Category Archives: Weight control

Thanksgiving countdown, and some help for those feast day cravings

Here we are counting down to Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday! I used to say it was my favorite holiday because it’s all about food. Then I evolved to saying it’s my favorite holiday because it’s all about food and friends. Now I think it’s my favorite holiday because it’s all about food, friends, family and gratitude—not necessarily in that order.

I have my master list made, though the menu will probably change before the day. There will be individual lists for the days leading up to the feast, and menu planning for the other days of the week. And then there’s my daughter’s birthday, which takes place on Black Friday this year. Since we celebrate birthday weeks in our family, this adds to the list mania. (Mac and cheese is her chosen birthday dinner.)

This Thanksgiving I’m going to make sure that the turkey stays on the counter, a few steps away from the table, perhaps with a few of the heavier sides. I just want to see if we eat less turkey and more vegetables as a result. Also, I like the idea of adding a sit-down appetizer or soup course, just to see if it helps us slow down and perhaps eat a little less.

It’s fun to think about having my food scientist hat on for the holiday, but I won’t be surprised if all these bright ideas come to naught. It’s a feast, after all.

Yum.

On a more serious note, this season can be especially challenging for those of us who struggle with cravings for sweets. Here are some tips for dealing with those cravings this holiday season.

I’ve shamelessly stolen most of these tips for reducing (eventually eliminating) cravings from several PsyBlog.com posts by English psychologist Jeremy Dean. Others come from my experience, and some from Brian Wansink’s wonderful books.

  • Tap your forehead: plain old tapping, though I can attest that EFT-type tapping works too.
  • Change how you think in the moment: Focus on the long-term consequences of giving in to the impulse. I use the words “false promise” to remind me that giving in won’t give me what I really want and need, which is better health, better mood, clarity of mind, and energy—in other words, wellbeing.
  • Play Tetris, or . . . Turns out three minutes of playing Tetris can reduce cravings for food, cigarettes and alcohol. Or try a similar favorite distraction.
  • Use your imagination: Try thinking about how a rainbow looks or the smell of eucalyptus. Or stare at the sunset, or at anything, really.
  • Look at loads of pictures of food: This strikes me as the most unlikely weight-loss trick ever: looking at endless pictures of foods can make them less enjoyable to eat. My sister Gael’s trick was to look at forbidden foods and fantasize about the taste, texture, etc.
  • Go for a walk: A 15-minute walk is enough to stop food cravings brought on by stressful situations, a new study has found.
  • Protein-rich breakfast: Eating a good breakfast — particularly one rich in protein — boosts a critical neurotransmitter, which may lower food cravings later in the day. People experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast. High protein breakfasts also reduced cravings for savory or high-fat foods.
  • Chew gum: One of my favorites for warding off cravings when I’m at the grocery store. Some studies suggest it can also reduce our snack intake.
  • Sleep well: When we don’t sleep well, we don’t resist temptation well either. This is because “high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified.”
  • Pay attention to your emotions: Tuning in to your emotions is an important part of learning how to manage food cravings and lose weight.
  • Many people fighting cravings for sweets report that when they can cut out sugar, they lose the cravings. Remember that cravings are not commands, and they lose their power when we turn our attention elsewhere.

If you do give in to a craving—hey, we’re only human!—try saying to yourself, “I don’t need this, but I’m going to eat it anyway.” It may help you eat less—a bite or two rather than a whole piece—and it may help you resist a craving next time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Fat-to-brain signaling . . . means what?

“Adipocyte glucocorticoid receptors mediate fat-to-brain signaling.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Any guesses as to what it means?

It’s the title of a report from a study that describes the way our body fat works to signal our brains to deal with a stress response, which includes an effect on the metabolism. The study apparently found that too much fat interferes with that signaling ability.

The study was done on monkeys, but there’s a pretty good chance that it works the same way on humans.

In other words, another effect of weight gain due to extra fat is to mess with our stress response and our metabolism both—we may have suspected as much, but now they are beginning to figure out one of the mechanisms for making that happen.

