The holidays will soon be over but by all indications the pandemic won’t be. What that means is that you can’t wait for the all-clear from the CDC to begin getting your life in order. And one of the most obvious, and yes, visible, reminders that COVID has done a number on our well-being is the extra pounds many people are carrying around, the end-result of a more stressed-out sedentary lifestyle, heavy on the high-carb comfort foods (which feel anything but comfortable when they come to rest around your middle).
So, even though we’re heading straight into the holiday over-eating season, now’s the time to take (or re-take) control of your diet and your weight. Not only will that benefit your metabolic health — as in, lower blood sugar, a more robust fat-burning system, less belly fat and the health problems it triggers — but, more than likely, it will lift your mood and energy as well. Getting a handle on weight now is an excellent way to turn the vicious circle of the pandemic (more pounds, more blues, less physical activity) into the “virtuous circle” of enhanced health and wellness — and hopefully, a lighter and brighter 2022.
But how? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do – and that’s dive into a diet that aggressively restricts the kinds of food you can eat, often to the point of on-going hunger. That’s a recipe for failure, not to mention disordered eating. Then, when you come off the ‘diet’, typically the pounds pile back on and you’ll be tempted to chuck the whole effort. In fact, some studies have shown that people who have tried multiple diets over the years are more likely to end up gaining more weight than those who never dieted at all.
The wisest and healthiest approach, and over the long haul, the most successful one, begins with reexamining your relationship to food, rethinking your eating habits and upgrading those habits across the board. Here are the hallmarks of a healthy approach to diet and weight – and how to start getting back on track:
1) Junk the junk — and forget about ‘calorie-counting’.
By now, you’ve probably absorbed the idea that a diet that’s built around non-starchy veggies, especially greens, healthy fats and organic animal protein (if you’re not vegan or vegetarian) is a lot better for your health than a supermarket frozen dinner or takeout from the local burger joint.
If you’re still counting calories like your mom may have done back in the ‘90s, just ‘fuggedaboutit.’ It’s an utterly outdated way to manage what you eat. For example, a pint of delicious blueberries comes loaded with satiating fiber, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, the works, whereas the same amount, calorically-speaking, of Doritos comes with none of that, plus chemicals, allergens, salt, unhealthy fats, the bad-for-your-body list goes on. But wait, isn’t a calorie just a calorie? In a word, no – which is why I encourage all my patients to put away the calculator, stop calorie counting, point tracking and all that nonsense! Quality is what counts – what’s inside matters.
In fact, an important NIH study found that when two study groups ate from different menus over the course of a month – one group eating processed foods and the other eating fresh, whole foods – the group on the processed meal plan ate, on average, 500 more calories a day. What’s the takeaway here? The sugar and industrial oils in processed food doesn’t just clog the arteries, they add inches to the waistline. (And you’re hungry again an hour later – the worst of all worlds!)
2) Eat for volume.
Whole foods, non-starchy veggies especially, deliver a valuable payload of health-enhancing nutrients to the system. Their high fiber and water content means they also take up a lot of room in the stomach. Nutritionists call them “high-volume” foods — they’re great for creating downside-free feelings of satiety, or fullness, which is why we’re such fans of real, whole foods. It’s as if they come with their own built-in ‘put-the-fork-down’ mechanism.
3) Listen to your body – and your food.
Your body knows what it wants and needs, if you take the time to listen to it! So, pay attention when you’re eating. Focus more on the food and minimize distractions, as in turn off the TV, radio, podcast, etc., slow down and savor each bite. Note the difference between no longer feeling hungry (what you want) and feeling full or overstuffed (what you don’t want). An adage from traditional Okinawan culture may come in handy, hara hachi bu, which translates to, “eat until you’re 80% full.”
When you eat in a slow and mindful way, you give the satiety hormones circulating in your gut time to tell the brain that the body is satisfied. If, after your meal, you feel like an extra serving, wait 10 minutes. You’ll often find the feeling passes. Let true hunger be your guide. If you’re still hungry and a second helping is in order, toss in a small scoop or two of the ‘eens,’ as in greens and proteins, to satisfy rather than overstuff. Filling up initially or “frontloading” on protein and non-starchy veggies throughout the holiday will go a long way towards keeping your weight in check.
