Healthy Weight Part 1
I am writing this series of 4 articles on the issue of healthy weight management, because I believe this issue causes much suffering, often through misunderstanding and lack of good information.
Weight management is a distressing issue for many people, and the obesity and overweight statistics in Australia are the third highest in the world. Two thirds of Australians are overweight and half of those are obese. The cost of this in terms of personal health and suffering is high, as being overweight dramatically increases the chances of diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, shortens lifespan and diminishes quality of life.
But you already know that. Why do so many intelligent people struggle with their weight? Is it a personal failing, poor willpower.... should we ‘just’ eat less and exercise more?
No, its not that simple, and not a personal failing. It's not easy to lose weight and keep it off...otherwise, we wouldn't have this epidemic.
We are the result of millions of years of evolution, and most of that time, the sorts of foods we have available to us now, were not available. Our brains, however are hardwired to reach for high caloric density foods, because there were plenty of times in our past where access to high calorie food was crucial for our survival. However for most of our history, high density foods meant, for example, fattier meat, and honey.
On top of this, our primal, evolutionary brain is geared to literally gorge on these things when they were available in abundance, because availability was unpredictable. This is wired into our survival brain pathways, which are deep in our subconscious mind, which is difficult to override.
What are the calorie dense foods in today's culture? Pizza, cakes, white breads, sugar in everything, soda, hot chips, potato or corn chips, chocolate, any sort of alcoholic drink....you get the picture. These are all hyper-palatable foods. We never have a lack of them to counterbalance the abundance, and we do not have to physically work hard for them either- they are so easily available and inexpensive.
It now appears that our capacity for individual willpower is limited, and rarely consistently strong enough to overcome this primitive urge to overeat (and sometimes gorge) on high calorie foods, especially when they are in front of us and so readily available. If willpower were limitless, we would all be slim, and the supermarket wouldn’t have 40,000 varieties of processed foods in it, because we wouldn’t be interested. A large number of these foods have chemicals in them (such as msg) that further stimulate our appetite and cause us to eat more, long past when we have eaten enough calories.
What is needed is a healing within the brain...of neurotransmitters sent crazy by excess sugar, salt and fat, and more understanding of the addictive potential of these foods. Using willpower alone to try and overcome millions of years of evolution, in a culture where we are surrounded by hyper palatable food and its advertising....is almost impossible.
What can we do?
I am going to talk more in future articles about the behaviours and habits we can develop to alleviate the need for superhuman willpower, but for starters:
1. Remove all 'junk', high calorie trigger foods, hyper palatable foods, from your home and work environment, and as much as possible, avoid food advertising such as in commercial television. These foods include:
- any foods which have sugar or other sweeteners in them (i.e listed in the first 3 ingredients),
- flour-based foods (bread, cakes, biscuits),
- high fat foods (deep fried chips etc),
- your personal trigger foods, where you can't stop at a moderate amount- which may include chocolate, peanut butter, popcorn, or nuts.
- alcoholic drinks are a huge source of sugar calories for many Australians, even including dryer wines.
These foods provide visual triggers for cravings, and when we don’t see them, we tend not to crave or eat them as much. The saying 'out of sight out of mind' is of great help here. Of course, not everyone is going to be able to do this because they live with others who are not on board....but you may be able to at least keep your food stash and bench tops free of triggering foods, which studies show, can definitely reduce intake.
2. Stop using these types of food as a reward (for exercise, for a stressful day etc), because they bypass our satiety signals and it is too easy to overeat them. It is not good to include a cheat day in any diet plan because it can undermine your long term success. For many people these foods (and it may vary which ones, person to person) trigger uncontrollable, addictive eating patterns, and the pathways are well worn, both evolutionarily, and personally.
What do we eat instead?
We eat foods that are dense in nutrition and fibre that fill us up, but are far lower in calories, less addictive and less overstimulating to the palate, than most processed foods.
Fill up on fresh vegetables and fruit, fresh meats and seafood (if not vegetarian), whole grains, legumes and plain whole dairy or equivalent. Plan your meals the night before (write them down and get food out of the freezer etc), so that you are prepared for the next day when you may be tired, stressed, hungry or upset, which is when our willpower is lowest.
Tip: base your lunch and dinner around one protein food (meat or non-meat) and lots of vegetables, either cooked or as a salad. A little seasoning and salad dressing is fine. Have some fruit for dessert.
These natural, simple whole foods can become satisfying in a way that processed food never can be, but it takes a little time for the taste buds and the addictive processes of the brain to adjust. Believe me, it is worth it.
Take home messages:
1. Obesity rates are soaring globally due to western dietary patterns, which include addictive, high calorie, processed and hyper palatable foods.
2. Processed and hyper palatable foods trigger primal gorging behaviours.
3. It takes some time to manage the psychological processes around self-sabotage and willpower.
4. Planning meals ahead is vital so that you do not make poor choices when hungry, tired, stressed or upset.
5. Eat foods that are dense in nutrition and fibre- fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, legumes, wholegrains, whole plain dairy or substitutes.
Next article I will talk about stress, hormones, and additional simple and effective steps you can take to set yourself up for success rather than failure, in your weight management journey.
The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts that make us overeat by Stephen J. Guyenet