Here’s a caveat: I haven’t read the report itself yet, because these reports are no longer so easily available as they used to be (the journals want to get paid, even though the research is usually publicly funded) which is one of my pet peeves.

A little background: this is news partly because although we know the brain signals the body, finding signals going the other way is pretty new.

I suspect there will be more discoveries like this. We’ve heard recently that the vagus nerve is a two way street for signals, and that we have taste buds in our guts, for example.

What does this latest doscovery mean for us? Well, my first thought is that finding out excess weight makes it harder to deal with stress is stressful. But then, anyone who has struggled to lose excess weight already knows this on some level, right?

Let’s just call it motivation, and focus on ways to strengthen our ability to handle stressors while we keep on focusing on whatever helps us stay healthy. In other words, reframe this stress as a healthy response to a challenge that we’ve already accepted.

Do you have “Sitting Disease”?

I was online the other day looking for information about people who successfully lose weight and how they do it, when I stumbled across the National Weight Control Registry. I didn’t even know there was such a thing! It’s been around since the 70’s, started by two scientists who recognized that the data available in the area of weight was suspect because the numbers represented only people who had serious health problems as well as being overweight.  In other words, the data represented only people who had come to the attention of the medical establishment for medical reasons, not simply because they were overweight.

Rather than assume the data sample represents everyone who weighs more than “average,” they wondered about people who had been quietly going about their lives and finding their own way of dealing with what they perceived as a problem in their lives.

It was absolutely fascinating to read people’s accounts of making change in their lives, and fascinating to see some similarities in their reports.  Here’s a sample of the things that most–not all–people reported doing:

78% eat breakfast every day.
90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.
62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.

The first two didn’t surprise me.  The third–I guess I’d just never thought about it much.  I hadn’t made the obvious connection that time spent in front of the TV takes time away from everything else we could be doing.  But look at this information, based on 2000 people in Dallas. (I haven’t looked at the study report; this info is from one of my favorite new blogs, called, appropriately, Healthiestblog, from Jeremy Dean, who wrote Making Habits, Breaking Habits.)

The 2000 people wore monitors to track their activity; on average, people were sedentary for 5 hours a day. The actual range was 2 to 12 hours. Every hour spent sitting down added a 14% increase in coronary heart calcification. And, most interesting to me, more exercise did not necessarily reduce risk. What did reduce the risk was simply sitting less.

So how to do that?  If you work at a sit down desk, get up and walk down the hall every hour. Better yet, figure out how to make, borrow, or steal your own standing or walking desk. Take the stairs, park as far away from your destination as is practical, walk at lunch. Wearing a pedometer can be a real eye-opener, and many people find that helpful. More and more I see people loving their FitBits, too.  Whatever keeps us moving!

After all, isn’t that what we really want?  Much better than trying to match someone’s idea of an “average” number.

Making mindless eating work for you

I mentioned an article by Brian Wansink in a previous post, and after reading his article, I checked out his book, Slim by Design. The book is a great resource—he has useful suggestions for diverting the train wreck of bad choices that can sneak up on us when we’re not paying attention. I’ve been able to strategize my way through some of my own problems in this area—like moving the peanuts to a different shelf, out of my sight—but it hadn’t occurred to me that could use similar strategies to steer my family’s choices towards healthier options.

Following his advice in Slim by Design, I moved the least desirable snack things—cookies, crackers, bread—out of sight. (I had to leave the toaster where it is, because space constraints wouldn’t allow me to hide it.) I moved the fruit bowl into the main flight path through the kitchen, and made sure it was stocked with apples, oranges, and pears. (This was new since I usually prefer to keep them in the frig to maintain freshness.) I put yogurt—the lowest-sugar, lowest-fat yogurt I could find—on eye-level in the fridge, along with some good quality cheese sticks. I was already a believer in having celery, carrots, radishes, and red peppers washed, cut up, and available for snacking, but I added baby carrots because they are guaranteed to appeal to some other members of the household.

