What’s the Best Diet? To Stop Being on a Diet.

Rania Dempsey, MD, MS | September 19, 2020
 

Americans spent more than $70 billion last year on diet programs and products, but despite this the US has the highest obesity rate among developed nations, with over 2/3 of people overweight or obese. Clearly our diets aren’t working, but why?

There are multiple factors that have contributed to our obesity epidemic, but a major cause is the way we eat. In nature it is virtually impossible for animals to become overweight. Free from man-made interference, animals, including humans, eat the type and amount of foods they need for nourishment. Limited access to food in nature (and the fact that it has to be hunted or gathered, which requires physical activity) helps keep food intake in line with what’s needed for any given activity level. In this natural state, the body sends reliable signals to the brain about what, when and how much to eat in order to maintain health.

But for humans eating the predominantly man-made Standard American Diet (SAD), these signals are disrupted. The SAD is mostly made up of highly processed foods containing more concentrated sugar and fat than would ever exist in nature, and these foods fool the brain into craving food when the body doesn’t need nourishment, or not feeling hungry when actually lacking nutrients. In a disturbing but fascinating exploration of the commercial food industry, Michael Moss exposed how addicting processed foods really are, and revealed that they are actually engineered to override the body’s natural mechanisms that regulate when to stop eating. Disrupted hunger and fullness signals also lead to eating for other types of “hunger,” such as loneliness, stress, or emotional pain.

What’s more, the timing of how we eat interferes with natural hunger and fullness signals. Unlike our ancestors who hunted and gathered their food and ate only at the intermittent times that food was available, in the US today we can graze constantly, with 24/7 access to food. It’s not uncommon to grab a bag of chips to eat in front of the TV in the middle of the evening, or to have a late-night snack at midnight. With frequent grazing, though, our bodies don’t experience the hunger-eating-satisfaction cycles that occurred in our ancestors, and we have lost touch with what physical hunger and fullness signals actually feel like.

What this means is the body is constantly receiving messages from the brain to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. The premise of “dieting” is to resist these cravings through willpower and force, by restricting food choices and limiting food intake: if you are strong enough to ignore cravings, you eat the foods you are “supposed” to and finally lose weight. But as anyone who’s tried to lose weight and keep it off from dieting knows, being in a state of forced willpower for the rest of your life is just not sustainable. Even the strongest of wills eventually succumbs to the cravings, bringing guilt and shame at the seeming failure.

So how do you get out of the cravings/restriction/guilt cycle to a place where you can trust and listen to your body? You change your relationship with food. At the deepest level, your body knows when, what, and how much to eat. But because modern day food and eating patterns override the body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, the body needs retraining to eat healthfully in today’s world. The key to this is learning to eat mindfully.

 

Practicing mindful eating

Mindfulness—the act of bringing awareness without judgement to your thoughts, feelings, sensations and environment—can be practiced in all areas of life, including choosing and experiencing food. Mindful eating helps you eat more intuitively, as you notice and respond to your body’s physical hunger and fullness cues. When you eat mindfully, you don’t restrict what you’re eating; instead you bring conscious awareness to the experience of choosing and eating food. Mindful eating is at the foundation of a healthy relationship with food.

 

Start with a schedule

It seems counterintuitive, but the first step toward mindful eating is adopting a framework for eating at specific times during the day. This helps reset your body’s hunger and fullness cues and ensures that you have enough time between meals to recognize the sensation of physical hunger, without waiting so long between eating that you are ravenous and overeat later in the day. Experienced mindful eaters can be more flexible with timing of meals and snacks, but in the short term as your body is relearning to accurately recognize hunger and fullness signals, try to follow a plan that provides structure and consistency. Use these general guidelines to develop a plan that fits your life and schedule:

 

Breakfast:

Eating breakfast is difficult for some people, (“I just don’t feel hungry”) but it is critical to jumpstart your day and your metabolism with at least some nourishment. Skipping breakfast, even if you don’t feel very hungry, sends your body into “scarcity” mode, slowing your metabolism and leading to overeating later in the day. Aim to eat within 60 minutes of awakening, and try to include fiber, fat, and protein in your meal. Breakfast doesn’t need to be big or complicated: apple slices with peanut butter, or sprouted grain toast with mashed avocado are great choices, or try a breakfast smoothie (recipes here, here, and here). If you are exercising in the morning, eat a small breakfast before you begin your workout. This will not only get your metabolism pumped up, it will also give you the energy you need to make sure you get a great workout. And whether or not you’re a coffee drinker, be sure to start your day with plenty of water.

