Breaking New Research: High calories often drive food choice more than taste

In surprising new research, scientists have found both humans and animals choose what to eat based on the caloric content of food, regardless of taste.

Ivan de Araujo, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has shown calories can trump palatability: Their work has demonstrated mice prefer consuming bitter solutions paired with a sugar infusion rather than a calorie-free sweet solution.

De Araujo and his group have been working for years to work out how the contents of the gut produce pleasure in the brain. They have found sugar in the digestive tract can activate the brain’s reward centres. Even in animals bred without the ability to taste sweetness, sugary snacks still trigger this.

The vagus nerve, a bundle of fibers that connects the brain stem to the intestines and other major organs in the body, is the conduit of these gut-borne pleasure-related signals to the brain.

This is the mechanism that explains why the presence of calories or nutrients in the gut changes our behaviour. We still don’t understand the detail of how this works, but one thing is clear – our gut knows whether or not we have eaten artificial sweetener rather than sugar or a ‘low fat’ version of something. It can tell the calorific county of our food.

Which goes a long way to explaining why ‘diet food’ isn’t satisfying. Every cell in our body recognises what we put into it for what it is.

 

Biscuits and cakes in the office: Why they aren’t working any more

Around twenty years ago, we rarely saw a cake in the office unless it was to celebrate the end of year results, or the launch of a new product. These days, we’re lucky to get through a week without cake: a birthday in the team, a charity bake-off or just a reward for making it to Friday. And we haven’t even mentioned the tub of biscuits in the kitchen.

Pastries are seen as a way of keeping us going, building a team, and making the workplace more pleasant. But what if they’re undermining our health and our energy?

Recent research shows that 68% of Australians are eating cakes and biscuits daily and that most of this consumption occurs in the workplace. What’s more, the research shows, if you don’t partake of these sugary treats, you’re perceived as not much of a team player, even a bit of a killjoy.

In the UK, the Royal College of Surgeons argued that ‘cake culture’ is fuelling obesity and dental problems.

Yet for many, the sugar hit is a much needed relief from the daily grind. Long hours and stress exhaust us, and refined carbohydrates are just the thing for a dopamine hit, an insulin rush and a moment of physical bliss before the ache of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone returns.

Perhaps a better way to celebrate a birthday is with a shorter day, a walk outside, and the chance to catch up on a bit of sleep. It would make us all feel better, and might even increase productivity.

Or is this a step too far?

 

 

 

Foods we can’t stop eating

Sometimes there are foods that we find hard to resist, things that when we start eating, we can’t stop. It’s different for each of us. It might be white bread, or sugar, or chips or ice cream. Occasionally it’s breakfast cereal, even the so called healthy ones like Sultana Bran. It doesn’t matter what it is. When a food has a hold over us it can be terrifying.

We can both crave the food, and then feel as though we have no control once we start eating.

When I was struggling with food, I would test myself with the very things I found hardest to stop eating. And then, when had eaten beyond the point of comfort, almost beyond consciousness, as though I was an alcoholic drugging myself with my chosen poison until I was sedated and bloated and numb.

Many of the women who I coach, or who come to my classes struggle similarly. When I tell them that there are no rules and they can eat what they like, some of them go straight out and buy the foods that they haven’t allowed themselves for years, and then are distraught and horrified when they can’t stop eating them.

There are several things that come together to create this compelling urge to eat and eat. The first can be a physical one. Some foods, especially those high in sugar (or carbohydrates like bread and cereals) can trigger the pleasure centre in our brain that releases dopamine. Our brains love this sensation, as do we, and we want to keep getting more and more of this feeling, which means we want to keep eating.

Also physical, our insulin rises as we eat carbohydrates, and if we produce more than we need, we may feel driven to continue to eat so that we ingest enough glucose to mop up the insulin.

Psychological triggers also occur. Timmerman’s excellent research into deprivation shows that deprivation doesn’t have to be ‘physical or real’ (i.e. we don’t have to be starved) in order for it to be compelling. Just denying or forbidding ourselves something over a long period can be enough deprivation to trigger overconsumption once we are again within reach of it.

We also lose touch with our bodies, and what ‘enough’ feels like, especially if it’s a food that we don’t often permit ourselves to eat.

If there are foods you’re struggling with, don’t ‘test yourself’ when you’re lonely and hungry. We don’t want to set ourselves up to fail. You might try it in company, when you can enjoy it, and have a social surrounding that might help you stop eating. Or you might want to get stronger first, and by this I mean, have stopped dieting for a while, have fed yourself regularly, and begun to believe in the very depths of your soul that you won’t deprive yourself ever again.

Then, when you really know, in the very core of your being, that you could have this food whenever you wanted, if you really truly want it, you may find that its hold over you diminishes.

Are you hungry, or is it just lunch o’clock?

