It was once believed that losing weight and keeping it off was all a matter of willpower. However, recent research is suggesting that it is not as simple as that! Whilst we like to believe that we are in control of our thoughts and actions, the truth is that we have a much deeper subconscious that influences how we behave. What we do consciously is just the tip of the iceberg!
Our brains drive our actions and our brains are programmed to want food – high calorie food! There are a number of physiological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this article but basically our brains are doing the very best to keep us alive! And in this day and age where high calorie, processed foods are in abundance, our will power, along with our waist lines, stand little chance! Little surprise then that obesity is on the rise so rapidly!
So, is all lost?Are we destined to a life of elasticated trousers? You will be relived to learn that no, there are steps that you can take to retrain your brain to help you make smarter nutritional choices. As I mentioned here, behaviour change is the key. And this takes time and commitment. It can be done, but it might not be easy.
Here is how…
Keep Processed Food to a Minimum
One of the key issues with our modern food environment is that it is full of highly palatable foods that are easy to overeat but reduce our levels of health. Whole foods, on the other hand, are much harder to over indulge in and contain plenty of the vitamins, minerals, water, fibre etc that are necessary for optimal health.
I am certainly not suggesting that you never eat processed foods. Instead, aim for at least 80% of your diet to consist of minimally processed varieties and choose ones that you enjoy so that you will eat them regularly.
Following on from the last point, try to include fresh vegetables wherever you can! Not only will a variety (think different colours) provide you with essential vitamins and minerals, they contain plenty of water and fibre that helps to fill you up and keep you satisfied for longer. And all for fewer calories than many processed ‘plate fillers’. Low energy, high density foods can play a key role in losing and maintaining weight.
Guidelines used to suggest that we aim for 5 portions a day but more recently, 10 portions have been recommended. If you can manage somewhere between 5-8 fist fulls of veg a day then you are not going far wrong.
Eat More Protein!
Not only is protein crucial to our health, it helps us preserve precious muscle that is necessary to maintain a higher metabolism, it also keeps us fuller for longer .
It is the most satiating of the 3 macronutrients (the others being carbohydrate and fats) so it would be sensible to include it at EVERY meal. Research strongly suggests that those who eat plenty of lean protein, eat less in general!
It is recommended that you get 0.8-1g of protein per pound of body weight, more if you train but this is very generic figure and needs to be personalised.
Research consistently shows that a flexible diet approach is much more effective than an ‘all or nothing’, rigid approach. In fact, rigid diets have been linked to eating disorders and a higher BMI. This means that instead of demonising or completely eliminating certain foods, indulge occasionally if you enjoy them! If you don’t, then you are more likely to binge or be extremely unhappy!
The trick is to have then every now and then but make the decision consciously and take your time to savour the taste and the associated feelings. Then when you have had enough, get back on track!
If you are maintaining weight, then you may be able to indulge more often. If, however, you have a lot to lose than you may need to allow ‘treats’ more occasionally. So establish your goals and take it from there.
Try to avoid ‘grabbing food on the go’ and really pay attention to when you are eating and why. Is it through habit or are you actually hungry? Being more mindful can literally be a game changer!
Make time for each meal; put your phone down, sit at the table, turn the TV off…..all of these strategies will avoid you from becoming distracted which can lead to you overeat.
Chew slowly, savour the taste and think about the nutrition you are providing your body with. This will help you to become more in tune with your hunger and satiety signals which will help to retrain your brain.
Consider Your Food Environment
Temptation is on of the main reasons we fall off the wagon with our nutrition. So, limit the amount of junk food you have in your home and make any you do have hard to reach. Keep the crisps out of reach and the chocolate at the back of the cupboard. This will make it less tempting to mindlessly reach for.
Keep bowls of fruit on the side, crudites ready prepared in the fridge etc. I always have cooked chicken in the fridge for a high protein, low cal hit! Little things like this can make all the difference.
These strategies wont only help us maintain a healthy weight, they can also have a big impact on our children. Modelling healthy habits and maintaining an environment abundant in nutritious choices instils habits that may prevent obesity in the next generation.
Connect With Your Feelings
Last but by no means least, become aware of why you make the food choices you do. This is perhaps one of the most important factors when it comes to changing your behaviour and therefore losing weight. If you crack this, then all of the above will fall in to place.
Before you eat, ask yourself whether you are really hungry or is it ‘just that time’?
When you do eat, think about whether what you have chosen will lead to you being full for more than an hour! Have you included some protein, some vegetables, perhaps some whole grains? If not, the chances are you will want to eat again pretty soon…
A great tool that I use with many of my clients is a ‘food feelings diary’. This isn’t a food diary in the normal sense where you record everything you are eating, which can be a very useful strategy. It is more of a journal where you make a note of how you are feeling when you make a ‘bad’ food choice. Consider the action you took, what happened before and how you felt after. This can help you to identify whether there is something going on in your life that you need to address to be able to take control of your eating. For example, are you stressed, tired, overworked etc.
Being more aware and then taking it through with a professional can make all the difference to your weight and therefore your weight. Awareness will not automatically provide the answers but it will certainly set you on the right path.
To conclude, our mindset and behaviours are much harder to change than we may think and there are very good, physiological reasons for this. They are, however, critical if we are to lose weight and be the healthiest versions of ourselves.
If you would like to learn more or discuss any of the points further, please get in touch with Rebecca Flannery, Evidence-based Nutritionist.