 

Mid-morning snack:

A mid-morning snack, typically 2-3 hours after breakfast, is particularly important for those who exercise in the morning, but even if you aren’t a morning exerciser, a mid-morning snack helps satisfy until lunch time.

 

Lunch:

Aim to have lunch another 2-3 hours later, or about 4-5 hours after breakfast.

 

Mid-afternoon snack:

Have a small mid- to late-afternoon snack, about 3 hours after lunch, to avoid feeling famished by dinner time.

 

Dinner:

Time your dinner so that you are finished eating at least 3-4 hours before your go to bed. This will aid digestion and help you get more restful sleep. Unless you have a medical condition or your doctor has told you otherwise, avoid eating again after dinner until breakfast the next day, providing a natural 12- to 16-hour period of fasting overnight.

 

Remember, your schedule outlines when you eat, but at each of the designated times you decide how much to eat based on how hungry you feel. When you’re starting out, be sure to eat at least something at each chosen time, and avoid eating anything between designated times.

 

Eat whole real food, and be gentle on yourself when you don’t

Eating foods as close as possible to the way they are found in nature (unprocessed, with nothing artificial added and nothing nutritious stripped away) helps reset the body’s natural mechanisms regulating food intake. When you eat real unprocessed food, your body is able to send accurate signals to your brain about what foods you need and about when and how much to eat.

But wait…doesn’t that put you right back into the restriction mindset?  Remember, you are not striving to eliminate or restrict junk food. Instead you are focusing on adding in more whole, real foods at every meal and snack time. Evidence shows that adding in more whole unprocessed plant foods (and all the fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that come in those foods), whether or not you try to get rid of “junk food,” helps regulate hunger cues and establish healthy eating patterns.

What about those times when a handful of Swedish Fish or a bag of Flamin Hot Limon Doritos is calling your name? Be gentle on yourself. Release any shame that comes with eating something you think you “shouldn’t.” Shame and self-criticism can create a cycle of feeling unworthy that actually makes it more difficult to trust and listen to your body. Instead, embrace the times you choose to have “treats,” and enjoy them fully and mindfully.

 

Whatever you choose, eat it mindfully

What does it mean to eat something “mindfully”? Here are a few practical tips:

  • Whenever possible, sit down at a table when eating. If you do eat while driving or standing, pause and make a conscious decision to eat with awareness and intention (hint: this generally means not eating directly out of the ice cream carton in front of an open freezer door, or stress eating an entire bowl of popcorn without realizing you’re eating).
  • Turn off the television and minimize other distractions when eating. Don’t eat in front of a TV, computer screen, or while on your phone.
  • Before eating, check in with the sensation of hunger in your body. Is it true physical hunger, or is it an attempt to soothe feelings of emotional hunger? Notice the triggers that make you want to eat when you’re not physically hungry, and realize that you are free to pick a different response.
  • Recognize that food is a source of connection to self, others, and the Earth. Reflect on all the steps and people involved in getting your food onto your plate. Observe how the act of eating connects you to the people involved in growing, transporting, selling and preparing your food, and to the earth from which the food came. Notice how you care for and honor yourself by choosing delicious and nourishing foods you enjoy.
  • Whenever you eat—even just a snack or treat—begin with gratitude.
  • As you begin eating, take a deep breath and be present with your physical surroundings…notice the sights, sounds, smells, and physical environment around you.
  • No matter what you are eating, engage all your senses to savor your food: As you bite, chew, and swallow, notice how each bite looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels in your mouth. Do this intentionally for each bite before taking the next.
  • Notice the sensation of hunger in your body transitioning to a sensation of satisfaction during and after eating. Pause and refrain from eating if you notice you feel “full”.

 

Eating mindfully will help you get out of the dieting mindset and improve your relationship with food. If the change feels daunting, try starting with eating just one meal per day mindfully. As it becomes more natural, focus on practicing mindful eating at more meals.