How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

How did the packet end up empty?

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway, and realised that you have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the journey? Perhaps you commute to work, and you find yourself at your desk, with minimal or no recollection of the various trains or buses you took.

When behaviours become habitual, or regular, our brains relegate them to the subconscious. We don’t need to focus on them, so the brain allows our consciousness to focus on something else: our phone, our worries, our plans.

Unfortunately, this same mechanism can come into play when we have regular eating habits or addictions.

The brain is used to us thinking: “Hmm, that was a stressful day. I really could use some … (insert ‘comfort food of choice’)…” And it knows exactly how to get us to the shop to buy some, and get the food into our bags and then into our mouths.

Many people have told me that they have believed that they were sticking rigorously to their diet, only to find themselves sitting on their couch with an empty food packet on their lap, and no idea of how it happened.

One of my first clients was a Mum called Maureen. She would insist that she ate without realising it. “I opened the packet, it was a packet of granola. I buy it for my kids, I don’t eat it, it’s too fattening. But I just wanted one of those banana chips, so I opened it to find one of those. There was one at the top, and I ate it. I recall delving back into the bag for a particularly large clump with a sultana in it. And the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes or more had passed, and the bag was half empty. I honestly don’t remember doing it!”

The brain has well-worn paths. It is used to a flood of sugar at certain points in the day, and can turn off your consciousness while your preprogrammed behaviour runs, acquiring the substance, and then ingesting it, all without realising it.

I have, in the past, sworn off sugar, only to have a friend point out the chocolate I was shovelling into my mouth from the bowl on her table. It was in front of me, and my hand reached for it, bypassing all my declarations that I was never going to eat it again. A tad embarrassing.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to deal with this.

When Food is Love…

Some foods can feel like love. They fill us, soothe us, comfort us. They are there for us after a hard day, no matter what. A few mouthfuls later and a sensation of bliss flows through our bodies. It can feel as safe and nurturing as a mother’s embrace, as sublime as a lover’s kiss.

Often, these are foods we have learned to crave since childhood. Strong memories and associations underpin some of the meanings they hold for us. Somewhere in the past we have had experiences where we made a connection between the food and the emotions.

A friend told me: “I’m going home and I just know that Mum is going to ply me with cake. She’ll have baked just for me, and I both want to gorge myself on it, and want to refuse it. Because I’ll feel crap the next day.”

Who wouldn’t want to gorge themselves on their mother’s love? To feel replete with worthiness, safe as a fluffy chick in a nest.

But food isn’t love. And cake isn’t worthiness.

They can feel similar physically, which is part of the mix-up. Both trigger dopamine, and can release endorphins and other chemicals that do indeed make us ‘feel better’. We have a physiological response both to hugs and love, and to certain foods, and that response in our body is close enough for us to get confused. In fact, it not only gets us confused, it can make us rely on  one when the other (usually love) isn’t available, or doesn’t feel like it is.

One of the first things we can do is to recognise that we have conflated the two, confused ourselves by mixing love into the pie.

Then, if we find ourselves turning to food, when what we really want is love, we need to ask what else might serve in its place? Would curling up under a blanket do it? Or walking in nature? Do you need to be with a friend, even if its on the other end of the phone? Or can you bear to be with yourself, take your need for love and treasure it, and love that need in yourself enough that all thoughts of cake fade away?

 

Struggling to eat healthily on a budget?

This article in The Guardian describes a weekly shop for £20 (US$26 or AU$36) together with recipes that look delicious. In a bid to reduce food waste, and therefore help our environment, the inventive meals mean that nothing is thrown away.

There are pancakes and porridge for breakfast followed an enticing pasta dish with pesto and vegetables for lunch.

Dinner is a spectacular vegetable dish.

I love the way this looks after the planet, our wallets and our waistlines. Very few ways of eating balance all three. The Paleo and low carb diets are very hard on the environment, as eating meat is the single most detrimental thing any of us do. If you’re interested you can read more here. Supplements and shakes and pre-prepared foods are expensive.

And here is a simple way to look after all three.

Need inspiration? Check out the article.

Should I avoid carbs in the evening?

Some of us try to avoid carbohydrates in the evening, in the hope that it will help us lose weight. We’re told that we’re going to sleep soon, so anything we eat later in the day will just be stored as fat. If we want to eat carbohydrates, then we should eat them earlier, for breakfast, when we are going to burn them off.

Is this true?

The body doesn’t really work like that. If you eat more than you need on any given day, it will be stored as fat, whether it’s carbs you’ve eaten, or fat or even protein. Consume more calories than you’re burning and your body will store it. And it will store it as fat, even if you eat it all at breakfast.

Basically, your body works on physics. It’s a ‘closed system’ and the energy that goes in (food and drink) will be either stored as mass (fat or muscle) or burned as energy (either metabolic processes or exercise).

If you are training hard, are eating a set number of calories and have all of your ‘macros’ down pat (ie the proportions of fat, protein and carbs), then the timing of the carbs might make a small difference. But lets face it, very few of us are doing that.

What matters most to our bodies is calories. Clearly, a more nutrient-dense option is going to be better for our health (brown bread over white). However, if you really want carbs in the evening, then going without is probably going to lead to overeating later.

I really enjoy carbs in the evening. They help the brain release Serotonin, which is a relaxant and anti-depressant. They help me sleep. And I like a bigger meal then. It suits me and if it’s your preference too, then there is no reason not to have it.

What does suit you? Do you like carbs at night?

The Potato: 19 lumps of sugar or superfood?

