Dogs and Christmas Eating

I remember going for a walk with my parents and their two dogs a few years ago – before they attempted any proper training of said dogs. We were strolling down a grassy hillside enjoying a rare dry, sunny day in Wales when we sighted potential disaster ahead. The area was usually deserted but on this fateful day a family, with three children, were having a picnic.   They had a neat white cloth, a bottle of wine, bottles of lemonade, heaps of precisely cut sandwiches  and a large cream cake.    Dad made a comment along the lines of, “That family have got an impressive picnic!”

Ben and Sammy, the young Labradors, clearly had the same thought. They came thundering up from behind us and headed for the picnic at full gallop. Dad screamed dire threats but they ignored everything – they had the scent of sausage rolls in their nostrils. Dad took off after them like a racehorse out of the stalls, but the dogs were faster. They hurled themselves into the centre of the picnic in a frenzy. It was so awful we felt like abandoning the dogs and just running away. By the time we managed to rugby-tackle and remove the dogs, the picnic was no more.

That was when Mum and Dad realised it might be a good idea to train their dogs.

Dogs have their own agenda. They pull on the lead, chase cats, sleep on the cream sofa, hoover food off worktops and of course invite themselves to picnics. They don’t engage in these behaviours because they are trying to be “dominant” or leader of the pack – they just do whatever seems most compelling in the moment.

Until they are trained, dogs respond to cues from the environment – smells, sheep, cats, other dogs, food on the counter-top, etc. Once trained (and this can all be done using positive reinforcement based methods) they respond to our cues and start to be less in thrall to their environment.

You’re probably thinking, “What on earth is she whittering on about this time, and has it got ANYTHING to do with weight loss?” Well, our unconscious mind is a bit like an animal, and it’s not necessarily a well trained one! It sometimes takes charge of our eating behaviour, which is why we can’t always control it.

You want your brain to tell you to eat in response to just one cue – hunger. That’s it. However, in reality, it will respond to all kinds of environmental cues, cleverly set up by food companies and society, and accidentally set up by you. Just as a dog will respond to the scent of a squirrel (or a picnic), we are primed to respond to “eating cues” whether they be internal (e.g “I feel bad therefore I must eat to feel better”) or environmental (e.g. “I am in the cinema therefore I eat popcorn”).

Christmas time is absolutely stuffed full of “eating cues”. But you can make it easier for yourself by manipulating some of the environmental cues in your favour. Just as you wouldn’t take an untrained dog in a field of sheep, try to avoid the cues which make most people over-eat without even being consciously aware that they’re doing it:

  • Large plates and large serving utensils make most of us over-eat.
  • Stubby rather than tall glasses cause most people to pour and drink more.
  • Large bags of food tend to make us eat more. Dish out a serving rather than eating from the bag.
  • Tempting food within reach will get eaten whether we’re hungry or not. Put leftovers away and don’t have a box of Quality Street within reach while you’re watching TV!
  • Eating while watching TV makes us stuff 40% more food down. Better to eat at a table if possible.
  • Variety tends to make us eat more. Be aware of this and ask yourself if you are really still hungry. You can always try different foods later.
  • Smaller “fun size” foods tend to make us eat more in total.
  • “Diet” or “low fat” foods tend to make us eat more in total. If you’re going to indulge, do it properly and steer clear of things like Elmlea and low fat options.

By manipulating a few of these things, you will naturally eat less without feeling at all deprived.

But most of all, enjoy it! If you have a “diet mentality”, you are likely to feel that all bets are off over Christmas and you might as well scarf food down yourself until you feel physically sick. So, avoid this kind of thinking. Stop eating as soon as you stop enjoying your food, and remember the diet doesn’t start tomorrow so you can have more lovely food later and you don’t have to eat it all today!

Have a great time over the holiday period!

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