Category Archives: Weight control

Can we let our appetites drive what we eat?

Yes, we can–if we can get enough protein from real food sources.

A new book, Eat Like the Animals: what nature teaches us about the science of healthy eating, by David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson from the University of Sydney, Australia, details the findings of 30 years of research into the ways our appetite guides our food choices. (I confess I haven’t finished the book yet; I ordered it after reading a summary by the authors in New Scientist.)

The short version: we (and other animals) have built-in appetites that drive us to satisfy a primary need for a daily allowance of protein (typically 15% to 20% of total calories), and additional needs for carbohydrates, fats, sodium, and calcium. If the primary need for protein is not met, humans (and other animals) will overeat everything else they can to ensure meeting what our bodies in their genetic wisdom know to be our required amount of protein.

It surprised me to read that the same ideal ratio of protein to carbohydrates shows up over and over—in slime molds, locusts, cockroaches, beetles, spiders, cats and dogs, mink, and primates (human as well as non-human).

It also surprised me to read that between 1961 to 2000, in the US and the UK, our protein consumption decreased from an average of 14% to 12.5%. When we, like the locusts, increase our consumption of foods high in fats and carbohydrates to make up the protein our bodies need, we add up to 13% more calories per day.

The problem of not getting enough protein to support good health is compounded by our usual diet—in the US, more than half of what most people eat comes in the form of ultra-processed foods, and some people eat processed foods almost exclusively. These industrial Franken-foods are typically low in protein and high in fat and cheap carbs (therefor low in fiber) and loaded with salt and sugar. As we eat more of these foods, we have to eat more and more to fulfill the need for protein. Since processed foods are low in fiber, they don’t trigger the sense of fullness we’d get from natural sources of fiber-rich carbohydrates.

To make these cheap foods irresistible, by design, they are flavored with a counterfeit umami taste—the “signature taste of protein.” So our taste buds are fooled into thinking we’re satisfying the body’s need for enough protein to maintain health.

This is a horrible scenario—but let’s not overlook the positive message: our natural appetites, when not being conned by processed foods, really do know what’s best for us, and what we need. But how do we get ourselves back to the point where we can trust those natural appetites? It’s really easy for me to say, “Just don’t eat processed foods,” because I don’t eat processed food very often. I like to cook, and I like to eat what I cook. But it can be a different story for someone who’s grown up with processed foods, who hasn’t grown up loving the flavors and textures of real food—it can be a hard thing to give up.

But we can make a hard thing a bit easier by starting with a plan to make sure we are getting enough healthy protein in the first place. Without that biologically-driven need to get more protein from unreliable sources, it would be much easier to take the next step in a transition away from ultra-processed foods.

For reference, the authors state that our protein requirements vary by age and activity level, between between 15% to 20% of total calories. From age 18 to 20, it’s typically 18%; for age 30, it’s 17%, over 65, it’s 20%. (Okay, it takes math to dial in our specific, personal protein need, but there are calculators online to do the calculation for you—search for a Harris Benedict equation calculator.)

But if that doesn’t make you curious, and you want an easier fix that doesn’t involve complicated math, it probably wouldn’t hurt just to look at the sources of protein in your diet now. Protein is abundant primarily in meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and other pulses, nuts and seeds. You could monitor how much protein you eat in a typical fast-food-free day. The internet can be a great source of info, and any nutritional label should help. When you figure out how you satisfy the need for protein first, you’ve taken the first step to better long-term health, even before you tackle changing a habit like eating processed foods.

And, let’s remember the ingredients list—if you’re looking at something with more than about 5 ingredients, or you can’t pronounce what you see—it’s processed food. Think twice before putting it in the cart.

(This post represents my best  understanding of what I’ve read–any mistakes are mine. The book is very readable–I recommend it.)

Ten years of working with clients and students on hypnosis for weight control . . . time flies . . .

Another weight control class at Whatcom Community College has just ended, and as usual I am thinking over what we covered, and thinking too about other ideas and information that students and clients might find useful. Specifically, I’m wondering about adding more information on the newer research that challenges common assumptions about weight loss and weight control.

My first experience with hypnosis for weight loss was driven by my own experience of the problem; as you might expect, that’s pretty common for folks in this field. I set up the first class based on hypnosis to support what the conventional wisdom said was the path to change—balancing calories in and calories out, for example, and too much fat is bad and the same goes for processed food. (Now I now think good fat is good and bad fat is bad, and I think processed food is not only bad, but also seriously harmful when eaten daily.)