Another holiday, and for that matter, beyond the holidays, tip: don’t eat when you’re not hungry just because the clock says it’s mealtime, and don’t keep eating when you’re no longer hungry just because there’s still food on your plate. (That’s why the food gods invented left-overs.) By the same token, don’t ignore hunger until you’re ravenous. Do that and you’ll likely overeat, flooding your system with too much food too fast (and probably some junky stuff too), much of which will get stored as fat.
4) Be mindful when you eat
A lot of overeating isn’t to satisfy hunger or a craving for a particular treat food. It’s just something to do, aka, mindless grazing. The antidote is a mindful approach to food. Start by kicking the auto-pilot snacking, and the crappy-for-you packaged snack foods that may be all too available at home or in the office, or replace them with low-cal, high-nutrition alternatives, like chopped raw veggies such as carrots or bell peppers, a handful of blueberries or a small square of very dark chocolate (75% cacao and up).
After you’ve brought your snacking to heel (tapering off over time if that’s your style), focus your attention on the meals you eat each day. Make them count. Prepare them with the healthiest, freshest ingredients you can find, and when you eat them, really eat them, tasting and enjoying the combination of flavors. Pour on spices to add depth, interest and delicious scents. A good meal – ideally, every one you eat – should be a sensual experience – a feast for the tastebuds, your nose and your eyes. Make eating a small celebration that we get to do two or three times a day – and not six times a day, which, even if portions are healthy and small, studies have shown can lead to increased appetite.
5) Good sleep can help keep you slim.
Ever notice how bad sleep at night can make you feel ravenous the next day? Whereas a good night’s sleep sets you up for a day of healthy, in-control eating? There’s a reason for that, and it’s all about the hormones. Poor or inadequate sleep drives up the body’s chief stress hormone, cortisol, which trips us up in two ways. Not only does it pump up cravings for high-cal and high-carb foods (I’m looking at you, sugar), it also pushes up insulin levels, shifting your metabolism towards fat storage and away from burning food calories for immediate energy. (The technical term for this is “insulin resistance.”)
6) It’s not just what you eat, it’s when you eat.
Recent research has highlighted the importance both of eating earlier in the day – known as “time-restricted eating” – and creating an 6-8 hour eating window, stretching out the time between your last meal of the day, and your ‘break-fast’ in the morning. When we consume most of our calories earlier in the day, for instance, not eating dinner after 6, we’re matching our meals to our natural circadian rhythms.
Our metabolism burns calories more efficiently during the day than at night, so more of the food we eat gets burned for fuel, less get stored as fat, simply by paying more attention to your timing. A big dinner late at night is the worst of all possible worlds. And when we increase the time between meals – easily done if we eat an early dinner and a later breakfast, or skip breakfast altogether – that gives our metabolism a mild, healthy stress. Our cells respond by becoming more sensitive to insulin, able to burn more calories with less insulin, with fewer calories sent into fat storage.
7) Exercise isn’t a license to eat crap.
My observation has been that even those folks who are still calorie-conscious, tend to overestimate the number of calories they burn with exercise, and underestimate what they consume when they eat. Running a mile burns about the same amount of calories you get in a single cookie, so if you’re planning to sweat off the extra pounds you gained during the pandemic, you’ll be running for quite a while! Don’t get me wrong though – exercise is great for you for a thousand reasons, but losing weight isn’t one of them. In my practice, most of the time weight gain isn’t due to not exercising enough, it’s usually a hormonal response to what you eat.
In the final analysis, you still need to be conscious of what, when and sometimes, even how much you’re eating. But getting regular exercise or, as I like to say, building movement into your life, can be helpful to maintain a healthy weight, or to keep weight off that you may have lost by rehabbing your eating habits. And that movement doesn’t have to take place in a gym. Regular walking or gardening or vigorous housework or playing with the kids all count. Be as active as possible throughout the day, rather than exhaust yourself in a couple of gym or track workouts and then spend the rest of your week in front of a screen or on the couch.