How to Lose Weight and Be Healthy by Eating with Pleasure

December 17th, 2009

Happy Eating & Weight LossMany people mistakenly believe that weight loss and healthy eating require torturous effort. Fortunately, this isn’t the case, and with the right perspective, pursuing either goal can be a pleasurable process.

Two very important factors that most people fail to consider in regard to weight loss and health is how they perceive themselves and how they perceive the food they eat. Perception has an undeniable influence on physiological function, and because of this, the negative connotations that people develop toward themselves and their diets can promote weight gain and have an undesirable impact on their digestion and health. As such, approaching weight loss and healthy eating with a positive, rational, and inspired perspective is just as critical to success as choosing nutritious foods. The following 7 tips will help you develop this perspective.

1. Savor What You Eat

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of eating well regardless of whether you’re eating healthy food or not. Digestion is controlled by a subdivision of the nervous system called the enteric nervous system which has more nerve cells than the spinal cord and is so intertwined with brain function that it’s often called the second brain. Based on this strong connection between the brain and the digestive system, your thoughts have a significant impact on digestion and other physiological functions, and as such, it’s important to have a positive outlook on eating.

At one time or another, most people have experienced the sensation of their mouth watering or their stomach grumbling at the mere thought of food. This is the result of something called the cephalic phase digestive response which describes the initiation of digestive processes such as enzyme production and increased blood flow to the intestines. The sight, smell, thought, or taste of food are what provoke this reaction, and its magnitude is proportional to one’s appetite and the intensity of the stimulus. This cephalic phase digestive response accounts for as much as 30% to 40% of digestion, and as such, the sensory input that’s interpreted by our brains, including our thoughts, has a tremendous influence on the proper assimilation of food.

An interesting study done by Dr. Robert Russel of Tufts University indicates just how much our perception of food can influence digestion. Two groups of women, one from Sweden and the other from Thailand, were both fed a typical Swedish meal and then a typical Thai meal. In both cases, the group eating their native foods absorbed significantly more iron. In the same study, both groups were fed their native foods, but half of each group was fed a meal that was first put into a blender. In both cases, the participants who consumed blended meals absorbed 70% less iron than those who ate their meals whole. Clearly it’s in your best interest to have a favorable perception of your food and savor every bit of it. Doing so will also have an influence on your appetite and help prevent you from overeating.

2. Eat Enough Protein and Fat

Many people who have trouble losing weight blame themselves for not having the willpower to overcome their raging appetite. While willpower is certainly an important part of healthy living, most of these people are being too critical of themselves. In most cases, the problem is an incomplete diet much more so than a lack of will.

In response to the consumption of protein and fat, the body releases a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) which aids digestion by stimulating the pancreas, gallbladder, stomach, and small intestines. It also provokes a sense of pleasure and suppresses appetite. As such, people who don’t eat adequate amounts of protein and fat will be less likely to satisfy their appetite, and in turn, will be much more likely to overeat and gain weight. Furthermore, limiting protein and fat typically leads to an excessive consumption of carbohydrates, and because the body stores excess carbohydrate as fat, this further increases the chances of gaining weight.

The bad reputation that fat has gained is unjustified, and the low fat diets that have resulted are not only ineffective, but also unhealthy. Fat provides a balanced supply of energy, protects internal organs, and is critical to the function of cell membranes, the nervous system, and the brain. It’s also a precursor to prostaglandins and a regulator of enzymes, both of which are critical to good health. Even saturated fat is important to our health despite its undeserved reputation for causing heart disease. Ironically, the fats that pose the most risk are the refined vegetable oils that we’ve been told to eat instead and the dangerous trans fats that are often derived from them.

There’s really no good reason to have a negative perception of fat, and this includes animal fat. When consumed as part of natural whole foods, it will improve the taste of your meals, satisfy your appetite more quickly, and most importantly, support your health.

