since I was a little girl. It was my #1 comfort food, my best friend, my worst enemy. It was a staple in my house as a kid, and then when I lived on my own I eventually developed a pint-a-night habit.
I would often lie to myself when I put the ice cream in my cart at the grocery store. I was just going to have a small bowl at a time. Then I would have that small bowl, and go straight back to the freezer for another small bowl. And another. And another. Other times when I was feeling more honest, I just sat down with the container and a spoon.
This was a nightly ritual for me. My day didn’t feel complete without it. If I tried to go without, anxiety overwhelmed me and I felt like I had an actual weight pressing on my chest. I would check ads for local grocery stores to see which ones had Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Daaz on sale. I’m not kidding. This was my life.
All of the substitutes I tried for ice cream over the years never worked for all the reasons discussed above. Low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, didn’t matter. I would eat too much of it, not even really enjoy it, and eventually go back to what I really wanted anyway.
I did not stop eating ice cream when I came to Ludus. I slowed down a bit, but it remained the biggest issue in my diet. Several months went by, and as I adjusted to the training, Matt and I started to talk more about diet. When I told him about my struggles with ice cream, he gave me a formula:
Every time I wanted to eat ice cream or something similar, I had to eat this first: a smoothie made with protein powder (at least 20 grams per serving), 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, and two tablespoons of coconut oil. To quote him directly: “I want you to be so full of protein and fat that you won’t have any room left for junk.” For those of you keeping score at home, this substitution is neither low calorie nor low fat. It is low sugar, high fat, and high protein.
And that’s why it worked. This was no Mrs. Fishlips. This was the real thing.
The turning point was when I found a protein powder I really liked. So many protein powders are made with nasty ingredients and horrible-tasting artificial sweeteners. Jay Robb’s Vanilla Whey ticked all my boxes: short, simple ingredient list, 25 grams protein per serving, 0 grams sugar, and tasty when blended with peanut butter and coconut oil (and unsweetened almond milk as the base).
I experimented with additional ingredients for variety. Sometimes I add a handful of raspberries or blackberries (both high fiber, low sugar fruits), or a tablespoon of Trader Joe’s unsweetened cocoa powder. It only has 10 calories and no sugar, yet gives the smoothie a decadent chocolate taste. Sometimes I sprinkle unsweetened shredded coconut on top for crunch. Again, the taste, texture, and mouth-feel closely resemble ice cream. It fills the void.
I’m not saying that everyone with an unhealthy food habit needs to run out, buy all these ingredients, and do exactly what I did. Everyone’s body and dietary needs are unique. This is just what worked for me.
This is what I am saying: if you are trying to change an unhealthy food habit, experiment until you find a substitute that you truly enjoy. That’s the only way it is going to work long-term. Keep an open mind about what that might look like, and let go of stodgy, out-dated diet advice about what it should be. Women especially tend to be afraid of fat. Don’t be. Fat and protein used correctly are your ally, not your enemy. I eat a lot of fat and a lot of protein (and minimal sugar), and have lost almost ninety pounds over two years. I rarely feel deprived while doing it. I eat real, delicious food most of the time. You can too.
I don’t eat ice cream every night anymore. I don’t remember the last time I even had it in the house. It has been since Summer 2015, at least. I eat it every once in awhile, when out for a special occasion or if we open some at work. It’s no longer a daily need, and I rarely even think about it. This change didn’t come as quickly as the coffee, but by sticking to my smoothie first, it did happen. Living without it is a way of life.
For a girl like me, that is a damn miracle.
What habits are holding you back and hurting your health? You are not alone, and there is hope! Call me at 614-517-2520 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will work through it together!