The success rates of diets are less than 5 percent, not because you're no good at counting calories, but because of the weight of emotional clutter. Rather than turning to a nutritionist to craft yet another eating plan, we've mined expert tips based on the emerging field of health coaching to help you find your own personal eating balance. By Holly Corbett, REDBOOK.
The stress-fat connection
Despite what you hear, the whole concept of "calories in, calories out" is outdated. "Experts have a new understanding of biology, including how stress affects our physiology," says Ali Shapiro, a top health coach based in Philadelphia. She explains that when you're stressed out about a scarcity in your life - even an emotional one like having time for yourself - it can register as famine in your body. Your metabolism slows down and fat clings to you. Connecting to what feeds you emotionally is as important as what you eat - whether it's setting aside time to pursue a life goal or just scheduling down-time with friends every week.
Food as a quick fix
There are lots of things you just have to do: Take the kids to school. Go to work. Grocery shop. "Most women grind out their days, and there may not be one thing they do purely for pleasure," says Shapiro. So it makes total sense that you might use food as a quick fix because it's a lot easier - and faster - to have a few cookies at night than to nail down what's really missing in your life.
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Self-control is not the problem
"Most people think they overeat because they lack self-control, but really what they need is to be gentle with themselves and have more self-respect," says Shapiro. Self-care isn't always about bubble baths and massages, but leaving the office at 5 p.m. one day even if your boss stays late every night, or taking a French conversation course when you don't believe you have the time to squeeze one in. These things feed you emotionally, making you less likely to turn to food for a quick pleasure fix.
Understand your core issues
Instead of seeing weight loss as a fight against fat, ponder what changed during the period when you gained weight. "By asking questions and bringing in curiosity, self-respect starts to happen naturally," says Shapiro. "And by understanding what the real problem is, you can make a real change." For example, one of Shapiro's clients had a gluten allergy, and yet still ate bread when she was out. She thought it was because she had no willpower, but after digging a bit deeper, she realized she was actually afraid of being judged by other people for not being able to, say, go out for pizza with co-workers.
Lighten up your life
Deep down inside, we all know what would work for us, but the stories we tell ourselves hold us back from achieving lasting weight loss - for example, that you'll look like a slacker if you take an hour lunch-break. "Weight loss is an opportunity for a lighter life," says Shapiro. "Until you make some more room in your day, you're not going to have time to go to the gym or cook healthy meals, nor will you have the desire to because you'll be stuck in the daily grind. You need to stop and question what's working for you and what's not."
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Try the breakfast experiment
To learn to tune in better to what your body really needs, try this easy experiment: Eat one of these breakfasts every day for five days, and see how you feel three hours later:
• Your typical breakfast, such as a bagel with cream cheese
• An egg-white omelet with a piece of fruit
• An omelet with two whole eggs and a piece of fruit
• Some kind of cereal, such as Cheerios
• A 100 percent whole grain cereal, such as steel-cut oats
Give yourself space to pay attention without judging - food is neither good nor bad. This teaches you how to eat to satisfy your body's energy needs rather than for emotional reasons.
Keep a food journal
We're not talking about tracking your calories, but rather about writing down your feelings surrounding eating. For the breakfast experiment, for example, note which of the five meals kept you most satiated until lunch. (For most people, it's the whole-egg omelet.) Start paying attention to how food makes you feel: Are you bloated? Do you have energy? Can you concentrate better?
Be your best nutrition expert
Take time to self-reflect and ask yourself, "How do I know what I know about nutrition?" If all of your insight comes from books and nutritionists, you'll feel less in control. The truth is that you know your body better than any expert, so use your own intuitive knowledge to make the final decision on which foods make you feel your best.
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Overeating to fill a void
Answer this question in your food journal: "What is the connection between overeating and nourishment?" You may be overeating to fill a void in yourself - perhaps you feel a lack of purpose thanks to changes in your daily routine - or you crave pleasure that you aren't getting in your relationships.
Add pleasure to your diet
Try this exercise the week after the breakfast experiment: Eat your lunch in front of your computer or the television as you normally would one day, and then the following day, take a real lunch break. If you're at work, go outdoors and be fully present when you eat. If you're at home, play happy music, set the table, and fully chew your food. Eat the same food you typically would, but notice if there is any difference in how satisfied you feel. "Getting emotional pleasure from food is paramount," says Shapiro. "If we don't, then we won't feel satiated, and we'll reach for a candy bar at 3 p.m."
Make dinner your lightest meal
Eating late at night can make you gain weight, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania. "Your body is on a natural rhythm that you need to follow to maintain weight loss," says Shapiro. "Dinner should be your lightest meal of the day." To prevent a night binge, think back to a time in your day when you tried to please people by taking on work you didn't have time for, or you didn't say what you meant for fear of how the other person might react. (Think: You didn't tell your mom how much it bugs you when she gives you parenting advice because you didn't want to upset her). "Your answers provide clues about how we stuff down what we really want and keep from expressing who we really are, and this prompts us to eat more at night," says Shapiro.
Ultimately, overcoming your food issues requires understanding why you eat the way you do, and what feelings you derive from chowing down. That's why it's so important to regularly check in with yourself about how food makes you feel. Once you start eating for the right reasons, and add more joy back into your life, you will find your weight begins to stabilize naturally. Speaking and living out your true feelings on a regular basis isn't just good emotional practice. It's good for your waistline, too.
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