Old loop: I ordered the grilled cheese, so why not get the fries, too?
Switch to... One treat at a time. I'm indulging in grilled cheese, so I'll trade the fries for a salad.
Here's How: "The thought pattern is, I've already blown it for today, so I might as well keep going," says Janet Polivy, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. She calls it the "what the hell" effect and says it causes people to devour so much food that they feel they'll never get back on track. To prevent this scenario from playing over and over, Polivy says, you have to redefine your idea of healthy eating. Allow yourself the occasional treat, as long as it's accompanied by smarter food choices like fresh fruit and vegetables. At roughly 500 calories, one melted cheddar on rye a week should hardly make you fat. Habitually tacking on a large order of fries, however, might.
Old loop: I'll just have this one cookie
Switch to... If I can't stop at one or two cookies, I shouldn't have any at all.
Here's How: We stand by the above tip that it's okay to eat your favorite foods, provided you're the type who can stop after a small amount. "One cookie could turn into 1,000 calories or more if you proceed to eat the whole bag," warns Stephen Gullo, PhD, president of the Institute for Health and Weight Sciences. He suggests that you take a step back and honestly assess how you've reacted to your favorite foods in the past. You may discover that chocolate chip cookies trigger uncontrollable cravings but one square of dark chocolate appeases your sweet tooth quite nicely.
Old loop: My husband says I look fat, so I guess I should start exercising
Switch to... I want to get in shape for myself, not for him.
Here's How: Whether or not you need to shed a few pounds, acting in response to someone else's hurtful remarks will breed self-doubt and lower your self-esteem, says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, codirector of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Connecticut. To reset your weight loss goals so they revolve solely around you, sit down and figure out how you could benefit from changing your lifestyle. (Writing your thoughts out on paper might help.) If you identify areas that need improvement, talk to your spouse about how he can play a part: Plan low-fat weekly menus together in lieu of eating out, or take walks after dinner instead of watching TV. Alternatively, if you're exercising, eating right, and feeling pretty healthy the way you are, Schwartz says, "tell him that this is his problem, not yours."
Old loop: What's the point of losing weight during the winter? I'll get in shape come summer
Switch to... By eating more now, I'm creating a lot of extra work for myself when spring rolls around.
Here's How: A study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health tracked 195 people through the holidays and found an average weight gain of about a pound.
By the following year, most had gained another half pound, and the researchers predicted that the trend would only continue. To prevent this outward creep, Gullo says, keep thoughts of summer in your house all year long by hanging a bikini or skimpy sundress on the back of the bathroom door, and visualize yourself wearing it every time you head for the leftovers. He also proposes committing to a regular exercise program in the fall, "before the winter blahs set in," because lugging last night's comfort food through an hour-long spinning class isn't so comfortable.
Old loop: Fat runs in my family, so why bother exercising?
Switch to... I can't change my DNA, but I can change my fate.
Here's How: "Genetics helps determine your natural weight range, but you have some control over where you fall within that range," says Edward Abramson, PhD, an expert on obesity, dieting, and weight disorders and the author of Body Intelligence. Rather than aiming for a size 2, aim for health: If being overweight is a family trait, diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related illnesses could be, too, Schwartz says. Walk to the grocery store, choose the stairs over the escalator, and take good care of the body you were born with. "It's important to distinguish between body size and body health," she says. "Research shows that people who are overweight and physically fit can live longer than people who are ideal weight and not physically fit."
Old loop: After that grueling workout, I deserve a bacon double cheeseburger
Switch to... After busting my butt at the gym, my body deserves the VIP treatment.
Here's How: "Most people overestimate the number of calories they've burned," says Brian Wansink, PhD, a professor of marketing, applied economics, and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of Marketing Nutrition. To burn off a bacon double cheeseburger, the average 140-pound woman has to jog at a rate of five miles per hour for more than 60 minutes. Recast your concept of reward: Instead of seeking food, take a luxurious bubble bath, rent a guilty-pleasure movie, buy a new pair of shoes, or lose yourself in a good novel.
Old loop: I'll grab a candy bar to get me through my mid afternoon slump
Switch to... When my energy flags, I need food that will help me go the distance.
