Let me make myself 100% clear:
I think it is unhelpful to tell hungry fat people to eat less. However, I am absolutely convinced that the desired behavior is for them to eat less, and by “less ” I mean fewer calories, especially from refined and processed foods. Although we can argue about all the factors that contribute to weight gain, an excessive intake of calories is clearly at least one of them. Interestingly, in the process of eating fewer calories one may end up eating a greater volume of food and a lot more nutrients, and that is a good thing and just goes to show that just saying “eat less” without explaining what you mean by that and how to achieve it is pointless.
I do not defend overeating, but I do seek to understand it. My quest for understanding begins with myself. It has lead me to the conclusion that although the desired outcome is that I eat fewer calories, this is unachievable without first addressing the problem of hunger.
Here’s what I know: If you are hungry and you have access to food, sooner or later you are going to eat. What is more, the hungrier you are by the time you give in to the urge to eat, the more you are likely to overeat and the less healthy and rational your food choices will be. That’s the bad news. On the flip side, the good news is that if you eat in such a way that you are nourished and satisfied and your hunger is well managed then you will be able to eat more appropriate amounts relatively easily. Of course while it is quite possible to overeat when you are NOT hungry purely because food is there and it tastes good, it is not inevitable and it becomes relevant to talk about things like will power, self control and common sense. However, if you are hungry all of that goes out of the window and you can no more prevent yourself from overeating than you can hold your breath indefinitely.
So here are the top 10 things that work for me. As I write this I am grateful that I can afford to eat in this way and embarrassed that I squandered this privilege by eating badly when there are people in the world that genuinely have nothing to eat or are unable to afford healthy food. My experience of hunger and obesity is very much a problem of affluence, and fortunately the solution is also within my grasp because of my privileged economic position. In future posts I will write about how much more complicated the problem becomes when poverty is factored into the equation.
1) Eat a hearty breakfast as soon after waking as possible. I know your mother already told you this, but this one really is non-negotiable! According to the National Weight Control Registry 78% of people who maintain their weight loss in the long term eat breakfast every day. There are many reasons for eating breakfast including: kick starting your metabolism for the day, maintaining energy and blood sugar levels etc. The main reason for me is that it is at breakfast where the battle against hunger for the day is won or lost. I was one of the “not hungry for breakfast” people who then started bingeing on refined carbs from midmorning until bedtime. The thought of food first thing in the morning made me nauseous. Now my stomach screams for breakfast like an angry baby until it is fed, and then my appetite gradually tapers off throughout the day until by evening I am done with food and ready to close the kitchen. I have gone from eating my main meal at night, followed by incessant mindless snacking in front of the TV to not even particularly needing to eat an evening meal and being perfectly comfortable with a salad or an apple. I did NOT do this by deciding to eat less at night. I did it by eating more for breakfast!
2) Drink Water! Especially: First thing when you wake up (with some lemon juice if you like) and half an hour before meals. Then drink as much throughout the day as possible. By drinking more water I have stopped drinking other beverages including fruit juice and diet soda (do I even need to bother to mention regular soda?). I don’t talk a lot about “cutting out” anything from my diet except when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened drinks. These simply have to go and a habit of water drinking is critical to success.
3) Eat at regular intervals throughout the day. Don’t allow yourself to become hungry before you eat but don’t eat past the point of satiety either. End the meal when you feel comfortable, but not “stuffed.” Initially I found that three meals and two snacks worked well for me but now I struggle to manage more than two meals and one to two snacks. My schedule is: Breakfast first thing, mid morning snack, lunch, light supper. I didn’t decide that I would eat fewer meals and snacks. I ate more earlier in the day and ended up eating less by default because it’s all I can manage.
4) Include a lean protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and plenty of fiber with every meal. Bulk out the meal as much as possible with non-starchy vegetables. This combination works best because you get a sustained feeling of fullness, both from the quantity of food and the composition. I measure proteins, fats and carbohydrates very carefully and throw caution to the wind when piling on the non starchy vegetables. I find that if I just eat a big plate of steamed vegetables I still get hungry, but if I include appropriate portions of protein and fat and occasionally some whole grains, I am sated until my next meal. I also make sure to include protein with every snack.
