I have been putting off writing about weight.
The weight loss conversation has grown so tired that I was challenged by the prospect of finding anything new and useful to say about it.
And then I realized: new information isn’t what’s needed. We’re already more informed than ever about the effects of different types of food/nutrition on weight and health. But has it helped us to manage weight? No; not at all.
Truth is, we have been looking for answers in all the wrong places.
We have been buying into whatever the latest media hyperbole is around food and weight loss, and not talking about what’s really keeping us overeating and making less-than-optimal food choices.
Because when it comes to losing weight successfully (and that can mean a variety of things, but I will use my definition: feeling satisfied with our weight and bodies, and being able to maintain that), there aren’t any quick and dirty ‘how to’ lists.
It takes being willing to look at this from a longer lens. We don’t have a choice: unlike with smoking, we can’t just quit eating and circumvent creating a healthier relationship with food. To steal a term from shame researcher and author Brene Brown, we need to approach dissatisfaction with weight/our bodies ‘wholeheartedly’.
If that’s a little too fluffy for you, it means resisting the next shiny diet in favor of using weight as an access to learn about ourselves (our self esteem, authenticity, integrity) and implementing micro habit changes with awareness. Doing so gives us the best chance of creating a functional and relaxed relationship with food and our bodies.
Two things that keep us overweight
Let’s be real here: lack of exercise and poor food choices do not make us overweight. Unhealthy yes, lower intellect possibly, but not a higher weight.
Here are two more likely contenders:
- Failing to deal with a lack of worthiness or other emotional reason for habitually overeating or making poor food choices.
- Being short termist about weight loss, leading to poorly prioritizing weight loss efforts. If you have been swallowing diet/weight loss media for the last twenty years, you may also lack an understanding of the mechanics of ‘energy in energy out’, which we now know isn’t all about calories (the calorie is broken).
A quick note on exercising to lose weight, as this comes up a lot:
Exercising to lose weight doesn’t work. As I can’t put this better than Fat Burning Man Abel James: “Exercise is not about ‘burning off’ calories or punishing yourself – it’s about achieving hormonal and metabolic changes within the body that maximize fat burning and muscle toning with the minimum amount of stress on the body as possible. Think of exercise not as a period of time to ‘burn off’ calories, but as a stimulus that spurs your body to burn fat and build muscle.”
If you are interested in learning about how to exercise for optimal health and longevity based on what we currently know, then read this guide.
Habitually eating out of head (not body) hunger
We all have a psychological relationship with food, and for some this is quite complex.
Think about it: food is one of our primary sources of parental love. That means we love ourselves (or not) through food and the way we feed ourselves.
As a recent study has demonstrated, we don’t get how significant our emotions are when it comes to losing excess weight.
There are many interesting ways that your emotions about food can affect not only what, how and how much you eat – but even the way you metabolize it. (If you are interested in this, I really recommend checking out some articles at the Psychology of Eating).
Everyone eats emotionally occasionally, but when we are compelled to make food choices or overeat foods based on our emotions, then that is getting in the way of weight loss and overall cellular health.
Some common triggers for emotional eating are: boredom; loneliness; lack of love; self sabotage; frustration; stress; anxiety; and living an inauthentic life (I’ll explain this a bit more).
There is no quick fix to dealing with emotional eating. Habitually stuffing down feelings with food or excess calories in the form of alcohol is often deeply ingrained and takes a lot of awareness, self compassion, and a few weeks of uncomfortable self restraint whilst you replace bad habits.
That said, being aware of it immediately makes an impact.
The next stage is acknowledging, and starting to deal with, any underlying feelings of unworthiness. These are so common to the human condition that none of us escape them. I wrote an article all about self love, which you can read here.
I mentioned above that another reason people stay overweight and use food to stuff their feelings is that we are living inauthentic lives, that lack purpose and meaning. So in that way, it might be said that a better relationship with food is accessible through a more authentic life.
Creating an authentic life is a process. To cultivate authenticity, you can consider these suggestions.