Here's How: Candy and other sweets have little nutritional value, and they destabilize blood sugar, causing you to have more cravings later on, Gullo says. To head off a snack attack, he suggests, "reprogram yourself to seek out a mini-meal 30 minutes before you usually hit a slump." By eating before you're famished, you should be able to resist the sweet stuff and choose foods with enough protein, fat, and complex carbs to keep you sated and energized until dinner. Some of Gullo's top picks: bran crackers with low-fat cheese, a hard-boiled egg, or a cup of low-fat yogurt.
More Ways To Stay Healthy
That goes double if everyone else in line is looking askance at the person; Martin and Cohen both vouch for the power of social shaming. Of course, they also point out that such shaming depends on the existence of shared cultural mores, which, in a pluralistic society, aren't always around when you need them—say, when the person in front of you drops a Snickers wrapper on the sidewalk.
I asked Martin what she thought of handing the wrapper back to its rightful owner. On the condition that it was done politely, she gave me the thumbs-up. Cohen was less enthusiastic. "It's okay," he said. "But you risk getting punched in the nose. And it's slightly obnoxious."
In the matter of the woman who fails to clean up after her dog, Martin got an acute case of the vapors when I asked if it would be acceptable to offer the woman a bag. However, it turned out she thought I was suggesting that the bag be filled with the dog's droppings; an unspoiled bag, she said, would be fine. Yet she seemed to think simple conversation would be even better ("Excuse me, but that was my yard, and I wondered if you might clean it up"), and in light of our brief misunderstanding, I had to agree. It was a useful reminder of the ever-present danger that attends manners policing: Even the best-intentioned actions are subject to misinterpretation. People have been shot for dumber things than someone else's certainty that they were brandishing a bag of poop.
In the matter of a car that takes up two spaces in the grocery store parking lot, Martin approved my idea of leaving a polite note on the car's windshield. She also suggested asking the store manager to page the car's owner and ask that the car be moved. She favored this response not only for its immediate efficacy but because she imagined (quaintly, I'd say) that it would activate the driver's sense of social shame.
The idea that efficacy trumps mere venting is also dear to Cohen's heart. There was a time, he told me, when he was the kind of New York pedestrian who would slam his hand on the hood of a car that blocked a crosswalk. At his daughter's request, he gave up the slamming, but he didn't give up his abhorrence of private cars in New York. Instead he channeled it; he joined a group called Transportation Alternatives, whose goal is structural transportation change.
Warming to Cohen's dislike of cars behaving badly, I gave him the scenario of the Hampton tolls on the way to Maine—the heavy traffic, the breakdown-lane abusers, the Buick as roadblock—and waited for his admiring endorsement. It didn't come. He called our blocking maneuver an act of "petty spite" that belied "a mixture of jealousy and contempt."
Maybe he caught a whiff of my deep disappointment. Maybe he sensed my deep (roadrageous) need to be right. In any case, as though offering consolation, he encouraged me to see the problem of breakdown-lane passers as one of many that are simply insoluble. Not, perhaps, absolutely and permanently insoluble, but certainly "at the moment of crisis, at the individual level." And after I gave it some thought, I decided that his words weren't bunk; they were the truth, and if I let them, they could set me free. If many things are insoluble, it is not my job to solve them. If I don't have to worry about solving them, I really don't have to worry about them at all. And if I don't have to worry about them, I can stop blaming other people for having done them. I can start to accept that other people will do what they do. Leon James calls this the attitude of latitude, and it seems worth trying, if only as an experimental lark.
Cohen had one more thing to say by way of consolation—though in this case he seemed to be consoling himself. His own biggest peeve is inconsiderate cell phone use. He calls it, only half-jokingly, the end of civilization and confesses that he once went at it so intensely with a woman who took a call in a theater that other patrons wound up having to shush him. And yet it isn't the end of civilization, and all isn't necessarily lost—if only because, as they always have, manners will continue to evolve. "Cell phones are a new technology," he says. "And what's regarded as acceptable conduct is still in flux. Which means there's hope. We might still win that one."
So you fight the good-cop fight. You go to the store manager or other authority. When possible, you join a group that's working toward systemic change. And maybe for good measure, you balance every instance of manners policing with an act of guerrilla kindness.
More Manners and Good Etiquette
- Julie Morgenstern's rules for being on time
- Don't bleach your mustache at the farmer's market, and other beauty lessons
- How to say no to a bad table at a restaurant, and 12 other dining dilemmas
From the December 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.