So the kitchen landscape now has some inviting and healthy choices in plain sight. The next bit of advice I followed was to institutionalize his half plate rule, which says you can have anything you want, but half the plate has to hold vegetables and fruits. Okay, you want a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch? Sure, just make sure to fill half the plate with vegetables and fruit. You want breakfast cereal? Okay, but you’re going to eat the same volume of fruit along with it.

There are a number of payoffs in this new approach. As a family, we are definitely more consistently getting good amounts of protein, fruit, and veg. But the unexpected thing I’m finding is that I can let go of the feeling that I need to intervene in others’ food choices—nagging is not what I want to do. No one really needs a load of my disapproval or a guilt-trip over food choices. This way, instead of nagging people to eat the way I want them to, I’m just quietly supplementing the available choices, and that is so much less stressful for the whole family, especially me.

Easy fixes for mindless habits with food

There’s so much advice out there for the millions of us who want to lose weight, or simply avoid gaining weight. Much of it is the not-useful rehash of the assumption that all calories are created equal, and anyone can lose weight by starving and exercising. I don’t pay any attention to those articles.

But I do love to read things that do help, with useful—and easy—suggestions that I can use right now to help me avoid some of the pitfalls of not paying attention to what I’m doing with food. The January 10 issue of New Scientist has a great article by Brian Wansink that does just that. Here are some of his tips—no willpower required.

We probably all know that when we use a smaller plate, we eat less, but did you know that putting food on a plate that’s a different color—think white food on a red plate, for example—makes us eat less? This was news to me.

This next one did not surprise me, due to my own experience with a particular jar of peanuts that was on eye level in my kitchen for a brief time. When food is in plain sight in the kitchen, people—especially women—eat more. And women who kept boxes of breakfast cereal on the counter weighted more than women who didn’t.

It always surprises me that breakfast cereal is marketed as a healthy food, since a cursory look at the ingredients sends me back to my steel cut oats every time. But it is marketed as healthy, and the marketing is targeting women—maybe that’s one reason why men were not affected by the boxes on the counter while women were.

Another simple meal tip that affects everyone is that serving food from the table results in everyone eating more than serving from the counter. He also had some tips for eating out: sit at a well-lit table, preferable by a window, and avoid the bar.

Ready for change? Sign up for the next Weight Control with Hypnosis class

I’m getting ready for the next series of Weight Control with Hypnosis classes starting October 15 at Whatcom Community College, and I’m getting excited! It is so great to see people using these classes to make so many positive changes in their lives, and I love seeing so many wonderful people supporting each other in this work.

I often boast that the only side effect of hypnosis is relaxation—and it’s true, I assure you—but when it comes to this class, there’s another, equally wonderful side effect: it will introduce you to a new, positive way of thinking about the daily care and maintenance of your body, mind, and spirit. And I mean your body—not mine or your sister’s or your neighbor’s—your body, your mind, your spirit. Your well-being.

Big words; a big promise. Especially since every body is unique; therefore every path on the road to well-being is unique. And yet, we’ll discover, a lot of the milestones—and the obstacles—that people face look pretty similar.

We’ll talk about this stuff in class—in between relaxing hypnosis sessions—and you’ll see that it is possible to let go of the barriers between you and your healthy weight. Not just possible—it’s doable.

For you that might mean breaking some bad habits, or making new healthier habits.

It might mean clarifying your motivation (it’s the cornerstone for solid, dependable willpower, and everyone needs willpower, no matter what they weigh!).

It might mean banishing cravings that torment you when you try to eat in a healthier way.

It might mean finding ways to nourish yourself that have nothing to do with food.

It might include recognizing and changing attitudes that don’t serve your commitment to your own wellbeing.

I know that’s a daunting list, but all these things, and more, come up in each class, and we work with them, and through them. With hypnosis, you’ll find it doesn’t have to be a battle—and each small change has powerful, enduring rewards!

If you’re interested and have questions about the class, or hypnosis in general, please do feel free to contact me. And you can use this link to register for the class.

Take a small step to a healthier life

Hate exercise? Don’t want to go outside? Hate the weather? Hate the gym? Don’t have time?