If you perceive yourself as having a weight problem, I would be surprised if self esteem wasn’t somehow wrapped up (even hinging on) that perception. Problem is, until you raise your levels of self compassion, you make habit change a lot harder. That’s because underlying successful habit change is a belief in yourself.
For example, it is easy to fall into the trap of waiting to do something you care about ‘until you have loss the weight’. Doing this will actually work against you, because sub-consciously, you are telling yourself you are not acceptable as you are.
Good things to do to work on your self acceptance are getting in the service of others, trying a loving kindness meditation, becoming aware of your self talk, and reminding yourself of the very true fact that everyone is far too self interested to worry about how you look anyway.
You can assess your levels of self compassion using Dr Neff’s self compassion scale.
Messed up physiological hunger cues and energy balance relationship – AKA The Reason That Most Diets Fail
You may already be aware that when all is good, physical hunger is determined by well functioning of the hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Years of dieting and other factors including chronic under-sleeping means the signals can become compromised.
In addition, our energy balance relationship, which is defined by the laws of thermodynamics, dictates whether weight is lost, gained, or remains the same.
We have learned that there are lots of things that affect our hormones and our ‘fuel efficiency’. You don’t need to get weighed down by this, but to give you an idea of some of the things:
- Not getting enough sleep. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). Lack of sleep causes ghrelin levels to increase and leptin to decrease.
- A junk food diet. Processed foods create a toxic junky body, which craves more of the same.
- A diet low in fat (i.e. typical dieters diet). I think we have yet to feel the full force of our years of avoiding fat. Though I suppose those familiar with diabetes, blood pressure and obesity statistics would beg to differ.
- Your gut health. Bacteria residing in your gut affect how you process food. Individual variations are partly why your friend might not thrive on the same nutritional plan as you. We have weakened our microbial health a lot with lifestyle.
- Stress. When you are stressed, you end up with elevated stress hormones, especially cortisol, which can easily take over different hormones in the body. Cortisol affects metabolism.
- Amount of lean muscle mass. This also gets compromised through dieting.
These things (and others) affect how hungry we are and how our bodies ‘receive’ a calorie of food. They all need to be in place for us to create the right conditions for a good body weight.
Don’t let this overwhelm you: provided that your starting point isn’t too unhealthy, you can regulate all of these systems concurrently and relatively straightforwardly once you recognize them as being important.
All this means in practice is that you stop prioritizing calories and think about each mealtime being an opportunity to create good inner conditions for optimizing your hormones, and getting a good energy balance relationship.
How to eat – three guideposts you could use
What you eat is always going to be 80% of the ‘battle’ when it comes to reaching your optimal weight.
Ideally we want to move over into a more intuitive style of eating (eating what we crave, when cravings become for nutrient dense food). However, when you have completely lost trust in your ability to feed yourself, so called ‘lifestyle diets’ are useful. I would recommend reading something sensible like The End of Dieting By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
Although I definitely didn’t want to write an article recommending my way of eating to you (there is no single ‘right way’: when you think about it, it’s all just information you can chose to use or not), I do want to highlight three principles that I have found useful when deciding how to feed myself.
Guidepost 1: Crowding out your diet
I find that this on its own has huge impact on nutrition and weight.
Crowding out (or ‘dietary displacement’) means focusing on getting the good stuff in, rather than what you should be cutting out and restricting. A good metaphor is when you are filling your day with activities related to a rewarding career, enriching relationships with family and friends, and personal wellbeing, there isn’t much of an opportunity left to engage in pipe smoking, strip clubbing, and Candy Crush saga.
If you feel really confused about what is ‘good’ and what isn’t, again I would recommend grounding yourself with some up to date nutritional knowledge like in this book. Email me if you would like me to recommend other high quality explanations of nutrition.
Guidepost 2: Have a rough awareness of calories
If this hasn’t been made clear already, a rigorous calorie tally (otherwise known as The Land of Counting Points, Grams and Calories) will backfire in more ways than one. When we get too wrapped up in the numbers, we make food compromises that affect hormones and metabolism.