The very first class was the last time I followed that particular part of the lesson plan. The class participants were almost unanimous in telling me that they didn’t need nutritional advice—and it was clear that they knew as much as I did about the calorie balance theory, and they were still struggling.

So I dug deeper—again, learning from students but also from my own yo-yo pattern of weight loss-gain-loss, etc. I started reading research on habit change; I discovered the National Weight Control Registry; I started reading about neuroscience and stress and cognition and motivation, and all the other places my reading took me. I’ve never stopped. It’s led me to a different understanding of the problem, and along the way I have also lost weight. Best of all, I’m not alone. Many students and clients have lost weight too.

What I discovered, in the end, is that the problem is not really about the weight. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not only about the weight. Instead, it’s about all the things that happen to cause us to override our bodies’ natural sense of what we need for—or from—nourishment. That realization started my shift away from conventional advice on weight loss, both for the classes and my work with individual clients.

I started this post thinking about what we know now about weight control, and what we thought we knew way back when. I was wondering if I should add information about the research I’ve read that explains why I don’t care about calories, and I do care about nutrients from real food.

I think I’ve answered my own question: yes, there is so much recent scientifically validated information that directly affects any of us who’s concerned about nutrition, health, or weight control. So much of what we thought we knew (fat is bad, etc.) is wrong—no wonder we have such a hard time sorting through all the static.

As a start, I’ll put together a list of resources—food for thought—and when I do I’ll post it here on the website as well as sharing it with students and clients.

What’s new this Fall

Fall has definitely arrived in the ’Ham. We had such a long run of summer’s hot dry days it’s been a shock to return to normal weather: clouds, soft rain, the greening grass, ready for one last burst of growth before winter.

It’s also time for me to prepare for the next round of classes on using hypnosis to support weight control. I started these classes ten years ago, and each fall I am rethinking the classes, and re-organizing material, adding new information, finding new strategies, etc. So much of that first class has evolved beyond recognition, except the use of hypnosis to support healthy changes. This time I’m emphasizing the focus on using hypnosis to strengthen self-compassion, so essential to progress in this area.

One topic that I am glad to see getting attention in the press these days is a critique of the ways the medicalization of obesity has affected the medical community and those who inevitably suffer from the blame game—internalizing the shame of being overweight. We really need to stop focusing on the weight and focus instead on healthy behaviors, on helping people figure out for themselves what helps them stay healthy and strong—and the answer is never on a chart filled in with numbers.

If you are interested, or know anyone else who may be interested, in the class or how I work with the issue, please do send them my contact info. I’m always happy to talk about what’s possible with hypnosis.

Strength training supports healthy weight loss at any age

According to a recent Harvard Medical School bulletin:

If you’re trying to lose weight by cutting calories, you’re likely losing muscle, too. But strength training can counteract this effect. According to a research review in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, on average, 27% of the weight lost by dieting is muscle. Those who combined dieting with cardio exercise cut muscle loss in half. But when participants combined dieting and resistance training (strength training), all of the pounds lost were fat. What’s more, the more muscle you have and the stronger your muscles are—the more benefits you’ll get beyond weight loss. You’ll develop a slimmer, firmer figure and have the energy to be more active. And, you’ll get more from cardio workouts because you’ll be able to go faster and last longer.

This quote is from an email about the Harvard Medical School’s publication, Strength and Power Training for All Ages.

I’m really not a gym rat. I like being outside; I love being present in nature, up close and personal. I feel relaxed and nourished by the fresh air, in touch with the seasons, and just plain grateful to be able to listen to birds as I walk at my own pace, while my mind wanders.

I’m really not a gym rat, although as the resident of a rainy state, I also appreciate knowing that when it gets too much (winter!), I can go inside and get most of the benefits that in better weather, I’d prefer to get outside.

The thing is, since I don’t love the gym, I need these reminders that strength training matters, so I’ll make an effort to get the strength training I need to stay strong. I’ll remind myself to keep up the daily plank pose. And 20 minutes or so, one or two days a week, at the gym for a few more weight exercises is well worth it–after all, we’re in this for the long haul, right?

Magic wands for change

I start a new series of hypnosis workshops in October, and it’s been fun to prepare the new classes and get ready for the ones I’ve been doing for years.  In fact, I’ve been working with people who struggle with weight issues for 10 years now, and I have learned so much from the people who have chosen to share their process with me. It’s a complex issue—so personal, and yet affected by so many family, or social, or cultural, or economic influences. I have so much gratitude for the years of learning from this work, and so much respect for the people involved.