Most people assume that because it’s lunch time, that they should have something to eat. They crack open a sandwich and start eating, with no regard to hunger or whether they are ready to eat.

Maybe you think I’m crazy to even mention it – of course they should eat! It’s lunch time!

In reality, meal times have varied greatly over history. Our rules about when we eat are relatively new. Breakfast is a modern invention, arriving sometime in the 17th century. Before then, people didn’t eat in the morning. From Roman times to Middle Ages, everyone ate in the middle of the day and often it was the only meal. This is still the case for Buddhist monks, who eat a single meal at noon. The evening meal, by comparison, has long been a more sociable one, and this has become later and later with the advent of electric light. In Spain, dinner isn’t served until 10pm which is agonisingly overdue for many of us.

If meal times are arbitrary and culturally determined, perhaps you can set your own?

You may also find that your body naturally gets hungry at certain times of day. I don’t feel hungry first thing in the morning, and find eating breakfast makes me feel sluggish and sleepy. I get hungry at around 9.30 or 10am. There is no reason that I can’t breakfast at that time. When I’ve worked in offices, I’ve packed something and taken it in. Other days I don’t feel hungry until late morning, so I skip breakfast and have an early lunch.

It might suit you to have a late lunch at 2pm – when you’re hungry and when it will see you through until dinner. It’s hard to know unless you’ve been brave enough to break some of the rules and find out.

There is also no evidence that skipping a meal does you any harm whatsoever. In fact, sometimes, giving your digestive system a break, allows your body to work on healing itself, and getting itself back into balance.

It can be quite scary to miss a meal. You may find yourself checking in every few minutes to see whether you are hungry, or worrying that you will run out of energy. It can be a nice surprise to find that your body will work without a constant drip feed of food, that you can survive a few hours on your own. You may find that discovery empowering.

Part of trusting yourself, and learning when to eat when hungry, is giving yourself permission to explore these ideas. Some of them may seem confronting, especially if they go against cultural and social norms. Not eating lunch until 3pm, when everyone around you is eating it at 1pm can be challenging. You may find, however, that this works for you and allows you to remain energised until dinner. You won’t find out until you try.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

I feel fat and panicky: Part 4

In this final article on feeling fat and panicky, we’ll explore the emotions that accompany it – which can be the most devastating part.

This is because if you’re feeling fat, the shame that accompanies this can be a terrible sensation. It extends beyond the physical and makes us feel that the whole of us is unworthy, that something is wrong with us as a person.

Dealing with these feelings is an important part of getting back to an even keel, as these feelings of self disgust can cause us to eat even more. We feel like giving up on ourselves.

We believe that we should have more ‘self control’ and that getting ourselves into this situation is entirely our fault. And sometimes we believe that we don’t deserve better.

It can be hard to work our way out if we feel like this. Not only have we given up on self-love and ourselves, we’ve given up on hope.

Before I found a different way of eating and of treating myself, I used to feel like this and sometimes the feelings would be so intense that it would seem that the whole of life was pointless. It took me to a very dark place.

When the feelings are bad, it’s best to just take tiny steps, steps that are kind, even when we don’t feel kind to ourselves. It might be something like taking a hot bath, or going to bed when we are tired. It might involve a trip to an art gallery, or taking the time to cook our favourite recipe. The important thing is to be kind to ourselves and to stop the cycle of punishment and hatred.

The weight will come off. It might take a little time, but the bloating that can accompany it, will vanish much faster.

Ensure that your meals are enjoyable. Take time when eating them and try not to nibble in between – promise yourself that you will eat when you are hungry so you don’t have to stave off hunger pangs with incessant nibbling. This will also allow yourself to feeling sensations and emotions that you may be uncomfortable with. These emotions might include sadness, anger, loneliness or even boredom.

Try welcoming these feelings, as though they were small children that you had lost and were rediscovering. Bring them close to your heart and treasure them, even if you have been taught that they are ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. Gorge yourself on these, and watch what happens to your eating.

 

If you’re feeling particularly black, and the shame is too great to approach friends or family, there are lots of support groups from Samaritans to Overeaters Anonymous who are full of compassion for those who are struggling. Please reach out.

 

I feel fat and panicky: Part 3

You can develop your own plan. It takes a lot more work that reading one in a magazine or buying one from a blog. I work with my clients to develop a plan that works for each of them.

Believe it or not, you already know exactly what will work for you. It’s just been buried beneath all the ‘shoulds’ and rules and guilt. Below all those rules and restrictions, beneath all of the body hatred and lack of trust, is a quiet voice, a still small voice of calm. This voice, the one that we bury with food, the one we don’t listen to, knows things about us that we couldn’t imagine.

It’s this voice that can help develop a way out of the maze of diets and restrictions, of overeating, feeling out of control and then trying to put the lid back on our appetites.