3. Eat Quality Food

One of the many things that’s believed to influence appetite is the type and amount of nutrients consumed with a meal. According to this theory, appetite will remain elevated until the the body’s perceived nutritional needs are satisfied. As such, high calorie foods that are highly processed and contain limited amounts of nutrients will rarely satisfy one’s appetite and are likely to promote overeating and weight gain. In contrast, natural whole foods that are rich in nutrients are much more likely to satisfy even the strongest of appetites. This is why it’s easy to eat an entire bag of potato chips or a full box of ice cream but quite difficult to eat such excessive amounts of whole foods like meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit.

Because of their excellent nutritional quality, natural whole foods should always be the foundation of a healthy diet regardless of whether your goals are based on weight loss, general health, or both. However, not all whole foods are created equal and there are many quality issues to consider. Since the advent of industrial farming, most produce is grown in depleted soil and is heavily sprayed with pesticides. Similarly, most animal products come from livestock that were raised in unhealthy conditions and fed unnatural diets, antibiotics, and possibly hormones. Because of industrial pollution, even wild caught fish can be contaminated with toxic chemicals.

As a result of the poor quality that results from modern farming practices, many of the seemingly healthy whole foods in your local grocery store may very well be of low nutritional quality and be contaminated with chemicals. For this reason, it’s best to choose organic produce, pasture raised meat, and minimally contaminated seafood. Eating such foods will also help to improve your perception of your diet and your health, and in turn, promote better digestion.

Even when you indulge in less healthy foods, quality should not be forgotten. By occasionally indulging in tasty foods that are made with quality ingredients, you’ll gain more value from them, they’ll be more likely to satisfy your appetite and emotional cravings, and it’ll be easier for you to enjoy them without feeling guilty. Many people unnecessarily deprive themselves of their favorite foods, and when the temptation grows too strong, they binge and then become angry with themselves. The better the quality of your indulgences, the less you’ll have to deprive yourself or worry about the negative emotions and overeating that will contribute to weight gain. A great way to improve the quality of your indulgences is to make your own desserts.

4. Eat in a Relaxed Setting

Digestion is controlled by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system which is associated with relaxation and repair. The other half of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic branch, allows us to cope with stress and react to danger. It only takes a moderate amount of stimulation to activate the sympathetic nervous system, even if it’s positive, and because only one branch of the autonomic nervous system can be active at a time, anything that activates the sympathetic branch also impairs digestion.

With the hectic pace of modern life, many of us are under tremendous stress, and when this stress lingers while eating, it impairs digestion. Most of us worsen this problem by provoking negative emotions about food or by eating in a stimulating and distracting environment that includes watching television or using a computer. To promote thorough digestion, it’s best to eat while in a calm and focused mood and in a relaxed environment. Slow and moderately deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and will therefore help to create this setting. The increased oxygen intake will also help to boost metabolism.

Any type of stimulation that activates the sympathetic nervous system will also result in the release of cortisol and insulin, both of which promote fat storage. Insulin is also released when blood sugar rises as a result of carbohydrate consumption. As such, eating while under stress, eating in a stimulating environment, and eating an excessive amount of carbohydrates will all contribute to weight gain, and any combination of these factors will most likely increase the magnitude.

The following two studies show that only a small amount of stimulation is necessary to impair digestion. The first study measured the amount of salt and water absorbed by the small intestines in subjects who were listening to two simultaneous conversations. The stimulation caused by this, which is minimal by today’s standards, caused a significant reduction in absorption. The second study measured the digestive activity of subjects before and during the viewing of a movie. As expected, digestive activity was reduced in subjects who ate while watching the movie, even if the plot was emotionally neutral.

5. Don’t Use Exercise to Compensate for Diet

The first solution that most people consider when they want to lose weight is to do more exercise. This is an unfortunate mistake. While exercise promotes good health, a truly healthy diet is by far the most important aspect of weight loss. Furthermore, when people resort to exercise for weight loss, they typically do far too much of it and compromise their health in the process. Excessive exercise can cause fatigue, suppressed immunity, adrenal fatigue, and many other undesirable issues. It’s also a significant source of stress which means it can promote weight gain even though additional calories are being burned. This is why some marathon runners and aerobics instructors are noticeably overweight despite the tremendous amount of exercise that they do.

