Whether you are trying to lose weight or to maintain your current body weight, there are factors you might want to consider besides just focusing on calories in/calories out.
Let’s assume weight loss is your goal. Many people set goals for themselves that are unrealistic, unreasonable, and focus primarily on the number on the scale with less regard for health. We hear stories or advertisements about people who have lost large amounts of weight in a short period of time. What are the possible short- and long-term effects this may have on the body? Is what they have done sustainable or will they gain the weight back? Dramatic weight loss based on excessive dietary restriction also does not allow for practicing lifestyle changes that can assist with weight maintenance once a goal weight is reached – the main reason for rebound weight gain.
Extreme diets can prompt loss of muscle mass as well, even if exercise is included in the plan. Muscle is metabolically active tissue meaning it is involved in calorie burning. Extremely low calorie intake means the body needs to lower the metabolism in order to cover important body processes. More gradual weight loss would protect muscle so that it can maximize metabolism and help you to maintain weight loss long-term. Restrictive eating negatively impacts energy levels as well, which might reduce motivation to exercise – important for health, fitness, and weight control.
In addition, calorie intake that is too low implies insufficient nutrient intake which can counter health. Restriction can also limit the variety of foods consumed which has implications for overall nutrient intake and less pleasure from eating which can prompt you to deviate from your plan.
Trying to continue habits that feel restrictive and depriving also do not feel good emotionally. It can trigger feelings of self-punishment, guilt (if you deviate from the plan), anxiety, and depression. You may also be spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about your food intake and body weight. There are better ways to spend your precious time.
Instead, consider taking the middle road – come up with a plan that allows for gradual, sustainable weight change over time (like 1-2 pounds per week). Create goals that benefit your body and emotional state, and allow you to have a healthy relationship with food. Include both healthy eating and physical activity goals in your plan. This allows moderation in each instead of extremes in one or the other.
It can be helpful to take a look at what led to your weight gain or difficulty achieving weight loss. Are there certain times of the day when you overeat or make less healthy choices? Do you provide consistent fuel for your brain and body throughout the day or leave big gaps? Are your food choices more processed such that fuel is used up quickly and you are left low in fuel shortly after? These are times when your body may be driven to overeat and to choose less healthy options. Processed foods tend to be eaten more quickly than less processed foods, and may not provide as much taste pleasure/satisfaction so you eat more.
You may find you are in more control over the types and amounts of foods you eat when you establish a daily schedule. Try eating within about one hour after waking and then about every three hours or so throughout the day. Including healthy sources of carbs plus protein plus fiber at each meal or snack provides fuel that lasts longer.
Besides the possibility of being low in fuel, consider whether overeating could be due to boredom, stress, anxiety, etc. If so, try to address the root cause of the problem. Note that stress can kick up cortisol which encourages body fat storage. You could also practice “distancing” and “distracting”. This means distancing yourself from sources of food and distracting yourself with other activities to take your mind off eating outside of planned meal or snack times.
As you contemplate eating a calorie-dense less healthy food, rather than acting on impulse, take a moment to reflect. Will the short-lived pleasure you get from this food be great enough to outweigh the anxiety and hours you spend feeling guilty about doing so? Do some self-talk about the pros and cons of eating the food you are considering. Does it align with your weight and health goals? In some cases you may change your mind about eating it or eat a lesser amount. If you choose to go ahead and eat the food anyway, at least it will be based upon a conscious choice rather than an impulse.
Consider keeping only healthy foods in the house so that you are not tempted by less healthy options. You always have the choice to go out for a treat once in a while. Make healthy foods flavorful and convenient so that you enjoy them more than less healthy options. Be aware of appropriate portions sizes. Do not use restaurant or take-out meal sizes for reference.
Some studies have shown that food record apps have helped people better achieve weight loss or maintenance. It is easy to rationalize or forget what we have eaten. Keeping a food record keeps us better tuned into actual intake.
Insufficient sleep can be another contributor to weight issues due to its negative effect on hunger and fullness cues. Check to see if you have consumed enough fluids – sometimes when we think we are hungry, we are actually thirsty. When you are eating a meal or snack, consider stopping when you feel moderate fullness (like a 5 on a scale of 1-10).
Regularly doing physical activities that include cardio and strength building not only assist with weight control but can improve mood, reduce stress, and help us to better appreciate our bodies. People who participate in regular physical activity also tend to have more motivation to sustain healthy eating goals.
So, first check to see if your plan for weight loss or maintenance is realistic and reasonable. Then play detective with your eating habits and see what is keeping you from achieving your weight goals. Make changes as needed as you move forward healthfully.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and provides guidance in sports nutrition. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).