It’s a familiar refrain, whenever the topic of weight comes up, so if this is you, you probably already know you’re not alone.

So what’s up with that? If there were an operating manual for human life, it would surely include directions for maintaining the body’s ability to move. Even if we could ignore the barrage of evidence for the miraculous benefits of exercise, we have to notice that humans are moving from the moment we’re conceived. It’s in the design.

Like it or not, it’s a given: a healthy life includes a healthy amount of movement.

Forget “exercise.”  Forget “the gym.” (Unless you already love exercise and the gym, in which case you can just skip the rest of this post.)

If you are allergic to activity, or if your ability to move is compromised, try thinking about it this way: the smallest thing you can do to include movement in your day is also the most powerful thing you can do.

It might be as simple as adding a few steps or stairs in your daily routine.  Getting up out of your chair once an hour to stretch or walk down the hall.  Parking a little further away from the grocery store entrance, or getting off the bus one stop earlier—most of my example include walking because I love walking, but you get the idea.

The smallest thing is the most powerful thing because it’s the simplest way to get started on something new—so often starting is the hardest part of any desired change.  Think about the commitment involved in deciding to walk around the block after you get home from work versus joining a gym, buying new exercise clothes and shoes, finding the times in the week to get to the gym, learning to use all that equipment . . . .

By all means if you love the idea of jumping in with both feet and committing to a gym membership and making the time to use it, and you can really see yourself making it part of your lifestyle, do it!

But if you think about being a gym rat and your gut says an emphatic “no,” chances are good it’s not the best first step for you. And that’s fine!  The point is just to start.  First start, and then keep looking for the activity that’s so rewarding, so much fun, that you just keep going.  Maybe that’ll lead you to the gym, or not.  Maybe you’ll be hula-hooping, dancing, yogasizing, running, swimming, biking or finding your place on some team sport, I don’t know.  But I do know that when you find the fun, nothing will make you want to go back to the couch.

So where’s hypnosis in all this?  Well, hypnosis can help, either working with a hypnotist or using self hypnosis.  It can help you make and keep the commitment to give your body the activity it needs—it could just be the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself!

Another take on meditation

I am a meditator.  That is, I meditate most days.  However, I am self-taught, and as a recovering academic, I suspect it’s better to go to meditation classes to learn the “right” way to meditate, and I haven’t done that.  Also, much is made of the importance of a sanga, or community of meditators, and I don’t have that either.  So, I have fraud feelings about myself as a meditator.

But I do meditate most days, and I do it because I’ve noticed that overall, I navigate the days with more equanimity when the meditation habit is strong.  In its effects, meditation is like exercise, I think.  I noticed when I began to enjoy a daily walk that I was starting to get better sleep—not always on the days when I took a good long walk, but often.  And so over time, I could confidently say that I was sleeping better overall, and that better sleep coincided with my new habit of walking daily.

There’s lots of research to confirm the benefits of meditation, and as I said, I find it very helpful and occasionally—once in awhile—not very often—even pleasant in the moment.  That raises a question for me.

What if you are one of those people who already know all about diet, exercise—and, now, meditation—and you hate every minute of the prescribed early morning hour at the gym, and every helping of that high fiber cereal, and every boring moment of tracking your breath?

I suspect that many people do not need another voice talking about one more thing they could be doing differently.  Instead, we all need more voices reminding us that right now, in this moment, we are doing fine. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “as long as you are breathing, you are doing more right than wrong.”

But it’s also true that meditation can help us remember us that we really can just accept our imperfect selves.  Letting go of the voices that speak in “shoulds” about what we can eat, about how we move through the days. Maybe the more useful path is learning to follow what we truly enjoy. Looking for activities that feed the heart and mind as well as our bodies—those things that bring their own reward.

Affirmations work—or do they?

Lots of people—maybe millions of people—use affirmations, or have used them, or plan to. I’m in that number, and my results have been mixed. Turns out I’m not alone.

