Think about all of the changes that you make when you’re trying to lose weight. You change your food choices, serving sizes and daily calories. The pounds come off—only to come back on again.
Reason: You haven’t made the most important change of all—to your brain. There could be an imbalance in the brain’s circuitry. The areas that trigger impulsive behavior have been strengthened from years of bad habits, while the areas that control rational decision-making have been weakened.
Everyone knows the weight-loss basics. The challenge is to restore mental balance so that you automatically make healthier choices. What to do…
LOOK AT YOUR FEELINGS
When you wish to eat, ask yourself whether you really are hungry. Pay attention to your stomach. Is it full or empty? Ask yourself, Do I really need food right now?
People often eat for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. We eat when we’re upset, frustrated, bored, etc. The act of eating is a distraction from uncomfortable feelings and a coping mechanism that makes the feelings less intense.
Studies have shown that mood strongly affects food choices. One study published in American Demographics found that people gravitate toward ice cream and cookies when they’re sad…potato chips when they’re bored…and pizza or steak when they’re happy.
My advice: Before you eat anything, seriously ask yourself why you want it. If you haven’t eaten for several hours, you’re probably just hungry. But if you’re craving a snack even though you ate recently, you’re probably dealing with emotional hunger. Ask yourself, How am I feeling about the world today?…What’s my mood?…What do I really need at this particular moment?…Does my stomach feel empty?
When you eat only when you’re hungry and you don’t use food for an emotional fix, you’ve achieved homeostasis, a type of mind-body balance in which you desire only what you need.
Imagine a single cell floating in a petri dish. It doesn’t think about food. It takes in nutrients when it needs them and stops when it has had enough. It is in a perfect state of homeostasis.
You can achieve the same harmony by being self-aware, or mindful.
What to do: Suppose that you come home from work and already are anticipating the taste of chocolate. Don’t go straight to the pantry. Instead, run through the mindful list. If you determine that you are experiencing only emotional hunger, take three very deep breaths and smile. This simple exercise can make the craving go away. It also works if you’ve already started eating and don’t want to overeat.
It’s human nature to crave what you can’t have, so forcing yourself to resist may not be the answer. Whatever you resist persists. So if you’ve gone through your mindful eating list and still feel like eating, don’t fight the feeling. Even if you know that you tend to eat more on those days when nothing’s going right, it’s better to lose the battle than to lose the war.
Instead of resisting, try to reshape your brain. Focus on awareness, not resistance. Example: You’re standing in front of the refrigerator, staring at a slice of pecan pie. You go through your mindful checklist and realize that you’re not really hungry, but it’s been a lousy day and that pecan pie sure will make you feel better. Go ahead and eat it, but be mindful of why you are eating it. This will train your brain about when and how you wish to eat.
Maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong endeavor. You can’t spend your entire life fighting urges. What you can do is gradually become more aware of your feelings…know when you’re weak…and learn not to depend on food to get you through. Along the way, you will train your brain to eat healthier.
EAT MUCH MORE SLOWLY
Many people race through meals. By the time they realize that they are full and the appropriate message is sent to the brain, they’ve already consumed hundreds of extra calories—and later feel bloated and uncomfortable.
In a recent study, researchers found that people who ate quickly consumed 55% more food per minute than those who ate slowly. In the study, people who ate slowly consumed two ounces of food per minute. Those who ate a little more quickly consumed 2.5 ounces per minute…and those who really gobbled their food consumed 3.1 ounces per minute.
Hunger and eating involve a balancing act between two hormones. While you’re eating, the hormone that stimulates appetite, ghrelin, starts to decline. At the same time, the hormone that suppresses appetite, leptin, starts to rise. The hormones work together to control how much you eat. But they take time to work. If you’re a fast eater, they can’t keep up—and you wind up consuming more calories than your body needs.
My advice: Eat slowly and mindfully. Enjoy each bite of food. Notice the smell, texture and taste. Don’t take another bite until you’ve thoroughly chewed the previous bite.
Ideally, you should take at least 20 minutes to eat a meal. That’s about how long it takes for the hormones to send the appropriate signals to the brain.