Making healthier habits: Life lessons from the buffet

So, I’ve got a secret: I’ve been in Mexico for the last week. A lot of people are away this


So, I’ve got a secret: I’ve been in Mexico for the last week.

A lot of people are away this time of year, so I’m not the only one who escaped for a little sun. But I did feel guilty knowing my friends and family had to survive yet another dumping of snow and sub-zero temperatures while my kids frolicked on the beach.

And then I had a glass of bubbly.

It is interesting to note that my 66 days of no alcohol, sugar and wheat ended the day I landed in Mexico. Good timing? Depends on how you look at it.

Have I had alcohol at an all-inclusive resort? The answer would be yes. Have I had sugar? Does the brownie I inhaled this afternoon count? So that would be a yes, too. Did I go from famine to feast? Have I gone wild, downing tequila shots chased with a beer? Nope. But then again, I’m not 22 anymore. Those were fun times.

Many people have asked what I have learned along this journey, so far. It sounds like a cliché, but what you learn ‘ when you cut things out from your life ‘ is that life should be lived in moderation. I haven’t always been good at that. But I’m getting better.

And, as I have observed this last week, I’m not alone. Many people make healthy choices on holiday. Then again, many don’t. Watching people in the buffet pile their plates with waffles, eggs, refried beans and French toast, you really think about the obesity epidemic in the world.

One of the most interesting interviews I have ever done has been with Brian Wansink, the author of Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we do. Wansink is the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and has done vast amounts of research on how you can change eating patterns.

Wansink and his team discovered something interesting when they looked at Chinese buffets, eye-opening research: obese people act differently than normal-weight individuals. In their study of two-dozen Chinese buffets, they observed hundreds of individuals grouped as either normal-weight, overweight or obese. What they discovered was that obese people tend to dive right in, filling their plate, and often sat facing the buffet ‘ thereby always having food on their mind. Normal-weight individuals tended to ‘browse’ the buffet first, and then decide what they are going to have. They also used smaller plates. The obese diners tended to use a fork, whereas normal-weight individuals used chopsticks ‘ slowing down their eating.

Wansink and his team have done many studies which can help people change they way they eat. His work ‘ and his book ‘ is definitely worth a read.

But come on, Erin: when you are on holiday, you want to let loose a little, right? Of course you do. There are many people who come on holiday and live the motto ‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time.’ They are the ones drinking Miami Vices (for those of you who don’t know ‘ a really sweet drink of Pina Colada mixed with Strawberry Daiquiri) in frosty classes when the bar opens, and they are grazing on pizza and fries throughout the day. But there are also people who are at the gym in the morning, stick to bottled water and a cocktail or two throughout the day, and take in the sunset in the evening ‘ without waking up with a hangover the next day.

It’s all about choices.

And we don’t always make the best ones. I can’t say I’ve been perfect on this trip. I’ve had a hangover again ‘ the first time in the last couple of months ‘ and it wasn’t very nice. But I have also gone to the gym, found a new running buddy (who, luckily is from Toronto!), walked the beach, swam with my kids, jumped ocean waves and caught up on my sleep.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned from this holiday is that I have to download the sounds of waves crashing into the shore: there is no better meditation than that.

Follow me on Twitter @erinpp

Erin Phelan is a fitness trainer and mom of two. She’s a regular contributor to Best Health.