This appeared in the British media a few days ago:
“The nation’s obesity crisis is partly being fuelled by the seemingly harmless potato.
Scientists have found a single baked spud contains the equivalent of 19 lumps of sugar.”
 
Five years ago, in the same press:
“Ignored by dieters because they are ‘fattening’, few would class the potato as a ‘wonder food’ packed full of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
But the spud is actually better for the body than traditional superfoods – such as bananas, broccoli, beetroot, nuts and avocado, a study has found.
The researchers said people are wrong to shun it in favour of modern and more expensive alternatives.”
 
No wonder we are all confused about what to eat…
 
So what are the facts?
 
Potatoes are high in fibre (more than five times the amount in a banana), vitamin C (more than in an orange) and Selenium, an important mineral for immune health. There is also some evidence that they may lower blood pressure.
 
However, they have a high glycemic load, which means that the energy in them (carbohydrates) is released quickly, which leads to a spike in insulin. This isn’t great for weight management, as it can set off a roller coaster of sugar and insulin. Eating protein with the potato would minimise this effect.
 
Sweet potatoes have a much lower glycemic load, and are possibly a choice that is easier on the body. Although that isn’t going to help if you really fancy a potato: baked, mashed, boiled or in a salad.
 
A potato is neither going to kill us or rescue our health. It’s just a potato.

What are you hungry for?

What are you hungry for? Are you hungry at all?

Perhaps you’re not hungry, but neither are you satisfied with what you’ve eaten – you ate a salad when you wanted something hot and filling, believing that the salad would be ‘better for you’. And instead, all you want to do is eat more.

Perhaps you are scared of feeling hungry, and don’t dare let yourself feel it? In case the hunger is so great that you eat everything in sight…

Or is it sugar craving driving you, not hunger at all? A roller coaster ride of insulin and glucose: sedated on carbs one minute and desperate for another fix the next.

Maybe you’re actually hungry for recognition, or a new job, or a bit of encouragement. But that isn’t forthcoming, so a biscuit will have to do.

It can be worthwhile to sit for a moment, and to allow quietness to settle into your limbs, so that you can ask your stomach, your heart, your being: what am I hungry for?

And then give yourself permission to have it.

Can you lose weight without eating healthily?

Can you lose weight on junk food? The answer is a very easy ‘yes’, as long as your energy intake is less than your expenditure.

In fact, a number of scientists (all of them men, strangely) have proved just this. What is even more interesting, is that although their diet was very poor, all of their health measures improved, just from the simple act of reducing their weight.

Mark Haub,  an associate professor at Kansas State University, lost 12.1 kilograms from his original 91.3-kilogram body weight on a junk food diet. His blood pressure and other measures all improved. The but (and it’s a big one) is that he carefully controlled his calorie intake to a maximum of 1800 calories (7531 kilojoules) a day. 

On September 10, he ate:

          a double espresso

          two servings of Hostess Twinkies Golden Sponge Cake

          one Centrum Advance Formula “From A To Zinc” pill

          one serving of Little Debbie Star Crunch cookies

          a Diet Mr Dew drink

          half a serving of Doritos Cool Ranch corn chips

          two servings of Kellogg’s Corn Pops cereal

          a serving of whole milk

          half a serving of raw baby carrots

         one and a half servings of Duncan Hines Family Style Chewy Fudge brownie

          half a serving of Little Debbie Zebra Cake

          one serving of Muscle Milk Protein Shake drink

          Total: 1589 calories

So it seems that weight reduction can be more important for our health than the perfect diet. At least in the short term.

Which means we can all relax a bit. We don’t have to eat perfectly. We can allow ourselves to eat those foods that we really enjoy, even if they aren’t on any nutritionist’s list. Let us permit ourselves to enjoy them, give ourselves the time to savour them, and in doing so, rid ourselves of ‘forbidden’ foods that can haunt more powerfully than any ghost.

Should I eat breakfast? Intermittent fasting versus metabolism kick start…

I was asked this week ‘Should I eat breakfast?’

For a long while, the received wisdom has been: Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper. Or as the Russian saying goes: Eat your breakfast alone, lunch with a friend but give your dinner to your enemy…

Breakfast was promised to get your metabolism going and keep you focused for the morning.

Then along came intermittent fasting, and we’re being advised to wait as long as possible before eating, ideally 16 hours after our meal the night before. By doing this, we benefit from some of the processes that kick in once our bodies haven’t eaten for a while: these processes clean out suspect cells which keeps cancer, Alzheimers and other diseases at bay.

So which is true? Are either of them?

Firstly, your metabolism will get going whether you have breakfast or not – your body needs to function, and function it will. If you’re used to having breakfast, you might need to get used to eat later, but it’ll be hunger pangs that strike you, not a metabolic catastrophe.

As to whether breakfast is a good idea or not, it seems that nothing is true for everyone. Even the most compelling studies show a distribution of results. Some things work for some people, and not for others. Our genetics, our microbiome and our environments are all so different that how these things affect us is entirely individual.

If you are ravenous when you wake up, then it would be advisable to have breakfast. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the cookie jar before the day has even started. If, on the other hand, you’re not hungry, then why would you eat? Why not wait until hunger pangs start, and if that’s not until late in the morning, and you can wait until lunch, perhaps you’re one of the people for whom intermittent fasting will work.

If you’ve had a large breakfast, you might be the type of person who isn’t so bothered about dinner, and if you will want to try fasting for 16 hours, then it might suit you better to do it at the end of the day.

There are no rules – have a try and see what suits you.

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