Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new healthy habits, and figuring out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m helping a woman figure out why she’s always off the rails when she’s home alone, and how to stick to healthy habits once your housemates leave.
My husband is away for work often, and being home alone for days on end means I’m eating less healthy food way more often than I’d like. It’s like once he leaves, my willpower goes out the window! Why do I feel so out of control when I’m home by myself, and how can I feel back in charge? –Liz, San Francisco, CA
This is a really common occurrence—I think many of us find that our food choices take a turn into Not-So-Healthytown more often when there’s no on there to witness it (or hold us accountable). For some, this leads to out-of-control eating or binging; for others, it just brings a slightly out of control feeling, even if the bulk of your food choices are still pretty healthy.
You asked two questions here: why this happens, and how you can create a plan to combat this before your husband leaves town again. So let’s me propose three reasons why we end up face-first in a box of cupcakes when we’re home alone—and how to stay self-posessed and self-confident the next time you find yourself in this situation.
Home Alone, like the movie
There’s something about being home alone (or traveling alone) that makes us feel like a 12-year-old left without a babysitter for the very first time. It’s so exciting! No one is watching! You can do anything you want! You can have popcorn and wine for dinner and stay up wicked late eating cupcakes in bed while reading US Weekly (or have pizza and beer for dinner and stay up wicked late eating ice cream while binge-watching Game of Thrones, pick your guilty pleasure) and NO ONE WILL JUDGE YOU.
I swear, this is universal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 22 or 52; when we’re used to living with other people and then find ourselves home alone, we turn into our 12-year-old selves. But with money. And a car. And more expensive taste in comfort food. (Think 2010 Paraduxx and Madagascar dark chocolate instead of a Slushee and Pop Rocks.)
Stress, loneliness, and anxiety
Often, being home alone brings about stress. Maybe you’re single-parenting while your spouse is gone, or maybe you’re used to your partner doing the bulk of the grocery shopping and cooking. You may feel lonely, missing the companionship. And I’ve heard many women say that being home alone is a little scary, leaving you sleeping poorly and feeling generally anxious.
As I discussed in my 2014 Paleo(f)x presentation on stress and cravings, it’s biologically normal to see an increase in cravings when you’re under stress, especially if the current stress of being home alone is on top of chronic stress (financial concerns, lack of sleep, job stress, relationship issues, the list goes on…). Your spouse, partner, family, or roommate leaving for a few days may just be the stress-straw that breaks your craving-camel’s back, leading to a return to the old habits of using food as comfort. And we’re not talking about the comforting Chicken Chowder from The Whole30.
Action Item: Make. A. Plan. You know this time alone is coming, so even if you only have a day’s notice, the first thing you’re going to do is get rid of the stuff in your house that you may end up binging on. (If your housemates will want it when they return, make it way less accessible. Freeze it, bag it up and stick it in the garage, or box it up and seal it with tape. I’m not kidding. Do this. You’ll thank me.) Then, before your housemates leave and first thing in the morning when willpower is strongest, make a meal plan for the week. Decide what you’ll eat for each meal, whether you’ll indulge in any less-healthy foods (and if so, when, what that will look like, and how much you’ll eat), then grocery shop for just those items. Finally, per the advice we give you in The Whole30, create an if/then plan for unknown situations. Here are a few examples:
- IF you find yourself having serious cravings, THEN you’ll phone a friend/do the dishes/treat yourself to a massage/take a bath.
- IF you’re at the grocery store feeling tempted, THEN you’ll pull out your list and just follow instructions/leave the store and come back later/jump on social media and put out a call for help.
- IF you find yourself eating less healthy food in an out-of-control fashion while home alone, THEN you’ll call your sister and tell on yourself/go to the gym or outside for a walk/jump on the Whole30 Forum for support/call your partner or spouse for some reassurance.
The last reason you may find yourself sliding back into carb-a-palooza when you’re home alone: pure laziness. Without anyone else to cook for (or eat with), you may just decide to take it easy and skip the shopping, meal prep, and cooking. Which is totally fine—I’ve been known to eat rotisserie chicken on romaine (covered in Tessemae’s Buffalo Sauce, of course), a bell pepper, and guacamole for dinner when home alone. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it gets the job done.
But often, a slide from recipes to ingredient meals slips further into “I’ll just call for pizza/eat dark chocolate and ice cream/go out” when you’re home alone. And that laziness, combined with (perhaps) the first two factors, spells trouble for your new healthy habits.
Don’t beat yourself up for your habits slipping when your situation changes, especially if you’re a creature of routine. Awareness is the first step in keeping yourself on an even keel when you find yourself home alone. Making a plan is the next. The more you practice creating new routines, meal strategies, and habits when you’re on your own, the easier it will be to put these into practice. Oh, and I highly recommend instituting a “no pants needed” rule first. Just sayin’.
Best in health,
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Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.
Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa and her son live in Salt Lake City, UT.
Photo credit: Taylor Gage, She Thrives Blog