Any way forward, if it is to be successful, needs to be three things:

  • Kind
  • Enjoyable
  • Sustainable.

It needs to feel kind to ourselves – not punitive or restrictive, but loving and compassionate. Unless it is based on this, it’s destined for failure.

Enjoyable: when we enjoy things we do them, we stick to them. Think about what you enjoy eating, the foods that you love. Write a list of all of them and try to make it as long and comprehensive as possible. Then go through the list and think of how you feel when you eat those foods. If you don’t know, or can’t remember, then try them. Have the bowl of pasta and find out whether you feel energised and great afterwards, or tired and sleepy. It might be different on different days.

Sustainable means something that we can do every day. Rather than a diet, which is short term, this needs to be a plan that can last forever.

So, work out when it suits you to eat. When do you get hungry? Is your appetite highest in the morning or later in the day?

As you focus on your preferences for food and what, when and how you like to eat, start developing a plan around that. My clients do this, so that they nourish themselves in a way that works for them. For some, that means they aren’t that fussed about breakfast, whereas others wake up starving.

Make sure you include foods that you enjoy. If you really love chocolate, then banishing it is likely to result in a binge later. Give yourself permission to enjoy it when you really want it, as part of your plan.

 

 

I feel fat and panicky: Part 2

When we feel fat and ashamed, it’s natural to want to punish ourselves. After all, we ate the food, so it must be our fault that we aren’t as slim as we’d like to be. And a diet is the perfect way to both punish ourselves (by depriving ourselves of what and how we’d like to eat) and to gain control (as we’re scared of how much we might eat if we allowed ourselves) and to lose the weight.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like isn’t because we don’t have enough control. Its because we’ve been subjecting ourselves to TOO MUCH control. There are many many scientific studies that have shown that dietary restriction leads to excess eating, beyond the point of fullness, and beyond the body’s requirements.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like is BECAUSE we’ve been punishing ourselves – depriving ourselves of what we’d like to eat.

We’ve stopped trusting ourselves, stopped trusting our bodies. And the media reinforces this. It tells us that we can’t know what to eat. We need diets, or nutritionists, or television programmes to tell us. No matter that for thousands of years before these existed we managed fine. These days, we’ve been told we can’t be relied on.

If we want to lose weight, we need to eat less than we have been. And if we’re eating less, I recommend that we enjoy every mouthful.

So the first thing to do is to wait until you’re hungry. This again might make you feel panicky. It isn’t about deprivation – this is about listening to when your body is ready for food.

And once those feelings of hunger start, then take some time to imagine what you might like to eat. Chicken salad? Or do you really want something hot? Ask yourself what would make you feel satisfied. Give yourself permission to choose.

Allow yourself food. Tell yourself that you can not only pick what you eat, but that you can take time to enjoy it too. And once you have decided what you’d like, ensure that you sit down, at a table, with a plate, and savour every mouthful. Stop occasionally and ask yourself whether you’ve had enough. It might be tempting to eat more than you want to, because part of you will be scared that a diet is about to start, and it won’t get any more food.

The problem with dieting (or clean eating plans, or whatever we call them), is that we cheat on them. We cheat on them because we don’t like the food, or we get hungry or bored. Or because something happens that means we can’t stick to them: a late meeting, a family dinner, or we’re too busy to do all the preparation required.

And when we cheat then the shame envelops us – it makes us feel as though we’ll never accomplish anything, if we can’t get through a day sticking to the plan.

So how about a new plan? We’ll talk about how to come up with a new plan next time.

I feel fat and panicky and awful. Part 1

We all have those days (don’t we? Please tell me I’m not the only one…). The days where suddenly none of our clothes fit, when our stomachs bulge, and our upper arms take on the proportions of a Victorian cook pounding dough into submission. And speaking of dough – sometimes that’s exactly what springs to mind when we catch a glimpse of our thighs or our tummies.

Panic rises like vomit in our throats, and the only thing we can think of is to throw ourselves into another diet, to try and beat the body into submission. Because otherwise, we might eat the whole world and spill over our waistbands in a shameful show of excess: excess flesh, excess appetite.

Together with the panic comes a more insidious feeling: shame. We feel ashamed that we don’t look like the pictures in the magazines. We feel ashamed that we aren’t as slim as we used to be or could be. We feel ashamed of our bulges and rolls. We don’t want people to look at us, to touch us. We feel unworthy.

We feel as though we should be ‘in control’:

  • In control of our eating.
  • In control of our weight.
  • In control of our bodies and ourselves.

Yet we feel anything but. We feel as though all control has been lost. Some battle we didn’t even know we were fighting has been surrendered. Part of us wants to go and eat the world in revenge, for comfort, because we may as well, if we’re fat. No point in denying ourselves now.

And yet another part wants to strap on a straitjacket so tight that we’ll never move again. It wants to start a regimen strict enough that only the tiniest morsels will pass our lips, our hips will shrink until our bones show again. The unruly flesh with be controlled. The appetite will vanish.

