How to give up things that are bad for your health, the easy way

Please consider donating the price of a coffee to my campaign. I'm trying to lose 52 lbs in weight in 52 weeks for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Work is beating me up, I have my second cold in as many weeks and, because I have a cold, I can’t work-out. It’s drizzly and grey outside and, yesterday, I slipped on a patch of oil, flipped into the air and landed on my back on a crowded train platform.

I’m feeling a little sorry for myself, so I thought I’d write a positive post about giving up bad things.

I once spoke to a nutritionist who told me that nothing was “bad” for you, as long as it was part of a generally balanced whole. Well, screw that. The fewer bad things you cram into your talky hole, the better you feel.

Most of our bad habits service the pursuit of dopamine or serotonin or noradrenaline. That hit of tasty endorphins you get when you satisfy the craving for a doughnut or a Snickers.

In my twenties, I drank alcohol every evening – a hangover (pun intended) from being a student. I smoked the equivalent of about thirty cigarettes a day and one of those might have been a “funny” cigarette. I ate sweets and chips and pastry. I was a vegetarian, but that just made it worse. My diet was all carbs and no protein, so I was skinny, spotty and pale. By the time I hit 27, I felt terrible and had a full-on health crisis when my weight dropped to 7 stones 13 lbs.

7 stones 13 lbs. To put that in perspective, I currently weigh 15 stones and 7 lbs, after three and a half months of dieting. It was a weird time. After my diagnosis of reactive hypoglycaemia, I got my diet back on track, began to eat more healthily – but I also had a renewed concern for my general health.

The usual narrative is that when you give a thing up, you’ll miss it and feel miserable because you are depriving yourself of pleasure. Here’s the secret no one tells you:

When you give up things that are bad for you, it can feel good.

Now – some people will immediately jump to the conclusion that “good” means “virtuous”. I find this most when I talk to people who find out that I don’t drink. Some assume I am secretly lording it over them in my mind (which couldn’t be further from the truth). Virtue has nothing to do with it. Live and let live, I say. You do you.

Don’t worry about the intentions others project onto you. It’s all about how you feel. Here are the two things that motivate me:

The “good” effects of bad things are illusory

This is such a simple correlation but people will jump through many hoops to minimise the undesirable effects of their bad habits because the initial dopamine (plus alcohol/nicotine/caffeine and/or sugar rush) feels so euphoric. But, here’s the rub; it only feels euphoric in comparison with the corollary downside of the same activity.

When you smoke, that first nicotine hit feels good because your body is habituated to it. You are in withdrawal and suffering the effects of depleted neurotransmitter activity – that was caused by nicotine use in the first place. After addiction takes hold, you have to smoke just to feel normal and smoke more to get the feeling of euphoria.

It doesn’t have to be a chemical transition either. It can be entirely psychological.

When you have the first drink of the evening it signals to your brain that this is the end of the day and you are about to switch from “feeling stressed” to “I don’t care”. There is an immediate relief-response associated with the ritual. It’s why you feel better after a sip of wine before the alcohol has had any chance to take effect at all.

That is to say; the euphoria is a) partly psychological and b) only euphoric in comparison to a base state that is worse than normal. That’s reinforced by the fact that we often have to learn how to like these things. No one enjoys their very first cigarette. It tastes horrible and makes you feel dizzy and sick. Kids don’t like alcohol because the taste is acquired – and the sweet spot between pleasantly tipsy and obnoxious drunk is something you have to learn how to calibrate. And, yes, let’s mention weed. Smoking dope does really odd things to your body and perception that you learn to like, but that would completely freak you out if they happened out of nowhere.

Drinking, smoking, coffee, eating sugar, overeating – these are all things we do for comfort. But the state of discomfort is caused by drinking, smoking, caffeine, sugar...

That’s true before we even consider the “bad effects”.

Cutting out bad things improves your health tangibly

According to the NHS, it can take months to really feel the health benefits of not smoking. Let me tell you from experience, those benefits can be profound. I smoked from the age of 16 to 31 and smoked heavily. I had pneumonia in my late 20s and carried on smoking. The stuff I was coughing up was so complex and fleshy, it looked sentient.

It only took three weeks for the chemical craving to stop. Just three weeks of feeling restless, anxious and compulsive. The physical effects took a while longer to dissipate. The colour of my face changed from pallid and slightly yellow, to a healthier pink. The acne on my chin cleared up. The stains on my fingers and nails faded away. Crucially, I stopped spending the first five minutes of every morning coughing bits of lung into the toilet. I could breathe.

When I gave up alcohol, I realised that the feeling of sluggishness I experienced every single day was down to the four units or more I was drinking every single night. Many people in the UK think a glass of wine or three every evening is fine for them – and it’s OK if that’s you. For me, I noticed pretty soon that I felt better when I don’t drink. I realised that I could wake up feeling rested rather than groggy and thick-headed. I coped with my stress more effectively because I felt fitter and more mentally alert. I didn’t need a drink to switch off at the end of the day.

You may be thinking, well der! Of course, if you drink you’ll feel it the next day. But if I had a pound for everyone I know who thinks they are not a “morning person” or who swears they need “an hour or two to wake up” – and who also drinks half a bottle of wine a night and says “I’m used to it” or “it doesn’t affect me”, I would have one hundred and thirty-eight pounds.

Giving things up by accident

While I’ve been counting calories, I’ve given some things up by accident. I’ve been vegetarian since I was 13 (with some missteps). I stopped smoking when I was 31. Giving up alcohol was more complex.

I stopped heavy, student-drinking in my early 30s and had a decade where I drank little and infrequently. I stopped completely about five years ago. Any lapses I’ve had since have been due to the horror people exhibit when you say you don’t drink. People in the UK would rather hear you’re under investigation by Operation Yewtree than find out you’re teetotal.

But I'm not just a teetotal, drug-free, non-smoker. My vegetarianism has tipped into veganism, I’ve stopped having refined sugar and given up bread. You must really hate me by now.

I wrote about all the health benefits I’ve experienced while losing weight in another blog post. Some of those effects I have to attribute to giving things up. Sugar was my Achilles heel. I could eat half a packet of biscuits without thinking, absent-mindedly dipping in as I worked or watched TV. I had made several conscious efforts to give it up previously, but hypoglycaemia made that tough. All it would take was an afternoon of teaching or a difficult admin task and my blood sugar would drop, I’d get faint and dizzy and the quickest fix was an intravenous flapjack.

Now that I am counting calories, that’s stopped – mainly because I have healthy, protein-heavy snacks and Huel to fall back on. And just like that, without really thinking, I’m off refined sugar and no longer craving it.

The point is, you can give things up in a positive way. It’s all about changing the story you tell yourself. If your “script” is one of denial and deprivation, then you will feel that you are missing out. Instead, you can focus on what you gain and – even better – take some pleasure from setting your own goals and achieving them. That way, you’ll get your dopamine hits from doing good.

Though if someone came up with a low-carb, sugar-free doughnut that tasted as good a real one, I’d be all over it.