Saturday, December 14, 2013

Butterflies & Normalcy in Contemplating Phase Transitions

There is a health related contest going on at work.  It is a “Fat Loss” contest.  Not a weight loss contest.  The winner is the person that can lower their body fat percentage the most in a six month period.  
The company has kicked in $1,500 gift card for the person who has lowered their bod fat percentage by the biggest amount.  This incentive has caused a good number of people, including myself, to join.  They bough a scale that everyone has to step on at the beginning of each month that gives one’s weight and body fat percentage.  
A little side note: I wasn’t sure about the scale at first.  Every time I’ve had my body fat measured someone has had to do something to me.  Used calipers to pinch my body, or wrapped my arm with something that looked like it was taking my blood pressure, but which was actually shooting infrared light through my muscles.  I had to go online to discover that the scale uses “bioelectrical impedance” to measure a person’s fat percentage.  It sends a small electrical current through your body and measures how long it takes to go through you.  The higher your level of body fat, the greater the electrical resistance, the longer the current takes.  
The contest has been going on for a little over a month now.  At first everyone seemed to be doing something.  There must have been a lettuce shortage around our office in those first weeks because the number of salads being eaten in the lunch room skyrocketed.  Since then, things have leveled out, though there are some people who are still serious about staying in the contest.  How well they’ll do will depend on two things, I believe.
Butterflies and Normalcy.  
The “butterflies” are the small things that make big changes over time.  I’m taking this from chaos theory, and the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings over Shanghai, China can change weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean.  
Most of the people that started the contest made wholesale changes to their diets.  It’s the easiest thing to do, I suppose.  And everyone “knows” that a salad is healthier for you, and that you need to eat them to lose weight, right?  Unfortunately, I can already see people returning to their old dietary habits.  
I remember reading about a dietary study that indicated that eating the same food every day caused weight loss.  Even if you ate fatty junk food.  Variety is not only the spice of life, it is an encouragement to eat more.  The newness of the flavor makes us what to taste more of it.  Eating the same thing every day, or most days, the body tends to stop when its full because the food is less fun.  
What I’m trying to get to is, that while there are a lot of people out there who should radically change their diet, doing it all at once it one fell swoop might not be the way to do it and sustain that change.  Making small changes that stick are better.  Once the first changes are made and become habits, then other changes can be added.  
Which brings me to “normalcy.”  There is one young woman who is clearly serious about  winning this contest.  She is one of the people that threw out the bags of junk from the local fast-good restaurants and replaced them with food storage containers from home filled with vegetables and salad and organic ingredients.  Unlike most of the others, she seems to be sticking with it, bringing her healthier lunches in every day I’ve seen her since the contest started.  
The only thing that might derail her at this point would be the very vocal support and encouragement of her colleagues.  
“Ooh... Look at this!  You’re eating so healthy!” 
“Wow!  What do you bring?  Good for You!!”  
I hear her get these comments every day.  Big, broad compliments that emphasize how different her food choices are from before.  How big of a change she is making.  How they couldn’t do it themselves.  Etc., etc., etc... 
I know they are trying to be encouraging and supportive.  But the longer it goes, the greater it underscores how healthy eating for this young woman is NOT normal.  And the greater the chance she might start thinking, “Yeah...  This is different.  This isn’t what I ‘normally’ do.”  This could then lead to her falling back on old habits.  
To make my point, let me talk about my lunch.  Three times this week I had the exact same meal (one of my butterfly changes to help me in this contest): A serving of vegetarian chili, made with tofu and beans, served over brown rice, a small bowl of microwaved frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower & carrots), a salad made with spinach and romaine lettuce, with a Caesar’s dressing made from extra virgin olive oil.  Not once this week did anyone at work comment on how healthy I was eating or give me lavish compliments for my efforts.
Why not?  Because that meal is normal for me.  It’s similar to what I eat every day.  The only difference is that I’ve decided, to hopefully take advantage of the findings of that study I mentioned, to chose repeat one meal for most of the week.  But it goes unnoticed, because it is very similar to what I eat all the time.  
It’s not a diet.  It’s how I live.  
This time of year is something of a phase transition.  We move from contemplating about the past, and the “year that was,” to thinking about the future, the “year that will be.”  Often our thinking about the past makes us consider our goals for the future.  And our plans for what we want for next year leads us to think about what kept us from bringing them to fruition before.  
To change our futures, we have to leave as if we’re in the future.  That means not noticing the small things we do everyday to live how we want to live, because they are so very normal for us.  
For want of a nail, as Benjamin Franklin once wrote, a nation can become lost.  A small, butterfly-like normal little thing can have that sort of impact.  


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