Even if you’ve successfully lost weight in the past by doing more exercise, this doesn’t mean it’s the most effective method. In fact, by using exercise to compensate for diet, you may very well be sacrificing your health for your appearance. It’s certainly a good idea to include exercise in your lifestyle, but the motivation behind it should be optimal health and improved physical function rather than simply trying to compensate for what you ate last weekend.

A health promoting exercise routine should be well rounded and should address strength, mobility, flexibility, and aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. Within moderation and in addition to a truly healthy diet, low intensity aerobic exercise and occasional interval training will help to accelerate fat loss. Moderate exercise is all that’s necessary and you don’t need to push your physical limits or risk overexercising with popular and extreme programs like the P90X.

6. Don’t Starve Yourself

Excessive calorie restriction is another very common approach to weight loss. Although it can be very effective short term, the body eventually adapts to the restriction and most people end up gaining back everything they lost, sometimes more.

When calories are restricted, less nutrients are available for the body’s daily requirements. This is likely to cause moodiness and fatigue and can eventually result in nutrient deficiencies and serious health issues. In addition, the body will eventually slow down its metabolic rate to conserve the limited amount of nutrition being consumed, and as most people know, a slower metabolism means less weight loss. Because the body will be starved of nutrients, appetite is likely to increase, and when the temptation to eat becomes strong enough, binge eating is likely to result. Because metabolism has been slowed down, this will initially promote even more weight gain than normal.

Depriving yourself of food will likely promote negative emotions which are an additional source of stress, and as a result, will impair digestion and be another factor that contributes to weight gain.

7. Eat in a Natural Rhythm

Over the course of millions of years, our metabolism has evolved to operate in a circadian rhythm that’s synchronized with the rising and setting of the sun. As such, metabolism increases throughout the morning, reaches its peak around noon, and slows down throughout the rest of the day. Based on this, breakfast should be a sizable meal, lunch should be the largest meal of the day, and dinner should be the smallest. Despite this, most modern cultures have adopted an eating pattern that is the complete opposite of this. Most people have a small breakfast or skip it entirely, then have a small a small to moderate lunch, and end the day with a large dinner.

If you wait until dinner to eat most of your food for the day, you’ll likely develop quite an appetite which will likely cause you to overeat and will magnify weight gain since your metabolism is slowing down for the day. Another reason why it’s undesirable to eat large meals later at night is because the additional need for digestion will interfere with the important restorative processes that occur during sleep such as detoxification and the repair and growth of tissue.

In an interesting study that shows the effects of abnormal eating rhythms, participants were limited to a single 2,000 calorie meal per day that was consumed either for breakfast or dinner. All participants who ate their meal in the morning maintained or reduced their weight, and all those who ate their meal in the evening gained weight. While this is an exaggeration of how most people eat, it clearly suggests that it’s a bad idea to make dinner your largest meal of the day.

Weight Loss and Good Health are More Than Just Goals

Nearly all people who lose weight end up gaining it all back in a year or two, and many people who wish to improve their health fail to make any notable progress. The people who succeed at maintaining their weight loss or dramatically improving their health are typically motivated by a major event in their lives or a significant change in perspective. Regardless of whether or not this is directly related to diet, what’s important is that it provides a much deeper inspiration than simply wanting to be thin. For me, this inspiration comes from knowing that I need to live a healthy lifestyle in order to feel well and get the most out of life, and as is the case for many people, it just so happened that eating a truly healthy diet naturally brought me to my ideal weight and has continued to keep me there.

For more information on how to lose weight and improve your health while also adding more pleasure to your diet, I highly recommend The Slow Down Diet by Marc David. In addition to all of the great information and references that this book provides, I especially like how it emphasizes the important interdependency between diet, health, and perspective. Although some parts of the book venture into metaphysical discussion, most of it is based on science, and there’s plenty to learn from whether metaphysics appeals to you or not.

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