5) Limit your intake of grains and make sure they are really whole grains. I say this because the more grains I eat the more I want to eat. Basically they make me hungrier! They also push my blood sugar too high. Now I know that there is a lot of talk about going gluten free or grain free these days, and if that works for you good and well. I just don’t feel good on a completely grain free diet, both physically and in terms of satisfaction with my meals. However, I do make sure that I buy my grains from good sources, and prepare them myself. I have also tried to make sure I eat diverse grains and severely restrict my intake of wheat and corn. Learning to cook with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth has been fun and enjoyable. I do not eat any grain-based food product from a supermarket or convenience store because I just don’t trust it and I try to eat no more than 2 measured portions of whole grains a day.
6) Smoothies, Soups and Salads are your best friends and can form the basis of your meal plan. I love all three because they are satisfying, bulky and an easy way to introduce major nutritional variety. If I am short of ideas on what to eat I will have a smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and a salad for supper.
7) While you are still trying to control hunger, there are some great low cal or no cal options to create a feeling of fullness in-between meals and snacks. My favorites are: Green Tea – the warmth relaxes my stomach and takes away the stab-you-in-the-gut-and-laugh hunger pang! Soaked Chia seeds – full of Omega 3, soluble fiber and other goodies and great for filling up a belly for relatively few calories. Non-starchy vegetables for an eat as much as you like buffet!
8) Don’t cut out food from your diet, crowd it out! Once you have a good understanding of what you should be eating on a daily basis, the foods you shouldn’t be eating almost become a non-issue. Don’t obsess about what you will be missing out on, and rather think about all the delicious food you are going to stock up on and enjoy from day to day. Make sure there is no room in your budget, your trolley, your kitchen cupboards and, above all, your tummy for the wrong types of food! If you eat something on a regular basis, make it earn its place in your diet. Research its nutritional profile, understand what it does to your hormones, and make sure its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. If a food is not worthy of a regular place in your diet, don’t have it in your home. Make sure home is a “safe eating” zone. This ensures that foods that should only be eaten as occasional treats are not easily accessible and tempting. We all face enough temptations as we live in the real world and we certainly don’t need them in our own kitchens!
Before starting with this approach my relationship with food was troubled to say the least. I didn’t like to think about food. I never cooked, and seldom did grocery shopping. I could never tell you in advance what I was going to eat for my next meal, and when you asked me what I felt like eating I would struggle to tell you, although it definitely wasn’t “vegetables!” I lived from meal to meal – ate at a restaurant, got take out and if I did prepare something it was usually a sandwich. Worst of all, although I craved it constantly, I didn’t actually enjoy my food, even the so-called delicious junk food. Now I know exactly what I am going to eat, grocery shopping is done decisively and with military precision and I really look forward to every meal!
9) Every meal should be utterly delicious and fill you with pleasure and delight. I am finally beginning to figure it out – in addition to managing hunger and eliminating cravings, it is really important to me to love the food I eat! People who struggle with weight often develop a lot of emotional issues round food that involve shame, guilt and obsessive compulsive behaviors and erroneously conclude that they are “bad” for liking food so much and that they need to suppress their appetites and put food as far out of their mind as possible. Extreme dieting can just be another part of this dysfunctional dynamic. Sooner or later your body will rebel and force you do perform the basic functions you need to stay alive, be it breathing or eating. Learning that it is healthy and normal to openly love food and derive pleasure from enjoying it is a big part of adopting a sustainable, healthy eating plan. There are so many healthy foods that deserve a place in our diets, so if you aren’t enjoying your bill of fare, keep trying out different foods and experimenting. See “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Jonny Bowden for ideas.
10) Prepare your own food! The first thing I learned in the Hunger Games was that when it comes to feeding myself, I am the only person I can trust! Until further notice everyone with an economic interest in my food supply is guilty until proven innocent. I have also discovered that the manufactures of processed foods are horrible chefs! They actually don’t know how to prepare food at all, they just know how to manipulate combinations of sugar, salt and fat to promote addictive eating behaviors. They literally have this down to a science, but I bet if you gave them a basket of fruit and vegetables and told them to turn it into a meal a kid would eat they would be at a complete loss. This is why the “healthy version” of any processed food tastes like cardboard – because you have restricted the only ingredients the processed food industry understands. The flavors in processed and fast foods are simple, overpowering and boring. Once you learn to enjoy complex, subtly flavored, balanced and artistically prepared dishes, the fast food alternatives quickly become disappointing at best and unpalatable at worst. Unfortunately many restaurants are not much better. If you do eat out, go to a good restaurant with a great chef who is an artist with fresh local produce and understands portion control. You will have a more enjoyable meal and it won’t do your waistline any damage.
So there you have it. This has turned out to me a much longer post than I intended. In my defense, everything I have written has been enormously helpful to me and I hope that at least some of it will be to you too!