How to make healthy eating automatic
Let’s call them the un-diet books: the current wave of weight management books that want us to wave goodbye to kilojoule counting (yes!) and to respond to hunger signals not by ignoring them but by eating something.
Why Diets Make Us Fat, written by Sandra Aamodt, a US neuroscientist and former editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, is the latest – and here’s one of the studies she uses to make her point that, rather than keeping us thinner, dieting often makes us fatter in the long run.
To learn more about the effects of dieting on weight, a group of Finnish researchers tried this experiment. They followed more than 4000 twins from the age of 16 to 25 and found that among identical twins where only one twin was a dieter, the dieting twin was more likely to become overweight over the next nine years. Women in the study with two or more dieting episodes were five times more likely to become overweight by the age of 25.
The trouble with dieting, says Aamodt, is that it picks a fight with our brains which are wired to help us keep weight on rather than lose it. Attempts to strictly control eating can backfire in a number of ways: overly restricting food can make some dieters more vulnerable to binge eating or produce stress hormones that can increase abdominal fat – and relying on external rules about what and when to eat can mess with our ability to tune into the body’s natural hunger signals.
After years of dieting herself, Aamodt did some self-experimenting – after a month of eating when she was hungry and stopping when she was full she discovered that her body did a good job of regulating kilojoule intake all by itself – days when she ate more because of a special occasion, for instance, were typically followed by days when she ate less.
Her advice is to stop counting kilojoules and instead practise listening to natural hunger and satiety cues.
“Weight gain happens when mindless eating consistently numbs us to the signals of fullness that are supposed to limit meal size,” she says.
But Aamodt also acknowledges that heeding these signals can be challenging in a modern food environment where portion sizes, social norms and the availability of food make it so easy to overeat. The trick is to modify your environment – and your thinking – so that it becomes easier to stop eating when you’re full.
- Redefine the meaning of wasting food. Finishing every morsel of food on your plate even if you’re full doesn’t fix the problem of food waste. ‘Food is just as wasted if it’s eaten by someone who’s not hungry as if it’s thrown away,” she says.
- Keep second helpings in the kitchen rather than on the table – except for the salad bowl.
The point of this isn’t to ‘forbid’ second helpings but to avoid mindlessly eating more than you really want. Using smaller plates and smaller glasses for serving food and drink will help too.
- Put leftovers in the freezer when meals are over – freezing can make you stop and think about whether you’re really hungry.
- Keep snack foods like fruit and nuts within easy reach at home but keep sweet or fatty snacks out of sight.
- Be cautious when you eat and watch TV. Choose smaller portions of food and make refills harder to get. Never eat snacks directly from a large pack while you’re distracted.
- Buy more vegetables and other fibre-rich whole foods including oats, legumes, wholegrains and fruit -but minimise added sugars and refined grains and the foods that contain them.
“Many people feel they’re too busy to get along without processed foods (an attitude that companies have worked hard to encourage but the time savings from using them are mostly an illusion,” she says. “Families who serve frozen food for dinner save only 10 or 12 minutes compared with nights when they cook from scratch. People who can find five or ten simple recipes that the family likes, or take a couple of hours on the weekend to cook a batch of something to freeze can improve the health of the household without spending much extra time.”
Why Diets Make Us Fat by Sandra Aamodt, is published by Scribe, Rrp $29.99
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