Somehow, inside us, we know that this straitjacket, the diets or clean-eating and the self-loathing, the need for control, is part of the issue – it’s part of the reason we’re here, hating ourselves, feeling ashamed.

There is another way. A gentler way. How about we talk about that?

 

When we feel fat and ashamed, it’s natural to want to punish ourselves. After all, we ate the food, so it must be our fault that we aren’t as slim as we’d like to be. And a diet is the perfect way to both punish ourselves (by depriving ourselves of what and how we’d like to eat) and to gain control (as we’re scared of how much we might eat if we allowed ourselves) and to lose the weight.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like isn’t because we don’t have enough control. Its because we’ve been subjecting ourselves to TOO MUCH control. There are many many scientific studies that have shown that dietary restriction leads to excess eating, beyond the point of fullness, and beyond the body’s requirements.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like is BECAUSE we’ve been punishing ourselves – depriving ourselves of what we’d like to eat.

We’ve stopped trusting ourselves, stopped trusting our bodies. And the media reinforces this. It tells us that we can’t know what to eat. We need diets, or nutritionists, or television programmes to tell us. No matter that for thousands of years before these existed we managed fine. These days, we’ve been told we can’t be relied on.

If we want to lose weight, we need to eat less than we have been. And if we’re eating less, I recommend that we enjoy every mouthful.

So the first thing to do is to wait until you’re hungry. This again might make you feel panicky. It isn’t about deprivation – this is about listening to when your body is ready for food.

And once those feelings of hunger start, then take some time to imagine what you might like to eat. Chicken salad? Or do you really want something hot? Ask yourself what would make you feel satisfied. Give yourself permission to choose.

Allow yourself food. Tell yourself that you can not only pick what you eat, but that you can take time to enjoy it too. And once you have decided what you’d like, ensure that you sit down, at a table, with a plate, and savour every mouthful. Stop occasionally and ask yourself whether you’ve had enough. It might be tempting to eat more than you want to, because part of you will be scared that a diet is about to start, and it won’t get any more food.

The problem with dieting (or clean eating plans, or whatever we call them), is that we cheat on them. We cheat on them because we don’t like the food, or we get hungry or bored. Or because something happens that means we can’t stick to them: a late meeting, a family dinner, or we’re too busy to do all the preparation required.

And when we cheat then the shame envelops us – it makes us feel as though we’ll never accomplish anything, if we can’t get through a day sticking to the plan.

So how about a new plan? We’ll talk about how to come up with a new plan next time.

 

You can develop your own diet plan. It takes a lot more work that reading one in a magazine or buying one from a blog. I work with my clients to develop a plan that works for each of them.

Believe it or not, you already know exactly what will work for you. It’s just been buried beneath all the ‘shoulds’ and rules and guilt.

 

 

If you’re feeling fat, the shame that accompanies this can be a terrible sensation. It extends beyond the physical and makes us feel that the whole of us is unworthy, that something is wrong with us as a person.

Dealing with these feelings is an important part of getting back to an even keel, as these feelings of self disgust can cause us to eat even more. We feel like giving up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is gluten bad?

There’s a lot of press around gluten, and many people are now avoiding it. Some writers have associated it with bloating, weight gain and ill health and none of us want those things! So surely, avoidance is best?

Not so fast…

There is clear evidence that gluten is very damaging to those who have Coeliac Disease. But there is no evidence that either gluten or grains are bad for the rest of us, despite books like ‘Grain Brain’.

So what does science show beyond doubt? (very little, actually).

It shows that high fibre diets, that include whole grains (and gluten) are very beneficial for health as they help ward of cancer and heart disease. Increasingly, it looks as though part of the reason is because they encourage beneficial microbiome (gut bacteria).

What about if you think you have a reaction to gluten?

Many experiments have been run on people who have a diagnosed gluten-intolerance, and when given gluten in random doses, they displayed no reaction to it. So it looks as though something else is going on, but what?

Firstly, any carbohydrate consumed in a large quantity will cause bloating, and as our portion sizes are now completely out of whack, it’s hard to know when to stop. We’re talking half a bagel, or one to two slices of bread (depending on the size of the slice and the loaf). That’s a serving, and some of us are feeling bloated because we’re eating too much.

Secondly, in some instances, the use of herbicides on the grain prior to harvesting (yes, this is common practice in some countries, especially America – where wheat is sprayed with Glyphosate a few days before harvest to make it easier because the wheat is already dying). These herbicides remain in the grain and do us no favours at all.

Thirdly, highly processed carbs don’t always sit well in the body.

Many people are fine with barley and oats – both whole grains that contain gluten.

It seems that the gluten itself isn’t a problem for most people, but some of the processing of the grain might be.

What suits your body?

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