That said, it’s still good to have an awareness of calories. That’s because it’s still one of the better measures of energy we have at our disposal, and because it’s a reminder that it is still possible to overeat on healthy foods which ideally we want to move away from.
The upshot is that awareness of calories is probably good. Detailed calorie counting – not so good.
A neat little tool is the Body Weight Planner, which the National Institutes of Health has used in research since 2011.
Guidepost 3: Have an awareness of how satiation works
This relates to point 1.
Appetite isn’t primarily controlled by the number of calories we eat. Rather, it’s controlled by the volume of food that we eat. Simply put, our appetite is based on how much total food volume passes through our digestive tract.
Humans usually eat about 3-4 pounds of food per day. If we add in enough healthy foods, we won’t have much room left for unhealthy foods.
Using satiation as a guiding post at mealtimes means selecting foods that are high water and fiber content, and high in nutrient density.
Getting down to it
So you see that alongside any tortuous emotional work that you might need to do (if you’ll permit the flippancy), realize that you are going to need to replace some of your habits. Habits are the conduit through which our relationship with food (and anything really) is manifested. Habits make up our day.
I wrote a guide to habit change, which you can read here.
When it comes to deciding which habits to target, here is a structure you can use:
- How much are you eating. This is affected by portion control, restaurant serving sizes, etc. You could, for example, ingrain new habits using psychological tricks such as eating from smaller plates to begin with. Getting rid of your flying saucer dishware comes up time and time again as a helpful hack.
- How you are eating? Affected by your emotions.
- Why are you eating? Affected by hormones and emotional eating.
- What are you eating? Affected by a undetermined number of factors, including advertising and the latest diet trends.
Habit anatomy is a whole topic of itself, but here is habit expert Leo Babauta‘s nutshell advice:
1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.
Three cool tools
I’m not a fan of short fixes, as I think they deprive us of an opportunity to get on better terms with ourselves. That said, there are a few special tactics and interventions that can have a great impact on weight loss.
I really can’t say enough for the all around health benefits of fasting. It isn’t necessary, but it’s great for people who are looking to heal a negative relationship with food and self. It is also looking like the best thing around for boosting longevity.
Fasting can also help to reset habits quickly.
As with anything, the potential for abusing the process is there. You need to cultivate mental resilience in order not to get addicted or dependent on the process. That’s just replacing one addiction with another, and won’t free you at all.
I have written about my own experience with fasting and detoxing here.
Mindful eating works because it you to come off autopilot and be present to what you are swallowing. Often that results in eating less, better digestion and not swallowing your emotions with your food.
Even more important perhaps, mindfulness through the process of losing weight is also what keeps you from not over identifying with thoughts and feelings and getting swept up in body shaming and negativity.
This has no drawbacks that I can see.
Measuring something really is a powerful route to changing it. Some successful weight losers have written about tracking as ranking alongside quitting sugar as instrumental to weight loss.
Keeping a simple food diary is effective, or use an app or tool.
Again, there is the potential for abuse and over focus/slave to numbers. We just lap up torture where it’s available!
Here is the tl;dr version of the above:
- Become aware of, and start to deal with, any emotional eating. Geneen Roth and many others have written powerful (although female oriented) books on this subject if this is a big issue for you.
- Don’t be short termist about weight loss. Recognize that you need to create the right conditions for reaching your optimal weight, which means getting a whole number of things right through a high nutrient density diet.
- Read a nutrition bible such as The End of Dieting (for e.g.) to make your focus nutrition and not weight loss.
- Use the three guideposts of eating – crowding out your diet, and being aware of calories and satiation. Better still, develop your own guidelines.
- Design a ‘plan of action’ to change your habits. Make phased, micro habit changes to set yourself up to win.
- Have self compassion, at all times.
- Experiment with fasting, self-tracking and mindfulness techniques.