Cold turkey or weaning – what would Punxsutawney Phil do?

Posted by on January 8, 2016 in Blog | Comments Off on Cold turkey or weaning – what would Punxsutawney Phil do?


It’s a new year, and therefore many of us in the human being world are inclined to set new intentions and resolutions for the calendar year ahead.  In so many ways, it’s such an arbitrary and unhelpful date to do this.  The new year begins after an intense period of revelry, extra spending, and the high emotions that go along with more time with our families, travel, and the imposed joyful sentiment of the holiday season.  Our livers are trembling, our bank accounts are diminished, and our energy is wobbling.  In the northern hemisphere, the weather is awful, and although the days are now getting longer and lighter, it’s not the most inspiring time to want to go out and expose pale, supplementary flesh in a gym or pool, or trudge through rain and cold while just quickly confirming on our phone app what the session format of week 1 of the Couch to 5k running plan is.  I know I’ve certainly just wanted to wrap up in comfortable daywear and stay in.  Like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog [made famous in the film Groundhog Day and incidentally appreciated as a figure of history by my father] who won’t be making an appearance for ANOTHER WHOLE MONTH to say whether he is actually going to go back to bed or wander out for an early spring.

Despite these less-than-ideal circumstances, as humans we can get energised by the idea of this being the year that we make change, that we do things differently, that we arrange our lives to allow us to be the most amazing versions of ourselves.  Everyone else is doing it, so we jump on the bandwagon.  Who hasn’t asked or been asked, “Got any New Year’s resolutions?”  So social media explodes with people’s articles, posts, and declarations and lots of gurus and experts telling us how to make it happen.  Setting intentions and having goals are certainly hugely important ways of making that change happen.  At the same time, I got curious about the way that we do these with goals related to food and alcohol, and the various options there are to making change.

The possible origins of the term “cold turkey” are varied but Wikipedia lists them in relation to substance abuse and addiction – maybe it’s because cold turkey can appear suddenly on your plate, with little preparation, or it could have to do with the time of year when we have a lot of cold turkey as festive leftovers, and the concurrent ceasing of big drinking days.  Whatever the etymology, cold turkey is about just stopping completely, going from sixty to zero just like that.  Speaking of which, I wonder if that smell in my refrigerator has anything to do with our Christmas leftovers lurking around…

An alternative to going cold turkey is weaning, having less of an undesired habit or food gradually.  We often think of weaning as something that we do with infants, as in weaning a baby from a milk-only diet to solid foods.  It’s incremental, and everyone has time to get used to the new way; while it may take longer, it’s less extreme.  Can you imagine what would happen if you took a 11-month old baby and put a steak in front of him or her and said, “No milk today – bon appétit!”  It just wouldn’t work, right?  And yet, that’s kind of what going cold turkey can feel like, whether it’s with booze, sugar, sweets, french fries.  Our brain and body are going, “Wait, what are you doing to me here?!  Yesterday we enjoyed an entire box of chocolate, and today it’s nothing?!”  And then moments later, they say, “WE’RE SERIOUS HERE – WHERE IS THE CHOCOLATE?!” and we try to hope that we can’t remember where we hid the emergency stashes of the Snickers bars (now with hazelnut – highly recommend it).

Here is where I love what the habit expert Gretchen Rubin says, which is when you want to create any effective positive habit, the first strategy is to know yourself.   If the goal is to lose weight or have a more healthy diet, has going cold turkey on a particular food or alcohol worked in the past?  Would it work better to simply cut down, or does creating scarcity – or the habit of not having something – support you and your mindset?   Are you more of an abstainer or a moderator?  Her tip: “One size does not fit all” in this.  [I’m asking myself these questions, by the way. I’m not an expert.  And in terms of sizes not fitting, that’s pretty much all of my jeans at the moment, if I’m being honest.]

I saw a friend today for the first time since mid-December and we talked about the idea of going for a drink to catch up.  Up until today, I’d been telling myself I’m having a “dry January” – something I did and actually – surprisingly – enjoyed last year.  I like the idea of a healthier relationship with alcohol, fewer calories to combat my Christmas indolence, and being able to enjoy things without the numbed edge of a buzz and the hell of the day-after hangover.  She told me that she was just cutting down, and her rule is “no drinking at home in January”.  What a great use of a prepositional phrase!  I agreed that her approach may be the one I want to take too.  Rather than abstain, maybe I just moderate.  We’ve booked our pub night now, and while I could see it as my being weak in my choice to back out of my original commitment to myself on an alcohol-free January, I see it instead as choosing my values of friendship and fun.  Another option could be to not drink when I get out, but I don’t think I’ll be reflecting at the end of 2016 on why it was such a bad idea to go out on one bleak, dull January evening 11 and a half months ago for a few beers with a friend.  Plus all the experts say to keep hydrated.

Whatever you do, have fun and love yourself with your intentions and ambitions.  It’s Friday, so for the many of us who went back to work this week, the weekend is finally here [#longestweekever?]  In the downtime, reflect on what you’re aiming for with your goals and whether you feel more like abstinence or moderation will serve you best, and enjoy the return to your sofa.  Why not adopt a pet groundhog to remember that sometimes, there is value in letting the seasons and your own clock be the guide on when you are ready for change?   As I said, I certainly don’t have all the answers.  What I do know is that I hid the remaining 2 bars of my Snickers 4-pack at the back of the third drawer in the cupboard, behind the baking ingredients.  They probably won’t still be there by this time next week.