Focus on health and break the dieting cycle
It’s a unique time in history. Never before have humans been exposed to as much sugar, processed food, and caloric abundance as we are in the 21st century. Eating and storing fuel in times of food abundance and stress is what our bodies are built to do. But for most people in the U.S., we are in a state of constant abundance. As a result, the CDC estimates that 36.5 percent of Americans are obese.
On average we make over 200 food decisions a day. We are influenced by the donuts in the company conference room, TV commercials, social gatherings, and free bread baskets at restaurants. People are also predisposed to mimic behaviors of others, driven biologically by mirror neurons. The portion sizes served in restaurants have increased dramatically in the last 50 years, often offering two to three times more food than what is actually needed for sustenance. Even our dinner plate has increased in size, making it more challenging for people to accurately judge healthy quantities of food.
To make matters worse, the foods we are exposed to are dramatically different than the foods we ate 100 or 200 years ago. Refined grains and sugars account for 39 percent of the total calories that Americans consume. That’s not surprising since humans have an inborn biological drive to eat foods that are satiating, with a preference for sweet and fatty foods that activate the brain’s reward system. But high-glycemic, processed foods like bagels, fast foods, breads, desserts, crackers, and chips also drive insulin resistance, weight gain, and changes in the gut microbiome. They also increase inflammation and are generally low in nutrients.
Here’s what many diet gurus won’t tell you: Food is more than calories. It is communication. Food communicates to our body on a cellular level and can drive health or disease. A 100-calorie bowl of pretzels communicates something entirely different than a 100-calorie apple. We need to change the types of foods we eat in order to shift the metabolic set point that occurs as a result of a high-sugar, high-fat, and highly processed diet.
Let’s flesh this out into some practical behaviors and simple strategies for healthy weight loss. These are not rules. These are practices and tools that you can use on your journey of self-exploration and health.
- Eat real, whole foods. Do you need a label to know what you are eating? Then it is probably not a whole food. What are whole foods? They are vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, meats, fish, and eggs. Become a savvy shopper. Learn to read labels for words you don’t recognize or unwanted ingredients like added sugar or trans fats. Packaging can try to trick you into thinking a food is whole when it is not.
- Fill half of your plate with vegetables. I have had many clients lose weight with this one simple practice. It can be challenging at breakfast, but breaking away from the standard American breakfast and a little creativity makes it possible. Vegetables are the powerhouse foods of weight loss and optimal health. They are low-calorie but pack a punch of good anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. Experiment with a variety of colorful vegetables, as well as spices and herbs that can excite the senses. Along with fat and protein, vegetables fill up the belly and improve satiety. They support a healthy gut microbiome and shift the makeup of gut bacteria away from species that are associated with obesity.
- Choose a healthy protein at each meal. It is very important that you get protein at each meal. Protein helps with satiety and supports one’s metabolism. Protein also helps to balance the glycemic load of the meal. Eat a variety of proteins, from plant-based options such as beans and lentils to animal derived proteins such as pasture-raised meats, wild fish, pasture-raised chicken, eggs, and yogurt.
- Fats are important too. Fat is important for hormone synthesis, brain function, and satiety. But the fats we eat can either promote inflammation or reduce it. Americans tend to eat a very high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. In order to shift this balance and thus reduce inflammation, choose healthy sources of fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, wild fish, pastured meats, and eggs. Minimize trans-fats, which are commonly served at restaurants. Aim to reduce or eliminate factory-farmed meats, as well as soy, sunflower, or canola oils commonly found in processed foods.
- Move your body every day. Achieve this by exercising or increasing movement through daily living. Redefine physical activity to be an activity you enjoy such as taking a stroll with the dog, dancing, or walking your kids to school. Physical activity will improve your overall health, reduce insulin resistance, and boost metabolism. Lack of physical activity is a major roadblock for many aiming to lose weight. People can feel discouraged when they get started because they set their goals too high. Start small, such as a 15-minute walk daily. Dress warm for cold weather or walk indoors. Wear a pedometer or fitness tracker to motivate yourself with numerical goals. Try one of the many free apps and online programs. My favorites are Fitness Blender and The 7 Minute Workout.
- Be mindful. Slow down when you eat. Take a deep breath before taking a bite. Be aware of how different foods make you feel and what your body needs. Enjoy the process of eating. Try to avoid multitasking while eating so you are present. As Charles Eisenstein observed in The Yoga of Eating: Transcending Diets and Dogma to Nourish the Natural Self, “We overeat not because we enjoy food too much; it is because we don’t enjoy it enough.”
- Sleep. Lack of sleep predisposes one to food cravings, in particular for high-sugar foods. Sleep deprivation can also predispose one to mood disorders, insulin resistance, and inflammation. Americans are generally sleep deprived, and even a 30-minute reduction in sleep each night can have negative consequences. If your diet is healthy and you are not losing weight then explore sleep and physical activity as your next areas of focus.
- Connect with others. Invite friends to join you for a health-focused potluck, find a walking buddy, or join a social media page where you can connect with like-minded people. Remember, we are social animals who are inclined to mimic behaviors in our social circle. It is important to connect with people who are also practicing health-positive behaviors.
The good news is that the attitude toward dieting and weight-loss in America is changing. Even though the weight loss industry was a 60 billion dollar industry in 2014, there is now a welcomed trend away from “dieting” and towards holistic living and health. If you are sick of yo-yo dieting, you are not alone. Focus on health and the weight-loss will follow.
Five Reasons The Dieting Mentality Does Not Work
- Diets are a temporary solution.
- Diets don’t address the underlying reasons people overeat.
- Diets often are a means to an end and don’t promote healthy eating behaviors.
- Cutting calories drastically can slow metabolism.
- Diets are conditional: “I will accept and love myself once I am thin.”