Because it is such a complex issue, many people find themselves hopeless or overwhelmed, even though they would like to be able to do something to help themselves. And it’s hard to pick out the 1 thing that could help everyone who wants to do something about the problem. Everyone is different, and my personal magic wand might be just an ugly old twig to the next person.

But I do have a few magic wands to recommend, nonetheless. There’s a selection process, of course, since we are each unique, and when it comes to magic, it’s not one size fits all. It’s more like this: which one makes us feel strong, and helps us accept ourselves, just as we are—because that’s what it takes to fight the forces (personal, family, social, etc.) that contribute to feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.

It’s a tall order, but fortunately we don’t have to make the choice blindly. A little bit of self-reflection can point us in the right direction. When we know what truly matters to us—our values—it’s easier to make the right choice. Besides, these are simple things; if you can’t decide, you could try them all and see what feels good.

Here are the magic wands I recommend—and by magic wand, I mean one thing—one small thing—that just about anyone can do just about any time, to start making progress on the path to a more healthy way of spending our days. The 3 magic wands below are listed in an order that matters to me, but the first one would not necessarily be the right first one for you.

Magic wand 1: Moving more.

Maybe that’s a goal of walking 10 minutes a day to start. (Or depending where you’re starting from, walking 20 minutes each day or more.) Maybe it’s dancing at the sink while you’re doing dishes. Maybe it’s stretching every time you get out of a chair. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class, or doing chair tai chi at the library. You get the drift: whatever you can reliably do and feel good doing.

Magic wand 2: Practicing gratitude.

This is about looking for something to be grateful for, maybe just one thing every day. Maybe you keep a journal or maybe you just stop and think about it at least once a day. Maybe you get more creative and decide it has to be something new and different every day, or set timers during the day.

Magic wand 3: Meditation.

Maybe you start with a 10-minute guided meditation from the internet, or maybe take a class or join a group, working up to your own daily practice. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, but there are lots of options out there.

Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with doing all three, or more. In fact, for some folks, at certain times, diving into a completely new lifestyle can be exhilarating and ultimately the right first step. (Perhaps this approach should be magic wand number 4.)

These sound like small things (except #4). And they are small, and they are simple, but they are also powerful. Somehow—and this is why I call them magic, because I don’t know how it works—these small things can each lead us to recognize that we do have the power to affect how we live our lives, and that is the true beginning of making change. 

Right now I’m grateful that I get to do this work, and looking forward to new classes, and people on the path to change.

Fighting inflammation

In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.

Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation:  what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.

The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.

However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn. 

The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.

Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”

But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle. (Of course, the first step should include talking to your doctor about this information and how it may affect you.)

We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:

  • Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if your doctor agrees it’s a good fit for you. It could protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one over-the-counter anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
  • Stretch—this doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair during the day?
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
  • Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
  • Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.

What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health.  And it’s motivation to keep on that path. 

If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day.  Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as from Village Books (Fairhaven and Lynden) and Amazon, of course. 

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

A link between sugar and dementia?

A few years ago, if we’d looked at a graph comparing the rise of both diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease, we’d have been looking at the same curve. In fact, a theory began to emerge that Alzheimer’s was another form, or stage, of diabetes.

Here’s a page from a 2007 brochure about Alzheimer’s Disease:

Doctors don’t know yet what causes Alzheimer’s disease or exactly how Alzheimer’s and diabetes are connected. But they do know that high blood sugar or insulin can harm the brain in several ways:

  • Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, which hurt the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The brain depends on many different chemicals, which may be unbalanced by too much insulin. Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s to develop.

So, ten years later, the picture has changed, in that dementia rates in the US are decreasing, and the age of onset is later—good news. From a NY Times article: “The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years . . . . In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.4.”

But although the data is pretty convincing, no one yet knows what caused the changes. One theory is that the difference may be due to better management of diabetes. A brand new study has found a possible link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s: glucose in the blood binds to and inhibits an enzyme called macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), which is part of a normal immune response to a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain.

In other words, sugar in the blood inhibits a normal immune system response to abnormal proteins that could be involved with developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Although I have strong opinions about the importance of eating real food and avoiding processed food, I also recognize that many people lead healthy and happy lives without being anywhere near so strict about what they eat, or perhaps more to the point, what foods they avoid. But to me this development reaffirms the need to be careful about sugar.