Little change, big change

Ringing in the new year? Our president-elect called for change and voters said yes. Now it's up to each of us. Change requires that we think, that we become willing, that we decide and we take action. We must be the change we wish to see, Gandhi said.

Sometimes it's the smallest, seemingly incidental change that we avoid. Take, for example, the old story about the man who eats a plain cheese sandwich every day for lunch and every day tells his co-worker, "I wish this was a ham sandwich." When his co-worker asks, "Man, why don't you ask your wife to pack you a ham sandwich?" the man replies, "I live alone."

Change requires motivation and action. How often do you wish for ham yet keep making yourself cheese sandwiches? Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is called insanity, stupidity or just plain foolishness.

In truth, you can change easily and instantly. You decide to go to the gym every day - and do it faithfully - for two weeks. The problem is that you change back just as easily.

How many times have you tried to end a bad relationship only to find yourself going back again? How many times have you decided to lose weight and then find yourself raiding the cookie jar? Or how many times have you vowed to keep your desk organized only to find it piled high again?

Changing habits takes time. Planning for potential lapses is vital to your efforts. Committing yourself to changing just for today is a proven formula for success.

Eight months ago I decided to do just that - to change a major habit one day at a time. My weight had yo-yoed all of my adult life, but it was sugar that had me hooked. I couldn't give it up. Unlike cigarettes that I managed to give up 25 years ago, sugar had a grip on me that created self-loathing. Why couldn't I kick the habit?

I learned that sugar is more addictive than cigarettes - similar to crack and heroin in its effects on the body. What's more, we live in a culture that simply denies we are collectively hooked on the sweet stuff. Trying to quit, most people find themselves crawling back to the pantry or freezer searching for something sweet or popping open a fizzy soda within a week or so, unable to stand the symptoms of withdrawal.

Losing weight and freeing myself from the self-loathing were my big motivators, but I was delighted to discover the clarity and peace of mind I experienced in abstaining from sugar. Eight months later and 50 pounds lighter, the thought that I have committed to a lifetime change is daunting. That's when I remind myself, it's just for today.

Whenever I feel a twinge of self-pity, I remind myself that I have eaten every imaginable dessert and it's inspiring to think that, by making this mind-altering change, I've improved my chances of avoiding the havoc that sugar wreaks on the body. It rots our teeth, promotes heart disease and cancer, is the direct cause of diabetes and obesity, and leads to chronic conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, asthma and hypoglycemia. Interested in learning more about our sugar habits? Read: "Lick the Sugar Habit" by Nancy Appleton and "Breaking the Food Seduction" by Neal Barnard. Are these risks worth the short-term pleasure? I think not.

To prevent succumbing to the continual temptations of refined sugar, I generally carry a piece of fruit with me. Preparing for the possibility of weakening, I remind myself of my decision to love myself and give up self-loathing. Another bonus? I have come to appreciate the healthy sweetness of fruit.

I also know that my change has inspired others. Sugar addiction is a social dis-ease. It's everywhere. If I inspire others while improving my own well-being, then I also have contributed to a healthier lifestyle for my family and friends.

As you consider your resolutions for 2009, what changes are you willing to make? We are being called to change in many ways - health, water use, waste management, buying less, shopping locally and walking more. We are being asked to be accountable to each other as citizens in our communities - showing up, participating and contributing.

There are many ways to change old habits - one day at a time. But don't forget: Have a plan in place for when your resolve weakens. That way you can avoid undermining your attempts to change.

Ruth Marcus has a private counseling practice. Her column appears the fourth Wednesday of the month. Visit for her upcoming classes.

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