For many of us, trying to eat healthily feels like a constant battle. Most people have the best of intentions, and will have some understanding of what they should be eating and what they are better off avoiding. So what are the reasons why we find eating well so hard? And when we decide we want to eat healthily, what can we do to stay on track?
There is an imponderable number of books available which pertain to have the answers, and which promise to be the elixir to help us eat well, manage our weight and be healthy. Approaches to healthy eating and weight management go in and out of fashion very quickly.
Over the years I have had more than a passing interest in this area, not least because I care a lot about my own health and fitness, but also because I am an athletics as well as a life coach.
I’m not a qualified nutritionist, but I see it as part of my role to be well informed when it comes to eating well. The approach of scientist Stephan Guyenet in his recent book ‘The Hungry Brain’ really struck a chord with me for two reasons. Firstly due to his scientifically based rationale for why we struggle to eat well; and secondly because of the very practical and easy to follow four step strategy he proposes we use to reduce our risk of over indulging in foods that are not consistent with a healthy lifestyle.
Guyunet proposes that we know we should eat healthier food, which implies a conscious, rational brain concerned about health, body weight and appearance. Therefore, the fact that we often choose not to eat healthily also implies the existence of a non-conscious, intuitive brain that cares more about immediate things – such as the big slab or cake or bowl of ice cream that may be in front of us!
It is this conflict between the conscious and non-conscious brain that explains the food choices we make and why we overeat even when we don’t ‘want’ to. As the non-conscious brain is more influential in day-to-day life, we need to raise our consciousness and understand our brain better to help it to make good decisions around eating.
The brain is in charge of appetite, eating behaviour, physical activity and body fatness. Guyunet proposes the following strategy to help the conscious brain win the battle that it faces with the non-conscious brain on a daily basis.
1. Fix Your Food Environment
The brain has a reward system that evolved in an age when food was harder to come by and finding enough calories to survive was often hard work. This reward system collects cues from our external senses and our digestive tract, guiding us towards fat, sugar, starch and salt – hence why we crave some foods more than others. Unfortunately, this reward system hasn’t evolved to cope with our modern environment, which is chock full of easy access, highly palatable, calorie dense foods.
In essence, we are hardwired to crave unhealthy food in excess, which drives us to overconsume. This explains the reason why when we walk past a bakery we feel hungry at the smell of freshly baked bread, pastries and cakes, and suddenly have a strong urge to eat. Yet if weren’t exposed to this stimulus, we wouldn’t feel hungry and need to fight the urge to eat fattening food.
The way to help our brain navigate this temptation is to reduce our exposure to food cues, and there are three simple steps Guyunet proposes we take:
1. Ged rid of tempting, calorie dense foods that are easy to grab from your home and workplace. If these foods aren’t there, you can’t eat them.
2. Reduce general exposure to food cues, such as adverts for food on TV or programmes that promote high fat, calorie rich foods – no more ‘Great British Bake-Off’!
3. Put up barriers to eating. Only have food in your kitchen that you have to prepare in order to eat it. Or if you want to have ‘easy access’ foods to hand, choose things that are good for you, such as fruit or nuts.
2. Manage Your Appetite
Our bodies have a food regulating system, the lipostat, that has one job alone: to prevent our weight from dropping.
We also have the satiety system, which regulates food intake on a meal-to-meal basis. This make us feel full and reduces our drive to continue eating when we have had enough food.
The satiety system, as well as receiving information from the digestive tract, also takes cues from the reward system. It tends to shut down when we eat ‘highly rewarding’ foods such as pizza, cakes or ice cream. Therefore, our brain tells us that it’s ok to keep eating these foods and we can easily get to a point where we have had too much. Often paying the price by feeling bloated later on.
There is a way to help the brain understand that you’re not starving when you don’t need to eat. Choose foods that send strong satiety signals to the brain, but which contain a moderate number of calories:
1. Choose foods that have a lower calorie density, higher protein and/or fibre content, with a moderate level of palatability.
2. This means foods closer to their natural state as opposed to processed foods: fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans and lentils. And if you eat them, fresh meats, fish/seafood and eggs.
3. Be careful with flour based foods as they are calorie dense, even when made using wholegrains. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and oatmeal are better sources of starch.
4. Try to completely avoid foods based on white flour, as these have a high calorie density and low fibre content.
3. Be active
There are at least two ways in which regular physical activity can help to manage your appetite and your weight:
1. The more active you are, the more calories you burn. Therefore, you’re less likely to over eat as you are using more of the calories you consume. You’ll probably eat more when you are active, but studies suggest that the extra calories you consume will be more than compensated for by the amount you burn.
2. Physical activity may help maintain lipostat levels in the brain. This positively impacts on our fat regulating system and encourages lower body weight in the long run.
Whether or not you have a goal related to weight management, regular physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. Taking some form of aerobic or strength building exercise each day is one of the best investments you can make to maintain good health throughout your life.
4. Address Stress
For some people, psychological stress sharply increases cortisol levels, which impacts on the lipostat – our fat regulating system. This results in increased food intake and greater accumulation of body fat. This is especially the case in stressful situations over which we feel we have little control.
In addition, when we feel stressed we tend to reach for ‘comfort foods’ that help to dampen our stress response system by making us feel better.
You will probably be aware if you are a stress eater. Taking action to reduce your stress levels will not only benefit your eating habits but also improve your quality of life overall. Stress management is a topic in its own right, beyond the scope of this article, but three things you could try are:
1. Look into what causes you stress and try to work out how you can make changes to this area of your life so you feel things are more under your control.
2. When we feel stressed, it is normally things in the future that we are worried about. Using meditation or mindfulness exercises can help bring your mind back to the present.
3. Rather than eating when you feel stressed, do something constructive instead. This could be going for a run or some other form of exercise; talking to a friend; reading; or doing something else you find relaxing.
My goal in writing this article is to help raise your awareness around the issues covered. It is based on one source, ‘The Hungry Brain’ by Stephan F. Guyenet, but I encourage you to read further from this and other sources so you can learn more about the impact of eating on your health and wellbeing. This will help you to make more informed choices about what’s best for you.
Eating better and leading a healthier lifestyle are popular areas to be coached on. If you would like to make some changes, this is something I can help you with. Please contact me by email at [email protected] if you’d like to arrange a free consulation.