What this research shows is that affirmations do work, sometimes, and what makes the difference is how well the affirmations we choose align with our sense of self. The subjects were a small sample of 249 college students.  Most of them used affirmations, using them most frequently during stressful times.  The subjects were tested to evaluate their sense of self-esteem both before and after using the affirmation “I am a lovable person.”  Those starting out with higher self esteem reported feeling better about themselves after using the affirmation.

Those with low self esteem felt worse.  In other words, some inner bullshit detector was activated by the difference between the statement and their own sense of what was true for them, and the difference not only negated the effect of the affirmation, it focused their attention on the negative (“I am not a lovable person”).

I welcomed this finding, because now I have a context for evaluating affirmations for myself. I can pay attention to my bullshit detector, and choose accordingly.  If I have a sense that the affirmation is true, or potentially true, for me, I can use it.  If not . . . .

In another study, a survey of 5000 people on the subject of happiness, out of ten proven habits for happy people, self-acceptance was key. Of the ten habits, it was also the one people were least likely to practice. The article describing the study includes these suggestions for increasing self-acceptance:

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small
  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you
  • Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Personally I see mindfulness meditation as a clear path to self-acceptance, and for anyone who’s interested in the topic, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s books, podcasts, and website as an introduction.

Another kind of affirmation I read about on PsyBlog (one of my favorite psychology sites) has been shown to increase willpower, a notoriously unstable commodity. And we could all use more of that!  Lack of willpower is associated with addiction (I’m including food in this category), and underachievement in other areas.

The practice that’s been shown to renew willpower is simple: take a moment to focus on core values.

Being able to call up willpower on demand is a pretty useful trick.  I’m going to use this when I’m fighting a craving for something that I really don’t need or want. Or when I’m procrastinating, choosing some online time-waster instead of some other task I need to do.

Next time you recognize that your willpower is failing, try this: Stop and think about the things that are deeply meaningful to you.  So, that could be any spiritual beliefs, connections with family, projects that bring you great satisfaction, or any activities that you’re proud of.  Then when you bring your thoughts back to the craving, you may find your willpower is once again stronger than the craving.

Of course, recognizing when you need to stop and think before you react is key to making this kind of affirmation work.

Whatever tools you are using to build self-acceptance, hypnosis and self-hypnosis can support you, by helping to integrate the attributes and the behaviors you want more of in your life.

Another note about stress and diet

Turns out there may be another reason why so many people turn to sweet treats when stressed.  An article from Medical News Today describes some research into the effects of stress on food preferences.  Here’s how it works.

Stress increases production of glucocorticoid hormones, which activate receptors within cells. Those glucocorticoid receptors show up on the tongue, inside taste buds for sweet, savory, and bitter tastes. According to the article, activating the receptors is known to influence taste preferences.  The study compared taste cells in both stressed and non-stressed mice—the stressed mice had 77% more of these receptors than the unstressed mice.

Well no wonder those treats taste like ambrosia when we’re stressed!

We’ve all had experience with stressful days when we realize that we are going to indulge that desire for chocolate (or whatever satisfies your need for the food equivalent of a hug), in spite of good intentions.  Now we know what’s going on in our cells when we get that urge!

For me, dealing with times when cravings are strong includes recognizing that those times come and go–I may have a week when they are a constant annoyance, but then I’ll have weeks when they are taking a vacation, or appear occasionally as a pale reminder of an outgrown habit. For the most part, I can just ride them out.

When I do succumb, these days, I do it while paying  close attention to the whole experience. No indulging while driving or talking on the phone! And no guilt-tripping, either–nothing that will get in the way of my enjoyment. I don’t want to miss a thing!  I am aware of what I expect from this (now) rare treat, aware of every bite.  I also want to be aware of how I feel throughout the process, so I can be aware when I have had enough.  That way, when I’m finished, I can answer “Yes!” to the question, “Was it worth it?”

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out this way.  Sometimes indulging mindfully like this shows us that the craving is really just an empty promise–then it’s much easier to say no, next time.  And that’s quite a gift, in the end, isn’t it?